Masques

By Doc. Klein's LabRat <labrat@blueyonder.co.uk>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: January 2003

Summary: In this replacement for the Wedding Arc, Clark is plunged into a nightmare on his honeymoon night which sends him on a desperate search for his abducted fiancee. Meanwhile, trapped by Luthor, Lois has her own terrifying battles to fight…

Before we start, gentle reader, you should be aware that it was not my intent when writing this one to provide an 'instant fix' for the Wedding Arc. So Clark will not fly to the rescue once he discovers he's married to a clone, retrieve Lois from the clutches of Lex, smoochies, violins, fade out — you get the picture. At least…not right away. ;)

There *will* be a happy ending, but first our heroes have a long road of emotional trauma to hoe. This is pretty much an Angst/WHAM Fest — don't say you weren't warned. I also happen to think that it explores the resilience of Lois and Clark's love for each other and how, no matter how seemingly insurmountable the difficulties or whosoever might try to prevent them, they will always find their way back to each other.

Thanks go to the regulars of the fanfic list, message boards and my good buddies in the #loisclark channel for answering technical questions as and when required…too many to mention. Your help was much appreciated. Also to the Tuesday Night Spoilers Gang on irc for all of your support and encouragement. And to my wonderful betas — Kaethel, who worked on the first half until RL forced her to bow out and whose brainstorming, ideas and comments brought so much to the story (not to mention saving my hide on more than one occasion). To Wendy, who took over to beta the second half and who gave me valuable insights and a fresh eye on how it was going when I became bogged down in mid-story blues and who unfailingly got each segment back to me in record time, despite some very intense RL pressures and a heavy workload at her 'real' job. And, finally, to Tracey, who weeded out any UKisms, among many other helpful comments.

And lastly to the stalwart readers of the message boards, for their encouraging comments, speculations and suggestions which were always a delight to read and which often shaped the story here and there as I progressed with ideas I may never have considered including without them. Thank you all!

It should be noted that scene two of this story incorporates an earlier vignette of mine entitled Wedding Jitters. I had intended it to be nothing more than that but Wendy insisted I had to tell what happened next and so…here we are.

I was unable to track down original publication dates for two books used herein, so I decided just to employ poetic license and assume that they were around at the appropriate time. If they weren't in this universe, they were in Metropolis. <g>

Quoted lines are used from two poets: Thom Gunn and Minna Antrim. And I've used some dialogue from the show throughout. The Myotron Checkmate 25 is real and I pretty much used the information on its specifications wholesale from the website advertising it.

***

When he was six years, two months, and nine days old, Clark Kent had an epiphany.

As epiphanies go it wasn't especially earth-shattering or even particularly stunning. It was small. It was quiet. It was inconsequential to anyone but Clark alone. But to him, at that particular moment in his life, it was everything.

It had made what had begun as an ugly day suddenly good. And everything that had been wrong in his small corner of the world all at once right again.

As he'd stood alone at the side of the road that afternoon, where the bright yellow school bus had disgorged him before chugging along on its way, autumn had been in the air. Sunlight shafted through the cottonwoods that straggled either side of the long, dirt track leading to the farm; piles of crisp dried leaves in vibrant gold and yellow, red and amber, provoked ammunition for his wounded pride and suffering six-year-old soul. He kicked at the heavy drifts as he walked, head down, face careworn in a scowl that might have belonged more readily to a man three times his years.

A man with the weight of the world on his back.

And the chip of injustice on his shoulder.

His bookbag bumped and scuffed its way behind him forlornly as he dragged it listlessly in his wake.

Up in the trees a jaybird sang briefly and then fell silent. Clark paused, his melancholy mood distracted with the quicksilver switch of direction that was only really the gift of the young. He watched the bird lift abruptly from the leafless branches and soar into the air and felt his youthful heart rise with it. Up into the blue, backed by cloud…he wondered what it would be like to hover there, surveying the world as you spread yourself on the wind.

He had flown once. His Momma had been visiting his Aunt Ellie over in Missouri and had taken him with her. It hadn't been the same, though, he suspected.

In truth, he would concede years later when remembering that flight, he had been disappointed by the sterile separation that the plane's metal skin produced between him and the sky. There had been no wind in his hair, no currents of air to bolster him…it had been like watching the world behind glass, cocooned and protected from the experience…cut off and denied the exhilaration of being at one with and a part of the sky. And even then, when he had had no idea that one day he would be able to experience that melding of air and sky and soul, he had been heartstruck with a longing for it that had burned in him like a small but bright flame.

Here and now however, he just knew that he hadn't been excited as much by the experience as he'd expected to be.

The bird became a speck and his mood darkened again as he forgot about it and continued up the lane.

He reached the MacIntyre farm. Reflexively, he switched from one side of the track to the other, keeping to the grass verge furthest away from the wooden entrance gate; an automatic reaction, born from repetition…like wearing a habitual track in a carpet through pacing the same line.

True as clockwork, right on cue, Argo — the MacIntyre's large and scruffy half-breed of a guard dog — bounced exuberantly into view and hurled himself ferociously at the gate. Clark darted a single, unimpressed look at the beast as it snarled and scrabbled and barked up a storm and then looked away. Argo, enraged by this indifference to his performance, notched up the barking an octave or two.

"Ah…knock it off!" Clark muttered, shouldering his bookbag grumpily.

Argo sat back on his haunches, panting, and tilted his head to one side. He whined in puzzlement. This was not part of the game.

Clark stopped and glanced back, his expression touched a little with guilt now. He sighed and retraced his steps. "Sorry," he said, reaching out between the bars of the gate and rubbing at the hound's floppy, overgrown ears. Argo, in an ecstasy of delight, whimpered in pleasure and began a low rumbling of approval from deep down in his chest. Clark grinned.

"You old faker…" he accused, in much the same tone that he'd heard his father use the previous day to old Betsy, the most recalcitrant cow of the small number which resided in their barn. His father had casually sidestepped Betsy's fifth attempt to grind a foot beneath a hoof, reaching up to scratch a particular spot behind the bovine miscreant's ear with the words, and his expression had hovered between the amusement of participating in an old battle and affection for the protagonist. Clark, as he rubbed at Argo's ears, looked and sounded uncannily like a miniature version of his father right at that particular moment. A fact he was blissfully unaware of as he continued his ministrations.

Argo didn't deny the charge as he wriggled and thumped his furry tail on the concrete, his eyes narrowing in rapture.

Clark sighed again and his grin faded. "Sorry…gotta go."

Argo laid back his ears and then flattened his belly to the concrete as Clark patted him again and stepped back. He barked, without the previous heat, a preemptory 'come back, my ears still itch' sort of bark this time, but Clark walked on around the corner and was gone an instant later. And once again, a small ritual in the daily lives of both boy and dog came to an end.

Clark wished Paul Innes was like Argo. All fire and bluster, but just sappy as taffy underneath. He had tried to make friends with Paul, despite the newcomer's rejection, just like he'd won over Argo, slow and steady, but somehow it hadn't turned out so successfully. Clark couldn't quite understand that one. What was the difference between making friends with Argo and making friends with Paul? It had been easy with the dog. Argo had come around just lickity-split. Why were people harder? He kicked at a loose stone on the road. He had the suspicion that with Paul Innes the barking and growling were all that there was. He was beginning to understand that there were mean dogs and dogs who played mean when they weren't and sometimes it was hard working out which was which.

And sometimes you got bit trying to figure it out. Unbidden, his hand crept up momentarily to the side of his face, seeking out the faintly tender patch on his cheekbone, and the eyes above his fingers darkened momentarily.

Paul Innes was one of the mean ones.

Paul Innes had pretended to be his friend.

That had been the worst of it.

Clark's eyes grew hot and dry and the road in front of him blurred as he struggled with the concept of betrayal — so foreign to him until that moment — for the first time. He blinked until his vision cleared, but his heart remained weighted down with the misery of the lesson.

He had been teased a lot that year. The era of free love and easy social tolerance had largely passed Smallville and its environs by and the speculation about Martha Kent and her foundling child, with its faint and irresistible whiff of scandal, had been fire for gossip like flame to a dry tinder stack.

Long since consigned to small town lore, the origins of his birth had largely been mislaid and he had no problems with acceptance among his classmates or anyone else. No one had been mean to him, no one deliberately cruel, his childhood had been sunny and secure, the adults and children alike who peopled his small world had treated him with respect and warmth, just like everyone else. Just one more kid. Usually. Till now. Swept aside it may have been, but memories were long in small towns and tongues could be sharp as acid still, even six years on, when the occasion arose.

The Innes family had moved into the village just around the turn of that year. And it hadn't taken long for the gossips — well, Marcie Evens, who had fulfilled that small town role for nigh on forty years and showed no signs of stopping soon — to fill them in on every little snippet they thought might be relevant to know. And adults, keen to pass along a rich hoard of tattle-tales to a new addition to the town, often failed to notice young ears pricked and keen to eavesdrop. Ears which had companion tongues that spewed venom more deadly than any cobra and twisted casual disapproval and idle curiosity into something mean and ugly.

Mostly, Clark had ignored the taunts from his new classmate. The basic fact that he was not Martha and Jonathan Kent's natural child was not news to him. He had known that, it seemed, from his earliest memory and no one had ever hidden it from him. He was, nevertheless, secure in the knowledge that he was loved by his adoptive parents just as much, if not more, than any of his friends and contemporaries were by theirs. Schoolyard taunts that tried to tell him otherwise found no target in him, no barb to hook at his heart.

Not like the others. It was the others that hurt. He had never been made aware before that being a foundling, adopted, meant being something less than the other children around him. Something tainted. Something bad. No one had ever told him that before. It was a new concept, a puzzling one, and painful. More painful than he could have imagined.

Of course, his Momma had always told him that he was special. Clark believed this. His Momma always told the truth. But he now also knew that special meant he was different. That there was something about him that was apart from his classmates…

<*My* Dad says you're a freak bast — ! >

He shook clear the hateful words with an abrupt, bullish shake of his head as he headed through the farm gate. But renewed tears of humiliation and shame stung at his eyes as he trudged across the farmyard. He blinked, but his vision still blurred.

His Mom appeared in the doorway ahead of him, drying her hands with a towel, her presence evidence enough that his approach had been taken note of; the small frown between her eyes proof that his demeanor was unusual enough to have attracted attention.

"Clark?"

He ignored the concern in her voice, the pull of comfort and solace he could so easily give in to, and pushed past her, angry with her for being the cause of his trouble. It was all *her* fault! Why couldn't she be his proper Mom? Why couldn't she just…? Why couldn't she?

He thudded heavily up the stairs to his room and slammed the door behind him.

Ten minutes later, belligerence had given way to an uncertain anxiety as his mother failed to come after him to find out what was wrong. Denied his chance to vent his anger at her in accusation, Clark chewed thoughtfully at his lower lip and sat thinking deeply on the edge of his bed until the shadows lengthened, unnoticed, creeping across the weathered boards of the floor.

Finally, the misery of the day giving way to a small spark of indignation at this uncalled for abandonment and lack of concern for his trauma, Clark pushed himself to his feet and went carefully downstairs.

His parents were talking quietly in the homely kitchen. He had unusually sharp hearing for a kid his age, so he heard them long before he reached the room. He paused halfway down the staircase.

"…a long time, Martha. I hate hearing them talk that way about you. I hate it."

"Oh, Jonathan…he's still young and he wouldn't understand…wasn't it you said leave that old dog sleeping where it lay?"

"Yes, but…they're wrong, they're so wrong, and it's not fair that you should —"

"Jonathan, listen to me. All that ever mattered to me was that child; soon as I held him in my arms I knew he was mine. If that means listening to Marcie Evens tattling on about our business…well, that's just the way it's going to have to be. It bothers me no mind. Our boy is what's important."

Clark heard his father sigh heavily.

"Well, Martha, I just don't think —"

"Hush now…"

There was a small moment of silence. Clark frowned, suspecting that his mother and father were up to mooshy stuff again. He pulled his sleeve across his face, wiping the tracks of old tears and trudged reluctantly to the open kitchen door.

Yup. Mooshy stuff. His parents were standing in front of the wide window, his father rocking his mother against his chest. Her cheek rested on his shoulder and her eyes were shadowed by the growing gloom outside. Clark shuffled nervously in the doorway as he watched.

"Momma?" His voice trembled suddenly on the word, all of the day's weight suddenly landing on his shoulders and threatening to overwhelm him.

She turned and he looked at her anxiously. "I'm sorry, Momma."

With a soft cry she disengaged herself from her husband's cradling embrace and was across the room to sweep him into a reassuring hug in another instant. Relieved, Clark wound his chubby arms around her neck, drawing in the warm, familiar scent of her with a quiet sigh.

"So…" his father said from behind them after a moment. "You want to talk about what happened in school today?"

Clark peeked a glance around his mother's shoulder at his father's inquiring face and hesitated, belatedly and painfully aware that the words thrown at him in the schoolyard had been directed more at his mother than him. His glance at her gave him away.

Martha smiled at Jonathan and got to her feet. "I have to go take those curtain swatches to Caroline. I'll be gone about an hour…or so." She gave her son a small, encouraging look before she left the kitchen.

Jonathan nodded automatic assent, his gaze focused on his recalcitrant son as the boy eyed him warily, and they listened together in awkward silence to the sounds of Martha putting on her coat and leaving. When the soft roar of the truck had puttered into the distance, Jonathan moved to the range.

"Come have something to eat."

Clark, suddenly aware of how the scents of his mother's cooking had been tantalizing his taste buds ever since he'd entered the room, didn't need to be told twice. He scrambled hastily into a chair and attacked with single-minded devotion the plate his father put in front of him. Shifting his bulk gratefully to the seat opposite, Jonathan watched him steadily as he demolished the meal and said nothing until Clark had finally sated his appetite.

In short order, Jonathan was able to pick up the empty plate and put it in the sink of hot, soapy water with its companions. He washed up with the steady efficiency he brought to all the tasks in his life. With the last plate set to dripping in the drainer, he wiped at his hands with the cloth and turned around to view his son consideringly. Clark's back presented a rigid view, stiff with anxiety as he huddled in his seat, obviously waiting for the axe to fall at any moment.

Jonathan held in a sigh and put down the cloth. "I did some more work on The Project today," he said. "Want to go see?"

Clark jerked around to look at him in surprise, but his nod of assent was quick to arrive.

"Okay, put on your coat mind, it'll be cold out in the barn."

Clark scrambled readily to comply. Together, father and son walked the short distance from house to barn in amiable silence. Usually, Jonathan would reach out and enclose his son's small hand in his own larger, warm one whenever they went anywhere outside and Clark welcomed that reassuring connection. But for some reason he never did when they walked the short distance between house and barn to work on The Project. Something unconscious in both of them seemed then to accept that they were on the same level at these times — not father and son but partners in hard work and achievement. Clark always felt a small spark of pride — unformed in his conscious mind but nonetheless strong — that his father treated him like an equal during these moments of shared endeavor and challenge. And for his part, Jonathan seemed to sense that his son felt grown up enough at these times to forego the usual comforts of childhood.

So they walked side by side — two men with a mission, each content within the silence of their shared companionship — until they reached the barn. Clark ducked into the musty interior as his father pulled back the door.

The barn held a warmth that smelled distinctly bovine, rich and comforting, but there was still a definite tang of chill to the air. Clark wished that he'd put on gloves too as he stuck his hands in his pockets and watched his father cross to a tarpaulin-covered lump of indeterminate mass and shape on the barn's other side.

Jonathan flipped back the tarp and Clark came closer to examine the roughly put together box formed out of scrap wood and bits, his face eager. As the tarp was pulled back further eagerness became round- eyed wonder. What the box had sprouted since he'd last seen it were two sets of small, iron-bound wheels, front and back.

"Wow! Dad!" This last a breath of delighted approval as he raised shining eyes to his grinning father.

"Noticed them on an old trailer out on the Betts farm," he confided, hunkering down beside the box and putting a hand to the nearest wheel. Clark hunkered down with him and repeated the gesture with solemn intensity. "Thought they looked just the ticket. Old Curtis, he was just dumping the trailer anyway, so he gave me them for practically nothing."

"Just the ticket," Clark repeated under his breath, running his finger reverently along the wheel's rim.

Jonathan cleared his throat. "Course, these fingers of mine are too big to get into the bolts right. Want to give me a hand getting them tight?"

Clark's beaming face and the speed with which he took the spanner offered gave Jonathan his reply.

Man and boy worked steadily on the homemade cart for a time, laboring in the contented silence with no need for small talk generally favored by men with a mission to accomplish that involved tinkering with machinery.

"No, there," Jonathan directed his son's labors with a finger and then watched as Clark took his advice. The boy's dark gaze was intent on his task, the tip of his tongue jutting from between his teeth as he concentrated.

"Did you hit him back?" Jonathan said quietly.

Clark frowned as he clumsily worked over the last, stubborn bolt. "Who?"

"The Innes boy. When he hit you…did you hit him back?"

Clark stopped digging at the bolt.

Jonathan lifted a brow as the child said nothing.

Clark glanced up warily at his father and then returned his frown to the cart. This was a tricky one. Grownups could be funny about this kind of thing. And Clark, who had never got into a fight before, therefore had no way of telling which side of the fence his father would come down on. On the one hand, only last week Tad Johnson had come to school whining about his dad whaling the hide off'n him for not sticking up for himself and running off when some bullies from a nearby school had waylaid him. Called him a sissy-baby, so Tad said. There had been tears standing in the corners of Tad's eyes when he had and Clark had understood with the solemn, instinctive understanding of six-year-old male hubris that the insult had cut much deeper a wound in young Tad's soul than the whipping ever could.

So not hitting back could be bad. Not that Clark feared a whaling…his father had never so much as lifted a hand to him in all his young years and the concept was as foreign to him as betrayal had been. But disapproval…his father's disapproval was a punishment that stung his heart more than any beating ever could and he was loath to tempt it.

Hitting back though…that seemed as much of a minefield as the opposite action. Paul had already been the subject of punishment at school for hitting younger kids, even before he'd got to ragging on Clark.

He flinched a little as his father's large hand came down easily on his shoulder. But he didn't look up from his careful contemplation of the cart.

"It's okay, son." Jonathan patted him lightly and then with a soft grunt of effort levered himself to his feet and found himself a seat on a nearby crate. "Truth's the thing. Whatever you did, we can work it out. Lying now…"

"I didn't do nothing," Clark protested, stung.

"Ah." Jonathan nodded. "Okay, so what did happen? Mrs Markham didn't go into much detail. Just said you and the Innes boy had had trouble." He eyed his son with a small grunt. "Couldn't have hit you hard. You haven't a sign of it on you."

Clark frowned. It had seemed plenty hard to him. But, yeah, he guessed Dad was right. It hadn't hardly stung at all after. And even the slight tenderness of earlier had faded now to the point where he could hardly have pointed out the site of Paul's punch if asked. He shrugged, all of the anger of the afternoon surging up in him again with the call to remember. He didn't want to think about it. It was stupid. Paul Innes was stupid. And just because he said…

"He said something mean." Clark hesitated, darting another glance at his father, struck with the need to deny, to protect, anger at the insult to his mother, the desperation to refuse to believe the hateful words…and yet…

And yet.

He too could sense the difference in him. Even if he was unable to give it name or form. How could he expect others to miss it? Maybe Paul Innes was right. About him. Maybe he was.

"He said something mean 'bout Momma," he muttered finally.

"Oh," Jonathan said simply. He had no need to ask of course. Rumor reached adult ears as easily as a child's. And this was old news. Six years too old. He buried a small spark of anger, knowing he could never explain it to Clark, who would only misconstrue it as being directed at him. He hesitated, floundering a little…Martha was much better at this kind of thing than he was…

"Dad? What *is* a…fallen woman anyhow?" Clark said before he could form any answers, his tone puzzled, and then, answering himself in a distracted mumble before his father quite got past the startlement of being asked, "Don't see it's got to do with Momma, anyway, 'cos I never seen her fall over nothing. Cept…" he paused, then continued tentatively, thinking it through, "…that time on the stoop last summer. But that doesn't really count, I guess, because you caught her then an' she didn't fall or nothing. But you *did* kiss her better…even though she wasn't hurt none that I could see an' —"

"Uh, I don't think that's important, Clark," his father said hastily. He hadn't known that Clark had been anywhere around that day. Reviewing the memory the child had brought up, he cleared his throat suddenly and, realizing that Clark was watching him now, eyes blatantly curious and still awaiting an answer to his question, changed direction firmly, "Your mother, Clark, is a very fine woman. A brave woman."

"Brave?" Clark ventured dubiously. While well aware that his Momma was the single most important person on the planet, just a shade ahead of his father, Clark had nevertheless never thought to view her as brave. Brave was…falling out of the old cottonwood in the yard and breaking your arm and refusing to let Doc. Taylor see you cry when he set the bone even though it hurt *real* bad. At least Doc had been impressed at the time. Brave was…stepping up and telling Jake Caldwell to cut it out when he pulled Lana's hair in class and made her cry. At least…he hadn't felt brave on that one, but Lana had told him he was, so he guessed she must be right. Lana generally was. She told him that too. Quite a lot.

But Momma had never done *anything* like that.

"Sure," his father leaned back against the rough-hewn beam at his back, making the crate creak quietly as he shifted. He smiled. "Come here."

With a quick grin, Clark scrambled to his feet and into his father's generous lap, snuggling close as he felt sturdy arms encapsulate him in a familiar, warm and soothing embrace. He sighed quietly as he nuzzled up against the rough serge of his father's workshirt.

"Your Momma's done more brave things than…Underdog," Jonathan asserted with a chuckle as he held his son against his broad chest. "She's much braver than me. Remember last spring, when she faced up to that old Ironba…uh, Diablo?" he amended hastily, referring to the huge and belligerent stock bull that had been brought up from a neighboring farm to service some of the cows. "When he got through the fence and into the yard? Remember that?"

Clark sure did. The furious bull hadn't been a match for his equally enraged Mom the moment she'd looked out of the kitchen window and seen him trampling all over her garden. Diablo had had something of a startled look to him as he'd been firmly herded back into the field at the end of a broom.

"That was brave?" he asked, wriggling around on his father's broad lap to look up interestedly into his face. He'd never thought of it that way before. Somehow it had just been…Mom. Diablo, all snort and fire just a moment before, so that the hands in the yard had been scrambling to find a safe place out of his reach, had taken one, wary look at his Mom and then obeyed her just as meek as a kitten. That seemed perfectly reasonable to Clark. Most people and animals behaved just the same when his Mom got *that* way with 'em. If they had brain sense like they was born with, as his father often said.

Jonathan hesitated. "Sure, it was. A very brave thing," he added, well aware that he hadn't thought it was anything more than pure plum- dyed foolishness at the time. He and Martha had argued over that one later, his heart still pounding at the scare she'd given him as he'd seen her dash out of the house waving that broom around and cursing that ton of muscle and horn driven by sheer cussed meanness as it turned to face her with a snort and a sweep of its head. She hadn't agreed of course, and then she'd smiled at him in that way she had and kissed him and…well…he harrumphed lightly, Clark didn't need to know about all of that. "Real brave," he reiterated firmly.

"Mrs Innes is *scared* of cows," Clark said, seemingly incongruously and with a great deal of contempt in his voice, so that Jonathan hid a smile.

"Mrs Innes is," he paused, letting his annoyance with the gossip bleed out of his tone before continuing, more evenly, "Mrs Innes doesn't know your Mom like we do, that's all."

"Bet she wouldn't have gotten Diablo back into the field. Bet she would've run all the way up the lane, just like Betsy did that time the wasp wanted her ice-cream, all hollering an' blubbing an' —"

"Clark," his father rumbled disapproval. Much as he might agree, disrespecting the adults he knew wasn't anything he wanted his son to adopt.

Clark looked up at him guiltily and then added, defiantly loyal, "Mom's prettier than Mrs Innes too," before he settled back against his father's chest with an air of having been vindicated.

"Well, won't disagree with you on that one," his father relented enough to agree. "Anyway, point is, your Mom is brave *and* pretty. And a good person. And that's what you need to remember when someone who doesn't know her says different. Your Mom comes from pioneer stock. And she takes after her folks good."

"What's a pie and ear stock?" Clark queried. He knew what pies were of course, his Mom made the best apple 'n' pear pies in the whole wide State. And he knew she used stock when she made rabbit stew because it was a ritual between them that he often pulled up one of the chairs, settled his elbows on the kitchen table, and watched her as she cooked. They often talked over the day then. But he couldn't quite see how they went together with ears. What kind of ears? He knew Mr. Caplan, the butcher, sold pig's ears but…

Jonathan smiled as he put a hand to his son's head and stroked at his hair, stilling the chaotic, eclectic jumble of childish thoughts with the familiar, soothing action. "Well, now let's see…"

Clark snuggled closer as he listened. After a time he closed his eyes. Behind the lids, in the warm darkness, his mind was filled with covered wagons and Indian attacks, wild, dangerous places and exciting times…

Jonathan glanced down at his son eventually, noting the relaxed position he'd adopted. One small hand clutched still at his shirt, chubby fingers curled loosely around one of its buttons. He smiled. "Time for bed, I think…" he said.

"Nuhnu…" an automatic protest came drowsily from his son. "Tell me more stories, Daddy. Just one," he added, seeming to sense his father's mouth opening on a demurral.

Jonathan grinned and then tried to inject some firmness into his tone as he said, "If your Mom comes back and finds us still out here and you not in bed —"

"She might think you two boys had been wasting time with your gossiping again," a mock severe voice told him from the barn door. "I swear, if you both aren't worse than Missie Palmer down at the store, way you sit here jawing nights."

"Mom!"

The small form of her son launched himself abruptly from his father's lap, eyes shining as he engulfed her in a wild hug that staggered her before she found balance. "Dad says you got to be the —"

The grinning excitement in his face died instantly and he threw a quick, almost guilty glance across his shoulder. Martha crouched quickly to hold him loosely around the waist, pulling his attention back to her. She looked soberly into his worried eyes.

"Your father," she said solemnly, "exaggerates."

Clark tilted his head to study her thoughtfully, brow furrowing. "Does that mean he tells good stories?" he asked finally.

Martha laughed, ruffling his hair as she stood. "Yes. He tells good stories. But," she added sternly, "that doesn't mean you get to hear another now. Bed, young man. You have school in the morning," she added as he opened his mouth in an automatic protest.

Clark sighed. "Awwwww, Mom!" he gave the age old ritual response and then, looking up on her earnestly as he wrapped his arms around her middle and adding a reiteration of his earlier plea, "Just one…puhlease?"

Martha wavered and then relented, "Okay, just one. But if you don't scoot in real quick and get bathed right after I'm gonna come out looking to find out why, you hear?"

Clark grinned and then brightened even more as he scurried back to his father's lap before she could change her mind. "Paul Innes is gonna be real sorry for what he said," he declared, putting together everything his father had said in the past few hours and forming them into a conclusive decision.

Martha looked at the determined tilt to that jaw, so familiar a gesture, one she'd been dealing with for all of her married life, and then raised her head to hook an eyebrow at her husband. Jonathan shrugged helplessly. She dropped her gaze to her son. "Now, Clark, I don't want you getting into any fighting at school. You understand me?"

Clark's lips tightened, his face taking on a mulish slant. "I'm not gonna fight anyone. But it ain't right. Daddy says, son of a pie 'n' ear needs to do what's right, stand up for himself, and it just ain't right letting Paul Innes say what he's been saying." He looked up at her, his guilty embarrassment over what had been said and who it had been directed at, warring with determination on his face. Determination won. "Is it?"

She paused. "Well…no…"

He nodded, vindicated. "Okay then."

Martha sighed, defeated. "We'll talk about it later," she said and then left them to it, shaking her head as she exited the barn.

And as he had lain there, on the broad, comfortable lap of his father, the dark, earthy smells coming from the warm touch of old flannel against his cheek and the familiar gentle voice lulling him into a doze, Clark had known that no matter where he had come from, no matter what Paul Innes or Marcie Evens or anyone said, this was where he belonged.

Here on the Kent farm.

Smallville.

Kansas.

Kansas, was where he belonged.

He was, of course, completely wrong.

***

A long-ago poet, whom Clark had once read, wrote that each man carries two cities with him through his life. The city of his birth and the city which holds his heart.

For Clark, twenty some years later, what held his heart was Metropolis.

Or…a certain woman who lived there.

Clark smiled with the thought as he rolled over onto his side in the bed and reached for the bottle of champagne cooling in its bucket on the nightstand.

A certain woman who was, even now, yards away in his bathroom.

Who would soon be in his bed.

Who was about to share with him the most important moment of his life to date.

And his life in its entirety.

He poured the chilled, sparking liquid into a fluted glass and then topped up the one standing beside it.

In almost thirty years, he thought as he took his first, cautious sip, he'd tasted champagne only three times.

Surprising, he considered, when you added up the number of charity dinners, receptions, grand balls and general milling with the nobility events he'd attended since becoming a reporter. He'd never really been impressed with champagne though. He preferred a good wine, smooth and subtle.

In his youth, he had regretted the inability of alcohol to cloud his thoughts and free his inhibitions, but that had passed — mostly as he had viewed his friends' post-imbibing suffering — and he had learned the wisdom to be grateful for it.

There were many things which had no effect on his metabolism, but that didn't prevent him savoring them for the pleasure they gave him.

Clark Kent had never been one to complain. He'd been content for most of his life — even though much of it had been frustrating and uncertain and sometimes painful. He had been lucky, he knew. Life could have been so much harder than this. He had been content as a child and — mostly — as a teen and he was content above all with his life as a man.

But he had never been so content as he was now, at this moment as he looked into the glass of bubbling amber liquid he held and smiled.

Lois.

He lifted the glass a little in an unconscious salute. "Lois Lane. Lois Lane Kent," he amended and then paused to think about that. Strange how odd it was, even now, to think of her that way. Lois Lane seemed to be more than a person, more than the woman he loved. She was an entity in her own right, a powerful force… He smiled suddenly. Like Superman. One more thing they shared: powerful entities who had taken over their lives.

"Lois Lane Kent," he tried it out again, liking the sound of it even more second time around. "Mrs Clark Kent…" Even better. "Lois Kent…" He tried out the various forms as he held the glass up to the light, turning it slowly this way and that in his fingers and watching the gold and silver sparkles bubble in its depths.

"What?"

Clark choked on the champagne as the puzzled voice drifted out of the bathroom at him. "Nothing!" he yelled back hastily.

Lois Lane.

He shook his head. So what was in a name anyway?

Nothing, he knew. He smiled. She was his wife. And everything he'd ever wanted in the world. No matter what she called herself. And no matter what he called her.

"Honey…"

He grinned.

"My little tornado…"

He held the taste of them on his tongue for a moment, words of magic and of power, that had the ability to send him giddy more quickly and easily than any amount of champagne ever would.

"…my wife…"

That was the one. If he could call her nothing else than that for the rest of his life he'd be content.

He sighed and settled back on the pillows, taking another sip of the bright liquid.

"Just think." He raised his voice a little so she could hear. "This time tomorrow we'll be in Hawaii."

"Maybe we can just stay there," Lois answered, sounding distracted.

Clark chuckled. "You want it, you *got* it!" he declared exuberantly. He paused, then added expansively, "We'll eat coconuts every day. I'll just go up and grab some whenever we need more."

"Sounds great."

Clark nodded and took another sip from his glass. He paused to give it another appreciative look, savoring the taste on his tongue, before he cast a speculative look towards the bathroom.

She'd been in there an awful long time.

"Lois?" he ventured, a trace of anxious bridegroom seeping into his voice now. "Is everything all right?"

Her answer sent every nerve and sinew in him suddenly perking to attention.

"Stand by to be stunned!"

And with a blur of motion in the shadows she was there. She stopped some feet shy of the bed, smiling faintly, and paused to let him fully appreciate all of her hard work as she posed provocatively, framed by the lines of pure, white light that seeped into the room from the bathroom behind her and surrounded her like a halo's innocence.

Stunned didn't come close.

His heart stuttered into hammering life, his breath caught fast in his throat, and desire was a wild thing that scrabbled at his belly and loins.

The white silk clung to her curves and hollows, sculpting them in shadows, emphasizing the fullness of her breasts and the flat plains of her stomach. The tantalizing curves of her hips beckoned his eyes and caused heat and fire to war in the depths of his belly.

He thought of her skittishness about wearing white, given what she at least considered a spotty sexual history. He had found no contradiction in it at all. Wearing white wasn't about being virginal and pure, he'd told her. It was about marking a change in your life, moving from one phase to another. And if not virginal she was pure to him in all her guises. Pure of heart and spirit. The rest was of no matter to him at all. And he found himself touched by her choice now. The symbolic white of giving — the giving of herself to him. This *was* her first time…her first time with him. His first time with her. Their first time *together*. And that was all that mattered.

Actually, Clark suddenly realized, his life was full of champagne moments. More than he'd previously imagined.

Champagne moments…

…and peppermint dreams…

He smiled as the fragment of an old childhood saying of his Mom's rose in his thoughts.

Yeah, Mom. Peppermint dreams too, he agreed.

All of his dreams. Everything he'd ever wished for.

Right here with him in this room.

His wife.

A soft sigh escaped him and then he smiled. His eyes roamed the slim, silk-clad figure in front of him, appreciation, anticipation and hunger warring in that fascinated stare. Light and dark shifted on her face and body, making mysterious the contours of her body, adding to her allure. All at once he wanted nothing in the entire world more desperately than to know what lay beneath those shifts of shadow and plays of light.

He grinned.

"Hey there," he said.

***

She stood there a moment, before, as though drawn by a beacon, her eyes fixed immediately on the man lying naked in the bed, only feet away.

Mesmerized all at once, like a rabbit confronted by a hunting cobra, she could do nothing more than stare. She had left the bathroom full of bravado, sure of her appeal. Lex had assured her that Clark Kent would not find her undesirable. But now, seeing him so close, so…there, without clothes even, that very desire glowing like banked embers in his eyes…she felt her confidence desert her. She felt very like a child, afraid of the unknown, even more afraid of what she thought she knew already of men and the world.

Both were dangerous. Both could hurt.

Playing for time, she plucked nervously at the sides of her white silk robe, palms smoothing the soft material over her hips. Aware suddenly that the movements telegraphed her apprehension, she stilled them, putting her hands behind her back to keep them clear of temptation.

She worked up a sly, inviting smile to go with the pose. The smile she had practiced in front of the mirror in the lab at Doctor Mamba's insistence, over and over, hour upon hour, until her jawbones ached and finally he declared himself satisfied.

But she made no move to join him on the bed.

His eyes devoured her like a hungry animal's and then he smiled. There seemed to be nothing threatening in the smile. But she moved no closer just the same. She was reminded of the scary stories she'd read on the computer when she wasn't being observed and was supposed to be taking notes on the lives of the soon to be Mr. and Mrs Clark Kent. Stories that were hoarded like guilty secrets and which had both terrified her and drawn her in equal measure. Big Bad Wolf. For a moment, in the glow of the single lamp, she thought she caught the glint of fangs.

All the better to eat you with.

Except…he didn't really look like a wolf. He looked like a man. A darkly handsome man. A very handsome man. Whose eyes were running the length of her slim figure in ways that made her feel nauseated and hungry and sick with excitement all at the same time. Only chocolate had had that effect on her until now.

The glow of admiration igniting in the rich depths of his gaze as it followed the white silk and lace that sheathed and draped and clung in all the right places up until they reached her disconcerted eyes was fierce and hot enough to sear. The smile widened into a cocky grin.

"Hey, there," he said.

His voice matched his eyes. Warm and caressing. She could almost feel it on her skin, like down feathers, stroking and touching…

She felt her cheeks flush. Her body felt suddenly heavy and hot. Her thoughts fled to another man, dark and handsome too. But his eyes had never made her feel as though she was suddenly in the grip of fever. And his smile had never been anything but cruel.

"You know —"

She started as the husky voice broke into her thoughts and focused her attention on the man — her husband, her new husband, this handsome man she had to please — as he put aside the glass he was holding and set it carefully to the cabinet beside the bed. Her eyes were drawn to where the bubbles popped and caught the light of the lamp and she lost herself in the reflected glow of the champagne, as though she could immerse herself in it and escape. Then she pulled her troubled gaze clear with an effort and let it flicker nervously to where he had moved to sit against the bed's edge, pulling aside the bedcovers and all but patting the mattress in invitation to join him.

His legs were smoothly muscular, bare beneath the edge of the sheets. He was wearing plaid sleep shorts. Her eyes and mind darted past them, hesitant to venture there too long — dangerous territory — and slid up onto the compact, bronzed and well-shaped pectoral muscles of his chest. She didn't dare meet his eyes. But his…chest, his…shoulders…the tight lines of his abs and stomach…

She felt her breath shorten in her throat, like a noose tightening. Her heart began to stammer in her breast, its suddenly wild, rabbit beat painful against the walls of her chest.

"— I have imagined this moment for *so* long…"

Emotion trembled in the words; his eyes seemed to give them an import she didn't understand. This moment? She swallowed fitfully past the blockage in her throat. She'd been given instructions on how to proceed to 'this moment' of course. But that didn't mean she had to like it any.

Outside, in the darkness, thunder rolled an ominous drumbeat across the sky. She was not made for thinking of omens or portents — in many ways she wasn't made for thinking beyond the basics at all. But still, she suppressed a shiver as she obeyed his silent summons, hearing that dull boom of sound shiver its way through her bones. Unable to explain the fear it generated or why it made her feel that disaster, like a dark and shapeless, ravenous beast, was about to pounce on her at any moment from out of the room's shadows.

What would he do when he had her close? Would he…would he hurt her? Lex had hurt her. He had only taken her into his bed once and that had really been once more than she had cared for or wanted. It had been…uuuggghhh. She felt her lips begin to twist into a childish grimace of disgust and hurriedly stopped the motion in its tracks. A poor habit she had learned painfully to suppress if she knew what was good for her — along with so many others.

She didn't know what was good for her, of course. That was mainly the problem. She had simply to trust to the men who had created her to know what was best for her and to tell her what to do. Even if what she had to do was unpleasant and hurt. But it had been necessary Lex had explained to her as she'd sat on the bed in the middle of the cave, trembling with fear as she watched him disrobe. She couldn't go to her wedding night with Clark Kent a virgin, now could she? He had smirked then, as though at some joke, but she hadn't understood the humor and had already known better than to ask.

Lex didn't like to be questioned.

She didn't understand why it was necessary, though. She had been eavesdropping earlier that day — one of those habits for which she was usually painfully reprimanded and yet couldn't seem to give up — and had clearly heard Doctor Mamba protest that the procedure would be much more easily and quickly carried out in the laboratory by mechanical means. She hadn't understood what that meant any more than she had truly understood what it would mean for Lex to give the task his 'personal seal of approval'. But it hadn't sounded like something she wanted him to do to her.

Even Lex didn't scare her as much as the laboratory did.

Lex had been even less pleasant in the end. At an instinctive, wordless level, she had understood that he was indulging in the act less because he had to than because it suited him to dominate his creation.

In some strange way — for surely her opinion of him could matter little? — he seemed driven by the need to exact his power over her. To prove himself her master. And there had been a moment, in among that urge to control, when she had almost felt him grow tender, when he had whispered her name with reverence and genuine desire. It had been there, at the end, and then gone so quickly though that she had almost believed she had imagined it.

"Lois…" he had whispered. "Lois…"

Afterwards, he had been cold and brutal. His words had been cruel. Strange words that she had never learned or been taught. That she barely remembered. So many words for one simple act. It confused her. All that she knew was that the words thrown at her were savage and that he had not been pleased with her performance. His displeasure had scared her so badly that she had fled the bed, naked and shivering, tearing down the long and narrow maze of corridors until she had found a hiding place, huddling there, crying softly in the shadows among a clutter of equipment, until Doctor Mamba had found her hours later.

Lex had hardly spoken to her since, except for some last minute instructions — and some graphic previews of what the consequences would be if she failed him.

"Lois…?"

She broke free of the memories and lifted her head. Her new husband…

<Clark>

…Clark was watching her quizzically from out of those dark, expressive eyes. So familiar, so like those of her Creator…and yet so different, not the same at all. There had been a revulsion in Lex's eyes whenever they fell on her that had made her quiver and wish she was elsewhere. But in this man's eyes…there was kindness mixed in among the heat, an open, honest appreciation of her — and desire.

Steeling her resolve, suppressing the urge to turn and run, she walked towards the bed, remembering at the last moment to inject the smoothly rolling, slinking glide into her walk that she'd been taught men liked.

She sat beside him, diffident. She waited for his next move. Lex, though he had tried to mold her into a semblance of Lois Lane, had nevertheless not encouraged her to be brazen in her actions or to take the initiative.

Up close he seemed…bigger than she'd thought. More muscular. Fear flickered in her breast again and she started as he reached out a hand. But the fingers that smoothed a path up her arm were gentle; barely a whisper skimmed across her skin. His hand laid itself against her throat and then slid its way across the silk of her robe, baring her shoulder as it went. He leaned toward her to place a quiet, reverential kiss against the smooth skin and she closed her eyes, a soft shiver rolling through her as she felt that caress linger like a brand of heat.

He smelled clean and heady with a scent she didn't recognize but suddenly knew that she liked. A musky hint of maleness, of raw and primal power, that made her head swim.

He withdrew, his face only inches from hers as he smiled into her distant eyes. "Hello, Mrs Kent."

She forced her lips into an answering smile.

Clark's attention shifted, taken by the ruby bow of her lips, glistening faintly beneath the lamp's aura. He ran the pad of a thumb across the lower curve, his eyes seeming fascinated by the way her lips parted slightly in reflex under that stimulus. He moved the fraction's distance needed to touch his mouth to hers, feeling her open more fully, grant him entry, his tongue exploring all the caverns and hollows within.

She stayed passive beneath the grip of his hand pressed tight against the side of her neck, letting him do as he would. His brow furrowed as he withdrew. He ran a brief tongue across his lips, a strange expression overtaking his face.

"Are you using a new brand of toothpaste?"

Was she? Panicked synapses ran through the store of knowledge that had been impressed into her over the past few weeks. Cups in left hand cupboard, Clark likes oolong tea, toast with honey, coffee, milk or cream, lots of sugar and —

"No," she said. She added a shrug. "Just good old McLean's."

"Oh. Just…" He shook his head. "It was kind of an…uh, unusual taste." He cleared his throat and smiled at her, obviously dismissing whatever it was that had distracted him, not keen to spoil the moment. This special moment. But his frown returned as his hands caressed her arms. "You're shivering. Are you cold?"

She shook her head dumbly.

His eyes searched hers. "You're not worried about Lex escaping, are you? Honey," he continued before she could form an answer, "you know they've got roadblocks set and all those people looking for him. He can't hide forever. He'll be caught soon. And Superman will go looking for him too." A small smile quirked at his lips as he reached up to stroke back her hair. "But…not right now."

"Okay."

"So, you're not worried, right?"

"No…"

He tilted his head, a small amusement coming into his eyes as the denial emerged with a tentative edge. "Hey, you're not *nervous*, are you?" he joked, and then the smile in his gaze flickered out and was replaced by an expression of dawning dismay. "Honey? You're not are you?" he said quickly.

She paused and took a deep, steadying breath. She cast her thoughts out into the shadows of the room. The moment of truth. Showtime! For answer, she burrowed against his neck and stroked a hand through his hair as he reflexively wrapped his arms around her. She felt him hesitate, sensed his puzzlement, his uncertainty at how to proceed, and then his hand moved to spread itself against the back of her neck, drawing her closer.

"You know, we've gone through so much to get to this night," she heard him whisper reassurance against her ear. "But none of that matters. It's perfect."

She pulled back, her eyes pinning his. "Perfect," she agreed.

He nodded and his smile on her became warm and tender, that soft gentleness reflected in the loam-dark depths of his eyes. "When we're together, it can't be anything else. Here," he added, the words rough with anticipation in his throat. "Lay down."

She kept her eyes on him, an anchor to hold on to, as he shifted her in his embrace, laying her back to the covers and settling his large, powerful body next to hers. His eyes were full and lambent with desire as his hands lifted to frame her face. He kissed her deeply and with a passion she'd never known before, the hard, muscular planes of his body settling themselves more tightly against her softer curves.

She was a biological misfit. A changeling formed out of protoplasm in a dark laboratory vat. But she had been made not only in the image of a woman, but as a woman. And as that woman she was no more immune to the touch of hot desire on her lips or in the hands that were suddenly roaming her body than any other. Her body was programmed with the same natural responses, she had the same sensitive points which made her gasp aloud, startled by the force of the tremor that surged through her when his fingers and lips grazed them. She had the same desires, banked down and dormant, but rapidly coursing upward through her and flaring into new, incandescent birth.

A low moan of pleasure escaped her as new, dangerous, and overwhelming sensations began to pulse deep within her. Like the sudden ticking into life of a timepiece long broken and unused.

"Clark…" she whispered, tasting the name as something strange and unfamiliar on her lips as his mouth left hers and began to trail its way across her throat and shoulder and then lower still. She arched up into the path of his questing lips and the body pressing her into the soft quilt, her mind imploding into instinctive passion. She growled, low in her throat, and then wrapped her arms tight around his throat, mirroring the kisses he had just bestowed on her. This was her nature. To learn and imitate. To take what was given her and bounce it back like a distorted reflection in a cheap fairground mirror.

Her movements matched his, following his path a split second after him as she learned by example. She moaned as his lips suckled hungrily at her shoulder and tasted the musky skin of his as their voices merged. Her hands slipped along his spine.

"You smell so good," he whispered, as he burrowed close into the sensitive hollow of her throat and nuzzled fitfully there. She felt the cool drift of air on her skin, chill against the heat that was rising in her, as he pulled loose the ties of her nightgown and drew the material softly away from her. Like unwrapping a gift.

He paused for a moment, and then he lowered his head, kissing a trail of tantalizing caresses down across her skin. His lips explored her with gentle fervor, retracing their path as his hands stroked light across her ribs and then shifted to pull her tight and hard against him with a groan of surrender.

She clutched him tighter, trying to find rhythm and pattern in the restless motions of his body on hers, trying to plot it and map it like a problem in mechanical math. After Lex had found her disappointing, she had been given 'instructional films' to watch and study, but none of what had been enacted before her on the flickering cinema screen seemed suddenly to have any link to what was happening to her now or what Clark was doing to her. Her body seemed to have an agenda all of its own, fighting against the practiced, pre-programmed moves she'd learned and going its own way on instinct alone. She gave up, let herself drift, limp and pliant in the embrace of her lover.

Clark continued his heated discovery of her body for a moment and then lifted his head to find her lips again…and was there less passion in his kiss than there had been a moment before? His mouth crushed its way against her almost desperately, as though trying to find a spark that was flickering listlessly into darkness, and then retreated. He looked down at her, his dark eyes unreadable.

"Honey, if you're too tired to…I mean it's been a long day. For both of us. I wouldn't mind…I mean I'd understand if you just wanted to —"

She frowned. "I'm not tired."

"You're sure?" He ran his thumb across the line of her brow and then followed the curve of her eye down to her cheek. "You know we've got the rest of our lives to do this. It doesn't have to be tonight just because it's traditional. We've got all the time in the world…" He touched his lips gently to hers again and she caught that flicker in his eyes again, of something uncertain.

Fear spiked through her. She wasn't doing it right. She was failing. She couldn't fail. Above all others, this one thing was most important to Lex. Distract him, he'd said. Keep him happy. These she could do in other ways. But this act, she had sensed, was important beyond the subterfuge for which she'd been created. Lex wanted it. For whatever reasons, he wanted it badly.

She had to make love with Clark Kent.

If she failed…

"I want you to…make love to me, Clark." She wound her arms around his neck and pressed her body tight against his. His kiss came to life again as he groaned into the mouth that suddenly matched his ardor in a blaze of ignited fire.

Their bodies melded among the tangled sheets, hands and lips exploring all that they could find, their movements frenzied as she wrapped her arms around him and held him fast against her. She slid her hands down across a tautly sculpted back, following the points of his spine. Her fingers hooked beneath the edge of the plaid shorts…

…and his hand caught at hers, stopping it in its tracks.

He was still. His body trembled against hers. His breath flooded hot against the side of her throat, where his face was buried in her shoulder. She stilled too, puzzled and confused — a machine suddenly out of data to assimilate. Had he…was he through with her…she thought uncertainly and with some disappointment. But no. He hadn't hurt her yet.

She lay still, waiting for him to give her another clue as to how to proceed.

"One question," he said softly. And then he raised his head.

And in his eyes, suddenly, there was something that caused her heart to leap in terror. Anger and revulsion the equal to anything she had ever seen in Lex.

"Clark — ?"

She cried out as he pushed himself clear of her in a convulsive movement, his hands darting out to grip her arms, pinning her to the bed beneath them with less than gentle force.

Her eyes widened and filled with tears. "Clark —"

His grip tightened. He shook his head, closed his eyes tight against the plea, like a man fighting against a spell of compulsion.

"Where's my wife?" he snarled as he hauled her up violently to face him. "Where is she?! If you've — Is she — " The words dissolved into something very like a growl as his hands tightened on her, his voice trembling with rage. "Tell me where she is, or I swear…I swear I'll make you wish you'd *never* been part of this."

She couldn't speak. Terror had frozen her voice tight in her throat and she couldn't force it free. She choked, whimpered, and he shook his head, frustrated. Shoving her violently back from where he'd hauled her close in anger, as though recognizing that he would get no answers from this quarter, he threw himself clear of the bed to stand, shaking and bleak eyed, in the center of the room.

For a moment, it was as though she didn't exist for him and then his gaze, dark and storm tossed, focused on her. Like pinning a bug under glass.

"You…" he spat out. She cowered back in fright at his sudden motion as he advanced across the room to stand over the bed. His shadow cast across her like a black hand, robbing her of breath. "Who *are* you?"

***

She couldn't have answered him, even if she'd had what he wanted. Trembling, she simply stared up at him, her heartbeat loud in her ears, loud enough to almost drown his next words as his eyes narrowed.

Oh, god. Lex had warned her. Warned her what would happen if she failed. How could she have failed? How could she — ?

"Karen Stapleton."

The name, breathed out like a revelation, was non sequitur enough to temporarily overlay her terror with confusion. She shook her head blankly.

"It is you, isn't it?" the tight, accusing voice raked her again. She didn't dare to meet his eyes; the rage in them, his fury, terrified her. She shook her head violently, over and over, not knowing how to placate him, not knowing what he wanted from her.

"Arianna…did she arrange this? Did she — ?"

"W-who…?"

"Don't play games with me! I want to know!"

She cringed back against the headboard as his voice rose to a yell. "I don't…I don't know…"

"Where's Arianna?! Where?!"

"I don't *KNOW*!"

The denial was a panicked screech as it looked as though he might grab her again, shake her in his frustration, and it gave him pause, even though his rage, as he seemed to recognize at last that she was telling the truth. That she knew nothing. His expression darkened.

"Okay, so not Arianna. Who then? Who paid you to —"

He broke off sharply and she saw his head twist abruptly in the direction of the bathroom. He stared blankly at the wall for a moment and then whipped back to face her. Seeing what was suddenly in his face, she cowered back against the bricks instinctively.

"You're a *clone*?!" He blinked, shock stuttering over his darkening expression. "Luthor…"

It was a hiss, as though the very name was loathsome in his mouth. In her entire short life so far she'd only heard one man voice another's name with that much dark hatred.

Lex, for this man.

Bewildered, she stared up at him and for a moment she was like to die from terror. Suddenly he looked so much like Lex, hulking over her in the shadowed room, that she was instantly transported back to another night, another bed, another voice raging at her, hate and contempt flaying her —

"Has Luthor got — " Clark had paled, his voice husky with fear. "Is Lois with *him*?"

He leapt forward, grabbing her by the arms and dragging her up to face him again, ignoring her shriek of panic as he shook her hard. "Answer me! Is she with Luthor?!"

Instead of answering, she began to beat at him with her fists, flailing out wildly, her hysterical blows useless against him; fighting him as she hadn't fought before, knowing that this time if she didn't he would kill her. He grunted and then shoved her back, away from him.

"Get out," he said.

Breathing heavily, sprawled loosely across the bed, she moaned softly in her throat. Clark grimaced.

"I said get out. Go on!" His voice rose sharply. "Get out!"

She flinched at that roar, sobbed out a harsh breath and scrambled from the bed, heedless of her dishabille as she fled. She was running wildly for the door, without thought, running from him, running from Lex, running from another painful, hurtful encounter.

Behind her, she heard a rough curse.

"Wait!"

And then he was coming after her. She whined in her terror, scrabbling at the handle of the door in a desperate bid to escape, terror clogging her breath in her throat, her sobs wild in her breast. When his hands landed on her, yanking her around to face him, she opened her mouth on a scream. His hand came down against her mouth, cutting it off before it was fully formed. Behind his palm her shrieks emerged muffled.

"Stop that. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to —"

She tore herself free, tried to run, fell as in her panic she tripped over the table in the middle of the room.

He was coming for her again, bending to grab her. She scooted back, mewling her fear. He stopped abruptly and then he straightened.

For a moment, there was standoff. She sat there, back against the sofa, legs drawn tight against her chest, ready to kick out or try to gain her feet when he came at her again. Her heart pounded like a piston in her breast. Her hands clawed desperately, blindly, around her, seeking something, anything she might use as a weapon. He stared down at her, face blank, as though he wasn't seeing her at all. And then his eyes shifted away from her face, his own twisting in sudden distaste.

"I'm not going to touch you," he said.

She believed him. More for the repugnance that crossed his face with the words than for the promise itself. She could tell that the last thing he ever wanted to do again was touch her. She wasn't certain which scared her more. That he wouldn't…or that he would.

He swiped a hard hand through his hair and shook his head viciously.

"Get dressed," he muttered, turning sharply away from her and heading for the stairs.

She watched him, wide eyed, as he barreled out the front door, slamming it behind him.

***

Out on the stoop, Clark barely waited for the door to bang to a close behind him before he rocketed upwards into the night sky. He didn't even stop to change into the Suit, but his speed was such that he rapidly became a blur of amber and black and then of red and blue as he tore through the blackness. By the time he jolted to a halt, high above the sprawling cityscape spread out beneath him, it was Superman who scanned the twinkling lights of the city with hard, unforgiving eyes.

Grief and pain wrapped him like a shroud. It was unbearable. Every breath hurt in his chest, every beat of his heart was like a fist raining brutal blows within him, tearing him apart.

He whirled, fists clenching as though searching for an enemy to strike. He fled blindly, seeking an escape, driven beyond enduring, unheeding of where he was going or why. Damp clouds shrouded him and then he hung, motionless, breath convulsing in his chest. The glitter of stars enveloped him as he screamed his rage and loss into the cold, brittle void.

"Lois!!!!"

The cry was torn from him, mindless of where he was or the dangers inherent in the cold, vast emptiness that surrounded him. For a moment he felt the invisible shield that protected him from the airless void ripple and waver; he felt the vacuum suck at the breath in his throat and for one wild and despairing moment he wanted to surrender to that awful, inexorable pull deep in his chest. He threw his arms wide, arching back his head, his eyes closing. The vague thought that he could spread himself against the stars, like the Gods of old, until he simply faded and became one with the universe pulsing around him, filled him like a need he had never known. The weight against his chest tightened, the pressure crushing his throat…

…and then reason reasserted itself in among the pain.

Lois was alive.

Somewhere, down there, she was alive. And she needed him.

It came like a physical tug against his heart, as though some level of awareness of her had enveloped his soul. He could feel her heart beating around his, feel the warmth of her skin against his palms. He could almost smell her perfume…

He opened his eyes with a start and then glanced around him as though for a moment, lost in his grief, he had forgotten where he was.

Lois needed him.

The thought beat at his skull, like a mantra, stopping him cold on the brink.

Lois needed him.

She was counting on him.

He was all she had.

He took a hard breath. And then another.

Lois…

He dived back, seeking the lights below.

Resolve. Resolve and need could block out the fear and the rage. Could keep him moving, keep the grief from overwhelming him. For now. That was what he had to concentrate on. Finding her. Finding her before… He shook his head sharply, his lips unconsciously drawing back in a rictus snarl as he brutally shoved aside the terrible images flashing through his mind. Finding her.

Finding her was all that mattered.

Luthor could wait.

He could wait — justice could wait — at least till then.

***

It took him most of the night to systematically search the sprawling city below him. Quartering it, marking it out block by block, building by building. And even then he only succeeded in dealing with a fraction of it.

After three or four hours, he had realized that he was losing too much time, that it was impossible, that he had to skew the odds somehow in his favor. He gave up the pattern he'd been using and concentrated instead on every inch of the city that was blank and dark to his vision.

Luthor wasn't dumb. He was a cold, murdering, vicious sociopath. But he wasn't dumb. He'd hide Lois somewhere where Superman's augmented vision couldn't find her. And that meant somewhere lead- shielded.

So he'd started there. Every building that resisted his attempts to see into it he searched manually. The rest he ignored. There were more of them than might have been imagined. A lot of Hobb's Bay and the older areas of the city were cloaked in lead-based paint. Hour after hour, minute after minute, he went through all of them that he could.

Dawn was showing in pink and gray streamers against the sky when finally he settled on a ledge high above the streets. Shoulders slumped, he pulled his cape absently around him, his eyes dark and sightless as he stared out into the night.

It was hopeless.

What if Luthor had blindsided him? He knew about Superman's x-ray capabilities. Had he second-guessed him? Had he realized that Superman would narrow the search by concentrating on lead-shrouded areas first? And had he foregone that security — that obvious, too obvious, security — and simply not taken it? Was Lois hidden away somewhere else? Somewhere he could have found her if he hadn't been stupid enough to fall into the predictability Luthor had counted on? If he had searched elsewhere…if he hadn't narrowed the parameters, if he hadn't tried to outsmart someone who was more cunning and venal than he ever could be…?

If he had…

If he had thought…

If only he hadn't…

Dammit, he should have thought about it! Worked it out! Instead of flying off half-cocked, so sure he had Luthor outwitted.

If he had just…

Thought.

Done.

Found.

Oh, god, if he had just *found* her. How could he have failed to find her?

"Lois…"

Her name slipped miserably from his lips and he drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs. He sunk his chin onto his forearm and stared out bleakly into the lightening world. A world growing light for everyone but him. For him, there was only darkness. Sorrow and grief. Pain. Without Lois there would never be light in his life again.

Without her…

During all the long hours of searching, he had been sustained by the hopeful fantasies spawned in his head as he worked his way through abandoned warehouses and dusty, cobwebbed cellars. That just around the corner, in the next building, she would be there. Frightened, angry… There, in that patch of shadows. A chair. And Lois tied to it, her eyes widening above the gag in her mouth as he crashed through the locked doorway. Widening and then lighting with relief at the sight of him coming to her rescue. Luthor running. Captured. Untying her and feeling his own relief well up within him like a storm as he drew her into his arms and knew she was safe. Safe and with him. Where she belonged…

The fantasy faded yet again, as it had done repeatedly through the long night, turning to ashes and dust and cold, empty rooms. Leaving him alone in the dark.

Angrily, he shifted on his lonely watchpoint. <Enough! You'll find her,> he promised himself fiercely. <You have to.>

Yes, he had to. And Lois had been in danger before, at risk before…they had always won through. They would now. He would now. He would find her and Luthor would pay for what he'd done.

What had he done?

What was he doing right now?

The defiance of his thoughts crumbled in the wake of reality. Lois had never been in danger like this. This was different.

The difference was simple enough to understand of course.

In his entire life, he'd never been so afraid.

It was like an animal, living deep within his heart, sharpening its claws in his chest, biting and clawing and scrabbling to get free.

He had no idea *where* to look, he realized, no idea where Luthor would have taken his wife. They could be anywhere. They might even have left the city by now, he thought sickly, thinking of all the hours he had stayed unaware of the switch. So many hours Luthor would have used to his advantage.

Dear God, where was Lois? And what was Luthor doing to her?

He couldn't say what it was that had alerted him to the fact that the woman in his arms wasn't his wife, that the body writhing beneath him wasn't hers. It was something beyond instinct, beyond knowing. It was just so.

Christmas tree lights. He frowned at the random thought, but realized that it fit as well as anything else. There had been no spark, none of the blood pounding, heart thundering electric heat between them that had always been there before.

And then, confronting her…

He guessed it was natural that his first thought was that this was the woman who had impersonated Lois once before. He hadn't kept up with Karen Stapleton's prison term; he and Lois had consigned her to the past, forgotten her. But his first thought had been that she had somehow managed to get released. She and Arianna both? Or was Arianna masterminding this cruel hoax on him from her prison cell?

But the look on her face… She clearly hadn't known who he was talking about. The names Arianna and Karen Stapleton meant nothing to her. And he refused to believe she was that good an actress. She hadn't even been able to make him believe she was…

No. She hadn't known. That much had been clear. His mind had tumbled over a myriad of dark possibilities… Okay, so it hadn't been some revenge from Arianna. But if she could produce a double of Lois, then so could -

And that was when the faint noise had intruded on the desperate strands of his reasoning and he'd turned his head towards the darkened bathroom behind him.

He'd heard it again. Strange…and something he'd never expect to hear, here in his apartment. His bedroom…

Frogs?

He'd shaken his head, bewildered, and had arrowed in his hearing on the low croaking again, finally tracking it to Lois' abandoned make up bag. He'd directed a beam of x-ray vision at the jumble of containers and accoutrements within. The jars and bottles…moisturizers…toners…foundation…eye shadow…cold cream…

He'd frozen.

Frogs. In fake containers.

The impact of his discovery struck him immediately, with a blow that almost seemed physical, like someone had just driven a stake through his heart, and his head had swung back to the cowering woman on the bed.

A clone.

A clone made by…Luthor?

Luthor!

Luthor. The name had slithered into his head like a live cobra, venomous and dark. It was a howl in his head and for a moment he thought he'd shrieked it aloud as her eyes had widened.

A small worm of thought was squirming in his skull. Lois was vulnerable to Luthor. In ways she probably didn't even understand or could guard against. The man's singular talent was to ferret out the weaknesses of his opponent and turn them to his advantage with a knack that was almost uncanny. Of knowing that opponent at an instinctive level more deeply than he ever knew himself.

How much of herself had Lois unwittingly given him in the past? How many clues had she revealed as they'd discussed wedding plans and set out their future together? How many childhood secrets, teenage fears, wounds and insecurities had she confided to her fiancee…moments of crystal clarity that were ammunition for Luthor to use against her.

Clark felt cold as his thoughts processed his fears and laid them bare before him, stark and frightening.

Exactly when had Lois been replaced, he found himself wondering. When they'd shared pizza and wine and she had told him how much she loved him? When she had been so delightfully pleased at his endearments in the conference room? Had she been Lois then? Or that thing that aped her? How long had Lois really been missing? How long had Luthor had to spirit her away without him even realizing that she was in danger?

He berated himself, tortured himself, with the thoughts. He should have known! Damn it all to Hell, he should have known right from the first instant that monster had gotten close to him!

Why hadn't he known? He cast the silent scream out into the dark, feeling it shudder through him like a blow.

He had dismissed her fears. She had known something would happen. She had tried to tell him, tried to make him understand the danger they were in. And he hadn't listened. If only he'd listened! Smashed wedding cake. Dead flowers. How could he have shrugged it all aside like he had? Why hadn't he checked on Luthor? Why hadn't it occurred to him even once that the one person in all the world who would most want to ruin their lives, their wedding, their hopes for the future, was Luthor?

Why hadn't he *done* something? Anything. Anything but laugh at Lois' fears and leave her alone for the monster to reach out and…

<Stop it!> he told himself roughly. This wasn't getting him anywhere. This wasn't helping Lois. Enough! He had to turn this around. Stop wallowing in self-pity and find some way to get Lois back. Away from Luthor. There was a way. He just had to find it. And dwelling on how this was all his fault, how he'd let this happen, wasn't going to do it.

Okay…he sucked in a long, hard breath…then how?

Searching haphazardly with no clear idea of where to look wasn't going to help him. He was beginning to understand that now. The city was too big. Heck, the country was too big. She might be anywhere by now.

So what? What could he do to give himself the edge over his opponent? What could he use to…

His thoughts froze.

Her. That…thing…back in his apartment. Part of the plan. Part of the deception. Part of what had taken Lois from him. How much did she know? How much had she heard?

Cursing, he began to realize that it would perhaps have been wiser, and more useful, to have questioned the clone, rather than barreling off on his own on a fruitless search. At the time he hadn't been able to stand being there in the same room with…that thing…a moment longer. His rage, his disgust, his terror, had been dark blossoming flowers in his chest, tightening their thorns and tendrils round his heart till he could barely breathe…but…she was his best clue to finding Lois. What might she be able to tell him?

The thought seeded a new flare of panic in his chest. He'd left her there. Alone. He'd told her to go, get out! What if she'd gone? What if she'd run off soon as he'd left? What if she'd phoned Luthor and he'd sent men to get her? What if Luthor was somehow aware of her failure and had —

Luthor eliminated his mistakes — ruthlessly and without second thought. Did he know? Was he having the apartment watched? Hoping for some sick, twisted thrill when his spies reported back to him that Mr. and Mrs Clark Kent had retired for the evening? Their wedding night. Had he? Would he? Clark's mouth had gone dry as the realization dawned. He uncoiled abruptly from his miserable position perched on the ledge, jerking, dismayed to his feet.

His only link to Luthor, to perhaps the only person who could lead him to that monster, his only chance at finding out the truth — of finding Lois…was vulnerable and alone back at his apartment.

Alone and perhaps already eliminated.

His only link to Luthor. His only link to where Lois might be. His only chance could be out there in the night, lost to him, thanks to his stupidity.

With a curse, he wheeled in the air and sped like a bullet back to the apartment.

***

The apartment was dark.

Heart thudding, he raced up the stairs in a shapeless blur of color. If there had been watchful eyes surveilling the area before, they were long gone now. He had scanned the immediate vicinity of the street and its surrounds, any possible lookout point and position, before landing. Another missed chance? Another link to Luthor lost? Let escape him? His fingers clenched into spasmodic fists at his sides.

He stopped with a jolt at the door…and hesitated. Then, squaring his shoulders, drawing in a steadying breath he reached out and pushed it quietly inwards. He stepped through.

Again he paused, standing on the landing and listening intently. "Hello?"

Immediately the word was out he chided himself for his stupidity. He felt foolish, calling out like a stranger in his own home. Sneaking around awkwardly like a thief in the night. But…

What if she was gone?

The fear that had begun to thread itself in him returned full force, hard as a blow.

If she was gone -

She was here!

Someone was here.

Tensing, his head turned, arrowing in on the soft sounds of breathing coming from deeper within the room. Slow and somnambulant, not the quickened rasp of panic or fear. Nor of stealth.

Carefully, sure now of what he'd find, he made his way unerringly down the stairs and over to the armchair. Reaching over, he clicked on the table lamp beside it, already turning as the soft light swept aside the dark.

She was lying on the sofa. Asleep. Clark puffed out an irritated breath. What was this? Goldilocks? He shook his head and his heart clenched. She looked so… So much like…

He found himself halfway towards her before he even realized what he was doing. His hand reaching automatically to pull the comforter she'd wrapped herself in further up around her shoulders…to put out a gentle hand and stroke back the hair that had fallen across one pale cheek…to lean forward and lay his lips against the curve of her ear…the side of her throat…to have her wake and smile up at him…

He turned on his heel abruptly and fumbled his way for the chair.

…to have her wake and tell him this was a nightmare. Nothing more. Something he would wake from, sweating, heart racing a rapid beat of terror in his chest, to be soothed away by a soft touch in the dark, a sigh of breath against his ear…a warm body pressed against his in the darkness…

He closed his eyes. His knees sagged and he half fell into the chair behind him. He dropped forward, elbows on knees, burying his head in hands that shook…fury and grief and fear warring within him.

After a time, he straightened to slump back against the back of the chair, his eyes bleak and distant as they rested on the sleeping…whatever. The thing that had invaded his life…tried to cuckold his heart…Luthor's twisted creation.

Somehow…some way…he would take that and mold it to his own ends. Use it to thwart its master.

But quietly. He drew his hands across his face, feeling the trials of the long night begin to settle themselves heavy on his shoulders, weariness spreading its thin tentacles throughout his body like a slow seeping warmth, a blanket of dark. He had to think this through. Calmly and logically. He had learned a lesson this night — one he wouldn't soon forget. Letting the anger, the panic, control him would lose him the fight before it even began. Would lose him Lois.

He had to take this one step by step. Work out how to handle things to his best advantage, harden himself to dealing with the thing sleeping the peaceful conscienceless dreams of the corrupt on his sofa, to steel himself against seeing it as the woman he loved, as anything innocent at all.

It looked innocent. Oh so innocent and oh so vulnerable as it lay there, his Mom's comforter keeping it warm, its slim body curled up like a child's, its face wiped free of deceit…

He couldn't think like that. He couldn't let it deceive him. Couldn't let it work on his desires, his fears, his love.

In a moment…just a moment for him to think of the best way to proceed…he would wake it. Question it. Find out what it knew. How it could help him. How he could use it.

In a moment…

Just one…

Yes…just one…

Despite himself he closed his eyes again, let the warmth sneak deeper into him, too wearied, too emotionally drained, to handle a confrontation right then.

In a moment.

Just give himself one moment to gather his thoughts, gather his strength, and he would…

He would…

In a moment.

***

The rich smell of crisping bacon woke him.

He came out of sleep sluggishly, wisps of a forgotten, restless dream tugging at the edges of his mind and disorientating him. For a moment, that coffee and bacon mix of scents sent him back to his childhood. To early mornings when he'd wake to the rich, thick smells of his Mom cooking up breakfast down in the warm farm kitchen, and the sounds, faint from beyond his bedroom window, of his father already up and at the chores.

Still drowsing, struggling his way up through the layers of sleep, his brow furrowed in a frown. Since when had his Mom burnt the bacon?

Opening his eyes, his nostrils twitching at the rank stench of charred meat, he came fully awake as time snapped back into place and he realized he was in his apartment. A million miles away from the farm of his childhood in every sense that mattered. A small, wistful thought, half-formed and pushed aside almost as soon as it was birthed, floated past him that he would give most anything he had to be back in his bed at the farm, hearing his Mom call him downstairs with the admonition that breakfast was getting cold. Back to the simplicity of his life then. Where the unpleasant truth that was now spreading blackly in his mind, and which he shied away from instinctively before it could become clear enough in his head to threaten him, would never have to be faced.

He surveyed the apartment, still a little disorientated. It had the claustrophobic dullness to it that only came from a room lit artificially when natural light was absent. Outside, the darkness of a heavy storm showed, oppressive as it pressed against the glass of the windows.

His eyes found the kitchen and his lips curved into a smile as he saw Lois bustling around in there. The cold tendrils of his dream — for surely that's all they'd been, remnants of dark unease brought out into the light for a moment, but unsubstantial — faded as a sudden warm affection and calm appreciation of her settled into him. She was there. Of course everything was all right. He sat, shoving aside the blanket covering him, and then his fingers froze on the soft wool and the smile faded, the greeting that hovered at his lips dying unspoken. The run of his thoughts rolled inexorably onwards, like a dream turning to nightmare, in defiance of his attempts to stop them breaking through and forcing reality on him. And he remembered…

He frowned. Had he been dreaming? Had he dreamed that Luthor had destroyed his life and -

He glanced down at himself and his lips tightened.

He was sleeping in an armchair on his honeymoon night? With Lois?

Not likely!

He stood convulsively, heading for the kitchen at a sharp, angry march.

"What do you think you're you doing?" he demanded of the woman standing beside the counter.

For a moment, despite his fears of losing her — of losing the precious though unwelcome link to finding Lois that she represented — that had plagued him the previous evening, he found himself angered by her presence, at her for still being there. Irrational or not, contradictory nor not, he couldn't seem to hold on to rational thought or logical purpose when he was this close to her. In his head she was Lex. They were inseparable. Both of them the reason Lois was lost to him, both instrumental in having taken her from him.

Engrossed, she hadn't heard him approach. A squeak escaped her as she whipped sharply around to face him, eyes wide as a startled doe's. The jar of mayonnaise with which she'd been struggling slipped from nerveless fingers and shattered on the tiles with an implosion that sounded loud enough to rock Metropolis to Clark's overworked senses.

"Oh!" She jerked to her knees and he followed, irritable with her attempts to clear the mess.

"Leave it."

"But —"

"I said, leave it!" He caught at her wrist, yanking her hand clear, and she froze. He did too. For a moment, they stayed that way, and then Clark shook his head and let her go. "You'll cut yourself," he mumbled lamely as he began to pick up the shards of glass.

She remained where she was. He could feel the weight of her eyes fixed on him, burning at his skin. Then she rose to her feet. She stood, watching, for a moment longer before she turned away, going back to the stove. Clark ignored her, getting a pan and brush from the cupboard and methodically clearing up the gooey mess and glass as he gave himself time to think, to figure out a way to deal with this…this imposter in his kitchen.

"Where's my wife?" he said, fingers stilling, unable to stop the question, that was screaming inside him with every beat of his heart and every breath, from escaping. As soon as it was out of his mouth he savaged himself for a fool, blundering his way into it. But he needed to know. He had to know.

He lifted his head when her silence registered. She hadn't moved from the stove, hadn't shown any indication that she'd heard. "Where is she?" he grated out a second time and then, hating himself for it, but unable to stop, "Please…" The pleading tone he heard in his own voice sickened him, made his throat raw with pain, but he couldn't hold it back, he felt like screaming, sobbing, "Please…I have to know what…I have to know…please…"

She had turned to face him now, and his heart sank as he saw nothing of pity on her face. Just curiosity. She shrugged. "Dunno."

He sat back on his heels and swallowed hard. "What do you mean, you don't know?" Fear stirred in the pit of his belly, like a snake uncoiling. He shoved it down, trying to keep his voice level and calm as he added, "Do you know where…where Luthor is?"

She shook her head. Despair swept over Clark like a tide of smothering darkness. She really didn't know. He could see that. And why would she? he thought bitterly. Why would Luthor confide in this…shell. This mockery. This soulless, mindless…

"Why are you still here?" he choked out dismally, going back to the mechanical act of clearing up the mess, shutting himself off from everything but the motions of his fingers. He thought he would go insane if he had to feel a moment more. The fear was a live thing in his chest now, struggling to escape.

"I'm making breakfast," she said, answering his question as he finished mopping up the spill. Her tone was blatantly cheerful, sunny and sweet. As though his anger hadn't touched her at all. It soaked a deep chill into his bones. "Are you hungry? I'm not…" She gave him a small, anxious glance, belying her relaxed manner, and changed tack hastily. "I can eat, though, if you want. Keep you company, I mean…"

She trailed off and made a half turn, surveying the kitchen with a helpless look, as though seeking inspiration. Then she continued, "I didn't do so good."

She gave the table a quick, miserable glance and then added, almost thoughtfully, "Lex said I wasn't a good cook, he said I told him that. I…we had a joke, good thing he had a chef and staff because when we got married all he'd get from me would be dial in pizza and he…laughed, said he hoped that wasn't *all* he'd get and…" She tailed off suddenly, standing there in the center of the kitchen, face blank, like an automaton whose batteries had died.

Listening to that monotonous retelling by rote of his wife's earlier relationship with the monster who'd destroyed their lives and who, even now, may be hurting her beyond Clark's capacity to imagine, he felt bile rise thickly in his throat.

What kind of bizarre Stepford Wives nightmare was he living here?

And then she shook her head and turned to pick up a plate of charred bacon. She stared at it ruefully. "I never got showed how." She glanced up at him then, with a sunny smile that etched a sharp arrow in his heart. "But I can learn! You'll see…I can learn real good and then…then it'll be okay."

His silence seemed to unnerve her. She looked away and then moved around the kitchen, shifting a plate here, turning a fork there, all the while keeping up a mindless, inconsequential babble of words, as though they could form a shield against his anger, against the storm that was threatening within the room. An anger that was palpable in the very air around them. She kept her eyes averted. Her hands trembled slightly, a palsy that increased as she nervously and unnecessarily rearranged the contents of the table for a second time.

"I *was* hungry, I was really, really hungry…when I started…" she paused, looking flustered and then went on, brightly, "so I made pancakes and bacon and eggs — you like eggs, I know that — and there's honey and marmalade and strawberry preserve on the table. You *don't* like marmalade, but Lois — I mean I — Lois — does…"

She trailed off, a machine whose programming had suddenly come into conflict, Clark thought, disgust slick like oil in his throat, then launched onwards over the awkward moment, "And toast. With butter, not spread. Because you like —"

"Stop it!"

She started violently as at the sharpness of the interruption, shoulders tensing, clutching to her chest the mug she'd been turning aimlessly. Around it her knuckles were bone-white.

"Stop it," he repeated, tone low and savage. "You don't know what I like! You don't know anything about me! You're not my wife. You're not Lois. Do you hear me? Do you understand? You're *not* Lois!" His voice was rising again, anger beginning a low beat of blood behind his eyes. "I don't want you here. I don't want you acting like some kind of…of Geisha! I don't want you!"

Her face crumpled instantly. "I was just —"

She broke off with a gasp as he grabbed her, his fingers clenching hard in her arms, hard enough to bruise, his eyes, blazing now with a hard, cold fire only inches away from her terrified ones as he spat, "What I *want* is to find my wife. And if you can't help me with that, just keep out of sight and out of my way!"

A flicker of motion caught at the corner of his eye as he stood there, nonplussed and breathing heavily. He looked up. Across the room, in the mirror formed against the cloud-heavy darkness that pressed against the glass, he saw a doppelganger image of himself. A man he almost didn't recognize, couldn't recognize; the rage transfiguring that familiar set of features was something he had never seen on his own face, something he had never held to be a part of him in any way. And yet…it was there.

Reflexively, his grip on her had tightened with the angry words he'd thrown at her. She cried out, the sound jerked from her involuntarily, and it was only then that he became aware that he was shaking her. Worse that, even knowing it, he couldn't seem to stop. At that moment he wanted to wring that beautiful neck of hers, snap it in two. The realization and the sound of her fear, the brutal image that reflected back at him from the storm-darkened windows, jolted him back and out of his fury.

Shocked by how close he'd come to actually hurting her, his anger was swallowed by shame and disgust at himself, snuffed out in an instant. He pushed her clear of him, the motion abrupt, suddenly unable to bear the touch of her on his skin. It was more violent a gesture than he'd meant it to be, the remnants of his anger making it hard to judge. Violent enough that she stumbled and almost fell before she caught her balance. Her hand clutched defensively at her throat, her eyes fixed on the disgust twisting darkly on his face, and then with another low, choking sob she spun away, running blindly for the bedroom.

Clark swore mildly but with feeling, ran a frustrated hand through his hair and took a step or two after her. Then he stopped, his lips tightening over the apology that almost escaped him.

Lois.

That thing had taken Lois from him. Had turned what should have been the singularly most beautiful, most memorable, most important moments of his life into a mockery. A sham.

He turned away.

Something snapped beneath his foot, a brittle implosion of sound, and he stared down blankly at the crushed glass on the tiled floor for a moment before he sighed. He hunkered down and began methodically to gather the broken pieces of mayonnaise jar that he'd missed.

Muffled, from the bedroom, he heard the sound of her crying. A forlorn whimpering that his traitorous heart clenched at hearing and every instinct in him clamored to attend to, urging him to soothe and comfort. But he was too sunk in the whirlwind of emotions that battered at his soul to pay attention to them and they were easy to resist.

He took his time cleaning up and in his almost obsessive hunt for every last splinter, every tiny fragment, his mind bolted down to the narrow confines of the task and allowing nothing else to enter, he found some inner calm by and large.

And, throughout, the movements of his fingers, the gathering of broken glass into his palm, the remote actions of his hands in dusting them off into the garbage pail beneath the sink and brushing up every trace of disaster were all underscored by the soft weeping of his wife…of that thing that had helped Luthor to steal his wife…from the bedroom behind him.

By the time he'd finished gathering the remains of the jar he had come to a decision. Found his way to some kind of solution.

A plan.

The only possible plan.

***

She was huddled face down on the bed when he strode into the room, her slender frame shivering with the force of her sobs.

For an instant his eyes were drawn to her, despite his resolve not to be fooled by her distress. A distress that was surely as manufactured, as calculated to disorient him, and as programmed as she was. His enhanced senses might be able to pick up a racing pulse, a hammering heart, all the physical signs of emotional turmoil, and those tears might look real enough, but what did that prove?, he thought with a sour twist of his lips. Only that Luthor's cash had been able to buy the best in robotic programming, the deluxe model. Still, he was drawn to her, and his traitorous heart followed.

She'd lifted her head when he'd entered the room. Her eyes were rimmed in red, holding dark wounds within them. He looked quickly away, dragging himself from her, and focused grimly on the plan. The plan. That was the important thing. The plan that would get him back Lois. That would find Luthor. And when he did…

He realized his hands were clenched into tight fists at his sides. He forced his fingers apart and tugged open the wardrobe doors. He rummaged for a moment, pulling aside items seemingly at random. Then he grabbed at the first appropriate outfit he found within. A pants suit in soft gray. For the smallest instant he froze, the warm wool-mix of the material seeping into his fingers. Soft…it had been as soft and as warm as she was that last time she'd worn it. When he had…

…and then he turned sharply around to toss the heap of clothing on the bed beside her.

"Get dressed," he ordered peremptorily. He hesitated, surveying the clothing. "You'll find… You know where…" He could feel himself flushing and his irritation increased. "Underwear is in the chest over there. Second drawer down," he concluded, clipping out the words tightly. He turned away without waiting for a response to drag out the large suitcase, which he had packed a couple of nights previously in preparation for their flight to Hawaii, from its hiding place in the cupboard. He placed it in the archway and then added the bundle of luggage that Lois…that it…had brought with her the previous evening.

For a few, dangerous moments his thoughts began to unravel as they were prompted by the sight of those cases to wonder, yet again, when the switch had been made. Had Lois packed those bags? Had she been happy when she had? Smiling over some piece of lingerie calculated to drive him crazy when…

Or had they been packed later? By her. By…

He realized he was staring blankly into space and forced himself to focus. He stood for a moment, considering. What else? Oh…right. He headed purposefully for the bathroom. He scooped up an armful of cosmetics from the glass shelf at random and was halfway to the door when he paused. He shook his head, face twisting, and then turned back. He couldn't use these. Couldn't let her use them. Having her looking like his wife was painful enough. Having no choice but to let her wear Lois' clothing was worse. But having that scent on her…that familiar, tantalizing scent that drove him crazy with desire and filled him with warm affection in equal measure was a wound too far.

He grabbed for the trash can under the sink and began to pile the various bottles and containers into it. He'd shop fresh for more for…for her. Yes, he'd take her to the store. What was the name of the perfume he hated? He'd smelled it in Atkinsons' department store once — thick and cloying, heavy with exotic spices. Temptation, that was it. He'd made a disgusted face and Lois had laughed and when she told him how much the obnoxious stuff cost an ounce he'd thought the world had gone -

Pain flared in him, as though the sound of her name in his head had torn open a wound. He knew that he was grieving. He knew he didn't have time for it. Didn't have the luxury of letting himself go, letting himself curl up in a ball and weep as he wanted to. And yet he couldn't seem to stop it sweeping over him like a tide, dragging him down with it into the dark pit of despair and hurt.

He couldn't let go! He roared the brutal command at himself, struggling against the pull of his emotions. Forcing them back, down…in check, under control…under…

A low cry, like the howl of a wounded animal tore itself free of him and he swept the last of the cosmetics from the shelf with a vicious swipe of his hand, oblivious to the shattering of glass on the tiled floor as he sank to his knees among the glittering shards and oozing puddles of oil and lotions. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and his hands into fists against his thighs as a burst of sweet fragrance that was familiar enough to cause his heart to burn and his soul to weep wafted up from the mess and surrounded him.

Lois…

Oh, sweet God, Lois…where are you?

His large frame shuddered, he pounded a fist against his leg. Again. And again. Harder. The bottle still clutched in his fist imploded within his fingers and his grip tightened, crushing it until it was nothing more than dust. But he couldn't find the pain. He couldn't find that sharp, lancing pain that would distract him from the open wound suppurating in his heart. He was invulnerable — or at least his body was — and it wouldn't come. No matter how much he wished for it.

It was senseless hoping to find pain that would be greater than the sliver of agony and grief that was stabbing at his heart, that would concentrate his mind. Physical pain meant nothing to him, had no meaning for him. Was that why the emotional pain seared him so fiercely, he wondered disjointedly. Was that why his heart was so vulnerable when it came to Lois? To make up for his invulnerability elsewhere and his physical strength?

<Don't think. Don't think,> he told himself desperately. <Do. Time. I need time. Keep moving. Keep going.>

He went back into the bedroom, roaming the room, picking up items of clothing, packing them into the suitcases, all with the remote, absent motions of a sleepwalker.

The thing that wore Lois' face watched him with empty eyes from her position, huddled against the boxed cupboard at the head of the bed. Her shoulder pushed up against a red-spined book among the collection housed in the open shelves within. Clark's gaze rested on it for a moment, recognizing it instantly. Cappon's Associated Press Guide to Newswriting.

Lois had given him one of her looks when she'd presented it to him arbitrarily. One of those cool, ice-maiden looks that had earned her the title Mad Dog among the Daily Planet staffers. Perry had just announced that he was making them partners and she had made it clear she was going to get Clark Kent up to her standards if it had to kill her to do it. Even back then he had been amused rather than wounded by her downgrading of his skills. Even back then he could see beneath the masks she wore, the armor she sheathed herself in, to the strong, independent and courageous heart within. He'd often wondered why no one else could.

She had annotated practically every margin in that book with 'helpful notes'. And employed the liberal use of yellow marker to highlight passages he should take particular note of. Yellow was especially in evidence in the passages dealing with respecting senior partners as being wiser than you in the ways of journalism and humbly learning all you could from them on how to achieve your goals.

When, two days later, he had retaliated by presenting her with David Savran's Taking It Like A Man, with its presentation of the American male as the browbeaten victim of powerful, domineering women through the ages, she had been less than amused.

Some time later, as their relationship had grown less abrasive and they'd found their way to becoming good friends, and obviously embarrassed, she had tried to pass off her 'gift' as a joke. Later still — a still new engagement ring glimmering on her finger — she had self- consciously come across the opus tucked into the bookcase behind his bed and had wondered at its presence, suggested he throw it in the trash. And he had disagreed with vigor, had told her…

He had told her that maybe he should keep it. Just in case he ever stepped out of line and forgot how a partner was supposed to behave.

"Just a partner?" she'd said, turning to view him, eyes glowing and her smile lighting up the room as she'd risen up on her knees on the bed to hook her arms around his neck.

"What, you think maybe you need to teach me how to behave like a fiance too?" he'd asked teasingly, before kissing her with enough passion that the subject under discussion had been quickly forgotten amid soft caresses and the tender melding of lips on skin.

After a time, as she'd lain in his arms, she'd murmured softly, "Clark Kent, if you learn any better about how to behave in the bedroom you're going to kill me before the wedding night is through."

And he'd chuckled, drawn her closer against him, whispered against her hair, "You ain't seen nothing yet. Best is yet to come."

Yet to come.

His vision clouded as those memories overwhelmed his senses for a moment, lancing into his heart with another sharp twist of pain.

It took him a moment to find the will to look directly at what was on his bed — and to keep the rage boiling within him in check when he did.

"I said get dressed," he said coldly, noting that the clothes he'd tossed onto the bed still lay there untouched. He frowned as something occurred to him. "You can use the…" He glanced over his shoulder at the bathroom and changed his mind. "I'll leave you to it. I'll stay in the living room until you're done."

He made the offer with a certain reluctance. To grant her modesty — to grant that she might require it, might expect or want it, that she might be unwilling to dress with him in the room, watching — bestowed on her a human quality he wasn't ready to admit she might have.

Thinking of her as something less than human — an extension purely of Luthor's will, a biological machine programmed with his commands, a thing of plastic and manufactured emotions — made it easy for him to use her as a proxy for his nemesis, easy to rail at her and focus his rage at Luthor on her without guilt.

It made him uneasy to consider her more than that; his mind shied away from it, ignoring it as a truth, his rage unwilling to offer the concession.

And, too, he had no desire to get even a glimpse of that slender, sensual body. No more than he would of any stranger to him. The random thought provoked a sudden surge of bitter images in his head. Last night he had seen more than enough, more than he wanted, of her. He had…he squeezed his eyes shut painfully but that only made the bilious memories more intense…he had touched that smooth skin and tasted those lips and…

<Stop it! Just stop it!> he told himself viciously. He had to get out of here. He couldn't take much more of this.

…and he had enjoyed it. All of it.

<I didn't know!> he cried out in the throes of guilt and despair. <I didn't know it wasn't Lois! I didn't know!>

He felt nauseous, eaten alive by guilt and the sense that he had betrayed something precious. Remembering how he had held that thing in his arms and what he had said to it. How he had caressed the naked flesh beneath his own…

He forced open his eyes. She had taken more than one thing precious from him. Lois, the joy of being married to the woman he loved, the sweetness of consummating that love in the marriage bed. The precious moments of sharing himself for the first time with the woman he'd chosen to spend his life with. To give himself up to. That she had almost coerced him into that betrayal cut deep and that she had been unaware of just how important an act it was to him or that he had discovered her duplicity in time to prevent the debasement of that sacred act was no help in finding some measure of calm in dealing with her. The eyes he turned on her were frigid with the knowledge of just what she had come close to stealing from him. From Lois. One more heinous act that didn't bear forgiving.

"We have to go. Now."

The…woman…on the bed simply looked at him. Then she said, voice trembling, "What are you going to do with — Where are you taking me?"

Clark looked away, trying not to notice the fear on her face — that face that was so like his wife's and that could tear compassion out of his heart with its wiles — as he tossed a jumble of shirts into the nearest case.

"Lex wants me out of the way, doesn't he?" he said, taunting her. "He wants me distracted, in Hawaii, on my honeymoon with my *adoring* wife!" His eyes raked her for an instant and then he turned away. "Well, just for once, let's give Luthor exactly what he wants!"

Hawaii. Time to think, time to plan, time to find a way out of this mess and rescue Lois from Luthor's clutches. Time he didn't have. In a few hours, Luthor would expect him and his new wife to fly out on their honeymoon. If they didn't, the deception would be up, and Luthor would know something had gone wrong with his plans. He had to prevent that, keep Luthor in the dark for as long as he could. With Clark Kent seemingly distracted and out of the city, Luthor's guard would be down.

So…he would spend his days in Hawaii with this blurred, imperfect fake, acting the part of besotted newlywed, and his nights — and any moment he could take away from the masquerade — would be spent searching for Lois back in Metropolis. No one would question Superman on patrol.

Sleight of hand. Schemes and deceptions. Distracting the eye with one hand while pulling the ace from the sleeve with the other. Luthor wasn't the only master of that.

As he was going to prove.

"No."

The soft voice jerked him out of his musing. He stopped in his tracks and then turned back slowly to face her.

"No?" He frowned and then, bewildered, "No, what?"

"No," she repeated. Her voice quivered and she flinched, shrinking back against the books as he ran an exasperated hand through his hair, startling her with the sharp motion. But her tone had a definite air of finality about it nonetheless. "Wherever it is you're going, I'm not."

Clark scowled at her, reacting solely to her tone of denial. Then, as her words registered, his eyebrows rose. "You're not — ? What do you mean you're not?" His tone sharpened. "Now you listen to me —"

"No!" This time she shrieked it as she scrambled from the bed. She was past him before he realized what she was doing, still stunned into open-mouthed silence by this defiance. The slam of the bathroom door was followed by the click of the lock.

"Loi — dammit!" Cursing, he strode over and pounded on the door.

"Will you come out of there!"

"Go away!"

"This is ridiculous. You're being ridiculous! Come out of there. Right now!"

Silence.

Clark kicked at the base of the door, a petulant action that caused a ripple of astonishment from a saner half of his mind. He was also aware in a frozen instant of just how hard that saner half had had to work there to rein back his strength and keep him from kicking the door clear out of its frame. It had been a long time since he'd been so dangerously close to being out of control.

Control was everything. He had learned that lesson harshly when he was a kid. He knew that most of the people he knew ascribed his mild- mannered, slow-to-anger, nature as a product of his country roots and an old-fashioned upbringing. And in part it was. But it was also the result of knowing that in letting his anger loose he could maim. Or kill. It frightened him now how close those subconscious mental restraints that usually held him in check had frayed so badly when faced with one intractable…woman…who looked so like his wife.

He subsided against the door, laying his shoulder to the cold, smooth surface as he closed his eyes. He took a few deep, steadying breaths, trying to settle the boiling frustration in his gut into stillness and calm, controlled meditation.

Finally, he stepped away. "Are you going to come out of there?" he asked through the door.

"No. No! No! NO! You got that?! You speak English?! Comprende?! You listening out there? *No*! I'm not going! I'm not, I'm not, I'm not! O—*kay*?!" It was the enraged shrieking of a child having a tantrum and it raised the hackles of parental indignation on the back of his neck.

He viewed the door judiciously. He *could* break it down of course. If she thought she could hide behind something as flimsy as this she had another think coming.

Door kicking?

"Now *you're* being ridiculous," he murmured aloud with a wry shake of his head. He sighed and stared at the door in consternation. He had no idea how to get her out. Or make her co-operate. He would have known how to deal with Lois — but then Lois would never have balked at his plans. Of course they would have discussed it first. He would never have acted so…well so boorishly…with her. He winced, but the truth of that was inescapable. He'd been inconsiderate and ungentlemanly and…and, dammit, how exactly was he supposed to act towards some unholy automaton that mocked his feelings for his wife? Chivalrously?! His anger, a simmering heat that roiled constantly in his chest and belly, rebelled against the notion.

The plain truth of it was, she was coming with him, helping him, whether she liked it or not. If he had to drag her kicking and screaming every step of the way. She was necessary to rescuing Lois.

Of course it had never occurred to him that she would challenge his plans. It had never occurred to him that she had a mind to challenge him at all. Up until the moment she had screamed her refusal at him he had seen her purely as an extension of Luthor's will — his drone, his machine. Now he was rapidly beginning to understand that clone or not, fake or not, she was some kind of individual in her own right. And with her own, very definite, opinions. Whether those opinions were manufactured or not hardly mattered. Though he wouldn't have put it past Luthor to have programmed her just to be contrary for the sake of it and drive him crazy. They were real enough to thwart him, to stymie him. Like Lois he hated that word. He resisted the urge to kick the door again as frustration welled up in him.

Okay…think. So she had opinions of her own. And right now those opinions were locked up with her in his bathroom.

So…first plan of attack. Get her out. Then deal with the rest later.

He took a small, steadying breath. "Look…come out. We'll talk. I…I'm sorry I yelled at you. I won't do it again."

It galled him to apologize, to this — this creature, this *thing* that had invaded his home, his life, that had helped Luthor take Lois from him. That had tried to take her place, tried to defile the perfect, wondrous bond they shared. Had tried to make him betray her. Even simple civility gave it too much of himself. But…Lois…was depending on him. Somewhere out there. Perhaps afraid…hurt…

He closed his eyes.

Her life might depend on gaining the trust and the co-operation of her doppelganger. And right then he'd have lunched with the Devil himself to get it. Dancing with his spawn was the least of the sacrifices he'd make to rescue his wife from the clutches of the madman who tormented them.

He swallowed hard on the nausea rising in his throat and battened down the anger swelling in his chest.

"Please…" he said, grating out the word.

There was silence from within the bathroom. Then, "Promise?"

Clark clenched his teeth, hard enough to almost make his jaw ache. "I promise."

"Okay."

He stepped back in surprise as the door cracked open. A small, suspicious face peeked around its edge. "You promised. No yelling?"

Clark pasted what might have passed for a smile on his face. To him it felt like a rictus grin, stretching the skin of his face taut. "Scout's honor," he said, lifting his fingers in the familiar salute.

She frowned. "No touching either."

He stepped back a pace. "You got it." Now that one was going to be easy.

"All right." She opened the door just wide enough to ease her way through and then sidled towards the bed, her gaze fixed on him cautiously all the way. When she had seated herself on the edge, she stared at him with an expression of wary expectation.

After a moment or two, as they contemplated each other in uneasy silence, Clark moved carefully across the room and perched himself on the top of the low packing chest in the corner. Far enough away that he wouldn't crowd or threaten her. Far enough away that he could breathe more easily.

He shifted impatiently as the silence lengthened. Out beyond the little patio behind the bedroom windows a dog barked sharply once or twice and then was silenced by an abrupt command. Over on the opposite side of the street, Mr. Capriona was grumbling about having to do chores on his first day off in months, as he slopped water onto his car. Another vehicle — a Ford Taurus if he wasn't mistaken — rolled past at a clip, tires squealing and young voices hooting as it went.

How could life be rumbling on for everyone else just like always, just like normal, when his was falling apart at the seams, he thought dismally. When he was here living some weird Twilight Zone episode.

"So," the woman sitting on the bed said brightly, making him start. "Where you going?"

His gaze followed hers to the pile of luggage in the archway.

"*We're* going to Hawaii," he said firmly. His eyes shifted, calculating the distance to the bathroom as he did, just in case.

Her eyes widened. "Really?" She leapt to her feet and, as he tensed in expectation of more hysterics, clapped her hands together in an explosion of sound. Her excited squeal drove a sudden ice pick through his skull. "Right now? Oh, my gosh — I love Hawaii! Did I mention I love Hawaii! All that sun and the beaches and cabana boys and those little umbrellas in your drink and —"

Clark stared at her. "You mean you want to go?" he interrupted numbly.

She froze. And then turned on him, her delight dying on her face, replaced with suspicion. "We're going to have fun. Right?"

Clark sighed. "We're going…" he paused. "Yeah," he said. He was sure the smile on his face looked sickly, but it seemed to be enough to appease her as he saw her relax slightly in response to it. "That's right. We're going to have fun. You know — just like Luthor told you to? You — " he swallowed roughly. "You pretend to be Lois —"

"I am Lois!"

"You *pretend* to be Lois," he continued doggedly, ignoring her pout as he contradicted her, "and we have…fun."

She dropped back to the bed, her expression suddenly full of calculation. "I thought you didn't want to have fun." She looked down at the comforter and ran a light finger over its pattern before looking up at him from beneath sly lashes.

Despite himself, a part of him, the part that was rational and perceptive, the observer — the reporter — found itself studying this new apparition intently. Beneath the hurt and the anger, it seemed, there was still something enough in him that watched coldly out of analytical eyes. Seeking some flaw, some Achilles heel, some chink in the programming that he could use against Luthor. Use to help him out of this nightmare. Help him find Lois.

That part now found something strangely compelling in the artful posing of the creature on his bed. Only a moment before she had been adamant he wasn't to touch her at all. And now…every line of her body called to his libido, the look in her eyes that of a coquette. And yet he had the strangest sense that everything about that pose, that…invitation…was fake. There was something deep beneath the sheen of sly and wanton solicitation that was false. As though it wasn't only a set of pre-programmed actions drilled into the thing sitting opposite him, to be used as a weapon, to seduce and confuse him, but that it was a set of actions even the clone wasn't willing to perform.

Ever since he had sprung Luthor's trap, realized what she was, she had reverted to what he presumed was the generic core of the clone persona. Child-like, petulant, belligerent and willful. He had seen those traits in his own clone. This sudden reversal, back to what he imagined was the personality imprinted on top of that basic mind-set — the personality that Luthor apparently believed to be that of Lois — was unsettling to watch.

And yet he had the strong impression — formed more at an instinctive than a rational level and gleaned from where he knew not — that if he were to get up now and respond to the clone's current actions and demeanor as normality would demand he do — as he would do if confronted with sexual teasing from his wife — the reactions of the clone would be less than welcoming. Why did he imagine that should he call that bluff her reaction would be horror? Terror?

He shook his head. He didn't know. But the sensation that there was something of the child still there, behind the slyly watchful eyes of the coy flirt, and that that child was afraid, didn't leave him. No matter how much he tried to shake it.

She was still watching him, he realized, sharply aware all at once that he'd become lost in his thoughts. Dangerous, he admonished himself. He couldn't afford to let down his guard. No more than he could if it had been Luthor himself in the room with him.

"Not that…not that kind of fun," he said softly.

She looked at him for another moment or so, considering, playing the wanton so artfully that his nerves began to shriek with the strain of holding himself in check and he began to revise his earlier opinion of how unwilling she was to perform the act. Then she shrugged and tossed her head. She leaned back against the hands spread on the comforter, rocking almost imperceptibly back and forth. "Maybe I don't want to go," she decided. "Maybe I've changed my mind. It's a woman's prerogative, you know," she added as though she was imparting some wisdom he may not be aware of.

Clark watched her with dismay. Coercing this woman to go with him wasn't going to work, he was finally beginning to realize. That should have been obvious from the first. He wasn't even sure how to start with that, even if it had been a viable course of action. But, regardless, it wasn't. He needed her whole-hearted co-operation if this was going to work. Luthor wasn't going to be fooled by anything less. He was going to have to work at enlisting her aid, make her an ally. But she was Luthor's. Luthor's creation. Luthor's minion. Was she loyal to him? Could she be persuaded to thwart him?

"Listen," he tried, leaning forward earnestly to engage her wandering attention. "In a little over two hours, Luthor is going to expect me to jet off to Hawaii with my…with Lois…" He hurried over the pause and went on earnestly, "If we don't get on that plane, he's going to know you…that his plan hasn't worked. And I can't let that happen. Do you understand that? I need time. To find Lois, to work things out. The longer Luthor thinks he's got what he wanted, the more time I have to get Lois back."

She showed no reaction to this logic. Clark felt a spark of panic within his chest. His plan was nothing without her co-operation. She had to play her part in this masquerade too. If she wouldn't…

"Lex won't take you back you know, if that's what you think," he added desperately.

There was no emotion in the eyes of the woman watching him as he pleaded with her to help save the life of the woman he loved. There was no emotion at all. He hunted for something that would make an impression, that would mean something to her, that would give her an incentive to help him. "He doesn't like failure. And you failed. You didn't do what he told you to. He won't forgive that. He's not a very forgiving man."

She watched him, silent. But he thought he'd seen a flicker of something in her expression in response to that last.

"Look, Loi — " The name lodged in his throat like a rock. He shook his head, he couldn't — he wouldn't — call her that. It wasn't hers. Not by right. And it reminded him too painfully of who he'd lost.

"Have you got a name? A real name?" he added hastily as she opened her mouth with a puzzled frown. He couldn't bear to hear her use it either. "It's not your name," he went on as she seemed confused.

She cocked her head a little, reminding him unpleasantly of a dog, and then shrugged.

Clark blew out a short breath. "Okay… Then…pick one. I have to call you something. How about…" he continued desperately as she looked blank, "…Eve…"

Something lit in her eyes, squirming there in the velvet darkness. Her mouth twisted into a grimace. "Oh, like that's appropriate! Eve was like, you know, the *beloved* wife of Adam? Geez." She rolled her eyes. "Talk about your basic rubbing it in," she muttered.

Clark flushed, anger as well as embarrassment at the jibe surging through him. It was hard to hold back on anger in her presence. As easy to feel rage when he looked at her now as it had been to love the original she was patterned on. His fists clenched at his sides and his jaw tightened. "Look —"

She waylaid him before he could snarl out a retort in response. "If you want to pick something biblical, wouldn't Lilith make more sense?" she demanded scathingly and there was such a seam of dark bitterness running through the words that he was almost undone.

Lilith. The discarded wife. The one unloved by Adam. The darkness next to Eve's light and the mother of destruction.

He sighed deeply and shook his head. "I won't call you that," he said quietly, feeling a momentary pity stir within him. He quashed it ruthlessly. She opened her mouth. "We don't have time for this," he said sharply and she subsided, glowering. "Eve will do," he reiterated firmly. "You want to change it later, that's fine by me. It's not important right now. What's important is…will you help me? Please? You're the only one who can."

The appeal to her vanity appeared to work where all else had failed. She looked pleased. "Really?" She paused, obviously considering the notion. "So, like, you mean if I don't help you you won't get…her…back?"

"Yes," Clark whispered huskily. "I can't get her back without you. You're…you're my only hope."

"Ohhhhh." The happy little sigh trickled out of her. "That's so romantic. Isn't it romantic?"

"Yes…yes, very romantic…" Clark rose abruptly to his feet with the hasty agreement. "Will you do it?"

She beamed up at him. "Sure! And you'll buy me one of those drinks with the umbrella in?" she demanded, like someone closing the final details of negotiations.

"Sure. All the umbrellas you can drink," Clark said absently as he moved quickly to pick up the first of the suitcases before she could change her mind. "Now, hurry up and get dressed." He glanced at his watch as she rose unhurriedly and smoothed down her robe with unselfconscious hands. "We need to get on that plane and I have to pay a visit to a friend before we board."

The plane.

He froze. But, of course, there had been no plane. Not for them. He had never booked one, never known he would need to. They had planned…

<With all the money we can save on air fare…>

<What with using Superman Express…>

He squeezed his eyes hard closed and then opened them again, finding his way to a new resoluteness.

He'd just have to hope that he could work something out. Maybe he could call the airline and secure a flight now. If not, then Superman was just going to have to turn up to save the day. And his plans.

The first option was infinitely the most preferable. The thought of holding…that…in his arms and flying it to Hawaii, so much an echo of what he might be doing now, with Lois, if Luthor hadn't…

It sickened him.

"I have to make a few calls," he said hurriedly as he grabbed for his cellphone and made for the terrace, where some privacy could be assured. "Let me know when you're ready to leave."

He didn't wait for her answer as he left her behind him in the bedroom.

***

There was the funniest little man standing on the sidewalk. She grinned through the glass of the Jeep's window at him and waved, but he didn't seem to notice. He was wearing sloppy pants and a coat way too big for him and he had a big red mouth painted on and there were lots of colored balls in his hands and he was tossing them up and down, round and round, and they were flashing brightly in the air and…it was just so funny!

She turned her head to tell Clark, but he was staring out through the windshield and he didn't look like he wanted to be disturbed right then.

Well, that was okay. She could like totally understand that. Because driving…real driving, town driving…that was hard to do. You had to concentrate on that. You didn't have time for stupid things like *talking*.

She turned back to the funny man, but he was being left behind them as the Jeep lurched forward on a green light. She craned her neck to watch him until he was out of sight and then slumped back into her seat.

The lights were cool. Green and red and amber…all shiny.

And there were people! So many people. That was…cool too. She bit at her lower lip, worrying it. Although it was kind of scary too. She had the weirdest things in her head. Everything was new. Yet not. She knew what walking among all those people was like, all those crowds, all those little people bustling around like ants all set on their own business and worried about their silly little lives. And at the same time the thought of being out there, among that tide of people, all of them pushing and tugging her back and forth among the flow of their motion, caused a tiny flutter of panic deep down in her chest. It was very odd. It was like having your thoughts running on a twin track. Two trains running parallel but with different destinations.

Hey, that was cool. That was a really cool thought, she congratulated herself with a smile. She always felt especially proud when her thoughts came in big words like that. The smile faded. But sometimes…sometimes things didn't come in big words at all. And that was bad. That was…dumb. She was dumb then. And worse was when she let the thoughts out and they became words and the words were dumb too and she could see that look on the faces of whomever she was speaking to. The look that made her feel bad and stupid and…

Tears sprang to her eyes and she felt their misery pile up in her chest like a weight. She surreptitiously dashed them clear with a hand and went back to looking out the window. Lex had told her she was dumb. All the time. And it hurt her. It hurt bad.

Clark…she cast a small, furtive look at his profile…he would call her dumb too, she knew he would. And that wasn't fair. That wasn't fair at all because it wasn't her fault! It wasn't! She couldn't help it. Sometimes the words just came out the way they did and she wasn't to blame for how they sounded.

Thoughts and words seemed to be two very different things and it was difficult to find the connection between them sometimes. She *knew* a lot of things. She had woken up out of endless sleep in the vat knowing everything she needed to function as a real person. That basic knowledge, that Dr. Mamba's process had grown in her head just as her body had grown in the birthing fluid, had been added to manually during the days she had spent in the lab. The extra knowledge she needed to be Lois Lane…and more besides that her makers had never sanctioned and never expected her to know.

But getting all those facts out of her head never seemed to work right. Somehow, along the way, they didn't sound the same at all.

She had learned a lot in the lab. She had spent most of her time outside the vat sitting at the computer, learning. Dr. Mamba had given her a list each day of things she had to research. Things that her pattern knew. And that was…wonderful. The world out there, linked to her through the computer screen, fascinated and enthralled her. She just couldn't seem to get enough of it. Like she had a thirst that could never be satisfied. When she had found out that being Lois Lane meant that she would have all the time in the world she wanted to learn and browse through the worldwide web, that she could learn all day if she wanted to, learn what she wanted to, with no one to tell her she couldn't, she had been…well, she had never been so happy. That she could remember anyway. It had seemed like…paradise.

Course, she couldn't resist going further. She had always got through the lists so quickly. She was a real fast reader. She'd got through five of Lois Lane's favorite romance novels in one morning. Dr. Mamba had been pleased with that, she remembered. But she got bored once she'd finished with what she'd been given. If Dr. Mamba — or Lex — had discovered that she was using the computer to learn beyond what they wanted her to… A small shiver coursed through her with the thought, even now. Back then, the thought of being caught had terrified her.

And yet, still, she couldn't seem to stop. With time on her hands before Dr. Mamba arrived to return her to the vat, she would turn to browsing aimlessly through screen after screen, absorbed in everything she found, no matter how obscure or unimportant to her task.

She had the vague idea her pattern wouldn't have stopped either, that the Lois Lane she was fashioned on shared her quest for knowledge. Even that the original was somehow driving her onwards to this small rebellion, to take the chance of punishment, because it was worth the risk. Nothing else had ever seemed worth the risk of provoking Lex's anger. And she had never been able to figure out quite why learning, seeking out knowledge, was.

Strange or not, she just kept right on doing it. Couldn't seem to help it, no matter how scared she was of Lex finding out. The words on the screen, the information held on the glowing square of the screen seemed to soak right into her head like water into a sponge. Somehow though, it didn't seem to make her any smarter. Or give her a way to make words come out right when she talked. She kind of thought that learning all that stuff probably should. But it never seemed to work that way for her.

She forgot some things soon as she read them. Others stuck like nuggets of gold. There didn't seem to be any logical pattern to what she held and what was lost. Dr. Mamba hadn't been happy about that. He had told her she had a brain like Swiss cheese. He had put her back in the vat for a whole day and it had got better. But the ability to take what she had in her head and somehow link them together into thought seemed to elude her still, more often than not. Sometimes, they popped out of her head all on their own. Sometimes she even understand what they meant. But most times it was as though someone else lived inside her and spoke up now and then. Like she was just a passenger in her own head.

And sometimes, she felt like it wasn't even her head at all. That she was an…interloper…and that other her was the person who was real.

It was all kinda confusing. Like the way not to be dumb was there, in her head, somewhere, if she could just find a way to get to it.

She guessed she was just too dumb to figure out how, she thought dismally.

She flicked another glance sideways. Would Clark like her better if she could find a way to make what was in her head come out right? She knew that she should try. Maybe she should listen more to that other her. The Lois her. Maybe she knew how to make things sound good. To make everything work. Lois Lane was smart. Wasn't she? And wasn't she supposed to be Lois Lane?

Clark liked Lois. But he didn't like her, she thought miserably again. She wasn't sure that anything would change that. And she didn't really understand where the difference lay. And sometimes he scared her. He could yell so loud, just like Lex did. Loud enough to make it hurt in her chest. And last night…

She huddled back into her seat, hands gripping each other tight in her lap as the memories of the previous evening swarmed up and over her. When things got really bad you made yourself real small…real, real small…and sometimes what it was that was bad and hurting went away.

And sometimes it didn't. Sometimes…

A hand clenched into a fist, pain spiking into her palm as her nails bit deep and she focused all of her attention on forcing back the whimper of fear that was crawling up into her throat. Lex hadn't liked it when she made those noises. Lex had -

- come after her and she had thought — oh, she had thought he was going to hurt her so bad when he caught her at the door. His hands had been on her, rough and threatening, and across her mouth. He hadn't needed to do that. She wouldn't have screamed. Well…not really. She could have told him that if only he'd let her. Screaming wasn't any use. She knew that. It just made him more mad and then…and then things got more bad and…things…hurt more…and…

Her next quick breath emerged as a low sob and she screwed her eyes shut, quickly turning her head and feigning interest in what was passing by beyond the window as she felt the attention of the man at her side briefly swing around to land on her like a searchlight, picking up all the thoughts in her head and probing around in her skull like…and then fading as he lost interest again.

That was good. Not being interested was good. When people — when…when…he — wasn't interested in her that was okay. She was safe then. Nothing hurt then. Screaming didn't do any good, she admonished herself again. No one helped you when you screamed. No one stopped what they were doing when you screamed. Making yourself small and quiet as a mouse in the shadows was what kept you safe.

But last night…there had been no shadows to hide in and Lex — no, she frowned, not Lex, it hadn't been Lex. Clark. When…Clark…had taken hold of her she had been so scared she had thought she would die right there. And then…he had left. Just like that. For a time she hadn't been able to move, so sure it was another game. The games weren't fair. She didn't understand the rules. No one ever explained the rules to her! She had been so certain he was hiding outside that door, watching her reactions, waiting for her to feel safe and then -

The ragged breath she drew into her throat became a soft sigh. But he had really been gone. And last night she hadn't hurt. Hadn't been hurt.

<He will hurt you. They always do. He's no different. He's just the same.>

Yes, just the same. But he hadn't hurt. Not…not that way at least. He had made her feel bad with the yelling and with the things he'd said but he hadn't…hurt her in the ways she was used to. How long could that last? How long until — ?

It didn't matter. She realized that all at once. It didn't matter because the uncertainty was better than the sure and certain knowledge that if she went back to Lex now she would be hurt for sure. He'd been right about that. The thought of facing Lex…his face rose up in her mind's eye, darkening with that look she knew too well, the look that was always the herald of pain…she couldn't. She couldn't.

Clark would hurt her soon enough. But Lex would hurt her now. The choice really wasn't that difficult. Living with the threat, anticipating the pain, were more bearable than suffering it.

Anyway…a small spark of defiance flared up in her, deep within like a guttering, fragile flame…she didn't want to be here, she didn't want to be with him, so he could just shut up and take what he got! If she was dumb it was all his fault anyway. His fault. And Lex's fault. They made her, right? Lex had made her and Clark…well he just didn't help change her, did he? So it was their fault. Not hers. He could just shut up, she reiterated savagely in her head. The defiant thought made her feel a little better, but only for a moment.

What she really wanted was to be gone. Gone somewhere where neither of them could find her. Where no one would find her. Maybe she could sit and watch the funny man — the juggler, that was it, juggler. Wouldn't that be fun? Just sit and watch and not have to think dumb thoughts or do anything at all. And maybe he wouldn't mind her being stupid. The juggler. Maybe he wouldn't expect her to talk or do at all. Maybe he'd *appreciate* her. Unlike some people!

If it wasn't for…for Lex…maybe she would just open the door at the next set of lights and run back and find the juggler. Maybe.

Except, of course, the dismal thought returned, there *was* Lex. And Lex would be angry if she didn't do what he'd told her to. She didn't want Lex to be angry with her. She'd failed, somehow. She still wasn't sure how, because she'd done everything she'd been instructed to do. She'd even made breakfast. And she had *tried* to let Clark do the icky thing with her. But it just didn't seem to be enough.

She had to do better. She had to make it be enough. She had no idea how…but…she stared thoughtfully at the oblivious man at her side…she had to make it right. She had to make Clark Kent love her. Forget that other Lois. And Clark…well, Clark had given her another chance. Another chance to get it right. To escape Lex. A soft shudder ran through her. She might even get to like the icky thing if it was Clark. He hadn't been so rough as Lex had. In fact, for a moment there he hadn't been rough with her at all. He had been…tender. And…gentle. Loving. So…maybe she could. Maybe.

Either way, Hawaii was her second chance. Her chance to redeem herself and avoid Lex's retribution. And she was going to make the most of that chance. Her lips set in a stubborn line with the thought. She was going to do everything she could to make Clark Kent love her. She was going to do what Lex wanted her to do. She was going to keep Clark Kent happy. And occupied. And away from Lex.

Then — maybe — she wouldn't get hurt.

***

"Astonishing," Perry White said for the third time. He tore his fascinated gaze away from the view of the newsroom through his office window and fixed it on the younger man standing beside his desk. "I mean if you didn't know, you'd think it was —"

"It's *not*." Clark's tone was brusque, leaving no room for dissent.

"No, no, of course it's not." Perry nodded. He took another glance at the woman sitting at Lois' desk, looking bored and pouting as she swung the chair to and fro, and then shook his head. "But you know, son, are you sure you didn't just — ?"

"Perry…"

The editor sighed. "Clark, I'm sorry. Truly sorry. I know how much you and Lois…" His face twisted suddenly, a fierce anger leaping into his eyes. "That bastard Luthor! If he hurts her…" He pulled in a rough breath, hands clenching spasmodically at his sides.

Clark followed his gaze out into the newsroom, feeling the same mingled sense of wariness and relief that he had had when he'd first entered. They'd been fortunate. He had counted on the normal, daily routine of the newsroom making it quiet when they arrived. His colleagues would be out pounding the streets for the most part, in the mundane grind of interviews and research and checking out details that got them the news.

A couple of big breaking stories — fortunately not anything that need require Superman's aid — and the press conferences on new budget controls at City Hall and at STAR Labs, where they were scheduled to announce some new advances in cancer medicines, had helped too.

As a result the newsroom was virtually empty. The few staffers still around were feverishly banging away at their keyboards, lost in the fog of deadlines, and oblivious to anything else but what was on their screen. Besides which they occupied desks to the rear of the room, and out of line of sight of Perry's office. They couldn't see anything of what was going on, even if their seeming disinterest had been feigned.

Feigned. Clark shook his head. He hated what this mockery of his life was doing to him. Hated it. These people were his colleagues. Friends. Reporters he knew and trusted. Thought he could trust. And yet… To be forced into considering these people with suspicions that weren't normally in his nature was one more indignity, one more betrayal, to be added to the reckoning with Luthor when it came.

And yet, distasteful and distressing as it was, the wariness stayed with him and he knew he had to stay watchful, stay suspicious. Placing a spy in the newsroom as added insurance would be just like Luthor. Someone to report back to him on how the investigation into his escape and search for him was progressing. To check that his ruse had been successful and Lois' kidnap undetected. Clark couldn't rule out the possibility. He couldn't trust anyone but a few he knew absolutely to be incorruptible. He hated that. But it was the unpalatable truth and he couldn't avoid it.

His temples ached with the strain of surreptitiously watching out for anyone who looked like a likely candidate to be spying on him for Luthor. Real or imagined, there had been a constant, nagging itch between his shoulder blades since he'd left his apartment with Eve and it was beginning to get wearing on the nerves. So he was grateful for the small respite that an empty newsroom offered, allowing him as it did the opportunity, just for one small moment, to let down his guard, drop the faŘade of deliriously happy bridegroom.

His eyes tracked across the unnaturally quiet Bullpen, the line of his thoughts leading him directly and inevitably to the root cause of his misery.

Eve had become bored enough it seemed to ignore his injunction against touching anything until he returned and was idly flicking through the pages of some files on the desk as though they were fashion magazines. He fought back the urge to go out there and slap them out of her hands, his outrage at her touch on his wife's things, her presence there at her desk as though she owned it, dizzying him with rage for an instant. He swallowed hard and focused on keeping his hands firmly in his pockets.

Eve shifted on her chair, one crossed leg swung lazily back and forth, and to his horror he realized she was chewing gum. Where had that come from? As he watched, dismayed, the situation abruptly descended into disaster as a familiar figure shambled over to the desk and peered over Eve's shoulder at the file she was pretending to read.

She looked up and gave him a power watt smile that had Clark's heart pounding tightly at the memory of when that killer had been directed at him. No, he corrected himself savagely. It had never been directed at him. Not from her. Never her.

Inwardly, he groaned as he watched the interaction over at Lois' desk begin. He had known it was a risk leaving the clone out there alone, but he had been unable to even contemplate having her with him in here while he brought Perry up to speed on the abduction of Lois — an abduction that her facsimile had been a part of. Nor had he wanted her privy to the intimate details of his plans, unable to decipher how deep her loyalty to Luthor still ran. Leaving her to play the part she had been designed for was the lesser of two evils, even though he was having serious doubts about her continuing ability to carry the deception off.

She had changed in the hours since he had discovered her. Since he had confronted her. She had been almost perfect, in the beginning. He could grudgingly concede that, despite the lancing pain that seared through him at the thought. She had glided through a wedding ceremony and a reception without a hitch, fooling not just himself but friends and family, people who knew Lois intimately and who loved her. So far as he was aware, not one of the people she had interacted with during that time had harbored any suspicions they were talking to anyone but Lois Lane.

But perhaps that had been the easy part, he considered now. Luthor would no doubt have gone over the ceremony and reception time and again, drilling her in her responses, her lines — just like any actress. The accompanying mind picture that line of thought produced left him sick to his stomach and he swallowed over the sudden sourness it left in his throat. That something so intimate, so personal to himself and Lois should have been defiled in this way… He shook his head, knowing that the path his thoughts were leading him down wasn't going to help him get through this.

Once she had been discovered though…it was almost as though the Lois persona had slipped, been discarded. She no longer had any lines or events that she could handle on remote. She was having to think, to anticipate…to ad lib. And that seemed an ability further beyond her than the simple aping of a dream had been. Her safety net had been cut away from beneath her and increasingly she was teetering dangerously on the edge of an abyss. More and more it was the core clone personality that showed through those cracks. And that personality was a petty, willful child in the main and a babbling bimbo when it wasn't. His lips twisted in distaste. How could that possibly fool anyone into believing the illusion?

And yet — paradoxically — he had to believe it could. Had to hope and pray that it could. Because if she couldn't bring the Lois personality online any more when he needed her to…then he was lost before he even began. And Lois lost with him.

So…he had taken the risk and left her sitting at 'her' desk while he spoke to Perry. Perhaps, subconsciously, he had even been anticipating that she would be tested, maybe even hoping she would be. Better to know now if she wasn't up to the task he required of her than to discover it later in Hawaii.

Of course he hadn't actually considered just how much of a risk he was running until this moment. Or just how much of a test she was going to be put to. Of all the people to engage 'Lois' in conversation why did it have to be -

Ralph, encouraged by his unexpected welcome, sat on the edge of the desk, engaging Eve in conversation. Unlike Lois, she didn't seem to mind. Clark zeroed in anxiously, and to his consternation, discovered the topic of conversation was the file. Wouldn't Ralph notice that? Any moment now he was sure to notice that. Since when did Lois Lane discuss her stories with anyone but her partner and her boss? And since when did she discuss them with Ralph? But the reporter didn't seem to be surprised. Course, Clark's mouth narrowed into a thin line, that was probably because his eyes were currently too engrossed in Eve's cleavage to be really paying attention. He probably wasn't even listening to what she was saying. Ralph was of the old school where women were concerned. He wasn't particularly concerned if they could talk at all, so long as they let him drool on them, he considered with disgust.

Relief that Lois' work was probably safe from being stolen — coupled with the wry thought that at least he apparently didn't need to worry about Ralph being in Luthor's pay (unless Luthor was interested in a detailed report on the contents of Eve's blouse) — was doused an instant later as his last thought registered. Hold on… Clark's lips tightened. Was Ralph actually *hitting* on her? He shook his head angrily. For all Ralph knew, he was coming on a newly married woman, barely out of the wedding ceremony, en route to her honeymoon, and with her brand new husband just yards away.

"Unbelievable…"

"Well, yes it is." Perry's soft agreement made him start, making him aware for the first time that he'd growled out the word aloud. "But, you know, I've seen a lot of weird things over the years and as for that high-riding son of a carpetbagging —"

"Huh?" Clark turned his head to view his editor's thoughtful face. "Oh. Luthor," he said, catching on.

Perry gave him a sober look and then retreated away from the window to settle himself on the edge of his desk. "I guess what I'm trying to say, son, is — " He spread his hands wide in helpless offering. "What do you need me to do?"

Despite his grim mood, Clark smiled a little. Funny how Perry's no nonsense approach to a crisis and the use of that familiar, fatherly tone could lighten his mood, no matter what. Suddenly not everything in the world seemed to have been knocked askew.

Just his life.

The smile faded.

"Thanks, Perry," he said. He took a small breath, ordering his thoughts.

"Eve and I are going to Hawaii." He ignored the upward twitch of Perry's brow and went on quickly, "It's what Luthor expects me to do. I can't let him think I've figured it out. He'll be watching. So, we'll…go to Hawaii. Give him the honeymooners he's looking for, that he expects to see." His face tightened painfully with the words, but he continued, "I need time, Perry. Time to find her. Time to beat Luthor. I need to play for time, that's all, it's not real, it's not —"

He stopped abruptly, realizing how much his words and tone had become a plea for understanding, an apology for the betrayal of Lois his plans were, a denial. His eyes met those of his friend.

"It's okay, son," Perry said softly.

Clark swallowed and then nodded. "I need someone to keep an eye out for me here, Perry," he said quietly. "I've asked Superman to help out. He'll search the city for Lois, he'll tear it apart with his bare hands if need be…but I could do with someone to keep a sharp eye out for anything suspicious happening here while I'm gone."

"Sure. I've got every last one of those slackers out there out on the streets already," Perry told him. "Luthor's escape from prison was a hot story to start with," he offered, almost apologetically, as though regretting the fact that normal business could get in the way of personal grief. "If there's a gnat breathing out there that knows Luthor's name they'll find it."

"Good. Thanks. I'll get Superman to check in with you and I'll phone you when I can. And one other thing." Clark hesitated. "I don't want to tip Luthor off to how his plan has failed just yet, but later — if things go as I plan them to — I might need you to… start processing to have my marriage to…to Lois annulled. I'll provide the proof that's needed to show that the ceremony was void later, but if you can start filing papers for appeal —"

"If you need me to I'll get right on it," Perry interrupted him, quietly. "Just say the word." He got to his feet, put out a hand and laid it on the younger man's shoulder, squeezing gentle reassurance into the tense muscles beneath his fingers. "We'll get this fixed, Clark. You'll see."

Clark nodded. "I'll call you. If I need you to…to do that." His eyes fell on the other person in the room.

"Jimmy…" He frowned. "Jimmy!"

The researcher started with the harshly raised voice and turned from where he'd been staring through the window.

"Sorry, C.K., it's…are you sure she —"

"I'm sure."

"Oh." Jimmy looked abashed. "It's just she looks awful like Lois."

"Yeah." Clark followed his gaze out into the newsroom. "Yeah, she does," he agreed softly. He brought his attention back to the younger man before Jimmy's captivated attention could drift again. "Jimmy, I need you to do some computer work for me." Clark glanced at Perry before adding, "Lois might…Lois *will* be trying to let me know where she is. If it's at all humanly possible. I need you to go looking for a sign that she's out there. But be discreet. I don't want to ring any alarm bells in Luthor's hideout that someone's becoming too interested in his activities."

"What am I looking for?"

"I don't know. Anything unusual…anything you think looks suspicious. Luthor's out there somewhere. He can't have vanished entirely into thin air. Just…just do your best, Jimmy," Clark continued as he saw the doubtful look cloud over his friend's expression. "Please."

"Sure thing, C.K. I'll get right on it."

Clark watched Jimmy go, knowing that his friend was only humoring him. Looking back into Perry's concerned face he could see the same thoughts flicker there too. They both thought that he was clutching at straws, avoiding the inevitable, trying to stave off logic. Maybe he was. But he wasn't about to give up on Lois. Not by a long shot. If she was…okay…if she wasn't…hurt or…or…

'Or' didn't bear thinking about. It was a possibility that was so alien to him that he couldn't even contemplate it.

If she was okay and able to, she'd be sending him some sign. Some clue to her whereabouts.

He knew it.

She was smart.

And luck was generally on her side.

He had to hold on to that.

And hope.

Hope was the only thing driving him now.

His gaze drifted back to the newsroom. He frowned. Ralph was crowding Eve now, getting entirely too up close and personal for Clark to ignore. He was suddenly aware that the couple was attracting curious attention from some of the staffers around. Probably wondering why Lois hadn't beaten the creep to a pulp by now.

He glanced at Eve with the thought and realized that she wasn't just uncomfortable with Ralph's behavior — he was scaring her. He caught her panicked look as she glanced in his direction and he swore silently.

He turned sharply around, interrupting the editor in mid-word as Perry started in on another round of reassurance.

"Uh, yeah, thanks Perry. Um, we have to get going. We'll miss our plane." He gave his friend a tightly bitter smile. "Time to put on the show. I hope it was worth the price of entry Luthor paid. I'll check in with you as often as I can."

Perry shook his hand somberly. "I'll be waiting. You be careful, son, you hear?" he added quietly. "And, Clark? Bring her back to us. Bring Lois back home."

Clark nodded and hurried out of the door, advancing on Lois' desk with a darkening expression.

"Ralph…back off."

Ralph glanced at him with a look of feigned innocence. "Hey, I was just —"

"I know what you were just. And I'm *telling* you to just back off."

"Geez, what got up your —"

The sharp ping was overly loud in the suddenly charged air. It took the attention of both reporters, breaking the frisson of antagonism that had surged up between them, like the popping of a balloon. Both men turned their heads in the direction of the elevator as its doors opened and disgorged a huddle of reporters, loud and boisterous as they returned clutching notebooks and discussing details of the stories they'd just chased down.

Clark's heart sank as the unexpected presence of the newlyweds in the newsroom was noted. His colleagues' natural exuberance was instantly replaced by a chorus of whoops and hollers. Clark barely managed to suppress a wince, anticipating the round of teasing innuendo that tradition decreed was a must when greeting anyone who'd been married for less than six months.

His colleagues seemed to think tradition a good thing.

"Geez, Kent, just can't tear yourself away from the place, huh?"

The laughing accusation came from Myerson and was taken up by the others in the small group as they trooped down the stairs, grinning as they encircled their prey.

"Well, least Lois won't be a news widow. Right, Lois?"

"Just so long as they don't start the honeymoon before they leave."

"Are you kidding? They've barely made it out the door before now. What makes you think they'll make it now they've got rings on their fingers?"

"Bet that desk could tell a few wild tales. Hey, Lois, care to share a few?"

"Hey, Clark! Lois! Since you're here, how about giving us a Charles and Di balcony moment?"

"Hey, yeah — let's see a kiss from the happy couple!

The demand was taken up among the group as, with laughter, they urged the newlyweds into performing. It became a chant.

"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"

"Hey, hey! What is this — a newspaper or a Superbowl cheerleading parade?!"

Perry's scowling figure appeared in the doorway of his office just as Clark was going under for the third time, slightly dampening the exuberance of the group as they gave him half-guilty glances. Clark threw the editor a grateful look, knowing that Perry would probably have been less inclined to play the party-pooper had things been as they seemed with himself and Lois. Had things been…normal. Heck, Perry would no doubt have got in a few zingers himself already.

As it was, Perry glared at the hapless reporters crowding around the desk. "Unless bluebirds and happiness just stopped the clock on the real world," he told them forbiddingly, "I think you all got deadlines you need to be thinking about meeting." Then, for form, he added, less grimly and with a smile that looked just a little forced to Clark, "Let's just leave these two lovebirds alone, okay? Clark, Lois, you got a plane to catch don't you? Stop distracting these slackers and go soak up the sun."

With more grins and sly glances the group dispersed, a few last ribald jokes floating in their wake. But they went. Clark slumped a little and then transferred his gaze to Ralph. He lifted a brow.

"Ah…okay…" Ralph said. He hooked a thumb in a vague direction, south by southwest. "I think I heard my phone, I'll just —"

Clark glowered at his back as Ralph scuttled off, before he turned back to Eve. He stopped, confused, as she flinched away from the hand he'd automatically reached out to take her arm. The fear that flickered on her face made him pause. For a moment, that expression provoking a linking memory, he caught, deep in the panicked glaze of her eyes, a reflection of himself to match the one he'd viewed in the window of his apartment earlier that day. Angry. Cold. Threatening. He shook it off. What did she expect? Affection?

<It's what *they* expect, even if she doesn't.> A small cautionary voice reminded him that the newsroom was no longer empty. That his small period of respite was gone. <And there's no need to frighten her, is there? Scared, she's going to be useless.>

Recognizing the wisdom in that, he studiously smoothed out his expression as he continued his interrupted motion to take her by the elbow in a firm but gentle grip. "It's okay," he murmured soothingly. "Ready to go?"

She pulled back a little, untrusting of his motives, it seemed. To his horror, there were tears starting in her eyes. He couldn't have her crying now. Not here. He glanced around him, a little wildly, and then hastily dragged her close against him. He closed his eyes and bit down hard into his lip as her perfume rose up around him and the softness of her curves melded themselves to his in oh so familiar ways that made him almost forget…

He let her go abruptly, disentangling himself and stepping back a little to ease the distance between them, knowing his face was pale and his eyes too grim, but not knowing how to pretend any more. How had he ever imagined this would be easy? Simple playacting? Pretence?

He floundered, aware that all of his plans were unraveling fast, watching his last chance come crashing down in front of him. And helpless to stop it. He couldn't seem to move, couldn't seem to speak. His heart was thundering in his chest and his breathing was laboring in his ears. <Lois,> he thought, her name echoing over and over in his head. "Lois…"

She glanced up at him quickly and then dropped her gaze. "You're not…mad at me? It wasn't my fault, really it wasn't…whatever it was…I don't know why…you're not are you? Mad at me I mean? Because —"

Oh, this was just great. Her voice had begun to rise in panic and her entire attitude was attracting attention from the staffers nearby. Clark forced a smile and put up a hand to rest at her cheek, stilling her abruptly. His palm tingled unpleasantly with the touch, but he kept it there with a strength of will he hadn't known he possessed.

"Everything's just fine, honey. Let's go." He swept an inviting hand out into the air before them. "Hawaii awaits!"

His own voice was a little too loud, he knew, and perhaps the tiniest bit brittle. He should have kissed her by now. Wouldn't they expect him to kiss her? But he just couldn't bring himself to touch his lips to hers. He had to get them out of here. Now. Before he ruined everything. He couldn't…this was too much to bear…he just couldn't…

"Let's go," he reiterated in a hasty mutter into her hair as he bent his head fractionally towards her. He hoped it might be mistaken for a kiss, a brush of his lips across those dark, silken strands. He was beyond caring. The need to leave, to be alone, to get away from all these prying eyes was pounding in his head like a heartbeat. "Now!"

To his relief she obeyed, letting herself be hustled for the elevator. Clark judged it good fortune that no one else was waiting to board and that the elevator was empty when it arrived. He let the mental wish drift past him that their hasty departure would be chuckled over as soon as the elevator doors closed between them and the newsroom. Construed as the blushing bride and her impatient groom eager to lose themselves in honeymoon bliss. He had hopes that anything out of sync in his behavior, in the behavior of both of them, would be overlooked as honeymoon madness. He had no idea why people seemed to expect newlyweds to act any differently than usual, but it was the case that frequently they did. As though it was expected that any brains they had had been overwhelmed in a sudden rush of hormones. The strangest things were normally excused that way. He shook his head. This time he might be glad of that incongruity.

As the elevator started its smooth descent, he felt the tense set of his shoulders ease. He had to get used to this, he berated himself sharply. The biggest test was out there, under the watchful eyes of Luthor and his minions. If he couldn't do this -

<I can! I can do it. I have to do it.>

- then he might as well give up now and find some other -

<There is no other way! This is it, okay?> he raged at himself. <This is all there is. This is all you have! So deal with it! If you want Lois back, if you want to stop her being hurt, you deal with this now!>

He dragged in a ragged breath. He could deal with it. He could. Because he had no other choice. And maybe it would get easier. He felt his lips twist wryly at the thought. Only problem was he didn't want it to get easier. Easier would be a betrayal of Lois. Even a smile at her doppelganger would be a betrayal. Much less…

He shook his head slightly, misery settling itself into his chest and spreading there like a canker.

"Why are you mad at him?"

The soft, uncertain voice at his side opened his eyes. He frowned. "Who?"

"That guy back…" She paused. Watching anyone else, Clark would have seen someone searching their memory for an elusive name held on the tip of a tongue. But here and now he visualized the tripping over of relays inside that skull, a computer running through its database. He suppressed a quick shiver. Then she said, "Ralph."

"Ralph?" Caught in the illusion, he'd lost the thread of her initial question. "Oh." He shrugged. "Because he — " Clark paused, the absent response dying on his lips unsaid as he became more aware of what he'd been about to say.

<Because he scared you.>

The thought made him angry all over again. He had reacted instinctively, protectively, just as he would have had Ralph been hitting on his wife. Of course if she had truly been Lois he wouldn't have had to intervene at all… He felt his expression settle into a dark glower. He felt as though she had tricked him somehow. She made him feel protective towards her because the face that fear had been stamped on was Lois' face. She was doing it deliberately, he was sure of it. It was probably programmed into her. After all, what better and easier route could there be to a man's heart than invoking the primal urge to protect in him?

He wouldn't let himself be fooled so easily again. This was a pretence. All of it. She wasn't Lois and he wasn't the devoted, loving husband. She was the enemy. She was Lois' enemy. And she didn't deserve his pity or his protection.

His emotions churned within him. A confusing mixture of guilt at having been suckered into feeling for the thing beside him as he would have for his wife and the strength of those feelings tugging at him all the same, no matter how hard he tried to still them. When she looked at him that way, when she got that scared look in her eyes, he couldn't help but feel his heart clench, couldn't help wanting to take her in his arms and soothe her hurt. He couldn't bear to see her cry. He never could. His gaze hardened. He wouldn't. He wouldn't feel. He wouldn't feel anything. He wouldn't give her that much of himself.

Except…he closed his eyes tightly for a moment, stricken by the understanding of exactly what kind of trap had closed around him. Except when he needed to. Except when Luthor might be watching.

In the face of that harsh, unwelcome truth, he did all that he could do. In the small moments of privacy allowed to him, he closed himself off from her, drawing in his awareness, huddling in on himself, focusing on his goal. Focusing on how he would get Lois out of danger. Focusing on his reunion with the woman he loved. Where she was, how he would find her.

<Lois,> he whispered in his head, as though she might hear him and answer, give him a sign, a clue he might use. <Lois…oh, Lois, sweetheart…where *are* you?>

Shut tightly within himself, lost in his thoughts of his wife, the counterfeit beside him lost form and substance as though it wasn't there at all.

They rode down to the lobby in silence, the width of the elevator between them.

***

She ran up the wide steps towards the imposing gothic edifice of the chapel as it reared over her, holding up the voluminous satin and lace skirts as she went.

The morning was fresh, the sky blue, birds sang distantly in the trees behind her. Above, she could hear the hectoring tones of her mother as she determinedly ushered her errant husband-to-be back to the altar, 'where he should be', to wait for her.

Clark!

She felt the abrupt kick against her heart that thinking about him always produced and the sudden urge to laugh aloud in delight pulled at her chest. Delight and wonder that they had finally arrived, here in this moment, where they had longed to be, had striven to be, for so long. Finally! Finally, they had made it! Despite everything, despite all of those who had tried so hard to prevent this day from happening, it was here. *They* were here.

Why did they need to worry about tradition or ill luck — or anything at all? They had fought hard for this day, fought tooth and nail and stood together against everyone who would deny them it. They had proved that they made their own way and chose their own destiny, that neither fate nor karma could stand against them. Nor tradition or ill luck either. Nothing could stop this day now.

Soon, they would be together. Soon, her life, her perfect life, would begin. Soon she would be with Clark. Her Clark.

Soon.

"Clark!"

She caught a brief glimpse of him as he was shooed away, his head turning at her call, scanning over the heads of the crowd until he found her. He gave her a wide grin, his brown eyes twinkling with the warmth and love and good humor that was as much a part of him as she was. Then he was gone, drawn into the darkness of the nave by the people surrounding him, and the heavy doors slammed closed between them.

Disappointed, Lois dropped the hand she had stretched out towards him as though in a plea for his return. Left alone, in the gloom of the narthex, she was dismayed by the sudden chill that crawled up her spine and fastened itself like a leech to the nape of her neck, causing the short hairs there to rise.

Alone.

Was she alone?

She hoped she was alone.

Somehow, all at once, the thought that she might not be made her shiver more than the idea that she was. Better to be alone than to have something — someone — crouching in the darkness beside her. Waiting to pounce. Waiting to…

She blinked, drawn by a flash of red at the corner of her eye, which cut the strange, rising panic in the stream of thought in two and left it behind. Curiously, and somewhat incongruously, someone had sprayed a large red heart across the face of the oak doors leading into the vestry. Within the heart's boundaries her initials lay, linked with Clark's. L and C. As she puzzled over this strange vandalism, the paint of the heart and its letters began to melt and run, thick rivulets like blood began to slip down the wood, spreading in a black pool at the base of the doors. In consternation, Lois stepped back hastily, lest her white shoes be soiled.

On the doors now, burnt black into the wood and destroying the previous romantic image, was a large crest. It seemed familiar, but… A small ripple of dread bubbled up in her thoughts, but somehow she couldn't place the emblem or why it would disturb her so with its stylized motif. Those same letters: L…and C. But the context wasn't the same. She understood that, even if she couldn't figure out why. Or why those letters, far from reassuring her, far from filling her head with thoughts of Clark, of how she loved him — as the other had — brought a sense of approaching doom instead.

And fear.

She shook off the strange, dark feelings — it was chilly here in the narthex, that was all, out of the sun and into the sudden gloom. She was just being silly. What on earth could there be to threaten her here? Or fill her with fear?

A soft clearing of a throat whipped her around with a soft, startled cry. She relaxed as she recognized the church registrar. He smiled at her with the polite reserve of those damned eternally to public service.

"This way, please," he said, ushering her along the narrow corridor. "You have to sign your life away."

"What?" Lois said, even as she followed his gesture and started towards the dark oak door at the end of the narthex. It was silent as a tomb down there. Silent. And just as dank.

"I said you have to sign the register."

"Oh." She shook her head; what was wrong with her today? All of these portents and omens in her head. Like some evil bloom cast across the day.

She took a deep breath, shedding the unease of the past few moments, refusing to let anything spoil this day, this day which had to be perfect, and stepped into the room.

Inside there was darkness. Darkness and the thick, cloying smell of something chemical and caustic. She was in the dark and there was someone holding her. Someone murmuring her name. Someone stroking her hair. Someone crooning softly in her ear.

"Lois, my darling…I knew we'd be together. Always. Forever and always. Together. They couldn't keep us apart. No one will keep us apart."

"No…" she whispered and although she tried to say the words out loud they seemed to crawl sluggishly in her mouth and be smothered there, thick and foul tasting. "No…Clark…don't let him keep us apart…"

<It's over, Lois…> Clark's voice said mournfully in her head. <Lex isn't in prison. It's over…>

No!

<They'll never keep us apart…>

She whirled and ran…through the twisting, confusing maze of corridors that had suddenly sprung up behind her. "Clark…" she sobbed as she rushed headlong through dark, paneled hallways and through one set of doors after the next, none of which opened onto anything familiar. "Clark…oh, Clark…"

<Lois…sweetheart…>

<Lois…where are you…?>

"Here. I'm here. Clark! Clark, wait for me! Don't go! Clark, please, don't —"

But the voice in her head had faded and was gone in another instant and with it the sense of despair and heartsick fear that had accompanied it like a miasma of foreboding. Its sudden absence was like a physical pain in her chest, as though a part of her had been ripped away, the cold, barren emptiness left behind filling her like a black tide, suffocating.

Her sobs turned wild now, she pushed her way through the closed doors that reared up ahead of her, and relief burst over her like a cleansing wave as she found herself running through the nave. The seated guests didn't seem to notice the violence of her abrupt arrival, no one turned to watch her as she rushed down the aisle, no startled, disconcerted whispers broke the silence.

The aisle. It seemed to stretch to infinity before her. Lois slowed as she reached its end, managing her headlong rush for the altar to a sedate and more seemly walk. Where was her father? Wasn't there supposed to be someone at her side? Weren't there supposed to be people she loved here to help her? Why was she being left to face this alone?

<You're not alone, Lois…>

Fear that that was true pierced her heart and a sharp sob escaped her as it tightened in her chest, dizzying her.

Around her, her surroundings flickered and warped, the gothic presumptions of the chapel, with its pews and wooden altar, melting into a gray-walled ballroom, with chairs arranged in tidy rows and a dais on which the clergyman stood waiting for her arrival.

<The Archbishop?>

<The Pope had a prior engagement.>

No, no it wasn't the Archbishop. Or the Pope. That would be silly. How could they afford the Archbishop? Why would they want such ostentation besides? Wasn't it…Perry?…who was about to marry them? No, not Perry either. Why would Perry be marrying her and Clark? That made no sense. They'd booked a minister. She remembered them booking a —

Just as her dizziness became almost unbearable, confusion spreading its darkness over her and smothering her, everything steadied and she was standing at the altar, with the tall, dark-haired man of her dreams at her side.

Lois gasped out a small sob of relief. For a moment there she'd thought…

She steadied herself. She looked at the minister and felt Clark reach out for her, wrapping his fingers around her own. Her grip tightened on his, and she glanced down at the strong, tanned hand engulfing hers. Her breath caught as her gaze fell on the ring glinting in the darkness. A familiar ring with its linked gold L's shining dazzlingly bright. Slowly, transfixed with the horror of it, with the betrayal, she lifted her eyes to the face of her groom and saw…

Dark eyes, bright with victory, above a dazzling smile that seemed somehow cold.

"You're mine, Lois. You were always mine." His hand lifted, his smile broadening, gold glinting in the gloom against the fingers that softly touched her cheek. "Do you know how much —"

"- how much I love you?" Clark said softly as he stepped over the threshold of his apartment door. His voice was suddenly tight, as though the exertion had left him breathless, his words emerging in a husky murmur. She knew how little exertion left him breathless. There must, she thought, in a small, wicked moment of self- congratulation and awareness of her power over him, be some other reason why he sounded so short of breath right then.

She giggled, and tightened the clasp of her arms around his neck, pressing her body closer against him, where he held her to his chest, in an embrace that was strong and steady and secure. She had never thought of herself as traditional, but there were some traditions that seemed to be worth keeping up with. She could feel him breathing hard against her, and her giggles subsided all at once. She could feel his heart too, beating roughly and in tune with her own. Her own breath caught as she looked up into his face, and her heart soared with an intensity of emotion, of love and desire and a deep longing that resonated through her like a tide.

His eyes were suddenly serious, caught in the moment of stillness as she was and the breathless laughter and giggling of a few moments before, as he'd scooped her up into his arms to carry his new bride across the threshold, was abruptly lost. Lost in the depths of something intense and wondering that glowed in the dark heat of his eyes. She knew he saw a reflection of those emotions in her own gaze too.

A little dizzied, disorientated and confused — the intensity of what surged between them too much to be borne for long — she smiled. "As much as I love…chocolate ice cream?" she said flippantly.

"I mean it," he said, setting her down carefully on her feet. "I love you so much, Lois…so much I can't — " He shook his head and she put up a hand to his cheek and leaned in close to press her lips to his.

"I know," she whispered. "I know." And then, her smile soft and her eyes bright on his, "I love you too, Clark Kent. I love you more than I thought I could ever love anyone."

He smiled at her, and a spark ignited in those deep brown eyes. A spark of heat and warmth. Desire. He renewed their kiss and in a moment she too was swept away with longing, lost in the scent and feel of him, of the way his hands moved in soft caresses over her skin, the taste of his lips, sweet with the wine of the wedding dinner…

His breath quickened as he crowded her up gently against the wall beside the door, hands fumbling with the pearl buttons of her wedding gown, its skirts rustling seductively as his body crushed the silk and lace panels. His lips trailed a rash of kisses across her cheek and then her throat, following the neckline of the gown and then dipping down to where his eager fingers had drawn back the lace and found the softly silken flesh beneath.

Her hands clenched in his hair, luxuriating in the flashes of warm excitement that his caresses were stirring in her, and in the touch of those soft, thick strands against her fingers.

"Lois…" His murmur of her name was a litany of homage. She smiled and pulled his head up to find his lips again.

"Oh, Clark…Clark…"

He drew back, a smile quirking on his face, wonder in the soft brown eyes as they gazed at her. His hand on her cheek was soft, almost tentative. "I want to make this last," he whispered. "We have all the time in the world…"

She nodded. Her hand stroked through the thick darkness of his hair as he buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder, her sigh of pleasure mingling with his murmured endearments as he drew a spell of kisses across her throat. Her hand traced the strong, handsome planes of his face as he swept her up into his arms again and made for the bed.

He pulled her close and into his embrace. She whimpered softly and then buried her face in the shelter of his shoulder. Her hands clenched in the curls of his hair, her fingers trembled as they caressed the harsh, somewhat hawkish features raised above her…

Her lover…

Lex smiled tenderly down at her. And his eyes were dark and cold and glittering with triumph. "You see," he whispered. "It's over, Lois. It's all over…you're mine now… The only thing we have to do today is get married."

She screamed. Endlessly and futilely against the hand choking her cries of terror in her throat…

The room began to recede as she was pulled away, fading as though retreating down the long, dark length of a tunnel…and then it was lost in the darkness. She was suddenly free, the arms that had pinned her tight gone, the quiet murmur of his voice gone…and she stood alone in a pit of blackness, disorientated.

She turned around…

…and found herself standing in front of the mirror again. No, not the mirror. Another mirror. This one was large, a full length mirror in an ornate brass frame. Almost familiar. As though it came out of another time and if she only thought hard enough she might figure out where…

She studied the reflection of herself that was trapped behind the glass. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, gowned in a concoction of thick lace.

"Lois Lane…" she whispered to the woman in the glass.

"Lois…Luthor…"

No. That one wasn't right.

"Lois Lane…Kent…"

Yes, that was it. Lois Lane Kent. She was going to marry Clark. Not Lex. Lex was in prison.

Wasn't he?

<Is he?>

She frowned with the disquieting thought. She smoothed absent hands across the neckline of the expensive wedding dress, her eyes fixed on the image of her which followed her motions in perfect synchronicity. And then the motions of her fingers froze.

Startled, she looked down at herself, confirming what her fingers had encountered, and then quickly back into the mirror. Behind its iced surface, her reflection stood, clad in a gown that was low-cut and scoop-necked. A dress of lace, thickly woven and opulent. She dropped her gaze again…to where a dress more exquisitely fashioned graced her slim figure. With its high, round neck and transparent voile inset that led down to a fine, scalloped lace bodice.

Slowly, she stretched out an arm, examining the same voile and lace mix on its sleeve, and then, wonderingly, fearfully, she raised her gaze to the mirror again.

In its iced surface her reflection stood with arm outstretched, aping her movements as she turned it this way and that. A reflection whose arms were sheathed in thick lace. No voile. No transparency to bodice and sleeves.

Heart pounding, Lois looked back into the face of the woman standing before her. The woman who wore a wedding dress which did not match her own.

And with a sudden smile, mocking and brittle, her reflection stepped clear of the mirror and stood before her. The apparition caught hold of her, her hands brutally pinching and bruising, and hissed into her face, "You can't marry Clark, Lois. He's mine now…"

Horrified, Lois broke clear, stepping back, away from the woman who laughed at her…

…the woman who looked like her…

Who smiled.

And mocked her.

"He's all mine. And you…belong to Lex. It's perfect. Don't you see that?"

Lois woke with a jolt.

Eyes wide, she shuddered, the shriek that had echoed in the stifling, claustrophobic air of her dreams turning into a startled gasp for oxygen as it broke into reality.

For a moment she sat there, trembling amid the sweat-soaked, rumpled sheets of her bed, her heart hammering a tattoo of panic against her breast. Then she slumped back against the pillows, fighting to shake off the images that had followed her up out of sleep and were still pulsing red behind the lids of her eyes.

Still a little groggy and befuddled, she groaned, staring blankly at the familiar ceiling and letting her thoughts gather into some kind of order. Letting the sweat that coated her cool against her skin and the frenzied drumming of her heart cool with it. The dream stayed with her, disturbingly intact. She rubbed a hand across her face and then through her hair, damp against her skull. God, she thought. That had been a bad one.

She turned her head and glanced at the clock; its glowing figures read 6:22. She hit the radio button, giving herself another few moments to gather herself and leave the nightmare behind where it belonged.

"…on this bright and sunny February 11th. And, boy, do we have a fun day in store for you! Got plans for that special Valentine's Day coming up? Well, stick around and hear what Trisha has lined up for you. She's been shopping for some gifts your soul mate's gonna love! That's coming up later, folks, but now —"

February Eleventh!

Lois sat up abruptly, the day suddenly snapping back into sharpness as she shot a second, more frantic glance at the clock's digital display. 6:22! She was getting married today, she was getting married to Clark today, and she was just lying here…lazing around and wallowing over some stupid dream?

Stricken, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and then clutched at the mattress as a surge of dizziness swept over her, blackening the edge of her vision for a moment.

"Whoa…" she protested in a startled murmur as the nausea faded. She had a thick, unpleasant taste in the back of her throat and her tongue felt coated with fuzz. "What were you drinking last night?"

She couldn't remember. Wine. She had a vague memory of wine. Clark and she drinking wine. Wine and…pizza? She recalled a pre-wedding dinner for two. Pizza. Ugh. She'd never known it linger so heavily in the throat before now.

She shook her head and groaned again as that proved to be a big mistake. "Clark Kent, I'm going to kill you," she moaned as she levered herself upright to stand. "How could you let me get that drunk the night before my wedding?"

She didn't remember drinking that much though. Sighing, one hand pressed against her faintly throbbing temple, she headed for the bathroom, still dazed.

It was when she was squeezing paste onto the toothbrush that the dream returned to insinuate itself into her thoughts, ambushing her out of nowhere in the middle of her idle, drowsing ascent into the day. Unlike most dreams…

<…nightmare. It was a nightmare, not a dream…>

…nightmares…she had had, it had remained with her, clear in all its detail. The acknowledgement of that caused a brief, reflexive shiver to roll through her. She frowned.

"Goose walked over my grave…" she told her reflection and then jammed the brush into her mouth and began to rid herself of the foul taste still lingering on her tongue with vigorous motions.

She supposed, she mused as she stared distantly at her reflection, it was only natural she'd have nightmares about Lex. It was all part of what had been nagging at her for the last few days. Clark would laugh at her again if he knew. He might even kiss her again. Like he had the other evening…

Lois smiled and then giggled around a froth of toothpaste. Maybe it was worth telling him her fears and concerns if he reacted like that every time. He had kissed all those worries right out of her…for a time. The memory produced a soft warmth, low down in the pit of her stomach and she sighed wistfully, remembering the taste of his lips on hers, the excitement that rose up in her chest when he held her in his arms and pulled her close and then…

Her smile broadened as she regarded herself with amusement. There was no time to be thinking of kisses now, she admonished her reflection, with a chiding wave of the toothbrush at the glass. That was for later. She hugged the thought of later to her for a brief moment, like a gift wrapped up and put aside for after, and then reluctantly left it behind. She didn't need distractions now.

What she needed was to get into the shower and get this day under way. Today she would marry Clark. Today she would marry the most devastatingly handsome, kind, generous…wonderful…man in the world. A super man. A gentle man. In every sense of the word. Nothing was going to spoil this day, she warned her reflection firmly. Not stupid pranks, not dead flowers and crushed wedding cake, not even a nightmare…

<…that had seemed so…*real*…>

…that couldn't touch her now she was awake. Today was the start of a new life, a life with Clark…her Clark…and nothing could touch that. Nothing could ruin that.

Besides, Clark had reassured her about Lex. Hadn't he? Lex couldn't spoil anything for them. Not from a prison cell.

<It's over…Lex is in prison. And he's going to stay there until he's nine hundred and eighty-three. The only thing we have to do today is get married…>

Lois paused. *When* had Clark told her that? She seemed to have some blurred memory of sitting on the steps of Wylie Chapel with him as he told her not to worry. As he reassured her that Lex couldn't harm them any more or sabotage their wedding day as her paranoia feared.

For a moment the image in her head was so clear that she frowned over it, confused. Then she shrugged it off. She must have been dreaming that too, she decided. In the memory/dream she seemed to have her wedding dress slung over one shoulder in a garment bag. She was dressed in pants and shirt and had her hair in pins, still. Well that settled it. It had to have been a dream. In all of her imaginings of her perfect wedding day, which had for weeks and months encompassed her every wish, hope and desire, turning up at the chapel in anything but full wedding regalia, with her makeup and hair perfect, her dress a dream concoction of lace and satin, the entire ensemble a poster image for Bride Magazine, and Clark looking at her with desire and admiration in his eyes, had never come into the picture at any point.

Had to be a dream. A very vivid dream, yes. But still a dream. Dreams that were too real, memories that were fuzzier than they ought to be — hangovers were the pits. Somewhere among the two there had to be a version of reality which made sense.

What made sense was…it was the morning of her wedding. February Eleventh. 6.47 a.m. She hadn't yet got to the chapel part. So she couldn't have a memory of it, could she?

That thought hit her like a surge of cold water in the face as she realized that she was dawdling again. She couldn't dawdle. Her mother and Cindy would be here soon. Too soon! She picked up the wristwatch on the shelf above the basin and grimaced. She had less than an hour to shower and have breakfast before the madness began. She hastily finished brushing her teeth and turned on the shower.

Despite the butterflies of rising excitement and anticipation that were fluttering in her stomach, she lingered over her ablutions, luxuriating in the warm flow of water caressing her body and the soothing motions of the loofah against the foam-slick contours of her skin. When she emerged from the shower stall she felt refreshed. The concerns and fears that had plagued her and the shreds of her nightmare finally lost to a new sense of wellbeing and optimism.

In her toweling robe and still rubbing furiously at her damp hair, she headed for the kitchen and some restorative coffee while she still had time to savor it, and some time alone, in contented silence. Something she was absolutely sure was going to be at a premium over the next twelve hours.

With mug in hand and the first sips of a beverage strong enough to melt steel spreading its welcome heat through her, she wandered over to the window and pulled back the drapes.

The day seemed to be in concert with her new mood, as a shaft of bright, early morning sun cascaded into the room. She smiled in appreciation of the bright blue, picture postcard sky and fluffy white clouds chasing the sun, wanting to savor every single moment of this day. This perfect day.

<You belong to Lex. It's perfect.>

She frowned and then shook off the spoiling thought. She threw the window wide and drew in a lungful of the crisp, morning air.

A honk of a horn drew her attention and she glanced down at the street below her and the flurry of early morning activity. All those people, scurrying along, none of them having any idea of how important this day was. The day that Superman married. The day that *Lois Lane* got married. She chuckled, amused with the fleeting arrogance that had drifted into her musing. She was sure history would be far more interested in the wedding plans of a superhero than a national — international — Kerth winning reporter. Even if they *were* talking about one of the best reporters around. She tilted her head back, closing her eyes as she briefly worshipped the warmth of the sun on her face…

<The warmth of his mouth against her skin…Lex's lips against her own…>

She opened her eyes with a start as a flurry of unsettling images swarmed up behind her closed lids. Absently, she set her mug down on the windowsill. Irritated now with the way her nightmare clung, spoiling the most precious of moments, she shook her head, refusing to let that disturbing tint to her thoughts, that seemed determined to dampen her mood and the day, get to her. She turned sharply away, already letting herself be swept into a welter of plans and notions for the day ahead, all the myriad, one thousand and one things she had to attend to before her Mom arrived to help…hinder…her.

No, help, she decided charitably. She was sure that she could cope with -

She paused as something flickered at the edge of her eye. Puzzled, she turned back, searching for that tiny…something…that had drawn her. That…what? A flash of light…surely a glint of sun on a window or the windshield of…

She grew very still. Now that her attention was focused on it she could see — suddenly and with terrifying clarity — that something was wrong about the view beyond her window. If she stared long enough, she could see the smallest flicker around the edges of the sky…

<Sun-haze, that's all…>

But it wasn't. She knew it wasn't.

<Maybe it's smog. You know in a city like this — >

She stilled the thought abruptly. The sudden tightness in her stomach and the increased pounding of her heart knew that it wasn't anything like that. Not smog. Or the haze of an unseasonably balmy day. A film of cold sweat suddenly sprang up on her skin, prickling. The hairs at the nape of her neck rose.

A red van cruised along the street below her. Hadn't it passed by just a few moments earlier?

<Stop this, Lois,> she told herself sharply. <You're imagining things. You're letting that silly nightmare get to you. You're…>

<…not in your apartment. This isn't your apartment.>

A soft whine built itself up in her throat as she continued to watch the life pass by on the street. A sudden chill skittered through her body as she realized that what she was looking at wasn't real. It was nothing more than some kind of…special effect. A hologram? Some kind of 3-D projection?

<…a version of reality…>

A virtual reality world?

X.

Jaxon.

No…not quite right. Somehow she knew that. This wasn't the work of Luthor's deranged bastard son. What was around her was real…except for that glorious sunny view beyond her window.

Fear tasted slick in her throat — fear and dawning realization, as the knowledge of what was real here, of what had happened to her, began to seep its way into her head and become reality too, and she turned blindly for the French doors leading onto the fire escape. The familiar view she saw every day greeted her. This new knowledge within her, that it was nothing more than a sham, a fake, an optical illusion designed to fool her, tightened her heart, hurting in her chest, clogging up her throat, stilling the whimper that tried to escape her.

An illusion so perfectly fashioned, so cunningly crafted, that even up close, even now that she had seen through its glamour, it still tugged against her mind, insisting that it was real.

Expensive. State of the art. Who could afford to craft such a thing? And for what purpose? Who could have the means to…?

…who had had the means to before? In the past? Who had shown her this facsimile then? Had offered it to her as a safe haven? Who had… Who…?

Refusing to let the answers to her questions surface, afraid to learn and accept as real what she already knew, she pushed at the doors, tentatively at first, then harder and more furiously as they refused to give. Sobbing, she pounded on them, pushing the flat of her palms against the glass panels and using all of her strength to force them open, to no avail.

Wildly, she looked around her and then ran to pick up a small, heavy statue on the bookcase. Turning, she hurled it at the glass doors. It struck the upper glass panel and bounced harmlessly back into the room. Lois stared at the doors that weren't doors for a moment and then headed for the front door at a walk that was steady only by a strength of will she hadn't known she possessed. The urge to run, to scrabble at the door until her fingers bled, to scream for help and aid or just plain scream until her throat was raw, clawed at the back of her skull like a caged animal trying to escape.

Standing before the door — so innocent and familiar — she hesitated. Her fists clenched at her sides, her breath had begun to labor as she fought down rising panic. She knew that she was delaying the inevitable, the moment when she would be forced to accept that this door too led nowhere, would not open for her…that she was trapped in a simulacrum of her apartment, a prisoner.

That moment when the hope that this was a nightmare from which she could wake, the hope that she might escape, would be dashed, leaving her with the sour taste of her confinement and defeat slick in her throat.

Trembling, she reached out and put her hand around the door handle. Her fingers were slick with sweat, she could feel it trickle, cold, down the length of her spine, pooling in the hollow of her back, sticking her sleep-shirt to her back. She tightened her grip and tugged.

Hardly to her surprise now, nothing happened. The door was either locked or…

…or if she managed to open it, what would she see? A wall of brick? A blank square? A hologrammatic representation of the corridor she walked down every day of her life?

Despair welled up within her. She leaned against the door, closing her eyes, fighting back the panic and tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Useless. She couldn't afford to give in to them. She had to think. Think, dammit! Think of a way out of here. Think of a way to -

"Lois, my darling. At last. I thought you might never wake."

She whipped around, hands coming up defensively before her.

She was alone in the room.

"Lex?" she whispered, peering around as though he might be skulking in one of the corners.

"I'll be right with you, my sweet. I'm sure you've been looking forward to our reunion as much as I have. Someone will be there to escort you to me soon. Be patient!"

"Lex?" she said again, astonishment flooding through her. No. No, this couldn't be happening. This was a dream. A nightmare. Lex was in prison. He couldn't have…she couldn't be…

She jolted free of the door supporting her, fists clenching at her sides as she stepped into the center of the empty room. "Lex!" she screamed. "What did you do?"

Silence greeted the wildly thrown question. Lois turned in a slow circle, trying in vain to find the surveillance cameras that were surely a part of this…this stage set. But they were cleverly concealed, no sign of them.

"Lex!" she yelled furiously to the empty air above her. "Lex!"

Only the silence, thick and heavy with menace, answered her.

And when she screamed, when that final realization of the desperate situation she was in came crashing down upon her, when she screamed with every fiber of fear and anger that was in her, calling for a superhero to help her, rescue her…that silence closed in deep and dark as a shroud.

And once more there was no answer.

***

Clark shifted on the uncomfortable airline seat with a low sigh, before taking a surreptitious glance to his right where Eve was engrossed in her magazine.

For a moment his eyes lingered on the bowed head; the thick darkness of her hair caught the sheen from the lights overhead, casting shadows and highlights. His gaze traced the slim curve of her throat, the delicate form of an ear, the patch of skin just…there…where he knew he would find sweet, warm softness and where the touch of his lips would draw a shiver of anticipation in that silken flesh and a low, enticing cry of welcome and pleasure from…

He brought himself back with a jolt and felt the softly affectionate smile that had somehow formed itself on his face freeze and fade as though it had been violently slapped from him. He realized with a twist of dismay that he had half-raised a hand in contemplation of stroking its back across the throat of the woman sitting beside him. Wanting to see the small smile it would provoke. The way she would set aside the magazine and lift her eyes to his, desire and love reflected deep within their darkness. The sudden spike in her heart- rate as she tilted her head to rub her cheek against his fingers in appreciation for his touch… He watched his outstretched fingers retract into a fist and lowered the hand with a small shudder of disgust.

The thing sitting beside him seemed oblivious. He closed his eyes and turned away, settling back into his seat, feeling the heavy flush of guilt and shame — and yet still, like a throbbing beat beneath them, twisted desire — flood his cheeks with heat.

He started as something tugged at his sleeve. He opened his eyes and stilled the reflexive urge to shrink back as Eve leaned in close to whisper, "Will they serve food soon, you think?" Her gaze on him was plaintive. "I'm hungry." She straightened, turning her head to glance along the aisle, adding, "Maybe they'll have some of those little packets of peanuts. Maybe they'll have raisins. You know how much I like those peanuts and raisins."

"I know," he agreed softly.

She looked back and smiled at him. A smile to tear at his heart. "I did good, didn't I?" she said, and there was a slight note of challenge in her tone, laced heavily with a childish pride.

Clark nodded. Yes, he could give her that. She had done good. "Real good," he said. And, oh, it hurt to say it. Hurt to know how well she had done. And yet if she hadn't…

His heart had almost frozen entirely when, shortly after their flight had taken to the air, one of their fellow passengers moving along the aisle had halted abruptly beside them and greeted Eve with a squeal of surprised recognition.

An old college acquaintance. Someone from Lois' past who hadn't seen breath or hair of her for five whole years…not since Charlie Miller ran that pair of silk panties up the flagpole and…gosh, surely it hadn't been that long, had it?

Who'd have thought it? Of all the places, all the times, their reunion had to be here. On this plane. With Lois nowhere in sight.

For an instant he had seen everything crumble into dust before him.

And then to his surprise, Eve had been introducing him to Elizabeth — Bethy, we used to call her Bethy, and, hey, did you ever marry that guy you were stuck on…the one that sat at the back of…Andrew!…you didn't!…oh, I'm sorry to hear that…

He had watched in dumbfounded shock and shameful relief as the two women had giggled and commiserated like long lost friends — which was after all what Bethy Daluseau understood them to be — for almost half an hour before Bethy resumed her course for her seat with a cheery wave and a promise to call, together with a wink for him and a sly exhortation to enjoy their…celebrations.

Eve had had just a trace of smugness on her face as she'd settled back in her seat and opened up her magazine. He had almost been able to smell triumph wafting from her into the air.

Yes, he had to admit — grudgingly but all the same — she had done good. It wasn't until she pulled it off that he realized just how much he'd come to believe that she wouldn't be capable of it when the chips were down. How much he'd believed she would fail him. But, letting the stiffness of his shoulders ease as he relaxed back into his own chair, his feelings over her success had been torn, floundering in confusion.

Of course he was glad that she hadn't caused disaster. That she'd been able to play her role to the hilt and apparently convincingly. That was why she was here after all. If he couldn't rely on her for that she might as well have been left behind in Metropolis. And he was grateful…that she had proven him wrong, that she was apparently capable of slipping back into what he'd come to call 'the Lois persona' when necessary.

But it had hurt — and badly — to watch her as she'd gone over old times with a women she didn't know and whom she had never met. To know that this was one more moment she had stolen from his wife. There had been times when an idle gesture of her hand as she spoke or the lilt of her laughter had made his heart clench and for an instant — one terrifying, glorious instant — it had been as though the events of the past hours had been nothing more than a bad dream.

Then the moment would pass and reality would hammer him back into the ground like a closed fist, leaving him disorientated and alone.

It was almost unbearable. And how easily she pulled on the mask, how quickly and entirely she seemed able to shed her natural inclinations, how seemingly naturally she took on the mannerisms and personality of his wife when it became necessary, chilled him to the bone.

Contrarily, he was disappointed too. He might need her replacement of Lois to be flawless, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Whilst relieved and welcoming the fact that disaster had passed them by — at least for now — nevertheless he could wish that there had been something…some flaw, some imperfection…to alert Bethy Daluseau to the fact that what she was talking to was not an old friend but an abomination that had stolen her face. Stolen her life. Conspired to deliver her into the hands of a sociopath and murderer.

He let out a low breath, knowing that dwelling on those feelings wasn't going to help him achieve his aims. Eve had gone back to checking the aisle. He forced himself to reach out and touch her lightly on the arm, as he offered a conciliatory, "Why don't I —"

The scream came out of nowhere, so hard, so fast, so all encompassing, that it hit him in the center of the chest like a blow from a spear. So hard, he felt himself slammed back physically into his seat, like a weight had suddenly landed on him.

<Help! Help, Superman! Help me!>

And like a strike of lightning, she was there with him. Within him, beside him, her scent strong in his nostrils, her heart merged with his own, beating a rough, desperate thunder against his ribs. Her terror like a shriek of pain across his nerves, reverberating in his skull so that he cried out softly with the agony of it.

<Help me, Superman!>

<Lois!>

He sat bolt upright in his seat. "Lois!"

"Yeah?"

He shook his head fiercely with an absent frown, the voice that answered him from the seat to his right a distraction, an unwelcome intrusion into the moment. He searched blindly, trying to narrow down where that panicked scream had come from, but it was like tracking smoke, running through fog, impossible and -

She was gone. Like the snuffing out of a candle flame — she was gone. Where — ? How had she — ?

"Hey…Earth to Clark…hel…lo…"

He started violently as a slim hand passed sharply in front of his eyes and Eve gasped out a high breath as he struck out, reflexive and fast as a viper, to grasp her wrist, halting the motion.

"Don't…" he said softly. The darting out of his hand had been made more out of disquiet than anger and there was no heat in the hushed warning not to intrude, but there might as well have been. Fear flickered briefly in Eve's dark eyes and shivered on her lips as they parted in a soft, almost unheard cry. When he released her she shrank back into her seat, looking away, into the aisle, and he knew that she was fighting back tears.

He regretted that, but he didn't have time to dwell on the mistake. Lois… She had been there — for one dizzying, disorientating moment she had been there, right here in the plane with him. As tangible, as real, as the replica sitting at his side. Her warmth had surrounded him like a balm, her essence had touched his soul…and there had been so much rage, so much terror, in the sound of her screaming in his head…

White-faced, Clark turned his head to stare blindly out of the blue sky beyond the window, unseeing as his mind turned inwards, reaching out, seeking where that cry for help had gone. But there was nothing. Only a silence so bleak, so deep that he could almost believe he'd imagined what he'd felt. Except that it had been so vivid. So alive.

She was alive.

But she was calling for him, needing him…begging him for help. And she had been so scared…

He realized that the plastic arm of the seat was beginning to buckle beneath the clenching of his fingers. He eased up a little, tried to steady his breathing which had begun to labor in his chest, tears hitching there, blocking his throat and searing his heart.

<Lois!>

He knew that reaching out to her was futile, but nevertheless he pushed every bit of mental strength he could find into the cry as he sent it out into the void that had once held her so fiercely, so strongly in its heart. And now held nothing at all.

<Lois! I'm coming! I'm coming, Lois! Don't give up!>

"Is everything all right, sir?"

He looked up to see the suspicious face of the flight attendant. Over in the next aisle a young couple were staring at him. In the next seat along an elderly woman too, her face stiff with disapproval. Clark frowned in surprise. What now? Couldn't everyone just leave him alone? "Everything's fine."

The attendant's gaze shifted. "Ms? Are you okay?"

Suddenly, he understood. Saw how the last few moments had played out in the heads of those around him. He stifled a groan. "Yes, she's —"

"I was asking her, sir." The attendant spoke a little too briskly and Clark wasn't unaware of the censure in her tone. "Ms?"

Eve nodded. And then, as though realizing it wasn't enough, was prompted to look up. She smiled brightly. "Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."

The attendant hesitated, then gave an almost imperceptible shrug that told all too clearly what she thought of women who didn't stand up for themselves.

Clark stifled a sigh as he went back to his dark study of the sky. Just what he needed. He should be out there. Maybe if he was out there he could orient on that cry a little better. Maybe if he could do a sweep of the immediate area he could find…what? Some psychic residue? A glittering trail in the sky that would lead straight to Lois? Maybe a glowing neon sign topped with an arrow and a sign saying 'This way to Lois Lane'. Or -

<Stop it,> he told himself bleakly. But the mockery of his self- castigation remained. He was fooling himself, he knew. He didn't know what he had heard, or how Lois had managed to contact him, but he knew that whatever had connected them had been fleeting. Too fleeting to act as a guide.

But…she had been there. For only a moment — one moment and then lost again. She was alive. And he was going to find her.

<I'll find you,> he made the promise to her, with no idea if she would hear him. <I'll find you, Lois. Trust to that. I'll be there soon. I'm coming to help you.>

<I'm coming.>

***

As it turned out, what had been behind the facsimile of her apartment door was a very familiar stretch of corridor. Not the one that she saw each time she stepped outside her home, with its stairwell to a Metropolis street and the doors of her neighbors' apartments lining its walls. But one which she nevertheless recognized instantly.

On the wall opposite her door, an antique side table had stood, a blue vase of carefully and decoratively arranged flowers gracing its polished surface. Above the table, Lois was pretty sure the large oil painting in its gilt frame had been a Cezanne. She was also entirely sure that it wasn't a reproduction.

Together with the plain gray walls and thick, pale carpeting that muffled the steps, the entire ambiance was one of five star hotel chic. Depressing and sterile in a vaguely comforting and comfortable way.

The designer's attempts to introduce an air of stripped-down-to-the- bare-essentials, impersonal luxury was spoiled completely, however, by the addition of what else had awaited her when the door had been thrust abruptly open. In the form of the two somewhat large men in army fatigues, one of whom had just unlocked it and the other who beckoned her outside.

Lois cast a surreptitious glance up at the profile of one of them as he paced her now. The other was hanging back a few steps, out of reach of anything she might try against his colleague. From the start, their manner had been coolly impersonal, any feelings they might have on what they were doing hidden behind the blank and practiced masks of their faces. They had been polite; there had been a lot of 'This way, miss,' and 'If you'd like to follow us, Miss Lane.' The cold disinterest in their eyes was the only indication that their casual gallantry was a lie. Those eyes said, as their words did not, that she could come voluntarily or be taken, the choice was hers, that any 'requests' they voiced were in fact demands sheathed in indifferent courtesy. It made no difference to them, those flat, clinical stares told her. Nor would any attempt to thwart them succeed. It would only delay the inevitable.

Lois had made her assessment of them then and nothing she had seen since had changed her mind any. These were professionals. Paid mercenaries, certainly. But men who were highly trained, highly motivated, and loyal to whoever paid their check at the end of the month. Pleas for aid or blandishments would fall on deaf ears. She had seen men like them before, on assignment, in the Congo, in Belize, in Sierra Leone, in countless, war-torn hotspots around the world where they thrived, and she knew they would be of no help to her in escaping Lex, that they had little interest in her at all, beyond that she was the subject of their orders from the man who owned them like dogs. She was in no danger from these men, she knew, and that was a small blessing, so long as she didn't get in the way of their obedience to their master.

They would be polite and reserved with her, for just so long as she submitted to their demands and obeyed their instructions. Any hint of resistance or challenge, attempts to fight or to escape or simply to offer up passive rejection of their commands would result in force being used without any rancor or emotion. And all of it would be conducted beneath that sickening veneer of detached civility. Even then, the amount of force used would be just enough and no more to ensure her compliance, only what was required to get the job they'd been assigned to done. These men didn't see her as a person. To them she was a task to be completed and an order to obey, nothing more than that.

It had not been the knowledge that she had no choice in the matter which had prevented her from arguing with her soldier escorts, however. Lois had always used seething fury as her first defense against fear and threat, and she was more than eager at that particular point in time to see Lex Luthor. She had been, in fact, looking forward to ripping him apart just as soon as she could get her hands on his slimy little body. Especially when he'd just kept her waiting for almost two hours for her escort, leaving her to pace and fret around the confines of her apartment and her anger to stoke itself into a slow burn. She had the notion that the delay had been entirely deliberate, an attempt to let her stew in her fear, while Lex enjoyed watching her sweat.

She didn't like being manipulated. And she refused to reward him for it.

She hadn't even bothered to acknowledge the men guarding her, but had simply swept past them grimly at their first invitation to accompany them in this stroll through the complex. She had felt some small degree of satisfaction in the surprised glance she had seen 'Major Benton' — as he'd introduced himself, as though she was likely to be at all interested in the names of her jailers! — give his colleague as she'd pushed her way past them. His colleague — subordinate, she thought, taking note of every last nugget of detail of these men and her situation and filing it away in case it could be of aid to her later — whom he had referred to at one point as Miller, had simply shrugged as they had quickly fallen into their guarding pattern around her.

Her fierce satisfaction in having cracked those masks just a little, even though it gained her nothing, faded rapidly however, even that minor victory lost in the sense of desolation that threatened to swamp her anger and overtake her.

Lois had glanced back, once, as she was politely but steadily ushered along. The outside of the apartment door was heavy plate steel, with a keypad locking system attached to the frame.

She had shuddered, unable to suppress the quick, superstitious sensation that flooded through her of how being in that replica of her home would feel like suffocating in a well-appointed tomb.

Even the forced cheer of the corridor had faded abruptly, carpeting giving way to polished gray tile and a maze of hallways and stairwells which had the bland, institutional d,cor of a military base. Plasterboard walls became rough-hewn concrete and stone. As though the pretence and illusion of her apartment and the short length of corridor outside it could be dispensed with, now that there was no longer any need to fool her.

Sickly, as she began to feel the oppressive weight of captivity settle darkly on her shoulders, as the reality of her predicament and her situation became too real to ignore, her thoughts strayed to the most unsettling and frightening thing of all. At least so far.

She had screamed herself hoarse back there in her apartment before the arrival of her guards, yelling for help from Superman…help that had not come.

Why hadn't he come?

A trickle of cold sweat traced the line of her spine and she surreptitiously wiped palms that had grown damp one against the other as she walked the corridors of her new prison.

Why?

Fear began to seed itself into her thoughts, and panic: dark blooms that sent out tendrils and thorns to constrict and stab at her heart.

He must have heard her. He must have. If he didn't come…

<…if he couldn't come…>

<Relax, Lois,> she told herself, fighting her way back to a calm that seemed suddenly to elude her, battling against the sure and certain knowledge that Clark was dead — back there — that Lex had -

<That's crazy. He couldn't hurt Clark.>

<He knows. He knows about Kryptonite. He's used it before.>

She gave a small, sharp shake of her head. But the unwelcome thought clung. Yes, he had. Lex had trapped Superman before, tried to kill him before. And had come so close to succeeding that when, later and years after the event, Clark had eventually disclosed his ordeal to her, she had felt the horror of it reverberate down all those days and had known Clark carried the scars of that debilitating defeat in him even then. The thought, even now, of how close he had come to dying, alone and in agony, in the damp darkness of that wine cellar, while above his would-be murderer took her arm and smiled into her face and spoke vows of love and devotion, sent a shudder of revulsion coursing through her. They had come so close, the world and she, to losing everything.

Had they lost it now? Had Lex succeeded now in doing what he had missed out on by inches then? And what of the rest? Her family, their friends…surely it hadn't taken them long to realize she had been abducted? How could they not know? Had Lex…had he eliminated any possibility of that threat too? He was capable of anything. If she hadn't known that then, she surely knew it now. What had he done? What had he done to ensure his escape with her? To ensure he stayed undetected and free from pursuit?

What had he done to them?

A thousand images, each more brutal and agonizing than the last, flooded through her mind in response to her desperate questioning and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a few seconds, trying to fight her way back to calm. She couldn't afford to let her anger slip now. She needed it, needed its edge, for the confrontation to come. Without it she might just give in and find herself weeping in a heap at the feet of Lex Luthor. She had to hold on. To the fury. To the rage. And believe that fate couldn't be so cruel, not now, not after everything they had shared, to take Clark from her. Not now. Not like this.

Lex, she reminded herself desperately, had taken her from Clark, not Superman. He had no idea there was any connection between the two of them. Did he? How could he?

No, she told herself firmly. To suspect Lex of somehow incapacitating Clark or even…even hurting him…was fanciful nonsense. Her predicament was working on her nerves, that was all.

<But he didn't come. Why didn't he come? If he isn't hurt, if he isn't…>

Maybe there had been some disaster…an emergency…people in danger…children hurt…

<A kitten caught in a tree?>

No…no…she could understand how something big would stop him answering her call for help. Temporarily. Sure…it was temporary, that was all. This…absence. He'd be here soon. Just as soon as he could. And until he did, all she had to do was hang on, stay cool, keep her guard up. That was all.

<Perhaps he's occupied on the other side of the world,> she thought, seizing on the idea like a drowning sailor clutching at a life preserver.

Maybe…perhaps…could be…might have… her thoughts were a swirl of possibilities and none of them rang true in her head. But they were better — far, far better — than the alternatives clamoring for her attention in her scattered, terrified thoughts.

A hand on her shoulder made her start.

"In here, Miss," Benton said now, indicating a nondescript door that, depressingly, looked much like a dozen others they'd passed along the way. Lois found that, despite all the rage that she had carefully stoked in preparation for this moment, her palms were sweating. To cover her disquiet she glared at the hapless soldier and shoved her way gracelessly past him and into the room beyond the door he had opened for her.

She had a vague impression of an opulently furnished office, windowless like all the rooms and corridors she'd viewed this far. She fought back the small disappointment. A view would have given her valuable information. She hadn't really expected any however, despite being unable to give in to the smallest of hopes that she would be wrong.

Dismally, she considered the implications of what little knowledge she had gathered to herself so far. The entire complex had the distinct air of being deep underground — the corridors she'd been brought through had had heavy pipes running along the ceilings, evidence of ventilation and other systems.

And she remembered precisely where that replica of her apartment was. Beneath the lowest floors of the LexCorp Tower. Lex had taken her there by elevator from the penthouse suite. How many floors had they descended then? She tried to remember, but the memory was elusive, slipping out of reach. She had had her mind on other things then, had hardly been paying attention, eaten up with impatient curiosity over why he had called her there, in the midst of so serious a situation threatening their city, wondering what could possibly be so important.

It had been at least fifty floors, she thought now. Maybe more. Which put her deep beneath the city.

And, beyond the visual clues and the knowledge her memory gained her, she could *feel* the press of stone above her, her body reacting instinctively to being entombed in ways that made her aware that she was now deep underground. It felt old, that weight, and crushing. How long could her spirit survive, trapped beneath it?

Her troubled attempts to orient herself were abruptly lost as her attention was taken and reserved for the man who had been sitting behind the large desk at the far end of the room and who had come to his feet with a congenial smile as she entered.

Her throat felt raw with the tension pulsing through her, and she could feel the beat of her hatred ticking in the muscle of her jaw as Lex moved around the desk and came quickly towards her, that elegant, cordial smile causing her to tremble with fury. The drumbeat of rage pounded against her ribcage as she stalked swiftly across the room to meet him halfway.

"Lois, my darling —"

She hauled off and delivered a slap that rocked him back on his feet.

She felt rather than saw the sharp motion from Benton at her back and then it subsided as Luthor held up a quick hand and gave a slight shake of his head. Lois didn't give her guard the satisfaction of even looking in his direction, refusing to acknowledge him as Lex's protector, her entire stance dismissive as she kept her gaze locked on the man who had ruined her wedding, kidnapped her, brought her here to this…outrageous, pathetic simulacrum of her life.

<I could damage you,> that stance proclaimed. <Don't think they could stop me. I could rip out your throat before they could blink. And maybe I don't care what they'd do to me afterwards.>

But she did care of course. And despite her outward show of bravado, she was sickly aware within that she couldn't push too far. Not him or them. She stiffened her expression, determined not to let that knowledge, that…surrender…show on her face as she stared furiously at the man standing before her.

His face expressionless, meeting her gaze blandly, Lex removed a silk handkerchief from his breast pocket, shook it out, and used it to dab at the smear of blood staining the corner of his mouth.

"I'll gift you that one," he said smoothly. "I understand that things are a little…disorientating for you right now. But, believe me, it would be a mistake to try that again."

Lois stood, pale with rage. Her hand felt as though it had imploded, throbbing with a painful heat, but she refused to let the pain show itself, refused to give him the satisfaction. She curled her fingers into fists, feeling the bite of her nails against her palm and concentrating on that small pain, letting it clear her head.

"Do you understand that, Lois?"

Lex's voice had dropped to a silken hush that carried an undercurrent of steel in it. Lois turned her head, breaking their locked stare as though tiring of the battle, rather than that she was backing down. There was a small silence, then Lex seemed to decide to let the moment pass unchallenged.

<Easy enough,> she thought bleakly. Concession came easily to the victor in a war. And Lex had always prided himself on being…magnanimous…in victory.

"You're distraught, my dear," Lex said soothingly. "Understandable I suppose, under the circumstances." But his eyes belied the smooth concern for her that laced his voice like rich, old brandy. In his eyes there was disappointment.

Had he really expected her to rush into his arms? Welcome him? she thought, wonderingly.

"I had hoped…well, no mind." The disappointment was chased by a sudden intentness. "Are you all right, Lois? There are no after effects, are there? Doctor — ?"

Lois followed the motion as Lex turned and her heart quickened as she saw a short, squat man dressed in a pristine white lab gown hasten over to Luthor's side from where he'd been observing them from the corner of the room.

"After…effects…" Lois repeated slowly and then her eyes flashed bitterly with the realization. And more. Memory. She remembered…

She had walked into the room to sign the register. She had been worried — a pang cut through her as she put the pieces together and realized that her last conversation with Clark, perhaps her final conversation with him, had been to worry that the man standing in front of her now would wreck their marriage, ruin their lives, and that Clark had dismissed her fears. She had barely had time to register that there were others in the room before someone else had grabbed hold of her. There had been a cloth pressed to her face and just before her sight had dimmed and she had felt the lassitude slip over her and drag her under…she had seen…

Herself.

Herself, standing there, smiling at her and telling her that Clark was now hers.

Lois shook her head. That one made no sense, couldn't have been real. A hangover from her dreams.

Clark…

A spark of light, refracted from overhead, caught her eye and broke into her thoughts. Following it to its source, she blanched. Dizziness swept over her and she swayed for an instant, before straightening to shake off with a glare the steadying hand from behind that took hold of her arm. Benton subsided, expressionless. But Lois had already forgotten him. She stared at the dully pulsing hunk of rock on a shelf behind the ornate desk. Its green sickness spread a palsied glow over the other object d'art and antiques it shared its niche with.

It rested there like an afterthought, placed for effect and then forgotten, like its companions, the curios and statuettes and crystal and glass scattered in orderly precision in their display cases and among the shelves.

And yet she understood just how precise its positioning had been, how carefully it had been arranged to catch her eye from just this position, how that care belied its seemingly inconsequential setting among so many treasures. How it had been no casual thing at all, but studied to the last detail to ensure her attention would be caught by it. And the point it made, silently, malevolently. The knowledge that Lex wanted to impart to her through its presence.

Fear leapt out from where it had been lurking, deep within her, and clawed at her so that she could hardly breathe.

"What did you do?" she whispered. Her voice felt strange in her throat, tight and hollow and the soft, dark roaring in her ears sounded loud, as loud as the frenzied beat of blood beneath her ribs. A beat of hate. And terror. A terror so sharp it hurt in her chest like a blade. The words fell like stones from her lips. "What did you do to -

<Clark…>

She couldn't ask. Not for Clark, not for Superman. She wouldn't give him that much power over her. And yet…how could she not? How could she live without knowing?

How could she live if he had -

<What did you do? Oh, god, what did you do to —?>

"Superman…ah, the brawny blue hero." Lex's smile at her was enigmatic. "The man who would be god among us. It's always so much more satisfying to bring down a god than a man…don't you think? Lois?" His tone turned solicitous. "My dear, you're trembling. And so pale…perhaps you'd like to sit down?"

He shrugged as Lois gave a small, stiff shake of her head, all the response she could muster as her horrified eyes fixed on his face as though mesmerized. Lex gave her a mock look of censure as he moved to stand by the shelves. "I must say I'm surprised to see you so…distressed…over my little…surprise. I was so hoping you'd be pleased I've taken steps to ensure our Super party pooper doesn't get the chance to ruin our future bliss. You know, I do wonder how your… betrothed…would feel, seeing how deeply concerned you are for our blue boy. I thought you'd set aside that little infatuation long ago. Well, I guess we all have our little secrets. Don't we?"

He reached out and caressed the loathsome beauty of the kryptonite crystal as he spoke, his touch on the stone almost lustful, Lois thought sickly. Her heart was dying in her as she watched, as she saw her love writhing on the ground in her mind's eye, his face contorted with agony… Had his last words been for her? Had he called for her at the end? As she had called for him…and had no answer? Tears cascaded down her cheeks now, unheeded.

<Oh god, Clark…Clark…>

She didn't realize she'd moaned that last aloud until she saw Lex's expression smooth itself out and become still.

"Forget Kent. He isn't going to trouble us any more, my darling."

"No…"

A flicker of irritation showed in Lex's eyes. The annoyance of a man having to spend time on the inconsequential when he had more important things to discuss and unable to understand why only he could see the order of priority.

"I'll confess I've never understood why you would care, but if you insist, let me assure you that Clark is quite safe, my dear. And quite content. In fact, you might say," he judged with a faintly wry twist to his lips, "he's much happier than you are right now. But I'm sure that will change soon. In time, once you realize the advantages, you'll both be much happier with your new lives than you were with the old. I'm sure that *Clark* would want to thank me for being his benefactor, if he only knew how much of a hand I'd had in his good fortune," he added slyly.

Lois had frozen, listening to him, refusing to believe the hope that stirred, faintly, in her at his words. "He's…alive? He isn't hurt?" Slightly confused by the undercurrents in his explanation, nevertheless she clung desperately to what truths seemed contained in it. Still, she had to be certain. She had the sense of fighting her way through a maze of half-truths, trying to find her way to the truth beneath the spin. She had often felt this way when interviewing politicians, but never had the need to separate spin and fact been so personal, so important to her.

Alive. He was alive. Was it possible? Had Lex…simply been toying with her?

The rage was back. Dousing the fear and despair of a moment earlier, settling in her like a red tide. Rage and…elation. It swept through her like wildfire, so that it was all she could do to stop herself laughing aloud. He was alive! The rest she could deal with, so long as he was alive. She struggled to prevent that joy from overtaking her expression, from alerting Lex to the fact that he had made a mistake — knowing how dangerous to Clark — and to Superman — that would be, that any hint of a connection between them would be in the hands of the man opposite. She held onto the rage instead, but she couldn't prevent her posture straightening, the line of her shoulders strengthening, the spark of fire in her eyes from blazing out at him.

Lex's air of good-humored concession faded a touch, a frown touching his brow. He shrugged. "Healthy and hale last I saw of him," he conceded irreverently. But beneath the seeming disinterest he appeared unsettled. As though her reactions weren't taking the course he had set out for them. A man who had planned a conversation down to the last period and comma, who had believed he knew his opposite well enough to predict her every response, and who had suddenly had the rug of that certainty pulled sharply from beneath his feet.

Lois held on fast to that small victory, rejoicing in it. It bolstered her further, held back the pain and fear more firmly. She allowed herself to form a small, condescending smile of her own as she asked stonily, "When did you last see him? And where?"

Lex sigh was put-upon. "I don't have him locked in the wine cellar, Lois," he responded, a tad tetchy. "If that's what you're suggesting. As far as I'm aware, Clark Kent has left that desperate, shoddy little apartment of his and is…" he paused, as though he'd almost given too much away, and then covered with a dismissive, "well, I really don't care where he is, if you want to know the truth. Kent doesn't matter. He's of no consequence. You're what's important to me, my darling. Don't you understand that?"

Lois stiffened, fixing him grimly. "So important you kidnapped me right out of the chapel minutes before my wedding to another man?"

He spread his hands, taking on a mock pious look. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I'm sure that once we fix that head of yours, rid ourselves of all that nonsense about Kent, you'll remember that I was once important to you too. You'll thank me for —"

"Thank you! For snatching me out of my life! Imprisoning me here in this…this…concrete bunker! Drugging me and — !"

Lex made a small motion of his fingers, the dismissal of something that had been necessary but was supremely unimportant in the grand scheme of things. "Nothing more than a few doses of…what was it, Doctor?"

"Paraldehydum," the man in the lab coat said expressionlessly. His eyes were fixed on her, but he showed no real concern for his erstwhile patient.

"Yes," Lex agreed. "You see? Nothing to worry about, my love."

"Nothing to — " Anger robbed her of words. She knew that if she said one word more it would be a shrieking rant, that once any of that fury boiling within her was released it would never stop. And he would ignore it. She refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her lose control. She *wouldn't* give him that much of her. But she couldn't stop the tremor that coursed through her, knew he must see it, perhaps misconstrue it as fear. She tightened her balled up fingers and suppressed a wince.

"Just a little…inducement. I had the good doctor here administer it of course. These things are much too volatile for the layman to handle and I didn't want to…damage you. It was purely to save time, Lois. I knew that once I explained everything and you realized how misguided you were in that little…" his mouth twisted with distaste, "…charade of a wedding to Kent, you'd come with me willingly. Gladly. I know how much you've missed me, my darling. As I've missed you. And how much you've longed for us to be together. But with the lies that Kent had twisted into your head, must have put in your head for you to accept him that way, I knew that it would take some time to persuade you, to…de-condition you. To tell you the truth. Time we didn't have. I knew you'd forgive me my…presumption though. Once you were safely here. Once we were able to talk. Sort things through."

Lois stared at him. "You're insane," she whispered.

Lex winced then recovered his infuriating smile as he shook his head. "Lois…Lois…please. I've gone to so much trouble to ensure your safety; can't you give me at least a little gratitude? I made sure that the drug Doctor Callinson used was the one least given to side effects —"

Side effects. Lois paled.

"The dose had to be exact of course," Lex continued smoothly. "Too much can, I believe, act as a paralyzant on the heart and respiration. Along with other…unpleasant conditions. That's why I took the greatest of care with you, my love, don't you see? I want you to be healthy. And happy. Here with me."

"You sick, twisted sociopath, if you think —"

"I really do regret having to confine you here. But you gave me no choice. I can't let you make the mistake of marrying Kent, Lois. I had to interfere, to stop you ruining your life. You will thank me in time," he reiterated. "You'll remember how you used to love me, wonder how you could ever forget what we meant to each other."

Lois closed her eyes briefly. That last hadn't been a suggestion. His belief in her surrender was unassailable it seemed. And why shouldn't it be, she admitted morosely. He had all the time in the world to wait her out. Just as he'd arranged. She opened her eyes to fix him with a cool stare.

"The only thing I remember from back then is just how seriously I misjudged who you were and the only thing I've wondered since is how I ever could have done." She let her tone become supercilious. "I'm surprised you're so keen to remember our recent past. The last time I saw *you*, Lex, your address was a back alley in Suicide Slum. Bender pretty much wiped you out as I recall."

She let her gaze wander briefly over the doctor and the guards standing at relaxed attention behind her, before she moved in a slow tour of the room. She picked up a carved ivory statue at random from a display on one of the bookcases which lined the office walls and hefted it consideringly in one hand before quirking a brow at him. Her tone held nothing more than calculated distaste.

"You seem to have risen in the world. Although I guess sleeping in a homeless shelter or in an underground sewer makes anything a step up."

Lex chuckled. "You underestimate me, Lois. Your problem was that you always did. And the world we live in. I may have lost my wealth — temporarily — but I still had contacts, people who remained loyal, who realized the advantages in keeping faith with me. You remember our ill-fated wedding, I presume? A pity it was interrupted, but I assure you it won't be a second time." He paused, as though expecting a reaction to the promise. Lois simply stared at him, lips drawn into a tight, thin line. After a moment, he shrugged.

"Although I think, this time, we might dispense with the formalities, don't you?" he suggested blithely. "Weddings are so tedious to arrange and there'll be no family or friends from the bride's side of the church — I know how that lack distressed you last time, it would be cruel to accentuate it any further. Besides, here I am king of all I survey…" he spread his arms wide, bestowing a beatific smile on her. "And master of all who dwell here." Lois suppressed a shiver at the subtle accent he placed on the word master. "Kings don't really need brides, do they? They have no equal after all and modern marriages are so intent on bestowing equality. No, kings need…mistresses…consorts…"

"Concubines?" Lois bit out. "Slaves?" But the attempt at bravado was lost among the very real understanding that whatever he called it she wasn't wrong. And that they both knew he could make her whatever he chose, if he could keep her imprisoned here for long enough. When he chose.

Lex merely smiled, his entire manner that of a gentleman too discrete and mannerly to point out the obvious to his captive. "Whatever. I'm sure you'll enjoy the…position. When I decide. But let's not spoil our reunion with trivialities. We've all the time in the world to discuss the parameters of our new relationship. As I was saying, the downturn in my fortunes was only temporary. And as it happened, you were my salvation. At the time of our wedding my accountant recommended a simple tax venture — a bank account set up in the name of my adoring fiancee. I needed some cash I could access quickly." He smiled thinly. "A little emergency stash, you might say. Cash that couldn't be traced to me."

Lois lifted a brow as she took another look around the opulence surrounding them. "A lot of cash."

"Two hundred million dollars cash."

"Gee, if only I'd known. Clark and I could have upgraded our honeymoon plans."

Lex ignored the weak sally. "This little…retreat…I already had, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to bring it out of mothballs and back into commission. Acquiring it from the estate of its previous owner was simple enough. Billionaire recluse. Sad little man. Spent all that time and money making this dream of his a reality and then died of some trifling disease before he could truly enjoy the success of his labors. His only heir was a seventy-six year old woman who had little use for it, just like her dear, departed brother, so she was happy enough to unload it and didn't ask too many questions as to who the buyer was. A not inordinate sum, but I knew that the investment would pay off eventually. One day." He bestowed an unctuous smile on her, underscoring his triumph.

"I'd always given you the credit at least for having built this place yourself, Lex. Somehow, learning you stole another man's dream and supplanted yourself in it doesn't come as any great surprise, right at this minute."

She saw something flicker in his bright gaze, but it wasn't what she had been expecting. Not anger, not even dismissal of the jibe. Something… Surprise. Something she said had taken him aback momentarily, before it was overlaid with calculation and…satisfaction. Somehow, she had given him something, she realized, dismayed, some small victory. But whatever had caused that response he wasn't sharing with her as he shrugged off her insults easily and continued smoothly.

"Well, it was somewhere to come if things got a little…heated…in my life," he said, for all the world as though he was talking about some timeshare in Tahiti, Lois thought, and not an underground bunker, devoid of any life or charm. "As for the money, well it was simplicity itself to find someone who could hack into the banking system and redistribute the funds to a Swiss account. In *my* name of course. Isn't technology wonderful? A simple click of the button and I was restored. Of course I had to dispose of him once he had. There's no paper trail linking me to here," he added, shrewdly watching her expression flicker. "Besides, I had an incentive to regain my wealth. I could hardly keep my…inamorata…in the splendor to which I'd previously accustomed her without it, after all."

Lois sighed. She tossed the priceless ivory carelessly from one hand to another and then dumped it back in its place. "I'm not your…anything at all, Lex, and I never will be. Look, why don't we call this quits right now? I'm never going to love you, you know that. This is pointless. You're wasting my time. And yours. And I have a wedding to get back to, if you don't mind."

"But I do mind. Love is such an over-valued emotion, I've always thought. I don't require that you love me, Lois. Just that you obey me. Just that you *desire* to make me happy. To make pleasing me your reason for living." There was a darkness in his tone now that put a sinister spin on the words, delivered so carelessly. "As a mission statement, I'm sure you'll agree, that's easily achievable. For any woman. Even one as…independent…as you are. All that any man needs to win the heart of the fair maiden is the right leverage. Some surrender with chocolates and flowers and a plane ride to the opera." His eyes glittered on her. "Others take a little more…work. But the result is the same in the end."

"You're wasting your time," Lois insisted, but there was a new note of desperation in her voice that even she heard clearly and couldn't conceal.

"We'll see. I'm sure you're open to persuasion, Lois. Most women are. And you have proved a certain…fickleness…to your devotions, shall we say?" His smile faltered for a moment. "I do hope you've kept your beloved Mr. Kent at arm's length before the nuptials, Lois, just as you did me. I do so hate to bed another man's leftovers."

"Clark will be looking for me," Lois said numbly. "They all will."

"Will he? Clark seems to be more than happy with our arrangement right now. I don't think he's missing you at all."

A chill swept through her, reviving her earlier fears. Lex held up a hand, responding to the obvious in her face. A slight spasm of annoyance taking over his at her continuing concern for the reporter. "My Lois has become so distrusting since last we met? So suspicious? I told you — I didn't touch a hair on his thick-skulled head. He's perfectly safe. And, so long as you…co-operate…he'll stay that way. Come, Lois," he added more disingenuously as though deciding it was too early for threats between them, that she might be amiable to persuasion first. "It won't be so terrible. Here with me you can have anything you want. Anything. Just name it."

Lois rallied, knowing how close she was to letting her terror, her panic, and her despair surface. "How about cab fare back to my wedding?" she suggested tartly.

His eyebrows rose and then he chuckled. "With a couple of exceptions," he conceded. He cocked his head a little, looking at her with a hint of curiosity in his eyes. "You're not about to descend into clich, are you and tell me I'll never get away with this?"

"No…" Lois swallowed past the tightness in her throat. Her fingers itched with the need to slap that smug, silly smile of his from his face. "But you won't," she said lamely.

Lex sighed theatrically and shook his head. "Poor Lois. Still holding out for her hero to come rescue her…" He shrugged. "One way or another. You think I didn't make this place pretty much foolproof against a fly-by visit from that irritating super bluebottle?"

"I don't need rescuing," Lois retorted recklessly. "I can rescue myself. 'One way or another', I'm getting out of here, Lex, if I have to go through you to do it. If you think I'm going to stay here, like some pet Geisha, attending to your every whim, you've got —"

His sudden laughter startled her and then, before she could sense his intent, he closed the gap between them, his hand darting out and fisting itself into her hair to yank her forward and onto the savage plundering of her lips as his mouth assaulted hers. His kiss was both brutal and casually possessive, taking what was his by right of conquest.

Lois struggled furiously, but his grip on her tightened, and then he let her go as suddenly as he'd attacked her. Lois struck out at him furiously, but he caught her arm in mid-swing, tightening his grip around her wrist. She gasped in pain, but he ignored her, using the leverage to force her inexorably down until she landed on her knees in front of him. His grin widened at the impotent rage that flashed out at him from her eyes and bent a little closer. His soft chuckle sent a flash of hate flaring out of her.

"That's my Lois." He ducked his head closer, his words a lecherous whisper against her ear. "For a moment there I thought spending your nights with Kent had leeched all of that fire out of you entirely."

His grip was bruising, grinding the bones of her wrist together. But she refused to let him see the pain. Perhaps he saw it in how pale she'd become however or in the tightening of her lips. Like his assault, his entire manner with her since she'd entered the room, it was casually dismissive of her ability to stop him doing just as he pleased with her. Whenever he pleased.

He let her go, straightening away from their forced embrace with a mocking smile.

Lois rose shakily to her feet, trying to still the trembling that shook her.

"If you do that again," she ground out, "if you so much as breathe on me again, I'll kill you. I swear I will."

"Will you?" The smile faded and he sighed heavily. "Well then…we'll just have to work on making you want my touch, won't we?"

Lois glared at him.

"You will, you know. Eventually. In any case, you have the rest of your life to make up your mind, don't you? Me…or no one. Just as it should be." His gaze shifted away from the flicker of distress in hers and focused on the men behind her.

"Take Ms Lane back to her…apartment. I think she has some things to think over. Callinson," he gathered the doctor with a look, "go with her, check her out, make sure there are no residual aftereffects. We did have to keep you under for some considerable time," he told her. His gaze lingered on her thoughtfully for a moment. "If she doesn't co-operate, have Benton and his men subdue her." That last was delivered more as a threat than an instruction, intended more for her ears than Callinson's.

Lois didn't protest as the man on her left took her arm in a firm but uncompromising grip and ushered her for the door. Suddenly she didn't want to spend another moment in Lex's presence, afraid that he would find in her eyes the fear that had suddenly awoken into life within her.

Fortunately, Lex's next words smothered it in a surge of renewed anger.

"Once the good doctor has given you a clean bill of health, if you'd like to get dressed, Lois, we can have something to eat together and I'll show you around my Citadel. I'm sure you'll find it impressive."

Get dressed.

It was only then that Lois realized what her rage had made her unaware of till then. That she was still dressed in the toweling robe she had drawn on after her shower and that she had been wearing when this whole nightmare had come crashing down on her. She had been so wrapped up in her fury, so intent on getting to Lex, that her attire had completely slipped her mind.

With a new awareness of her vulnerability and her state of dishabille, Lois flushed and then glared at Lex before she was led firmly from the room. On the threshold, her guards pulled her to a halt as Lex called after them.

"Wait."

She watched dully as he crossed jauntily to the desk.

"I almost forgot." He picked up a rectangular object and returned to hand it to her. Lois turned over the video in her hand. It seemed to be unmarked. She looked up. "Let's just call it some…vacation video. I'm sure you'll find it fascinating. A revelation even. I thought you might want to watch in privacy."

He nodded a silent command and Benton took hold of her by the elbow again.

The last thing she saw was his smile. A smile that was entirely too smug and knowing. Too much the winner's.

And why shouldn't he think he had won, she thought numbly as she trudged in silence between her two guards through the maze that led back to her prison.

"I'll kill you," she had said. And she had meant it. Very brave, Lois, she told herself bleakly. Very defiant heroine. Very Lucy Lawless. But this wasn't Xena, Warrior Princess, and she wasn't the heroine spunkily defying the villain, spitting in his face as he threatened her with torture or death or…or worse. And she wouldn't walk away at the end of the scene when the director yelled cut, laughing with her co-star.

Her wrist ached. And her hand. Her lips still throbbed with the weight of his touch against them.

This was real. And this was dangerous. He was dangerous. And she was alone, powerless, trapped. She could throw all the bravado at him that she was capable of, but she knew it didn't change those facts. The reality was that Lex outgunned her in every way possible, and she had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. The reality was if he wanted her, if he wanted to touch her, if he wanted to…he could do anything he wanted, anything at all, and there would be nothing she could do to prevent him if he was determined to it.

Lex had all the cards and the winning hand, and all the bravado in the world wouldn't stop him.

Lois shivered. In her hand, the videotape he'd given her felt cold as a premonition of disaster against her skin.

***

The fresh, enlivening scents of the sea were carried on the cool breeze that flowed through the window of the beach apartment accommodation. Clark stood before the unshuttered, open window, staring out at the picture postcard view with eyes that were blind and unseeing.

The suite was a cleverly crafted amalgamation of rustic charm coupled with clean and cool modern convenience. Ceiling fans whirred gently overhead, the whisper of waves against sand was muted by distance, but soothing, and faintly to the ear came the soft strains of music and faint laughter from the bars and cafes further along the shore. Palms rustled seductively, orange light refracting through their broad leaves and glinting against the porch railing, casting pools and ripples of shade against the thatch of the ceiling overhead.

It was secluded. Private. The perfect honeymoon retreat. You could watch the sun setting on the ocean from this porch. Watch the silver orb of the moon rise as you sipped champagne on the deck below. By day it would be a shaded retreat from the gentle heat of the Hawaiian spring. Now, caught in the halfway, limbo state between the heat of those days and the promise of night, it seemed like a world out of time.

Hawaii had been one of the few places in the world he'd never actually visited — except briefly and when he was usually too busy dealing with some hurricane disaster or catastrophe to appreciate its unique charms.

So far, it was everything he'd expected of it.

Which was no consolation.

It was perfect. Idyllic…

His throat tightened.

…exactly what Lois had envisaged.

Exactly what they had planned for together.

<Well, let's say we go to Hawaii…>

<We could stay in a little shack on our own beach…>

<… thatched roof, ceiling fan…>

Her voice in his head was so clear, the memory so vivid, that she was almost a physical presence there in the room. If he turned his head and narrowed his eyes, he could almost imagine he would see her there, clinging to his arm and leaning up against his shoulder, her infectious grin lighting up the room around him.

She would have loved it.

They would have —

"I can't stay here," he blurted, turning away sharply.

The bellhop, in the middle of laying down their suitcases beside the tall closet, turned around with a surprised look. "Sir?"

"I…I'm sorry, we've changed our minds. Does the hotel have any suites available?"

"Suites?" The bellhop glanced around him bemused, as though trying to find a reason behind this change of heart. "I'm sorry, sir…is there something wrong with the accommodation?"

"No…no, not at all," Clark said hastily. He paused, at a loss and then continued lamely, "We've uh…it's closer to the beach than we thought. And my…wife…my wife…uh…doesn't like sand."

Eve straightened from where she'd been peering into the TV cabinet and turned a startled look on him. Then, catching the bellhop's glance at her, she shrugged, put her hands behind her back, and gave him a wide, dazzling, and somewhat empty-headed smile.

"Do you?" Clark prompted. "Honey."

Eve returned his fierce and intent stare with that patented, wide- eyed bimbo look that was beginning to itch at his skin and then nodded. "Sure! Sand. Bleah…" She pantomimed sticking out her tongue and screwing up her face in disgust as she rolled her eyes.

It wasn't the endorsement Clark had hoped for, but still…

"Gets everywhere, you know," he elaborated on his own. "In the food, in the clothes, in your…hair…" Clark faltered, realizing he was babbling now. He shrugged. "Well, anyway, if you have one I think we'd prefer a suite."

He fixed the by now bewildered bellhop with a dazzling smile of his own. Pinned between the two, the bellhop had no chance. Apparently deciding to fall back on the old adage of the customer always being right — no matter how deranged — he shrugged and picked up the bags again with all the air of 'Hey, it's not my dollar that's paying for it, buddy.'

"I'll get the manager. If you'll follow me, sir…ma'am…reception's right along this trail here."

Clark gathered Eve with a quick glance. Then, when she ignored the silent summons, sighed and moved across the room to grip her firmly by the arm and haul her away from her renewed fascination with the TV before hustling her after the bellhop.

Twenty minutes later, and with, he had to admit, a minimum of fuss, he was surveying the hotel's honeymoon suite with a jaundiced eye. The manager hadn't taken no for an answer and Clark had rapidly realized that a honeymoon couple actively trying to avoid being sequestered in an available honeymoon suite was bound to look a little suspect, so he'd given in, though less than gracefully.

Still…it was better than the oceanfront apartment. More room for a start, less…intimate. The main part of the suite was a large, square room tastefully decorated in the somewhat sterile designer style of hotels around the world.

A set of double doors to his left, currently opened up, revealed a bedroom furnished in the same style. Clark's eyes rested only fleetingly on the king-size bed that was its main feature and then he turned back to the room. Directly opposite the suite's front door was a set of glass doors which opened out into a lanai.

Feeling in need of fresh air, Clark stepped quickly through them and out into the cool breeze. Hands on the railings, he gazed distantly out into the shimmer of sea on the horizon. Directly below, lush gardens were spread out in parks and walkways, and in the center the ubiquitous pool, lit up starkly and dramatically by the strings of colored lights that seemed to be everywhere and spotlights placed with designer strategy at the bottom of palms and shrubs.

"Sir?"

He turned, aware that the bellhop had been speaking.

"I'm sorry?"

"Is the suite satisfactory, sir?"

"Oh. Oh…yeah. Yeah, it is. Thanks." His eyes slid back to that bed. Well, he wouldn't be spending much time in there anyway, he reasoned. He'd be quite happy to leave every little king-sized inch to his blushing bride. Most of his nights, and his spare time, were going to be spent in Metropolis. This wasn't a problem.

And, he realized, strategically the honeymoon suite couldn't be better. A honeymooning couple could expect a bigger degree of privacy than most. And no one would be suspicious about how much time they spent in their room, away from prying eyes. A faint pang of sorrow sliced through him as a small thought, way down in the depths of his mind, mourned the necessity to be thinking so systematically and coldly about something that should have been a time of wonder, romance, and love for him. Deep inside him, he grieved for that loss, for the vile warping of something that should have meant everything to him, and now meant no more than a diversion, a tactic, a scheme in his plans to get his life back in one piece.

The bellhop was watching him quizzically. Show time. Clark suppressed the bitter thought like a sour taste in his mouth and turned to where Eve had wandered over to take his vacated place on the lanai.

"It's just perfect. Isn't it, sweetheart?" The words brought no reaction. "Sweetheart? E — Lois!" She started and looked back sharply at him, then questioningly to the bellhop. "I was asking if the room was okay," Clark explained.

"Oh. Oh! Yes, it's…" She smiled, a dazzlingly bright smile that dimmed the lights behind her and turned back to the view, spreading slender arms wide. "Beautiful. You can see all the umbrellas from here," she added and then, half to herself, retreating into her vacuous distance again, "All the pretty colors…"

"You see? Fine. Everything's…fine." Clark smiled at the bellhop and ushered him from the room, keeping up the air of false bohemia as he gave him his tip and finally was able to close the door behind the man.

Once it had clicked to behind him, he slumped a little, giving up some of the pretence of normality with something akin to relief. The strain of it all wearied him like nothing he'd ever known. He dragged off the suffocating weight of his jacket, tossing it over the back of a nearby chair as he threw himself into one of the sofas. His gaze shifted restlessly around the room and then settled, broodingly, on Eve.

She seemed oblivious to him as she leaned on the lanai railing. She was wearing a short summer dress in pale amber. It clung to her hips and pert backside and showcased her legs. Her hair was stirring faintly in the fresh breeze. As she shifted position a little, a flash of light struck sparks from her left hand as it drew the attention of the lanai lights overhead…

Clark swallowed, with a fierce, convulsive shiver, the heart that had risen into his throat, and jerked his gaze away.

Seemingly oblivious to the darkening atmosphere in the room behind her, Eve turned around, searching for him in the gloom that the room presented to her light-dazzled eyes. When she found him she started a little. "Oh!" She gave him a small, hesitant smile. "You were so quiet, so…still, I didn't see you and you — isn't this great?" The smile grew to a wide grin as she threw her arms wide to encompass the room. "It's so big. I never had a room so big before and with all these cool things in it. Isn't it —"

"Great. Yeah, you said," Clark said shortly and felt a flicker of satisfaction as he watched her happy mood deflate like a balloon being pricked by a pin, before it turned to a spark of guilty recrimination for finding pleasure in being so churlish.

Eve stood awkwardly for a moment as though unsure what to do next in the face of his boorishness. She was saved by a discreet rap on the door. Casting another timid glance at him, she hurried over to open it.

Clark barely glanced up to see the bellhop before sinking back into his fugue. He was distantly aware of the murmur of voices and then the closing of the door. Eve remained on the edges of his attention as she moved slowly back across the room, and then her voice burst into the air, shattering the small, imperfect haven away from her he'd found his way into, deep within his head.

"Oh…they're so beautiful…"

He looked up with a frown as she crossed in front of him. Her hands were full of a profusion of color. As he watched, she placed the dark blue vase and its cargo on the desk that sat against the white- plastered wall.

She glanced up at him again and the hint of nervousness on her face dissolved into delight, as though she simply couldn't contain it any longer, before she returned her entranced gaze to the floral display. She gasped out another small breath, running her hands through the bright display of flowers. Clark looked away.

"Aren't they pretty?" she asked and then, "Oh, they're from your Mom," she added as she discovered the card that was hidden among the leaves. "That's so sweet. I should call and thank Martha for them. Jonathan too! That was so nice of —"

Clark stilled. "What?" he said, the word emerging softly and with an undertone more threatening than he'd intended, as he lifted his head to stare at her.

Eve looked across at him, her smile of pleasure fading, and then gave him a suddenly frightened look.

"They're from…I think they're pretty," she whispered and then she moved abruptly, retreating for the lanai again, as though aware of her error.

Expressionless, Clark crossed the room to look at the bright profusion of roses and carnations. He turned the card and saw his Mom's familiar handwriting, a simple message of good wishes; a teasing postscript from his father that made him smile for a moment.

He glanced across his shoulder to where Eve stood, ostensibly watching the activity below. His smile faded as he took note of the taut slant to her shoulders and the stiff way that she held herself, that told all too clearly how uncertain she was of what his reaction would be, of how much she expected him to be angry with her.

Her posture reminded him of something suddenly. A story he had once done on a newly opened shelter for victims of spousal abuse. The woman he had interviewed, a new arrival, had held herself that way. As though years of walking on eggshells, uncertain of what might trigger her husband's anger, of being afraid to speak or move or breathe in case it was the wrong move, the wrong breath, the wrong words, had instilled in her a fear that was buried in her bones.

Clark sighed. He didn't know how to deal with her. One moment she seemed to be nothing more than a child, at times an idiot savant, and then, as a moment ago, there were flashes of almost human awareness, when she was so like Lois that it hurt him to look at her. The sound of his Mom's name on her lips had torn at his heart.

He replaced the card with shaking hands and moved onto the lanai to stand beside her. She didn't acknowledge his presence.

"You're right," he said gently, wanting to make up for that momentary flash of anger he'd been unable to avoid, when she had so casually spoken his Mom's name, as though she knew her well. "They are pretty."

Her small, sideways glance at him was so pitifully hopeful, so full of gratitude, that his heart went out to her. It also made him ashamed. He felt like a heel. He quashed the sudden softening towards her coldly, reminding himself of who and what she was. She wasn't Lois. She could never be Lois. He had to harden himself against that certain look in those dark brown eyes, the haunting expression, the trembling of lips he knew each curve and pout of, the very taste of…

He felt something rough against his palms and realized with a grimace that it was flakes of paint. He eased up on the railing, before the tightening of his fingers crushed the metal entirely, and attempted to adopt an air of casual concern he didn't feel and didn't want to feel.

"Carnations are my favorites," Eve said, almost shyly. "When you phone Martha, remember to thank her."

And then she was gone, back into the suite, leaving him staring after her. Startled by that rare moment of adult graciousness, it took him a moment before he realized what she'd said.

Carnations were her favorites? Lois' favorite flowers weren't carnations.

It was the first time he had heard her define something as entirely her own preference, rather than the ones she had been taught to match as 'Lois'.

She was becoming an individual.

Clark wasn't sure whether the thought made him relieved.

Or scared the heck out of him.

Troubled by this revelation and slightly confused by his reactions in the past few moments to her and her behavior, Clark shook himself out of the fugue he'd settled into and crossed the room to pick up the first of their suitcases.

"I'm going to get changed," he said brusquely. He wished that he didn't feel as though he was taking flight as he hurried into the bedroom and slammed the double doors heavily to a close at his back.

He slumped up against them, letting out a slow breath. With the doors a solid barrier between them he felt himself relax, only then aware of just how tightly he had been holding himself while around her. Just how taut and controlled he was forcing himself to be. He huffed out a small breath and then bent to lift the suitcase and dump it on the bed. He quickly pulled out the black pants and matching shirt he'd added before leaving his apartment. If he needed to attract less attention while in Metropolis, perhaps while doing some snooping around, he wanted to blend into the background as much as possible. There were some places even Superman couldn't go. And some methods of investigation that required the 'human' touch. He needed to be ready for any eventuality. He was going to leave no stone unturned in finding Lois. And no clue untracked because the superhero got in the way or he'd been left unprepared.

He changed out of the travel dusty clothing he was wearing. The shower he took was quick and he dried off super fast before he pulled on the somber outfit he'd laid out on the bed. Its darkness matched his mood much more than the white pants and brightly colored sun shirt that his alter ego, Mr. Honeymooner, had required. Throughout the execution of these mechanical actions, he set his thoughts in order and his plans for the next few harrowing days in motion in his mind's eye.

It should be relatively simple, he considered, to keep any contact with the outside world to a minimum while they were here. Which should relieve the pressure on him somewhat. The less playacting he had to perform the better. No one would question the fact that the young honeymooners up on the 28th floor were rarely seen outside the confines of their room. They would simply nudge each other, raise a few eyebrows and chuckle over another case of 'honeymoon fever'. Clark made a mental note to strew a few signs around the suite that they'd been indulging in some lavish…celebrations. For the benefit of anyone from room service, the room would have to look lived in.

A small, quiet memory surfaced with the thought. The Lexor Hotel. Not the first time he had had to make a pretence out of a honeymoon. But then…oh, how different it had been back then. Then he had let himself imagine that the fantasy was real, had wished so desperately that some day it might be real…that one day he and Lois might…

He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, clenching his fists until he could force the memory into retreat. One day…he told himself savagely…he and Lois would. They would. They would defeat this. Just as they had defeated so much and so many who had tried to deny them their dream. And they would go on. They would survive. This and whatever else fate threw at them. Because there was no other end to this. No other possibility. They were fated, he and she. Entwined together so deeply, so much a part of each other, that no one and nothing could tear them apart forever. One day they would be together again. One day she would be safe…safe again in his arms…and he would never let anyone hurt her again. And that day would be soon. Sooner than Luthor thought.

But for now…for now he had to concentrate on making that vow a reality. He couldn't afford to let himself get distracted by the past or his loss. So…think. Think, man.

Yes. Room service. That was it. While they could get away with being cooped up here a chunk of the time, he couldn't avoid taking Eve outside sometimes. Lex or whoever he had set to watch them needed to see them together — the perfect couple, happy and content — if he was to get under the man's guard, force him to slip. The odd excursion or two, he mused. An evening in the hotel bar perhaps. He rubbed a hand over his left eye as he replaced his watch on his wrist. He could think of that later.

He slumped down on the bed. He would think of a great many things later. But for now… He let his head sink into his palms for a moment and then lifted it again sharply. He ran both hands through his hair and let himself sit for a spell, mind carefully blank, simply letting the cool dimness of the room wash over him like a balm. The whisper of the ceiling fan overhead was hypnotic. He let himself flop onto his back and stared up at it without really seeing it at all.

He was avoiding her. He wasn't going to deny it. There was no reason for him to linger in here. He should be making plans to go back to Metropolis. But he couldn't bear to open those doors and see her standing there. Looking so much like…her…

"Lois…?" he whispered softly into the darkness. His body tensed, becoming still as he waited, hoping against hope, for some sign that she was there. But there was nothing. Only the silence. Walling him in and threatening to suffocate him.

He closed his eyes. Heedless to the tears that leaked from beneath his lids and ran down his skin to soak into the comforter.

The day had been interminable so far, had seemed to last seven lifetimes, full of misery and heartbreak and fear. Since leaving the Planet he'd been operating on automatic, cruise control, his thoughts small, wild things that flittered around his head and almost drove him crazy as they spun in insane, frantic circles, finding no escape route and no solutions.

When they had disembarked in Hawaii he had scanned the airport environs surreptitiously for anyone acting suspiciously or who looked as though they were paying too much attention to a particular planeload of passengers or one honeymoon couple out of the crowd. But it was impossible to judge. In such a huge mass of humanity milling together there were always people acting suspiciously or paying too much attention. Most of them turned out to be entirely innocent or with agendas of their own which might be nefarious — pickpockets, timeshare dealers and others — but were nothing to do with Lex Luthor. His instincts had grown more honed to trouble over the years as Superman, he could often spot the criminal in the crowd before he acted, but here they'd failed him dismally. He just hadn't been able to tell if they were being watched or not.

The loudspeaker had apologetically announced a delay in their luggage being taken off their flight. Technical problems. For one crazy moment he had almost considered taking Superman along to see what the problem was and if he could help. He hadn't been able to bear one more second in public, the strain of the pretence was beating him down like an iron bar. But sense had prevailed. Superman being anywhere near Hawaii when his good friends Clark Kent and Lois Lane were honeymooning there wasn't a good idea, he knew. And if they were being watched he might be seen changing into the Suit, no matter how careful he was about scanning the men's room first.

Reluctantly, he had decided that if they did have to hang around the airport for half an hour or more then he should use the time to give any watchers the show they were looking for. What would your average honeymoon couple have done in the circumstances?

In the end he had taken Eve to a little pavement caf, nearby. Had ordered wine. The image of him sitting there, sharing smiles and clinking glasses with Lois' doppelganger was burned indelibly into his brain, like the memory of a shameful crime.

Betrayal.

He betrayed Lois with every instant he spent here with that…that thing out there. Every smile, every touch…they were like deep wounds on his heart that would never heal.

As his thoughts brooded on that, he turned his face to the pillow and closed his eyes.

The soft, hesitant knock on the door roused him some indefinable time later. He had no idea how long he'd lain there…minutes? Hours? He stiffened, listening to his heart pound fiercely in the shadows.

"Clark?"

He held his breath, forcing it into shallow stillness.

"Honey?"

He winced.

"Uh…you're still in there…right? I mean…" A shaky laugh. "Sure you are. Silly. Um…okay…going now…see…this is me…going…"

He waited and then to his relief heard her steps as she retreated. He retreated too. Back into the dim, dismal brooding of his thoughts.

This was going to be hell. Purgatory. There was no escaping that. But maybe he could make it as bearable as he possibly could. It would be…fine. They'd keep to themselves, like he'd decided earlier, avoid mingling, keep their contact with the world outside this suite to a minimum, and maybe it wouldn't be long at all before he could give up pretence entirely and confront Lex as he wanted to — honestly and forthrightly. Face to face. Man to…monster.

He sat up abruptly. Things were going to go just fine, he reiterated the reassurance. Just like he planned. Invigorated by that clearing of his mind, the setting out of his intentions, he strode for the living area, hauling open the doors and looking around for Eve to inform her of his decision.

The room was empty.

Which rather threw a wrench into what he'd been about to say. He stood there for a moment, almost unable to match the emptiness of the room with the thwarting of his plans. She couldn't have gone. He'd just decided they were staying here. So she couldn't have -

His eyes fell on the glass and rattan table beside one of the long sofas. His wallet lay open on it, together with a single sheet of hotel stationery. With a feeling of foreboding, he bent to pick it up gingerly. He groaned.

"Gone shopping," it said.

***

"I am made by her…and undone."

"Sir?" Callinson offered up the response as though by rote as he closed the office door at his back, with the sense of a man asking out of politeness' sake and not through any real interest in having his question answered.

Luthor turned from where he'd been staring down at his desk, his fingers toying absently with a silver-embossed antique letter opener. He held it like a blade now as he perched on the edge of the desk and looked up into the doctor's mildly inquiring face.

He smiled. "Lois Lane," he said. "She defines me. She inspires me." The smile grew slightly mocking as he spun the blade in his hands and watched the light refract along its length. "She irritates me to the point where I'd like to put my hands around that slim, pale throat and squeeze until she stops being a drain on my heart and a canker on my soul." He put the knife down abruptly and then spread his hands wide in a gesture of helpless acceptance. "But then, such is the wonder of love. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I wouldn't know. I've never succumbed to that particular disease." Callinson's own smile was slightly frosty. As though it was a gesture that wasn't accustomed to being on his face. His humor, likewise, had an air of artifice about it, Lex thought. Something studied and learned rather than truly understood. Lex held in a sigh. Sometimes he missed Nigel. Though the man had stabbed him in the back he had known the value of a good joke now and then. He'd had a fine singing voice besides.

He shook his head. "Ah, then I truly grieve for you, doctor. But then, I'm not paying you for your sentimentality." His eyes reflected the mockery that twisted suddenly in the chill of his smile. "Or your charm." He got to his feet. "How is she?"

"Perfectly healthy, just as I predicted," Callinson reported, unfazed by the insult. "There's really nothing to concern you, Mr. Luthor. I'll have a detailed report on your desk by this evening, but all residual traces of the drug should be out of her system within the next couple of days. I don't anticipate any lasting difficulties."

"Good." Luthor smiled pleasantly. "I'm sure that we both hope your anticipation becomes reality." He moved a hand, seeming to dismiss both threat and possibility that the doctor could be wrong with the casual gesture. "But, I'm keeping you from your…duties. Thank you, Doctor."

Callinson nodded silent acquiescence of the dismissal and a moment later Lex was alone in the room. Sitting down in the leather chair before the desk, he wondered idly how long it would be before the good doctor's usefulness was outweighed by his utter lack of personality. The man was a genius of course. And, more importantly, his ethics were open to negotiation. But genius could be overwhelmingly boring at times.

"Ah, Nigel…" he sighed regretfully and then, straightening with an irritable frown, "Don't you ever knock?"

The robed and turbaned figure, which had somehow slipped silently into the room and now stood watching him like a wraith at the feast, quirked a smile at him which Lex was positive was supposed to be enigmatic, but didn't answer.

He sighed again. "Never mind." He eased himself back into the chair, deliberately letting the moment of annoyance pass and allowing himself to be infused with satisfaction and good humor instead. "How is our friend enjoying his new bride?"

Asabi moved closer. "Kent visited the Daily Planet before getting on the plane. He spoke to Perry White before he left."

Lex frowned. "Problems?"

Asabi hesitated, then shrugged. "I don't think so. Our informant reported nothing untoward. She wasn't able to put herself in a position to hear or see the conversation that took place with White, but she reported that Kent seemed very…enamored…and the clone appears to be performing to expectations."

Lex considered that. "And now?"

"My last contact confirms that Kent and the clone left Metropolis for Hawaii at two twenty two and checked into their hotel when they arrived." Asabi paused. "There was some problem with the rooms. I'm afraid they aren't staying in the beach accommodation. I can instruct our operatives at the hotel to equip the new suite they've taken if you wish."

Lex paused in the act of opening the polished ebony cigar box on the desk and cast a look of mild surprise at his subordinate. "You bugged the honeymoon accommodation?"

Asabi frowned. "You said you wanted him surveilled. I thought — " The Indian's dark eyes might have held a hint of concern, of anxiety. But it was hard to tell. Certainly the smooth face showed no hint of cracking that irritatingly serene expression.

Lex leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers thoughtfully and pursing his lips. He didn't speak again until he spotted a dark line of sweat course down the man's left temple. That was better. Sometimes he wondered if he kept Asabi around because of his usefulness or because that smug unflappable exterior was such a delicious challenge to break.

He put the small amusement of tormenting his servant aside and returned his thoughts to the matter at hand. Business first, pleasure after. "Intriguing idea. But shame on you, Asabi." He shook his head dismissively as he delivered the faux censure, a man bothered by trivia when he had more important business to attend to. "No, have the equipment removed from the beach accommodation. Individual observation will be more than adequate for my purposes. I've little interest in what Kent does, so long as he's where he should be and doing what I want him to. Your people know what kind of footage I expect, don't they?"

Asabi nodded stiffly. There seemed to be a note of distaste in the gesture. As though the man deemed the task more suited to a cheap third-rate detective agency than himself. Lex hid a smile. It never did to give in to the superiority complexes of the hired help. It would do the man good to wallow in the mud for a time. Remind him of his status. Which was lower than he often imagined.

"Good," he declared expansively as he reached out and resumed his quest for a cigar. "Then let's leave Kent and his adoring bride some privacy to enjoy the nuptials, shall we?" His smile widened. "After all, like all true love it's doomed to be a fleeting experience. Just twenty-eight days of wedded bliss before the grieving young husband will be planning the funeral cortege."

"As you wish." Asabi inclined his head marginally in agreement.

"Then I'll leave Kent to you. I've…more important matters to attend to and better entertainments to take interest in. Try to get the clone alone as soon as you can. Have it reminded that I expect it to keep Kent occupied. Make sure it understands that. Make sure it understands I won't tolerate failure. Instruct it yourself if necessary — you seem to be able to get it to understand plain English better than most at times — but make sure it knows."

"It knows."

Lex grimaced. "Does it? It seems woefully deficient at times. But still…you were right, it does seem to be at least intelligent enough to fool our Kerth-winning journalist. Poor Kent. The biggest story of his life is right under his nose and those well-honed reporter's instincts of his seem to be failing him dismally. Such a shame." He considered for a moment. "Keep a close watch then. If you think it needs reminding, do so. I'll leave that decision to you. I know you'll be…discreet."

To that, Asabi made no comment. He straightened. "Shall I have Ms Lane escorted to the dining hall as soon as she's ready to join you for breakfast?"

Lex waved an agreeable hand at him in answer. "And make arrangements for lunch too. Let's have the Chateau Margaux 1989 with that, shall we? We're having roast beef, yes?"

"I believe so. I'll instruct the kitchen staff."

Lex watched the robed figure as it left, then dropped his brooding gaze to the spread of files and photographs on the desk. He picked up one of the pictures at random. A younger version of his true love smiled up at him from out of the 8x10 image, dark hair teased by a breeze as she laughed into the camera lens. Lex ran a soft finger down one celluloid cheek and then replaced the photograph carefully.

A small sound of distress took his attention. He looked up and into the monitor on his desk, at the slim figure which had thrown herself face down on her bed. Her shoulders heaved in a paroxysm of grief and the sound of her whimpers came through the speakers, muted and somehow pitiful. A tableau of a woman broken. Lex turned up the volume on the speakers.

She'd watched the video then. Or at least, part of it. He presumed she hadn't worked her way through it all. Watching your fiance snuggle through the tourist trail in Hawaii with another woman couldn't be the most pleasant of experiences. Particularly when the woman was your twin and obviously as enamoring as you were to the man. Some lovers were so fickle. So easily…distracted. He was sorry he had to put her through that trauma. He truly was. But still…at least now she knew better than to hope that Kent was planning her rescue. The truth could sometimes be brutal but it had to be faced. Now at least she could see how capricious a thing Kent's regard for her had been. How easily it was subverted. Hardly the true love she had been searching for. The soul mate she deserved.

Poor, poor Lois. To see her betrayal acted out on tape must have been devastating. He checked his watch briefly. He only hoped it wouldn't make her so distraught that she had to cry off from their breakfast date.

Lex put up a hand, placing it over the image on the screen, stroking his fingers across the lithe body portrayed there in miniature. "You'll forget him soon enough, my love," he promised. "I'll make you forget."

Eyes remaining fixed on the monitor, he picked up the phone.

"Get me…which police precinct covers LAX?" He listened to the response and then nodded. "Good. Jamieson is our closest contact to that area, isn't he? Then put me through to him."

As he waited for the connection to be made, Lex smiled broadly at the screen before him. He leaned back in his chair. "Welcome to the deconstruction of Ms Lois Lane." He chuckled.

Even the fact that the faint and tinny muzak coming through the handset butchered Mozart's Turkish March into an obscenity failed to dampen his mood.

***

Clark spent over an hour searching the stores in a two-block radius around the hotel. It was muggy out and he chafed at the delay to his plans. Coupled with worrying about what Eve was doing out there on her own, what disasters she might be making for him, and whether he'd made the right decision coming here at all, it was a weary, disgruntled, and slightly irritated superhero who returned empty- handed to his hotel suite.

Opening the door, he paused to survey the sight that greeted him. Then, cautiously, like a man walking into the middle of a field he knows to be mined, he entered the room and closed the door softly behind him.

The room looked like the warehouse of a cut-rate clothing factory. Boxes, some of them open and trailing nests of brightly colored tissue paper, some of them still pristinely untouched, were piled haphazardly on seemingly every available surface. Items of clothing, much of it garish enough to make the eyes hurt, were spread around on sofas and chairs, and discarded in heaps on the floor.

Clark stumbled over a abandoned pair of yellow platform shoes and swore mildly. He spied a label hanging from an orange mini dress draped over the back of the nearest sofa. He winced. Okay, forget the cut-rate part then.

"Tell me these are on approval," he said, dismayed, to the woman preening before the full-length mirror in the bedroom.

"Oh, I approved! I approved all of it a whole lot!" Eve declared happily, turning this way and that as she eyed herself in the mirror with satisfaction. "All those nice people in the stores approved too. They all said I looked real pretty."

"Right." Clark sighed. "Eve, you can't keep all of this. It has to go —"

He stopped as he saw her face harden and she turned for him. "You said you'd buy me things if I came along."

"Well, yes, but…well, I wasn't thinking of the entire clothing supply of the state," he muttered, exasperated. He saw her lips tighten. "Look, I just can't afford to max out my credit card on this kind of — " He stopped, seeing in her expression that appealing to her fiscal sense wasn't going to be the way to go with her on this one.

"Eve, I need all the money I have right now. I might need it, if I find something that will lead me to Luthor. You understand that, don't you? You said you wanted to help me find him, didn't you?"

She stared at him, stony-eyed.

"Okay, how about we make a deal here?" he tried tiredly. "You take all of this stuff back to the stores and…" He groped wildly for an inducement, lost for a moment in a welter of near panic. All the plans he'd made for himself and Lois, here in this paradise: sailing around the islands on the hotel's glass-bottomed sunboat, picnicking on a white sand beach in a secluded cove, or whale watching off the coast…a moonlit swim in some out of the way lagoon, courtesy of Superman…none of them anything he could now envisage sharing with Eve. He couldn't even imagine suggesting she participate in those with him. They were too close to the memory of Lois. Too much a sullying of what they'd meant to each other. Like inviting an unwelcome guest to intrude on their privacy. Impossible.

"Um…how you'd like to go on a picnic tomorrow?" he threw out in desperation. A picnic. That would be okay. Right? Not the romantic, lazy afternoon he had envisaged, but something simpler. Something he hadn't imagined doing with Lois.

Her face brightened. She absently dropped the blouse she was holding to the table beside her as she focused on the offer. Like a child, Clark thought, abandoning a toy that had been a favorite one moment and suddenly forgetting it existed the next, as it reached for a new treat. "Really?"

"Sure. We can…hire a couple of horses, take a trip up into the hills. You'd like that?" Horses. Lois didn't like horses. That was safe enough.

"Yes!"

Clark managed to keep his own distaste for the idea off his face with an effort. At the very least, he consoled himself, it would be a good 'honeymooners' outing to play out for anyone keeping them under surveillance.

"So…you'll take this stuff back then? Before I get back?" he said hopefully.

"Back?"

"I'm going to fl- go to… Start snooping around, checking things out —"

She stared at him, face suddenly dismayed. "But we just got here. I thought —"

"I can't waste any time. I have to start looking for Lois. I have to…uh…make some calls…to…sources…and things…" He had begun to sweat he realized, but to his relief she seemed disinterested in the details.

"Lois?"

Clark gave her an impatient glance as he pushed a few boxes out of his way. "Lois. Remember? She's the reason we're here?" He straightened abruptly, looking at her more closely. "You do remember? Don't you?"

"Oh, yeah. Uh-huh." She made a 'gotcha' motion with her hands, accompanied by a quick smile. "Lois. Sure. It was just —"

"What?" he asked absently, as he looked around the room, trying to think if he'd forgotten anything important.

"Well, you know…fun!" Her desperately happy smile faltered as he glanced at her blankly. "Didn't you say we were here to have fun?"

"What?" he said again, a touch more impatiently this time. "No. Not fun. You remember why we're here. To fool Luthor. To find Lois."

"Oh," she said. "Right." The uneasy smile flashed out at him again and she made a sheepish gesture. "Forgot."

"Right. So…I need to go," he repeated slowly.

"Yeah, yeah, head, you know." She pointed at her skull, self- deprecating as she rolled her eyes. "Full of sun. I forget things." She shrugged and then added, "You go. That's…what you gotta do. Go. And I can —"

"Stay here. Don't speak to anyone, don't leave. Understand? I'll be back later. You can call room service and have someone deliver this stuff back where it belongs. Okay? But don't speak to anyone else. It's important."

"Stay? I can…go with you and…" She stopped at his look and then hurried on, "I could help…maybe…we could —"

"There's no 'we'," Clark said harshly and then, as her face crumpled, mindful of the need to keep her sweet and on his side, he softened his tone abruptly. "Look, I can do this faster alone, that's all. Okay? When I get back we can…have supper or something." He threw out this last somewhat desperately. Spending time socially with this woman when there was no need was the last thing he wanted to do. But…what was necessary. Like the picnic. She seemed to work okay on bribery. So far.

Only and always what was necessary.

She was smiling shyly at him now. "I'd like that," she said with a nod.

"Okay. But you'll stay here. Right?" he reiterated.

"Sure!"

"Watch TV or…something. I won't be long."

He knew that for a lie as he left her behind in the cool, airy room with the ceiling fans whispering overhead and the darkening patch of sky framed behind her.

The longer he could stay away from her the happier he'd be.

***

Lois barely made it into the bedroom before her emotions overwhelmed her.

Throwing herself face down onto the bed, she sobbed out her grief. Desperation and loneliness filled the whimpers that emerged, muffled, from the depths of the pillows.

As she calmed down a little and gained some control over herself again, she lay where she was, unwilling to show herself to the cameras she was sure were trained on her at that moment, mind turning furiously over the events of the last half hour.

That tape.

She smothered a quick grin of triumph among the silk pillows. No doubt that Lex had intended his 'vacation video' to erode any last hope she might have of rescue, to show her how hopeless her situation truly was.

Clark, in Hawaii, with…herself. She shook her head slightly. She had no idea who the woman on the screen had been.

All she knew, watching, was that Clark knew it wasn't her.

Clark knew. He knew, she thought fiercely. And the only possible reason for him to be with whoever that had been masquerading as her on that screen was that he was playing for time. Luring Lex into a false sense of security until he could find her. Rescue her.

But he wouldn't stay in Hawaii. He would come back. Looking for her. Rescue was on its way. All she had to do was hold on, make her own play for time, until Superman got here. He might not be able to hear her, but he wouldn't need to. He would think of the bunker sooner or later. She had no doubt he'd already searched the city above them. But she had told him all about the day that Lex had brought her here — the day of the Nightfall asteroid. Not then, but later. She remembered. He would remember too, eventually. And then he would come check it out. He might find in the records that the owner who had bought up the old LexCorp building at auction was now deceased and the building had once again changed hands. Perhaps Lex hadn't been as circumspect about losing that paper trail as he thought.

One way or another, he would find her.

Soon.

For now, Lex's attempt to fool her — to fool both of them — and to demoralize her into submission had backfired on him badly as she had watched Clark perform for the camera.

Oh, she had no doubt that he'd been able to fool Lex. And whoever had shot the tape footage. No doubt he was still fooling any spies Lex had left in Hawaii to watch him. Them. Her brow darkened as she considered the imposter again and then cleared as the beat of hope returned to her heart. But he couldn't fool her. She knew Clark better than anyone.

On the face of it, the man on that recording had been the epitome of the devoted husband, a man deeply in love with his companion — his new wife — and lost in a romantic, private honeymoon world that encapsulated only the two of them and kept the world at bay. Oblivious to everything around him but the woman he accompanied. And there had been no denying that for one heart-struck moment she had felt all that Lex had expected and wanted of her when she had pushed the innocuous looking tape into the machine in her apartment, hit play, and watched the two figures laughing and entwined like lovers on the screen.

At first she hadn't understood what she was watching. Herself and Clark. A vast concourse…airport terminal? They had walked through many such places on assignments, just like that. Too many to count or easily recall. Places so generic that there were little clues to tell her in which city or country this one had been located. So for a few, bewildered moments she had thought that for some reason Lex was showing her old footage of the two of them.

And then a young woman, laughing up at him, had stepped out of the crowd beside the exit doors and stretched up to place a garland of flowers around Clark's neck.

Hawaii.

For an instant she had stopped breathing, had forgotten to breathe, as the sliver of that moment pierced her heart and everything became clear. She had watched, frozen, as the camera lovingly recorded every gesture, every kiss, every touch of the lovers on the screen.

And her heart had almost died within her.

But, like the pitiful tricks of a third-rate illusionist, the flaws in Clark's acting abilities soon became clear to her as the tape progressed. As she watched them enter the hotel. She had seen the little oddities, the strangeness to it. A certain stiffness in Clark's movements — infinitesimal but there.

Relief had almost brought a smile surging to her face. She had frozen, aware of the supervision she was under, the constant monitoring. And Lex surely would not forego the chance to watch her painful study of these scenes. Was he gloating now? She couldn't let him know she understood Clark's subterfuge. If she did, all was lost.

So she had settled her expression into a bland mask, locking her relief up inside her as she continued to watch. And, after a moment or so, it hadn't become difficult to let grief and pain show on her face.

For a small, shameful spell she had actually felt an unreasonable anger fill her at how easily he seemed able to maintain the pretence. His loving glances at the woman at his side, his arm around her waist as they walked, or slung comfortably around her shoulders as she leaned against him, her face upturned to smile at him…

How could it be so easy? How could he playact so well? How could he -

How *could* he?

But, gradually, she began to see the cracks in the near flawless performance, glimpse beneath the coy glances and adoring smiles to the desperation in his face, the grief and pain that he had glossed over and shut deep within. Perhaps only visible to herself, but real and there. And she knew it wasn't easy for him. It wasn't easy at all.

Her heart ached as she watched her fiance bend quickly to brush a kiss against the cheek of her double, and then pull her close into his embrace as he pointed out a finger from the hotel porch at something on the ocean that had caught his eye. Honeymooners at play. What was it costing Clark to keep up that pretence? she thought, horrified. How much pain was he in, knowing that she was being held by Lex, not able even to acknowledge his own loss.

Tears had begun to spill down her cheeks. Unable to watch his degradation and pain any longer, unable to watch any more of the charade, this mockery of their lives, she had hit the pause button with numb, shaking fingers at the last, freezing the image of Clark and…her. Sitting at a round table under the shade of a yellow umbrella. Sharing a bottle of the local wine, Clark reaching out to clink glasses with his 'bride', smiling at her… smiling at her like he had always smiled at —

She had punched at the off button blindly and stumbled into the bedroom. Grief and despair churned in her but not for the reasons Lex had intended to provoke. She felt grief for Clark, trapped in that nightmare world of subterfuge and loss. Seeing him there, on that screen, where she couldn't comfort him, couldn't touch or hold him, couldn't tell him that she was all right, that everything was going to be okay, had left her feeling miserable and alone.

And now her thoughts began to prey on her. The woman on the tape.

Her sense of victory over the monster who had abducted her faded a little as she frowned. Just who was she?

A flash of memory burned its way into her mind's eye — and it was memory she understood now, not a part of her nightmare as she'd earlier supposed. A woman in a wedding gown who looked like her. A woman who had smiled as Callinson had drugged her, and had told her Clark was going to be hers.

Lois' face hardened. Her hands clenched into tight fists. Whoever she was, the bitch had better keep her distance from Clark or she would -

<You'll what? Really, Lois? What will you do?>

She sighed and rubbed a weary hand across the tracks of tears on her cheeks as she sat slowly up on the bed. As gaze fell on the silk pillows another thought insinuated itself darkly into her thoughts. A very unwelcome thought.

Just when had Clark realized that woman wasn't her? Had he…had he figured it out in time? Before he…before they… Fresh tears began to flow as her mood plummeted back into the depths again.

Had Clark betrayed her?

<He wouldn't.>

<But he might. He might have.>

<Unwitting. He wouldn't have known.>

Did it matter? Would it matter? Would she be able to forgive him if he had? Even though he had been tricked as vindictively as she had been?

It isn't his fault.

But if he did…

If he had…

She shook her head with a frown. She couldn't — she wouldn't — condemn Clark without hearing the truth from him first. To follow this train of thought was to let Lex into her head. To let him twist and warp and defile what she felt for Clark and what he felt for her. To let him succeed in what he had tried to do with that tape.

Destroy her love.

Destroy her hope.

She *wouldn't* let him.

She did have hope. And within her, beyond that empathic grief for Clark and her fear and sorrow for herself and her own situation, her heart soared.

She had hope. The hope that Lex had sought to take from her with the tape had only given it new life. Like a rush of oxygen to a dying flame. Clark knew he had been duped. Knew that she had been replaced, kidnapped. He was looking for her. He would find her.

She might be trapped. She might be alone. But time was running out for Lex. And she could hold on to that.

If nothing else, that kept hope alive.

Superman would find her.

And when he did, he would die.

The thought spiked into her head, bringing all of her hopes crashing down into the dust. Lex had no need to fear Superman. He had taken precautions to ensure that should the superhero find her then he would be eliminated. Trembling, she faced up to the knowledge that she couldn't allow Clark to find her. She couldn't place him in that much danger, put him at that much risk.

So…her mind ticked over the possibilities. She either had to escape from here herself…or find a way to get rid of the kryptonite.

She stroked a quiet hand over the pillows and then tightened her shoulders. She took a deep, calming breath. When you were in the darkness you grabbed hold of whatever light you could reach. And the light within her had always been strong.

Clark knew she was gone. Knew he'd been tricked. And when the time was right, when she had made it safe, she would find a way to call him and he would come. Lex had to be bluffing about the soundproofing. At least…in part. From what she'd seen of the complex already it was huge. It would have cost a hefty fortune to soundproof all of it. Would he have had enough to do it all? Perhaps he had soundproofed the core sites where she was likely to spend most of her time. This…cell…masquerading as her apartment. His office. Others. But what about the out of the way places? The storerooms and basements? The places seldom visited by anyone…and forgotten? Could he have forgotten them? Or simply taken the calculated risk not to include them in his shield? Assessed them as low risk? Not worth protecting?

When the time was right, when it was safe, she would test them all. Or find a way out of here, up above to the city. One way or another, she would find her way out into clear air where he would hear her. And he would come, she reiterated fiercely in her head.

And Lois Lane was on the case. Her assignment clear. All she had were her wits and her intelligence, her only weapons her will to win and a burning desire to defeat her opponent.

One way or another, she concluded with no mean amount of grim satisfaction, Lex Luthor was doomed.

***

Clark was tired. No, exhausted, he admitted with a grimace. His self- imposed schedule was taking its toll. Playing the besotted honeymooner by day while spending his nights as Superman — searching for Lois, checking in at the Planet, and slipping in patrols of Metropolis to maintain a presence there in between — the hours of futile, desperate searching, had left him little time for sleep. And emotionally and physically drained.

As he rode up in the elevator, its hushed silence as it rushed past floors settling a despairing calm in him, he reflected that the past few days had been spent relearning an old lesson. That the world didn't stop getting itself into trouble just because his life had gone to hell in a hand-basket. Criminals didn't stop trying to create chaos, fate didn't stop trying to bring about disaster. Superman couldn't stop trying to thwart all of them. Even when his heart was a dead, cold weight in his chest and misery and exhaustion lay heavy on his shoulders.

He was almost out of options. He knew it, but admitting to it was something almost impossible to acknowledge. If he admitted to himself that his search was futile, that he was getting nowhere, that the trail — whatever trail there had once been — to Luthor had long since grown cold…that he had lost her beyond hope of finding…

He couldn't. He couldn't admit it. He couldn't stop. There was a void waiting for him, deep in his soul, a black abyss that was a breath away from devouring him whole. He couldn't allow himself time to stop, time to think — that way lay the way of the damned. He had to keep going, keep searching, keep…

He leaned up against the elevator wall, the sudden desolating urge to weep welling up in him so strongly that it took all of his willpower to force it back. Back down where it had lived these past days. Back where it could be ignored. For a little time more.

He had to find her. But where? Where did he look? He had searched the entire city, quarter by quarter, block by block, systematically examining and rejecting building after building. Factories, warehouses, basements…he hadn't left a stone unturned or a square inch of Metropolis overlooked. And his reward had been nothing at all. Not a sign, not a hair, not a clue.

All of LexCorp's property had long since been passed on to new owners, other corporations…but he had searched them anyway. Luthor's private residences had yielded up only a Japanese executive and two families, none of whom had the slightest connection to the former billionaire.

There was something he was missing. There had to be. Of course there had been places he couldn't search. Government property — lead-shielded. Curious how that worked. For all that they lauded him as a hero and — to some extent he knew wasn't feigned at all — trusted him, shortly after his first public outing as Superman all government buildings suddenly grew a new lead skin. He guessed he couldn't blame them really. Government was paranoia. With a capital 'P'. They made secrets out of air, would classify water if they thought they could. He knew it really wasn't personal. Well, mostly. There were some shady elements in government he wouldn't trust with a water pistol and he was sure the feeling was mutual. But in the main he wasn't offended or concerned by his exclusion from sensitive government areas. Even if many more of them seemed to be sensitive than logic had a right to expect.

Anyway, he doubted that the government was in collusion with Luthor to kidnap his wife and ruin his entire life. He could always request permission to search the relevant buildings. And by the time he was one hundred and three they might send him that permission in triplicate. But he was sure he'd find nothing there to justify the wait.

Maybe it was something he could think about later. Leave on the back burner as a last resort. Maybe if he got to one hundred and three and he still hadn't found…

He shied away from the thought. He was getting good at that lately. Shearing off on tangents that avoided getting too close to the edge of that chasm rearing up on the black edges of his mind.

No, those government buildings didn't bother him. They weren't in the equation.

Except…

What did bother him was that the old LexCorp Tower had been ceded to the government by the executors of Luthor's estate, in payment for overdue taxes. It wasn't classified. Apparently. It had been taken over by nothing more top secret than the Department of Education. Floor upon floor of secretaries and pen pushers. But the basement…the basement was shielded. He suspected it had been that way in Luthor's time and that the government — being government and for whom the catchall dogma 'why declassify unless you have to' was a holy mantra — had simply never seen the need to change it.

Could Lois be hidden down in that basement?

It might make a twisted kind of sense. Luthor no doubt had fond memories of the place. Where he had come closer than anyone before him or since in killing Superman. Or perhaps it was a source of bitterness for him. Somewhere he had no desire to visit again. The scene of his most spectacular failure. Where he had been betrayed. Where he had lost everything.

Clark frowned. Luthor wouldn't want to remember failure. Perhaps it wasn't the most likely place for him to be holed up after all. And could he really have a hiding place set up down there, right under the noses of a whole industry of workers, people with no loyalties to him and no reason not to turn him over — a fugitive from the law — if they saw him? It didn't seem likely. How could he hide out so effectively, in a place which had surely been first on the list to be searched by the police? The entire building had been turned over right after Luthor had apparently fallen to his death from the Penthouse level. Right after his aborted wedding. Not a square inch of it hadn't been torn out and exposed to the harsh light of investigation. There were no concealed corners, no hidden passageways which hadn't been discovered. It had no secrets left.

Except to him. Who couldn't even see beyond its lead-lined walls.

But he had asked Henderson. The detective had been suspicious as to why he wanted to know and Clark had been guilty for the fact that he couldn't confide in the man, who had after all become a good friend to both himself and Lois over the years and should above all be someone he could trust. It wasn't about trust, he told himself sharply now. It was just…he couldn't bear to go over it all again. Couldn't bear to expose the shattered dregs of his life, to answer questions, to hear sympathetic murmurings.

So he had gone as Superman and had side-stepped Henderson's probing in the guise of offering his aid in the search. Half the police force of the country was out hunting the escaped felon. Henderson had accepted Superman's word that he had no knowledge of Luthor's current whereabouts — an irony that hadn't escaped Clark — or any information that could help them in their enquiries. And from what he had managed to glean from the detective, it just wasn't possible that Luthor could have managed to secrete himself away in the basement of the Tower without anyone knowing. Or found himself some hidden lair that had remained undetected over so many months of searches, and changes of ownership.

Clark sighed, knowing that he was covering old ground here, arguments he'd tussled over time and again already — and still found no conclusions to.

Still…that he couldn't know for certain, that the vast area under that building was sealed off from him, worried at him like a loose tooth. Chafed at him. Maybe he should search it. Even if it was the most unlikely possibility. Maybe he could persuade Henderson to let him search it. He frowned. He would visit the detective again tomorrow. Maybe he would ask him about it then. He had to visit him anyway. See if he had turned up anything yet in his own search for Luthor.

And he would drop in on Perry later too. Maybe Jimmy had come up with something.

He grimaced, aware as always of the depressing number of maybes that his thoughts contained these days. He was swimming around in dark, mud-choked waters and he had no idea where he should strike out for next, which way would bring him back into the sunlight and out of the mire.

But he had to find out. He had to. Because Lois was depending on him. She needed him to know. He couldn't fail her by flailing around like this, with no idea what to do or where to go next.

He missed Lois. Not just because he loved her. Or because he was sick with worry over where she was…who she was with…whether she was hurt…hurt being as much as he could stand to think of. Worse than hurt didn't bear thinking about at all. But because he had grown accustomed to her being there for him when trouble struck. They were a team and he had come to rely on her incisive insight, her ability to help him track down the villain and make everything come right. Without her, he felt adrift in a becalmed sea, unable to make sense of the world around him.

Why hadn't he sensed anything from her since that instant on the plane? Was her silence since… He reined himself in from the wild gallop over the edge of the abyss that that fledgling train of thought was likely to deliver him to. It could mean nothing at all. Besides…he rubbed tiredly at the corner of one eye…he was beginning to wonder if she'd ever been there to begin with. At the time it had seemed so…*real*…he had known it was real. That she had been there, in his head…somehow. But now…with the slow, inexorable, excruciating passage of days with nothing more, the memory had faded till he wondered if it had ever been anything more than the fevered product of an imagination desperate for some contact, some sign, some hope…

<Lois…Lois, tell me if you're out there. Tell me you're still all right. Please, Lois…>

This time the silence was all that he expected. He became aware that the elevator had stopped, its doors gaping in silent invitation and the dimly lit, empty corridor beyond looking like a gateway to Hell. What was it about hotels in the early hours that gave the impression of something ravenous and soul-less, waiting to devour you? He grimaced. Maybe he'd been watching too many movies or listening to too many old songs. It was just a hotel. Not the Overlook. Nor the California.

Just a hotel.

The real soul-less creation, the real thing waiting to devour him, lay beyond the doors of his suite.

The morbid thought made him sigh as he stepped out of the cage and began the slow walk to the door at the corridor's end. Perhaps that was a little unfair, he chided himself. Eve hadn't gotten in his way since they'd been there. He had to concede that. Course, given the hectic, desperate schedule he'd imposed on himself over the past days, that he'd thrown himself into in an attempt to smother the fear that lay constantly on the edge of his thoughts, she hadn't really gotten the chance. He'd barely been aware of her, hardly noticed her.

Somehow, he couldn't find it in himself to regret that.

Wearily, he stepped into the living area of his suite. He paused as he closed the door softly behind him, making his usual sweep and scan for any bugs that might have been planted in his absence. There weren't any. There had never been any.

Had he misjudged his nemesis? Was Luthor even watching them? Or had he abandoned them as beneath his attention now that he had Lois safely in his clutches? Clark felt a momentary doubt assail him. Doubts came frequently and often these days. No matter the course of action he embarked on, he always wondered if it was the wrong plan, the wrong move, was Luthor anticipating him, double anticipating him…

He sighed. Then shook his head. No, he knew Luthor. He'd be unable to resist gloating. Vicariously spying on his victims, enjoying watching Clark Kent with his 'bride', believing that he was unaware of the deception, would delight him. No, they were being watched. He knew it.

He was halfway across the room before another thought struck him. Was Luthor forcing Lois to watch them too?

His heart twisted in his chest at the horrifying thought and yet he knew Luthor was capable of such cruelty. "Oh, Lois…" he whispered, imagining the hurt and pain she would endure if she thought him transfixed by Luthor's deception. He slumped down into a nearby chair, eyes darkening as he lost himself in thoughts that were almost too painful to bear.

In time, the quiet of the room around him began to make its presence felt. He emerged from the dark turn of his thoughts and his misery, lifting his head to look around him. He straightened. "Eve?" he asked aloud.

Her unusual absence brought him slowly to his feet when he received no answer. She had always been here before when he got back. He was usually so exhausted that he was barely awake long enough to flop onto one of the sofas, falling almost immediately into restless sleep disturbed by darkly twisting nightmares of Luthor and Lois. Barely awake enough to mumble a response to her greeting or notice she was there. But she *was* always there. When he awoke, she was always already up and wandering around, impatient as a child to know what their plans for the day were, pathetically happy to be taken to the beach or shopping or…

Where *was* she?

The resumption of the thought sparked a sudden anxiety in him which shot through the irritation he'd been feeling at her absence. He couldn't lose her now. He didn't have time to lose her now. He moved for the bedroom, cautiously pulling aside the double doors and scanning the darkness. The bed was empty, its covers undisturbed. In fact it looked as though it hadn't been disturbed for days.

Anxiety was seeding itself into panic now. Had something happened while he'd been gone in Metropolis? Had Luthor… No. No, why would he take her now? Had he seen through their deception? Figured out his plan? Had he -

A soft sound behind him whipped him around. There was no one there. With a frown he arrowed in on the sound as it continued, tracking it to the closet on the other side of the room. Frowning, he lowered his glasses and scanned the interior. His eyes widened a little in surprise and confusion before he set the glasses back in place and moved quietly to ease open the closet door as surreptitiously as he could.

Eve was curled up in a huddle on the floor, amid a nest of blankets. She twitched and whimpered in her sleep. He wondered at the cause of those low sounds of distress. Whatever nightmare she appeared to be trapped in, it didn't look a pleasant place to be. His earlier surge of panic dying, reassured though still puzzled, he began to retreat.

<Clark Jerome Kent! You are not leaving that child alone in that closet, sleeping like some stray mongrel wandered in out of the rain!>

"She's not a child," he responded automatically to the censure in his head. "She's not even…I don't even think she's human," he concluded weakly.

<Neither are you…>

This time, the voice that spoke up was his own.

<No, I'm not. But — >

The image of his mother in his head frowned disapprovingly at him. Clark sighed again.

"Okay, okay…" he muttered petulantly as he reached out a reluctant hand towards the shoulder of the sleeping woman curled on the floor. His face showed all the hesitant distaste of a man about to clear out a nest of vipers from his basement as he did. At the last moment, he paused, hand hovering an inch shy of her skin.

"Eve…" he whispered and then a touch more loudly as he failed to get a response, "Eve!"

Sighing as she didn't stir he steeled himself to touch her. He prodded her shoulder and then took back his hand quickly when she stirred. "Eve, wake up," he said softly.

Eve mumbled quietly and he reached out a hand again, then hesitated. He was tired, bone-tired, and he really couldn't face her awake. He didn't want to listen to her jabbering on like a jackhammer pounding at his skull or have her ask him a dozen questions or…he just didn't want to listen to her at all. He sighed, rubbing a wearied hand across his left eye for a moment. Then, decisively, he reached out and carefully slipped his hands under the small, lightweight body and lifted her into his arms.

He carried her like a child, cradled against his chest. He felt his skin shrink away from the touch of her on him. If he had believed that there was no risk she wouldn't wake up and catch him at it he would have floated her along with the barest touch of a finger against her shoulder or hip, reducing contact to the minimum. But he knew he couldn't take the chance. If she found out his secret what was already an unholy mess could get even more complicated and disastrous, fast. He could put up with a little unpleasantness.

Although…unpleasant: that didn't really describe what he was feeling at all. He felt a heavy flush spread across his cheeks as he realized he was too aware of the soft, warm body he was holding clasped to his chest, that he was just a little aroused by the feel of her in his arms.

No, this wasn't right. He wouldn't…he couldn't feel this way…this wasn't Lois, this wasn't what it seemed to be. He was tired that was all, exhausted by the fruitless, debilitating nightly routine of searching Metropolis over and over, his defenses were down, he lacked the energy to fight it. Exhaustion…and despair…that was all it was. But knowing that didn't seem to stop the feelings surging within him. He shifted the sleeping woman awkwardly in his grip as his uneasiness grew, struggling to suppress the arousal that stirred within him.

The undeniable fact that there were times when he still felt physically attracted to Eve — that he could feel attraction for her at all, in spite of everything he knew about her — was something that shamed him. It leapt on him when he least expected it, when he was least able to fight it, and always the betrayal of his body's involuntary responses — the betrayal of Lois — simply intensified his confusion and grief and settled guilt deep into his heart like a curse. He understood that in the quiet moments, in the unwary stillness of the small hours, her physical resemblance to his wife could still catch him unawares. She was so like Lois in so many ways — most of them ways she obviously wasn't even aware of. Like now. The softness of her hair against his skin, the warmth of her scent…

Her scent…

It wasn't as though he would ever act on those impulses, or the desires that moved him — the very thought was an anathema to him, horrified him — but still…that he could even think of it, even for an instant, bewildered him.

He became aware that he was standing over the bed, that lost in his dismal thoughts he'd been there for some moments.

Still asleep, the woman he held snuggled deeper into his chest with a low sigh. His heart froze as she turned her head slightly and he felt the absurd prickle of tears as her lips nuzzled warmly at the side of his neck. And all of his carefully logical reasons why desiring her was an illusion suddenly made no difference to his emotions at all. It took every inch of willpower not to give in to the hunger suddenly pulsing hot and sharp within him. To simply lower his head and bury himself in the softness of her hair. Breathe in her scent. Let her warmth surround him…

She smelled of Temptation. In more ways than one.

And for a moment the ache in him for Lois was so strong, he thought it would crack his heart in two, the sudden wave of grief and loss that swept up and over him something he could no longer bear.

Fighting against the urging in his heart and the tears that threatened to have him simply fall to his knees and hold her tight to him as he wept, made him hasty and incautious. His grip on her tightened inexorably, as he brought himself back to reality, denying the emotions surging in turmoil within him, causing her to stir.

He was lowering her to the mattress, perhaps more hastily than he'd intended in his eagerness to settle her into the bed and leave the room, when she stiffened abruptly in his grasp.

"No…" Her hands gripped at his arms, her fingers tightening convulsively as they clenched themselves on his sleeves. "No, don't. Please…please, don't."

Clark hesitated, looking down at her as she lay there on the bed, her taut body only inches away from his own. It wasn't the plea in her eyes or the fear in her voice that shocked him into abrupt stillness, that doused entirely any desire or lust he had been feeling for her, crushing it beneath a sudden emptiness in his chest. Or the sudden knowledge that something in his face — that inner struggle, the coldness of his expression or the grimness in his eyes as he'd fought his instincts…something — had terrified her as she'd awoken.

It was the sure and certain knowledge he found, deep in those frightened, brown, velvet eyes, that she wouldn't resist him, despite her obvious fear and loathing. She was rigid in his grip and she was afraid. More than afraid. Terrified.

Despite that terror though, the silent message she was shrieking at him was that she would submit to him if he insisted, would do whatever he wanted. All he had to do was force her to it.

He could feel her trembling, sense her fear, and yet she was utterly compliant, utterly submissive. With a flash of horrified insight he understood that she was simply incapable of denying him. She wasn't fighting him at all. She was clinging to him for dear life, eyes huge and panicked in a suddenly waxen face, but she wasn't struggling. She was too afraid, too…conditioned…to do as he commanded, to deny him nothing, to…his face twisted…to please him at all costs. It wasn't in her to fight him. Terrified as she was, no matter what he did to her, she'd accept it, obedient to the man who'd created her.

He felt sickness rise in his throat at the implications of that.

"Please…" Eve whispered again. She was rigid in his grip, the knuckles of those small hands showing white, and in her eyes there was that shining terror, that lack of hope, that defeated, awful pain…

He looked away from that terror, let her go, and reached to pull the covers up around her with a gentleness he had to force. Anger for Luthor clenched in him like a fist and he didn't want her to misinterpret that, think that it was directed at her.

"Go to sleep," he said gruffly, before he turned away and left the room. In the doorway, he turned back momentarily to find her watching him. She closed her eyes, but her body was stiff beneath the blankets, as though she expected him to pounce when her guard was down.

Clark softly closed the door and wandered over to the bar in the corner. He poured himself a glass of iced mineral water — he was shaking so much, he discovered, that it took two attempts and more of the water ended up on the counter than in the glass. White-faced, he retreated to slump heavily into the sofa. The water slid a welcome, frigid trail down his throat. He glanced at the closed bedroom door and then switched on the TV, hoping that the low sound would lull Eve, give her some sense of security. Let her know that he didn't intend to re-enter the room. That she was safe from assault.

He sipped at his glass, barely tasting the water now, his eyes fixed blankly and distantly on the dark, star-filled night beyond the lanai as his thoughts turned coldly on what had just happened between them.

He remembered the fear in her eyes. How she had looked at him, begging him silently not to hurt her.

Had she sensed that moment when he had felt desire for her? For the faux Lois that she was? Had she been awakened by the emotions that had so shamefully touched him, albeit briefly, as he'd carried her to 'their' bed? Had she seen it in his eyes when she opened hers? Had that been part of what had scared her so? Not just the thought that he might…rape her. But the awakening knowledge that he 'desired' her?

Was he really that much of an ogre in Eve's eyes? Did he really scare her that badly?

<Why shouldn't you scare her?> a small, berating voice spoke up in his head.

Clark sighed. In the cold clarity of the moment, with what he had seen — and felt — back there in that bedroom, he couldn't deny that she should. He'd done nothing but yell at her and threaten her since he'd first discovered who — and what — she was. He'd blamed her from the start for Luthor's games, because Luthor wasn't around to strike out at. No wonder she was afraid of him. And, even when he'd stopped yelling, he'd prodded her along, pushing her the way he wanted to go, never asking her opinion, always assuming she would do as she was told, as he wanted, never considering for one moment that she might have a mind of her own. And it was clear that she did have a mind of her own. Overlaid as it was with Lois' memory patterns and psyche, she was still capable of making her own decisions. She was far from the automated, pre-programmed doll he'd assumed her to be.

The soulless, emotionless automation he'd treated her as. Whose feelings he'd discounted and ignored.

In short, Clark realized, he'd behaved abominably throughout.

Hating her had been an escape mechanism, viewing her as nothing more than a creature of Luthor's devising, nothing human, had enabled him to keep a distance on her. Now that he could no longer find it in him to blame her, he found his feelings a jumble of confusion where Eve was concerned.

But to scare her so badly… He had never threatened her enough to make her look at him *that* way. Had he?

Certainly, no woman had ever looked at him like that. With the knowledge that he was about to hurt her, defile her, stark in her eyes.

Clark leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and ran his hands distractedly through his hair. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, trying to make sense of it all.

She slept in the closet. And she so obviously thought that the only possible reason he might have for moving her into the bed was to have sex with her. Whether she wanted it or not. By force if necessary.

Luthor…

The name slithered unwelcomingly into his thoughts like a cobra. He knew what kind of man Luthor was.

Eve was used to being abused. Her dreams were uneasy places of dark fear and hopeless terror. And she expected him to hurt her. What had her life been like before she was sent to him?

For the first time since he had kissed her on his wedding night, tasted her lips and known she was not his wife, he thought about what Eve had been sent to him to do. Keep him happy, she'd said that night. Please him. At any cost.

At any cost…

Abruptly, Clark straightened. He put down his glass and rose to his feet, pacing restlessly for the lanai and the cooling night air which might clear his head. A small sound from the bedroom froze him in place momentarily and then he scanned it again. She seemed to be asleep.

She wasn't.

She would have fooled the casual observer. But he could hear the rapid tick of her heart, too fast for sleep. He could see how rigidly she held herself, far from relaxed slumber. He watched her, unable to tear himself away as an unwelcome revelation stirred into life in his head; watched the breath rising soft and shallow beneath the blankets.

And for the first time since that night, the anger didn't come. All he felt, as he watched over her, was pity.

For the first time, he didn't see a monster, some inhuman, Frankenstein creation who had stolen his wife and taken her face. He didn't see the gloating face of Luthor grinning out at him in triumph from behind her eyes. Those familiar, oh so familiar eyes…

What he saw, lying there, feigning the sleep of the innocent in a king- size bed, was — no less than any of them — a victim. Luthor's victim. Like all of them.

Luthor had sent her to his bed, to be taken like some sacrificial virgin. And for the sole reason that she should provide a few hours of distraction, enough to give him time to carry out his plans.

She was so…damaged. He felt the spark of anger against Luthor renew itself. Luthor had been guilty of many crimes, had done so many despicable things, but creating this…child…was something unforgivable and the worst of them. This was an abomination.

The only man she'd ever known, had ever been close to, in her entire, short life had been Luthor. And Clark could only imagine how that megalomaniac psychopath had treated her. Luthor had never been one to deal gently with the people he used for his own ends. She would have been less to him than human.

Did she think all men were like Lex? Did she think *he* was like Lex?

The thought made Clark suddenly sick to his stomach.

No wonder she was terrified of him.

Clark found himself examining his behavior over the past few days for the first time with a newly cool and jaundiced eye. And with shame.

Had he treated her any better than Luthor would have?

He remembered suddenly the moment he had confronted her back there in his apartment. In his bedroom. In his bed. Everything he had said — and done. What was it he'd said?

<Tell me… I swear…I swear I'll make you wish you'd never been part of this.>

Clark flushed, shamed by the memory. He hadn't intended to carry through on that threat. Of course he hadn't. But she had hardly known that. He had been crazed with fear, terror of what might be happening to Lois in Luthor's hands — he still was — and he had been full of rage that Luthor had once again invaded his life and stolen the woman he loved right out from under his nose. Was he really so easy to fool? Was Luthor really so much the superior intellect between them? But that was hardly an excuse for his treatment of her.

He'd known that his own clone was an individual, capable of its own thoughts and feelings. And, reluctantly he had to face the fact that Eve was similarly a person. Not a machine, not a robot — someone with feelings and emotions. He just hadn't wanted to admit it, or face the fact. He hadn't *wanted* to lose the anger, to lose the edge it gave him. It was all that had been keeping him going.

To admit she was human, that she had emotions and feelings, was to acknowledge that she could be hurt by him. How much better to deny her that humanity, to treat her as something barely more than animal, to let out the rage he felt at Luthor on his creation. Since Luthor wasn't there.

If he let himself see Eve as human, he let her get to him; she gained advantage over him. He wanted to keep hold of that anger and hate when he looked at her, but…he couldn't anymore. He couldn't fool himself into letting himself use her as a proxy for Luthor, to lash out at. She had become a victim too. Something to pity.

A victim. She would be more than that, he suddenly understood. She would have been a substitute to Luthor too. A substitute for…for Lois.

Had Luthor gone so far as to…?

The cool evening air out on the lanai suddenly chilled him. Anger tightened in his throat. She was a child! How could he…how could even he do something so…so vile…so deranged…

<He wants her. He wants Lois. He always has done…>

He realized his hands were trembling as he clutched the railing of the lanai. The knowledge that Eve had more than likely been a proxy for Lois in more than one sense sickened him to the point where it was unbearable to think on. To imagine that Luthor had taken her to his bed to live out some sick, twisted fantasy he harbored for Lois, pretending that he held the real woman he had coveted all these years in his arms, that it was Lois he kissed, Lois he caressed…

Clark grew pale as his mind spilled out poisonous, virulent images to match the run of his speculation. And yet, even beyond his own horror, his own disgust, his own fear at what those fantasies of Luthor's might mean for Lois now…how much more horrific had it been for Eve? Eve, who had been either unwilling or had been so abused by Luthor's sexual attack that she was terrified to be held by another man…terrified of what he might do to her.

And to know that now Luthor had the real thing in his clutches…that he had Lois… He harbored those sick fantasies, to abuse and defile, to…to… He harbored those and he had…oh god, he had Lois…

Clark surged to his feet, breath tightening in his chest. He couldn't think about this, he couldn't it was…it was…

Turning sharply on his heel he moved for the door of the suite, knowing only that he had to do something, anything, no matter how futile, no matter how exhausted he was already.

Anything to stop him thinking about what was happening to his wife in the hands of Luthor.

***

Eve lay stiff and silent in the bed as she watched the doors to the bedroom cut off her view of him. For a time she simply lay there, locked rigidly in place where he had left her, unable to move, unable to break her stare on those rectangles of shadowed wood, convinced this was some kind of trick, convinced that as soon as she relaxed her would return…return to… He would come back and…

A small whimper of breath escaped her and she fought the urge to leap from the bed and run back to the closet, digging her nails into her palms. She'd felt safe there. Here she was exposed; the instinctive response to threat and danger beat in her pulse like a battering storm. But he had made it clear this was where he wanted her to be. If she didn't obey… She had to obey.

She fixed her eyes on the narrow strip of light that showed beneath the doors and tensed as a shadow momentarily moved across it, blocking it from her view. But the doors remained closed and in another moment she heard the creak of the lanai doors. Relief escaped her in a ragged sigh.

Still listening with every fiber in her to the sounds beyond the room, she huddled deeper into the blankets as though they were a shield that could protect her from the world.

A world that was suddenly more confusing and disorientating than it had ever been. Frightened, her thoughts snarled in chaotic disarray, she lay there, unaware of the warmth of the tears that slipped across her cheeks, her eyes darkening as she tried to make sense of what had happened.

She didn't understand. She didn't understand any of it.

She didn't understand *him*.

She was used to being abused. Lex had only taken her to his bed that one time, but she knew that it was only because she had disappointed him, disgusted him…

<…get more pleasure in a corpse…>

The memory of those scathing words made her flush suddenly with remembered shame. Yes, she knew that the only reason Lex had never used her in that way again was because she had failed to please him. But it hadn't been her fault that she wasn't any good at it. It hadn't!

Pleasing the men who intruded on her life was what she'd been designed for. Trained for. Taught. First Lex, then…Clark.

He hadn't hurt her, like Lex said he would. Lex's last minute instructions had been graphic. Fail to please Clark Kent, fail in her mission, be discovered, and Kent would hurt her badly. Worse than Lex could ever punish her for her failure.

Worse than Lex could…

Once, when she had absently begun to chew the fingernail on her left index finger — a nervous habit which the woman she was encouraged to aspire to be did not share with her and which she had been repeatedly warned against pursuing — Lex had flown into a rage. He had caught at her wrist and, ignoring her struggles to free herself, had softly advised her of the consequences of ignoring his advice to stop. He had wrapped his arms around her, pinning her against his chest in an embrace that was the mockery of a lover's. His lips had almost caressed her ear as he whispered his fury at her.

His words had almost been friendly, paternally chiding…as he had inexorably guided her hand over and into the sputtering flame of the burner on the laboratory table. His other hand had smothered her shrieks of pain. He had held her there, implacable, until finally releasing her, shoving her to Doctor Mamba, who had watched the punishment with impersonal eyes, and ordering him to fix up the mess, before leaving the room.

Unlike her human cousins, her flesh could be healed within hours under the right conditions, with no permanent damage — the frog genes in her makeup made the regeneration of charred fingers a simple process, almost painless. But if she didn't share the consequences, she certainly shared the pain. The experience had been agonizing and, seared into her memory as much as the flame had seared her flesh, had the power to make her tremble even months later.

She had never bitten her nails again.

Compared to such brutal, casual cruelty, Lex's warning that Clark would hurt her in ways she couldn't even think to imagine had not been imprinted in Eve's brain as any idle threat. She could *not* imagine worse than the cruelties and punishments Lex had devised for her. How much she feared angering him, how terrified she was of his slightest movement, of the darkening of his expression. If Clark Kent was worse… The prospect had filled her with a terror so encompassing it had been almost impossible to name. Lex to Kent was like a summer storm to a hurricane.

He…hadn't though. That was the puzzle. He *had* discovered her and he had been angry — really, really angry — but he hadn't hurt her, as Lex had told her he would. Instead…he had left. Just walked on out the door and…poof! Gone. Just like that woman she'd seen on the TV. The one in the cabinet. The man in the white suit had tapped on the door and when they opened it she was gone! Just like that — there one minute, gone the next.

Clark had been cold and mean and…yes, there had been a moment that first, terrifying night when he'd discovered her, and Lex's subterfuge, when she had feared for her life…but he had never — really — hurt her. Never beaten her. Never abused her. Never touched her at all, after he realized who she was. Or, more importantly, who she was not.

It had never once occurred to her before that night that Lex might lie. But even back then, fearing his anger as she had, remembering Lex's warnings, she had felt more safe, somehow, with Clark, safer in his apartment waiting anxiously for his return and who knew what reaction from him, than she could imagine being anywhere else. A world had waited for her beyond that apartment. And it was a world that she barely knew and couldn't fathom. Where else would she have gone? Back to Lex? Clark had vividly outlined the drawbacks to that plan, long after she had come to the same conclusions.

But now…now, the first, tentative seeds of that realization, planted back there in Clark's apartment on their wedding night, were beginning to unfurl in her mind. The idea that Lex might have lied. The possibility that Clark might not be like Lex. Almost impossible to contemplate, impossible to imagine…weren't all men like Lex? Wasn't that the intrinsic nature of men? To be brutal and violent. To dominate and subjugate.

To hurt.

She frowned and laid her head wearily to her folded arms against the soft pillows of the bed. Nothing made sense.

Clark had tried to put her into the bed. If he didn't want to…do *that* with her, why had he wanted her in the bed? In the laboratory she had slept wherever she found a corner to lie in and hid whenever she could, burrowing into dark spaces like an animal trying to find a safety that didn't exist. There had been no provision made for her once she had grown enough to stop having to spend the night hours in the regenerative pod. Other than those occasions when some fury of Lex's meant she had to endure a session of repair, she had not seen the inside of the pod for two months before being sent to Clark Kent. In that time she had spent a brief, transitory time in Lex's bed and then had been sent to Clark's.

Fear skittered through her. Clark had put her into the bed and then had left her. Had she failed again? Had she failed to please him again? Had he wanted to take her and then changed his mind because she had done something wrong? She was supposed to make him *want* to. A low sob escaped her, fear and tension welling up in her chest till it was fit to smother her. Why couldn't she seem to make him want to? She tried. She did try.

<Then try harder.>

She flinched at the sound of that harsh voice in her head. At the familiar admonition that had shaped her days before she had left the lab. Unconsciously, her body tightened with the remembered anticipation of the pain that had usually followed.

<Try harder…>

Yes. Yes, she would have to try harder, that was all. She could make him want her. She could.

Somehow that didn't make her feel any better. She lay in the dark, staring at a bar of yellow light beneath a door, listening to the soft sounds of movement from a man she didn't want to hurt any more but had to if she was to survive…

When she heard the sound of the front door closing she uncoiled slightly from her taut position huddled beneath the covers. Her breathing eased, the stiffness of her muscles loosening. She darted a quick glance for the closet. Dare she…? But the thought scared her more than being so exposed did. He wanted her here. He had made that clear. She still wasn't entirely sure why. Still wasn't so sure he wouldn't return and…when she wasn't expecting it, when she wasn't on guard and then…then he would…he might…

She scooted deeper into the covers, clutching the pillow to her like a shield.

Eventually, she slid into restless, troubled sleep, fingers fisted into the blanket held high around her throat. The conflicted whirling of her thoughts followed her into her dreams. And, in her dreams, she whimpered.

***

Lois paced another circuit of the living room. It had become a habit in the past few days, one she couldn't control, didn't want to control. It was in many ways the only outlet for her frustration and anger that she was allowed.

Lex had joked — joked! A shiver of humiliated rage tore through her with the memory — that he'd soon have to have the carpets replaced if she kept up with it; she'd wear a track soon.

Lois growled with the memory and then whirled suddenly to scoop up a nearby planter before throwing it furiously at the window, with its infuriating view of a perfect sunset. It bounced of course. Lois watched it land on the carpet, then raised her eyes to that infernal display beyond the window. She choked back a burst of bitter laughter that was wrapped in a sob. She put a shaking hand against her face, momentarily, pressing her fingers to her lips.

She had to get out of here. She had to. The first flush of giddy hope that Lex's video had given her had been leeched from her over the desperate, lonely and debilitating hours she had spent trapped in this hell. Why hadn't Clark found her? Surely he must have searched the city a dozen times over by now? What had happened to stop him finding her?

She didn't understand. She didn't understand why he hadn't come. She teetered between a maelstorm of emotions in respect of his absence. Anger, betrayal and despair at his failure to appear and rescue her. Unreasonable, she knew, but she couldn't prevent them roiling deep within her at times. Relief that he didn't. Lex's office was in one of the many areas cordoned off against her and to which she could gain no access and even if she had been able to dispose of the kryptonite it would have had to have been with the assurance in place of rescue shortly thereafter. Without that security she couldn't bear to consider facing Lex's wrath, retribution and punishment for her actions if she remained trapped here afterwards. It would be foolhardy to risk it.

Each morning she awoke there was a new tape waiting for her on the low table in the living room, next to the VCR. Each of them were gift- wrapped, tied up with brightly colorful bows and pretty paper…insult added to injury. She had tried not to watch, after the first few what else did she need to see, to know? And she had no reason to feed Lex's twisted pleasures, play into his mind games or make it easy for him. But… she found herself unable to resist the lure, like probing at a painful tooth, and no matter how long she held out, how long she resisted, she always found herself pushing the tape into the machine and pressing play. It was, in the end, all she had left of Clark. And imperfect, humiliating and cruelly painful as it was to watch, it was still something, some link to the man she loved. The images blurred together and ran as she watched the couple on the screen play out all the moments that she and Clark should be sharing right then…but they offered no clues to his absence.

But whatever it was that delayed him and prevented her from acting to secure his safe passage here in Lex's Citadel, she knew that she couldn't stand her captivity long enough to wait around on him any more. She had to find her own way out.

But how?

She knew that if she could find her way to the outside world — lose herself in those Metropolis streets that she knew so intimately — it would be simplicity itself. But getting here…ah, getting there was the rub.

<Sure, Lois…easy as pie. All you have to do is get past a small army loaded with more firepower than the National Guard.>

A map of her prison and that maze of corridors beyond this room would also come in handy.

Four days ago, her sense of desolation had only been increased by Lex's magnanimous tour of what he liked to call his Citadel. The problem was that it wasn't entirely a misnomer. The vastness of the complex had filled her with a sense of hopelessness she had found hard to conceal. As she was sure the tour had been intended to. She was trapped underground with a psychopath in something that resembled a small city. Or, she thought, remembering the vast array of facilities that Lex had equipped his Citadel with, a small luxury cruise ship. It certainly had that air about it, with its gyms and stores, its ballroom, its swimming pools, its bars…it even had a small theater, stocked with every conceivable movie imaginable, from classics to modern blockbusters. A library with every book she could think of. And sports halls that catered to every whim. Well…except archery and a shooting range. She had expressed her wry disappointment for those omissions to Lex, who had seemed amused by the comment.

Amusement seemed to be what she provoked in him more than anything else these days and that good humor in him, her inability to goad him into anger or wipe that self-satisfaction from his face for more than a fleeting moment, chafed at her like a canker.

The fact that it did frightened her more than a little. Had this become the defining of her days? To feel some small victory when she could crack the faŘade of bonhomie in her jailer? To feel pride and achievement in having him punish her? Had she sunk so low in so short a time as that?

Despite her dismay though, she did feel a perverse pleasure in her latest predicament. Locked in her room like a disobedient child until she became more amenable. All that had been missing was Lex's admonishment that she wouldn't be let out until she learned to behave.

A flicker of an acid smile touched her lips for a moment. He did so hate to lose the illusion that they were living out some romantic fantasy. Two lovers secreted away in their private little paradise. If pricking that bubble of self-illusion was all the victory she could achieve right now, then she was going to stick it to him whenever she could. It may be petty, it may be small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it made her feel a little more in control when control over even the smallest moments of her life was denied her in the main. She had to hold on to even the tiniest of victories. Revel in them. Let them bolster her. For the moment, they were all she had.

A small grumble from the pit of her belly made her realize that she was hungry. She glanced at the clock. Her guard was overdue with her evening meal. Her lips twisted in a grimace. Sent to bed without supper too?

The thought was all at once so ludicrous and so frightening — a sinister sign of the dominance Lex had over her — that she sank down on the sofa behind her, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. She gulped down a couple of deep, steadying breaths, knowing that if she gave in to either she might never stop again.

She wasn't a fool. She was aware of all of the emotional and psychological pressures that could be brought to bear on a prisoner to make them co-operate with their captor. Frightening words rose up in her mind constantly, tormenting her with the surrender they implied. Stockholm Syndrome. Holocaust Syndrome. The point at which survival became linked with a need of a captive to bond with their captor. When emotional and psychological pressure became such that becoming a passive, willing victim, dependent on the captor's whim to survive, eager to please and submit, became inexorably and subconsciously linked with the instinct to survive.

In her work for the Planet she had seen hostages put themselves between their captors and the police marksmen trying to rescue them, begging for them to be spared. She had seen them attend the funeral of the terrorist who had beaten and abused them and watched them weep genuine tears of grief. Names welled up in her head in the darkest hours of the night. Victims she had known, victims she had researched, victims she had pitied. Victims who had been so broken, so terrorized, so abused, that they had had no choice but to submit to survive. Who had been so damaged that they had even believed the choice had been theirs and that they acted of their own free will in giving their abuser what he desired.

Victims she had never associated with herself. With whom she could never have imagined having anything in common.

She had won a Kerth — how long ago and how unimportant that now seemed — for her work following the men of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines during the Gulf War. She had seen men who barely resembled anything human at all any more, brainwashed, shaking and sweating with night terrors, tortured beyond endurance in the dark, stinking hell of Iraqi prison cells.

Lois knew, as most did not, just how insidious captivity could be. Even when it was hidden beneath the most benevolent imprisonment. A gilded cage was still a cage after all, as wiser minds had known long before her. She knew how hard it would get to resist, how much of a siren call the lure to give up and give in would be. And she knew too that knowing all of this would be no defense against what Lex would use against her.

She shuddered. Already she knew the dependence of the victim, the captive. Lex had become necessary to her. The smallest moments of her day depended on his benevolence. Depended on the complex and fragile weaving of lines in the sand between them and the relationship she now had with him. Every moment of her life was defined by him. Every breath she took granted to her by his generosity. Every mouthful of food, every scrap of comfort. Every beat of her heart was his to command. Or remove.

Soon…inevitably, the only remaining variable left how soon it would take…fear that he would leave her would take over. Fear that if he vanished from her life she would be trapped in her prison, left to starve, to die of thirst, abandoned to a painful, lingering demise. From there, she would become desperate to ensure his survival, desperate to keep his interest in her alive, his presence with her. For in his survival lay hers and in pleasing him would lie the reward of continuing life. The bond between captive and captor could be as inextricably entwined, deeper still, than that of lovers…

That Lex could warp her emotions and feelings for him by the simple method of denying her the basics of life, with the aid of time — the thief of the soul — until she would have to bargain with him with that soul to ensure her survival was a very real threat to her, she understood. She knew that eventually, if she remained here for much longer, she would be forced to negotiate with him in ways she dare not let herself consider. She could imagine only too well what Lex's price would be. What he would ask of her. What he would demand. And she knew too that each new concession to him — no matter how small and insignificant they seemed — would damage her a little further, a little more, until each small step towards him led her into the pit of hell.

Her thoughts were becoming dangerous again. She couldn't help the fear and dread within her squirming into life, but as always when they began to overwhelm her she adopted a forced posture of calm. She closed her eyes, concentrating on restricting her breathing to something slow and measured. On the blank screen behind her eyelids she imposed by strength of will words in glowing red fire.

I am Lois Lane. Clark Kent loves me. Superman will find me.

The triumvirate of her life. Her faith in herself. Her belief in the ability of that love to defeat evil. Her trust in the superhero to come to her rescue.

She repeated those words like a mantra, a soothing balm to calm the turmoil in her soul, until gradually they worked their spell on her mood and she began to breathe more easily, became able to push the fear down into the small, dark corner of her psyche where it continued to live but could at least be ignored. For now. What made her most afraid were the days to come — sure and certain — when they would no longer work that magic for her.

Aware that her thoughts were turning once more into the dangerous tides of morbidity she screwed her eyes more tightly closed and deliberately and methodically called up every memory she could of Clark.

Other than the tapes, which were no comfort at all, memories were all of his face that she had now. Although her apartment had had more than its share of photographs, none of them existed in this facsimile. Lex apparently didn't like the competition. Or the succor such mementos were likely to afford her.

It had frightened her, that first day here in her prison, to realize just how much of her life Lex had been able to transfer here with her. All of her clothes, her books and music collections, her videotapes. She had no idea if he had simply brought them along as an inducement to encourage her to settle into her new 'life'. But the reality was that each new discovery of something intimately hers, her jewelry, her mementos, her journals and books, had coursed another chill through her to see them here, out of place and somehow disconnected to her current situation, jarringly translocated into the disturbing and threatening — as she herself was. Each of them one more sign of how completely Lex controlled every aspect of her world now.

Even here, however, he hadn't been able to resist manipulating her belongings to suit his own purposes. Every scrap, every item that she associated with Clark was absent. And more went missing each day as Lex became aware of their existence. It had become something of a morbid game to check the apartment on her return whenever she left it, seeking out which piece of her life had vanished with her absence. A particular CD she played too often and Lex judged too melancholy. He despised Billie Holliday's smoky ballads of lost love apparently. Her Kerths. Perhaps he considered them too much a reminder of her strength and independence. Success in a career and the pride one took in that was no aid to subjugation. A small green marble box that Clark had given her, brought back from a trip to Rome. Maybe she had held it too long or too often, perhaps her face had given away its meaning for her as she had, to the soulless eyes that studied and recorded her every move and every emotion through the cold lens of the cameras surveilling the 'apartment'.

There had been the CDs Clark had given her as an impromptu gift. She had a shining memory of a perfect Valentine's Day evening. Clark had surprised her with tickets to a box in the Metropolis Arena where Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera had been playing. Lois had been entranced by the musical and Clark had bought the CDs for her afterwards, in the theater's foyer.

In the days since her kidnapping, however, she had begun to play the recordings almost exclusively, to obsession, fascinated by their themes, which so closely and surreally mirrored her own captivity. It had become a subversive rebellion. A way of yelling her defiance.

It seemed that Lex hadn't been incognizant to the message. The entire collection, along with others that had encompassed similar themes, had been gone when she'd returned here earlier in the day. She supposed he hadn't much appreciated her casting him in the role of Phantom — the deformed psychopath whose insane infatuation with a woman and her abduction to his lair had won him nothing but an ignominious death. And whose captive had been delivered safely into the arms of her true love and handsome hero by the final curtain.

She hadn't commented. She hadn't given him the satisfaction of even acknowledging that she noticed these losses. Even though each one was like another piece of her soul being snipped away. Excised with surgical precision. Leaving nothing but numbing misery behind them.

Luthor's mind games. They weren't only confined to theft. Each time she came back here something was out of kilter, out of phase. Little things, nothing major. But noticeable all the same. A hairbrush out of place. A book she had left opened shifted to another spot. Personal possessions. She knew what such methods meant to achieve. Petty tricks to keep her off balance, unsettled, their message clear. That her personal space could be violated at will and as he chose. Just as she could. If he chose. That even the smallest pieces of her life here were under his control and not hers. As were everything she was and did and could ever do from this point on. His to control. His to command.

His.

She shook her head, brow creasing in an irritable frown at the defeatist tinge that had colored the run of her thoughts. She rubbed at her temple uneasily and sighed.

Certainly, if it had been Lex's intention in housing her here in this theatrical set masquerading as her apartment, to ease her with the familiar, lull her into a false sense of security with this mockery of her home, then he had failed miserably. Thwarted by his conflicting need to ensure that she didn't escape him. By any means.

None of the kitchen appliances worked. Nor did the fire in the living room. The kitchen drawers were empty, devoid of any cutlery or implements that she might use as a weapon or tool to escape. There were no detergents in the kitchen or bathroom, no cleaning fluids. Not even a can of hairspray.

There weren't even any plates in the cupboards and all of her favorite glass or china pieces in the living room were absent. In the bedroom, her light, airy bedclothes were gone, replaced with heavy duty blankets that were impossible to tear or shred by hand and throughout the 'apartment', the curtains were similarly weighted against any attempts that she might make to use them.

Lois' lip curled in disgust. Lex didn't know her at all if he thought she would try slitting her wrists or using bed sheets to hang herself in an attempt to escape him. But a small, unwelcome thought squirmed its way into her mind even as she despised him for thinking it. Wouldn't she? No woman was completely unassailable. Every psyche had its breaking point. Limits. An unbearable point beyond which they could take no more. What would be hers? What would it take for him to push her beyond the point where giving up was her only means of denying him what he wanted of her? Of thwarting him? Lois shivered. What would it take? A year in this hell? Two? Ten?

The rest of her life…?

That last whispered itself in her head like some dark, dirty little secret she'd never wanted to face. And then she shook it from her angrily. No! Clark was looking for her, Superman would find her. She was Lois Lane! She was Lois Lane and -

Damn you! Damn you to Hell, Lex Luthor, I…won't…play…this…*game*!

He wasn't going to find it that easy, she vowed, clenching her fists tight into her lap. She wasn't going to make herself that easy to subdue.

She twisted around and began to pace again.

The clock read eight thirty three when she finally heard the soft click of the lock being disengaged on the apartment door.

She had worn out the urge to pace by then, had been leaning listlessly up against the jamb of the window, arms crossed over her breasts, her hands rubbing a fitful path back and forth across the length of her arms as she stared out blankly into the optical illusion that formed her view.

With the passing of the hours, all of the machinery behind the mirage slipped another gear, working hard to shift light and color in a semblance of daylight's end and night's new birth. Out there, beyond her window, she might almost be lulled into thinking that the pinprick twinkles of light on the false horizon were actual stars. Stars she could envisage being seen by Clark, wherever he was, stars that she could imagine as a backdrop to a silent figure in red and blue, scouring the earth, scanning the night sky, searching her out, coming to her rescue, as he always had, so many times before.

Stars she could wish by.

She turned her head as the door was pushed inwards, startled out of her disconsolate musing.

Dinner. At last.

Lois glanced at the clock and then moved into the center of the room.

She was surprised and not a little dismayed to find that it was Lex himself who had brought her meal.

She hid it well. Privacy was so limited a commodity for her now that she was learning fast. Keeping her thoughts to herself, not only in silence, but in schooling her expressions and her body language so that she gave nothing of what she felt away, had already become almost second nature with frightening speed.

She watched Lex frown as he glanced around the room and then saw his brow smooth itself out as he found her in the shadows. "Ah. There you are. I thought we could be civilized for once. Have dinner, talk." He wheeled the cart into place before the dining table as he spoke. Lois stayed in place, saying nothing. She flicked a glance at the door behind him.

The open door that he hadn't closed when he'd come in.

The guards who brought her her meals always ensured they closed the door before they did anything more. Lois glanced sharply at Lex. He was transferring the contents of the cart to the table, seemingly oblivious to her for the moment.

She took a small step towards the glowing square of light that spilled through into the apartment from the corridor outside. And then another. Her eyes flicked back and forth between that avenue of escape and her jailer. She didn't stare at him directly, knowing how that kind of attention set up an itch between the shoulder-blades. But she kept steady watch on him out of the corner of her eye as she inched her way closer and closer to escape.

If she could just get out before he realized his mistake, what she was doing, if she could close the door behind her, he'd be trapped. She glanced upwards. But if someone was on station at the cameras, wouldn't they have warned him by now?

She had to take the chance. If she could only -

Instinct saved her from humiliation and from granting him another victory over her. It prickled at the back of her neck and beat a sudden rough tattoo in her throat.

She stopped abruptly.

In the corridor a shadow moved.

And Lex straightened, turning to give her a soft smile. Hate thudded against her ribs as she understood that he had deliberately left her the illusion of escape. So that he could pull it from under her feet in the last instant.

"Sir?"

She turned her head to where the figure in army gray and green stood beyond the threshold of the door.

"That will be all for now. Close the door will you?"

"Yes, sir." He hesitated, with a glance at her. "Should I -?"

"I said that will be all. You're off duty." Lex smirked at her. "Ms Lane will be perfectly safe in here with me."

The soldier flushed a little. He was younger than he seemed, Lois realized. "Yes, sir," he said, pulling the door to. The clicking of its locks sounded loud as rifle fire in the suddenly chill atmosphere of the living room.

She turned her head to bestow a derisory stare upon Lex. "You're losing your touch. You didn't really expect me to fall for that, did you?"

His infuriating smile told her that she wasn't fooling him at all. She tossed her head and folded her arms, staring out into the false night. She heard him chuckle quietly.

"If you want me to play those games, Lex," she said, forcing her tone to smooth ice and hating herself for the faint tremor in it she was unable to control, "stop having your men watch my every move." She glanced over her shoulder at him and made her lips smile. "It spoils the sense of spontaneity. And there's precious little of that here."

"Oh, I gave them the night off, switched off the equipment," he rejoined casually as he reached to pick up the taper lying on the pristine white cloth of the table. He lit the two tall, fluted red candles he'd placed in its center deftly and then shook out the taper's flame. The candlelight bloomed like a yellow rose, turning the room into a disturbingly intimate place of shifting shadows and flickering light. "It's just you and me this evening. It's more…intimate that way. Don't you think?"

He pulled out one of the chairs and eyed her expectantly. Lois stayed where she was. She saw a faint flicker of irritation shadow his face.

"You're not hungry?" he said. "I'd be surprised. If you don't join me, this will be the last meal you see for forty-eight hours," he added the casual threat in a murmur as he took his own seat and lifted the lid on the hotplate. Tantalizing scents filled the air.

Lois smiled brightly at him and this time it was more genuine than most she'd worn over the past few days. He'd made a mistake. And like all of his mistakes it was to be cherished like an unexpected gift. If Lex was expecting defiance from her, if he was expecting her to refuse to eat with him, he was going to be disappointed. Lois had once read a contemporary thriller about a girl kidnapped by a serial killer. She had persevered through the unlikely heroine's endless mistakes of judgement and appalling stupidity, but she had finally tossed the book aside when the girl had 'with feisty defiance' refused to eat until she was freed. Such stupidity merited no applause from Lois Lane.

Refusing to eat simply meant you were too weak to fight or run when the chance came. Keeping up your strength for that one moment of chance was the priority, not feeble and ridiculous attempts to rail against the situation. And the situation was that escape — for now — was impossible. Waiting was the game to be played. From experience — her own and others — Lois knew that the only difference between survivors and victims was that survivors kept an eagle eye out for The Chance when it came and used it to their best advantage. Let The Chance slip past you, or come at you unprepared, and you were doomed. The Chance would come. There was no doubting that. It always did. But it came but once — perhaps twice if you were exceptionally lucky — and no more.

Lois was on the lookout. And she was going to be ready when it came.

Gracefully, as though he was inviting her to join him at some high class restaurant, as though she was there by choice and invitation, not duress, Lois took her place opposite him at the table. "If I'd known you were going to go to this much trouble I'd have dressed for dinner," she told him.

Lex's gaze traveled insidiously over her jeans and light wool sweater in powder blue and a slight frown puckered his brow before it was dismissed. "Perhaps we can rectify that in future," was his only comment.

Lois ignored him. "Carpaccio with truffles," she approved as she surveyed the meal laid out between them. "And served just the way I like it. You remembered. You know," she commented as she helped herself from the platter of steamed vegetables, heaping them carelessly on her plate, "a girl could be flattered by all this attention to detail." She paused in the act of picking up the cutlery, and then raised her head to view him, lifting a brow along with her fork in silent comment. "Plastic, Lex? You're kind of spoiling the ambiance of romance here, you know that, don't you?"

"Considering your mood of earlier, I thought it was a wise precaution." Lex followed her example, filling his own plate. "I really had no desire to end my evening with a steak knife planted between my ribs."

"How unsporting of you," Lois murmured. She took a small bite of the steak and couldn't prevent a small sound of pleasure escaping her as the richness and warmth of the meat assaulted her taste-buds.

"I'm glad you approve. Your appetite has been a cause for concern for Dr. Callinson. And myself of course. I've never known you to pick over your food before."

Lois ignored the comment. If Lex was unaware of the basic rules when captured by the enemy she wasn't about to enlighten him. She had learned a lot following those marines for that exclusive from the Gulf. She had researched a lot too. Methods of torture, physical, psychological and emotional. And methods employed by the army and its soldiers to counter it. Not always successfully. She required sustenance. She couldn't refuse to eat. But she could eat what she was given sparingly. Just enough to keep up her strength, hopefully not enough to let any drugs within her meals take too much hold. She couldn't avoid such measures entirely, if Lex was employing them, but she could limit their effect as best she could.

Tonight, however, she could relax a little, indulge her appetite a little more. Lex was, after all, eating this stuff too.

<Maybe he has an counter-agent ready to take as soon as he leaves you. Did you think of that?>

The thought ambushed her. The food turned rancid in her throat. She put down her fork, appetite suddenly gone. Her hand, she became aware with almost hypnotic fascination, trembled against the white of the cloth.

"Lois?"

Lex's voice came from a far distance. She couldn't live like this. She had to get out. She had to get away. She couldn't stand this an instant longer. This constant fear, this having to outguess, second- guess, third and fourth-guess, him every second, every moment, every instant of each day. Considering her every move and thought a dozen times before it was made. Watching, searching, hoping…

It was killing her. It was killing her heart in her. Shriveling her soul.

Oh, Clark…Clark…

Help me.

He had always helped her. He had always been there for her. He would be again. She whispered the truth of that like a mantra in her soul, feeling it strengthen the shred of hope that she clung to so desperately. When her fear of what Lex might do to her became too sharp and bitter to ignore. What he might do. How soon his patience might wane. When he would decide to abandon the pretence of wooing her…to stop playing these games…to -

<I would never let that happen…>

For a moment the memory which accompanied that soft, insistent voice in her head was so strong that she could feel the comforting embrace of Clark's arms around her, the steady, reassuring beat of his heart against her own…and then it had faded, leaving her with the sharp awareness that she was alone, this time she truly was on her own, with only her own strengths and resources to save her…

<This thing with us…it's stronger than me. Being with you is stronger than me alone…>

Stronger together. Yes, they were. And that didn't change because they were apart. That was a constant she could trust in, believe in…a truth she could hold on to, cling to, and use to armor herself with against anything — anyone — who tried to keep them apart.

Stronger.

With him she was stronger. Even if he was only with her in spirit, in her memories, in her heart and soul.

She was stronger.

"Lois?"

She shivered, beating down the rising panic and the chaos of her thoughts. "My throat's a little dry." She got to her feet.

"No, sit. Allow me."

Lois subsided as Lex moved around the table to remove the bottle of champagne from its bucket of ice and pour them both a glass, before resuming his seat with a smile for her.

Lois drained her glass in a couple of gulps and reached for the bottle to refill it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lex resume his meal, forking another portion of meat into his mouth. The bottle was just out of her reach.

Just out of reach. To get it she'd have to stand up and…the cameras were off. The Chance. Opportunity sizzled its way across her nerves as her brain ticked feverishly. She might never get a better one.

Trying to force the sudden tremor in her legs into stillness, she rose slowly to stand.

"Really, Lex," she said lightly as she reached for the bottle, a move that put her within inches of him. "If you're trying to get a girl drunk, the least you can do is put the champagne where she can get it. Do you want some —"

Perhaps it was her eagerness that betrayed her. Maybe her movements, fuelled by adrenaline and the tension humming through her nerves like electricity through fine wires, were just a shade too fast, a touch too quick.

Whatever it was that alerted him, Lex was ready for her.

She was aware of him shifting forward in his seat as she grabbed for the bottle. Instead of gripping it with intent to fill her empty glass, she took hold of it around the neck. She made each motion count as she raised the bottle high and turned swiftly around — each movement completed in one smooth, economical twisting of her body.

She felt the cool champagne flooding across her wrist and arm from the upturned bottle, she felt something dig its way hard into the space between her ribs -

— and pain exploded through her like a riptide.

Lois screamed, heard the sound reverberate in her head, felt the red hot surge pulse through her again.

For a moment there was darkness. Darkness and pain. Oh, god, the pain. It burned like acid, tore through her like fire.

And then, somehow, she was lying on the thick carpet, writhing helplessly, the pain a sharp, needle-prick along her limbs as she clawed at the pile beneath her, retching. Dimly, she saw the champagne bottle thump to the floor beside her. It bounced, once, twice, and then came to rest.

Disorientated, agonized, she drifted.

Dimly she heard a sigh. Lex hunkered down beside her. She couldn't move her head, could only stare up into that saturnine face as he smiled softly down at her. She put all the loathing into her eyes that she could muster. The last thing she felt was the touch of a hand stroking softly through her hair and the low, soothing voice of her tormentor as he murmured commiseration.

"There, you see? You see what happens when you get these foolish ideas? I don't want to hurt you, Lois, really I don't. But you have to learn to listen to me. You have to learn…to do as I say."

And then there was blackness.

***

"Oh! You're still here."

Clark glanced up from where he was pulling the breakfast trolley into place, startled by the sudden intrusion of her voice into the peace of the sunlit morning.

He had not seen Eve since he'd left her in the bedroom the previous evening. When finally he'd returned to the suite in the early hours, he had been so exhausted by the emotional upheaval of his mood and by another fruitless round of anxious, futile worrying over what was happening to Lois, coupled with more restless, unproductive searching, that he had simply fallen asleep where he sat. He hadn't done more than briefly scan the bedroom to ensure she was still in there.

Finding the bed empty, he had sighed and redirected the beam to find her curled up on her blanket nest again. He hadn't had the heart or the energy to disturb her. And no desire, despite his reservations on how comfortable she could possibly be in there, to risk another misunderstanding or confrontation should he make the attempt.

He had been lost in the darkness of sleep before he could fully argue it out with himself and had woken, just a few scant hours later, feeling more weary than before. His sleep these days were too much landscapes populated with dread and terror, black realms where all of his subconscious fears, held at bay by the iron of his will during the daylight, were released to stalk and torment him. No, his sleep had nothing of rest or escape in it right then.

His heart turned over now as he saw her standing awkwardly in the doorway. Tousled from sleep, her slight figure swathed in the cream cotton of her robe, she looked lost, like a child, and her wariness and uncertainty was etched painfully in the paleness of her face and in her eyes. And so like Lois…

He pushed that unwelcome comparison ruthlessly aside, as had become a habit so ingrained in him, and so common that he had to make it, it had become instinctive. Reflexive.

Aware that he had tensed — and that, unnaturally attuned to his every mood as she always was and always had been, Eve had become aware of it — he forced himself to relax. There was nothing he could do for Lois right now. The truth of that was bitter, but it had to be faced. He had tussled over it, fighting off the desperate urge to deny it, to bury it deep and never bring it into the light again, as he had done all these long days. Fought that desperate inner battle between harsh reality and the refusal to accept it all through the night as he had worked feverishly to find anything, any smallest task, any rescue, any crime, that he could help at, anything and anywhere he could do something that would occupy his mind and still his thoughts, those bleak, black thoughts, that seeped their way into his heart and numbed it with their poison.

In the end, having driven himself hard to the point of near physical collapse, he had seen the sense in retreat. Soaking up the revitalizing sun as he floated on the air currents in a bright blue sky, he had finally and reluctantly accepted his limitations. Superman or not he was just a man. And a man as helpless as any other right then. It chafed. It hurt. But he had learned as a child that truth was never easier to bear when it was ignored.

For the moment, Lois was lost to him.

For the moment, in this instant, he could do nothing to aid her.

But if he couldn't help her, he could at least help someone.

If nothing else he could at least give Eve something of kindness, until he left once again for Metropolis. Spare her the dark despair of his mood and the weary fears that churned relentlessly and ceaselessly within him. She accepted that darkness in him, he knew — and quite rightly for it was the truth — as being directed at her. Saw in it some of the accusation and blame he felt for her part in Lois' abduction. And her fate. Whatever that might be. And he was still cognizant enough of what had happened between them last night, still held enough of a memory of the stark terror that had been in Eve's eyes and painted, waxen, on her face, that he couldn't bear to let her feel anything but secure and safe right then. Pity stirred in him. And remorse. And the urge to make amends, even if only a little. Both for his own past behavior and for all that Luthor had done to her.

What she needed now was to know that she was safe. That he wouldn't allow anyone to hurt her again. That much, at least, he could do.

Eve was beginning to fidget restlessly under the weight of his stare, the silence growing awkward. "I'll — " she started and then, trailing off, she indicated the bedroom helplessly, turned to go.

"No! No, wait," he added in a gentler tone as she flinched at his abruptness. "I ordered breakfast," he said.

She stared at him, suspicion blooming even deeper in her eyes and he sighed. "Look," he ploughed on determinedly, "why don't you sit down here…" He crossed the room quickly to take hold of her arm and maneuvered her to sit at the table, ignoring her quizzical glance at him as she let him settle her in place with all the care in handling he might have afforded a Dresden figurine.

She sat there, stiffly, as he moved around the table to sit opposite. Clark tried not to notice that there were tears in her eyes. She held an air of being desperate to accommodate him, desperate to please…but not entirely sure how to go about it. Her confusion was palpable. Her desperation painful to watch.

"I…I didn't know what you'd like," he told her, awkwardly. "So I just ordered what Lois would want."

Eve studied the sparse offering of toast and honey on the plate before her. Her face expressed her obvious disappointment by screwing itself up in distaste. She followed this indictment of his menu choice with a vocal exclamation point, "Bleah!" and then darted a glance at him hastily. "Don't like honey. Remember?"

Clark shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't —"

"Oh, well, that's okay," she pardoned him magnanimously. "I like Captain Crunch and Lucky Charms," she declared helpfully. "And Fruity Pebbles. Fruity Pebbles are yummy scrummy."

"Oh. Well…you can order some of those if you like. Here let me —"

"Oh, that's okay. Not hungry. Much." She smiled weakly at him.

"It's no trouble," he said, still standing.

She shook her head, fiddling with the cutlery beside her plate. She was anxious, he realized, obviously regretting having said anything at all, worried she'd made another mistake.

"Okay then," he said, reluctantly taking his seat. "But tomorrow you get Captain Crunch, okay? Just…whatever you want."

She gave him a small glance from beneath her lashes and then nodded imperceptibly.

"Good."

Silence descended on them. Clark realized he was rolling his own fork nervously in his hands and ended the motion abruptly. A sudden memory flashed into his head, sparked by the frisson of polite awkwardness that lay heavy in the air between them. Just like when…

Lois and he in the honeymoon suite at the Lexor. How awkward had that been? An absent smile curved his lips as he recalled how they had been so afraid to give in to what they were feeling, even then. His eyes lit on the woman opposite; for a moment the memory had been so strong, so real that he'd almost expected it to be Lois there. And for a moment the illusion that she was was so strong it was like a knife in his heart when it faded to unwelcome reality. The smile died, stillborn, on his lips as he stared into the direct, inquisitive eyes fixed on his. In that gaze there was none of the spark of fire, spirit and indomitable intelligence that so defined the woman he loved. The parallels between then and now were like some black joke.

And the joke was on him, wasn't it? Luthor had seen to that.

Eve continued to stare back at him and perhaps she saw something cold and hard in his face, because she searched the table with nervous eyes, as though seeking inspiration. She found it apparently in the white china pot standing on the hot plate.

"Coffee!" She brightened, reaching for it and holding it aloft in invitation. "You want some?"

"No, not just…sure, why not?" he amended, as her face fell at his refusal.

He made himself smile congenially as she poured the rich brew into an empty cup and slid it along the table to him. "Thanks."

"You're welcome!" she rejoined chirpily. She set the pot back in place and then sat demurely, hands folded in her lap as she watched him expectantly.

Giving in, knowing he'd be subject to that attention until he acknowledged the service from her, Clark took a cautious sip. "Good," he approved.

She beamed at him. "It's Nicaraguan."

"Aren't you having some?" he asked over the rim of his cup.

"Oh! Yes." She poured herself a cup and then returned to her pose of expectancy, leaving the coffee untouched.

Clark shifted uncomfortably in his seat. How on earth had Luthor thought he would be fooled by this? What had moved the man to believe that this subservience would please him? Did he really think this was Lois? That this was the Lois — the wife — that he, Clark, wanted?

Or — he thought with sudden clarity — had Luthor mistakenly let his own fantasies about the perfect Lois for *him* get in the way when he'd designed Eve? What was it Luthor had said, all those years ago?

<I love Lois. But she's much too independent, don't you think? Well…leave that to me…>

A soft chill shivered through him as he realized that in many ways he was seeing what Luthor had planned for Lois after she became *his* wife. A woman obedient to his whims, eager to please, submissive to his demands. The perfect trophy wife. His lips twisted in derision. The perfect slave.

The insight made him queasy all at once. The coffee tasted sour in his mouth. He set down his cup. A little too abruptly; it rattled in its saucer, drawing Eve's eyes.

"You're…different."

Clark glanced up at her, quizzically. He looked down at himself. He was wearing khaki pants and a light green shirt over them. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

"No, not like that, silly." She giggled and, as he stared at her, blinking in surprise at this sudden show of spirit, "I mean…you. You're different." She tilted her head, studying him. The laughter in her died and she looked down at the table, drawing a slow finger in figure-eights against the cloth.

Clark watched the familiar beginnings of discomfort and the hint of fear begin to cross her features. Sure signs he'd learned to recognize that she felt that she had overstepped the boundaries again, angered him with some indiscretion, expected to be punished. He fought down a prickle of annoyance at her submissiveness, knowing it wasn't her fault, before she confessed softly, "I don't know how to act with you this way."

Clark frowned, confused. "What way?"

"Like this. Talking to me." Her eyes darted upwards to engage his and she shrugged. "You don't usually talk to me in the mornings, that's all. I…I don't know what you want now."

"We always talk in the mornings," Clark said, bemused. "We have breakfast and talk about what we're going to do during the day."

She shook her head. "We don't talk. You tell me what our plans are and then you go into there." She pointed into the bedroom. "I have breakfast alone and then we leave to do what you want."

Clark flushed. She made it all sound so…callous. Arrogant. As he had been, he admitted. He had treated her like some trained animal that would tag along at his heels and come when he whistled or crooked his finger. Never had he given a thought to what she might want or even whether what she wanted matched his own mood or needs of the moment.

"I…I'm sorry…" He saw her look abruptly shocked at the apology, which made him feel even worse. "I didn't realize…" He sighed heavily and laid down his napkin. "Look, can't we just start again?"

She looked down and then up on him again, puzzled. "Breakfast?"

"No…no, I mean, everything. Eve — " He began soberly and then paused, considering. Despite the reflex in him to be honest and direct with her, he found there was still a modicum of caution and distrust within him that held him back from giving her too many concessions. He regretted it and he despised himself for it, but he knew it wasn't something to be easily denied.

Despite his new understanding of her and his resolution to be at least as kind to her as he could be and to show her the due respect he would any human being, he couldn't help but also be aware of what she was and he couldn't help but wonder as a result just how much of what she said and did was genuine and how much of it the result of conditioned behavior or her…programming for want of a better word. He felt uneasy with such terms now but could think of no other way to describe what he felt, deep within at an instinctive level, was at the core of her.

He might pity her. He might feel guilt and shame at how he had treated her in the past and wish to make amends for that. He might feel enraged whenever he thought of how Luthor had made this innocent, this child, and so designed her to be abused, had abused her so vilely himself. But did that mean he could — should — trust her?

Absolutely not.

The vehemence of the response came direct from the wellspring of instinct deep within him and Clark knew that it was worth listening to. Oh, he could understand, at an intellectual level, that none of this was Eve's fault and she held no responsibility for it. He could admit that, when all was said and done, she was nothing more than a puppet, with the strings pulled by Luthor…but that was the point, wasn't it? Luthor was the invisible puppeteer pulling on the strings of the marionette. Guiding, controlling, directing, her every move, thought and action. Behind that guileless gaze that so mimicked his wife's, Luthor mocked him.

It was true that in the past few days he had seen flashes of a new, fresh-born personality exhibit itself in Eve. Like any child, she learned and added to the store of her experience as she grew, and her rate of growth was accelerated beyond anything remotely normal besides. And there were times when that new Eve imposed her will and preferences on the world around her, in direct competition with the personality Luthor had imprinted on her and intended her to use. But that didn't mean she had lost everything he had instilled in her.

Just how much of what he saw and heard was innocent and how much a calculated ploy to play on his sympathies was perhaps something he would never discover. All he did know — with absolute certainty — was that Luthor was aware of just what Lois meant to Clark Kent. How deeply in love with her he was. How she could make him melt just by entering a room. Was it beyond the man to have instructed Eve to play the 'damsel in distress' card if required? No. Her vulnerability, her fear of him, all of them could be nothing more than tricks to spark the natural urge to protect in him. What better way to a man's heart was there than to invoke primal instincts to protect and cherish? He couldn't risk letting down his guard too much. He had to be alert to any guile.

But…when he looked into those soft brown eyes, so soul-less at times and yet still able to work their magic on his heart, in direct conflict and unheeding of what his more rational mind knew lay behind them…it was difficult to hold on to that resolve.

He frowned and found himself speaking almost without being aware of what he was going to say until it was voiced. "That night, in my apartment…after the…the wedding. You didn't leave. Why *did* you stay?" he said, his tone that of someone who'd had the thought on his mind, unvoiced, for a long time. "Why didn't you take the chance when I left to run back to Luthor? You knew how angry I was with you…" He trailed off, a high flush of guilt rising in his face as he remembered again just how vicious he'd been that night, driven by rage at Luthor and terror for Lois and Eve the only one he could lash out at.

Guilt too because although he'd had no clear intent to it when he spoke, he understood clearly that what he was asking for was some sense of a path through the minefield of deception and lies to at least some measure of truth he could use to deal with her. A test. He found himself leaning forward a little, keen to hear what she would answer. The truth? Or a facsimile of it? Or perhaps even something in between.

Eve was silent for a time. She wouldn't meet his eyes. Then she said simply, "I didn't have anywhere to go." She shrugged, her gaze fixed on the surface of the table. "I was afraid…I didn't know what would happen when you came back. But I knew what would happen if I went back to Lex…" She stopped, her face pinched and haunted. In her eyes there was a darkness he couldn't bring himself to believe was feigned or calculated. It spoke too much of pain.

Clark watched her, pity sharp on his face. Her words did something unexpected and inexplicable to his heart. Simple though they were, they encapsulated everything of the horror that Eve had endured at the hands of Luthor and his minions. She had stayed with a man who terrified her, who had already threatened her life if she stayed, who might well, for all she'd known, hurt her badly, even kill her in his rage…because the alternative, to return to Luthor, terrified her more than that. Because she was more afraid to leave than to stay.

He guessed he had his answer.

Impulsively, before he could stop himself, he reached out and placed a soft hand over hers. "Eve, you're safe here. With me. I want you to know that. Okay? I'm not going to hurt you and I won't let anyone else hurt you either. Not Luthor, not anyone. You don't have to —"

He froze. You don't have to be afraid any longer, he'd been about to say and, shameful though it was, knew he couldn't. The stark, brutal truth was that he needed her to be afraid. It was all that was keeping her with him, part of the subterfuge, part of his conspiracy against Luthor, and part of his means to finding Lois again. If she was unafraid of Luthor, of what was out there in the world waiting for her, she might decide to leave. And he would lose everything. Swallowing the rank taste of that in his throat, he made himself continue, "You stick close to me and you won't have to worry about anyone hurting you. You don't need to be afraid of that any more."

It was the best he could do to salve his conscience and maintain his goals. Besides, it was probably even true. Out there on her own she'd be an innocent abroad, without the skills to survive in the world alone. With him, at least she wouldn't need to worry about being in danger.

<Doesn't she?> a small prickling voice nudged insidiously at him. <You couldn't even protect the woman you love…what makes you think you can do better with her?>

He squeezed his eyes tight shut for a moment, fingers clenching suddenly into fists as the guilt of that failure and the mockery of his conscience seized hold of him, piercing his heart.

"Clark?"

He opened his eyes with a start. She was watching him with an expression of faint alarm. "Nothing," he said quickly. "I was just…it was nothing. I felt a little…dizzy for a moment. I'm fine now."

She looked back at him, forcing a faint smile, but the anxious darkness in her eyes didn't lighten.

You do what you can, he told himself grimly. That's all. You do what you can. For Lois…and for her.

"So," he said with forced lightness, taking back his hand and adopting a new air of easy congeniality, trying not to let himself succumb too much to the naked gratitude that shone suddenly in her eyes. "Breakfast. Before it gets cold." He lifted the cover of the dish before him. "You want some eggs? Over easy, just like — I mean, I think you'd like them," he recovered from the near-slip.

She looked at the eggs. Suddenly her entire manner was hesitant, uncertain.

"What?" he said gently, sensing something she wanted to say, but couldn't work up the courage for. "Eve?" he prodded as she stayed silent. "It's okay. Tell me."

Inexplicably, tears had gathered in her eyes. She looked miserably back at him. Then she sighed, a soft, shuddering breath. She shook her head. "Eggs are okay. That would be cool."

Clark paused, but he understood that whatever it was that was bothering her she wasn't about to tell him anything more. There were, it seemed, issues of trust on Eve's side of the table too. His lips twisted wryly with the thought. Strangely, it hadn't occurred to him that there would be. He shook his head a little ruefully. Eve just kept on coming up with ways to surprise him, he guessed. He decided there was little point in trying to force her to confide in him. They had found their way to some degree of accommodation, he didn't want to ruin it now by being forceful with her. He assumed that if it bothered her enough she'd let him know.

"Okay," he conceded, giving in. "We'll have eggs. And then…" He gave her the first, truly unguarded smile he'd bestowed on her since he'd become aware of what she was. "You can tell me what you want to do today."

***

It was the acrid stench of cigar smoke that roused her.

She came up out of the black pit she had been lost in gasping for air, her body tensed in anticipation of agonizing pain. There was none. She felt dizzy, disorientated, and her head ached abominably. But that debilitating agony her nerves seemed to be screaming at her to beware of was absent. She relaxed a little and then squinted painfully into the corner of the room.

Where Lex sat in relaxed, easy pose in the chair he'd drawn up beside the window of her bedroom. In the darkness, he was nothing more than a collection of shadows, half-lit by the spill of artificial moonlight that chased around the edges of the blinds. Smoke swirled lazily across their varnished surface.

She surged up out of the smothering pillows, pushing back the covers around her waist as she struggled to sit.

Bedroom.

She glanced down at herself in dismayed confusion. She was in her bed. For a moment, still a little stunned, she couldn't make sense of it all. She had been in the living room. Dinner. They had been eating dinner. And there had been…champagne. And now…now…

"Don't worry. The effects are strictly temporary."

Effects? The sudden sound of his voice dragged her out of the confusion of her thoughts and fixed her attention on the man sitting beside the bed. Of the champagne? Ridiculous! Champagne didn't give her this kind of raging headache…or blackouts…or… And she hadn't drunk that much of the stuff anyway…that she recalled. Had she?

Except now she was in bed and…*what* was she wearing? Bemused she explored the rich red silk of the nightgown, a creation in opulence and Arabian Nights fantasy, with its boxed-shouldered, long-sleeved jacket over a tabard style gown and…Lois blushed…a very low cut neckline. Embroidered panels in a mixture of black, silver and gray chased the neckline down into the shadowed hollow between her breasts. She had never seen anything like it — beyond the pages of lingerie magazines — and she had certainly never worn it before. She had no memory of buying the thing either.

Her confused attempts to place the gown in some sense of order within her memory were suddenly derailed as a second and more urgent thought occurred. Never mind where it had come from. A chill coursed its way down her spine. Who had undressed her and put her into it?

Her gaze stuttered upwards in shock to her companion.

A suggestion of movement in the darkness drew her gaze downwards. Lex was holding out a hand, palm upturned and outstretched toward her, and her eyes darted automatically to what he held. It looked like nothing more threatening than a computer mouse. This one was black and sleek and fitted perfectly into the curve of his palm. Bewildered now, her eyes lifted questioningly to scan the mystery of his face.

"The Myotron Checkmate 25," Lex offered clinically as though giving a lecture in self-defense. "25,000 pulse watts power. Includes safety slip cover, wrist strap, key chain attachment, lithium battery pack, VHS video and fifty-nine page Checkmate owner's manual. It even comes with a Manufacturer Lifetime Unconditional Warranty. As you've just discovered, it utilizes pulse waves to overpower the subject's neuromuscular system using electrical levels recognized as safe, non-injurious and non-lethal by medical and scientific communities. Prolonged contact may result in a cosmetic trace similar to two tiny mosquito bites, which will disappear in a short time. Callinson says no sign of those, you'll be pleased to hear. It causes no injury, cuts, burns, bruises, etc. It can penetrate up to two inches of clothing." He shrugged, giving up on quoting the advertisement. "In other words, your standard, basic taser."

"How…very…romantic…" Lois croaked out hoarsely, her gaze fixed on that small, innocuous looking little plastic egg as understanding pierced through her all at once. Innocent and harmless enough that it could shred her nervous system in an instant and leave her quivering and helpless like some boneless, gutted fish. She remembered the pain and the helpless inability to gain control over her body that had come in the wake of him using that…that abomination on her. She remembered it in the sudden juddering tremor that she was unable to still. In the film of chilled moisture suddenly coating her skin. In the thunder of her heart against her breast.

Helpless. And vulnerable. Her heart clenched and sickness rose up in her throat at how vulnerable that thing left her.

She tore her riveted stare from his hand and fixed it on his face. "I have to…thank you, Lex, for the…lovely…evening," she said weakly. She leaned back against the pillows, closing her eyes as a wave of nausea ambushed her. But she still managed to inject a fair degree of sarcasm into her tone. "Must do it again…some time."

"Ah. Regrettably, in these dangerous, modern times, even the art of love needs some protection," Lex noted with a mock sigh. She opened her eyes to fix him with a basilisk stare. "Every suitor should have one." He turned the taser in his hands, observing it thoughtfully. "Perhaps I should develop my own brand. Market them as the essential dating aid. The key to every man's most fervent desire. Quick, discreet, efficient…though, as I'm sure you could testify, not entirely painless. But still…" His grin on her turned sharp and wolfish. "Much cheaper than rohypnol. What do you think? Think they'll catch on?"

She stared at him, fear and disgust rendering her incapable of answering.

<Cheaper than rohypnol…>

Someone had carried her here, from the living room to this bed. Someone had undressed her and put her in this fantasy nightgown. His fantasy, she understood with a new and unwelcome clarity.

"How…" Her first attempt at the question clogged in her throat. She swallowed hard. "How did I…?"

He studied her quizzically for a second or two, as though not understanding what she was asking. Then a look of faux offense overtook his face. "Lois…Lois… You wound me that you would think so little of my skills in seduction. Really, you don't imagine that I would — ?" He shook his head, aping rueful disbelief, and then laughed at her. "Trust me, my dear, I prefer my partners to be just a little more lively in the bedroom than you were tonight."

His laughter brought down the red mist. In that moment, facing him across the room, she had never wanted to kill another human being so badly.

He rose to his feet and despite herself she shrank back against the pillows as he moved closer. She stilled the traitorous motion with an irritated frown. Lex lifted a hand, stroking a soft path across her cheek. He smiled as she jerked clear of the touch. His voice softened to an insinuating whisper. "Believe me, Lois, when I take you to *my* bed, you'll remember every moment."

Lois tried to fight down the fear as she stared up at him. For the first time, she had been made aware of what it was she was imprisoned with. The Lex she had known, the suave, urbane socialite, charming, attentive, and respectful of her, was nothing more than the thinnest facade now over the true man beneath. The mask was shabby and worn, no longer hiding the glimpses of what had been hidden beneath for so many years. There was a glint of insanity behind the cool eyes regarding her. She had called him sick and twisted, a sociopath, but she hadn't truly understood until this moment that, far from being a convenient insult, that *was* the reality of Lex Luthor. He was insane. And he was obsessed with having her.

She swallowed roughly, her mind beginning to race frantically in response to this new understanding of just how much trouble she was really in. "I'm…sorry," she whispered.

He beamed. "Then you're forgiven," he declared magnanimously. He reached out again and Lois resisted the urge screaming within her to flinch with an effort of will that dizzied her, as he stroked softly at her hair. "I don't want us to fight, Lois. It disturbs me when you're angry with me. I want us to enjoy our time together. It's not too much to ask, my dear. Is it?"

"No. No, it isn't," Lois agreed woodenly.

If Lex noticed her lack of enthusiasm, he chose to ignore it. Perhaps he assumed that it was the pain of what he'd done to her and the fear of experiencing it again if she tried to defy him that had worked this magic of sudden docility in her.

It wasn't.

It was fear of the dizziness that still swarmed in her head and the palsy of trembling in her limbs. Red darkness still hovered at the edges of her vision and if she blacked out again now… The thought of being unconscious, unable to fight, to defend herself, helpless and vulnerable to whatever he decided to do with her, filled her with terror and disgust. She wouldn't — couldn't — risk it. She'd have to find another way out other than direct confrontation with him. But she wouldn't risk him using that taser on her again. The thought of what he might have done to her after she blacked out scared her so badly it made her feel physically sick. She had no sense that he was lying to her now, there were no physical signs that she could detect that he had violated her in any way… If you discounted that he had undressed her, that she had been naked to his gaze, to…even the thought of his hands on her that way, at all…nausea burned in her throat.

Lois closed her eyes as Lex placed a kiss against her forehead. She opened them again as he retreated. He smiled. "You're tired. I know. It's been a trying day. Sleep now. Tomorrow you'll see things more clearly. Trust me. We'll find our way through this, Lois. We'll find our way back to what we had together. I'll help you all I can. You'll be happy here."

<I'll help you all I can.>

Transfixed with horror and loathing, Lois shivered uncontrollably as he walked away from her.

Despite his command, sleep failed to claim her for the remainder of the night.

***

Tonight, the city seemed determined to show herself at her best. The night was crisp and remarkably clear. Opposite, the lights of the other buildings sparkled like gems among the darkness, glittering with warmth and welcome, making him wonder, as he did often, about the lives of those who worked there, glimpsed now and then through office windows with opened blinds as they went about their business.

Usually, the view from his office window inspired him, intrigued him. A patchwork glitter of superficial charm and beauty that laid a veneer over corruption and sleaze, crime and poverty. The occasional feel-good story that made up for all the rest. With Superman on their team now, those tended to outweigh the bad far more than they had when he'd begun his career. All those years ago. Who could have imagined then that one day a guy in red and blue and a cape would be cruising around the city's skies, lending the causes of truth and justice a steel edge? Not this old hound dog, that was for sure.

The city. And its people. Part of his life, boy and man, for too many years than he cared to count. He couldn't say they had never disappointed him, never angered him. But until now they had never betrayed him. Never left him feeling lost and disorientated, no longer sure of what mattered or what was important any more.

But now…the beauty of the night felt like that betrayal. Why wasn't it raining? That dismal, dreary rainfall that sunk the soul into depression? It would have been more in keeping with his mood.

His gaze flickered, drawn by motion at the corner of his eye. He watched a young woman, brunette and slim, cross the lighted square slightly above and to the right of his position. Dressed in a dark blue business suit, her carriage and pace spoke of impatience and frustration to the consummate people watcher that he was. Studying the world was his business, after all. Over the years he had developed a keen eye for body language. For judging the thoughts of others without them ever saying a word. It helped preserve his air of mystery, he thought with a wry smile. And kept the reporters in his dominion on their toes.

His gaze tracked the young woman as she pushed her way through some doors, vanishing momentarily from his view before he picked her up again in the next window along. She thrust a sheaf of papers onto the desk of a heavyset man who looked up at her, surprise blossoming on his florid face at her abrupt entry into the sanctity of his domain. Perry couldn't help but smile as he watched her harangue the man in a parody of a silent movie, arms waving as she paced before his desk.

The smile faded, the scene becoming too painful to view any longer. He wrenched his gaze sharply away. Was Lois out there too? Hidden behind one of those windows? Tied up in some basement somewhere? Luthor favored underground lairs — like the sewer rat he was. Was that where he was keeping her? Perry eased the tension in his shoulders with a sigh of frustration and contempt.

Where was she? Why hadn't she contacted them? Was she unconscious? Hurt?

Dead?

His scowl was so fierce all at once that it drove the unwelcome thought into abrupt retreat, gibbering an apology as it went. He'd promised himself he wasn't going to let himself dwell on the negatives of the situation. That way lay defeat. And, by Elvis, Perry White wasn't going to give up on Lois Lane, mewling like some frightened cat. Superman was out looking for her, he reminded himself. He would find her soon.

Soon.

He'd been searching for days. Surely he'd gone over every inch of this city a dozen times or more by now? And there had been no sign of her. No sign of Luthor. His reporters couldn't turn up even a scrap of information about him. Before or after his escape from prison. Their informants were either clueless or didn't seem to want to talk. He guessed Luthor's reputation still carried weight and held echoes among the low-lifes out there, even now. His capture and stint in jail hadn't seemed to diminish how dangerous he was known to be, out on the streets.

As events had proved, he thought morosely.

Which of them could have imagined Luthor's plan for Lois? And Clark? Which of them could have sunk so darkly into the rotten, corrupted soul of the man to understand what drove him?

Clark.

He had sounded almost at the end of his tether when he had spoken to him last on the phone. Weary, dejected…

Perry sighed. This was getting him nowhere. He turned away from the windows and stared out blankly for a moment into the dim shadows of the deserted newsroom. Even the usual late-nighters had given up and gone home hours ago. Only the lamp on his desk, casting its small circle of yellow light, kept the darkness at bay.

Normally, this was his home. More of a home than even home had been, he conceded sourly. He couldn't blame Alice for realizing that. Tonight, the silence and the dark simply made him feel depressed and alone.

Coffee, he thought. Some of that good old newsroom Java would perk him up. He had work to do. He glanced at the desk, aware, though he was loathe to confess to it, that there was nothing among the papers spread in disarray there that couldn't wait. Nothing of burning importance. But they'd keep him occupied. Better he sat here, going over the minutiae of his life, than lie in bed, in the dark and alone, wondering endlessly where Lois was and what was happening to her.

Before he left his office, he snicked the lock on the window, pushing it slightly ajar and shivering a little at the touch of chill air that oozed its way through the gap.

He was pouring himself a mug of the steaming brew when he heard the sound he'd been half expecting. The sound he'd been waiting all these hours to hear.

A gentle whoosh of air.

"Just trying to keep myself awake," he said as he stirred in sugar and cream. "It's been a long night." He turned his head to his visitor, holding up the mug in invitation. "Want some?"

Superman straightened from where he'd landed lightly on the floor beneath the window and shook his head. "No. Thank you."

His expression was wary, Perry noted, as the superhero approached him diffidently. Somehow, he always seemed to provoke that slight holding back from the man. He had no idea why. Although he supposed he could hardly blame him for being cautious and reserved around the press. Sometimes though, he sensed a reaching out, a flicker of warmth through the reserve.

"You've been out looking for her again. Haven't you," he said quietly as he turned back to the coffee stand, and it wasn't a question. His gaze leapt back to search the superhero's tired face. "Anything?"

Superman shook his head. Frustration and anger warred in his eyes for a moment, before he sighed. "I'm running out of options. I don't think she's here. He has to have taken her out of the city. Out of the country maybe." He hesitated. "If he has —"

"We'll never find her," Perry joined him in his conclusion, unhappily. "Not without a miracle."

To his surprise the briefest flicker of a smile crossed the superhero's face. Perhaps it was intended to be wry. It looked a little bitter. "Lois seems to attract miracles. Just like she does danger." Superman sighed softly and then shrugged, a helpless gesture so alien to the masterful image he usually showed the world that it almost tore his heart to see it. "Most times it seems to balance out in her favor."

"But not this time, looks like. You were her biggest miracle. Snatching her from the jaws of death just when it looked bleakest of all. If you can't help her — " Perry shook his head suddenly, his face spasming with self-disgust. "Listen to me. Cackling on like a silly, fool old hen, not helping at all. I'm sorry, it's just —"

"You're not saying anything I haven't told myself a dozen times over already," Superman told him softly. "And you're right. I can't help her. Maybe if I'd been quicker to realize, if I'd known sooner that he had her, I could have —"

"You can't blame yourself for that, son," Perry admonished him gently. "Even Clark didn't figure it out till it was too late. And by the time he was able to get in touch with you, ask you to help, well the horse was well out of the starting gate and racing down the straight by that point. Should haves and maybes aren't going to help us now."

Perry sighed, stirring fitfully at his mug as he made his way back to his office. He sensed Superman following as he settled himself behind his desk.

"I've been thinking if anyone's to blame for this it's me."

"You?"

He thought Superman looked more startled by the claim than anything else. He shrugged. "I sent her on that damn assignment. Maybe that made it easier for him to —"

"No. Oh no, not at all. Clark and Lois found out information on that assignment about clones and frogs that could help find her. And helped Clark realize a switch had been made all the sooner. If you hadn't assigned them, Clark might still be stumbling around in the dark, all the more right now."

Perry grunted. "Maybe." He glanced across his shoulder at the darkness pressed up against the glass. "I've been sitting here thinking a few should haves and what ifs myself." He gave Superman an apologetic shrug. "I guess that's why it's a good thing I have plenty of paperwork to keep my mind from fretting over this a dozen times a day. That way lies crazy."

Superman nodded.

"Sit," Perry invited and, when the superhero looked likely to open his mouth on a dumb fool rejection of that, added gruffly, "Sit down, son, before you fall down. You're out on your feet. You think I can't tell that? And don't give me any of that nonsense about Superman never getting plain tuckered out, never getting stressed out neither. I know better than that. You think I haven't watched you on all those newsreels after a hard rescue?"

Superman hesitated, then sighed and lowered himself into the seat opposite. With the capitulation all of the weariness in his face seemed to accentuate, his posture slumping just a little more than the stiffly formal superhero pose normally allowed. He ran a harsh hand across his face and then smiled ruefully across at the watching editor.

"It gets harder to find time to recharge, that's all. I'll be fine. I'll take an hour soaking up the sun in the Caribbean before I head back to Clark."

"Pava leaves."

"Sorry?"

"Pava leaves. Good for stress. I've got some here if you —"

"No, that's…okay. But thanks." Superman smiled at him wearily and then straightened, his expression taking on a newly expectant cast. "Do you have that information I asked for?"

"Sure, right here." Perry dumped his coffee to his desk and rooted in the bottom drawer of his desk before emerging with a disk case. "Jimmy was here all night copying this." He handed it over to the superhero, who took it eagerly. "It's all there. Every holding, every property ever owned by Luthor. Factories, warehouses, estates, villas in the sun…privately owned or corporate — everything Jimmy was able to track down. There are a lot of disks," he added apologetically.

"Thank you. Thank Jimmy for me too. I know Clark will be grateful for all the help and time he's put into this."

"You really think it will help?"

Superman shrugged. "Like I said, I'm all out of options. What else can I do but start widening the search?"

The thought behind the words was a frisson in the air between them. It might be a hopeless waste of time, it most probably would be, but it was better than doing nothing, of having time on his hands to think and wonder and drive himself crazy worrying about Lois and what was happening to her.

<We fill up our heads each in our own way,> Perry thought, remembering the reasons why he was sitting alone in a darkened office. <If we didn't, we'd go mad with the not knowing of it all.>

"You've seen Clark," he said, shifting the subject slightly and glossing over the awkward moment. "How's he holding up?"

"He's…doing okay." Superman shifted a little in his chair. "He asked me to let you know — he's going to extend the honeymoon by one more week." He shrugged as Perry hitched a brow at him. "Coming back here without Lois, having to fit back into normal life, working here, with…the clone…would be —"

"Unbearable for him." Perry nodded. The awkwardness returned, neither of them wanting to say what was uppermost in both their minds. That if Lois wasn't found soon, Clark couldn't hide in Hawaii for ever. Sooner or later he might find himself facing that horror, the nightmare of having his life torn open in the public arena of the press, with the abduction of Lois and the clone thrown into the living nightmare of a public investigation. He couldn't keep it to himself for much longer. Sooner or later the story would be out. Sooner or later he may have to face the hard reality that he might live out months or years, trapped in this morass, or may never find Lois at all.

It may be in their minds, but it wasn't to be spoken. Not now. Now was too soon, they both understood that, locked in a mutual pact of denial and rejection. To voice such a thing aloud was to consign Lois to her fate, to accept that she was lost. And neither of them were ready for that. Perhaps they never would be. Perry nodded, sealing that silent vow between them and saw a shadow of relief cross the superhero's face.

"I'd have my doubts about that flibbertigibbet being able to carry off pretending to be Lois around here too," he said, consciously supporting Clark's decision, maintaining the pretence. "Didn't look to me like that woman had a brain in her head. She wouldn't fool anyone for a minute. And she sure wouldn't be bringing in top flight exclusives. Bring her back here instead of the real thing and everything will fall apart in a Metropolis minute. Tell Clark I understand. I'll give people some moonshine about those two being so moonstruck out there they begged me to give them another week's vacation. It'll ruin my reputation as the Editor from Hell, but I can live with that."

Superman smiled briefly and then rose — reluctantly Perry thought — to his feet. "I should go. Thank you."

"Hell, son, I'm not doing anything worth thanking for. Those kids are as important to me as they are to you. Lois, she's been like my own little girl these past few years; daughter I could be proud of. And Clark…" Perry cleared his throat as his voice roughened. "You just help them get back here where they belong. You hear?"

Superman nodded. His eyes locked with the editor's for a long moment, as though sealing that compact between them — the wraith of Lois Lane tangible in the room with them — before he turned away.

***

Lois stared at the piece of paper held out to her like a peace offering on Lex's outstretched palm and then folded her arms as she raised her head to study him suspiciously.

"What's the catch?"

"No catch." He looked back at her, amused. "Let's just say I decided there should be no room for distrust between a man and his…companion-to-be."

Lois shook her head. "You've had me watched day and night since you brought me here, keep me under armed guard twenty-four seven…and now you expect me to believe you woke up this morning and decided to let me loose?"

"Oh, hardly. But I'm prepared to let you have free run of the Citadel, yes. Well, barring certain, privileged areas. If you're unsure of which areas are restricted, off-limits to you, you can ask any of my men to advise you. Other than that, you're free to roam as you please."

"Gee, that must leave me at least five square yards to play in. Magnanimous of you."

"I thought so. I can't devote all my time to you, my dear. Much as I'd like to. Business calls. And I did think that you'd enjoy being able to take advantage of the facilities here in those times when I don't require your…company." Lois felt a slow flush caress her skin as his eyes lingered lasciviously on her body with the words, making it quite clear which part of her he enjoyed keeping company with. She suppressed a shiver. "However, if you'd rather stay here in your —"

Lois darted out a hasty hand as he began to close his, snatching the scrap of notepaper from his fingers. She ignored his chuckle.

"Well," he lifted his wrist and glanced at his watch, "I have to go. A business conference with some Malaysian friends, I'm afraid. Can't be put aside. But I'll see you at dinner, as usual." He moved to place a perfunctory kiss against her cheek. "I think I'd like to see you in black tonight, Lois," he said as he retreated. "Something…elegant and classical."

Lois's eyes darkened, but she refused to rise to the bait. Mutely, she watched him go. In the doorway, he turned back to smile at her. "So, what will you do with your afternoon?"

She shrugged. "Drown myself in the pool? Hanging myself from the basketball net might be rewarding…"

"Lois…" he chided. "Please." He sighed as she glared at him. "Oh, well, whatever it is you do, enjoy it, won't you?"

What she intended to do today, Lois thought grimly, as the door closed behind her tormentor, was get the hell out of this insane asylum before she joined its gibbering inmates in their madness.

Turning sharply on one heel, she marched for the bedroom. Slamming the door behind her, she flounced to sit cross-legged on the bed. She could feel the tension leech itself from her spine and shoulders as she did. With a sigh, she reached up and kneaded fitfully at the nape of her neck. She closed her eyes, knowing she should feel grateful for this concession of privacy she'd won, but finding that, as always, it simply chafed at her sense of pride.

So much of the daily minutiae of her life now was illusion. The illusion that she would be able to roam the Citadel freely for example, without guards tagging at her heels. When, in reality, she knew that her every movement was tracked by cold, impersonal eyes behind banks of monitors in small, darkened rooms.

The illusion that she had any privacy at all.

Only in these two areas of her cell — bathroom and bedroom — could she feel some measure of security, the only place where she could let down her guard, be herself, now.

She had insisted that she be given a handheld bug scanner, with which she swept both rooms daily and each time she returned to her apartment on leaving it. She had demanded that the scanner be tested in her presence when she had first been given the concession and periodically she would perform some surreptitious action in either room, designed to look as though she may be planning some attack or escape — a scrunched up sheet of paper wadded between the headboard of her bed and the wall; some food carefully wrapped and secreted beneath her pillow — waiting to see if it led to the room being searched by her guards or to some comment or counteraction by Lex. It never had. Still, they could have examined such things during her absences from the apartment and then replaced them so that she wouldn't be aware that they had. She kept the scanner with her at all times, but that didn't mean it couldn't be tampered with while she slept. Every so often she used it to scan the areas she knew were bugged and it continued to register the presence of surveillance devices. But what did that prove? Really, what did any of it prove?

Was paranoia the first sign of madness for the captive? Or simply a necessary survival skill? She didn't know. All she knew was that she'd been driven to extraordinary lengths in her attempts to ensure as much as it was possible for her to know that this privacy — so hard- won, so humiliatingly gained — was real and uncompromised. That it was no trick or cruel deception of her jailer's.

And so, to that end, she had feigned a desperate suicide attempt. She had broken the bottle of perfume, taken a shard of the glass, and, sitting on the floor beside her bed, had hunched over enough that her actions would be hard to make out for certain by any watching eyes. Then she had pantomimed slashing her right wrist. She had lain on the floor, her 'damaged' wrist and arm conveniently beneath her body, for almost an hour, but no rescue had been made, no one had come rushing to stop her.

When it became clear that there would be no response to her playacting, she had casually gotten up, dusted herself off, and gone into the living room. Where she had pitched a fit worthy of Mad Dog Lane herself, her abuse and yells searing the air of the apartment, before marching into her bedroom again and slamming the door behind her. Having the satisfaction of thinking up a multitude of insults to hurl at her captor had been a bonus. She had been most inventive. When, later, her guards had come to fetch her and take her to Lex, she had claimed that she had broken the perfume bottle in the midst of that rage. The mess had been cleaned, the bottle replaced, and no one had blinked an eye at her explanation, as far as she knew.

Apparently the implications hadn't been lost on Lex however. The replacement perfume bottle had been plastic. In small moments since, Lois had grimly amused herself by imagining the look on his face when her actions had made him aware of the risk he had mistakenly taken. By giving her something she could use as a weapon against his guards or him…or herself.

And then there came the moments when doubt set in, paranoia returned, satisfaction at her cleverness seemed childishly over- confident. Was it really possible that Lex had been so careful to ensure the apartment was cleansed of anything she could use against him or herself…and yet had forgotten about one glass bottle? She supposed it might be. Perfume came in glass bottles. Perhaps it had simply been so everyday an item, so much the norm, that it had slipped from his attention. Perhaps. Or…perhaps not. So…had Lex simply known it was a ruse and left her to believe herself safe? Or had she genuinely been alone, there on that floor? She couldn't know for certain. But she had done as much as she could and she had to hold fast to something. Some hope. Some small concession to her sanity. It was an imperfect security, but she clung to even as small a guarantee as this.

Lois Lane had learned to compromise. Learned to settle. Perry would be ashamed of her.

Perry…

Tears stung at her eyes as she imagined the disappointment in the editor's face if he could witness how low she had already sunk, as she let her thoughts wander on what they were doing now…her friends…her colleagues…Clark…

She dragged herself out of the brown study, grimly. She hadn't been so insistent about getting this small privacy, such as it was, just so that she could mope around in here getting maudlin. She might as well do *that* out there in public. Give Lex a false sense of achievement.

<Snap out of it, Lane.>

Insisted. Demanded. Her expression twisted in a grimace. Yeah, right. Keep believing that you can insist on anything, Lois. Keep believing that you can demand anything at all. That what you think or want is important to anyone here.

Lex had, more truthfully, indulged her. That was what had happened. Wasn't it? Indulged her whim to protect her privacy as though she were a favored child. A concession to her that he could offer or withhold as pleased him. Something of no consequence to him, that mattered so little he could afford to be generous. It had cost him nothing to concede to her demand that she be free of surveillance in these two areas of the apartment. He had raised a sardonic brow when she had refused to accept his word that any spying equipment in those rooms would be removed and had carelessly agreed to her codicil that she be given a handheld bug detector without comment.

Lois was only too aware of the real reasons that lay behind her jailer's generosity. One more lesson. By giving in to this demand he merely emphasized even more cruelly and sharply those he refused to surrender to, those wishes he chose to ignore. Only accentuated that her demands *were* his to deny or grant — as the fancy took him. That nothing she wished for or wanted was hers to give. Not any more. Even the most fundamental of rights, rights that she had always taken for granted as hers and no others to control — privacy, the right to be alone — was a gift from Lex Luthor. Something that could be snatched away at any moment as easily as it was offered.

She shook off the dismal awareness that the veneer of control over her own life was thin enough to crack beneath the least scrutiny. To admit to that, to acknowledge it, would be to find the solid ground beneath her feet wasn't so solid after all. The thinnest of sheet ice in fact.

So…whether it be fiction or not and with no way to tell for certain…she clung to the small security that the bug scanner gave her and maintained her belief in its existence with a ferocity that she wouldn't allow to be challenged in the moments when her thoughts turned darkest. She dressed in the bathroom now and retreated to it for long hours at a time, the only space in which she could be reasonably sure she wasn't overlooked, studied like an insect under glass, any hint of weakness measured, any sign of her breaking pounced on, noted, and used against her.

At least Lex's casual acquiescence, his disinterest in denying her, had gained her an area of retreat. Her lips twisted sourly. A retreat she could cower in when she felt near to screaming in frustration and the permanent itch that lived between her shoulder-blades could be dulled for a few moments before she had to return to being the subject of constant, prying eyes.

She sighed, dropping her hand. She shouldn't be so hard on herself, she knew. Her victories were few and far between, heaven knew. She should take solace in the meanest of them when she could.

She unfolded her fist and looked at the paper she had screwed up into her palm thoughtfully. The key to…well if not freedom at least a limited representation thereof. She had tried so hard not to let the leap of desperate longing and gratitude for this unexpected treasure that had clenched in her heart show on her face. She wouldn't give him the pleasure. Or the satisfaction. But now she fisted her fingers around the note and hugged it between her breasts like a life preserver. If she had had to spend one more day trapped within the confines of these rooms she would have truly gone mad indeed, she thought soberly.

And out in the Citadel, she had a better chance at finding her way out, to surreptitiously check out the guard rotation, where the 'forbidden' zones were and how to get into them, map out the true scope and scale of Lex's hideout and even, perhaps, find some tool or weapon she could use to get herself out of this mess, she reminded herself, bolstering her mood.

Smoothing the note out, she committed its line of numbers to memory and then got up off the bed and put it away reverently in her nightstand.

Her newly optimistic mood soured somewhat when she opened the wardrobe door, already knowing what she would find there. There it was. Lex's little black dress. Elegant and classical, just as he'd stipulated. His little jests, in pretending perniciously that the choice of what to wear these days was hers, revealed for the studied, degrading cruelty they were.

Four days ago, she had woken to discover that all of her clothes — the wardrobe which Lex had had copied or taken from her apartment — had been removed. There had only been two outfits left. A casual pants and sweater ensemble — which Lex had apparently decided was ideal for day wear for the single woman trapped in a prison cell masquerading as her home — and, hanging beside it, a long, emerald silk sheath. Hung from a pouch around each hanger had been every last touch apparently deemed necessary, from underwear to jewelry to accessories, to complete the outfits. Suitable shoes had been left in the bottom of the wardrobe.

Lex's earlier comment on having to do something to ensure she was dressed for dinner next time he joined her for a meal had taken on a new edge.

Lois' furious tirade of protest had fallen on deaf ears. At least, Lex had been deaf to them. She suspected that as she'd railed and yelled and paced the apartment, she had left a few of his spies with headaches.

But it had gained her nothing. Finally, she had resorted to the one defiance left to her. Full of rebellion against the indignity, and fury, she had deliberately chosen to wear the emerald sheath throughout the day. When Lex brought in dinner, in what had become a regular habit, she had been lounging on the sofa in pants and sweater, reading a fashion magazine.

He hadn't been able to contain his fury. Recklessly, and somewhat stupidly she had to confess morosely now, Lois hadn't been afraid of it. Dinner had been conducted in a vicious, poisonous silence and Lex had left without a word shortly thereafter. And she had congratulated herself on winning the round, gone to sleep with a smile for the first time in days.

Until she had woken the next morning to find the wardrobe entirely bare and nothing left for her to wear at all. She had been forced not just to spend two days wearing the Arabian Nights nightgown, the only garment left to her, but had also been left in no doubt that Lex wouldn't tolerate her mocking him again on this particular point. His darkly acerbic insinuations that should she try thwarting his will one more time she would find not only a bare wardrobe when she woke, but shortly thereafter two of his men, dispatched to reclaim the nightgown, had certainly awoken a sliver of unease within her. And it had been with a sharply humiliating relief that she had opened the wardrobe on the third day to discover her 'clothing privileges' restored. She hadn't tested his patience on the matter since.

Debilitating and degrading though this indignity was, however, what *frightened* her about the situation was how well Lex dressed her. His choices were, with few exceptions, not far removed from what her own would have been. In quality and style, he seemed able to judge her tastes with an accuracy that both appalled and scared her. That he could know her so well left her permanently uneasy and off balance.

She fingered the jeans hanging beside the black dress for a moment, brow furrowed. Then with another sigh she pulled them and their accompanying soft white blouse and pouch from their hanger and threw them carelessly to the bed.

Her mood couldn't be dampened for long though. Not today. Like a child eagerly preparing for vacation, she dressed quickly, her heart soaring, despite her admonitions to herself that this was no doubt precisely the response Lex had wanted to provoke in her. Gratitude for the gift.

Well, if she couldn't help herself delighting in the unexpected but welcome taste of freedom she'd been granted, she would at least try not to let him know about it too much.

Ready to go, she hesitated as she passed the dresser. Lex's only error lay there. He had provided her with the largest bottle of perfume that the perfumiers had been able to offer. The only problem was that it was a perfume she loathed. Heavy and cloying, its fumes gave her a headache whenever she wore it. It had given her great satisfaction to smash its predecessor; she might well have done so just for that, even if she hadn't needed it to prove a point. Lex, she understood, had acceded to his own preferences here, dismissing hers. She might be forced to wear it each evening, while sharing dinner with her jailer, but she could do without it at any other time.

She could forgive him the lapse however. She touched her fingers lightly to the bottle for a moment. It had become something of a touchstone. The habit of touching the bottle each day, sometimes several times a day depending on how low her mood sunk — of connecting with that solid evidence that Lex wasn't infallible, that he could makes mistakes, and so be beaten and outwitted — had become something of a lucky charm.

She shook her head at her own foolishness. But her fingers lingered on the bottle anyway. An extra dose of luck, just for today. She was going to need it. All she could get.

At the bedroom door she paused. She smoothed at her clothes with nervous hands. Then, taking a deep, steadying breath, she opened it and headed for the front door.

***

Superman stood on the highest ledge of the tallest building in Metropolis, surveying the world beneath and around him with distant eyes. Arms folded, cape blowing fitfully around him, he saw none of his surroundings. Despair wrapped him in a chill that weighed heavy on his shoulders and shrouded his heart and thoughts.

He knew that he couldn't really spare the time for this break in his routine. There were still the downtown areas to patrol, and, if he could find the extra hours beyond that, more searching to be done. As he had told Perry, he had taken to spending the last hour of the night, as dawn began to lighten the skies above the city, on a little secluded beach he knew, out in the Caribbean. He had never felt the need for as much sleep as the average person, he could get by on just a few hours if he had to. But that hour soaking up the sun before he returned to his hotel suite, gave him the needed edge he required to keep going. To spend the day with Eve, playing his role as husband and honeymooner as best he could for Luthor's pleasure.

He had the hours of his night mapped out into a routine he no longer had to think about, a blessing, and it didn't leave time for standing around on ledges feeling morose and lost, he told himself in disgust.

But still…tonight…

The meeting with Perry had sunk his spirits to a new low. It wasn't like his friend to be so downhearted, dwelling on the negative. Perry was the one who had always been there for him before. Encouraging, chivying him out of despair and depression, even in the most seemingly hopeless of situations. Always the one who could be relied on to think of the positive. The ways out.

Somehow the darkness of the newsroom, a place that had always held welcome for him, a sense of home, had seemed oppressive that evening. When he'd glanced back, just before he'd launched himself back into the overcast sky, he'd seen Perry slumped in his seat at his desk, head bowed into his hands. He'd risen quickly, unwilling to intrude on his friend's grief.

Hope.

Understanding that Perry had lost hope in Lois being found had been like stepping into quicksand all at once, having the ground disappear beneath his feet.

Was it really that hopeless? Was Lois really lost?

He slumped to the ledge, drawing his knees up to his chest and laying his forehead to their platform. He couldn't let himself believe it. He wouldn't!

But if she wasn't here…if she wasn't in Metropolis…

Enough! Wherever she was, he would find her. If he had to tear every corner of the earth apart, he would find her.

Lois…Lois, sweetheart, help me. Help me find you. Please.

I can't do this alone.

I can't do this without you.

His lips twisted and he lifted his head sharply. He couldn't do this if he let himself flounder in maudlin self-pity, he rebuked himself viciously. Maybe it was time to give up on Metropolis. Maybe it was time to stop searching here and take stock, find a new plan. That didn't mean it was time to lose hope, give up on her entirely. He would never give up on her entirely. If it took a dozen years, till the end of his days, he'd search for her.

Ignoring the dismal thought that twisted in his skull that perhaps it might come to that after all, he pushed himself to his feet with an effort and launched himself into the darkness.

***

Lois started with a session in the well-equipped gym. Lex had been cognizant of her need for regular exercise from the start of course and daily sessions in the fitness complex — better equipped than most health clubs she'd been a member of — had been mandatory. Lois hadn't objected, knowing how important to her plans for escape those sessions, keeping herself fit and toned, were. But it had been a refreshing pleasure to have the gym to herself today, rather than sharing it with two of her minders.

Moving on from there, she had foregone a shower in favor of a leisurely swim in the series of pools and lagoons, set out among lush, green landscaping and artificial rockscapes, that adjoined the gym complex. One of the half waterfalls had cleansed her sufficiently and she had the reassurance of knowing that, with judicious use of her towel, she had been able to change into the bathing suit left for her, in the locker with her name printed on it in cold, black type, without revealing too much of herself to watching eyes.

Sitting in the steam-filled confines of the sauna, afterwards, she let herself relax fully while she considered that enough time had elapsed for her to soothe any suspicious watchers that she could now get down to business.

She stretched leisurely and decided to go for a stroll.

There were, of course, any number of breath-taking areas set aside for such activity. Marvels of engineering and technology all. Parks, woodlands walks — there was even an entire eighteen hole golf course somewhere around. Set aside exclusively for her use and likely to be the envy of any greens-keeper or country club set if they had been able to view it. But if she chose to forego them in favor of walking the corridors of the Citadel, well that was her choice, wasn't it?

As she walked, apparently deep in thought and idly unaware of where her steps led her, she tried to dredge up from her memory what she remembered of the layout of the Citadel. At least, what little she'd seen of it the last time Lex had shown it to her. The memory made her cringe, remembering that time, when he had offered her just this captivity she suffered now. Then, it had been sugar-coated in something she could — and had — denied him. A straight trade in return for saving her from the destruction of the Nightfall asteroid.

In particular, she tried to envisage the route they had taken from her 'apartment' to the elevator that led to the first floor of the LexCorp building.

She saw nothing that looked remotely familiar.

Logic dictated that the way to the surface would be heavily guarded and in one of those restricted areas Lex had mentioned. Knowing that she would be stopped and politely redirected into a safe zone as soon as she strayed too close for comfort to somewhere that might aid her in an escape attempt, Lois decided subterfuge was a complete waste of time. And even being able to identify where the exit was by default would be valuable information, that could be added to the small store she laboriously gathered day by day. Lex would perhaps be surprised to know just how much his prisoner actually knew about the daily routine of the guards who confined her. Lois wasn't about to pin all her hopes on one escape attempt and leave it at that. She fully expected this one to fail. But no attempt was ever entirely useless. Repeated attempts would bring success, sooner or later. Each failure would provide new clues and valuable information. It was simply a matter of attrition, she told herself firmly. A matter of whittling down the parameters until fate and luck and her own tenacity brought her the results she craved.

She hesitated at the junction of two corridors, the first red- delineated zone she'd discovered, and then pushed back her shoulders. Her palms were damp and her heart was racing like a rabbit's. <Well,> she thought, drawing in a calming breath. <They do say that fate favors the bold.>

She struck out robustly along the corridor to her left. To her surprise, she wasn't challenged. The corridors she walked were empty and abandoned and no figures in green fatigues came running to stop her. Maybe red didn't denote forbidden. Maybe it was the equivalent of the local red-light district. Those poor boys must have some time off when they weren't annoying the hell out of her. The thought produced a grim smile. There wasn't another female within fifty miles of this place, she knew.

When she had queried that fact, Lex's logic had been impeccable. Without a trace of abashment, he had forthrightly explained that as the only woman in the entire Citadel she made an easy target for surveillance, with no chance that she would be mistaken for or disguise herself as another female occupant. Nor had Lex intended to take the risk that she might bond with any female companion, who might be persuaded to sympathy for her plight and offer her aid. He had, of course, no such worries when it came to Callinson or his men.

No such worries was safe enough, Lois thought darkly now. She would have as much success in persuading one of those blocks of granite to dance the polka than see her as human or offer her help to escape.

Up ahead, she heard the sound of voices. Her pause was fractional, enough that her sudden change of direction down a side corridor looked entirely natural and not prompted by the urge to avoid anyone at the end of the hallway.

Over the course of the next hour she changed her route a half dozen times in similar fashion, prompted by the sudden appearance of soldiers or some sound or noise that alerted her to possible danger of discovery. She figured her luck had to run out eventually. It had already stretched thinner than she'd ever expected or hoped for.

Sure enough — as she turned one more corner into another stretch of dismal corridor, which looked the same as every other she'd trudged through before it — it did.

"Miss? Miss Lane? Hold up there, please."

Lois froze, cursing under her breath before she turned smoothly to eye the soldier approaching her cautiously.

"This is a restricted area, Miss Lane," he stated the obvious. Lois rolled her eyes. "Would you like me to assist you in finding your way back to the complex? Where were you headed?"

"Yes, please." She smiled at him brightly. "If you can escort me to the front door out of here that would be enormously helpful, thank you."

He eyed her askance. "Very funny, Miss Lane." His smile was perfunctory. "Let's go this way, shall we?"

Lois sighed. "After you," she murmured wryly.

He shook his head, sweeping his hand before him in silent invitation and Lois snapped a dark glance at him before complying.

"Is there anywhere in particular you'd like to go?" he asked after a moment from his position trailing her.

Lois stopped dead, then twisted around to face him, the strain of the morning on her nerves finally snapping into sudden, furious anger. "Is there any point in going anywhere?" she demanded bitterly. "Is there anywhere in this godforsaken place that has just a smidgen of fresh air instead of recycled? I'm sick of breathing in my own damn stale air!"

He stared at her. Lois growled and whirled back, moving her pace up to a sharp clip. After a moment she heard him hurry to catch up. She hadn't expected an answer to her outburst, so what he said next surprised the hell out of her.

"There is a place…" he ventured hesitantly. "Where we go…the guards, you know…get a couple of moments, take a breather." He paused. "I could show you, you like?"

Lois stopped dead and looked up at him. "A place? A place outside?"

He nodded.

Her eyes narrowed on him. "And you'll take me there — outside — just like that?"

He shrugged. "Don't see any harm in it. I'll be right there with you." His eyes flicked over her briefly and he frowned. "It'll be cold, mind. You probably shouldn't stay out long or you'll catch a chill and then I *will* hear it from Mr. Luthor. But a couple of minutes won't rock any boats."

Lois stared at him. "What's your name?"

"Morley, Miss. Lieutenant, First Class."

"Well then, Morley Miss Lieutenant First Class…I don't suppose you know how to dance the polka, do you?"

"Miss?"

She shook her head. "Never mind." She tried to fight down the elation welling up in her, trying to maintain some level of wariness for this too-good-to-be-true lucky break. But she couldn't seem to stop herself grinning inanely at him. "All right, I'll bite," she said. "Let's go."

He nodded, ushering her ahead of him and directing her down a series of corridors until they came to the burnished metal doors of an elevator. Lois watched in growing disbelief as Morley pressed the button and then let her precede him inside the cage.

They rode the first few floors upwards in silence. Lois slid a glance at her companion as he stood stiffly beside her, before, finally, she could stand the curiosity no longer. "Why are you doing this?" she asked suspiciously.

He didn't look at her, kept his gaze fixed on the faint, distorted reflection of them in the doors, at the rolling changes of the light as floor after floor was passed by. "Like I said. Don't see why not."

"A jailer with initiative?" Lois murmured. She ignored the faint tightening in his jaw. "Hard to believe."

"Think what you want then. Doesn't matter to me. You can't get up to no good out there with me in tow. It's safe enough. Minimal risk."

"Ah…calculated the odds, have you? All the permutations?"

"More or less," he agreed stiffly. His tone had become a little less friendly. Lois couldn't find it in her heart to mourn the loss. He wasn't her friend and his pretending to be was irking her. She had no idea what was going on, what kind of trap this was, but she was sure the noose was waiting up ahead and the punchline to one more of Lex's desperately unamusing and bitter little jokes was all ready to be delivered.

She shifted slightly. The journey seemed interminable. She wished she'd thought to take count of how many floors they had flickered past, instead of prodding at Morley. It would have been more fruitful.

One of his stupid jokes, she reiterated to herself fitfully, as she sighed, hypnotized by the steady light and dark movement behind the cabin's sealed doors. Bound to be. Still… Despite knowing it, she couldn't help but wonder. Couldn't help but take the chance. Couldn't help but place her head in the lion's jaws. Because it *could*, just, impossibly, be the real thing. Even the minus one percent of a chance made it impossible to pass up.

That was, of course, the deepest of all cruelties her captivity forced upon her. That hope made her a willing participant in the traps set for her.

She started violently as the elevator jolted to a halt and the doors rolled back. She turned a curious look on her companion as they revealed a short flight of bare concrete steps, leading up to a nondescript, blank, black metal door.

"Straight ahead. The door should be open."

Lois hesitated. Then she straightened her shoulders and puffed out a small breath. "All right."

She felt rather than heard him follow her up the stairs. Every nerve and instinct in her seemed to be attuned to him, judging, analyzing…he was two steps behind her…seemingly relaxed and not anticipating any great threat…two steps down and slightly to her left… Not close enough to be within grabbing reach of her should he lose his balance, but well within reach for —

In one easy, practiced movement, Lois swung around, planted her foot in the middle of Morley's chest, and used every ounce of thrust she could bring to bear on the kick she delivered.

Breath slammed out of him, Morley couldn't even yell his surprise as he was bowled over backwards to tumble to the bottom of the flight. Lois registered the shock in his widening eyes as he went, the desperate but futile attempts by him to arrest his fall as his hands struck wildly at the walls and found no purchase. But she didn't stick around to sympathize. Before Morley even hit the concrete floor with a thud that seemed to reverberate in her ears, Lois was tearing up the remainder of the stairs towards that door…

Towards escape.

Escape!

And Metropolis.

Up there lay streets she could lose any pursuit in, streets she knew as intimately as a lover, streets she could lay low in, get her bearings, in…the Planet wasn't more than a cab ride away…if she could flag one down, Perry would pay at the -

The instant she burst through the door, the air cut into her like a blade. She could almost feel it seeding ice into her blood, encasing her heart, freezing in her veins like liquid nitrogen. The quick, panicked bursts of breath that escaped her chest emerged as powder puffs of white cloud before her eyes…

…and all her thoughts, her plans, her hopes of escape died in her. The shock was so complete, so brutal, that it was almost like a blow in the chest, rocking her back on her feet and whitening her face as the blood drained from it.

Dimly, like a voice out of a nightmare, echoing in the dark of the tunnel behind her, she heard Morley curse, the heavy clatter of his steps as he came after her. But she forgot about slamming the metal door behind her, hopefully delaying his pursuit. About losing herself in the rabbit warren of Metropolis alleys. About searching for a cab to take her back to the Planet. About the ruination of all Lex Luthor's schemes and the first steps taken towards her revenge.

There were no streets.

There was nothing. Nothing but frigid stillness and a silent, white- edged world. Which closed in around her as her breath plumed on the air.

She stood there, numbed, disorientated, feeling the world drop away from her.

Quite literally.

She was standing on a small, half-circle of stone balcony, enclosed by rough rock walls and low ceiling. A mimicry of a subterranean cave, high up among those mountainous peaks, whose only exit was the rough-hewn rectangle opposite her, open to the elements. A flurry of snow found its way through as she stared in disbelief at that view.

As though driven of their own accord, without her violation, she found her steps taking her slowly towards that gap. Like moving through water, sluggish, unsteady, wrapped in nightmare.

She laid her hands on the wide, waist-high stone ledge and surveyed the black, white-tipped splendor of the mountains that took up every inch of her view with eyes that were lost and dark. Great slabs of prehistoric granite, rearing up like white-capped spears to impale the heavy, oppressive weight of the gray-cloaked sky above. She wasn't even aware of the tears that slid across her chilled cheeks. Each breath hurt. Her heart felt as though the ice had already reached deep inside it.

Drawn against her will to it, she let her gaze fall.

Down into the abyss that drew the eye and the sheer, frightening drop that fell away from the balcony beneath her.

***

Clark smiled broadly, feeling it stretch in the muscles of his jaw.

"No…you gotta say gorgonzola!"

Clark stopped an irritated sigh just short of escaping him. "Just take the picture, Lois," he commanded through clenched teeth.

He was trying, he really was, to treat Lois' doppelganger gently and with care, but there were times still when she drove him to distraction. When the strain of it all, the playacting, the searching, the despair, grew just too heavy to be borne. He had spent the whole day on the tourist trail with his adoring new wife…and he had just about had enough. Aside from the obvious strain, he chafed at losing hours from his search. Surreptitiously, he checked his watch. Almost midnight. By now he could have had five or six hours under his belt…

On the other side of the plaza, behind the little instant camera, Eve pouted at him, but dutifully snapped the shot. She grinned at him as she bounced back across the square to wrap herself close to his side and take his arm. "See? That wasn't so hard, now was it? I swear, you're such a baby, times."

Clark gave her a tight glance and then forced another smile. "Easy as pie, darling," he agreed, brushing the faintest of kisses against her hair. He found it easier to do than kiss her properly and he trusted that no one watching would mark the difference or find his affection the cold and bitter thing it truly was. Even with the change in their relationship over the past few days, the softening of the boundaries between them, more allies than enemies, he still couldn't stop the reflexive aversion to even the most fleeting or casual of intimacies with her.

The thought reminded him that he couldn't afford to let his guard down, or his true feelings show. Forcing himself to relax the tight line across his shoulders, he slipped an arm around the slim waist of the clone and looked down at her with what he hoped would be viewed as an indulgent and affectionate smile.

"So…where to next? I know. There's this little bar down by the beach —"

"Can we go back to the hotel?"

He glanced down at her in surprise at the quiet interruption. Her earlier, exuberant mood seemed to have deflated all at once. The child-like pleasure he'd come to expect when he offered her some concession or treat, paid her special attention, had failed to materialize. She looked wan and downcast. More than that. Suddenly becoming aware of things that had escaped him until that moment, he studied her more intently, straightening as he drew back from their close embrace.

"Are you okay?"

She shrugged, fiddling with the camera. "Please…I just…" She gave him a glance from beneath her lashes. "I just want to go back."

Puzzled, Clark nevertheless responded to the weary plea. "Sure," he said, taking hold of her arm and solicitously guiding her through the scattering of tourists and vendors. "Are you sick?" he asked worriedly, as she let him maneuver her through the crowd with an audible sigh of gratitude.

She shook her head, but he continued to cast her anxious looks as he took them back to their suite. She hadn't eaten much over dinner, he remembered. Maybe the day was catching up with her too.

"Sit down," he tossed over his shoulder at her, gesturing to the sofa absently as he headed for the phone. "You look like you could do with some food inside you."

She didn't protest his diagnosis, but something came into her face that puzzled him. As he dialed room service and rattled off a quick order he frowned at her as she stood in the center of the room. Putting down the receiver he said brusquely, "It won't be long." He folded his arms as he leaned back against the edge of the writing table. "While we're waiting, you can tell me what's going on."

She didn't seem to want to look at him. Clark felt his heart jolt in his chest. What now? What was coming now to derail his plans? To get in his way? To delay him in his quest to rescue Lois?

"Eve!" he demanded, perhaps a little more sharply than he might have intended. A sharpness he instantly regretted as she started and then looked up at him, misery stark in her eyes.

"Eve…" He shook his head, the spark of anger fading, guilt overtaking it at his selfish thoughts of just a few seconds earlier. She was in pain, he saw, and here he was, worrying about delays to his plans. He sighed, loosening his stance and letting his arms fall to his sides. "Just tell me what's wrong, okay? Let me help you."

She looked away, then made abruptly for the lanai. Staring out at the view, she rubbed fitfully at her arms, despite the muggy heat spilling in through the open doors. He waited her out and after a time his patience was rewarded. Her voice, when she finally spoke, was small and quiet enough that he had to augment his hearing to make it out.

"I have to…I have to eat."

Clark frowned, confused. "Well, that's why I ordered dinner. Why don't you come sit down and —"

She turned on him sharply. "No! I mean, I have to *eat*. You know…" She trailed off helplessly. Her cheeks were flushed as she glanced away from the sudden leap of understanding in his eyes as they widened on her.

"Oh," he said. "Frogs."

She nodded, a quick, embarrassed bob of her head.

"Doppelbuffo frogs. Well it shouldn't be too hard to find a supply. A legal supply, I mean. I'm not raiding any pet shops. They're indigenous to the South Pacific, so there must be plenty of them around, in this area…" He trailed off as her expression turned furtive and just a little… What? Something fleeting that he couldn't quite decipher. If she needed the frogs…why was she telling him? Hadn't she already secured a supply? "Aren't there?" he questioned, suddenly less confident of his facts.

Eve shrugged and looked away. The glimpse he got of her face before she did showed eyes that were suspiciously bright and cheeks that seemed suddenly sallow and wan under the light of the lanterns beyond the lanai railing.

His expression tightened abruptly, as the pieces suddenly fell into place in his head. Pale. She looked more than pale. She looked… sick…

He muttered a soft imprecation as he crossed the room to her side. Reaching out, he took hold of her arm, leading her gently for the sofa and pushing her to sit. She closed her eyes briefly, making no protest and no attempt to free herself from his grasp as he did. They had dark, ugly shadows beneath them, he noticed, hunkering down in front of her as she opened them again to fix on him and taking hold of her hands in his own.

"Exactly how long is it since you last ate? I mean ate properly?"

She shook her head and looked down at her fingers, enclosed in his. "I couldn't find any. All the pet shops here…they said they export them. More bucks. They don't sell them here and — " Her voice had begun to rise, more than a slight note of hysteria in it. He tightened his grip on her, reassuring. It seemed to steady her. But the eyes that fixed themselves on him were dark with misery. "I got so scared. I didn't know what to do…"

Clark sighed. "Why didn't you just tell me? Eve, I can't help you if I don't know."

She looked away. "I didn't want…I thought you would, that maybe you wouldn't want to —"

"That I wouldn't help you find a new supply?" Clark demanded. He rose abruptly to his feet, exasperated. "How could you think I'd let you starve? For pity's sake, Eve, I don't want you to die."

Her head shot up. "Don't you?"

He reddened. "No," he said quietly. "No, I don't." And knew it to be true. He wanted Lois back, yes. But Eve didn't deserve to die. She wasn't his enemy.

"Well, at least not until you find your precious Lois. You need me, till then." She stopped and the anger in her face crumpled into a sudden plaintive look. "You do, don't you? Need me?"

Clark was staring at her, astonished. "You think that's the only reason I want you to live? Because I need you to find Lois?" he said, incredulous that she could think such a thing. "No, that's not it."

He sat on the sofa beside her, willing her to believe him as he said, earnestly, "Eve, Luthor was wrong to make you. Creating you, bringing you into this world like he did, was cruel. What he did to you — " He put a gentle hand to her shoulder. "But you're here now. And you deserve a life. Your own life. And I want to help you find it."

She looked away. "Anyway…that's not what I thought. That you wanted me…dead. I thought…I didn't want to remind you…you…since…these past couple of days, it seemed like you'd forgotten. Kinda. What I was. I didn't want to go back to —"

Clark watched her struggle with the concept helplessly, unable to offer any comfort. She had starved herself because she'd believed that reminding him that she was a clone, not human, would have meant a return to his coldness, his rage? For the sake of some small measure of kindness which he had found in himself to offer her, she had forgone eating at all?

Clark closed his eyes, finding something unbearably pitiful in that revelation. Then he shook his head and rose to his feet. Doppelbuffo frogs. The area should be teeming with them. If not here, then certainly not so far away. A few minutes' flight and he should be able to — He glanced down and into the hopeful face of Eve. He was startled by her expression. He had often seen that look in strangers when he was wearing the Suit — blind faith in his abilities to help, complete trust that he would save the day — but only Lois and his parents had looked at Clark Kent that way before now. It unsettled him a little.

"Stay here," he said firmly, as he headed for the door. "Room service should be here any minute. By the time you're finished with dinner I'll be back with more frogs than you could eat in a lifetime." He gave her a reassuring smile. "Just don't tell the management. They don't allow pets in the rooms."

She gave him a somewhat watery smile for the weak quip as he left. But her eyes still shone on him with that unholy light of trust, of confidence — in him. Him of all people — and, seeing it, he felt queasy as he closed the door behind him.

***

"What the bloody hell did you do that for? Are you cra —"

Hands yanked at her sleeve, twisting her around and she stared up bleakly into an angry face…which became still. The hands fell away, the face became puzzled.

"Miss? Miss Lane? Hey, are you okay?"

Morley. She couldn't respond. Her gaze slid away from him to fix once more on the glittering, snow-capped view beyond the lookout point. At one level, some part of her listened to him and took note. Not just what he was saying, but little inconsequential things that stood out starkly in bitter clarity. He was more than a little breathless, that part of her noted with savage spite, and he held a hand pressed tight against his lower ribs. Bruised or worse. She couldn't find it in herself to care.

But for the other, deeper part of her, his words had no meaning at all. Wrapped in the haze of shock, as she stared blindly out at the mountains and that chasm beneath her, as all there was of hope was leeched out of her by the chill and that view. The world was a distant roaring in her ears. Poised as though on the very edge of that world itself, Lois, who in all her years of flying in Superman's arms had never once suffered from vertigo, felt dizzy and nauseated.

Dim and distant, she heard Morley speak again. She shook her head numbly.

After a moment she had the vague sensation of something heavy and warm being settled around her shoulders and then the awareness some time after that she was alone.

She had no idea how long she stood there. Even the chill of the air failed to take hold on her. Her heart was frozen into sorrow and despair, how much colder could it get? Thoughts whirled chaotically in her head and one of them shrieked its horror at her, over and over…

No escape.

The starkness of that battered against the walls of her mind…

No escape.

No escape.

No escape.

…crushing her beneath the weight of its curse. She wanted to curl up, right there on the icy stone of the cavern, rock and wail. Weep and scream out her betrayal.

noescapenoescapenoescape

She held on fast to the wall beneath her fingers, feeling the rough scrape of concrete sting her skin and welcome the pain. It brought clarity, shutting off the rising howl of hysteria and the beat of that litany behind her eyes. She held off the urge to surrender to the overwhelming grief and disappointment that welled up within her with a supreme effort of will.

And what now, she thought bitterly. Throw herself over the edge and hope that her husband was close enough to hear her scream before she hit that barren expanse of ice far below?

A white cloud drifted slowly past her. It was accompanied by a familiar stench. She stiffened, shoulders tensing as though in expectation of a blow.

"Beautiful. Isn't it?"

He moved to stand beside her.

"Where…are we?" Lois said, unable to keep the tremor from her voice. Somehow she couldn't seem to work up the energy to care any more.

"Precisely or generally?" Lex shrugged as she looked at him and then, perhaps responding to the darkening bleakness in her gaze, apparently decided she had had enough of games and battles for now. "Somewhere beneath the Swiss Alps. My Citadel," he said, leaning casual elbows on the stone wall as he gazed out onto the beauty of the landscape laid out before him. "Actually, I suppose it's more of a fortress. Windowless, featureless, remote from the world… My retreat."

"Planes…" Lois mumbled, a spark of something, some last desire for hope, emerging from the disordered jumble in her head, beneath the incessant shrieking that was beating wildly against her skull and seeking escape. "Someone must —"

He was shaking his head. "We're not under the flight path of anything commercial or military and too far out for private pilots to travel. Even if a plane did come out this far, they'd see just what they expect to — nothing but rock and snow as far as the eye can see. The entire complex was hollowed out of the interior, buried deep in the heart of this mountain. Impossible to see from above and impossible to breach. It took its creator thirty years to see his dream completed."

"From the estate. You bought it from the estate," she said, remembering what he'd told her that first day. He'd told her then and she hadn't understood, had thought he was talking about buying back the LexCorp building from its last owner. The empire had been broken up and sold at auction, after his ruination, to satisfy the creditors of LexCorp and his other business ventures. "Lawyers, accountants," Lois' voice quickened. "Builders, designers, architects… You can't put capital into this kind of thing without people knowing about it, leaving a trail, people have to know this place is here, they have to know —"

His hand, laid gently to her shoulder and cutting off her words abruptly, was almost commiserating. "True. Which is why I had to have those people, including our billionaire friend's only surviving heir…removed. I couldn't have anyone knowing about this." He shrugged at her look of horror. "It took me some time to track down everyone, right down to those who even heard the existence of this place whispered around. But as of now, you, I, and the men inside that mountain are the only people living — or mentally responsive at least and able to tell — who know it's here. I trust that now you understand just how impossible it is to leave here, you'll give up this foolish notion of leaving me."

Lois looked down into the gaping maw of the bowl that was formed by the encircling mountains. Far down at the bottom, far below, something glimmered faintly. A river perhaps. Or a seam of thick ice. Far below. Far, far, terribly far -

She turned abruptly to face Lex fully and backed up a handful of paces, towards the far corner of the balcony.

"You might have miscalculated more badly than you think," she told him. Her tone was torpid, distant, but still it carried some of the frigidity of the air in it. "I still have one choice left." Her glance flicked, despite her attempts to control it, to the ledge.

"Suicide?" Lex grinned as he removed the expensive Cuban cigar from between his lips and puffed out a wreath of smoke into the freezing air. It coiled lazily upward as he shook his head. "My darling, you'd never consider it for a moment. Not like this."

Lois stared at him for a moment. But she knew he was right. In this he was right. It had never been a serious consideration. Not even for a moment. It seemed, she thought distantly and bitterly, that even when you thought hope was gone entirely, some glimmer of it remained, deep within. She couldn't let herself lose that hope. And yet, now, at this moment, it was hard to grasp, hard to hold onto. She felt dead inside. And wounded. A wound perhaps too deep to recover from fully. Broken and dead.

And yet…one last option…

She whipped around, fixing her fingers tight around the edge of the ledge as she leaned far out over it. With no small amount of vicious satisfaction, she saw Lex start out of the corner of her eye — was that panic on his face? — and then he had leapt forward with a raw curse, grabbed hold of her hastily by the upper arms, yanking her back violently against him and away from the edge. His breath was rough and hard against the back of her neck.

She found herself grinning mirthlessly at the mountains in front of her. Oh, yes, that was the breath of panic. A fierce, brief pleasure flared up in her at shaking his composure, if only for an instant, just this once.

Lois didn't struggle against the fingers biting deep into the flesh of her arms. Jumping had never been in her gameplan and he wasn't going to stop what was by holding her in place. Quickly, she opened her mouth wide, pulling in a deep breathful of the frigid air, feeling it sear her lungs as she screamed out into the void ahead of her.

"Superman! Superman, help me! Superman! I'm here!"

…I'm here…

…here…

Her desperate appeal resonated in the still, iced silence, seeming to mock her. Her voice had emerged weak, smothered by the tons of rock above and the chilled air beyond.

The faint echo was her only answer.

"Superman!"

She called again. And again. Over and over.

Lex made no attempt to silence her. He simply held her tight against him, letting her scream until she lost breath, letting her scream herself into defeat and surrender.

She had known it was hopeless. A million in one chance he would hear her. A billion. Odds so infinitesimal that they would hardly be worth calculating. Unless he happened to be flying overhead or nearby just at that moment…

But she'd had to try.

Even though this fresh abandonment tore at her heart.

She slumped a little in the hard hands holding her, heard Lex chuckle low and complacent against her ear. She was aware now of how her defeat was exciting him, could feel it in the hard oppression of his body pressed tight against her back. His breath on her skin was hot. Hot and steady with satisfaction.

With no heart in her left to stay, she shrugged herself disconsolately out of his grip. He didn't move to prevent her, simply let her go. He moved aside, leaving the path to the doors behind him clear. He grinned at her and then stretched out a hand. "Shall we? The mean temperature drops late in the afternoon, and this is no place to be without a coat. You'll take a chill, my sweet."

She followed the gesture of his hand towards the open doors and the black hole of the staircase beyond them. Had it only been minutes before when she had viewed them as her salvation? The route to escape? She could see that when closed the doors would mimic the rock face above them. Even the balcony on which she stood would pass for more broken rock, so cunningly had it been worked into the cleft between the rock plates rising like monoliths around her. It would take a miracle for anyone flying over the gorge to notice anything out of the ordinary. The camouflage was near perfect.

She was still staring listlessly at the entrance to her prison — her tomb — when Lex took her by the arm and deferentially guided her off the lookout. She couldn't work up the strength or will to protest. In fact, she wanted nothing more to leave that place, to get away, to be back in the awful familiarity of her apartment. And at that moment she couldn't seem to get her body to work towards that end. She found herself leaning gratefully on Lex's arm as her knees suddenly weakened.

"You're shivering. You see? I should have brought you inside sooner."

She blocked out his solicitous tones, focusing grimly on each step she took.

A lean figure stepped into their path as they emerged from the stairwell into the cavernous room below. She looked up and into the face of Morley. With a flash of warming fire through the frozen core that seemed suddenly to encase her heart and lie sluggishly in her mind, anger flared in her face. She suppressed her bitterness at being so mercilessly duped. Of course Lex had arranged it all. Had let her dream the idea of escape, let her get far enough to see how futile any attempt to get free really was. To let her truly understand how hopeless it was. He had known she would try eventually and so he had precipitated the attempt. She yanked her arm free of his clasp and sensed his glance of surprise, though she couldn't — wouldn't — look at him.

Yet there seemed to be almost an apology in the young soldier's eyes as she met his gaze. Anger would have been welcome from him, something she could react against and use to bolster her own rage. But there was nothing but regret in his blue eyes.

Regret and bewilderment. It was clear, looking into that clear-eyed gaze, that Morley had had no idea what the effect of taking her up to the lookout point would be. That he'd had no inkling that she was unaware of where she was, had probably assumed all along that she'd understood just how limited an offer he was holding out to her. No wonder he hadn't understood her jibes in the elevator or seemed to be confused by her anger towards him. Morley, it seemed, had simply been dancing the polka all along.

Lois looked away, disorientated by just the hint of that human sympathy and pity, feeling the sting of tears and knowing it was just one too many surprises to bear on top of all the rest.

"Take Ms Lane back to her room." She heard Lex's smooth tones come from the vicinity of her left shoulder. "I think she's had enough of exploring and excitement for one day. And have the heating turned up." She felt his hand against his arm as he moved in close enough to make her shiver. "Would you like some hot chocolate sent to your room, my dear?"

She shook her head numbly and felt his hand rest against her shoulder for a moment before he made some invisible signal that caused Morley to nod briskly and turn away.

Curiously, it was that final touch of his hand which brought her out of the haze of shock and despair enveloping her like a shroud. That touch and the illusion of sympathy and caring in his voice. Her mind stirred, rousing itself out of the torpor that shock and defeat had webbed her in, thawing out some of the slivers of ice in her heart. Rage enveloped her. Fury that he should pretend such solicitous concern when he was the cause of her hurt.

It was a juxtaposition of fate and timing that caused her eyes to fall as the welter of emotions surged up inside her like a furious storm. That let her see the holster attached to his thigh.

As Morley turned, Lois darted out a hand, jerking the pistol clear of him as his turn brought it within her reach. Backing up swiftly as Morley reacted to the loss with a curse, she brought the gun up sharply as its owner made an abortive move for her. "Don't move. Lex!" Her voice rose sharply as Morley seemed like to ignore her. "Tell him not to move!"

"I think you'd best do as she says," Lex complied, his face expressionless. Morley glanced at him and then subsided, watching Lois warily as she continued to back up until she felt the cold of the wall behind her.

"There has to be some way out of this…mausoleum," she spat out. She directed the question at Morley. "How?"

The soldier glanced at Lex, seeking guidance. The hesitation enraged her. She jerked the pistol to cover him. "How!" she shrieked.

He started a little at the force of that yell. Then shrugged. "Concealed helipad on the upper level. Only way in or out," he elaborated as she tried to conceal her dismay.

"He's right, I'm afraid. That's the only source of egress and ingress we have. So, unless you have a pilot's license…" Lex let the words trail. No need to belabor them, Lois thought bitterly.

"I want you to order them to start up the helicopter, Lex," she said. "Do it." She jerked the gun in his direction as he simply watched her, unmoving. "I mean it. Now! We're going on a little sight-seeing trip. All the way to the nearest military base. Tell the pilot to plot a direct route. European, American, I really don't mind. Make it Russian if you have to. NATO has to maintain some presence in this part of the world. A base can't be that far away." Her lips stretched in a smile that was stripped of humor, more of a grimace than anything else. "I'm sorry for the irony, Lex, but you're about to be demoted to hostage."

Lex shook his head. "Lois, Lois…you want to fly from my embrace so soon? You wound me." He began to walk towards her as he spoke.

"Stop," she said and, voice rising as he paid her no mind, "I'll shoot! I swear I will! Don't come any closer! Lex, I mean it, I'll shoot!"

He smiled, spreading his arms expansively in invitation as he continued to approach her lazily. "Then shoot," he said.

Lois swung the gun down and to one side — an incapacitating shot to the shoulder should stop him, but leave him able to walk, and as close as he was she couldn't very well miss.

She pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Lex's smile widened as he stopped in front of her. Lois stood woodenly as he reached out and took the gun from her unresisting grip. Holding it up, he let her get a good look at the small, red rectangle in the pistol's handle.

"ID coding, laser recognition," he explained blandly. "Each pistol's unique code is personal to the man assigned it. Once the code is entered no one but the assigned user can make it fire."

He brought the gun up swiftly, pointing it straight at her face, and pulled the trigger. Then smiled at the flinch she hadn't been able to stop.

"You see." He half turned away from her, tossing the weapon back nonchalantly to its owner, who caught it awkwardly. Lex gave her that infuriatingly smug smile again. "Lieutenant," he invited, keeping his eyes locked on hers.

"Sir…"

"Do it," Lex snarled, turning his head briefly to bestow a furious look on the hapless man at that hesitant protest.

Morley subsided. Face taut and blank, he took aim sharply and for one, horrified moment — Lex's viciousness as he'd snapped out the command, the soldier's obvious reluctance to obey playing relentlessly in her head — Lois found herself staring directly into the black hole of the muzzle. She closed her eyes abruptly tight, sure in that instant that Lex was intent on providing a painful lesson —

The boom of the shot echoed in the cavernous hall.

It took her a moment to realize that she hadn't been hit as she'd expected. Cautiously she opened her eyes and then turned her head. Wax-pale, she stared at the small, smoking hole in the wall, inches shy of her right shoulder. Then she looked back at Lex. On his face there was no clue as to whether Morley had acted as he'd intended him to — or whether his subordinate's conscience had adapted his command at the last second.

He wasn't watching the soldier at all, had dismissed him entirely it seemed from his thoughts. He spread his hands wide in a gesture of mock apology, his attention focused exclusively on her. "Without the code, nothing happens. With it…" He trailed off, leaving the ominous conclusion to his words hovering in the air. "Now — " His voice dropped coldly. " — I do think you should return to your apartment. It's much safer there. Get some rest. I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to discuss all of this over dinner this evening."

Morley took his cue, coming close to grip her by the elbow. Lois tore herself free. She moved ahead of him, face set.

"Oh, and Lois?"

She stopped, sensing her guard do likewise, but she didn't turn.

"You know you're going to have to be punished for this, I'm afraid. Ms Lane is to remain in her apartment for the next three days," he told Morley. "Make sure the others on guard detail are aware of that."

"Yes, sir."

Lois wouldn't give him the satisfaction of facing him. "Bread and water, Lex?" she said coolly into the air ahead of her. "I'd have thought you'd be more…inventive."

She heard his rich chuckle. "Hardly. You can have whatever you want, Lois. I know you well enough to think that being confined to your apartment for three days will be punishment enough."

"You won't stop me." Now she did turn, locking her gaze with his. "You know that. Eventually I'll beat you."

Lex smiled.

Morley stepped to her side. "Miss Lane?" he said, with that quiet tone of deference in his voice that she had heard so often now and which drove her insane. "If you'll come with me…"

She followed.

She had no choice.

Now, she had no choices at all.

The bitter truth of that settled in the pit of her stomach like a stone as she walked the short route back to confinement.

Entombment.

The end of everything.

The ending of her life.

In the numb and barren wastes of her mind only one thing reverberated, like a dirge.

<Clark…>

She closed her eyes.

***

For a change, Clark wasn't thinking very much of anything as he wandered out of the bathroom. The faint, cool breath of the ceiling fan caressed the skin of his torso like the hand of a lover as he headed for the bed and the clothing he'd laid out there, prior to taking what had turned out to be a relaxing shower.

For once he had simply let the water cascading over him drown the fear and anger that lived within him like part of his soul now. Let it wash over his thoughts, surrendering to the brief moment's peace.

Just for one moment, he needed the respite. Peace was few and far between these days. But the rare moments alone in the suite had been a lure his tired mind and weary body hadn't been able to resist.

Sighing, he wandered across the floor towards the bed. The carpet was soft beneath his bare feet as he rubbed aimlessly at one waterlogged ear with the corner of the towel in his hands. He picked up the blue jeans and then paused with a frown. He dropped the towel to the back of a nearby chair as his gaze swept the bed. Then he stepped back, glancing down at the floor. Nope. He straightened, putting his hands to his hips as he pursed mystified lips.

Where had his shirt gone?

He looked back at the bed. The rest of his clothes were there, just as he'd left them before heading for the shower.

But the shirt had gone.

Puzzled, he stood there for a moment. Had the maid been in while he'd been in the bathroom? Surely not. And why would she take his shirt even if she had, leaving the rest of his clothes -

He froze, suddenly and belatedly aware of the heavy weight of eyes upon him. He turned on his heel to face the living room.

From the depths of the sofa, Eve stared back at him, round-eyed.

She was sitting in the middle of the cushions, cross-legged and wearing nothing but a pair of headphones on her ears…and the blue shirt he'd just been searching for. In her mouth was stuck a spoon, forgotten in the moment. It dripped chocolate ice-cream heavily into the bowl she was holding and — he winced — onto the lapel of the shirt too.

And…he was standing there in nothing but a towel. He watched her gaze slide with interest down across his chest, before she settled on the towel itself. One eyebrow hitched its way lazily towards her hairline.

Flushing, Clark spun around to grab hastily for the comforter, dragging it off the bed and around him. "Wha — what are you doing in here!" he demanded breathlessly, feeling the tinge of color on his cheeks deepen.

Eve was slow to respond. Then she took the spoon from her mouth and shrugged. "I live here."

Clark waved an exasperated hand at her. "Yes, I know you — " he stopped the agreement cold, changing tack. "I thought you'd gone — you said you were going down to the Plaza. Shopping!" he said accusingly. "You said you needed a new bathing suit!"

Eve blinked, not unaware obviously of the implied charge in both tone and words that she'd been deliberately spying on him. "I *was* shopping," she said. She pointed the spoon at the TV, where figures moved silently. "I came back for Ivory Tower."

Ivory Tower.

Clark groaned. Those stupid soaps! In the days he'd been gone, doing what he needed to, doing all he could, she'd grown addicted to them it seemed. She never missed an episode of this one in particular. He should have kept a closer eye on the schedule. If he had she'd never have surprised him this way. Never have caught him unawares like she had.

Never embarrassed the heck out of him.

"Valentine's getting her face-lift today," Eve told him judiciously. "I couldn't miss *that*."

Clark sighed, running a distracted hand through his damp hair. "No, guess you couldn't. Why are you wearing my shirt?"

Eve glanced down at it and then back up at him. Her shoulders rolled in another easy shrug. Clark looked away, finding a new interest in the TV as he tried to ignore what the motion did to the rounded curves shrouded in the thin cotton.

A burst of memory ignited in his head as he did.

Lois.

Lois wearing his shirt — a shirt much like this one.

An evening spent huddled close on the sofa in his apartment. A half- drunk bottle of wine on the table, pizza reduced to crumbs and smears in boxes, the papers of their assignment strewn around them and on the floor in a haphazard cacophony that Lois had insisted was organized in a precise manner. Music…god, he could even remember the song that had been playing…low and seductive in the background.

An evening of investigation that had slowly deteriorated into soft, moist kisses and tantalizing caresses as they'd snuggled closer. Laughter and banter. Her voice a silken whisper against his ear. Her breath hot on his skin. So soft, so enticing in his hands as he'd…

A haze of blissful wandering and mutual exploration as Billy Joel had crooned about endless nights and never changing in the gentle, shadowed dark of the room.

Belated realization that she had drunk too much to drive back to her own apartment. A flight home in the arms of Superman rejected. She had wanted more of the easy intimacy they'd shared that evening, just as much as he had. As reluctant as he had been to end it. She had stayed over.

As heated as their passion had become, neither was uncomfortable with the intimacy sharing his bed allowed and, as he'd held her cradled in his arms as she slept, Clark had closed his eyes in the dark and been content.

In the morning, he had puttered around the kitchen, brewing coffee, cooking eggs. The sharp smells had drawn her out of his bedroom finally, like a small woodland animal from its burrow, sniffing hopefully at the air as though it were nectar. He had looked around at her as he'd become aware of that mixture of warm sleep, perfume and musk she wore slinking up on him, and smiled as he'd seen her attire.

"Not planning to turn up at the Planet wearing that, are you?" he'd teased.

She'd finished yawning and glanced down at the shirt, then shrugged as she'd come up close behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. Pressing herself to his back as she'd laid her chin to his shoulder, she'd suggested archly, "Think it would get me the skinny from Marvin if I did?" Referring to the construction site manager who had been stonewalling them for weeks and had been the main obstacle to their getting that puzzling assignment solved.

He'd grunted in amusement. "Oh yeah…that and a whole lot more," he'd said, dropping the utensil he'd been using to the counter and turning to pull her into his arms as she'd grinned up at him.

"Yeah?" she'd said and then, face turning innocent — a look that coupled with the seductive sight of her draped in his shirt sent a shiver of anticipatory desire through his bones — "Like what else?"

"Oh…maybe…some of this…" He bent his head, taking her mouth firmly with his own, his tongue skillfully seeking and gaining entry into the moist warmth within. She melded herself against his chest with a small sound of pleasure and approval that delighted him, then drew back, stepping back out of his arms and then twirling slowly around, arms held out from her sides, smiling.

"So…" she said, stopping to pose enticingly. Teasing him. "You think this looks good then?"

"You look great," he'd murmured as he'd leaned forward, reached out, and caught at the shirt's lapel to tug her back to him. He'd kissed her again, lightly at first, then deepening to something more intense. He'd pulled back after a moment to draw a soft thumb across her cheek. "You look really —"

"I was too hot."

< — hot.>

<Huh?>

He blinked, drawn back sharply to the present as Eve's words merged with his memory, confusing him for an instant before they were brought sharply into focus.

"What?" he said.

"I was too hot," Eve repeated obligingly.

Oh, yeah, he recalled himself, his shirt. He frowned, aware that her explanation wasn't really an answer, then shrugged mentally with a sigh. He supposed it made perfect, logical sense to Eve. He'd had conversations like this one before. No matter what he thought of her particular brand of logic, they usually did.

"So, that's why you're wearing my shirt?" he nevertheless couldn't prevent himself from asking curiously.

Eve was still looking at him. Hadn't taken her eyes from him in fact.

"Uh…huh…" Her voice had taken on an abstracted tone. Her stare had returned to and wasn't moving from a point below his waist he realized, color heightening abruptly, despite the comforter he was using to shield himself. As he watched in dismay the tip of her tongue emerged pinkly to moisten her lips.

A decidedly unchildlike gleam had entered her eyes and suddenly, for the first time since he had discovered her true nature back in his apartment, Clark understood that he was watching a woman sitting there on the sofa.

The metamorphosis was startling, as though a kitten had suddenly turned into Cat. Grant, that was. There was the same sly, heavy- lidded look on her face that told him she was studying him intently and enjoying what she was seeing.

The heavy flush of embarrassment deepened in his cheeks as she took a lazy few moments to give him another slow, salacious once- over, her eyes trawling him slowly from feet to face. Her tongue emerged again and lapped at the ice-cream melting on the spoon.

Like some Victorian virgin disturbed in her bedchamber, Clark's grip on the comforter tightened convulsively.

"How can you watch TV and listen to those things at the same time?" he demanded irritably, waving a hand over the headphones she'd discarded.

Eve turned her gaze on them momentarily and then came back to him with a shrug that said quite clearly that this was something she considered entirely natural to the point that it was a wonder the rest of the world didn't join her in it.

Clark shook his head. He was beginning to feel like an idiot, knew he was over-reacting, but that something in her gaze was skittering insects of disquiet across his spine. Eve's expression had grown amused, as though she was entirely aware of how she was disturbing him and enjoying the power immensely. He straightened, clinging onto the last shreds of his dignity as he casually put down the comforter and gathered up his clothes.

"I'm…going to get dressed now," he said firmly, before he walked off towards the bathroom, trying to resist the urge to run and injecting as much nonchalance into the move as he could manage.

A low, purring growl of appreciation came from behind him. He could almost feel her eyes burning their way through the towel. Like she was using heat vision on his rear.

"Ra-ower…"

He fled, giving up any pretence at dignity as he darted through the bathroom door, slamming it hard behind him in his wake. He scowled as he heard softly feminine laughter follow his retreat.

***

Eve's laughter faded as she listened to the door slam behind him. For a moment she sat there, letting the sudden thought that had popped into her head turn over, examining it from all angles. Startling. Wonder and awe wove their way across her features, transforming and illuminating her face.

An epiphany.

A revelation.

Power.

For one moment — one small, timeless moment — she'd had power.

She had made him run.

She had made Clark Kent run away.

From her.

The thought settled — warm and comforting — into her mind and lodged there like a precious gem shining in a pit of darkness.

No man had ever run away from her before. No man had ever been embarrassed by her watching him. She had made him feel things. Things that men had always made her feel. She had done that. Her!

She straightened, suddenly feeling just a little overwhelmed. She put the spoon in the bowl and set them to the table before her. Reaching for the remote, she muted the sound on the TV.

She was still sitting there, gazing blankly into space, when Clark, equilibrium restored with his clothing, came back into the room. She started as she became aware of him and then stared at him in sudden, new speculation. Slowly she rose to her feet.

A flicker of something akin to exultation rose up in her as she watched him halt abruptly at her sudden movement, as she watched the wariness flicker into life in his eyes and the cautious way he tracked her approach. She gave him a soft smile.

"I guess you'll want your shirt back then?"

She heard the purring note in the words with something like surprise. Had that been her?

"Eve —"

She almost laughed aloud at the warning growl in that use of her name and then, some part of her marveling at how unafraid his displeasure made her, how unconcerned she was that she might have displeased him with her teasing — while another, which she had long since come to recognize as the Lois persona buried deep within her, snorted that it was about time — she moved past him and into the bedroom in a sensuous glide. Her body seemed to have taken on a seductive life of its own, as though instincts she'd never known were trapped inside her were uncoiling into life.

"I'll be right out," she told him sweetly as she shut the doors behind her.

The last thing she saw was his startled face.

She grinned.

***

He was tidying away the remains of her ice-cream and reflecting ironically on the changes a couple of days on a frog diet could make to a woman, when she emerged from the bedroom.

He had been trying to find some sense in this new Eve he'd been confronted with in the past few minutes as he had busied himself with the small tasks of plumping sofa cushions and returning the headphones to their proper niche, aware that somewhere, in those last moments there, something had gone very wrong. He felt as though he'd been abruptly de-railed. As though all of the reference points in his world had exploded and somehow been glued back together just a little out of kilter.

She was different. Somehow. Looking back from his new vantage- point, he realized to his dismay that she had been for some time now. He simply hadn't been paying enough attention to let himself notice till now. Their relationship had metamorphosed into something more comfortable and less intense in the days following his discovery of her in the closet and the revelations that night and others had contained for them both. They had become allies — even friends. She covered his back when he was gone from the suite, provided comfort when he returned despondent from another abortive search, weary and downhearted. She had become a confidante, rather than a burden.

Now he understood, as he hadn't acknowledge previously, that, freed from fear, secure in her trust of him to protect her, not to hurt her, she had begun to blossom. Less and less she reminded him painfully of Lois. She was becoming her own woman, with her own ways and moods. Her own unique way of looking at the world. Her own, singular identity. And that too had made it easier to cross the boundaries of anger and become her friend.

But this…this was something new.

He looked up as she came into the living-room. For a moment, disconcerted and off balance with her new, provocative mood, he was afraid to look, wondering just what she would come up with next. But to his relief, when he did, she was fully dressed in a soft lemon cotton two piece and matching loafers.

"I left it on the bed. Your shirt," she told him.

"Oh. Thanks." Clark cleared his throat, sensing something in her mood that instinctively had him searching for a way to regain control of the situation, make up lost ground. He turned to flick off the TV. "I figured we could take a walk down along the beach —"

"Sorry, no can do. Got plans."

He lifted his head, blinking at the interruption. Eve smiled at him serenely as she plucked her purse from the table and sashayed for the door.

"Plans? What plans?" he said, flummoxed by this defiance.

"Just plans." She gave him a look that said that was all he was getting as she opened the door.

Clark followed her incredulously. "Wait a minute. Where are you going? You can't just take off like this. Eve!"

Pausing, she started to laugh delightedly.

Clark frowned. "What's so funny?"

"You're Mr. Povovoy!" she shrieked, pointing at him as she collapsed into a heap of hysterical mirth.

Clark was beginning to feel as though he'd stepped through the looking glass. Mr. Povovoy? And then he had it. Mr. Povovoy was a character in that other soap she'd gotten hooked on. His frown deepened. Wait a minute. Wasn't he the one who was currently struggling with the fact that his daughter had somehow transformed overnight from his little Princess into a multiple-metal-studded Goth, with opinions of her own and who wouldn't listen to him any more?

In other words, *he* was acting like an outraged father who couldn't cope with the fact that his teenage daughter suddenly had a mind of her own!

"Hey!" he said, coming out of his fugue to find Eve recovering from her fit of amusement and heading for the door, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes as she went. "I am not!"

Eve waggled her fingers at him, blew him an irreverent kiss, and was gone.

"I am *not*!" Clark muttered, folding his arms into an unconscious superhero pose as he glared at the closed door.

***

The tourmaline water was clear enough that beneath its surface you might think you could see clear to the horizon on the other side of the bay, and warm; silent and heavy, like the womb, around her.

Luxuriating in the feel of it slipping across her bikini-clad body, she kicked out across the reef, gliding effortlessly through a patch of dark-green weed and sea cucumbers and up over the lava ledge, where new depths opened up beneath her, mysterious and tranquil in the diffused sunlight filtering down from overhead.

A…pack — herd? What *did* you call all those fish? A flock? — well, quite a lot and more than a few Convict Tang swam lazily past her, seemingly unfazed by the large and bulky intruder in their midst. One of them rolled an eye in her direction, then it was gone with the rest, flicking its tail to catch up. Definitely unimpressed. The…swarm…with their distinctive barred bodies which gave them their name, moved on, and her eye was drawn to other marvels. A whole…flotilla…of them. Orangespine unicorns and black-and-yellow-striped moorish idols. Yellow tang, bright as neon, so that they almost required Raybans before you could view them. An eclectic, rainbow mix of diving, darting, flickering forms that dazzled the senses.

She delighted herself for a time by naming them as she recognized each new species undulating past and around her, pleased with this evidence of a tenacious memory. She might have grayed out a time or two during the instruction lesson they'd had before hiring the snorkeling equipment and she might not know what a collective lot of fish were called, but she had a good ear for detail and quick recall and it seemed some of the lecture had sunk into her brain at least.

When Clark had suggested the excursion, she had been dubious. Looking at fish didn't seem to her to be an interesting way to spend the morning. They never looked that exciting on slabs in the fish market back home. But the trip so far had been idyllic. Worthy of the paradise island they were honeymooning in.

They had chartered the SeaSpray — one of the hotel's fleet of little glass-bottomed boats — out to a secluded cove, which had, surprisingly given its stunning location and peaceful setting, been all but deserted. Here in paradise there were plenty such retreats to go around. The boat had been arranged to pick them up again two hours before sunset and as they'd stepped onto the beach the whole day had opened up before them, offering peace and tranquility.

They had explored the cove a little, Clark helping her traverse the more treacherous of the rocks. She had pretended to slip at one point and had gloried in the hard, muscled strength of his body against hers as he'd hastily reached out to grab her and steady her against him, admonishing her to be careful. She had bit at her lip as he'd let her go and smiled secretively as he'd pulled her up onto the next rock cluster with a sure hand.

Leaving the blanket and picnic hamper they had brought with them on the beach, shaded by a couple of palms against the enclosing rock walls, they had donned the snorkeling equipment and set off to explore the 'myriad pleasures of the abundant flora and fauna of the islands' as their instructor had termed it, chest puffed out with native pride.

She had to admit now that it was justified. She could fully believe his spiel about there being hundreds of species out here, living off the coral and providing the tourists with something for their money.

A touch on her arm turned her head to where Clark swam easily beside her. He jerked his head to their right, the pressure of his hand increasing with the hint to tug her gently with him. She let herself be pulled alongside, curious to see what he had found.

He stopped a few yards further along the sharply crusted spurs of rock and weed and pointed out across the reef. She followed the direction of his finger and smiled at the plump little yellow and orange fish that hovered a short distance from them.

Clark tapped her arm again, made a short gesture — "Watch." — and then waved a hand slowly before the little animal. To her delight it immediately began to change color, darkening to blend with the rock around it in response to this perceived possible threat.

Something dark slid overhead, momentarily blocking out the sun, and she looked up sharply — sharks were also a feature of the warm Hawaiian waters and known to frequent this particular reef, and she wasn't really looking forward to meeting one of those. But it was only a…family…of wild sea turtles passing by. She watched them swim elegantly, close to the surface, and then put a hand to Clark's arm. When she got his attention she pointed after the journeying amphibians and he nodded, kicking off strongly to follow them for the shore.

She came up out of the water just behind him, pulling off the snorkel mask and running a hand through her wet hair, feeling replete with the wonders of the morning's excursion and more content than she could ever remember being before.

She paused at the water's edge, feeling it lap torpidly around her ankles as she turned to view the little horseshoe cove with it's high, black volcanic cliffs rising up to shelter it, topped with palms that bowed gently in the humid breeze. And bounded on the other side by the brilliant green waters of the sea. She stood there, as though trying to absorb all of the scents and sounds, all of the experience, storing it in her memory for later consumption.

With a soft little sigh, hugging the moment to her like a charm, she started after Clark.

Ahead the sand was pristine and white enough to hurt the eyes. Pleasantly warm and deliciously soft underfoot as she moved up the slope of the beach. Clark had turned back to view her, having noticed she'd lagged behind. In his eyes, as he watched her approach, she saw desire bloom full blown, as though a spark had been put suddenly to a banked flame.

As always, her body responded to that smoldering appreciation, a rush of heat and longing racing through her, a soft tremor that rolled through her, leaving her weak and dizzy. She sank down to sit on the sand — it seemed judicious, that jolt had almost taken her out at the knees — and saw the heat in Clark's eyes change to a flicker of amusement. Almost as though he knew the effect he had on her. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he felt that same tremor as he looked at her.

She'd be surprised if he didn't. She'd spent a small fortune on the bikini she was wearing and she knew just how alluring she looked in it. She'd spent half an hour examining herself in the store mirror before deciding it was just the dynamite she needed to tempt an adoring new husband while honeymooning on an island paradise.

Her own laughter sparkled up at him out of dark eyes with the run of her thoughts as he dropped to sit beside her, arranging himself in a lazy sprawl on the sand. With his naturally olive skin tones, he looked tanned and handsome as he settled himself on one elbow at her side, his eyes crinkling up at her, sharing that silent laughter.

She drew her knees up against her chest, hugging them with loosely encircling arms and let her gaze be drawn to the shimmering sea, steadying the tight beat of blood that was a restless tide within her, feeling his gaze on her like a weight. She rested a thoughtful chin against the shelf of her knees.

"Strange, isn't it?" she murmured. "How empty it looks from up here? How…lifeless? Yet below…"

"It's always hidden in the depths," he said. "Life…blood…danger…" He inclined his head to place a soft kiss on the side of her knee, reached out to lay a hand on hers, entwining her fingers gently within his own. "…passion…desire…" He retreated to tilt his head up to view her. "Until someone brings them to the surface. Lets them out."

She smiled down at him. "Someone?"

"You."

"You," she agreed, bending to touch her lips lightly and briefly to his. "Only and always you."

His eyes rested on her face for a moment and then he smiled. "That sounds like a toast."

"Ah." She grinned at him. "Well, luckily we have something to toast with…" she said, rolling away from him and onto her belly to plunge a hand into the small rock pool on her other side in search of the bottle of wine they'd left chilling for their return.

The water was icy against her skin, an almost sensuous touch after the warmth of the sea. She was aware that it was an illusion, that all of her senses were heightened, a buzz of languid, liquid desire pulsing through her as she dragged the bottle clear and sat up. Droplets of water dripped from its base onto the bare skin at the top of her breasts and trickled down onto her stomach and thighs.

"Here…I'll get it," Clark offered. His voice was tight and she knew that he'd noticed, had been mesmerized by that slow slide down between the valley of her breasts and onto the rounded planes of her belly. She smiled.

"Okay." She surrendered it to him and leaned back on her hands. She heard him inhale a sharp breath before he turned away and watched him through lidded eyes as he rummaged in the picnic basket for glasses and corkscrew. Accepting the glass he handed her, she gave him a soft smile and sipped the cool, sharp wine before relaxing back against the rocks behind her with a quiet sigh of appreciation.

She lifted her face to the bright, azure sky overhead, then leaned back against the rocks behind her and closed her eyes, letting the sun beat heavily on her skin. After a moment, she arched her back, just a little, stretching cat-like.

It had been a movement made without guile, a simple worshipping of the heat caressing her skin. But all the same, the hand that gently took her glass and set it aside and the subsequent touch of his lips against her own, moist and sweet with the wine's heaviness, came as no surprise and she smiled against his mouth as she enjoyed the heady taste of his kiss. His tongue, insistent, teased her lips apart and she moaned, slipping her arms around his neck and lifting herself to meld her curves tight against the muscular chest pressed hard against her.

She lay back against the sand and he stretched out fully beside her, their lips continuing that slow, teasing dance, their hands exploring, touching, caressing, enticing…

For a time there was only the softness of the sand beneath her and the warmth of the sun above…and him. Always him. That familiar scent of cologne and male musk. The softness of his hair against her fingers as she tangled them among the strands. The touch of his hands on her, the feel of his lips on her skin. He filled all of her senses. Overwhelmed them. Shaken, finally, she pulled back, looking up at him through dazed eyes, wondering what it was in him that provoked this weakness in her, this urging, this longing. That could do this to her. Could defeat her so.

And leave her uncaring that she had surrendered. Glorying in her submission to the desire that raged in her with every touch, every kiss, every embrace they shared.

Perhaps, it was that in his eyes she saw that same surrender, that same defeat…that same desire and love. That same joy in all of it too.

She only knew that she never wanted this to end.

Clark smiled down at her. His hand reached out to caress the bone of her cheek and then dropped to cradle her throat. "I've been wanting to do that all morning," he said. His voice, husky with what they'd just shared, provoked an answering shiver in her.

"Well, why didn't you?" she demanded impishly.

He grinned. "Didn't want to scare the fish."

She giggled and settled her arms more firmly around his neck.

"Besides, kissing through plate glass doesn't exactly give me the same…thrill."

She smiled. "No glass here," she said huskily and, taking that as the invitation it was, he leaned in close and kissed her lazily and lengthily again as she sighed her appreciation under the weight of his mouth moving against her own. Their lovemaking was like the day. Slow and languid. Filled with lazy heat…and beautiful.

After a time, he began to chuckle softly, releasing her to lay his forehead to her shoulder for an instant in a gesture that seemed almost regretful, before raising himself abruptly to sit. "If we keep this up we'll get arrested for public lewdness," he said, grinning down at her.

She pouted. "No dispensation for honeymooners?"

He shook his head.

"You sure?"

She raised her arms over her head, a move that arched her upper body upwards, and watched his eyes darken as his gaze was attracted to the motion.

He groaned. "I hate to say it but, yes, very sure." He cleared his throat, tearing his gaze away from her, and made a hasty dive for the picnic basket. "Maybe we should think about eating. Hungry?"

She sighed. "Not for lobster." She hitched herself up to sit with an abrupt movement. She smiled and then sniffed the air in appreciation as he began to unpack the food. "But I guess it will do for now."

He laughed at her sudden change of heart. "I have chocolate mousse in there for dessert," he tempted her.

Another low sigh trickled out of her, but this one was slightly more contented, and then she fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Why, Mr. Kent, you sure do know the way to a girl's heart," she declared in her best Scarlet O'Hara drawl.

He chuckled as he brought out cutlery and began to arrange the containers of food on the blanket. "Yup, Omar Khayyam definitely got it wrong," he agreed. "Paradise — and the way to a girl's heart — should always include chocolate."

"Speaking of which…didn't we leave a flask of wine somewhere around?" she said and he laughed, recovering the bottle, and refreshing both their glasses.

"To Paradise," he said softly, touching his glass to hers.

"To chocolate," she said, returning the gesture, and as he grinned at her, added quietly, "And Thou."

He shook his head. "No…to us," he corrected. "From this point on it will always be us. We're a part of something that lasts forever now," he added solemnly. "Part of each other."

"Oh, Clark…" she whispered, leaning forward to reward him for the thought with a soft kiss before breaking away, knowing that in another moment she might dissolve into tears. "It all looks delicious," she said, desperately staving them off with the change of subject as she waved a helpless hand across the array of food.

Actually…it did look delicious. Very delicious. Her stomach rumbled an agreement.

Clark's eyes held a hint of amusement as he prepared a morsel for her and offered it up. "Looks like we got out of the water just in time," he noted. "Before some of those fish found themselves in the food chain. Ow! Well, I know what you're like when you get hungry," he defended himself, laughing, from her mock outrage and her assault. "Nothing in a five mile radius stands a chance of escaping."

She hit him on the arm again, pouting, and then gave up on him in favor of proving his point. The smells of that food were driving her insane and it did look…good enough to eat. She smiled as she took a bite of the lobster and king shrimp pate and rolled her eyes in exaggerated approval.

"Heaven!" she declared, and only allowed herself to feel slightly guilty about whether some of the lunch menu had relatives among the denizens of the deep she'd met earlier, as she set to helping demolish the contents of the basket — snow crab legs, peanut chicken, salad, pickled onion and cabbage slaw with sweet and sour sauce among the delicacies that spoke sweet music to her tastebuds — with famished gusto.

By the time they finished the leisurely meal, the day was slowly drifting into noon and beyond. They elected to spend a little more time in the water before the boat arrived, Clark teasing that he was determined to introduce her to a shark or two before they left.

They explored in the warm waters for a time, slowly moving further apart as each found things to attract their curiosity, sometimes sharing, sometimes letting the discovery go without comment. She spotted a baby octopus, its back anchored in the rock behind it as it waved its legs at her. Turning to attract Clark's attention she found him further away than she'd thought, prodding at a clump of sea anemones. She shrugged and went back to her new friend, but it had retreated further into the rock and vanished in another moment. She moved on.

Up ahead, the sharp drop and darker water beyond the ledge beckoned. As she swam over the edge, something pushed hard at her left shoulder. She whipped around in a froth of bubbles as air jettisoned from startled, frightened lips. But there was nothing there.

<Shark!> her mind gibbered. She had seen this movie. She spun in a frantic circle, but the sea was calm and clear around her, with nothing bigger than a puffer fish nearby. Anxiously, she looked for Clark, but she couldn't see him any longer. Somehow she had sunk lower, down into the darkness, and the bulk of the ledge was in her way. She kicked out strongly, but only seemed to drift downward. Panic reached out lazily and grabbed her around the heart. Her breathing grew shallow.

The hard nudge hit her again. This time it sent her spinning, tumbling down into the depths…the chill of the waters here sank into her bones and the light from overhead was fading, her sight veiled in sudden black darkness…

It was leaving. The light was leaving…

"Miss Lane? Hey. Hey, wake up!"

She came up out of the dream flailing, drowning, striking out wildly for the surface of the water that glimmered above her, enticingly close and yet miles away…and heard a sharp cry of pain and a thud that snapped her abruptly back to hazy awareness of the room around her.

A room not in Hawaii.

And dark figures keeping company with her who weren't Clark.

Light flared, momentarily dazzling her as someone switched on the small lamp beside the bed, and she threw up a startled hand to shield her eyes before lowering it to peer at the hulking shadows before her. A little disorientated, she found herself staring at Benton as he stood beside the nightstand, and then her gaze slid down to where another of Lex's soldiers sat on the floor, hands over his face. Confused, still caught in the limbo between dream and reality, she looked back at the Major.

He had his attention on his colleague. "Corporal?" he said, sounding just a little irritated.

"I dink she broke by sodding bose," the addressed man said indistinctly from under his hands — the clipped and precise English tones he normally used distorted by the wounding — and she understood that he'd got in the way of her dream, in that moment of confusion between sleep and awakening. He must have been bending over her to shake her awake and her hand had struck out instinctively and — she grinned.

"Oooops. Sorry," she said blithely, sounding anything but. She smirked down at the man, who glared back up at her, eyes piggish with pain and anger above his bloodied nose.

"Go get yourself fixed up," Benton told the Corporal, the sharp tone less than sympathetic. "I'll take her myself."

Take…?

She frowned, the quiet delight of having delivered some small payback to one of her captors fading abruptly as it finally registered that these men were in her bedroom and it was — she thought to glance at the clock and then came back to Benton, in shock — four a.m? The wisps of her dream fled from her abruptly, all drowsiness lost as her defensive instincts quickened into life and the hackles on her neck rose.

"What the bloody hell is going on?" she demanded, sitting up straighter and irritating herself immensely by instinctively pulling the bedsheets a little higher around her throat. What was she? A fainting violet? Yet she didn't drop that ridiculous shield all the same. She scowled, bolstering herself with her contempt for such feminine vapors. "What are you doing in here?"

As soon as the question left her lips, one possible reason for them to be in here at such an ungodly hour of the morning — the most likely reason for strange men to turn up in a woman's bedroom in the middle of the night uninvited and unannounced — suddenly struck her like a stone in the chest. Despite her resolution never to show fear in front of Lex's minions, she felt herself pale.

Without another thought, she exploded from the bed and up against the wall, tossing aside the sheets — they'd only get in her way if she had to defend herself, tangle her up — as she put her back tight against the solid support. Frantically, she looked for a weapon. The Corporal didn't seem to be any threat — whatever licentious thoughts had brought him to her room appeared to have been more than deflated by the pain in his broken nose, and he was already obeying his superior's order. Lois harbored the fleeting regret that that accidental blow she'd struck hadn't been a little more in a southerly direction, perhaps deflating something else. Permanently, if she'd had the choice of target and her wishes taken into account.

She divided her attention warily between the two men as he got to his feet and left the room, with a last backward glare at her. The door closed with a hard bang behind him, making her start violently.

Her gaze swiveled to the remaining source of danger. So, Benton thought she would be easy to subdue on his own, was that it? Well, she'd teach him otherwise. Weapon or not, she could still defend herself, and he wasn't Lex. She could punish him for his presumptions without risking harm to herself, with impunity, where she couldn't with her abductor. Because when Lex found out what he had intended…Benton would wish he'd never been born a man. Lex wouldn't punish her for this. He'd want her to defend herself from the touch of any man but him. He had never been one for sharing.

She pressed herself more tightly against the protective support of the wall, unconsciously adopting a loose stance as she prepared herself for any sudden moves from him. "This isn't a good idea, you know," she warned him, voice tight with the tension that had found itself an echo in the room, almost crackling in the air between them. "If Lex finds out —"

Benton had been watching her with detached interest. As though she was an animal who had suddenly displayed a new trick. Now he raised a brow at her. "It would be surprising if he didn't," he said and, as she looked back at him blankly, "He asked us to fetch you. Mr. Luthor would like you to join him, Miss Lane," he added as she continued to stare, hardly understanding what he was saying.

"You mean you didn't come to…uh…I mean — " She broke off abruptly, dismissing the calculations running through her head over whether the lamp-base was heavy enough to crack a skull or if it would be better to try for the alarm clock the moment he pounced on her, as what he was telling her finally registered. The first flush of relief that swept through her turned in another instant to mortification at her mistake — and that he should witness it — and then rage.

Fetch you.

Fetch her? Like she was some kind of…some kind of package! And at four in the morning!? Sending these men into her room — surely he must have known what she would think when she woke to find them here? Had that been his intent? One more petty trick to take her off balance?

"You have to be joking," she said, tone sharpened by that outrage. "Do you know what time it is?" She reached out, grabbed the clock and waved it at him. "In case you can't *tell* the time," she added caustically, "when the big hand is *here* and the little hand is *there* that means it's time for me to go back to bed, thank you very much! Tell Lex whatever he wants it can wait till morning." She dumped the clock back in place with a thud and jolted away from the wall on route for the bed, but stopped as Benton said blandly,

"Oh, I don't think that would be a good idea, Miss Lane."

Did he sound amused? She swung a glare on him, but his face was blank as ever. He shrugged. "Mr. Luthor wants to see you now. He didn't seem in the mood to wait."

Lois stood stiffly in the moment's silence that followed that. The urge to flee was back abruptly, adrenaline stirring in her as her heart quickened. <What mood *was* he in?> she desperately wanted to ask and knew that she couldn't. <Was this it?> she thought, fear beginning to bloom darkly in her chest. Was this the moment she had feared and dreaded since she'd been brought to this hellhole? Now that he had taken the last hope of rescue from her, was he so secure in her domination that he was ready to play out the final act of this…charade? Had he finally decided to make her abasement absolute? To take what he'd wanted all along from her? Why else would he be demanding her 'company' at this time in the morning? She stared at Benton, but he gave her no clues. She swallowed the rock that was lodged in her throat, fought to keep panic at bay.

"Let me get dressed," she said quietly. There was no pleading or arguing with Benton that would change anything, she knew. Confronting Lex was all she could do, all she could hope for was that she could somehow dissuade him from whatever he had planned for her. She had a way with words. She'd talked her way out of the bad places before. She could do it now. She could find a way.

She had to.

"I'm sorry, Miss Lane, but Mr. Luthor seemed…impatient. I don't think making him wait would be wise. For either of us."

Lois looked up at him. His tone did seem genuinely regretful. <Let him wait.> It was on the tip of her tongue to say it, but she knew it would do her no good, nor delay the inevitable. "It's chilly out. Is it okay if I get my robe?" she asked bitterly.

Benton nodded. "Go ahead. But be quick about it."

As though moving in a dream, she pulled on the silk robe over her nightgown and belted it tightly, flushing slightly under the weight of Benton's inscrutable eyes. Didn't he care? Didn't it move him at all that he was delivering her into…to a man who would…

She couldn't finish the thought. Her thoughts spun in circles as she let the Major usher her through the corridors. She had spent two days confined to her room as per Lex's instructions and although she had longed to be free of the smothering, claustrophobic walls, contrarily, now she wished for nothing more than to run back to her prison. To slam the door shut and hear it lock tight behind her, shutting her in. Shutting threat and danger — Lex — out. A cold sweat drenched her by the time they reached their destination.

To her surprise, he'd brought her to the library. Not Lex's suite? Her brows lowered in puzzlement. What was this? Another of his sick fantasies?

Benton pushed open the door and indicated with a brief gesture that she should enter. The room was well lit and silent, with no sign of the trappings of seduction. No soft music or dimmed lights. No wine on the table. Of course Lex had no need to woo her, no need to lull her into an atmosphere of intimacy. They weren't on a date.

And yet…somehow she had expected him to make the pretence of it even so.

Her eyes found him almost immediately, over on the room's far side, standing before one of the book stacks. He was dressed as urbanely as though it were the middle of the day. He had an opened book in his hands. Milton's Paradise Lost, she noted distractedly.

"Ah, Lois, there you are," he said, glancing up from the pages. Just as though this was an unexpected visit. He beamed at her and then flicked a glance over her shoulder. "That will be all, Benton."

"Yes, sir."

She heard the door close softly at her back. She glanced around the room and then came back, narrow-eyed to Lex.

<A best defense is offense>

The thought struck into her mind like a lucky charm and she blurted out a response to it reflexively. "What do you want?" she snapped. "Do you know what time it is?"

That came out sounding a lot more petulant than it had in her head. But she couldn't help it. She was tired. Being tired always made her grumpy. Being afraid made her even madder. And she had been dragged out of a wonderful dream of honeymooning with Clark on a deserted Hawaiian beach to face…who knew what. She felt her hands clench into reflexive fists against her thighs.

Although, it was looking increasingly clear that it wasn't what she'd feared she was facing. Still…all this disruption, panic and fear wasn't making her happy. Or her stomach happy either. She felt queasy.

Lex shrugged. "I couldn't sleep. I thought I might read a little." He snapped the book shut abruptly, making her start, and then slid it back into its niche on the shelf beside him.

"How fascinating. Well, I'll leave you to it, shall I? I've read that one already. Disappointing ending."

She turned for the door, knowing it was a futile gesture and then halted at his sharp use of her name in what was an unmistakable command. She turned back slowly to face him, arms folded beneath her breasts, and cursed herself for obeying it, yet knew it gained her nothing to fight against it. Benton was undoubtedly on guard on the other side of the door. There was no exit from this room — from any room here — without Lex's consent. Pretending otherwise was just an exercise in futility. She preferred to save her wits and strength for the big battles. The main fight.

And it was harder to fight when she felt as though she couldn't keep her eyes open for another minute. She found that she was slumping a little, the weight of that weariness heavy on her shoulders, and straightened abruptly with a scowl. She couldn't afford to doze off now! She needed to keep alert. She pinched herself sharply against the hip and winced. But it cleared her mind a little.

Lex' voice took on a softer tone, falsely amiable as he continued, "Let's not be boorish, my dear. I came down here to read for a time, pass a few hours, as I've said, and it occurred to me that perhaps you might like to join me for a game. Some wine perhaps. I feel the need for…companionship."

Wine. They had drunk wine on the beach. She and Clark.

Blinking back the onrush of sudden tears, she said forced herself to focus as she eyed him warily, "Game?" On the surface she was all swan, cool and serene, but within her her gut cramped in a painful knot. Nevertheless, hope had begun to stir in her, defeating her. No, perhaps this wasn't what she'd feared after all.

Then Lex waved a languid hand to the rosewood reading table in the center of the room, and she saw the chess board. She gaped at him.

"You woke me up to play chess? At four in the morning? If you wanted to lift the curfew, Lex, couldn't you have tried doing it at a *civilized* hour?"

Lex aped a wounded look. "Well, I'm sorry if I disturbed you —"

"Well, yes, you did, actually," she agreed tartly. "I was having a really great dream. Clark and I were swimming in a lagoon. And you were being eaten by sharks." She added the embellishment as some small, imperfect measure of revenge for being wrenched so abruptly from her retreat.

Boy, did she wish, she thought savagely. That was the least she wished for him.

The problem was the gibe was a double-edge sword, cutting deeply into her heart as much as it irritated his spleen, catching at her heart with steel-tipped claws. Nevertheless, she couldn't resist adding a tart retort. "The time I've been spending with Clark in my apartment has been the best thing about my current…confinement," she added the prod sweetly.

Lex lifted a brow, but didn't respond to the taunt. "I desired your company," he said simply.

And that's mine to take. Whenever I want.

The remainder of his words hung in the air between them, as plain and as hurtful as though he'd spoken them aloud. He gestured to the board again. "Shall we? I'll get Benton to bring us some Puligny Montrachet. The eighty-two, I think," he said thoughtfully as he moved to sit at the table without a backwards glance.

His presumption that she would follow obediently, his obvious belief that it was a done deal, was a thorn in her heart. Lois hesitated, then took her seat opposite him reluctantly. She had no idea what he was up to, but she wasn't going to co-operate. Not in the slightest. So let him play his silly games. What did it matter to her? He'd see. He wasn't going to gain anything by this.

Not anything at all.

A yawn ambushed her, disintegrating the mulish slant that had taken over her lips with her thoughts, and she blinked blearily at the pieces before her. Chess. At four a.m.

God, she hated him.

On the other side of the chess board, Lex smiled — and made his move.

***

It was almost four in the afternoon when Superman landed with a jolt on the empty roof of the Mitsishumi Corporation's office tower. As usual, the view from this vantage point, over Hong Hum Bay and the sprawling glitter of the Kowloon and Hong Kong Islands was breath- taking, but he had no time to stand and admire them today.

Spinning swiftly into his street clothes, he headed straight for the door to the staircase. He wanted to attract as little attention as possible and the Suit wasn't exactly the way to guarantee anonymity or guarantee swift passage through the streets of the island.

Only seconds later, he exited the lobby door and emerged into the little alley behind the Green Moon tea-house.

There were, of course, no true quiet corners in this city. Every inch of it seemed to teem with humanity, all rushing about its own business — usually very vocally. The Green Moon though was a favorite oasis of peace in the heart of the chaos and normally he would be looking forward to sitting at one of the window tables and enjoying some dim sum while soaking up the atmosphere, the town's raw, sizzling energy and vibrant vitality always reminding him of Metropolis.

But now he had little time to stand and savor the island's delights. Like Metropolis, Hong Kong too had its darker side, kept well away from the glitz and glamour of its business districts, smart shopping plazas and secluded, expensive residential complexes. Much of it here in Kowloon. Its own Suicide Slums and Hobbs Bays, where anything and anyone was available for a price. One more thing they had in common. As all cities had in common. Being able to visit much of the world — much more than many men before him had — had taught him that for all people perceived themselves to have differences, they had much more in common — especially when it came to their problems — than they often liked to acknowledge.

It was that darker Kowloon he'd come to visit, not the tourist trails. Regretfully, he put the tantalizing scents oozing out of the little Cha Lau behind him as he exited the alley, weaving his way through the mass of carts and stalls, vendors and customers crushed into the narrow lane.

According to the disks Jimmy had given him, Luthor owned two properties here. A penthouse in one of the fashionable complexes overlooking the bay, and the Golden Light fireworks factory, over in a much less salubrious part of the business district. The factory was closest and seemed the better prospect. He negotiated the alleys and side lanes and before too long found himself in the tangle of narrow streets and dilapidated buildings that few tourists ever saw or ventured into.

The factory was at the shy end of a deserted parking lot. A low slung, two-story building with little about it of character or industry, it was shabbily appointed. The elegant Chinese characters of the sign above the single door were weathered and faded, missing letters. It looked abandoned. Surely such a dangerous occupation as handling explosives should merit some kind of security at least? But there was no sign of any activity in the surrounding yard. A storage facility perhaps, rather than a working manufacturing base? But still…shouldn't there be someone around? His scan of the interior revealed desolation and an air of long desertion. The factory clearly hadn't been in business or in use for some time.

He rubbed at his brow and sighed. He was tired of false leads, abandoned property, no clues. Surely the break he needed would present itself soon? It had to. He couldn't continue to wander the globe, following Luthor's paper trail, a trail that had long since gone cold. There had to be something else. Something better. Something he could do that would find him Lois other than…than this! He glared at the dilapidated little factory as though it was to blame for yet another burning disappointment that was crushing his heart.

He was miserably aware though that there was little else he *could* do, except go through the motions in Hawaii and keep on searching until the list that Jimmy had given him was exhausted, or until some sign, some clue as to Lois' location turned up despite his efforts. Wasn't he due some help from fate? Wasn't that overdue?

<And when it is exhausted? What then?>

He tried to block out the quiet little voice in his head. It wasn't a new question. It had been echoing at the back of his thoughts for days now. And he had no answer to it. He could only hope and pray that when he got to that particular bridge the means to cross it presented itself and it wasn't barricaded.

He was dismally aware that he was losing heart and faith — beginning to wonder just what the hell he was doing here. Doing in Hawaii. What had possessed him? What was driving him to continue? Shouldn't he just call it a day? Give it up?

<Give up on her?>

No. No, not that. Never that. But…somehow his own cleverness, his desperate schemes and plots, his confidence that he could out-think, out-maneuver Lex Luthor seemed like hollow comfort this far down the line.

In reality, though he was reluctant to admit to it, it had stopped being about fooling Luthor long ago. The simple truth was that being in Hawaii with Eve gave him more opportunity to search than being back in Metropolis did. Returning home seemed impossible. Back there, where every street corner, every store, every inch of the city reminded him of her, where he would either have to maintain the pretence of going back to work or blow the story of Lois' kidnap by Luthor wide open…he just couldn't face it. Couldn't take the risk.

Perry had suggested that there might be benefits to printing the story. At least Lois' face would be on the Planet's front page. People would start looking for her, more eyes searching, more chances someone would find her. But Clark wasn't so sure. He knew that police experience taught that such publicity generally wasted time more than it gained. That it produced false leads, false sightings, more than it did anything of value that would lead to a conclusion and arrest, and every one of those sightings had to be followed up, for it might be the real thing. Few were. Few added up to anything other than time wasted, time lost. Disappointment and heartbreak.

Recently, he also knew that expert thinking had begun to come around to rejecting such plans as part of police procedure when dealing with kidnappings or abductions. Recognizing them as more hindrance than aid. It was a cleft stick. He suspected ruefully that, should the Planet print the story, most reported sightings of Lois would come from Hawaii. And if Luthor was smart enough to keep the real thing hidden, it would only muddy the waters still further. Perhaps lead them in a direction as far away from Lois as they could possibly get.

Maybe there would come a time when he simply had no other choice, when his options narrowed so that he was forced to that plan of action. But for now, he held off, sure that there must be other routes to Lois. Other ways that had more chance of success.

He had spent some time on his laptop the other evening, trawling through Luthor's prison records, trying to find names, faces, those Luthor had associated with. Superman had paid a visit to everyone Luthor had even been seen to exchange a 'good morning' with and who had since been released. But none of them were talking and he had been left even more frustrated than when he'd started. Henderson had been on the same trail, and had the added information gleaned from those associates of Luthor's who were still incarcerated. But they too were silent and the cop had nothing more to give him than he'd gotten elsewhere in the back alleys, strip-clubs and poker bars of the city.

Besides, he couldn't help but feel that he was wasting good searching time. There were others with better resources and more manpower than he had to search through computer records and question likely suspects or leads. Jimmy, he knew, was working on backtracking through Luthor's movements before the wedding and Lois' abduction, following a laborious, fragmented and admittedly sketchy paper trail. Henderson and the finest of the MPD were questioning anyone Luthor had had contact with that they knew of. It wasn't that he mistrusted any of them, or believed them to be less than competent, but he was having a hard time delegating. This was too important to him. To Lois. He wanted to turn over every stone for himself. Pry up every floorboard. Hit every website. But he knew he couldn't.

Trust and mistrust. Two sides of the same coin. Both an aid and a hindrance to him.

He trusted Perry and Jimmy. Henderson too. But the rest? He couldn't. He simply couldn't.

The other day, while searching an old villa of Luthor's up in the Metropolis hills, he had disturbed someone else raking through the clutter of the abandoned bedroom. Quickly apprehending the man, he had been startled to find it was his colleague, Eduardo Friaz. Friaz, equally surprised, had claimed to be searching Luthor's properties too — in the hopes of getting the scoop on his capture for the Planet. A large portion of Clark knew that this was plausible, even likely. But another part of him…wondered. He had found himself following Friaz for a day or two, before he'd concluded that there was nothing to be found of Luthor in his activities. Before his wedding day, the thought that Friaz might be in the pay of Lex Luthor would have seemed laughable to him. Even now it was, when he was able to think rationally and logically about the prospect. And yet…and yet there was that one per cent, that tiny shard, that persisted in tormenting him. Insisted that those he knew as friends and colleagues might be hiding something. Suspicion ran in him like blood these days. There were few he could trust completely.

But he had little choice but to trust. And hope that one of them — one of that army searching for Luthor — and by extension, though most didn't know it, for Lois — would turn up what he needed to get her back. He had to trust them to do what was necessary. There was little sense — though it cut him to the bone to force himself to admit to it — in duplicating work. That wouldn't get him to Lois any faster. Wouldn't get his hands around Luthor's throat any sooner.

No, the one thing he could do quicker and more thoroughly than anyone else was search. And that was *all* that he could do for now. That and remind himself that no matter how alone he felt right then, he was part of a team. All of them working to one end. All of them on the trail.

One of them would have to succeed. Surely, one of them must.

Sighing again, he moved towards the metal entrance door of the factory, knowing that no matter how empty or abandoned it looked, he had to search it, every square inch of it, before he could be satisfied and cross it off Jimmy's list.

No stone unturned.

As he put his hand on the door handle, however, he heard something — so faint a normal man would have missed it entirely — that brought his head up with a jerk.

He knew that sound. Long association with Lois Lane had taught him exactly what it meant. A woman screaming in fear and pain, muffled behind some kind of gag.

He shouldered his way through the door without a second's thought, barely feeling it give way like tissue paper under his assault.

"Lois!" he yelled as he ran through the dark room behind. The noise came again, smothered into silence halfway through. He heard a rough curse overtake it and the sound of flesh striking flesh. Then nothing. The heavy oppressive nothing that spoke of someone crouched in the dark listening, trying to remain undetected.

They might have succeeded, if it hadn't been Superman standing there in the dark of the cavernous building arrowing in on their location. Clark focused, listening intently and…there. The rasp of frightened breathing. Below. It was coming from beneath him. He looked quickly around and spotted the crumbling staircase on the other side of the room.

He zipped downwards in seconds, changing into the Suit as he went, knowing that there wasn't a second to lose as he charged into the basement.

His sharp eyes caught a thresh of movement over in one corner. Two bodies, entwined. She was struggling weakly against the man beating her savagely, but tied as she was, she was powerless to prevent his assault.

Red flooded Clark's vision as he leaped forward.

Rage.

Adrenaline.

Hate.

"Luthor!" he snarled, tearing her attacker from her, grabbing him by a handful of clothing between his shoulder blades and hoisting him high. He swung the man around and up against the rough bricks of the wall behind him…

…and the dim light that found its way through the filth encrusted panes of the long, narrow window high on the wall behind him showed him his captive clearly.

It wasn't Luthor.

This man was heavier, of Asian appearance. He struggled in the superhero's grip, cursing in Mandarin.

Disappointment swept through Clark like a heated brand, searing his soul. He wanted to howl with the rage of it. He wanted to kill this sorry excuse for a man anyway. Just one more predator the world would be best rid of. Instead, he dragged the man with him to where the rotting remains of a pulley system dangled from the basement's ceiling. He yanked a length of rusted chain from the tangle and used it to bind the man, before he left him in a corner of the basement to rant and froth his insane obscenities unattended.

He turned back to the young woman and the rage and defeat in him died, snuffed out by overwhelming pity. And relief. The relief that he always felt when he found them in time. When he was able to save them. Relief and…satisfaction. Joy.

It helped.

For one small moment, it helped offset his failure.

One more failure.

She lay huddled against the wall, dark eyes terrified above the gag. She was slightly built and her hair was short and dark, but there any resemblance to his wife ended. Like her attacker, she was of obvious Chinese descent. And he had no more thought of failure or defeat in him as her eyes — swollen with tears — met his. Only the need to comfort her, aid her. Help.

He had no idea what he had stumbled into here, but he could guess. He was sure that when he took the man to the local police precinct they'd have found a serial rapist or even killer they'd been looking for for some time. Or maybe this one was at the start of his career. This woman his first on a long list of intended victims. Whatever — serendipity had ensured that he had one less victim to add to his depraved spree of crime.

"It's okay. You're safe now," he said in Mandarin to the woman, who was crying now, relief dark in her eyes. She believed him of course. Superman could be trusted to come to the rescue in the nick of time. To save the helpless and the weak. To save…

…anyone but those who mattered to him most.

What good were his powers? What good was all this strength? If they couldn't help him save the woman he loved, the one person in the world who meant more to him than his own life. More than anything or anyone else?

What good was he?

The young woman — newly rescued, newly safe in the arms of the superhero — told him. She gave him his answer. She had no doubts.

But he did. He had doubts enough to scourge the soul of the world.

Gently, he crouched beside her to remove the gag. He snapped in two the handcuffs which had dragged her arms behind her back and bit deep wounds into blood-flecked wrists, having to bite down deep on his sudden rage as he threw them violently away from him into a dark corner of the basement. A sharp tremor had begun to take hold of him as empathy for this scene sparked dark speculation in his head. Was Lois suffering like this? Was she chained in some dark, rat- infested pit like this? Was she…was Luthor…

He closed his eyes. The woman he'd saved clung to him, wailing unintelligible gibberish now in remembered terror, as hysteria began to take hold. He patted her shoulder stiffly, but she was barely there for him.

Would he be able to save Lois too? Or would he be too late? As he might have been too late for this woman, if fate hadn't stepped in and Eve hadn't taken off on her own pursuits, leaving him unexpectedly free to get in more searching time. If she hadn't, what would have been this woman's fate?

And what would be Lois'?

"You'll be all right," he whispered, finding the words reflexively. "He can't hurt you now."

Each one of them cut at him like razors. The words he had so wanted to say to Lois. This woman he had so wanted to be her.

"You're safe," he murmured and fought back bitter tears. "You're safe.

***

Routine, Lois thought numbly. Routine was the enemy of the prisoner. Not threats, not coercion. Not even torture. Worse by far then any of these was routine. Mind numbing, soul-destroying routine.

Try as she might, she was powerless to prevent the day in, day out, habitual routines of life that Lex imposed being imprinted on her like a cast-iron straitjacket. Stripped of the ability even to make the small, inconsequential choices that marked normality for others, to exert control over the minutes and moments of her day, she drifted. Lost in a stupor of hurt and wounds too deep to dwell on.

Lost.

She was aware of it. And yet, knowing, couldn't fight against it. It was as though her thoughts were shrouded in cotton clouds, as though the torpor beneath which her emotions were buried was a brick wall that couldn't be breached. She tried to keep hold of her anger and hate, but it was difficult, even for someone who could make an Olympic event out of staying mad.

She was drowning. She knew it. Drowning and, with nothing to cling to, fading fast. And yet it seemed to ask too much of her to really care.

I am Lois Lane. Clark Kent loves me. Superman -

< — won't find you, Lois. He won't find you.>

She knew that this was true. Had perhaps always known this was true, right from that first moment when she had stood, dizzied and flayed to the bone, on that platform of rock and ice. But she had never let herself truly face it until now. Clark would never find her. The chances that he would somehow figure out her location were infinitesimal at best. Impossible at worst.

There was no escape for her from this prison Lex had fashioned. Rescue was an impossible dream. There was only her. She was all she had now. She had to think. Think of a way out. Think of a way to fight back.

Think!

And yet…

Just thinking seemed to take all her strength, too much of her energy, and she drifted…

She was so tired. Lex was employing his tactics of sleep deprivation — one of the crudest methods of forcing submission and disorientation on the prisoner — regularly now. The pattern of her nights was interrupted to his whims and no matter how often she told herself that she wouldn't co-operate, wouldn't let him wheedle his way under her defenses, her body betrayed her.

She had been woken last night at the ungodly hour of three fifteen a.m. Lex had been 'unable to sleep' and had decided once again that he could use some companionship. She hadn't been much of a conversationalist, but he didn't seem to mind whether he filled the night hours with the sound of his own voice or hers so long as her sleep was disturbed and the point made that he could demand her attention and company whenever the caprice struck him.

Her complaints that she needed sleep were ignored to the point where she now no longer protested when she was awoken by her guards and politely invited to join Lex in a game of chess at two a.m. or to share, at five in the morning, a glass of the rare wine he'd just had delivered. Knowing that it was all calculated to keep her off- balance and confused didn't help her fight the debilitating effects. All that she could do to deny him victory was to try to catch up with lost sleep whenever she could.

The chess games in particular had been hard to bear. They reminded her of other times. Clark and she had gotten into the habit of sharing a game in the quiet of the newsroom when they worked late at night and even before she had realized that she loved her unassuming, gentle partner, she had always found peace in those moments of calm sharing. Had found herself looking forward to them. Clark. The soothing balm in her hectic life. The one person in the world she could rely on to provide an oasis of calm in a sea of turmoil.

She blinked back the onset of impotent tears, ashamed of the weakness, and dragged her thoughts away. At least that was one torture that appeared to have ended. That first morning she had played an unconsciously listless game. So tired she could barely keep awake and in no mood to co-operate, she had caught at pieces and moved them haphazardly, barely noticing what she was doing or what she held, with no thought in her head of strategy or gamesmanship.

Lex had been irritated by her lack of attention, but he had hidden it well beneath an air of smug satisfaction that had set her teeth on edge. He had beaten her of course. It was only later that it had occurred to her to wonder if refusing to enter into the spirit of the game would be a victory for her…or for him. She had mused upon it a while. In this stifling and claustrophobic nightmare in which she moved and lived and breathed, no victory — no matter how small — could be overlooked or abandoned. In the end she had realized that none of it mattered. The game wasn't in the board between them or in the chess pieces, but in Lex exerting his will over her and that he could do no matter how much or how little of herself she gave him on their early mornings together.

Lex won.

Every time.

Nevertheless, she had set out to lose the second game. A calculated attempt this time, rather than by default. And found she couldn't. Her first success had come early on, a foolish slip by Lex — something she learned was rare — and she had seen the brief tightening of his lips and the narrowing of his expression as she'd captured his knight…and been doomed. From that point on, she simply couldn't resist taunting him, defeating him. Defeating him caused such a small, warm spark to ignite within her that it seemed worth the knowledge that she was playing into his hands in other ways. Just to see the effort it took for him to remain civil and controlled as she demolished his schemes and warped his ploys was a glow of comfort deep within her belly. And as she won piece after piece and defeated him time and again, she told herself over and over that one day soon she would destroy more than his queen, his rooks and his bishops. She would destroy the king. She would defeat him and win more than a game.

Having thrown herself into the battle royal, she had been surprised with how easily she notched up her victories. Lex wasn't a poor player, on the contrary, he was a skilled tactician, a cunning opponent, and obviously well taught and knowledgeable in the game. She had expected nothing more. But she was as good a player in her own way and had the added skills of being more intuitive and perhaps more determined than he was. Steadily, she beat him. And rejoiced in each new victory.

Two nights later, the chess board had not been in evidence and had not appeared since. She guessed that beating him three games out of four, even tired and dispirited as she had been, hadn't sat well with him. Even symbolic victory for her wasn't to be tolerated. She hoped that the chagrin of those defeats had given him stomach acid.

But he found other ways to take up time she could be better using to replenish her energy levels. And he was a master at backgammon, a game she had never enjoyed and never really learned to play.

And the interruption of her sleep cycles continued unabated.

Dozing here in the park helped make up some of the loss, but it wasn't so much the sleep itself but the constant break to her routine that sapped her strength. Especially when there was no discernable pattern to the interruptions that she could anticipate and ward against.

And Lex was not the only one who disturbed her sleep at nights, lately.

There were the dreams, too.

Lois shifted uneasily on the bench, brows knitting in a troubled frown.

<What's to worry about?> a falsely hearty voice spoke up in response to the spark of unease that the thought had created within her. <They're just dreams. Right? I mean…okay, maybe the odd nightmare, but — >

But…somehow she couldn't help but feel that there was more to them than that. Something deep inside her, some instinct, some…buried knowledge, told her that.

For one thing, those dreams were too vivid, too…real. Colors that were sharply bright, sounds that followed her into the daylight so that she heard them echoing in her head long after she woke. Details that were etched like acid into her mind and could be recalled with a clarity hours, even days, later in ways that she had never experienced before. And soft caresses that lingered on her skin long after the dream was over.

There were gaps in her memory as she dreamed, things that she knew in the waking world somehow didn't seem to translate into the subconscious landscape of her sleep. Simple things in the main. And the opposite applied. Facts she hadn't known, couldn't know, were sharp and bright before her in those things she dreamed behind the restless blackness of her inner vision. Again, none of them were startling or vital. She hadn't woken yet with the answer to cold fusion rattling around in her head. Nor did she suppose she would. But they were confusing and disturbing all the same. And impossible.

It seemed to her…and this was a thought that had come to her slowly, over days spent musing on the absurdity of it all…that her dreams quite suddenly and all at once weren't entirely her own any more. It was as though, she thought, frowning deeply as she struggled to make sense of it, that only half of her dreams belonged to her now. And the other half belonged to…

Who?

She had no idea. But she was suddenly sure, now that it had been thought, that she was right. That her dreams were a jumble now of impressions and hopes, wishes and fantasies — perhaps even some small measure of memory too — and that the whole of them wasn't solely her own.

So, who? Who was it who stalked her in the night? And lead her into dreams that weren't entirely her own?

Her train of thought paused in reflexive anxiety over that one. She bit absently into her lower lip as she ploughed on, even though a part of her was watching her as though she'd gone crazy. Maybe she had. But…

But, more than once, in the past, she had known she was linked in some way to Clark's mind. When he had been sick with some kind of strange Kryptonian virus she had known immediately when he had woken from the coma he had slipped into days before. She had heard him speak her name. And no one could tell her any differently. She knew it was so. There had been other incidents. Small, barely registering, a heightened awareness of him, a vague impression of where he was and what he was doing. Rare moments, but definitely moments that existed outwith the confines of her imagination.

So…was it Clark she sensed when she slept? Was it his dreams that merged and flowed with her own, like twin rivers surging towards one ocean? And if it was…

If it was, should she worry about what he and her duplicate were doing in Hawaii? Her skin flushed as she remembered the sweetly sensuous details of some of those dreams she'd had. Could Clark be…? No. Well, perhaps if he wasn't actually *doing* anything, maybe he could still be…he was a man after all. And he wasn't in control of his subconscious any more than she was when it let itself out to play.

Tears prickled at her eyes with the thought, but almost immediately she found herself denying it. Rejecting it. No, she told herself firmly. Somehow, instinctively, she knew that there was nothing of Clark in those dreams. No trace of him.

So who? Who was it? She returned worriedly to the same question that had haunted her for days and disturbed her sleep almost as much as Lex had.

Her lips twisted in sudden irritation. Maybe it *was* all nonsense. Just her imagination working on her darkly. Lord knew she could have been forgiven for it, all things considered. Or maybe Lex *had* finally pushed her over the edge and she truly was insane, she thought darkly, giving up the puzzle abruptly for a time. It took too much energy from her to think on it now.

And still…despite the nagging worry of it all…she found a solace in those dreams, a refuge in the darkness, that she couldn't help but embrace, no matter what the source of them was. They were, in many ways, her only comfort now.

The breeze that stirred a light hand against her hair was spring-like today. Softly warm and fresh with the scents of mown grass and the perfume of the brightly-colored blooms around her, heavy and tantalizing with the promise of summer to come.

Lois wondered idly how they managed to get that mixture just right. She closed her eyes, letting herself settle back against the oak seat, feeling the wood, warm from the sun overhead, seep its way into her skin. The peace of the park was disturbed only by the gentle trilling of birds, far in the distance.

She opened her eyes and turned her face up to the orange blaze of the sun above her — and there the illusion ended. It was impressive, there was no denying that. Near perfect. Skillfully put together. Close your eyes, let your thoughts drift, and you might be fooled into thinking you were in a square of garden, filled with flowers and sunlight, looking out over a rectangle of close-cropped, velvet lawn to a thick line of woodland beyond.

But behind the creeping green vines and the stout trunks of maple and oak there were gray block-formed walls and when she turned her face up to the warmth of the huge and radiant halogen lamps that cast shadows like the sun, she saw no sky.

Like everything connected with Lex, it was a sham. Had no substance beyond the glamour. She was sure it had cost him a tidy sum to install. But it was no substitute for the real thing. By its very nature it simply enhanced her longing for the real world. Beautiful — in its own, small way, a retreat from the debilitating destruction, piece by piece, of her life — but in the end, no matter how immaculately rendered, it could never be anything more than a reminder of what she'd lost. Of what she'd had taken from her so brutally. Nothing more than a stage set, scattered with props and peopled by ghosts.

She flinched, trying not to let her thoughts take her there. To that place. She wouldn't go there. Not again. Not now…no! She moaned, fists clenching at her sides as she shook her head viciously, trying to dislodge the images rising in her mind.

No…

Please…no…

But the tide of memory was implacable. And tears slipped slowly across her skin, burning against the pallor of her face as she remembered the twisted horror of what had lain, buried and abandoned, in a distant corner of the fortress…

***

She had been wandering aimlessly again. Without purpose now, without the solace of plans and plots, with any thought or escape or rescue bludgeoned from her mind by the revelation she had discovered on the Lookout, four days before, she had simply drifted through empty corridors and rooms with no clear idea of where she was going. There seemed to be a blank wall in her head, slick and black. Her thoughts slid across it and vanished into its depths, like sinking into pitch oil. Sunk in dismal shock, they seemed to have no substance, no importance.

Nothing was important. Not any more.

Now, finally, she understood why Clark hadn't come to her rescue. Why she would never see him again. Without some clue, without some way of telling him where she was he would never find her. Would never think to look for her, buried deep within the mountain. It was impossible.

Hopeless.

Terrifying.

She couldn't allow herself to think any more. Or feel. Because if she did the howling terror that was living in her now would burst forth like a suppurating poison, drowning her in a madness she might never be able to emerge from.

So…she drifted. Wrapped in a small huddle in her head, where it was safe. Where she could retreat. Be alone. The only place where Lex couldn't follow, couldn't hurt her, couldn't control what and who she was.

When she came up, shuddering for breath, and out of her fugue it was to find herself in a section of the fortress that was empty and devoid of life and holding a still dustiness in its air that spoke of long abandonment. Silence settled thickly around her and she glanced behind her uneasily, recognizing that even the faint sounds of activity and machinery that marked the rest of the Citadel were absent.

For a moment panic beat in her chest — she had no recollection of how she'd made it here, was she lost, could she find her way back — and then a bitter surge of laughter escaped her. She resisted the urge to look up at the ceiling, spread her hands wide in helpless defeat, and yell bitterly at her faceless, always present companions, "Hey, guys? I think I'm lost. Got a map?"

Losing herself in the warren of corridors was the least of her problems, she thought, cutting off the laughter abruptly, before it got loose and buried her in hysteria. If she could lose herself somewhere, somewhere where Lex would never find her, it would be a miracle.

Lex would never allow her to escape him that way either.

Dismally, she stopped and let herself survey her surroundings.

She was standing in a long narrow length of corridor, which opened out into a cul-de-sac of plain, wooden doors. Unremarkable, ordinary doors. She turned back the way she'd apparently come. The corridor stretched away from her and ended in a flight of stairs. Lois sighed.

Well, what else did she have to do today? Maybe there was -

<Stop it! Just stop it!> she raged at herself savagely. <Stop pretending there's a way out. Just around the corner, just up ahead! You're stuck here! You're stuck here and you're not getting out — you're not getting out, Lois…you're -

- not getting out!>

She sucked in a hard breath, fighting back the surge of tears that welled up in her eyes, blinking furiously until they retreated, struggling to contain the misery and sharp horror that howled in her throat and poisoned her soul. She leaned heavily against the wall beside her, breath rasping in the silence.

"Stop it," she whispered aloud.

She couldn't afford to surrender to panic this way. She needed her wits about her, now more than ever. She needed to fight and keep fighting. She may be…be trapped here. With no way out. She forced herself to face the truth viciously. <But that doesn't mean you have to roll over and let him have what he wants.>

If Lex wanted her imprisoned here she was going to make damned sure she was the most infuriating, irritating, captive he'd ever had the misfortune to meet. If it had to take her fifty years. He'd regret it. He'd regret what he'd done. If that was the only escape, the only satisfaction left to her, she'd put everything she had into ensuring she was the biggest thorn in his butt she could make herself be.

Aware that she was grinning, a rictus grin that had little to do with humor, Lois straightened up and moved purposefully towards the first of the doors. She had time on her hands. She had nothing but time now. And she would explore every inch, every crack, every crevice of this windowless, airless, lair until she found something she could use to help her.

She opened the first door she came to…

…and stepped into the Daily Planet.

For a long, amazed and disorientated moment, she simply stood there staring. Then she turned her head. The door she'd entered through stood where the door to the stairwell would normally be. She looked back at the…

…at what. The set?

Every detail was perfect. She closed her eyes and for a moment she could almost imagine that she could hear the busy hum of staffers working on their stories…the click of keyboards…the sound of Perry roaring about deadlines…Clark…

<How about some coffee, Lois?>

Her eyes flew open with a start and the voices and images faded into the static, disturbing silence of the empty, dusty room.

She glanced to her right and then walked quickly over to the elevator. She punched the button but it stayed dead. A prop. Nothing more.

Lois shivered and then she was walking — not running, she wasn't running — walking swiftly for the door. She darted through and slammed it closed behind her, leaning back against it as she fought to keep her laboring breath until control.

What kind of sick, twisted…

She straightened. If Lex thought that recreating a few…museum displays…would make her feel more at home, he was -

She moved away from the door with a jerk and turned to face it, wide-eyed. Had she really seen…? Had it really been there? Her mouth felt dry and her heart was drumming swift unease. She wasn't going back in to find out if it had been her imagination. Something glimmered in the dim light, higher on the door face, and she squinted. A small brass plate:

Daily Planet — Newsroom

She reached up and traced the name with one finger, almost reverently, and then she backed away. She turned her head to look along the shadowy length of the narrow corridor. There were other doors.

Reluctantly, but unable to prevent herself, she found herself moving from door to door, opening some and retreating quickly. Worlds opened up for her. The block around her apartment — complete with the local deli she frequented. Her Uncle Mike's restaurant. City Hall. Centennial Park…

The fountain.

<If the Earth opened up at my feet…I wouldn't move till I said this…>

<I love you *more*. More than I ever have…more than I could ever love anyone…>

<Marry me…>

She had fled as though pursued by demons.

All the places of her life, laid out stark and bare and…empty. Cold. Abandoned. Devoid of life. Meaningless ghostly echoes of places she had known intimately.

Not meaningless. It hurt. It hurt worse than she could ever imagined, seeing the pieces of her life assembled like this. Like empty rooms in a house you'd once loved. An abomination. A twisted torture she would never have believed any human being could devise.

Lois moved from room to room in a daze, unaware of the tears staining her cheeks.

Until, finally, she came at last to a horror beyond all others.

She stood for a long span of moments before the door. It looked like all the others — plain, unassuming. Except for the brass plate:

Wylie Chapel

Well prepared now for what she would find, she closed her eyes momentarily and then slowly and reluctantly opened the door.

The nave of the Chapel opened up before her. The long aisle, the rows of empty pews, the altar, the softly lit silence… For a moment, dizzied by it all, she clutched at the door's edge, closing her eyes. Then, as though caught in a nightmare, she began to walk slowly into the corruption of her dreams. This place where…where…

In her mind's eye she saw it all. Saw it clearly. As though it unspooled before her like the frames of a movie. How many times had they stood there? There at the altar? Aping the most important moments of her life? How many times had *she* stood there — that trollop who'd taken her place — tricked up no doubt in a perfect-to-the-last- detail replica of her wedding dress, mouthing vows like lines in a play? And who had been the groom? Lex? One of his minions? Sickness tasted bitter like dregs in her throat as she stared at this…sacrilege of everything that was important to her, to this mockery of her life, of her hopes and dreams…of her love for Clark and his for her.

The first sob burst out of her throat and caught her unawares and then, as though a dam had burst within her, more followed and then she was running. Running, heedless, blind, for the door, crashing through it, barely aware of where she was going or what she was doing, only knowing that she couldn't bear to stand there one instant longer in the dusty silence of that travesty.

She barreled out of the chapel and hit the door that lay opposite before she could gather wit enough to stop herself. Under that assault it burst open, taking her with it, and she stumbled through the sudden opening, half falling before she caught her balance and recovered. Leaning up against the doorframe, tears half blinding her, her breath ragged in her throat, she froze.

Her heart caught, her eyes filled.

One more…one last…abomination to make the others fade into nothing against it.

Clark's apartment.

It was perfect. Perfect in every detail. Except one.

"Oh, Clark…" Lois whispered as she moved through the musty rooms, trembling with an ague that left her weak and sick to her stomach.

Rooms that were as empty of life as all the others.

A sweater lay across the back of the armchair. She picked it up, hugged it to her. But it was devoid even of his scent, had probably never been worn by him. She buried her face in the soft flannel anyway and imagined she could find some sense of him, some echo, in the fabric. In that other world — the real world, the world that was fading fast in her head and becoming nothing more than a dream and this nightmare her reality — she remembered when she had last seen him wearing the original it was patterned on.

<Tell you what — why don't I just fly us to Thailand instead? There's this little — >

"— place I know, right on the edge of the temple square and —"

She'd been too grumpy to appreciate being in the arms he'd hooked her into a moment before — and oh how her heart ached now for those lost moments, when she'd failed to appreciate what she truly had and how she longed to go back, to be able to tell him, just once, how much he meant to her. He'd been laughing at her.

"Are you saying my cooking stinks?" she'd demanded, deeply wounded by the insult.

He'd pressed his lips tight together, a not very subtle attempt to still his visible amusement. She'd glared at him…and then her eyes had followed his to the table and the pathetic, smoldering remnants of the dinner she'd attempted…and suddenly she'd been chuckling too.

"It does have a certain… piquant aroma to it, doesn't it?" she'd admitted. She'd looked up at him, defiantly. "I'm going to have to get that oven fixed. It's not working right, I know it isn't. I'm gonna sue that store." She'd glanced back down at the table and sighed. "I should keep this as evidence."

"We can give it a decent burial later," he'd suggested. "And maybe I can take a look at that oven for you." His eyes had twinkled up at her. He'd poked at the remains. "Are you sure this was ever beef to start with?"

She'd thwapped him on the shoulder and he'd aped mock pain. She'd sighed, looking down at the ruined meal. "I don't know, Clark, I'm such a klutz at this. Sure you wouldn't like to marry someone who can feed you right?" She'd been half laughing, but, even to her own surprise, there'd been a faint note of tension in the question, a small frisson of seriousness. She wasn't used to failing at anything. And cooking looked so easy when everyone else did it. Why couldn't she get it right? It was intolerable she couldn't when everyone else did.

He'd smiled at her. That smile that made her feel as though she was invincible, as though there wasn't anything she couldn't do. Reflected in his eyes there was such confidence in her that she couldn't fail to feel a spark of it renew itself deep in her chest. He'd shaken his head, tightened his embrace around her, placed a small kiss on the crown of her hair. "You're not fooling me, Miss Lane. I'm on to you."

Puzzled, she'd drawn back a little. "You are?"

"Uh-huh. You know you burn this stuff deliberately." He'd winked at her. "Can't say I blame you though. Romantic, candlelight dinner in Thailand versus cold and rainy Metropolis? Who wouldn't?"

Tears had started in her eyes. Oh, this man. What had she ever done to deserve this man in her life? "Ah," she'd said, the word half- choked in a throat that had closed up tight. "Busted."

He'd nodded and then his hand had moved to press itself lightly against her cheek and he'd leaned in close. "And there's no one else I want to marry but you, Lois. There only ever was you. There always will be…just…you…" And his lips had sealed themselves to hers in a sweet caress that was full of longing and desire.

When he released her again, she felt heady with it. With that love she saw deep in his dark gaze on hers. "Oh…" she'd whispered faintly. "Well…when you put it like that…"

He'd grinned and then let her go, moving to catch up the sweater he'd been wearing earlier and which lay now across the back of the kitchen chair. "Here," he'd said, handing it over. "It'll be cold out, best put that on."

Dinner in Thailand.

It was a bright memory in her head. But, oh, a painful one too. She looked down at the sweater in her hands, crushing it against her chest as she closed her eyes, feeling the oily sting of tears against her skin.

Still holding it close, she moved into the bedroom and curled up on the bed, sobbing quietly as she rocked over the fragile link to everything she'd lost. Everything that had been taken from her.

And there, grieving, she slept.

***

Lois shivered, the warmth of the breeze no match for the chill within her.

Having found the faintest of connections to Clark, she had been unable to resist spending all of her time there, in that eerie netherworld of memory. It hurt and yet it soothed her too. At times, if she closed her eyes, lying on the bed or curled up on the sofa, she could will herself to imagine that at any moment she would hear the click of the door, or the swoosh of air that meant she'd be gathered up in strong arms and feel the heat of his skin against her own, the sigh of his mouth against her lips…and the nightmare would be over.

On the third day, pushing open the door, feeling the unreasoning leap of anticipation in her heart, she had walked into an echoing cavern. A warehouse, with metal beams in its roof and block-formed walls and…empty. Stripped bare. The other doors led onto the same desolation. Everything gone. Dismantled. Leaving behind nothing but empty, echoing soundstages. As though they had never existed.

The doors, bereft now of their identifying plates, had become like any others in the fortress. The rooms behind them vast and cavernous and cold.

The loss had been like a spear in her heart. The cruelty of it had been devastating, had taken her back to the very first moments of her captivity, when despair and rage and grief had warred within her. Lex hadn't only deprived her of the memories of what she'd lost. He had whittled away pieces of her life as callously as a surgeon cutting out her heart.

It had been a blow as hard as that first. Confronted once more with the reality of her captivity, with the brutality of her forced separation from everything and everyone that she loved, her life had been torn from her once again.

The trauma had almost sent her over the edge. It had almost been more than she could bear, worse somehow than even that first shock when she had woken to find herself trapped with a madman. She understood that what he had done was a metaphor for the disintegration of who she was and who Lex Luthor wanted her to be. Her old life was gone. And even the memory of it could be torn down and shredded at his whim. He had been angry that she had found the abandoned sets, used to train her doppelganger, to familiarize her with elements of the life she was stealing, the woman she was supplanting. He had been angry and he had taken steps to tear her out of the refuge she had found among the past. Coldly, brutally. He could be, she understood, as brutal at tearing her apart too if he wished. Could be as callous in removing other things she loved if it suited him. People perhaps. Clark. Perry. Her parents. Lucy…

Nor was she unconscious of the irony. The hardest thing she found to bear about her current situation was the total isolation it smothered her in. Her only human contact came from her jailer. The guards were nodding acquaintances, with whom she exchanged no more than the odd terse phrase. Strange that Lois Lane — savagely independent, the woman who had once known as a shining, unshakable truth in her heart that she needed no one, relied on no one — could suddenly find herself screaming inside her skull to kill the empty silence, would give her soul for a friend to talk to.

A soft rustle among the trees broke into the descending spiral of her thoughts and the quick pulse of fear that had begun to tick within her. As she opened her eyes with a start, she saw the dappled, graceful lines of a roe buck step daintily through the last of the trees. It stood, watching her from out of liquid, soulful eyes, on the lawn's edge. Unfazed by her presence, calm and serene.

Her lips twisted wryly. Not quite what she'd meant.

And yet, despite herself, despite knowing that there was no real magic in this encounter, no more mysticism than there would be at your average petting zoo, Lois couldn't help but be enchanted.

Just as Lex had intended. All of the forest denizens in his 'park' were tame. Nothing more than pets. Acquired as living toys to amuse her.

Her brow darkened. And yet… She stretched out a hand, feeling some communion with the beast before her even so; some sense of shared imprisonment. It too was trapped here. It too existed here only at the whim of its jailer. Their jailer.

The buck watched her, lifting its head to scent the air. It took a tentative step forward, nose stretching, nostrils flaring, as it inched closer to her outstretched fingers…

Deep within the wood, a hollow boom sounded. It broke through the moment like a shattering of crystal, destroying the illusion. The buck whirled, gone an instant later, its natural camouflage blending seamlessly into the darkness of the trees. As though it had never been.

Ridiculously, she felt betrayed at its abandonment. Bereft, an air of melancholy settled on her as she wished herself the ability to join it, for it to be that simple to evade her tormentor. To vanish into the heart of that darkness and escape.

Nothing of her thoughts showed on the careful, taut mask of the face she turned to view Lex as he strode across the clearing towards her, beaming welcome.

"Good morning, my love." He bent with the exuberant greeting to brush a kiss against her cheek, before settling himself with a contented sigh on the seat beside her. "Doesn't that artemesia smell delightful this morning?" He drew in an exaggerated breath and then glanced at her. "Lois?"

Inwardly Lois heaved a sigh. She knew, from bitter experience, that there was no point in ignoring him. He would simply stay until he got a response.

"Artemesia always irritated my sinuses." The tiniest of smiles twitched at her lips with the words. One of her small and petty amusements these days was to claim she hated something, just for the spiteful pleasure of knowing it would take a little extra work overnight to change it for something else. A minor inconvenience for Lex, of course, but she was aware that the ploy was beginning to bite even so. She watched the small tightening of his mouth now and fought the urge to grin.

She turned her head casually away as though finding a new interest in the bed of flowers. She leaned an elbow to the cast-iron arm of the bench and laid her fingers against her lips, stilling the smile before it could grow and betray her.

A small movement out of the corner of her eye attracted her attention. Her visitor from earlier was back. And he'd brought a friend. They stood nervously on the edge of the woodline, ears twitching back and forth like radar, nostrils quivering.

"How…charming." Lex put out a hand towards the deer. "Come then…"

But they shied away from him, darted back towards the trees. He had nothing of patience in him. Nothing gentle. They saw beneath the mask more clearly than even she did. Lois saw a flash of anger cross his face, before the vizard of congenial good humor dropped back into place. He shrugged, feigning an unconcern he obviously didn't feel. "Ah well."

The encounter had pricked at him, Lois reflected with sudden insight, because he considered the animals to be his. He owned them, he had paid for them, ergo they should obey him. They owed him recognition as their benefactor and owner.

The correlation between the deer and herself was a bitter truth that followed on logically from the realization. Like any other pet or toy, any other animal in his dominion, Lex expected love and obedience from her also. As far as Lex was concerned she was his, just as much as anything else he had paid to have brought here for his amusement.

"Marvelous what technology can do these days," Lex mused aloud, snapping her from her thoughts. "Don't you think? It wasn't part of the original design. My own little addition. I had the same designer work on this little oasis who built the Oceandome in Miyazaki. Of course it was something of a bad career move for him. I couldn't have him using this in his design portfolio. It's so depressing when someone so talented dies in a tragic accident at such an early age. But then, Oceandome will stand as a memorial to his genius, I suspect. Somewhat too commercial for my own tastes I fear. A completely artificial entertainment complex, complete with its own beaches, computer-controlled waves and tides. Do you know that it's situated only yards away from the real thing?" His eyes glittered on her. "Yet, the real beaches stay empty while millions of tourists cavort among waves generated by computers and turbines."

Lois sighed heavily. "Do you actually have a point to share, Lex? Or are you just trying to bore me into submission? "

Lex smiled at her, the barb leaving him untouched. "The real world is dangerous. Those tourists recognize that. You should too. Here, in my version of it, you're safe. Protected. Cherished…" His hand descended on her shoulder with the words, slid its way down her arm as his voice softened. Lois shrugged off the touch irritably. The smile vanished. "I would have thought you'd be grateful. I designed all of this with you in mind."

Lois studied him obliquely. "You know it doesn't surprise me that Japanese tourists prefer to swim in artificial seas, leaving the real ocean empty a hundred yards away. The ocean has hidden dangers in it. There be sharks," she murmured wryly.

"Precisely," Lex beamed, pleased at her endorsement of his point. "So much safer to let yourself be protected, taken care of —"

"But then," Lois cut him off coolly, "I've lately come to realize that an artificial ocean can have sharks in it too. Just like the real thing." Her eyes rested on him distastefully. "Safety is an illusion. Just like all the rest."

Lex looked nettled by her manipulation of the conversation, she noted with small satisfaction. She wouldn't allow him to set the agenda here. She may be essentially out of leverage, with no way to defeat him — for the moment. But it was at the moment of greatest loss that the smallest of victories became important. Changing tack on him, refusing to discuss what he had set as the topic of conversation, might be petty and small, but it was soothing to the troubled heart nonetheless when it was all you had to cling to.

But his annoyance was swiftly hidden beneath a raised brow as he settled back against the oak slats of the bench with studied relaxation. "How cynical."

"How true."

Lex shook his head. "Well then, since you despise the world I've spent so much time and money creating for you…" He got to his feet and held out his hand to her. Lois eyed it, but made no move to accept it. "Perhaps we should let you experience some of the real thing. If only for a time."

Lois glanced up into his face, startled. "What?"

"Go back to your apartment and get changed. Wear something warm. I'll have someone pick you up and take you to the helipad in twenty minutes."

His hand reached out to cradle her jaw as he studied her clinically. This time she was so astounded by what he was saying she hardly noticed the loathsome touch.

"You're pale, my darling. Fresh air's the thing." He smiled expansively. "I'm taking you out to dinner. A little village I know. Off the beaten track, of course, but the veal at the Alfa Soleil is simply delicious."

***

The Mai Tai was quiet so early in the morning. Eve chose a table set against the wooden railing of the deck that overlooked the beach and Diamond Head, still nothing more than a dark sliver in the soft lights strung overhead. From her position she could view all of the circular room. Her back was set to the wall.

She had been restless, somehow, up in her suite. Sleep had eluded her and the loneliness that defined her nights had seemed all at once unbearable. Finally, toward dawn, she had given up and decided to come down to the bar on the pretext of an early breakfast, where at least there were friendly faces she'd grown accustomed to seeing and some semblance of life and humanity to share in.

When the waiter approached she ordered coffee and sat staring out at the glimmer of the waves as they rolled endlessly and ceaselessly onto the sand. The soft strains of Hawaiian music flowed over her; relaxing and soothing.

"You're up early. Couldn't sleep?"

She started, turning her head to look up at the tall figure who had materialized beside her table.

"I — " For a moment, flustered, both by the sudden appearance and the somewhat intrusive question, she had no answer for him. She recognized him. He had often been around the bar, chatting to the bar-tender and other members of staff, who seemed to know him well. But he had never shown the slightest indication that he had noticed her. Disconcerted, she eased herself deeper into the corner as she tried to think of a suitable response.

He smiled, easing smoothly into the seat opposite her and holding out a hand that covered the awkward moment. "Alex. Alex Hopewell."

Eve stared at the hand but didn't take it. "I'm sorry, I gotta — " She made an abortive move to rise but his hand jerked out to rest on her wrist stopping her in her tracks.

"Hey, hold up there." He backed off, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Don't run off. I'm perfectly harmless. Ask Akamu, here." He smiled up at the waiter as he placed her drink before her. "Right, Akamu?"

"Well, he has lousy taste in music at times, but he's no axe murderer." Akamu smiled easily at her. "I'll leave it to you to work out how harmless that makes him."

Despite herself, Eve smiled back. There was something in the eyes of both men — warm appreciation for her as female — that she liked all at once.

"Just don't buy any timeshares from him and you'll be okay," Akamu added with a wink as he retreated.

"I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't mean to intrude. I just figured we insomniacs ought to stick together."

The quiet apology roused indignation in her suddenly. She wasn't scared! She was tired of being scared. Huddled like a frightened rabbit in her rooms, waiting endlessly for Clark to come home. She wasn't going to do it any more, she thought defiantly. She'd show him who was scared!

She sat back in her chair and eyed him with a raised brow. Something within her, some stored knowledge of encounters her original pattern had experienced in the past, took over her like reflex and instinct. She drew upon it, memory and experience, and relaxed into its persona.

"You're not intruding. I warn you though, timeshare is out," she told him archly. "But I might buy you a coffee."

For an instant a frantic voice within her demanded shrilly to know what the hell she was doing? She couldn't sit here…*flirting* with a total stranger and -

Why not? It wasn't doing any harm. Was it? Clark hadn't been around this evening just like all the other evenings, other than two or three where he had made the effort to play the honeymooner for Lex's spies and taken her out to dinner or a stroll on the beach in the moonlight. Mostly though he was gone. Adios. Arrivederci. Sayonara.

And she was lonely. Fed up with sitting in her suite watching TV or here alone in the quiet little hotel bar, drinking a few of the tropical cocktails which gave it its name. Within, she might be marveling at her nerve and perhaps any other evening she might have fled at the first approach of a stranger — especially a man like this one.

But this morning she was still flush with the success of her earlier power a few days before, still turning over the ramifications of her revelation and coming to realize that she had liked it. Had liked being in control of her own destiny. Of knowing that she had power over men. She'd been thinking about it a lot since and was curious to know if she could do it again. And with someone other than Clark. Perhaps that had been the true root of her restless night, she considered suddenly. Admittedly, she'd had a few more of them recently.

A shiver ran through her as a soft voice warned her this could be a dangerous experiment. She didn't care. Just for this one moment she didn't want to be afraid. Jumping at shadows, spooking at too loud voices in the corridors at night, huddling in her room afraid to move and checking the locks on the door a dozen times in as many minutes. She wanted to be free. She wanted to know what it was like to be human and alive and free. Just for a few hours.

And he *looked* harmless enough. What harm could she come to, here in the bar? She knew the staff — Akumu and other regulars — well by now and felt almost comfortable with them. She knew *they* wouldn't let any harm come to her. And it wasn't as though she was going to let him come back to the suite, now was it?

Didn't she deserve some fun too?

So…adios, Clark. Arrivederci…sayonara…

"How do you say goodbye in Hawaiian?" she blurted curiously as the thought wandered, and then blushed, dropping her gaze to the table and fiddling with her cup. Stupid. *Stupid*. Why couldn't she keep her mind on one thing instead of flitting around all over the place just like an idiot?

She darted a glance upwards and saw Alex watching her quizzically. "If I answer right are you going to?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Say goodbye. I mean is that the sophisticated city girl's way these days of giving a guy the brush off?"

"Oh! Oh no — no!" She shook her head and blushed deeper as he grinned at her. "I just…I was just wondering. It don — it doesn't matter."

He smiled. "Aloha. Means goodbye," he elaborated as she gave him a quizzical look.

She frowned. "Doesn't that mean hello?"

He nodded. "That too. And a lot of other things besides. I'd much rather you meant hello when you said it, though, than goodbye. If you're wanting to practice your Hawaiian phrases, I mean." His smile widened. "I could probably listen to you say aloha all day if you meant hello."

He was kind of handsome when he did that. Smiled. And…he was teasing her, wasn't he? Was he actually teasing her? Did she like that?

Actually…it seemed she kinda did.

She found herself chuckling. Inside her head there was a part of her that was staring at her in amazement as she did. But she didn't care. Suddenly she was enjoying herself. She glanced across to the bar. "Should I ask Akamu how you say timeshare?" she wondered with a cocky grin.

Alex laughed. "He's fooling. I don't sell timeshare. I run a couple of beach franchises, though." He waggled his brows at her. "I can give you cheap rates on jet-skis or para-gliding. Just ask for Alex next time you come down to the beach."

Her own, responding laughter seemed to belong to someone else. "I might take you up on that."

"And *I'll* buy the coffees," he added, reaching into his pocket and bringing out his wallet.

"Oh no, I —"

"At least, this round," he said with a smile and she subsided. "And maybe, if you don't have any other plans, we could split breakfast. You know the Paniolo Omelettes here are just to die for." He raised his hands, his smile disarming. "No strings. Just a couple of people who think it makes more sense to eat together than alone. Besides — " The smile slid into a sharp grin. " — I've got a coupon. Two for one. I'll spend the morning in conversation with any beautiful woman if it saves me a dime." He winked at her.

Eve paused, fighting against the smile twitching irresistibly at her lips. She lost the battle.

Beautiful?

He thought she was…beautiful?

"All right," she said, the smile emerging shyly as she accepted his offer.

***

Kandersteg.

Under normal circumstances, Lois might have found the little alpine village enchanting. Even romantic. With the right company, the excursion from the suffocating confines of the Citadel might have been exhilarating.

Nestled at the bottom of a valley, encircled by mountains, with the snow-blanched alps rearing behind, it was a world out of time. A Christmas card creation. In summer, she supposed, the pastures surrounding the village would be a riot of color with meadow flowers and verdant grasses. In February, it was a white wonderland.

She stood for a moment, taking in shallow breaths of the freezing air, the sound of the whirling blades above her head dying into the distance as she let her gaze roam over the neat scatter of lodges and chalets which made up the village, warm lights glowing in the gathering darkness.

Off the beaten track, he had said. But obviously still a haven for tourists. Hotels and stores outnumbered houses three to one, she judged, in her brief, calculating appraisal. Lex had chosen cleverly, she realized. The village was out of the way, yet not remote enough that the presence of strangers would be found worthy of any great speculation or something to be remarked upon.

"This way."

She started as Lex took hold of her elbow, but made no protest as he guided her along the marked out trail. She sensed the two guards who had accompanied them in the helicopter following closely at their backs. They had swapped their normal fatigues for sharp suits and looked more like stockbrokers than soldiers. Or maybe not, she reconsidered as she took a swift glance at the blank, emotionless faces. More like celebrity bodyguards. Or a Presidential security detail. She guessed some people just couldn't change themselves, even if they did shed their skin for a time. They still stayed snakes when all was said or done.

She looked away, focusing on their destination, glancing up the short slope to where the hotel Alfa Soleil perched on a man-made bluff, overlooking the rest of the buildings slightly below it. Trust Lex to appreciate dominance, she thought darkly, as he ushered her ahead of him up the stout wooden steps to the observation platform above.

It was utterly charming. Small, round tables topped with cheerful yellow umbrellas cluttered the planked porch. For a moment, she indulged herself in a fantasy of sitting there in summer, looking out over the pasture, a tall glass in her hand and -

"Mr. Malcolm! How good to see you again, sir!"

She turned her head as the maitre d' came hurrying over to greet them. She kept her thoughts on his greeting to herself.

"Andrew." Lex smiled. "You have our table ready?"

"Certainly. Please, this way. It's been a long time, sir," Andrew continued as he led them through the maze of tables in the cozy, wood-paneled restaurant and into what turned out to be a small, private dining-room. At its far end, the entire wall was a bank of windows, framing a panoramic view of the mountains and the Alps behind. A real log fire was banked in the grate to their left, unlit for the moment, and sconces threw lambent yellow light on the polished wood, picking up its mahogany gleam.

"Writing going well?" Andrew glanced back with a look of inquiry as he stopped before the table set before the windows and gallantly pulled out a chair for Lois to seat herself. She did so in silence, her thoughts whirling over this bizarre welcome.

"I think so," Lex said smoothly as he took his own seat. "My publisher thinks I'm taking too long to come up with the proofs."

Andrew smiled obligingly. "Then I hope our air proves as invigorating for you as it has in the past. I'll have wine sent over. Your usual?"

"Yes. Thank you." Lex nodded absently as he picked up the menu.

Lois watched the maitre d' walk away toward the bar, before she turned back to find Lex watching her. She lifted a brow at him.

"Roderick Malcolm. Minor celebrity, wealthy socialite, second-string writer of political novels. He has a vacation cabin not too far from here. He likes the air — clears his head, invigorates the Muse. He's been coming here for some years."

"I see." Lois picked up her own menu, without further comment. But, after a moment, she said, "Aren't you afraid they'll recognize 'Roderick Malcolm' as a fugitive from justice? I'm sure the authorities must have an APB out for Lex Luthor after his break from prison."

"Lois, my dear." He shook his head at her in admonishment as she glanced up at him. "Lex Luthor may be on the minds of the authorities in Metropolis, he may even be guest-starring nightly on televisions throughout America. But the rest of the world — and our provincial little friends in particular — have little interest I'm sure in a businessman convicted of corruption and fraud. I'd be surprised if they even knew the name or had heard the story of his escape."

"The Daily Planet covers the world," Lois bit back. "And it surely has an interest in *your* escape. Besides, replacing the President with a clone was slightly more audacious than fiddling the accounts. Even I have to concede that. I'm sure someone must have read the news."

"In this neck of the woods I think they prefer Die Welt," Lex countered smoothly. "No." He put down the menu and smiled at her. "Here we have Roderick Malcolm, writer, wealthy semi-recluse, enjoying a meal in a restaurant he has patronized now and then for a number of years, with his latest…inamorata."

Lois winced. That explained the maitre d's lack of interest in her. She was just one more companion 'Malcolm' had arrived here with.

"Roderick Malcolm has a taste for fine wine and finer women," Lex added, confirming that. "Two things we share in common." His eyes twinkled his amusement at her.

The thought and the comment prompted her to ask. "Why me, Lex?" she said, leaning forward to view him intently with the question. "You've obviously visited here with a string of…inamoratas. You've never had trouble finding women eager to spend time with you in the past. You used to fill the society pages with models and starlets hanging attentively on your arm. Why waste your time now on one who isn't interested in you at all? Who's in love with another man? It doesn't make sense. You could snap your fingers and a dozen women would come running — " She paused. "That's it, isn't it?" she whispered. "You want what you can never have. You need to take what isn't yours. Fine art, property…women are just another category to acquire."

He held up his water glass at her in silent salute. "Very astute." He took a sip of the Perrier and then shook his head. "Pop psychology never was very good at pigeon-holing the complex. It's not so simple as that. Originally…I wanted you because you were his." He shrugged. "Not very flattering, I'm sure, but you were valuable for that. I almost loved you just for the thrilling thought that I could defeat him in winning your heart, alone. Just one more battle, Lois, with you as the prize. Another victory to secure. Although I won't say that this time the spoils of that victory weren't more than compensation for the effort put into acquiring them."

He smiled, as though he'd just complimented her. The handsome, roguish smile that once had beguiled her into considering spending her life with him. Now, she recognized it for the mask it was. Just like all the others he showed to the world. The beast in him was well hidden — it always had been — but it no longer buried itself deep enough for her to be unaware of its presence, coiled there darkly behind the amused mischief in those dark eyes. A soft shudder rolled through her before she could prevent it.

"Cold? I'll have Andrew light the fire if you like."

She shook her head and frowned as she picked up her water glass and took a cautious sip, searching his face over the rim. "His?"

Lex regarded her quizzically.

"You said I was 'his'. I don't —"

He made an impatient gesture. The annoyed and abrupt dismissal of a question from a particularly slow pupil who had failed to listen closely to the lesson. "Superman's of course." Distaste bled even into his mouthing of the name.

The glass froze halfway to her lips. "What?"

Lex shrugged. "I hated him. He challenged me. And he had you. Naturally I had to take you from him."

"That's ridiculous! Superman was…he never was…"

"Please, Lois." Lex's mouth twisted in distaste. "You think I was blind to the way you threw yourself at that blue-spangled trapeze artist? You weren't exactly subtle about it. I couldn't accept that, of course. I wanted you. He had you. It was as simple as that. Nothing personal." The hard line of his lips softened. "Well…not at first anyway. Later…ah, well later I came to realize that I loved you. More than the Blue-Caped InsufferableMan or that idiot, Kent, ever could. It was me you deserved, Lois. No lesser man would do. When you rejected me…" He sighed, as though this was a deep puzzlement to him even now. "But I knew that things could change. That you could be taught to recognize how wrong you'd been. You loved me once. I could teach you to love me again."

Passion had crept into his voice and lighted in his eyes with his words. Lois looked away. Dimly, she heard him continue.

"I *will* make you love me again, Lois. And if not…well, as I might have mentioned already, I have a somewhat…traditional…opinion as regards our relationship and how important a factor love is to it. Alexander, Charlemagne…all great conquerors wrest surrender from the women they desire as well as lands and cities. And every Emperor needs…companionship…in his Citadel. Love rarely merits a footnote in the histories of great men. And the women kings and emperors take to their beds and claim as their own are rarely their equals. I don't see much reason to change that particular tradition, and besides —"

Lois shut him out. It was either that or show him what the benefit of an education growing up in the gyms and boxing clubs of Metropolis had taught her. For a moment she entertained the fantasy anyway. One sharp left hook, planted just…there…and she could watch that supercilious smirk of his smear itself all over his face as he rocketed backwards to hit the gleaming wood paneled wall behind him. She sighed, knowing it wouldn't do her any good, and recognizing how much she could potentially pay for the fleeting satisfaction popped the desire neatly like a deflated balloon, leaving her mood blackening in its wake.

She concentrated instead on more important matters. How to work this unexpected gift to her advantage. How to make her escape. She lost herself in the view, her mind spinning over a dozen different escape plans in as many seconds — before she dismissed them all. This was her first real chance at getting away from him. She had to make it count. Somehow.

The guards who shadowed them had settled themselves in the main restaurant outside, at a table just beyond and in plain sight of their private room. They were currently engaged in conversation with a pretty, dark-haired waitress who was placing two steins of beer on the table between them. They looked relaxed but alert. Celebrity bodyguards — her earlier thought returned and now took on new meaning. Of course. She guessed Roderick Malcolm bought into the LA lifestyle in certain respects. Certainly, they were causing no great comment. Seemed the Alfa Soleil's staff were as used to seeing their writer patron with them as they were with him having a beautiful woman on his arm when he visited.

Neutralizing them would be impossible, she conceded. Getting back to the helicopter and forcing the pilot to take her out of here was unlikely. And even if she could give both Lex and his guards the slip somehow there was nowhere she could run to. She wouldn't last ten minutes out there in that wasteland of snow and ice without some kind of survival gear and supplies. At best, she realized, all she could hope for was to leave some message behind when they left. Something that would alert people here to her plight and make them contact the Planet or the authorities.

She started as sudden, hard fingers wrapped themselves around her wrist, bringing her attention back abruptly on Lex. His grip tightened, painfully. She refused to wince. He smiled at her, then glanced through the window.

"Adorable, don't you think?"

For a moment she had no idea what he was talking about. She looked up swiftly into his face, but his gaze was intent on something beyond her. She followed the direction and saw a small blond girl — no more than four or five — playing in the vast field of snow below them, floodlight by the hotel's lamps, with what looked like an older brother if the family resemblance was to be believed.

Lex leaned closer across the table to put an almost gentle hand beneath her chin as he redirected her gaze upwards. "And the view is even better."

Even before she saw, the casual note — so studied, so reptilian — in his voice warned her. It took her a small time to understand what she was looking at, if Lex hadn't directed her attention she might never have seen him at all, hidden as he was by the shadows. And then all at once, like a picture suddenly brought into sharp focus, she saw what he had intended her to. Lois blanched. Up on one of the rooftops opposite crouched a figure, camouflaged in white, near-invisible against the snow-covered mountains and roof. The sights of machine pistol he held were quite obviously firmly focused on the head of the little girl.

"My men are placed at strategic points all around this village. One wrong word, one gesture out of place, lipstick messages on the rest room mirror, and there will be a lot of families missing a place at the dinner table this evening," Lex warned in a soft hissing whisper against her ear.

Lois shook her head blankly. "When — ?"

"Please. You think I wouldn't have arranged every detail of this trip long before we arrived?" His touch on her shifted, the back of one hand gently stroking a path along her now pale cheek. "I wanted it all to be perfect for you, my darling. So nothing could disturb the evening. And, if you behave, nothing will."

She looked at him, her horror stark on her face as she jerked away from the insidious touch. "You're insane," she said. "You can't just expect to murder children like this and get away with it. You can't —"

His warning grip on her tightened as her voice rose dangerously, stilling her. She gazed at him, transfixed.

"I can kill every person in this pathetic little ant hive and have this village razed to the ground before we leave. We're a long way from the law out here, my sweet. A long way. Do you think we'll be found? Do you think they could track us to the side of a mountain?"

Lois trembled. His grip on her tightened still further, crushing the narrow bones of her wrist. "Do you?" he repeated savagely. She shook her head dumbly, tears blurring her vision. Her glance flicked back to the children, laughing and pelting each other with snowballs now. She couldn't do it. She couldn't sit here eating dinner and playing this masquerade like he wanted. Not while those children played innocently in the sights of bloody death.

"You can't expect me to — " she started and stopped with a small cry as his grasp on her wrist turned savage. She bit down into her lower lip to prevent another cry of pain escaping her and looked up into the cold, brittle gaze of her tormentor.

"What I expect from you is that you be the enthralling, charming and effervescent dinner companion I know you can be." Lex released her abruptly. Lois stared at him, resisting the urge to rub at the reddened patch on her skin where his fingers had dug into her flesh. He *was* insane. Another small glance through the window sent a small skitter of fear down the length of her spine. And there was nothing she could but play his game according to his rules. For now.

"Sir?"

Seemingly satisfied, Lex sat back carefully and directed a smile of largesse at Andrew as the man, apparently oblivious to any undercurrents at the table, placed glasses and a tall bottle of wine on its surface. Andrew smiled. "If you're ready to give your order now?"

"I think we are. Shall I order for you, my dear?"

Lois returned numb eyes to the children playing in the snow. At the corner of her vision she saw Lex shrug and turn his attention to Andrew, his aplomb unshaken by her lack of response, still acting the part of wealthy playboy he had given himself. An old role, one he was no doubt relishing a return to — a small echo of the heady days when he ruled Metropolis as its benefactor and could command the attention of sighing, adoring socialites at charity bachelor auctions.

He played it well. But then he always had, she thought bitterly.

The children…

Her eyes darkened as she listened to their high shrieks of playful excitement and although she kept her gaze firmly away from the rooftops, it was as though the shadow of the thin line on which they played, so close to death, so dependent for life on the whim of the psychopath sitting opposite, smothered them with a reaching hand.

Her own position was precarious. Her captivity had taught her that above all else through these long, slow, debilitating days of madness, as the soul and heart and courage had been drained from her, piece by piece, moment by moment.

*He* had taught her that.

Provoking him wasn't something to be lightly done. Every defiance of his fantasies she made, every rebellion against each caprice — no matter how small and seemingly insignificant — was something that had to be calculated, weighed and examined, studied for the gain it gave her and the potential risks it brought. And her move decided on the balance of which was greater or lesser than the other.

She had learned painfully and humiliatingly when to push, when to negotiate, when to defy and when to submit, always in the knowledge that small concessions to his will when surrender took the least from her soul and caused the least damage to her spirit brought greater opportunities in the future for victory when victory was important.

Checks and balances. Such were the counterpoints of her life now. Each day spent weaving a treacherous path through the minefield of Lex Luthor's moods and hoping to make it through to the end with the least damage.

This…this wasn't worth risking his wrath over. Not this. Dinner, some small-talk, brandy and after-dinner mints. Not much to endure. Not much at all. She could do that. She could get through this.

Her eyes flickered on the view before her and suddenly blurred as tears threatened.

But…

The children.

The children. Andrew. That smiling barmaid out there — dozens of people going about their lives, unaware of what threatened them. Of how close they were to dying here… She couldn't…she simply couldn't *sit* here like this and watch them — no, no it was impossible, she couldn't, she *wouldn't* play these games, play *his* -

"I want to go back now," she said abruptly, startling both men into silence. "I…I don't feel very well," she added as she saw the consternation on the maitre de's face and his quizzical glance toward Lex. "I have a headache," she said, a defiant note creeping into her tone as she directed that last at Lex's suddenly taut face.

Annoyance brooded behind the seeming calm of his expression, but he nodded tightly and then gave Andrew an apologetic grimace. "I'm sorry. It seems our visit has to be cut short."

Lois was already rising to her feet, forcing him to follow her hastily so that he could catch her before she took more than a few steps away from the table. She sensed the anger radiating through him at this wrong-footing of his poise that she'd provoked. But she didn't care. The release from the Citadel had proved to be nothing more than transfer to another prison — more pretty perhaps, but just as confining, just as hopeless and she couldn't bear to sit across from him for one more minute here, so close to freedom and yet so far from it. The pain was too much to expect her to endure. And she couldn't sit here knowing that others were at risk, were being held hostage, simply so that she could enjoy veal and cognac and Lex could play the benevolent conqueror.

She felt his hand take hold of her arm as she heard him exchange brief pleasantries with Andrew and she eased up on her headlong march for the door in deference to his grip on her, letting herself relax back into matching his stride. Then he was hustling her outside, handing her up roughly into the helicopter and it was over…it was over and they were safe…they were leaving and they were safe…but Lex…the anger on his face and in his posture frightened her. The rage of a child denied its treat. A child intent on petty revenge for the denial of its desires. She reached for his arm, a silent plea she knew wouldn't be heeded as he leaned forward and tapped the pilot on the shoulder.

"I want this place cleaned up. Not a trace. Tell them to make sure —"

"No, please…" She clutched at his arm, but he threw her off. "Please, Lex…please…don't."

"You shouldn't have defied me, Lois. You shouldn't have —"

"Lois?"

She started violently and was aware of how white and stiff a cast her face had taken on as she looked blankly at Lex, seated opposite her across the dully gleaming table.

"Would you prefer the duck or the veal?" Lex repeated his question, benignly, but in his eyes she read a warning and she was abruptly aware of Andrew's curious glances between them as he hovered by the table. Shaking off the momentary fantasy of defiance — a defiance she knew she could never risk, given how great the penalty was that Lex could apply for it — she forced herself to concentrate.

"I…whatever you think best," she finally managed through the slick and bitter taste in her throat.

Lex nodded and flicked a congenial smile at the maitre d'. "Veal will do nicely then."

Andrew nodded and left the room, seemingly unperturbed by her distracted manner.

For a moment, as she watched him go, vicious disappointment welled up in her. If he had only seen…what was he, blind? Couldn't he see her distress? Couldn't he sense the tension in the room? As she stared at his retreating back, hope blossomed. Maybe if she could draw his eyes to hers…if she could just make him look back at her…turn his head…if she could will him to focus on her…she might be able to frame some silent message for help and —

The increasingly desperate run of her thoughts was doused as abruptly as though she'd been drenched in ice-water and hope went with them as the realization struck her that Andrew's ignorance had probably saved his life. Saved the lives of dozens of people. If Lex suspected for one moment that the man harbored ideas that all was not well here he wouldn't hesitate to —

She was toying with a man's life. A life held in her hands.

She wrenched her desperate, longing gaze away, suddenly terrified that she would succeed in attracting his attention. That he would turn his head, his eyes locking with hers, that he would read the terror there…and…

<Be careful what you wish for.>

She shivered. Nevertheless, she tracked his retreat anxiously and only realized how tense she had become when the doors closed deferentially behind him and as she felt her shoulders ease themselves out of the tight line they'd taken. She closed her eyes for an instant, aware of the hard drumming of her heart beneath her ribs and the sheen of cold sweat that covered her skin. Her arms were goose-bumped.

She supposed that Andrew, like most in his profession, had seen too much of life and too much of people, with all their quirks, to find anything surprising any more. And if he had noticed anything amiss in her behavior it wasn't something that had given him more than momentary pause, she suspected. Probably he'd consider he'd witnessed nothing more worthy of interest than a lover's tiff. She hoped so. She really did. Because in ignorance lay safety. For Andrew and everyone else in this village, all unaware of their new status as hostage to her compliance in this sick fantasy of congenial dining that Lex had created for her to act in.

Her eyes flickered to the windows. Her view of the children playing on the snow outside blurred. Her gaze skittered quickly away. All that lay between them and death, between all of them and death, was her compliance. Her submission to Lex's command that she sit here and have dinner, acting out the role of pleasant, attentive companion.

She could do that.

If she hadn't been able to do it for herself, over all the days of her captivity, she could surely do it for them.

She looked across the table at Lex. He smiled expansively at her, as though sensing her capitulation. He raised the bottle Andrew had brought and extended it gallantly toward her glass.

"Wine?" he asked. "I think you'll find this particular vintage somewhat less…bloody…than your typical red."

Her answering smile felt like a scream slashed across her lips as she lifted her glass to accept his offering.

***

It was touching ten a.m. when Alex Hopewell returned to the little beach-front apartment house that he'd inherited from his family two years before, along with the beach-vendor business.

He let himself into the stuffy apartment and moved across the room to open wide the doors that lead out onto the wooden porch, with its distant view of the sea glimmering on the horizon. Then he turned and made his way into the kitchen as he let the air circulate into the room.

He took a mug of coffee with him onto the porch and sat for a time, sipping quietly, his eyes distant on the horizon as he let the warm breeze play on his skin.

He had left Eve in the lobby of the hotel just half an hour before. They had shared breakfast and some companionable hours, two lonely people with time on their hands who figured it made more sense to share it than endure it alone. It had been…very pleasant. She had surprised him. Not what he'd been expecting at all.

All things considered.

His gaze brooded on the shimmer of sun on water as he played over all of the moments of that meal, assessing, judging, calculating and replaying all that he had observed of his dinner companion and stored away in his memory to be examined later.

Finally, he returned to the kitchen. After rinsing out his mug, he picked up the phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.

"This is twenty-four," he said quietly when it was picked up at the other end of the connection. "Let me speak to Asabi."

***

Eve exited the elevator hurriedly and scooted along the corridor to the door of their suite, heart racing as she checked her watch again.

Clark was bound to have returned by now. And he'd wonder where she'd been. He expected her to be there. He always did. Up till now, she always had been.

A small spark of rebellion chased away the clouds of guilt on her face for a moment. Well, she could do like she wanted. Just like him. He wasn't the only one who could stay out all night. Do him good to be on his own a time. Maybe then he'd understand what it was like. Being lonely. All on your own.

The scowl her thoughts had produced melted away in an instant. She hadn't been alone this morning. She'd had a friend. Someone who talked with her. Talked! She held that memory to her like a guilty secret as she eased open the door and popped her head cautiously around it.

Finding the living room empty, she frowned. She eased herself inside and carefully closed the door behind her, wincing just a little at the soft snick of the latch. Then she crept forward.

Expecting to find him deeply asleep on the bed since the sofas were empty, she was disappointed a second time when she found the bedroom as abandoned as the rest of the suite. The bathroom door was ajar but there was no response to her soft knock or call and, when she finally pushed at it, it revealed a room as empty and devoid of life as all the rest.

Puzzled, she made her way back into the living room. For a moment she stood, nonplussed in the center of the room, glancing around her.

Had he been angry when he'd come back and found her gone? Had he gone looking for her? Or worried perhaps? Worried, she thought. He'd be more worried than angry. He wasn't Lex. She might have issues with him over his just going off and leaving her all alone every night, but she knew him better now, and she knew that half of her thoughts had been unfair.

A small, niggling thought squirmed its way into her head. Course…he might be angry…when he found out where she'd been and what she'd been doing. A flush heated her cheeks all at once, and then her concern was swamped by irritation. Doing what? She hadn't been doing anything! Just talking.

<To a stranger.>

Well…Alex wasn't really a stranger. He was her friend.

<You're supposed to be on your honeymoon. You're only just married.>

Well…yeah. So? Clark was supposed to be on his honeymoon too! And he didn't seem to be worrying too much about leaving her all alone every night, out doing…who knew what…till all hours of the morning!

<What's sauce for the goose?>

You betcha!

The fiercely defiant scowl that had overtaken her face melted away. She gnawed at her bottom lip for a moment. Anyway, maybe Clark was better off not knowing about Alex. Just for now, she hastily pre- empted her conscience as it cleared its throat in preparation to a protest. She would tell him. Eventually. It wasn't as though there was any harm in it. She hadn't told Alex anything. Just that Clark had been called away on important business, that was all. What was wrong with that?

Her conscience seemed ready to tell her. Her scowl returned and she shut it off with a snap of annoyance, before it could start. Anyway, Clark could just look at himself before he started on her. Where was *he*? What had *he* been doing all night long? There was no sign that he'd even been back here. No note to tell her he had returned to the suite and gone out again. That wasn't very honeymooney, now was it?

She'd folded her arms in unconscious defiance. Now, what that last thought, she dropped them to her sides. Tears prickled behind her lashes at this fresh abandonment. Always before he'd come home around dawn. Somehow that he had failed to do so even by that late hour was like another insult. Another spurning of her.

She sniffled, then dashed an abrupt hand across her cheeks. Well, she wasn't going to cry about it. Only babies cried. And she wasn't a baby.

Alex hadn't thought she was a baby.

Alex.

She found herself smiling. She said it again, out loud.

"Alex."

The taste of it on her tongue dizzied her. The glow started up within her again, distracting her from her misery. It had been there all along, all the way through breakfast and after. Alex had talked to her like she was…real. Like she was important. And not just talked. He listened. It seemed like he wanted to know what was in her head. Even if it came out dumb he didn't seem to mind. He'd smiled and laughed — not at her, like Lex and others had — but with her.

With him, for the first time in her life, she'd been a person. Oh, Clark treated her good, now that he'd stopped yelling. But somehow it wasn't the same. He knew what she was. And that tainted his view of her. He didn't think she was real. She just knew he didn't.

She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror on the other side of the room. She stood transfixed for a moment, trying to see in that image what Alex Hopewell had apparently seen. She knew that Lois Lane was a beautiful woman. Everyone said so, so she guessed it must be true. Did that mean she was beautiful too? Clark was always saying that Lois' real beauty was inside her. She didn't quite understand that. But maybe Alex did. Maybe it was what was inside her that he had seen this morning. Maybe it was that that he had liked.

Was what was inside her good?

She didn't know.

All she knew was that being with Alex Hopewell had been.

It had made her *feel* good.

Wasn't that almost the same thing?

Her reflection was smiling. But it faded. Would Alex stop liking her so much if…when…he found out what she really was too? Would he stop thinking of her as real? Like Clark thought she wasn't real? Like they all did?

The thought produced such a spear of pain in her heart that she dismissed it instantly. Well, then, maybe he just couldn't find out, she decided airily. The face of her image in the glass took on a mulish slant. She just wouldn't tell him. She didn't *have* to.

Somehow, the eyes of the woman in the mirror didn't seem convinced by this bravado. Eve looked sharply away.

She sat down on the sofa abruptly and reached for the remote to switch on the TV. Within moments she was lost in the daily loves and lives of her favorite soap. Somehow, today, they seemed to take on new meaning. She found new parallels in the lives played out on the screen and her own. Suddenly, she understood. She understood why Sky got that soft look in her eyes when she was in Chase's arms. What Morgan's grief felt like after Jason drowned.

She felt something like that grief now. Now that Alex wasn't here. There was some kind of emptiness in her. A space that he had begun to fill, deep within her.

And beyond her own experience, she understood, finally, why Clark would never love her. Why he could never love her.

Did she love Alex?

That was dumb. That was such a dumb thought. You couldn't love someone you just met. She rolled her eyes in disgust at her stupidity and then stared at the screen.

Except…well it happened all the time on TV. Corey had fallen in love with Kristabel right from the moment he was holding up the bank where she was a teller and saved her from being shot by his accomplices. Right then. Their eyes had met and…

A spark. She had felt that spark. Like electricity. Looking into the eyes of Alex across that little table in the bar.

But was it the same spark?

She frowned. She didn't know. All she knew was that being with Alex Hopewell had changed something inside her. She didn't know what it was, but she knew she liked it. She knew she wanted more of it. Okay, so maybe it wasn't love. But whatever it was, it was enough for her. It was enough to know that when she was with him she was alive.

Real.

As she stared blindly at the screen, absorbing the unsettling, strange…wonderful…changes that had come into her life, she was overtaken by a yawn. The long, sleepless hours, exciting though they'd been, beginning to take their toll.

She snuggled deeper into the sofa, plumping up the cushions before laying her head down against them. After a moment, as the flickering images on the screen soothed her, her breathing slowed and her eyes slipped closed.

Just before sleep swept up over her like a warm blanket, a small uneasy thought drifted through her mind. Something about closets and safety. But she was comfortable where she was and somehow, all at once, the closet which had become her haven seemed like a childish retreat.

She slept where she was. In her head, Alex Hopewell wrapped his arms around her and kept her safe. After a time, her lips curved into a smile.

***

For once, Lois was barely aware of the long walk through the endless corridors that led back to her apartment. The nightmarish dinner had seeded its tension in a line of stiffness across her shoulders and neck and a dull ache began there, blooming up across the base of her skull and into her temples like the jaws of a steel vice. She was exhausted. But she had survived. She had survived one more night intact, one more ordeal, and once more it was over.

The village was safe and Lex…well to judge from his demeanor as he paced slightly ahead of her, Lex was very well pleased with the evening's performance.

That exuberance in his stride and the faint smile chasing at the edge of his lips had puzzled her for a time. He hadn't exactly spent the evening with the scintillating dinner companion he had demanded. Yet he appeared to be in an infuriatingly cat-that-ate-the-canary mood anyway. She would have sworn he'd even been whistling softly under his breath as the had crossed the wind-tossed balcony from the helipad and into the relatively warmer air of the Citadel.

It had been hard to tell. She had been distracted by the hollow slam of the metal door behind her. She thought the echo of it would live in her ears for days as it had enclosed her within her cage of rock once more. She had felt her mood plummet and her heart die a little more as she'd followed Lex down the narrow stairwell, sandwiched between him and her guards, depression and lethargy settling across her shoulders like a black weight as the brief and giddy taste of freedom granted her was once more taken away, evaporating like smoke on the air.

She had lately begun to suspect that although he had expressed his desire for her willing co-operation and enthusiastic participation in his little charade, he was secretly more than pleased to have watched her suffer through dinner in an agony of anxious anxiety. Hanging on his every word and every move for signs that she had made some mistake that would prove fatal for more lives than her own. Desperately concerned that she chose each of her own words carefully. And afraid. So terribly afraid of doing the wrong thing that would trigger his rage and a horrific fate for so many innocents who were blithely unaware of the danger they were in.

Yes, watching that desire to please, that fear of displeasing him, must have made him very happy.

Now, however, she was simply too tired to play the game any longer. She thought that she had never been so glad to see the door of her prison appear up ahead. Just a few more moments and she could shut him out. Out of her head. Out of her…well, what passed for life here, such as it was. Relax and sleep. Lose herself in dreams which might just be kind to her and provide a haven. Just for a time.

She didn't acknowledge Lex as he keyed the locking panel and pushed open the front door. She stepped inside the living room and pressed the light-plate, banishing the darkness, and, despite it all, knew the instant welcome of home, of being secure in familiar territory. The thought prickled, troubling with its implications. Clinically, from the emotionally detached viewpoint of the psychological analyst which she sometimes forced herself to be in her attempts to resist the lure of Stockholm Syndrome, she knew that it was a bad sign when the prisoner felt her only safety lay within the walls of her prison, when her confinement became her solace. But she was too tired to care right then or to fight against it. For the moment all she knew was that she was home and soon would be secure — for a little while.

She sighed, low and heavy and rubbed a hand across the tight muscles at the base of her skull as she began to remove her coat.

It was only as she was putting her purse down on the coffee table that it registered that she hadn't yet heard the snick of the door closing behind her.

She turned sharply around, the weariness abruptly dispelled as her instincts shrieked a belated warning of danger. Lex smiled lazily at her as he lounged up against the doorframe, handsome and urbane in the light from the corridor. His tie had been pushed askew as he'd opened up the top few buttons of his shirt collar and he had hitched the jacket he'd been carrying across one shoulder, holding it in place with a casually hooked finger.

"I was thinking perhaps you might invite me in for coffee."

Lois gaped at him. The parody of almost every date she'd ever been on was so bizarre she almost began to laugh. Except that the cruelty of Lex standing there on the threshold of her 'apartment', as though he required her permission to enter, as though she had some power here, some say in what happened next, as though he really cared what she thought or wanted — really gave a damn about that — seeded ice in her belly. No one here gave a damn about that.

She gave a small, wondering shake of her head. Was he really so lost in the moment, in the careful artifice of the evening he'd just engineered, that he actually thought she would…

"Or perhaps something a little more civilized…?" Lex went on and she knew that he hadn't really even been watching for her response, wasn't even really seeing her at all. Once more he was acting the role he'd written for them both, expecting her to fall into line, mouth her lines, obey the script.

She followed his slight gesture behind her and half turned to see an aluminum bucket placed on the coffee table, its bottle of vintage champagne chilling nicely. Two crystal glasses and some tall candles added to the ridiculous ensemble. There was even a single red rose, she noted, placed with just the right decorous precision between the glasses. He had prepared every intimate detail, right down to the last, with loving care. Or, she considered wryly, had at the very least issued instructions to his minions to prepare each detail with loving care. Oh yes, he was in the moment all right.

Unfortunately for him, she wasn't.

The sight of it, Seduction 101, was so incongruous to her mood and so much a farcical ending to what had been an evening of fear and horror that she felt sudden wild and sour laughter bubble up within her, though there was nothing amusing in the situation at all; all of the night's tension beating dark hysteria behind her eyes. But, seeing what was in his face, she choked it off before it took hold of her. Instincts warning her that mocking him now was dangerous.

Bad idea.

Even so, despite that knowledge of how precarious her next moments could be, there were some things that crossed too far beyond the line of sanity to fully ignore. She shook her head, her sigh perhaps more dismissive than was probably prudent, too recklessly the product of someone who was mistress of her own destiny than reality provided for. But she was irritated all at once, both by his presumptions and his presence. 'Get out!' she wanted to shriek at him, this arrogant little popinjay who had dared to destroy her life and continued to act as though she was not only a willing participant in her abduction and imprisonment, but grateful for his attentions to boot.

Instead, seeing how her tone had produced an echo of her own quicksilver irritation in his eyes, she moderated the reflexive urge to scream and amended her posture to something more compliant and in keeping with the scenario he'd dreamed up for them now.

"Lex, I'm tired. All I want to do is shower and sleep. Please," she added softly as he didn't immediately respond.

For a moment longer he said nothing and she held her breath, then he shrugged. "It has been a long evening," he agreed. "And you're right, of course. How selfish of me. You must be exhausted, my darling." He straightened abruptly from the wall, ignoring her wary look as he approached her. "Goodnight, Lois. Sleep well."

He put out a hand to brush a few strands of snow-damp hair from her cheek, the brief touch of his fingers warm against the chill of her skin. Grimly, she forced herself to endure the touch without drawing away. But her heart jumped with relief when he retreated. "We'll have breakfast together. Is eight good for you?"

Lois nodded dumbly, not trusting herself to speak, and watched him cross the room with bitter eyes. She paused only fractionally to let him close the front door behind him before she flew for the bathroom, throwing the lock tight behind her. Only then did she let the tension leech out of her. The abrupt loss of the adrenaline that had been mostly all that had kept her on her feet for much of the evening weakened her knees all at once. She slumped against the solid support of the bathroom door, whimpering a little under her breath as she closed her eyes. She could hear the rush of her heart beating in her ears.

She had no idea why Lex continued to accept the boundaries that she set between them, why he had held back from forcing the realities of her captivity on her. But from what she had learned of the man, before and after her abduction, she could make an educated guess. And the conclusions that education brought her to weren't comforting at all.

It surely wasn't respect. Either of her as a person or a woman. Or for someone he professed to love. Love in Lex's dictionary was firmly under the definition of 'subjugate for own personal gratification'. And he had made her status in his thoughts clear with those ridiculous Emperor and Concubine fantasies of his. It was a wonder he hadn't cleared out her wardrobe in favor of some…

<harem outfits?>

Like the one she had worn when that pheromone compound had…when she had danced for Clark and…

She shied away from the memory like a spooked animal, knowing how dangerous to her emotional stability such memories could be these days.

No, it certainly wasn't that he respected her.

She strongly suspected that having her captive and at his mercy aroused Lex only so far. The man was a predator, a hunter…she had seen the trophies of his expeditions into the jungles and swamps and rainforests of the world. The Citadel was full of his trophies. There was an alligator hide belt in her wardrobe which he had presented her with, after a recent afternoon's trip he had taken to Florida, and which he insisted she wear. It made her skin crawl. And, only yesterday, she had heard him calling an old Egyptian friend about setting up another hunting trip in the desert.

But with her the thrill of the chase was absent. Her spirit might rail against it, but the reality was she was trapped far from the protection of law and man here. No one would aid her if Lex decided to force himself on her. Quite the opposite. Even if she somehow managed to fight him off, he could have a dozen men or more subdue her for him. She was helpless. She hated being helpless. It chafed at her more deeply than any chains Lex could put on her.

Except she was in chains. They may be invisible and so far Lex had made them light, but still they bound her. And she felt their weight every second of every day she rotted here beneath his dominion.

And maybe it was that reality that stayed his hand. Perhaps without the thrill of the hunt he took pleasure in drawing out the anticipation of having her instead. Or of tormenting her with it, more likely. You desire what you can't have, she'd told him. Perhaps in choosing to restrict how far he abused her, Lex was finding pleasure in the very act of denial itself.

Her thoughts produced a sudden terrifying coda: <You want what you can't have…> But he could have her. Whenever he wanted. She couldn't stop him. Did that mean…did that mean he might not want her any more? Now that she was available? Might he not grow tired of her, subdued and no challenge to him any longer?

<Be careful what you wish for, Lex.>

Would the prize be less attractive to him than the planning and scheming and manipulating to obtain her? In time, she would no longer be the Lois Lane he had desired and coveted all these years. The paradox was that her independent spirit might irritate him immensely, but it was what attracted him. Without that, if he succeeded in crushing that out of her…

A small, bitter surge of laughter escaped her. Was the price of her survival going to be ensuring that Lex continued to lust after her? To hope that his interest in her didn't wane and die? Because if he tired of her, oh god if he tired of her…what use, what possible use, would she be to him then?

The laughter, with its brittle edge of crazy, was snuffed out as the implications of that thought reverberated in her head.

Never! If Lex harbored any thoughts on her swooning capitulation into his arms any time soon he'd be well advised to flip on The Weather Channel and check out the current temperature in Hell first. That was if he didn't want to walk with a distinct limp for the rest of his life. She'd make the bastard into a eunuch before she let him so much as -

But the brutal realist in her wouldn't let that bravado lie unchallenged.

<Never, Lois? Never is a very long time.>

Yes. Yes, it was. And who knew what desperate bargains she might be reduced to in order to save herself?

<But not that,> she told herself desperately. <Please, not that.>

"No…" she whispered aloud. "Not ever. I won't."

But the pledge sounded hollow in her ears.

She straightened up sharply from where she leaned against the door. She needed a shower. Badly. Even the man's stare on her could slime her and the turn of her thoughts had made her feel distinctly grubby. The thought of his touch…

She shivered as she turned on the light and reached out to set the temperature of the shower almost punishingly high.

As she absently undressed a snatch of conversation meandered into her head. A discussion she'd once had with Clark, while they'd been working on their latest assignment: a young mother who had, seemingly inexplicably, smothered four of her young children. A loving mother, friends and neighbors said, shocked by the crime. A devoted mother, her distraught husband declared to anyone who would listen. Not that there were many who would.

For once, Clark's usual sympathetic nature had been buried beneath his outrage and although his natural tendencies were to find excuses for everyone, he simply couldn't understand how a mother could do something so unnatural.

"Everyone's capable of doing the unnatural, Clark," she, ever the cynic, had postulated. "Even the most unlikely of us."

"You think so?" Clark had looked glumly back at her. "I have to think you're wrong on that. If I didn't…"

The conversation had taken a turn beyond the immediacy of their story, or even their own personal views on Lorna Steadman's appalling actions, which had piqued her interest all at once. She'd swiveled her chair to view her partner with a curious glance.

"Face it, Kent. Even that mild-mannered guy without so much as a parking ticket on his conscience and who uses those electric mats instead of poison to rid his garden of slugs because they're kinder could be driven to it if the motivation was right. You think you couldn't be driven to kill? I mean I know you're a regular boy scout, wouldn't harm a fly, but wouldn't you…if someone made the stakes high enough?"

Clark had settled himself on the edge of his desk, his eyes taking on that gleam that meant he was enjoying the possibility now of a verbal debate. Secretly, she'd loved that. He'd folded his arms. "Define high stakes."

"Well…highest of all would have to be to defend yourself, I guess," she'd said thoughtfully.

He'd pursed his lips. "If you're talking about in the heat of the moment, if I were in danger and fighting to survive, I might end up killing someone before I knew it," he'd suggested carefully. "But as a conscious decision?"

"Oh, come on, Clark! Of course you would. If you were in a desperate situation…a hostage in a bank hold-up, if you were on your own and had no one to depend on to rescue you, if you had no other way to escape — you're telling me you wouldn't sit there watching that man holding a gun on you and think about how you could kill him to survive?"

Clark had abruptly looked uncomfortable. "I'd try to talk to him, maybe — " He'd stopped at her disbelieving snort. "Okay, okay, you're telling me you would?"

"Sure, I would! In a heartbeat. It's a Fido-chomping-Fido world out there, Clark. Kill or be killed."

He'd sighed. "Lois, with you everything is kill or be killed. You're lucky you're pro-gun control. If you weren't you'd take an Uzi to the Costmart store and gun down fifteen people in the checkout line because they had the wrong change or too many items in their basket for the fast lane."

"Exactly!" she'd motioned triumphantly at him. "We're talking about survival here. You do what you have to."

"Even if what you have to means taking the life of another human being? Everyone is capable of redemption, Lois. Even the bad guys."

Her look had told him what she thought of that theory and it hadn't been flattering. "Okay, let's look at it another way. If you wouldn't kill to save yourself, wouldn't you kill to save others? What if that bank robber was holding a child? A cute little blond-haired, blue-eyed child?" She'd ignored the rolling of his eyes. "Threatening to blow her head off. The kid's screaming. The cops are yelling. That finger's tightening on the trigger…what do you do, Clark? Clock's ticking," she added as he paused. "Tick…tick…"

"Okay, okay, I'd have to do *something*. But killing him wouldn't be my first choice."

"Maybe it should be, Clark," she'd said somberly. She'd shrugged as he'd looked dismayed. "Well, you know, I'm just saying, maybe it should. We're living in the big city here, not the boondocks. It's dangerous out there. If you're not prepared for it, or to do what it takes when it gets down and dirty, you're gonna get yourself killed real soon."

"I don't know, Lois. I'd like to think that in the real world there are some of us who could rise above the base instincts in our nature. I mean, okay, circumstances might box us in, but what about free will? A conscience? Ethics?"

"Doesn't count for a hill of beans when it gets right down to it. Because when you're staring down the mean end of that Heckler and Koch, Clark, you'd better hope that you revert to the animal real quick and that's the truth of it. Ethics are all well and good, but sometimes the bad guys just don't give us the chance. Or the choice."

Lois shivered as she stepped beneath the harsh spray. Sometimes you just don't get given a choice. Was that time coming? Would it be soon? Hot as the steady beat of water against her skin was, it couldn't seem to soothe or dispel the sudden chill that was in her. She reached out and turned up the gauge.

Eventually, she felt the knots of tension in her neck and shoulders relax, her tired mind and aching body unable to fight any longer against the soporific effects of the shower's cleansing warmth.

For a time the world faded mercifully into the cocoon of heat and steam that enclosed her within its balm. After a while she reached for the loofah. The soft strokes of her hands on her body were slow and absent as she gave herself over to the mindless task and let her thoughts shut down to the faintest of flickers.

When finally she rinsed herself off and shut off the water she came out of her warm, dozing fugue to find the bathroom fogged in steam; testament to how long she'd been drifting. She stepped out of the shower cubicle, drawing on the toweling robe left on its hook and belting it firmly around her waist as she trudged toward the basin.

She put up an arm, using the back of it to wipe a clear path in the condensation of the mirror -

- and found herself staring directly into the cool, dark eyes of Lex Luthor.

With a high gasp she whipped around, shock distorting her features and setting her heart to hammering abruptly.

So close was he behind her that the abrupt motion caused her hand to sweep out and collide with the glass he was holding, dashing it out of his hand. It hit the floor with a soft implosion that echoed in her ears. The stench of brandy rose up between them, cloying in her nostrils.

Lex looked down at the mess. "Ooops," he said mildly.

Lois stared at him, open-mouthed. Her hands clutched at the basin digging into the small of her back, her fingers tightening on the cold china almost to aching. Her gaze flickered to the door for an instant and then came back to him in confusion.

"But I loc — how did you get in here?" she demanded, a spark of anger following the sudden injection of adrenaline into her blood that her fright had provoked. Like a roaring flame in the wake of a lit match. She clung to it desperately, aware that without it only terror remained.

Lex shrugged. "I made this place. You don't think I made it so you could lock me out when you decided to, did you?" He gave her an unctuous smile. "I think, in the circumstances, I'm somewhat entitled to have…" His eyes slid over her before returning to her ashen face. "…access to you at all times."

Lois swallowed. The sudden, animal awareness of him, the scent of him — male and threatening — sputtered the anger into silence. The scent of danger, mingled with brandy and testosterone, crackled heavy in the air, like rogue lightning ready to strike her down.

"Lex…" she started, trying to find some degree of calm persuasion in her tone that might reach him, might dull the fevered light she caught in his eyes. "I thought…I thought you'd gone back to your suite," she ended weakly.

"I thought about it." Again avaricious eyes lingered on her. "I thought about you." His gaze lifted from the front of her robe and onto her face. "I thought about how much I wanted you. And then I changed my mind." His mock rueful glance swept the floor again. "I decided you might like a nightcap instead. Never mind…I can order us some more —"

"No!" Lois flinched as his movement toward the door halted at the abruptness in that and he lifted a brow at her as the forbidden word echoed on the air between them. "I mean…I was just…just going to bed."

"A fortunate co-incidence." He grinned at her as she looked bemused. "I came to get you into it."

"Lex —"

Her protest was cut off as he closed the small distance between them to put a finger to her lips. "Hush…" he murmured.

Her shock freezing her momentarily into obedience, Lois stared at him as he traced the lower curve of her mouth in a slow and sensual glide, his eyes intent on following the movements of his hand. The casual intimacy of his touch scared her more than anything else — the touch of a man who held absolute ownership over the flesh he caressed — and then he was brushing that hand across her cheek and cupping it against his palm.

Tears rose in Lois' eyes at the almost familiar touch against her skin. At the memory of another's touch. She had believed once that she had loved this man. There had been a time when she had welcomed this kind of touch from him. Her breathing became shallower, her heart-rate increased to a stutter. Her eyes widened slightly. Because there was not only the echo of the touch, but an echo of the emotion it provoked in her too. Distorted, yet strong, it beat in her like the frightened wings of startled birds.

Every instinct in her wanted to lash out, strike out and disable him. Everything she'd ever learned about defending herself in her Tai Wan Do classes screamed to be let out.

But she couldn't. The taser. She remembered and the memory pulsed hot with nausea in her belly. The pain. And the debilitation. Did he have the taser? If she fought back and he did…if he used it on her again…how much more helpless would she be then? How much more vulnerable? Fighting him physically wasn't the way out of this, she forced herself to concede through the beat of panic in her head. Even if she managed to get the better of him, injure him, beat him off, it would simply leave her in a worse position. With him angry and vengeful — and with an army of men to help him exact punishment and revenge. She had nowhere to run, no way to escape him. Nowhere to hide.

No, now she had to rely on her wits more than she ever had in her life before.

And then, his touch lifted from her as he turned his hand and trailed the back of his knuckles down across the bone of her cheek and the line of her jaw. He dropped his hand with a soft smile as she stared at him, stupefied by the surging pulse of raw emotions that warred in her.

"Get out…" she said, shaken. She jolted sideways, trying to evade him, stumbling in her haste. "Get out!" It came out as a high gasp, more fright in it than she welcomed; she couldn't stop the violent trembling that seemed to have taken hold of her all at once.

Lex chuckled. "I don't think so. I think it's high time we took our relationship to the next level, Lois." He smirked at her as he moved nearer, backing her up tighter against the wall as she tried to retreat. He was between her and the door. "I did pay for dinner, after all," he told her mockingly. "And I've been very patient. A very, very patient man. I deserve *some* reward. Don't you think?"

"Lex, please —"

He lunged at her, cutting off the plea beneath the crushing weight of his kiss. His hands clutched at her arms, as she beat out at him, forcing them painfully behind her and pressing her tight to the tiles behind her with the force of his body. She fought him to no avail and heard his laughter, soft and mocking against her ear. His breath fanned her cheek, hot with wanting and lust, and now she could smell the brandy on it. How much had he drunk this evening? How out of control was he?

Her thoughts stilled, her body froze, as Lex's hand spread itself across the front of her robe. She stiffened, fear welling up in her as his other hand threaded itself into her hair and she moaned, a small protesting cry that was quickly smothered as his lips descended on hers again.

She tore her mouth free with a twist of her head, but she was trapped now, backed up against the wall behind her, his body hard against her own. "Lex, I don't think —"

"No…no…" His murmur of agreement came through the rapid labor of his breathing as he drew his cheek against her own, his lips against her ear as his loathsome whispers brushed teasingly against her skin. "…don't think…just…relax…relax, Lois…it's time…"

He forced insistent entry into her mouth, brutally ravaging her lips before he tore himself free and ran a line of hot, frantic kisses across her throat. His hand dropped to fumble roughly at the neck of her robe, slid within and passed with shocking suddenness across her naked flesh, his fingers chill against her skin. Her struggles ceased, instinct warning her that they were only helping to inflame his arousal as her body writhed against his. She forced herself to stillness, to ignore the frenzied thump of her heart against her ribcage, to find a way to calmness of thought and cool clarity of purpose.

"Is this how it's going to be, Lex?" she hissed urgently, desperate now for something, anything to deflect his assault, aware that she was sobbing out the words but no longer caring. "Is this the only way you can have me? Is this what you made all these plans for? Brought me here for? To take me up against a wall just like any drunken animal in an alley? Any pathetic, sexual inadequate who can barely rise to the occasion? A small little man who —"

Lex froze, his face buried in the soft skin of her shoulder, bared now where her robe had been dragged askew. The hand caressing her clenched against her flesh and she bit back a whimper of pain.

"No…"

The word was muffled so that she barely heard it. And then he lifted his head sharply, his hand removing its intimate grip on her. He straightened, the lust dulling his gaze fading even as she anxiously watched. He ran a hand through his disordered hair and she was put in mind of a cat that, having been bested, washed itself in a studied act of not caring it had been.

Lex's own impression of himself as the debonair sophisticate was important to him she knew. He was a seducer, not a rapist. She doubted he'd had to force a woman in his entire life. She prayed now that it didn't fit his mental image of himself to change the habits of that lifetime. He charmed women into his bed, lavished them with expensive gifts, flexed the muscles of his wealth with plane rides to Italy and dinner at the most fashionable restaurants, rather than his brute strength. If she was right — oh god let her be right — to think of himself as something baser than that, as nothing more than a common sexual pervert, as a man incapable of persuading a woman through charm and seduction alone that not to have sex with him would be the worst mistake she could make in her life, would be an anathema to him. He needed to believe he was irresistible. That he was Don Juan, not Conan the Barbarian.

"Yes," she insisted, her voice cracking over the dryness in her throat. "Small, pathetic —"

"No…" Lex repeated. His tone was slurred, his eyes blank, like someone coming out of a daze.

She ignored the interruption, unable to stop now, all of her tangled emotions of the last few moments surging up through her to produce a bitter spew of outrage that she was helpless to prevent spilling from her, knowing that she was lurching dangerously close to overstepping the mark -

<Enough!>

Instincts clamored a shrieking warning at her. But she couldn't. She couldn't seem to stop. It had been brewing within her for too long, boiling up into this eruption. It wasn't enough. It couldn't be enough, and now that she had started she couldn't seem to stop.

"— if you think I'd let you — " She choked on a shuddering breath. "The thought of letting a slimy, diseased bastard like you —"

He struck so fast she never even saw it coming.

She felt it, though.

The hand that exploded against her cheek spun her violently around and detonated a bright flash of blinding light behind her eyes. Her head cracked sickeningly hard against the tiled wall behind her and then she was sprawled on the floor, nausea welling up in her as she stared up at her tormentor in shock, blinking back tears of pain.

***

How dare she!

Lex trembled with rage as he stared down at her, sprawled at his feet. The flash of fear in her face didn't soothe him.

*He* was pathetic?

She was nothing! A reporter! The equivalent of a silly little shop-girl, who should be grateful for the largesse of her betters! She should get down on her knees and thank God that he had decided she was worthy of his attentions! He had bedded heiresses, princesses, the daughter of the Secretary of the Interior for god's sake, before her. He could walk out of here and find a dozen women who would be his for the taking should he no more than smile at them or snap his fingers in their direction…

<So, why don't you?>

Lex scowled. He had no idea. Truly he had no idea why this woman had such a hold on him. She certainly wasn't worth the effort. He should leave her here to rot if the thought of his attentions so disgusted her. There were women out there who would crawl naked over broken glass for a tenth of the attention he had lavished on her. Maybe he should have a few of his men soften her up first. Maybe then she'd realize just how grateful she should be.

He clenched his fists, forcing back the rage, forcing himself to calm.

She was going to learn.

He had been too lenient. He saw that now. He should have put an end to this foolishness right from the first day. Well, that was going to change. He was going to show her who was in charge. She was going to learn right now.

He sighed. "There, you see? You made me angry," he told her, reproachfully.

He moved abruptly and had the satisfaction of seeing her flinch back as he did. Let her stew in that for a moment. Let her wonder what he might do next. "You shouldn't do that," he told her as he stepped casually over her to look into the mirror above the basin.

His tie was askew. He adjusted it with practiced motions of his hands as he continued to lecture her. He kept the anger out of his tone, keeping it smooth. He'd learned that when he wanted to teach a painful lesson people listened to him better when he spoke sotto voice. A yell tended to make them so pathetically afraid that they didn't listen to the actual words. But softness…that forced them to pay attention, to strain to hear and understand. They had such small intellects. All of them. They needed to be educated. Like children. Trained.

Lois Lane would be no different. And he had been wrong to think she would be, he understood now. That had been his mistake. He had given her more status, more consideration than she deserved. He had treated her as a partner in their future together. Assumed that she could be persuaded to understand the sense of it. He had been so enamoured that he had mistakenly come to believe that she was almost his equal in intelligence. How…disappointing…to discover his true love had brains of clay after all.

A pity. But then…he considered soberly as he examined his reflection, brains were an optional extra. And the rest of her…his gaze shifted…the rest of her was…

Flawless. Like everything he owned, he congratulated himself. Or she would be in a day or so. He frowned with the thought, his eyes tracing the red splash across her cheek that would surely deepen into a bruise by morning. He sighed.

"You shouldn't defy me, Lois. You brought this on yourself. I don't want to hurt you. To damage you. But if you persist in making me angry with you…" he shook his head. "It won't hurt for long, my darling. You'll see. You'll learn. Soon I won't have to punish you. I can be gentle."

She didn't answer.

A flare of anger darkened in his face and then vanished like a swift passing storm. Ah well. There was time enough to tame her. Time enough for her to learn.

"This playing hard to get is becoming very tiresome." He smoothed at his hair and then looked down on her for a long, solemn moment. She hadn't moved, except to draw herself up and huddle against the wall. A good sign. She understood — or at least was beginning to — that he was master here. That his will prevailed.

"Now…" he said. "Let's not have any more foolishness. Get up." His eyes swept the floor tiled floor with disdain. "It's been a long time since I've taken a woman anywhere this lacking in charm, and I'm afraid those days are long since behind me. I think we'd be more comfortable adjourning to the bedroom, my dear, don't you? Why don't you go along and get ready? I'll bring the champagne."

She stayed where she was. Her eyes held sparks in them. He found to his surprise that he was secretly delighted. Crushing that light out of her was going to be exquisite. A pleasure worthy to be taken slowly over time, to be drawn out like a fine meal or smooth, casked brandy. He felt the anticipation of that pleasure to come tighten in his belly in a delicious aching hunger.

"Lois…" he said softly. A command, not an invitation. He held out a hand.

She shook her head, her eyes never leaving his. She didn't move to take it.

He sighed. "Well, I say it's been a long time, but that doesn't mean I won't descend to it when required." He smiled at her. "I'm not usually one to wallow in nostalgia, but it can be…amusing…to return to the past now and then. Don't you agree? Perhaps it might even be stimulating to go back to those days of rutting in backrooms and the rough and tumble of taking a woman without finesse." His eyes glittered on her. "I'll confess the thought is strangely invigorating. One can become so bored of the polite gloss of society, don't you think?"

He saw the awareness of his next move flash into her eyes and chuckled grimly as she scrabbled out of his reach. His hand shot out and twisted into her hair. He ignored her sharp cry of pain as he yanked her up against him, pinning her to the floor with his body as he relished her futile struggles against him. He had intended to be the gentle lover, but now she had to pay. She had to learn what defying him meant.

Brutally, he tore at the robe, oblivious to the hands striking at his chest and face, her shrieking insults and cries of pain.

"I wanted you willing, Lois," he murmured into her hair as he held her down. "And you will be. Oh, you will be. You'll be so willing to be allowed into my bed when I'm done that you'll crawl naked on your knees and beg for it." He laughed shortly. "You can fake it if you like. I think that might be more amusing than genuine passion now that I consider it. The independent feminist, Lois Lane, faking —"

The remainder of his sentence lodged in his throat as he felt something sharp and cold prickle at the side of his throat.

For a moment, a sharp instant, that tableau held. Dimly, through the shock skittering through his brain, through the understanding of what was happening — the unbelievable knowledge that she had dared to threaten him — he could feel the rapid breath hitching in the chest beneath him, feel the hammer of her heart next to his. Then her voice, cool as the ice-cold shard of glass, the tip of which was steadily puncturing his throat, came softly in his right ear.

"No means no, Lex. And if you don't want to be singing soprano any time soon, the next move you make better show me you understand that."

***

She surprised herself with how cool and calm she sounded. Inside, she felt like sobbing up a storm, like crumpling in a heap.

Lex moved to his knees and then to his feet without a word and she pulled herself shakily to stand, one hand moving automatically to clutch the edges of the robe's neck close around her throat. She could feel the imprint of his touch against her skin, like a bruise. She kept her eyes on him.

His blazed with thwarted fury, but he was smart enough to keep it there. He made no move to stop her as she put her back up against the wall. The shard of glass had pierced his throat a little. Her eyes fixed briefly on the trail of blood that ran down his neck to stain his collar and the irreverent thought of who would have to wash that one out of the silk and what they would think when they did flittered through her head and away before she could follow it.

Her cheek throbbed in time with the beat of hate in her heart as she stared at him. Her palm stung. She supposed the glass had sliced into it when she'd clutched it off the floor, but she didn't take her eyes off him to check.

"Get out," she said softly.

He said nothing. Made no move. For a moment stalemate settled between them. Then he shrugged easily. "Very well." He turned for the door and then back, ignoring the stiffening of her stance, the tightening of her grip around her weapon as she anticipated another attack.

"This time the queen stands defended. But check isn't victory, Lois. And a player can lose all when their attention's deflected. All it takes is one moment to turn victory into defeat." His arm snapped out, fingers clicking in the air shy of her right ear and, as she instinctively twisted her head in that direction, he made a half-hearted lunge for her left.

She threw herself back a pace, stumbling in her haste and panic before recovering balance and bringing up the shard of glass in an instinctive arc before she realized to her chagrin that he hadn't really intended to take it from her. Hadn't really meant to attack her. He had just been proving a point.

That he could.

If he wanted to.

Perhaps.

And that maybe he was willing to put her resolve to the test.

But, once again, the image of that cat came to mind. She had bested him here. They both knew it. Oh, he could call up Benton, as many as his men as he liked, but they both knew that he wouldn't. His pride and his arrogance wouldn't let him. There was no way he was going to lay himself open to sniggers in the corridors, jokes behind his back about how he'd been unable to subdue one woman — his 'helpless' captive — without calling for help.

And perhaps too, he understood that he wasn't just risking embarrassment there. But also the more threatening danger of eroding his authority, of being viewed as weak by his minions, in more ways than one. The ironic truth of it was that he too was far beyond the law here and only his iron will and the presumption of his strength, the perception of his command, kept these men in check and under his control. Perception was a tentative truth, easily swayed, easily changed.

No, Lex was smart enough to realize all of that, just as surely as she was. He wasn't about to risk himself that way.

She wasn't dumb enough to think that this was the ending of it. That she had won. And she knew that he would make her suffer for this. But she had won for now, had beaten him at his own game — for now. And here and now was all that mattered. The rest she would deal with later, as best she could, when it came.

He was watching her and that chagrined cat pretending it hadn't been defeated was in his eyes again. A flicker of disquiet as he pondered hard truths, irritation that his lesson had gone awry, anger that she had beaten him. And then it faded and she saw him marshal himself once more, deliberately shrugging off this temporary setback to his plans, bolstering himself with the knowledge that it was nothing more than a small and inconsequential delay to achieving his plans for her.

Well…a cat could dream, couldn't it? she told herself defiantly, but a quiver ran through her as she fixed her gaze on those soul-less eyes.

His eyes rested on her for a moment, newly smug as he watched the uneasy recognition of his ultimate authority take root in her eyes. Then he leaned close, pointedly ignoring the glass that threatened him. The chill in his iced gaze froze her in place, like a mouse mesmerized by a hawk.

"It's time to face reality, Lois. Time to stop clinging to a past you'll never see again. I think we're going to have to work on that." He straightened. "But you're right. I could take you right now, right here, but I want more than that. I want the illusion, not just the act. I want more than just your body, much more than a quick fumble. I want it all. And you will give me that, Lois. You'll give me everything I want. Sooner or later."

"I won't give you the satisfaction." The words came out as a disgusted growl but he seemed unfazed.

"Oh, I think you will. I'm sure you'll satisfy me completely." His smile vanished. "Or, at least, you should hope to. You really should hope to, Lois. For your own sake."

She said nothing.

"Well…" he sighed softly. "It's been a long night. We'll discuss this…unpleasantness…over breakfast."

At the door he paused, turning to view her with eyes that caught sharp hold of her soul and pierced it like a blade. "'To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction'," he quoted softly. "I don't much care which it is, Lois. Love or hate. But sooner or later you will submit to *my* desires either way."

Lois listened dully to the soft sound of the door clicking behind him after he'd left the room. For a moment or two she made no move, every fiber of her straining to hear, to try to decipher any sound that would place him still within the apartment. A ruse. Waiting for her to lower her guard. Finally, she moved cautiously toward the door and then into the living room. She checked every inch of the apartment, every cupboard, every corner where a man could hide. Then, finding nothing, she hurriedly retraced her steps. She put her hip to the bureau against the wall beside the front door and by pushing and bumping managed to shift it up against the metal.

She could feel the tremor start in her as she finished, the adrenaline rush fading, the weakness beginning in her knees. Her stomach heaved. She barely made it into the bathroom before she threw up violently.

When the vicious spasms stopped she slumped against the side of the shower cubicle, her body wracked with shivering. She felt fevered, empty.

It was the throbbing in her palm that finally got her to her feet. She put up her sound hand and used the leverage against the edge of the washbasin to pull herself to stand. Dropping the bloody glass shard into the basin she winced as she ran cold water over her wounded palm. The slash was long, but shallow. It wouldn't need stitches. She opened the cabinet above the basin and rummaged in the limited first aid box until she found a roll of bandage. Awkwardly, she wrapped the hand. She had no scissors. She used the shard to slice off the excess and managed to manipulate the ends into a knot with fingers and teeth.

She closed the cabinet door and was instantly transfixed by her reflection in its mirrored surface. Was that really her looking back out at her? Could this beaten-down woman really be her?

Her mind flooded with a rush of images, thoughts, emotions.

<You'll satisfy me…> Lex's words insinuated themselves into her head. <Or at least you should hope to.>

She closed her eyes.

Her hand lifted slowly and she pressed light fingertips to the patch of vivid red painted across her cheekbone. Her eyes narrowed as pain spiked sharply through her as she did. Then she sank down onto the tiled edge of the bath, huddled between it and the sink. Leaning up against the wall, she hugged herself tight. The tears came then. She let them fall, too listless to wipe them clear. She closed her eyes, choking on her silent sobs. Like an animal, curled tight in its den and licking its wounds.

And that was what she was to him, she understood. An animal to be trained, to be petted and cosseted when it did good, punished when it defied him. To be taught how to obey.

"NO!"

She surged to her feet. Her fist thudded hard against the basin's edge with the low cry, as though to emphasis that denial. She shook her head.

"No. You're not an animal," she told her reflection grimly. "You have free will."

Free will.

But it was crumbling.

A soft sob caught in her throat.

"Superman. I need you," she said. And then, laying her forehead against the mirror's cool surface and closing her eyes, "Oh, Clark, I need you. Help me. Please. Please help me! Superman! Where are you?" That last had become a scream. A full-bloodied scream for aid that usually brought the response of a rush of air and the feel of strong arms wrapping her close. But this time…

Help, Superman. But Superman couldn't help her, could he? she accepted tiredly. At least not right now and in the way she might have wished him to. And wishing for him like a child afraid of the dark wasn't going to get her out of here.

<Face reality,> Lex had said.

She lifted her head, fixing her reflection with eyes that were cold now and hard. Well, maybe he was right. Maybe it was time. The reality was she was on her own, with only herself to rely on. No one else was going to fly to the rescue. Not this time.

Had she become so reliant on that — on him — that she had lost that edge, lost all of her instinct for survival, all of her will to fight?

Hell no!

Escape was impossible. She knew that now. The only exit from this place might as well be on the moon for all that she could reach it. The guards were incorruptible and wouldn't be suborned to help her. She had nothing to bribe them with anyway — other than the oldest coin — and if she had no intention of giving that to Lex she surely had no intention of bartering her body to anyone else.

No way.

That left managing to evade the guards, gain the code and access card to unlock the door, find her way up onto the helipad, somehow find, overpower and kidnap one of the pilots and force him to fly her…somewhere…all under the glassy eye of the cameras that followed her every move outside this room.

Not likely.

Lex had shown her that any excursions he granted her outside the Citadel offered no chances to her either.

Her eyes darkened as her thoughts turned inward. There may be no escape from him or from his Citadel. But that didn't mean there was no way out. No trap was foolproof, no prison unassailable, no jailer infallible. There *was* a way. She simply had to find it.

A small, sour smile twisted on her lips. <Simple, as that, huh?>

<Yes, Lois. That simple. Survival always is.>

Yes, usually it was. It came down to simple after all, when you ripped away the distractions. Survive. Or don't. Live or die. Give up or fight.

Lois Lane knew which she was going to choose.

Thoughtfully, she cleared up the mess in the bathroom and then switched off the light before crossing into the bedroom. She didn't switch on the bedside lamp. She had often found in the past that the silent shadows of the early hours were conducive to the most productive thought. What had borne fruit when she tussled over some assignment or personal problem would aid her again now in finding her escape route.

She sat, cross-legged and hollow-eyed, in the center of the bed, her mind spinning over possibilities and discarding them as soon as they formed, finding others to replace them and discarding those too…working her way slowly and inexorably to paring down her options and finding a loophole in her captivity.

She was smarter than Lex Luthor any day of the week. She knew that.

She had learned some hard lessons here today. They were probably even the ones Lex had intended her to. That even were she to make it clear of the Citadel somehow there was nowhere to go. And that she was entirely at his mercy.

If Lex had intended this knowledge to further send her into a spiral of debilitating despair however, he had miscalculated. Well, perhaps he had succeeded…for a time, she conceded reluctantly. It had been a hard truth to bear. But she was beginning to rally. To fight free of the lassitude that shock and despair and the debilitations of her captivity had bred in her. And far from closing off all the avenues of escape for her — for hope — this new knowledge had simply acted to distill down to its purest essence her will to escape. Stripped down to its core, all extraneous schemes, plans and notions shorn away, all that was left was her will to defeat him, resourcefulness, and logic. He had shown her what was hopeless — and left only what she could hope for when all was said and done.

Half the night had bled away before she fell into a troubled sleep, her plans and schemes chasing her into her dreams. She woke with a jolt some hours later, convinced that she could smell cigar smoke in the air, the stench of it reaching even into sleep. But the bureau was undisturbed from its place against the door and the apartment empty, save for herself.

Settling again, she dreamed for a time. A warm dream where Clark held her close in his arms and told her he loved her, that she had to hold on…that help and his love were only a heartbeat away. There to sustain her if she chose to reach out and use them.

She woke with the murmur of his name on her lips and, brought back to the harsh reality of her room, feeling the warmth of his touch on her skin fade and die, she wept bitterly against the soft silken pillows as dawn brightened with mechanical efficiency beyond the window of her room.

***

Help…

Please…

Help…me…

Superman…

He frowned as the desperate cry reached him, halting immediately and twisting around to get his bearings.

But it was gone. He floated on the air currents that rose up between the Metropolis skyscrapers, listening intently, but there was nothing. The cry was not repeated. He scanned the area below him, but saw nothing that might have prompted anyone to call for help.

He hesitated, still feeling the disorientation of a moment earlier when he had been struck by so much terror it had left him shaking. He had no idea where the emotion had come from, there had been nothing threatening him, nothing attacking him, and yet he had been struck by it like a hammer of lightening from out of a clear, blue sky. So strong, so overpowering that he had actually thrown up an arm in a defensive move as though warding off a sudden attack. And then it had been gone, leaving him drifting, confused and reeling from the shock of it, in the air.

<Lois…?> he had whispered and the terror had returned, real now, his own fear, not fear by proxy. <Lois…> And then, just as he was beginning to think that he couldn't bear it a second longer, that he couldn't bear the not knowing, to be apart from her, to be so damn…*helpless*…that he couldn't breathe one instant longer without having her in his arms — there had come a swift and savage burst of triumph, spearing through him like bright fire before it cut off abruptly, leaving him alone in his head once more.

Triumph.

Exultation.

He had barely had time to decipher that, to find some measure of solace in it, the imprint of that soaring sense of victory, of having won the battle, laid against his thoughts like a healing balm, when he had been jolted by the cries for help.

Cries in the dark. But no one there.

He scanned the area again and then, making up his mind, headed for the ground. In a few, short seconds he had plunged into the thick smog that blanketed the streets of the city. Streets that, fog- shrouded and cold, were empty of life and dead. No cars passed as he stood on the sidewalk, taking his bearings in the eerie, smothered silence. He strode for the intersection up ahead.

He paused when the bulk of something loomed up at him out of the gray haze, a dark shape, two orange eyes blinking at him in a steady cadence.

The car idled up ahead of him, the sound of its throbbing engine the only disturbance to the silence and muffled by the fog surrounding it, the twin indicators of its hazards ticking listlessly. A breakdown. Well, in lieu of anyone else needing the superhero's assistance at the moment…

He strode forward to see if he could help. Or at least assess whether his help was required. The driver's window was frosted with a layer of condensation. He rapped the back of one hand gently against the glass, anxious not to startle any occupants. "Hello? Are you all right in there? Can I help? It's Superman. You're safe."

The electric hum of the window motor made him straighten and he stared in confusion as the glass rolled down. Lois smiled up at him, her eyes empty and vacuous. She was wearing white silk and there were flowers in her hair, glowing orange and red and vibrant against its darkness. "It's okay, Superman. We're fine."

We…

A figure shifted in the shadows that shrouded the passenger seat. He squinted, but couldn't make out who it was. His gaze returned to the driver's side of the car. "Lois…"

"I have to leave now. With Lex. We're going on our honeymoon." She looked at him, guileless. "That's okay, isn't it?"

Clark found himself nodding. That sounded reasonable. "Yes…yes, I guess that's —"

He stopped. What? What was he saying? No. No, it wasn't okay. It damned well wasn't okay at all!

He frowned down at the woman in the car, who was watching him expectantly. "Lois, if you think I'm going to stand here and let you just drive off with…him…you're crazy!"

"But, Clark —"

Shaking his head brusquely, unwilling to listen, he yanked open the door of the car. He put out a hand and, looking up at him quizzically, she reached out and laid her own in it, her fingers entwining with his. He sighed, feeling the warmth of her touch like a solace on his soul, and pulled her into his arms. "Lois…" he whispered against her hair. "Don't go. Not again. Stay with me. Please…"

His lips found their way to hers by instinct and through longing and hers opened up beneath the frantic pressure he applied, moist and willing. Her hands tangled in his hair; her mouth was warm and tender against his own. Her soft cries against his ear roused fever in him, the muffled thunder of her heart against his own surging in him like a restless tide and she was -

…kissing…

…him…

…she…

…was…

…who?

Clark came fully awake, the soft moans of the woman beneath him jerking him out of the stupor lust and sleep had woven around him. For a disorientated moment, as he was dragged from the sweet promise that had slipped into his dreams, turning nightmare into something soft and warming that had so lately been denied to him, he lay there, looking down into the face of the woman in his arms, the woman trapped beneath his body. Bewildered, his thoughts fogged with confusion.

Her eyes were closed, dark lashes spread across cheeks flushed with the pleasure his touch had created in her. Her lips were swollen from the pressure of his own and slightly parted, as though in expectation of more of his kisses. Soft murmurs issued from her throat. In sleep he had rolled half atop her, one arm around the small of her back to hold her soft curves firmly against him, one hand resting on the sleek flesh of her thigh and along the curves of a slender leg. A leg which was wrapped around his lower body. Her arms were around his neck, her hands clenched in his hair…

He tore himself abruptly free, sick realization settling like lead in his belly, chasing the last shreds of his dream from him as he dragged himself from the suffocating embrace around his throat and body and struggled to his feet, breathing heavily in his distress and anger.

He shook his head as he stared, ashen-faced, at the woman on the bed. "No…"

His face twisted with disgust, shock and betrayal warring in his eyes as he stared at Eve, who looked disorientated and tousled as she struggled to sit up in the bed. She ran a hand through her hair, looking up at him as her expression abruptly cleared, the languid drowsiness of passion that had been a smoky haze in her eyes turning to realization and…what…fear? Guilt?

So this was his reward? He had begun to feel sorry for her, to believe that she was sincere in wanting to help him find Lois, to thwart Luthor. He had helped her, treated her as something more than an enemy. Had it all been a trick? Had everything she'd said or done since they'd left Metropolis been nothing more than a device to persuade him to let down his guard, to enable her to crawl into his bed the first moment he wasn't on watch and…

Anger closed down his expression, turning his eyes blank and cold. He grabbed for his robe, threw it on hastily over his sleep-shorts, and marched for the lounge, ignoring the sounds of panicked motion at his back as Eve hastily untangled herself from the disordered covers, kicking herself free and launching herself after him.

"No! No, wait…wait, please…please, don't…it's not what you think, I didn't…please!"

He shook off the hand clutching at his arm and left her behind as she subsided with a sharp sob.

"I was scared!" she wailed after him. "I woke up and it was dark and the…the storm outside…I don't like it! I don't like thunder! I was scared. I just thought…" Her voice wavered, breaking up on the verge of tears and across the room Clark paused in belting up the robe to look across at her.

"You thought what?" he snapped bitterly. "That I wouldn't mind? That you could take up where you left off? That if you could trick me into…into *that*, then you'd have done what Luthor sent you to me to do? That you could go home and tell him he'd got what he wanted?"

"No…no…it wasn't me!" Anger bled into her tone among the panic, the anger of the unjustly accused. "It was you! You did it! I didn't *do* anything. I just wanted…I thought if I could just lie down beside you, maybe it wouldn't be so scary…the storm…that was all. That was all I wanted. I didn't want to be alone! But then you…you put your arm around me and I c-couldn't m-move…I couldn't get you off me and then you were k-kissing m-me and…and…it wasn't my fault! It wasn't my fault!"

She shrieked it again before she wheeled around, running back for the bedroom in a furious burst of sobs, slamming the doors behind her.

Clark stared after her, dismayed.

***

Eve threw herself into a huddle on the narrow window-seat, staring blindly out into the dark, overhung gray of the sky. The violence of the storm had ebbed now to soft rumbles of discontent in the distance and the rain had eased to a soft downpour.

Her arms hugged her knees to her chest as tears slipped like oil across her cheeks and her sobs shook her slender body.

She knew she'd been wrong. She knew she should have stopped it. But it had just…it had felt so good.

She hadn't lied. Not to him. She had had no more intent when she had crawled to lie on top of the comforter beside him than to have the comfort of him close to her.

She had been jerked abruptly out of a sleep that had long since lost its comfort and become restless as the low threatening growls of the storm had worked their way into her dreams. Alex had been angry with her, turning abruptly from the comforting knight she had built up in her head to a darkly shadowed figure, whose eyes blazed with light.

As the storm had erupted without warning directly overhead, a booming crack that tore the sky apart, she had bolted upright with a smothered cry of fright.

She had lain there, shivering with fear, whimpering with each new crack of sound. It had been the flash of light out on the lanai, so bright it had seared her eyes and made her cry out, that had sent her scurrying through into the bedroom, attracted by the darkness within. The small window in there let in less of the storm and the safe haven of its shadowed interior beckoned to her.

Clark had been asleep in there.

Storms scared her. In her short life she hadn't encountered many, but still they invoked terror in her. They reminded her of the lab. Of the vat. Lightning sparking in blue fire around her and the muffled droning of the machines through the solution she had been birthed in, filling her and surrounding her like the murmur of a deformed heart. And — lately — Clark had made her feel so…so safe. Like nothing could hurt her when he was there. Like he would…protect her. Take care of her.

So she had climbed cautiously into the bed and lain at his side, curled up as close as she dared without actually rousing him. And it had been enough. To feel the muffled beat of his heart as she pressed herself up against his back and hid her face in the warmth of his neck, her eyes squeezed tight closed against his skin so that it blocked out the light. It had soothed her eventually into drowsiness again.

Sometime later, she had been disturbed by the restless motions at her side. Clark had begun to moan in his sleep, tossing his head and murmuring words too low for her to make out, as though in denial of whatever stalked through his dreams. She had reached out cautiously after a time and laced her fingers in the hand thrown carelessly across his ribs. And that touch had seemed to quieten him for a time, soothe him.

She had been pleased. Glad. It had seemed the least she could do. And there was a certain symmetry in being able to offer him comfort, as he provided it for her, that made her happy. It was…helping. That's what it was. Helping. Like friends did. He was her friend because he helped her. And now that she was helping him…the small revelation had startled her for a moment…she guessed that meant she was his friend too. She'd never had a friend before…

The concept had caused her to smile as she'd settled back down against him.

She guessed she had fallen asleep that way.

She had woken with terror suffocating her like a hand pressed tight against her chest and had found herself pinned to the bed beneath the heavy weight of the body draped across hers.

Lex!

Fear had spiked through her before she'd realized that it wasn't Lex at all.

His arm was thrown limply across her, his face buried within the soft curve of her neck. She could feel the light, rhythmic touch of his breath on her skin.

She had tried to extricate herself, but it was impossible, like pushing against a steel wall. She had known that she should wake him, but lying there, held close in his arms, she'd felt…safe. And just for a moment…a moment that was all…she stayed where she was, closing her eyes and feeling the slow, somnambulant rise and fall of his chest against her own. Just one moment. One moment to forget…

And then he'd shifted, a small sigh escaping him as he moved his head, nuzzling a path against her skin in absent sleep, finding the soft path at the base of one ear, her cheek.

"Lois…" he'd murmured. "Stay with me…please…"

She had opened her mouth to rouse him, correct him, and his lips had covered hers, stilling the words before she could voice them.

She guessed she'd roused him all right. Just not in the way she'd intended.

She had felt that way before. Had felt her heart race in her breast when a man entered the room, sick with panic…but it had never before been desire that had driven those emotional responses. And she had never felt breathless with longing when she was near him. Had never felt this…this…connection before. Even with Alex…with Alex there had been…something…the way she felt when she was with him, but this…this was beyond that. Something so strong, so wild…

She wouldn't even have said that Clark was her type. Though she couldn't really have said what her type *was* either. But still, lately, there had been…dreams. Vague stirrings within her as she slept that she tried so hard to bury when she was awake. In her dreams though…she didn't understand those dreams. Why was Clark in her dreams and…and like…*that*. She didn't know! She didn't know why he got into her head in the dark! She didn't *want* him to, she did know that! It was just so confusing! But when she was awake it all seemed crystal clear and there was never any desire in her to act out then what she dreamed of, night after night. Even so, it seemed something in her was thrown into turmoil and doubt by those nightly encounters acted out behind the screen of her eyes. And still, despite herself, she felt her heart reach for him whenever he got close. Heart…and soul.

Was it really so surprising she would wonder what it could be like…if he…if he…loved *her*? After all those nights? All those dreams? Those dreams had woken something in her, she understood. And that something, lately, had been tangled up with Clark. It was confusing and she didn't understand it. But it was too much to ignore.

He was so different from the other men she'd known. Lex and Doctor Mamba. Asabi. All that she had experienced of men. Lex had been cold and brutal, ignoring her entirely, his eyes full of disdain when he was forced to endure her presence. Doctor Mamba had been equally cold, but distant, his handling of her impersonal, his teaching of her calculated. A man dealing with his creation, his scientific achievement. Nothing more. His pride in her quick grasp of learning, his pleasure at noting how fast she grew and formed, were not feelings aimed at her, but at the reflections of his own success, his own achievements, seen in her by proxy.

Even angry at her, even distant and cold, even when he seemed to hate her beyond all reason and measure, Clark cared. And Alex…Alex had feelings toward her. She knew he did. Feelings that marked her as a person, as human, as real. Not some toy. Not some machine. To be prodded and poked and measured and traced and…and…used like some…some…

She buried her face in her hands and wept, rocking wretchedly in a huddle of distress.

She had no future with Clark. She knew it. No matter what her heart told her. No matter how the borrowed soul within her yearned for it, even when she herself did not. No matter how confused and distorted her feelings for him became. Deep down, she knew. He didn't want her. He never had.

He never would.

And the paradox was that she didn't really truly want him either. It was like she was being torn in two, driven in two opposing directions, and she didn't even know why she felt the way she did.

She just didn't understand what was happening. She didn't understand it at all!

She had to find her own way in the world. And someone to share it with.

So really there remained only one question.

In this world, just who was the exception? Lex?

Or Clark?

And where did Alex fit between the two?

She started as tentative arms were suddenly wrapped around her, drawing her against a solidly muscled chest. Confused, she put her arms, child-like with wanting and need, around Clark's neck as his hand settled on her hair, pressing her close to his shoulder and rocking her soothingly as he murmured reassurance.

It wasn't an answer. But, as she wept, held tight in that comforting embrace, it was some solace.

***

Clark had stared at the closed doors, his thoughts a whirl of confusion.

Was she telling the truth? Could she be telling the truth?

No, no… He shook his head abruptly. It was a trick; that was all. She was trying to trick him again. She'd been in his bed, for god's sake!

<Actually…it's supposed to be her bed…>

He paused. Well, yeah…he guessed, but…well she never used the damn thing, did she? It wasn't *his* fault he'd crashed out there!

<Wasn't it?>

His lips thinned into a stubborn line. Well it wasn't his fault he'd found himself with company then. *He* hadn't crawled into bed with anyone, had he?!

<She was scared.>

Clark growled under his breath, unwilling to listen.

<You think after what Luthor did to her she'd just crawl into your bed to seduce you?>

He sighed.

<And anyway…*she* wasn't exactly on top of *you*… Was she?>

He winced.

He remembered her face a moment earlier, just before she'd dashed into the bedroom, and sighed again. No. She hadn't been lying to him. It had been stark in her expression. She hadn't done anything wrong, she had simply come to him for comfort and…and he had…oh, god, he had…

Had *he* actually initiated…

He turned sharply away, moving out onto the lanai and breathing in deep and hard of the charged air in an attempt to steady the whirlwind of jumbled emotions that were tearing through him, shuddering in his chest. For a moment, his mind's eye was seared with images of himself and the warm, sensuous body that was held in his arms and undulating against him…the strong scents of heat and passion in his nostrils, the sighs of pleasure against his ear as he had…

No…

He almost moaned the denial aloud. He couldn't betray Lois that way. He couldn't!

<You didn't.>

He sighed. Even the sure and certain knowledge that it had been a momentary lapse, an instinctive, fleeting urging which his rational, conscious mind would never have allowed him to act on, didn't assuage the pangs of guilt for the fact that he could betray Lois that way. That he could feel anything like that for anyone but her. Even for an instant.

<Lighten up on yourself, Kent. Even a saint would have trouble getting his subconscious wrapped around this one. It hasn't been the most natural of honeymoons, after all.>

The part of him that spoke up believed he was being too hard on himself, but Clark, in his self-disgust, wasn't prepared to ease up that easily. Another moment, one more moment locked in that dream, that longing, that heartsick longing for her that was like a knife in his heart…one more moment and he might have…

<No. No, you never would have.>

He shook his head fiercely, fists clenched tight against his thighs and then another thought intruded as a new sound made itself known to him through his anger. The soft, desperate sound of weeping from the other room.

Eve.

He had…he closed his eyes, a heavy flush blooming on his skin as he realized what a prize idiot he'd just made of himself. How unfair he'd been. A dark roll of thunder, far in the distance from where the storm had long since moved on, lifted his head. What had she said? She had been afraid of the storm.

She had woken afraid and in need of comfort. And she had come looking for it from him. And instead… Instead, he had all but assaulted her — how terrified must she have been by that, remembering Luthor. And then, to add insult to injury, he had accused her of jumping *his* bones.

Clark muttered a small imprecation and then dashed a hard hand through his sweat-soaked hair. He grimaced. If he hadn't been so exhausted maybe he would have been more on his guard. But he'd just been so tired, so wiped out by his searching. He'd begun with the next half dozen locations contained on Jimmy's disks. Properties that were scattered around the world. Belize, Spain, Australia…he had visited them all that evening. And, once again, his reward had been nothing. A big fat zero. Yet, he couldn't seem to stop. Couldn't seem to give up. To give up on the search was to give up on Lois and he just couldn't…

He *couldn't*.

So, he had kept going until his body had cried out in protest and he had been so weary that he had found himself dipping dangerously low as he flew, as his eyes slipped shut and his mind drifted. He had called it a night and returned to the suite.

He had expected to find Eve curled up in the closet again. He had long since given up on moving her. She seemed happy in her 'nest' and nothing he said or did changed her mind about it. He'd learned to leave her be in the face of that stubborn pout she adopted whenever he broached the subject. He could break through plate steel several meters thick, but that pout defeated him every time. It was unassailable against logic, reason and argument. And everything else he'd thought to counter it with besides.

So, usually, he stuck to what had become his normal routine and, after reassuring himself that Eve was safe and as comfortable as she would allow herself to be, would claim one of the voluptuous sofas in the other room as had become his habit and grab a few hours sleep before his day with Eve would begin. All too soon for a body more and more frequently protesting his abuse of it.

Tonight, though, he had been surprised when he had entered the room to find her peacefully and somewhat carelessly curled on the sofa he had intended to use himself. He had paused to make sure she was okay — that she wasn't ill or something — and then had shrugged over the minor mystery and left her to it. There seemed to be nothing wrong in the apartment to have driven her out of her secure retreat and she seemed content and comfortable enough. For once she didn't even seem to be dreaming. And maybe if she slept late he'd get more shut eye himself. God knew he could use it.

He could have taken the other sofa, but…for once that bed had called to him. It had looked so inviting. Warm. And since Eve refused to use it…the logic had been irresistible to his exhausted mind. Someone might as well make use of it. He was paying for it after all.

He had been asleep before his head had hit the pillow and had known nothing more until…until he had woken to find himself all over Eve.

And Eve all over him.

The sobs from the other room prickled at his conscience like an ice- pick. He shook his head, wondering if there would ever come a time when he wasn't a complete idiot with this woman, and then turned sharply on his heel and marched across the room.

Quietly opening the doors to the bedroom, he saw her at once, huddled on the window-seat and lost in a world of misery. His heart clenching in pity and guilt, he moved to sit beside her, drawing her reflexively into an embrace that offered the comfort and reassurance she had come to him for earlier and had been denied.

She came into his arms like a child and it was the child he gave solace to, murmuring soothing words and patting her gently on the back as she snuffled against his shoulder.

"It's okay. It's okay. I'm sorry…I was wrong…I didn't mean to frighten you…"

Eve straightened away from him, dashing a hand across her cheeks to clear the tears there, and shook her head. She didn't have to speak. He could sense her confusion. The same tumble of disjointed emotions in her that were roiling in him.

The hand he put up to lay against her cheek was instinctive. "Please…" he said. "Don't cry. I can't bear it when you cry." His lips twisted in a wry acknowledgement. "I never could."

Eve stared up at him, those eyes, dark and lost, reaching into his soul and she angled her head to press against his palm like a cat. The move was so reminiscent of Lois, so familiar, so painful… Clark froze and withdrew his hand slowly. Eve had stilled too, aware as he was of how much they'd been caught in the moment. They stared at each other in a moment that stretched endlessly, then he jerked to his feet, throwing up his arms in frustration and confusion.

"This is crazy. It's…insane. Why do I keep feeling like this? Why do you make me feel so…" The words were lost in a growl of exasperation.

He was aware of Eve watching him as he stalked to the other side of the room, running a sharp, exasperated hand through his hair as he went. This was just…ridiculous. Why did she keep getting to him this way? Why couldn't he separate her from Lois? Surely it should be easy enough to do? Okay, so he'd been dreaming and for a few moments reality had been confused and blended with fantasy, but that wasn't the point. He could still *feel* it. No matter how hard he tried, he could still feel…*something*. Some connection, some link between himself and Eve.

It just didn't make sense.

He just didn't understand why his logical mind short-circuited like this so often when he was around her. When he knew she was nothing more than an illusion wrapped up in deception. Surely he was able to lay aside base sexual response, his body's unwitting attraction to something that posed as the woman he desired, surely he could get beyond them to the reality of who she was? And, more importantly, who she wasn't. Surely he was more than a slave to lust?

Sure, she looked like Lois, talked like her, heck she even smelled like her, despite all of his attempts to change that. That first morning after a wedding night shredded and strewn around him like damp confetti, after he had called the airlines and secured them seats on a plane to Hawaii, he had quite deliberately bundled up every single one of the cosmetics, lotions, perfume and powder that Lois had gotten into the habit of storing in his bathroom.

He had packed them tidily into a cardboard box, his heart shrieking, as though he was denuding his apartment of everything that reminded him of her, as though she was already dead to him. Perhaps that accusation from his conscience had been too harsh, but it had seemed like the truth then and the act had caused his grief and guilt to deepen in him like a black canker.

He had hidden the box deep in the furthest corner of the cupboard beneath the sink. Later, already uneasy with the way that flickering longing could still steal up on him when he was careless, he had gone on a spree and replaced them with scents that Eve could use instead.

Scents that he especially disliked, and which Lois would never have used. And still, beneath those heavy, cloying perfumes, she smelled like Lois.

But she wasn't Lois. And that his body could think she was — even in a transitory, fleeting and unconscious moment — dismayed him. She was no more Lois than…a twin would be. If Lois had a twin sister would he feel desire for her? Of course not. So why did Eve continue to sneak her way under his defenses like she did? The desire he felt for his wife was borne out of his love for her. His respect for her. And he loved and respected her not because of how she looked or talked or even smelled, though that scent of hers could drive him crazy to distraction, but because of what she did and who she was.

The little things. The ingrained habits of a lifetime, formed by where she'd been, the things she'd done and seen, the people she'd known, the places she'd visited, and the events that she'd witnessed which had shaped and influenced her life.

These were the elements which made up the woman he loved. The woman he desired. The woman he wanted to hold in his arms and take to his bed.

The little things.

The way that she chewed the ends of her pencils when she was deep in some story or other and then swapped the damaged ones with his own supply. The way that she could smell a taco stand from three blocks down. That look that she could get when she knew she was about to do something he wouldn't approve of…the one she thought spelled innocence, but which hadn't seriously been able to fool him for years. The fact that she was on first name terms with practically every fast food employee in a five mile radius around her apartment. The way she doused the chicken salad sandwiches she had for lunch with mayo and then insisted he put low-fat milk and sweetener, not sugar and cream, in her coffee…

A thousand and one little things unique to Lois. Uniquely important to him. By definition, Eve had none of those. And it was Lois, not Eve, who defined the pattern of his days, just as she always had. Curiously, even more strongly now in her absence than she ever had done.

Yet still, when he least expected it, when he didn't think to guard against it, desire for her could claw at his loins and set his heart aflame. And knowing that it was desire by proxy didn't make him feel any the less ashamed or guilty when he did. He might as well be aroused by a…a department store mannequin, he told himself in disgust. And though he knew there were guys out there to whom such fetishes appealed, he had never gone there himself.

She wasn't human.

More than that, she wasn't Lois.

She had nothing of Lois in her. She had no…no fire…no heart…no…no…soul -

"But I do."

He stopped his restless pacing with a jolt, wheeling back to stare at her; embarrassment flooded him as he met her steady gaze, as he realized that he'd been muttering much of his thoughts aloud as he paced. But his contrition for wounding her was eclipsed by the sudden understanding of what he'd just heard.

"What?"

"I do. I do have a soul."

"You have a — " He broke off the words as understanding hit him like a lightning bolt, as the knowledge that was suddenly in him sizzled between them in a frisson of shared epiphany. "You have Lois's soul…" he breathed out. "They gave you her soul…"

The moment the words were out he wanted them back. Spoken aloud, into the air like that, they seemed foolish. Ludicrous. But even before he had finished he could see the answer in her eyes, the spark of shared knowledge that leapt between them, one to the other, and he knew it was the truth. Could feel it was the truth. Beyond words, beyond logic. He knew. He knew it in his heart. And in his -

Soul.

He sensed it in his soul.

All of a sudden his legs wouldn't bear his weight. He slumped onto the edge of the bed behind him, feeling weak and dizzy.

Oh, god…Lois. If they had…somehow they had…taken her soul…what had been left of her? What was left of her now? What had she become, stripped of the essence that made her who she was and all that she had been? What would he be rescuing when he finally found her? Something soul-less and dead inside, even as it animated and spoke and… Would it be what he had once believed Eve to be? He had believed until this moment that the worst he had to fear was that Lois was dead. But he had never thought there might be worse to endure than that…that she might be…damaged beyond recognition, lost to him in ways more terrible and more lasting.

<No… Luthor didn't want that. He wanted Lois. Not that.>

The kneejerk panic that had swept up to suffocate him in the wake of his revelation was suddenly muted by a kind of hope that rose from that thought. Luthor had no interest in that. If he had he'd have been content to keep the clone as…his…the facsimile would have been enough for him. Wouldn't it? Surely he had to believe that, to cling to that. Bitter a truth as it was to hold onto right then, Luthor was attracted to the soul and heart in Lois just as strongly as he, himself, was. Without that soul, she would be useless to him.

Wouldn't she?

Please, god…wouldn't she?

He stared blankly at the sky beyond the window, barely registering when Eve perched herself tentatively close by. When he turned his head, she was watching him with so much compassion in her dark eyes that he felt sudden shame that he could ever have thought her soul- less. Ever have considered her less than human, nothing more than a biological machine.

"How?" he whispered.

Eve drew back a little, looked down at her hands as she folded them in her lap. "I heard them talking. I wasn't supposed to…Lex didn't like me to eavesdrop…but, you know…" She shrugged. "Couldn't seem to help it."

At any other time, in any other circumstances, Clark might have felt some small amusement at how Luthor had been hoist by his own petard there. He had made her to play the part of Lois Lane. Small wonder that she found eavesdropping irresistible. But now he simply listened intently as Eve continued.

"Anyway, that day it was hard not to hear. They were talking so loud. Arguing. I crept up and opened the door to the lab. Just a crack, so I could hear better. Asabi was real mad at what the Doc did…Doctor Mamba…" she clarified, with a small glance at him and when he nodded his understanding, went on, "See, the Doc figured out how to make two types of clone. He wanted to sell all this stuff to someone who could make him rich…he was always saying that…'You're my ticket to fame and fortune, honey.'" She grimaced. "He was planning to sell his research to the highest bidder once he was through with what Lex wanted. Lex didn't know that, of course. Dictators, governments — Mamba didn't care who. He figured the life spans would help him there. Two kinds of clone — Disposables, they…they were the ones who would only last twenty-eight days…and Seniors…they'd last a lifetime. More than that…a hundred years, two maybe. He hadn't quite figured that one out yet."

She paused as Clark reached out a hand and laid it softly on her shoulder in commiseration, drawn by her hesitation as she laid out the differences in clone status. Disposable, he thought, sickly, and, suddenly, was ashamed of himself for considering only the consequences to himself and Lois that might come out of this fresh abomination committed by Luthor. Oh, god, Eve… "And he made you… Eve, how long do you have left?"

She looked up sharply into his concerned eyes and then shook her head. "Oh no…" She laughed, a touch of bitter creeping into it. "See, that's the funny thing. Well, I don't think Lex would think it was funny, 'cos *he* wanted me to be a Disposable. See, what he figured was — " She cut off sharply and then cast him a careful look.

But Clark had already seen it laid out for himself. "He wanted you to live for twenty-eight days…just twenty-eight days. Not a lifetime. Because that way I got to suffer more."

The callous brutality of the plan struck at him like a knife twisting in his belly. So that was how Luthor had planned it to be. A brief period of honeymoon bliss with his new bride and then 'Lois' would…what? Fall sick of some wasting disease that baffled the doctors he rushed her to? Wither and die before his eyes as he watched, helpless? And as though that wasn't revenge enough — in the midst of the grief and pain of his bereavement, an autopsy. The sudden knowledge that it hadn't been Lois at all, but a clone…the devastating truth revealed when it was too late… He closed his eyes, tasting the bitterness of that knowledge in his throat.

"I'm sorry," Eve said.

Clark gave her a weak smile. "It's okay…" It wasn't, but he shifted the subject, the pain of it too intense to discuss. "But you ended up a Senior. How?" And then, answering his own question, "Mamba."

"Yeah. See, that's what they were arguing about — Asabi and him — in the lab. Asabi said Lex was gonna be real mad with the Doc when he found out what he'd done. And he was scared, 'cos Mamba tricked him too. Asabi only found out Lex didn't know about Mamba doing it till after he got back from the conference. Mamba'd told him he was doing it for Lex, you see, so he thought up till then he was acting on Lex's orders. So he was real scared about what Lex would do if he ever found out he'd been part of it. Lex, you know, he's not too good about listening to excuses when…when people cross him."

She paused and he saw her swallow before she continued. She had paled a little, he thought, and it occurred to him to wonder what she had endured with Lex, beyond what he suspected she had, that had put that pain into her eyes as she'd spoken. Then it was gone again and she rallied to go on, "Anyway, Mamba said he didn't care, he'd spent half his lifetime perfecting clone technology and he wasn't going to waste the chance to study how a Senior progressed. He'd had to give in to Lex on the others — the other clones, the President and…you know — but he wasn't doing it again. Not with me. I was his…"

"…ticket to fame and fortune…" Clark inserted grimly.

"Yeah. He didn't think anyone would buy the technology from him if they couldn't see the results." She gave him an acerbic look. "He needed a test model to show them when he made his sales pitch."

Clark shifted, his arm slipping around her shoulders to draw her gently against his side. He could feel her trembling. The telling of this wasn't as much just stark and simple documentation of facts as she was making out. "And…the soul?" he asked quietly.

He felt her hesitation, then she said, "Asabi took it. From Lois. Oh, not all of it," she added hastily as she felt him stiffen against her. "Just a little bit. Enough. Once implanted in me it would…grow…he said. Like a…like a skin graft. It would grow and become part of me."

Clark had closed his eyes, the relief flooding through him almost a physical pain that was difficult to bear. It dizzied him. She hadn't been hurt by it. And Luthor hadn't known about it. Still…it was an assault he wouldn't readily forgive, among all the rest, and something he would demand a reckoning for when he encountered Luthor again. His fists clenched, and then he opened his eyes abruptly, as the rest of what Eve had said registered. He shook his head, as he straightened away from Eve, bewildered. "But I don't understand, how could he…? When…?"

"He said something about…a conference? Lois was there, you weren't…"

Clark frowned and then his face animated as the memory clicked into place. "Brussels? The European Space Commission press conference on the Pioneer Capsule launch. I couldn't go — Su…erm, I mean, there was something I had to do in Metropolis. Lois went on her own." Clark paused as another memory struck him. "She was sick when she came back. Nothing serious, just a little under the weather — she thought maybe she'd picked up some bug, flu…but it never came to anything. A day or two and she was fine."

She nodded. "Mamba said it would be just like any other transplant. Like, you know, someone giving you bone marrow or something? Lois would heal and the wound would grow over and she wouldn't even notice it was gone."

Clark considered her doubtfully. He wasn't entirely sure that the soul of a person could be that easily dismissed. Surely it was more than blood and bone? More than organs and flesh? It defined who you were. How could it be so easily purloined without some consequences reverberating through the soul of the…donor? Worriedly, he continued to listen.

"Asabi told Mamba everything went to plan. No problems. He bribed one of the waiting staff at her hotel to put something in her food when she ordered room service. It put her out for the night. When he was sure she was asleep, he got into the room and extracted a little bit of her soul for Mamba to put in me. He had some kind of…device… Just a little bit. Not enough to hurt her, Lex didn't want her hurt because…" She flashed him a quick look and skipped on. "…well, he didn't, but enough to —"

"Enough to animate you so that you would fool anyone," Clark said heavily. "That you would fool me."

She looked away. "I guess," she whispered. Then, as though trying to console him as she turned earnestly to face him, one slim hand reaching out to rest on his, "But it wasn't just that. It wasn't just…personal. Between you and Lex. Mamba said Seniors needed souls. I'm the first. And…well, I guess Lois was the obvious…donor." She ignored his wince. "If Mamba made other Seniors they'd need other donors though. I don't know who they would be. I guess whoever he thought suited."

Clark was barely listening any more. The implications of this revelation reverberated in him so that he could barely think coherently any more. This was why… This -

"This explains everything," he said. He looked up at her dumbly. "Everything. The way I feel…the way I can't stop wanting — " He stopped, suddenly aware of what he was saying — and to who — but Eve was already looking down at the hands in her lap, her cheeks glowing with color.

"I know," she whispered, surprising him. She glanced up at him and then away, the crimson tint to her cheeks deepening abruptly. "I feel it too."

Clark blinked, startled. "You do?"

She nodded. Then she sighed and looked at him directly. "When you're around, I just…I feel so…" She stopped helplessly and sighed again. She shook her head. "Sometimes, it's just so…strong. I can't help feeling like I do." Her eyes widened a little. "But, I didn't…I mean tonight, I wasn't trying to — I *wouldn't* ever — !"

Clark put out a quick hand to her arm, stilling her. "I know. That was my fault and I'm sorry. I know you didn't mean anything by it." He hesitated. "But, Eve…you know we can't…I mean you know that there can't ever be anything between us. Don't you? I mean I'm sorry, I'm so sorry that they did that to you, that they made you have these feelings for me, but…but I can't…I just I don't feel like that for you. I love Lois. And you…" He hesitated over the cruelty, but knew he had to make her understand. "You won't ever be her. You know that. Right?"

She nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I know." She shrugged and then disengaged herself quietly from his touch on her as she moved to her feet. Her spine was stiff and her shoulders were taut as she walked away from him and into the other room.

"Eve…" he started helplessly, aware that there must be something he could do to make things right, to ease that rejection, and yet knowing there was nothing. He subsided as she turned to face him with a small smile.

"It's okay. Really. I understand."

But it wasn't. It wasn't okay at all. And understanding didn't stop the hurt. He knew that.

He closed his eyes, sick at heart, as she left the room.

***

Lois sighed, reaching up to rub at the stiffened muscles of her neck as she realized her thoughts had drifted again, the page of the book before her blurring into nothing and unread for the fourth time of trying.

She couldn't seem to concentrate on anything lately. Everything she read seemed to have portents or parallels to her situation. Nothing was innocent any more. None of it provided the release she sought, the temporary escape it had always given her before.

Nothing provided a retreat from the misery she endured here. In sleep lay her only solace and all too soon that solace faded into the stark reality of the nightmare that had become her life.

The other evening she had dreamed of Clark again. Those dreams came more frequently now. As though something within her reached out and only found the refuge it sought, its way home, then. Far from soothing her however, those nightly reunions had become a torment, merely serving to remind her of all she had lost and all that she might never gain back again.

Tears prickled at the back of her eyes, blurring the page again. Sighing, she gave up and got to her feet. The book slipped from fingers made clumsy with tension and she swore virulently as she ducked down to retrieve it. Her nerves were so strung out she seemed to be suffering from permanent dropsy.

Waking early and unable to get back to sleep, she had come to the library, but she hadn't been able to settle to reading. She hadn't been able to settle to anything much since the night she had returned from Kandersteg; her mind was constantly on the edge of a scream, fear and caution her constant companions.

Outwardly, the incident in her bathroom might never have happened. She had confronted Lex the following morning at breakfast expecting to have to weather his anger and frustration, fully braced for whatever punishment he decided to mete out for her defiance of him. But there had been nothing. His demeanor had been relaxed and mockingly gracious as always. The subject hadn't been broached then nor since.

And that scared her. More than anything, that silence scared her, left her anxiously wondering what he was planning as revenge, poised endlessly on the edge of the precipice and waiting for the hammer to fall. The tension was beginning to drive her insane, etching itself onto her nerves. His silence spoke of plans for something more than petty revenge. Something catastrophic. Or maybe her punishment was this dread that had settled in her stomach over the last few days as that silence, that unknowing stretched.

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

She wished it were that. She truly did. Nothing more than Lex's perverse pleasure in keeping her skittish and off-balance. In the waiting was more torment and torture than in the act. Anticipation was a terror all of its own, as the best of torturers had always known. Now and then, she thought that no matter what he planned it would come as a relief. At least then she would know, it would be over. Somehow, though, she doubted it.

What *was* he up to?

Troubled by the thought, she returned the book to its niche and left the library.

The first sign that her fears had been well-founded, that her world had changed, had been abruptly yanked out from under her feet at the whim of her jailer once more, came when she turned the last corner and came in sight of her apartment.

She stopped abruptly, staring, then jolted forward, her pace quickening until she was almost running headlong as she came up on the two men leaving the apartment with large cardboard boxes in their arms.

"Wait! Hey!"

They ignored her calling after them and were gone an instant later, up ahead. Lois whirled on the guard standing impassively beside the apartment door. "What's going on?" she demanded and, when she got no answer, pushed past him and through the doorway. He made no move to stop her.

Lois faltered to a halt just inside the door.

Her apartment was gone.

Just like all the others. Just like the rooms and spaces of her life she had lost before. Just like that. Gone.

She stood in an echoing block-formed enclosure — empty and barren, no trace remaining, not even a faint, lingering scent, of the rooms she had lived in, even found sanctuary in, since she had been imprisoned here in Lex's Citadel.

Nothing.

"Miss Lane? If you'll come with me, please?"

She turned her head. The guard had followed her in. "What?" she whispered dully.

He took hold of her arm and eased her back into the corridor with him.

"Mr. Luthor instructed me to take you to your new quarters when you came back," he informed her as he ushered her implacably along the corridor with him in the direction the others had taken.

"New…new quarters?" Lois balked, yanking free of his grip. "What the hell do you mean, 'new quarters'?"

"Please, Miss Lane, let's not be difficult."

He reached for her again. Lois stepped back a pace, lips firming, arms folding as she glared at him. "I'm not stepping one more foot away from here until you tell me what the hell is going on. And where my…my things are!"

She heard the catch in her voice and tightened her lips, not trusting herself to say anything more. Her things. All of her things. Everything that had linked her to the past. To…to Clark. Where were they? She had never been one to count too much store in possessions, but now she felt panic rise in her at the thought of losing these. Beyond all logic or reason. As though she had lost friends and loved ones, not just cold, inanimate objects. As though she had abruptly lost her past itself.

Her attention flickered back on to the guard as he coughed delicately to attract it. He gave her what she assumed was supposed to be a reassuring smile. It was the kind that adults gave children when they couldn't be bothered answering awkward questions.

"Easier to show you," he said and, when she simply glowered at him, "There's no reason to be concerned. You'll find your belongings are safe and sound in your new rooms."

"Why?" Lois demanded.

"You'll have to ask Mr. Luthor that, Miss. My instructions are to take you to him."

"Really?" Lois said grimly. She dropped her defiant pose abruptly and then stalked past him. "Then by all means, let's go see 'Mr. Luthor'," she growled from between clenched teeth. There was refuge in anger. More than there was in fear.

Lex was standing in the middle of another corridor, watching the activity going in and out of the door next to him, when she arrived with her escort.

"What the hell's going on?" she demanded.

"Ah, there you are. I was about to have Benton send someone to fetch you. I've decided it's high time you settled into your new life. Time to break with the past."

Lois pushed past him without listening. She found herself in a large, bright bedroom. Even so, it felt claustrophobic, cramped, compared to the space of the apartment. The furnishings, the decoration, the oddments and personal items scattered around in a vain attempt to make it seem inhabited were new. Nothing was familiar. She spun back to where Lex was watching her, his eyes hooded and fathomless.

"Where are my things?"

"The things you need have been moved from your apartment. The rest I've had destroyed. You left me little choice, Lois," he added as she stared at him in horror. "I had thought that with some gentle persuasion you'd soon realize that the past is gone for good. But you're having so much trouble adjusting, adapting…well, if the bird won't fly the nest it has to be pushed, of course. It's for your own good."

"For my — " she started dully but he moved past her to open a door to the left of the room.

"In here you'll find a living space to relax in. My rooms are on the other side, through that door opposite, so we'll share the space. I'm looking forward to spending our evenings together, I'm sure we'll have some stimulating discussions on the books and tapes I've decided you should be spending your time on. Those trashy romances, Lois, really." He shook his head. "And soap operas?" He sighed. "I should have begun to educate you in the finer things of life a long time ago. It's a wonder to me that you managed to write so many of those irritating exposes that ruined half of my plans, while simultaneously filling your head with such gutter trash."

Lois didn't respond. She was sunk in a stupor of dismay and shock, the dull realization that everything she'd had left of her life, everything she had continued to cling to and used to sustain her in her captivity had been ripped from her. He was tearing out pieces of her heart. Shredding her soul. Little by little, day by day, she lost more of who she was and who she'd been. Her past. Her memories.

Her.

She was losing herself.

She was being stripped down to nothing. How soon before nothing was left?

Her gaze roved around the bedroom. It was sterile. Everything in it chosen by him. Everything…her heart jolted suddenly. Panic took hold of her. She found herself heading for the bed, unable to stop herself. Halfway there, she realized the folly of showing too much interest in that particular area of the room; she detoured, heading for the wardrobe instead. She froze, hand on the handle of the door, almost afraid to look. Would they still be there? Would they have made the transition? If they hadn't all of the desperate plans she'd made for escape floundered here and now.

Hauling in a small breath, she pulled the door ajar and took a cursory glance into its interior. Beginning to close it again, she flicked her gaze sideways. Relief abruptly dizzied her at the sight of the table lamp on the nightstand, just where it had always been, its twin in place on the bed's other side. She slammed the door to and turned back. Lex had an air of amusement as he watched her, no doubt assuming she was taking a mental stock-take of what she had lost and what he had been generous enough to allow her.

Her plants…

…were over on the dressing table against the bedroom's wall. Her eyes darted over the display and again relief pounded in her chest at the sight of the spray-bottle that she used to water them set beside them. She closed her eyes, fighting to turn the elation surging within her into a look of hopeless loss and grief.

It seemed she succeeded.

"I'm sorry, my dear," Lex said, mock solicitous in response to her seeming devastation. "Truly I am. But really my hand has been forced in this. I had harbored hope that you would leave the past behind naturally and move on, but it seems I'm less patient than even I believed myself to be. And better a clean break now, than mooning over what you can never return to. Time to look to the future." He smiled at her. "Our future. Together. Here."

He looked around the room in satisfaction and then turned his attention to the men still milling around the rooms, piling up boxes.

"Leave us."

He waited until the door closed behind the last of them. "I've brought you a moving-in gift."

He gestured and Lois turned to follow the motion of his hand to where a large box lay on the bed, previously un-noted by her as her attention was taken by more immediate concerns. At Lex's casually commanding gesture, she lowered herself to the bed's edge and reached out reluctantly to draw the box toward her. She pulled apart the silver gauze bow and ripped off the blue wrapping paper with a desultory hand before lifting clear the plain white cardboard lid.

Beneath a covering of black tissue, lay a glory of color and silk. Lois pulled free the gleaming mass with trembling hands. The cheongsam was cut in the traditional Chinese style, a slim tunic that would mold itself to her curves, with a high mandarin collar and frog-buttoned front and slit to the thigh at either side. Its long sleeves were edged with a wide band of gold. Its base color was a deep, vibrant red with traditional Chinese dragons and cranes overlaid and embroidered in startling greens and golds. It was, admittedly, the most beautifully sensuous gown she'd ever seen, the silk soft as water as it spilled over her hands and lap. She tore her eyes from it and onto Lex as he watched her, refusing to be dazzled. Refusing to think what warmth might have leapt into Clark's eyes had he seen her in this, what desire…

"What's this? Your Geisha fantasy?" She was amazed at the sudden injection of ice-cold steadiness that found its way into those softly spoken words. Within her she felt that chill settle in the pit of her stomach and her insides clenched.

"Lois…really," he chided. "Geishas are Japanese. That is a copy of an original Chinese antiquity. I had it commissioned especially. When I saw the original displayed in Zijincheng — the Palace Museum — I knew it was meant for you." His eyes roamed her face with the appreciation of a connoisseur and there was a reverence in his voice as he murmured, "It'll bring out the dark of your hair and those eyes superbly. It should be a perfect fit." His drifting gaze lingered on the swell of her hips and then came back to her face, almost reluctantly. "The original was worn by Zhao Feiyan. Celebrated and treasured concubine of Emperor Cheng. It was said that every scholar in China was besotted with her. Among her many…talents…she was quite the poet they say. And she danced divinely."

Lois only just prevented herself from rolling her eyes. Trust Lex to imagine that she would be flattered by the gift of a streetwalker's gown. In hopes that she would emulate its owner? The submissive, obedient concubine? Her lip curled, but Lex was lost in his own plans it seemed and he continued without pause.

"I want you to wear it. This evening, at dinner. I've prepared a special night for us, Lois. I want every detail to be perfect."

"Special?"

"I'd call it our wedding night, but then…there would have to be a wedding." He chuckled. "Let's just say I feel that a romantic evening will bring our relationship to its natural conclusion." He shook his head sorrowfully. "You were right of course. The other evening. I tried to rush things. It was uncivilized of me. I should have taken Sun Tzu's advice. Breaking down resistance without resorting to battle is the supreme excellence of the King. Not conquest. Surrender through force is always disappointing. At least, it's always disappointed me. It's rarely much of a challenge." His thoughtful gaze covered her for a brief moment. "Sun Tzu was a wise man. And I've always subscribed to his teachings. You need some time to become accustomed to all of this. I understand that. Tonight, you'll have all the time you need, my darling. Soft music, candlelight, wine —"

"As opposed to your usual seduction techniques of champagne and electric shock treatment? Why don't you go the whole hog and throw in some manacles and that damn cattle prod of yours," she interrupted, but the caustic acid in her tone was undermined by the tremor in her voice that she couldn't prevent. "It would mean the same." She rose shakily to her feet. "Find some other floozy to parade around in this, Lex, because hell will freeze over before I do!" She threw the dress to the bed with the words, her face twisting in contempt.

Lex sighed.

"I was so hoping you wouldn't force me to this, Lois. Truly I was. You and I both know I win here. That this defiance is futile. And tiresome. So…" He waved a languid hand over her defiant stance, across the discarded dress. "…stalemate, you think? Hardly."

<You can't make me.>

The words shivered on her lips, on the verge of expelling themselves from her, but she held them back, knowing them for a lie, as the others had been, for childish bravado, and refusing to let herself jump even more recklessly into the trap of humiliation that lead from them should they escape her. He would take great delight in showing her she was wrong, she knew.

"I *could* tell you that you'll wear it or go naked to dinner because I won't provide another for you," Lex said, as though confirming the thought. "But, while naked would certainly be more than appreciated…it'd be a pity to forego the pleasure of slowly unwrapping the gift." His eyes traveled across her body, clinging like a diseased touch, and then he shook his head. "A man does like to have some mystery. To reveal beauty inch by inch, rather than have it served up to him on a platter, like so much…meat. So, perhaps not. Let's see… I *could* suggest you wear it or I'll call up some of my men to strip you down and put you in it. I'm sure they'd find the experience a perk and it is so necessary to keep the hired help happy these days."

He moved slightly with the words, nearer to the intercom. Lois remained where she was, sick with loathing, feeling her hate drum in her heart, choking her.

But he paused and her uneasiness increased as she sensed the approach of something, something darker by far than these threats he was tossing out so casually and then discarding so easily. He was up to something and it wasn't going to be pleasant. The fact that he was taking so much pleasure in spinning out the moment before he pounced, before he brought her to heel, delighting in one more of his psychological games, increased the tension in her. The beat of her heart within her breast was a wild thing now.

"Perhaps you could scream? Call on blue boy for help?" He shook his head, apparently sorrowful at closing off another avenue of escape for her. "But the truth is, of course, that you can scream till your lungs freeze here, Lois, and no one will hear. No one will come to the rescue."

Miserably, she stayed silent.

"But…no," Lex continued to postulate. "None of those are quite right, are they? So many imperfect solutions to our impasse. Obedience isn't learned by such petty battles. Or, at least, not all at once. And I do so hate to repeat myself. So…we need something that will teach the lesson once and for all. Something that will encourage you to obey me without question and without defiance. Once and for all," he reiterated, his tone becoming a silken whisper. "Don't we? Something… Now…what could that possibly be?"

Answering his own question, he turned to pluck a thick manila folder from the dresser and offered it to her in silence.

Lois took it from him warily. There was too much triumph in his smile. It boded nothing good. She flipped it open. She sank back to the bed, color draining from her cheeks as the photograph tacked to the inside front cover struck her like a blow to the chest. She put a hand to the face that smiled up at her, barely aware of how it shook.

"No…" The protest was drawn up out of her.

"Your sister is in a very bad place right now," Lex said softly as she flicked numbly through the papers and photographs in the file.

"You did this." She looked up at him sharply.

Lex's brows rose in exaggerated surprise. "Lois, you wound me! *I* didn't get her arrested at LAX. And you know how easily mistakes are made, how many innocent people get themselves lost in the system. I believe Lucy was the victim of some erroneous documentation brought up in the LA computers. At least I'm sure it's a mistake. Unless you can tell me she really is wanted in Arizona for three counts of armed robbery. No? Well, I'm sure that once they investigate it further they'll find that its been a terrible mix-up. Of course…" He looked anxiously at her. "It *will* probably be later. They place so much reliance on what machines tell them these days, it's quite depressing. And records can get lost in the ether for months…years…

"What concerns me, Lois, is what could happen to Lucy before they're given — " He paused and then laughed softly. "Forgive me, I mean find, of course. Before they find the correct file. Realize their error. Our correctional facilities are in such a shocking state these days. Violence. Drugs." His tone dropped into something darker still. "Abuse. Really no place for a young woman as beautiful as she is to be incarcerated. Even temporarily. And I'm sure that if she does get transferred there would be a rather unpleasant welcoming party waiting for her."

"Arranged by you," Lois said bitterly as he reached into his breast pocket to remove a cigar.

A shark-toothed smile flashed out at her. "I always was known for my hospitality," he agreed smoothly, abandoning any pretence that Lucy's current predicament wasn't the product of his own machinations. He lit the cigar and put it to his lips. Its tip glowed red as he drew on it and in his eyes above it that same unhealthy glow harbored a dark malevolence and satisfaction that robbed her of breath.

Her eyes fixed him desperately. "Lex, she's just a kid. She hasn't anything to do with this…with…with us. Please —"

"Lois…Lois…*I'm* not hurting Lucy. You're the one putting her at risk, putting her in danger. If you'd only accept the reality of the situation. If you'd be just a little more co-operative…" He spread his hands. "Is it truly so much to ask? That you wear a beautiful gown and accept an invitation to dinner? Is your pride worth more than Lucy's safety? Lois, you can't expect me to remain patient forever." He shook his head sorrowfully, aping the regret of a man forced into a situation beyond his control and regrettable. "I'm sorry you brought this upon your sister. Truly I am. But she really was the only choice. All things considered."

"All things considered?" She looked up at him in bewilderment.

"Well, I suppose Kent would have been a more obvious candidate, but there really was little point in choosing him. He has very little weight as a bargaining chip."

"What…what do you mean?" Lois' grew paler. Had he figured out that Clark was Superman? That he couldn't be harmed?

"I won't lie to you, my darling. Lucy you can bargain for. If you co- operate, become a little more…accommodating…then she'll be fine. But Kent…I won't bargain with you on a lie. I won't promise you that if you behave, that if you cease being so stubborn, so willful, he can be saved. I've no intention of letting him live so that you can continue to pine and moon over the impossible dream that maybe, one day, you and he will be reunited. That you'll ever be together again. Those are the stuff of dreams, Lois. They've no place in the real world."

"You told me if I co-operated he'd be safe," Lois whispered.

Lex raised a brow at her. "If I recall you broke that covenant first, my dear, not I. I've seen precious little co-operation from you since, I'm sure you'd be the first to agree. Especially during our little…tete-a-tete…the other evening. So…I changed my mind. Or, more accurately, you changed it for me. No matter how much it seems that you know there's no going back, you continue to harbor the hope that one day you'll find your way back into the arms of that…fake.

"He has to be removed — that hope must be removed — if our future together is to be assured. Perhaps then you'll understand that there *is* no going back, that your past is dead. As dead as Kent will be. Because Clark Kent *is* going to die. And nothing you can say or do — nothing at all — will change my mind on that now. No, the only promise I can give you on Kent is that I will kill him."

Anger flickered in her eyes. "Don't promise so soon what you can't deliver, Lex. Clark will survive you. And he *will* help Superman find me. I know he will."

Lex seemed unruffled by the threat. He paused, seeming it give the idea serious consideration. "Mmmmmm. Perhaps. But when he does, will he still want you?"

Something in his voice alerted her, she looked up at him sickly, sensing the machinations of something darkly threatening.

"What — why wouldn't he?" Though she tried to deny it, fear leapt into her eyes. Her face tightened.

"Ah, Lois…my sweet Lois…you really don't understand the masculine half of the species at all, do you? Our pride, our hubris, that's what drives us. Insult that and you destroy us entirely."

Lois shook her head, not understanding, and stiffened when he moved to stand behind her, his hand moving to stroke a soft path against her hair. "I told you once before," he murmured as he bent to deliver the words, his lips brushing lightly against the lobe of her ear. "I believe in families. Large ones."

As he straightened, she twisted to view him. Surely he couldn't mean…

"What do you suppose the natural product of consummating our relationship will be? When finally I claim you as my own?" Lex mused as he continued to draw his fingers through her hair. His expression as he gazed down at her was benign, but in his eyes flickered something malevolent that froze her in place, her eyes stark on his, unable to tear herself away. His voice was a hypnotic murmur.

"And if…*when* he finds you…" He chuckled quietly as he offered her the sop and a shiver coursed through her before he resumed, "…you're big with another man's child in your belly…would he still want you back? What would he think of you then, my sweet, hmmmm?"

Lois stared at him in growing horror.

"Think of it, Lois. Think how that would hurt him. You say you love Clark. Yet you'd put him through the pain of watching you carry a child to term that wasn't his? *My* child. The son of Lex Luthor in Clark Kent's home, growing up there, clinging to your skirts, taking your attention…how he would hate that child, how he would despise it… could you be so cruel to force him to suffer such a thing? So selfish?"

She was trembling so fiercely now that she thought she might break apart under his hands. Not Clark. He wasn't a slave to the same machismo pride that dominated most of the men she'd known and dated in the past. Any other man, any one of them, might well have rejected her, discarded her, in the circumstances so loathsomely intimated to her by Lex. But not Clark. He would understand. Wouldn't he? That it hadn't been her fault. That she'd had no choice. He wouldn't blame her for anything that happened here. She knew that.

But did she? Male pride was a foreign country most women rarely understood. Could something like that really destroy their relationship? How soon would it be before he began to hate the child? He might not want to, he might regret it, but how could he not?

She wouldn't believe it. She wouldn't believe Lex's plan would work with a man like Clark. And yet… And yet she couldn't be sure, could she? And even if Clark…if he stuck by her…wasn't Lex right? How could she put him through that? How could she be so cruel?

A moan of denial escaped her lips as Lex's words conjured a mindscape of loathsome images and then, like the breaking of a spell, he moved abruptly away from her. With the sudden absence of his touch, the image of the future laid out before her vanished. She blinked, as though waking from a nightmare.

"But, regardless," Lex continued smoothly, as though the dark malignity of moments before had been but a passing thought, of little importance, "I'm sure it's not something we need concern ourselves with. Kent won't live to see my son — our son — born. In fact — " He made an ostentatious show of checking the Rolex on his wrist. " — if things have gone to plan, that particular thorn in my side may already have been dealt with. Kent and that empty-headed little frog-eating reptile — " He snapped his fingers and smiled when she startled. " — gone. Never to trouble us again."

Frog-eating reptile. Lois' eyes widened. "She's a *clone*?" she blurted before she could stop herself.

Lex gave her a quizzical look. "You hadn't figured that out?" He tutted mock censure. "You are slipping, Lois."

"I hadn't…thought about it." She had tried not to think about it. Tried to put her mystery double and what she had done with Clark out of her head, unable to bear the imaginings that accompanied trying to figure it out. A clone. She closed her eyes momentarily, pain welling up in her. "You sent one of those…those things…to be with Clark?"

"It's such delicious irony, don't you think?" Lex chuckled as she opened her eyes to stare up at him, face blank of expression now. "That Clark Kent is married to that? I hear that he's been enjoying the honeymoon nuptials more than even I expected him to. It must be an *exceptionally* good mimic. Although, it seems that lately the bloom has begun to fade from the rose. Poor Clark, to have become so disillusioned with his bride so soon. I'm probably doing him a mercy, putting him out of his misery. Divorce is such an ugly thing."

Far from wounding her, the jibe infused her with sudden strength, knowing the truth of Clark's 'honeymoon' as she did. And he was safe. Lex quite obviously still thought of him as an ordinary man, someone who could be killed by ordinary means. Did the fact that her double was a clone make her feel easier or worse about what might have gone on between her and Clark? She had no idea. And now wasn't the time to dwell on it. She had to focus.

"Of course," Lex went on to consider thoughtfully, "there probably wouldn't have been time for the papers to go through. I did think about just letting nature take its course; what's a few days among…god and his creature…but it's just so much neater to deal with both of them now. Don't you think? I instructed them to kill it first. A little, last-moments gift for him. He'll be able to watch you die. But his grief will be all too brief, I suspect." He sighed.

She ignored him, not even pretending to understand, closing out the horror of his words, refusing to be drawn into them. "And Lucy?" She looked up at him numbly. "If I 'co-operate', *she'll* be safe?"

The reminder failed to sting him. "That one I won't change my mind on. You have my word on it."

His word. A valueless currency. But logic dictated he was sincere. After all, why dispose of the lever that would keep her compliant and submissive to his whims? If Lucy were to die he would have no… bargaining chip. Of course, the thought brought with it a sudden chill, he could kill Lucy and she would never know.

"I'd want proof. Proof that Lucy is alive and well. Weekly reports," she clarified as he questioned her mutely. "Alive and well. And free," she added.

He shrugged. "That can be arranged. Do I assume then that we have a bargain?"

Everything that was in her struggled bitterly against assent, fought to tell him to go to hell. But…what choice did she have? Lucy.

<Oh, Lucy…>

"Why don't you pick up that dress?" Lex suggested softly, taking her silence for agreement.

Dully, she moved to comply.

Lex moved into view in front of her. He smiled. And leaned in close to kiss clear the single tear coursing down her cheek. "That's my girl," he said. "Now, why don't you go try it on? I'm afraid I'm late for a little trip, so I can't stay and admire the results. But never mind. I'm sure you'll be as stunning in it as I've imagined you would be and the anticipation will be thrilling. You'll see, my darling. This evening will be perfect. For both of us. And after…well after, you'll wonder why you ever wanted to leave me."

He waited. When she said nothing, he continued briskly, "So, then. I'll leave you to explore; settle in. If there's anything I've forgotten to provide you with you can ask Benton for it."

"Maybe I should request it in writing, in triplicate?" Lois said bitterly.

He ignored the jibe. His mood was so smugly expansive and pleased with himself that the urge to slap him pulsed bright behind her eyes. "I'll be back late this afternoon. Plenty of time for you to acquaint yourself with your new quarters. And to consider our new…accommodation. In more ways than one."

"Lucy…" The name of her sister fell from her lips like stone.

"Tomorrow," he promised. "We'll set things to rights for Lucy tomorrow, I'm sure."

One last mocking smile and he was gone.

Lois stood in the middle of the room where he'd left her, blank-eyed. Her hands clenched around the silk of the cheongsam, crushing it against her breasts.

Shaken, distraught, she found her eyes falling on the plant spray. She had wanted to wait until she had all the details of her plan in place, until she was sure that every minute was accounted for, every action guaranteed a result. Until she had pinned down anything she may have missed in her calculations that could lead to her crashing and burning before she succeeded. But now, she understood, she had no more time. Lex had taken away the last of it. She had to act and act now. While he was gone from the Citadel. Because if she was still a prisoner here, still at his mercy when he returned…

Her soul howled a protest at the thought of accepting Lex into her bed. She had wanted to kill him that night in her bathroom. Oh, how badly she had wanted to. And for one moment she had felt the rapid frenzy of his pulse beat its way through the glass she held to his throat and into her fingers, joining the stuttering of her own heart, and she had wanted to drive that shard home. Just one more ounce of pressure, one quick thrust forward, and it would have been over.

And, yet, she'd known how dangerous that longing was, how dangerous an option it could become. Because it wouldn't have been. It wouldn't have been over at all. The brutal truth that had come to her then, like a saner voice speaking up from beneath the hurt and rage and fear pounding within her skull, was that Lex wasn't only her jailor, her tormentor, but her protector too. Without him…what would those men out there do with him gone?

Benton, she suspected, would simply decide that with his employer dead his contract was ended. He was a professional, when all was said and done, and despite her enmity towards him, nothing of what he did here had ever been personal. It was a job to him, nothing more or less. Like a dozen others he had no doubt been paid for over the years. Maybe most of them would react that way.

All of them?

She didn't know. And not knowing, couldn't risk the threat. She doubted it. She had seen what had lurked in the eyes of some of them, held in check only by Lex's presence. Lex's assault on her had been terrifying, but how much worse a situation could she get herself into with him dead at her hand and the corridors of this prison full of hired killers, whose morals and inclinations towards a woman trapped and at their mercy she couldn't begin to predict. They were an unknown equation, like dangerous beasts, who could rend and tear her apart without warning.

The unpalatable truth had been that she needed Lex. For now. He was all that stood between her and them, all that held them in check perhaps. And it was only for fear of risking his wrath that many of her captors treated her with respect and made no moves on her.

For now. But now wasn't forever, as she'd been quick to tell herself in the past. And there would come a time when the tables were turned, when Lex became as vulnerable as she was and had been and then…

Her expression hardened and then smoothed out into resolve as she dragged her thoughts away from satisfying images of revenge and payback. Useless to dwell on those now with Lex still so much a threat. Now, she had to think clearly, had to keep her emotions in check. He had boxed her in, given her no choice, the time was now and there was no time to refine her plan. It *had* to be now. And it had to work. There was nothing else for it.

Dropping the cheongsam to the bed in a heap, she got to her feet. Using the bug scanner that was strapped as always to her belt and so had survived the cull of her possessions, she swept the room grimly. The bathroom was clear. This room too. The living area wasn't. At least Lex had held to that part of his bargain. She supposed it didn't threaten his plans sufficiently to bother him.

Or so he probably figured.

Lois Lane was — hopefully — about to prove him wrong.

Quickly, she paced over to the lamp beside the bed, jerked it free of its power-point, and carried it into the bathroom. Returning briefly to the bedroom, she swept up the spray bottle from the dresser in passing and then headed for the wardrobe.

Halfway there, she paused, her eyes falling on the heap of gleaming silk tossed haphazardly on the bed. With a grim smile and a sense of ironic satisfaction, she detoured to snatch it up instead. She had no intention of wearing the thing for Lex's pleasure and her smile spread as she pictured his face if he ever realized how much of a part it had played in her plot against him or understood her defiance in choosing it to use in a way it's maker had never intended for it. Rags, she needed. And rags the beautiful yet insulting gown was shortly to become. The moment of contemptuous revolt was sweet and it warmed her as she returned to the bathroom, with her cargo.

Soon, the sounds of the shower filled the silence of the room.

An observer, hearing it, might have been lulled by the normality of the patter of water from the bathroom. But had that observer ventured into the steam-filled room he would have found, not a woman showering, but Lois Lane, sitting Indian-fashion on the tiled floor with a frown of concentration on her face. As she used a shard of broken mirror to carefully ease apart the plastic coating on a length of lamp flex and to slice up the sleeve of a very expensive Chinese silk cheongsam.

***

They were returning from a moonlight walk along the shore and only yards from the hotel when the first of their attackers leapt out of the shadows at them.

Clark had been deep in thought, as usual. On these occasions, when he was forced to show some degree of physical intimacy with Eve in public — an arm draped across her shoulder, hips touching, a soft brush of his lips against her hair — he kept himself distant and apart the only way he could, his emotions buried deep within his head. Only by letting himself act his role by remote could he suffer it. He had long since lost the sense of disgust he'd once felt, touching her or play-acting such intimacy with her, but, even so, something deep within him rebelled about betraying Lois this way, pretence or not, and it was difficult to bear. Lois was the only woman he wanted to touch this way, the only woman he wanted to be this close to, and it tore at his heart that the woman snuggled up against his side wasn't her at all.

Eve understood, it seemed. She'd begun to take up any slack in his performance — her smile more bright, her laughter more loud, her loving glances up into his face as he pulled her close against his side more adoring. Helping him as best she could. And he was grateful. For her friendship, her aid…increasingly he wondered how he could have gotten through this without her support. An ironic thought, he was usually quick to acknowledge, considering her part in ensuring he was in this predicament to begin with.

But the urge to blame her for her role in this was long gone. She wasn't to blame, he knew that. Any more than Lois or himself were.

This evening, he'd simply been glad that things were, once again, so comfortable between them, in the main. The past couple of days had been awkward, their relationship driven onto shaky ground and floundering there in the wake of the storm. The aftermath of that night, and its revelations, had produced an emotional turbulence too, that had taken time to shed. But gradually, they had readjusted and in some ways he felt they were closer now than they had ever been. Now that they both understood the link that bound them, and the swift undertow it generated in the subconscious, it was easier to deal with. Easier to guard against the vague, instinctive longings that had so troubled him, so that they no longer ambushed him in unwary moments when his guard was down.

He guessed that Eve had been working it out too and coming to her own accommodations with the stolen soul within her. Lately, he had sensed her growing distant from him. She seemed…distracted. Yet, conversely, perhaps the most contented he'd yet seen her be. Even…happy. Yes, happy, he'd thought. And he was glad to see that in her. Glad that he might have had some small part in it.

In many ways he had come to view Eve as more sister than friend. Less and less she reminded him of Lois. Emotionally, she was maturing so fast these days. She might look like his wife, but there the resemblance ended. She might speak with Lois' voice, but the ideas and thoughts that emerged were very different. The resemblance to his wife was superficial now. Nothing more than a surface gloss. The core personality was fading, overlaid with the woman that Eve was becoming. And he found that he liked that woman, the one that was emerging like a butterfly from a chrysalis and blossoming as he watched into a personality all of its own.

The world around him had retreated as he'd mused, and so he was taken completely unawares when the dark-clad, burly figure rushed at them from the alley that ran along the side of their hotel.

Their assailant barreled into Eve, tearing her away from his side and pushing her up against the rough brick wall before he even realized the man was there. Her startled scream jolted him forward. Light rippled darkly along the length of something held in the man's right hand as he brought it up in a swift arc…

"Hey!"

Clark leapt at their attacker, grabbing the man's shoulders and dragging him roughly back and away from Eve. A flashflood of anger surged up in him, as her frightened sobs rang in his ears. She was afraid. She was always afraid. And men were always making her that way. Men like this.

<No more>, a furious voice within him protested. He wasn't going to let scum like this frighten her — threaten her — any more.

"Clark! No, don't — please!"

Eve's terrified wail jolted up his head, distracting his attention from the man he held, struggling, in his iron grip. Her eyes were wide and fearful, warning in them. But her protest wasn't intended for him…

Behind him.

Her eyes were fixed on a point behind him.

Alerted, he whipped around, just as the second of their attackers rushed him from behind. Instinctively, he half shoved, half threw the man in his hands toward his accomplice. Both men went down hard in a heap of tangled, flailing limbs and curses.

Satisfied, Clark started for them grimly, but another shriek of terror from Eve spun him back before he was halfway there. She was cowering on her knees, face covered in her hands, and now she wasn't screaming, she wasn't making any sound at all, as a third man stood over her, one fist bunched into the front of her light jacket, the other already travelling forward to deliver another blow, as he yelled something about money. Somehow, that dumb acceptance of being beaten made this assault on them worse, made Clark's heart clench with fury.

"Get away from her!"

Clark's hand seized her attacker's wrist with a smack of flesh on flesh that sounded like a gunshot, stopping him in his tracks.

Something thudded hard into his back. He dimly heard a grunt and then a wounded howl of pain from behind him, but he ignored it. Grateful for the shadows and Eve's inattention, Clark quickly used minimal strength to yank the surprised mugger clear of her. The man had clearly dismissed him as a threat, believing his two companions more than capable of dealing with one tourist, had never expected him to come back. He was still carrying a look of stunned disbelief on his face when he hit the ground, senseless, at Eve's feet.

Reassured that the threat to Eve was eliminated, Clark turned back to give the would-be muggers' accomplices his full attention once more. One accomplice. The dying slap of running feet gave testimony to the fact that the other had bailed out while his attention was distracted. The last of them lay on his back, cursing and cradling his left wrist to his chest. In the dim light, Clark saw the glint of the knife he'd dropped lying beside him, its blade twisted into an unrecognizable corkscrew.

Clark permitted himself a small, satisfied twist of his lips. That would teach him to try stabbing Superman in the back. The jolt that must have traveled up the blade when it had hit must have felt like striking concrete. He wouldn't be surprised if the mugger wasn't nursing a broken wrist. He didn't take time to check out his theory, though, as he made for their wounded and sorry-looking former assailant.

The man's eyes widened as he saw Clark advancing on him. His eyes fell on the ruined knife. With a soft, animal whine, he crabbed his way frantically backwards before scrabbling to his feet and taking off down the shadowed alley as though all the demons of Hell were chasing at his heels.

Clark watched him go with eyes like flint and then returned to Eve, stooping to pull her carefully to her feet. She cringed away from him but then clung to him gratefully when she realized who it was, her fists clenched in the front of his shirt. He eased himself clear, intent, now that he knew she was safe, on starting after the fleeing felon. The darkness would aid him. The man was as good as caught, as good as in Superman's hands.

"No!" Eve's protest was a terrified screech. She grabbed out at him, fingers scrabbling at his sleeve as she tried to pull him nearer to her, as though hoping to physically hold him in place as she babbled a panicked litany, "No…please…please don't go…don't leave me alone…please…no, don't…"

Clark forgot about the escaping mugger, the strength and sound of her fear etching itself on his heart. He abandoned any thoughts of pursuit, turning back instead to pull her into a fierce embrace. "Hey, it's okay…it's okay…I'm right here…sssshhhhh…I'm here…"

His own fear welled up in him as the adrenaline of the last few moments left him feeling limp and drained. God, they'd had knives. He had memories of the damage a knife could do. An alley like this one, those two thugs terrorizing their victim, the hot slice of pain in his bicep as he'd intervened, even though he'd had no powers, the sudden, shocked understanding of his own vulnerability lancing through him as sharp as the blade had…

What if they had — ?

"Are you all right?" he asked, jerking back to anxiously search her face, checking her over urgently for signs of blood. She nodded silently and then buried her face abruptly in his chest. "He didn't hurt you, did he?" A small shake of her head and a negative murmur. Relief released itself from him in a small breath. He drew her closer. "It's okay. You're safe now," he soothed her absently, as he patted her on the back.

She shook her head again, more violently this time, and he frowned. She stretched up slightly, bringing her lips close against his ear. A study in fear rather than caution. "He'll send others."

"Who?" Clark sighed and put his hands gently on her shoulders, pulling her clear of him so that he could see her eyes. "Eve, they're just locals, that's all. Looking to make a fast buck from the tourists."

She shook her head again, her eyes were dark and wide on his face. "I'm sure I saw that one — the one who pu-pushed me — before. Wi- with Lex."

Clark stilled. "Are you sure? Eve? Are you sure?" he repeated urgently when she didn't answer.

She shrugged. Her eyes darted to where the man lay unconscious on the ground. "Yes. I mean…maybe." Her face crumpled as her certainty lost ground. "I don't know. It's just…he looks like someone that was there…in the big place —"

"The big place?" Clark said, bewildered. "Eve, I don't understand."

"The place where they made me. It had all these rooms, where they showed me how to…how to be Lois. And these men — men Lex had hired…he called it his Citadel…"

Clark's eyes widened. "Citadel… A hideout? You were in Lex's hideout?" His tone took on a new exigency as he gripped her shoulders. "Why didn't you tell me this before? You said you didn't know where he was! Eve, do you think that might be where Luthor is holding Lois? Do you think that could be where she is right now?"

"You're hurting!" She tried to pull clear of him and he realized belatedly that in his agitation his grip on her had tightened.

"I'm sorry." He eased up guiltily, but he couldn't stop the naked hope showing on his face. "But is it possible? Could Luthor be hiding out there? In this place?"

"I don't know. I don't know where it is." She watched his face fall and looked up at him miserably. "I'm sorry, but I don't. I didn't leave there till Lex took me to the chapel. It was dark and there was a helicopter…" Her brow furrowed as she struggled to recall the details. "I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention — I didn't *know* it was important!" she protested off his anguished look. "And, anyway, I couldn't see anything. Just the lights when we landed — they were all bright and…"

Her voice had grown soft on that last, as she relived the child-like delight for all kinds of lights and colors that seemed habitual to her. She blinked, pulling herself abruptly out of the moment's pleasure as he clutched again at her arm, trying not to frighten or upset her, but unable to contain his desperation.

"Eve, think. Think hard. How long did it take you to get to the chapel? From the Citadel?" he questioned urgently.

She shrugged. "I don't know. I was sleepy. Dr. Carlson gave me a shot and I fell asleep. Lex said…" She flushed slightly. "…he didn't want to listen to any prattling on during the journey. There was the helicopter and…" Her eyes grew distant as she lost herself in the memory and then widened a little. "But we weren't on the helicopter when we landed."

She looked up at him sharply, voice quickening with excitement as she remembered. "We got off a *plane*, not a helicopter. I never thought of that before," she added in a thoughtful whisper. "I didn't really care. I was thinking about…about…you know," she said awkwardly. "I wanted to get it right, so that Lex…so he wouldn't be mad at me. He'd been real mad the night before when…when he… Anyway, I didn't want him to be mad again. I was thinking a whole lot about that, about what to do and remembering what to say and —"

"Then you must have transferred to a plane at some point," Clark interrupted, his thoughts whirling over this new information. "A long journey. Too long to make by helicopter." His eyes cleared, focusing on her again. "You weren't in Metropolis. Somewhere else. Somewhere miles away." His hands had clenched into fists. "If I'd known that…if I'd known…I wouldn't have wasted —"

Her face crumpled. "I'm sorry," she whispered again, her voice breaking. "I'm no good, am I? I can't e-even help you f-find her…"

Clark pulled her closer, suddenly remorseful as she began to cry. "It's okay, it's not your fault," he assured her, through the numbing agony of his disappointment. "And you did help me…at least now I know for sure she's not in Metropolis."

Not in Metropolis. All those wasted hours, wasted days… If she had told him this before he would have known from the start… He let a ragged sigh escape him, knowing blaming her was pointless. Besides, it was partly his fault too. It had never occurred to him to ask her about where she'd been…birthed. He had simply assumed Mamba's lab was in Metropolis. Perhaps because all of Lex's schemes seemed to be centered there. The President, kidnapping Lois, the theft of the frogs…Eve…it had all seemed to locate in Metropolis.

And where? If not Metropolis, where?

And because, too, he had felt such disgust with the process that had sent her to him, it had so outraged his soul, that he had never wanted to ask for the details from her. Later, when he'd got over that, she had been so obviously uncomfortable with talking about her cloning that he had let the subject lie then too. There had been no reason to press her about it. Then.

No. Eve wasn't to blame for his mistakes.

She was looking up at him, her face showing a small hope that she might have redeemed herself. Despite the despair he was slowly drowning in, he couldn't bear to disappoint her. He shrugged, giving her a wan smile. "It's something, at least."

He rubbed soothingly at her arm and then pushed her gently clear of him, shucking off the black mood that threatened to engulf him in favor of a new purpose. "Look, let's get back to the hotel and call the police. Let them deal with this guy. I'm sure they're just locals," he reiterated, determined to make her believe it. Maybe make himself believe it too, now that she had seeded the dark thought in his head that maybe something more sinister than just an attempted tourist mugging had taken place here in this alley. He frowned. "Don't worry, okay? Luthor's got no reason to attack us."

"Lex doesn't need a reason," she concluded glumly.

Clark sighed. "Eve," he said gently as she stared at him, eyes hounded and doubtful. "Lex thinks you're a — " Even now, knowing she wasn't, knowing she would live, he couldn't bring himself to say it. "He thinks you're going to die, Eve. In just a few days. Why would he spend all that time and effort on sending someone to kill you? To kill us? He wants me to watch you die, remember? He wants us both to suffer. This…" He glanced around the alley. "This would have been too quick for us. Too easy."

Her brows furrowed as she considered that. She shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe…maybe he found out. Maybe Asabi did tell him what Mamba did." But she looked less sure of herself now.

Clark shook his head. "I don't think we matter to him," he said bitterly. "He has what he wants. We don't matter enough to attack. Come on," he added softly, with another glance at the unconscious man. "Let's go before he wakes up."

Eve didn't look entirely convinced, but she gathered herself, wiping her eyes and staying close to his side as he put an arm around her and eased her into the bright safety of the hotel's lobby.

***

Irwin shuffled restlessly from his position in the lee of the door and thought once more about whether he could risk ducking off for another smoke. He'd been warned already about deserting his post, though…Benton had threatened to report it to Luthor next time. Irwin grimaced and spat heavily into the rock ground, then started as the rumble of machinery overhead suddenly came to life.

That tore it. He watched the rock ceiling above him crack in two and then begin to slide apart, each half grumbling smoothly into the canyon walls on either side of the bowl. He glanced out into the oppressive, claustrophobic circle of concrete ahead of him, jettisoning any plans or thoughts of leaving. Thick snow swirled lazily around the corner of the rock bowl that enclosed him, like one of the dust devils he'd watched as a child in his native Arizona. He didn't like the snow. He shivered, despite the heavy duty clothing he was wrapped in, and pulled his collar higher around the back of his neck.

Damn waste of time being on guard duty up here. It wasn't as though anyone was going to storm the barricades, now was it? Well…not from outside anyway. He knew why a guard was mounted here day and night. To keep Luthor's woman in. He snorted. One woman and all this. It'd be laughable if it wasn't freezing his cojones off. There wasn't a cat in hell's chance of her making it up here. Far as he knew she'd never even tried. Man could guard the place just as well from down there in the heat than up here. He stamped his feet irritably.

Overhead, the arc lights suddenly snapped on, bathing the pad in bright, sterile light, and he lifted his head, drawing his posture up into something more attentive as he scanned the heavy laden sky above him. Sure enough, after a few seconds he heard the distant putter of rotors and, a moment after that, the bulk of the Bell Longranger put its snub nose over the mountain range and began to descend to the pad.

Irwin watched with less than stellar interest as it settled like a ballerina onto the concrete and the single passenger swung down from the cabin. But he tightened his shoulders and snapped a tight salute at the man as he strode forward. It never hurt. The salute faltered and dropped away though as the figure ducked beneath the lights and came close, revealing his face. Irwin cracked a smile.

"Hey, Morton. Hey there, man!"

The new arrival gave him a lax smile in return that matched the conditions around them and was quickly abandoned. Surly son of a bitch, Irwin thought. Always had been. Not that he knew him well. Seen him at the initial briefings, that was about it. He'd been assigned elsewhere when the mission had really got going. But still, all for one and all that. He was one of them. And you never knew when you'd need your back watched by another grunt in your unit. Paid to be friendly. And being gregarious and sociable weren't exactly requirements for this profession. Most of the men he'd fought with over the years had been surly bastards too. He slapped a heavy hand on the other man's shoulder as Morton nodded a greeting at him that was just a few degrees warmer than the smile had been.

"Irwin."

"Good to see you." Irwin flashed a grin at him as he pulled open the metal door that led into the heart of the mountain. "So you finally ended up buried in this pit with the rest of us, huh?"

His companion shrugged and then, seeming to find something in him that urged some loosening up, "Well, Hawaii was getting too hot for me anyway." He jerked a chin down the stairwell. "Maybe some time cooling my heels will do me good."

Irwin snorted. "Yeah, well don't expect to have any fun while you're here," he grouched. "I mean it's kitted out real good, don't get me wrong," he said as his comment was greeted with a raised brow. "Got more perks than any of the other gigs I've been on, that's for sure. Mr. Luthor shares most everything too. 'cept for the honey, of course." His lips twisted sourly. "Ain't no honey down there, that's the thing. Man needs a little something to warm him up, nights, you know?" He sighed. "But, only one piece of honey down there and she's all Luthor's. Strictly off limits. So you watch out, you hear? We got orders. Keep our distance. You get any ideas in that direction, Luthor'll —"

He stopped as he realized how intent the face of the other man had become. "What? Hey." He laughed sourly. "Ain't that bad."

He turned to follow as Morton said nothing, merely shouldered past him and into the stairwell. Irwin shrugged and continued as he followed him down, "Well, anyway, I guess it's a grade or two down from Hawaii, right? Hey, if you're back, maybe some of the rest of us'll get sent out instead. You think?" he said, suddenly made eager by the thought as he blew on his chilled hands.

His companion grunted and then seemed to think a more voluble response was called for. "Well, seems Mr. Luthor isn't interested in watching our two lovebirds any more. I got recalled. We all did, so I hear. I think they're closing down the operation."

"Yeah?" Irwin shook his head sorrowfully. "Always us gets the perks pulled out from under us," he offered up bitter comment as they waited for the elevator to arrive. He shifted a faint leer at his colleague. "Or did it? Hey, you manage to get some honey from that clone before you — ?"

"No."

The answer was another grunt, not inviting further interest, and this time it wasn't followed up with anything else. Irwin ignored the obvious warning to let alone as he nudged the other man in the ribs suggestively. "Awww, come on, man. You can tell me. Did she come across good for you? What was it like?"

"Boring as hell," Morton said, with a sorrowful shake of his head. "Most I got was holding her hand. Bitch was colder than a freezer. Could have brought down the temperature up here a notch or two."

"Oh." Irwin sighed. "Bummer. Wonder what it's like?" he went on after a moment's silence.

"What?"

"You know…being with…that. A clone. It ain't human, is it?"

"I don't know." The irritable edge was back. "An' don't look like I'm likely to neither." A scowling glance was directed at the elevator as it pinged, its door sliding heavily ajar. "Look, I gotta report in to Asabi. You'd best get back up top, before Benton finds you shirking guard duty."

"Yeah…" Irwin found himself saying to the elevator's doors. He sniffed sharply. "Bet he did," he judged. "Lying jerk."

He sighed, mulling over the injustices of a world that found him freezing his butt off guarding honey he was never gonna have while the lucky bastards got to whoop it up in Hawaii with some hot little honey that probably had a few special tricks all of its own to show a guy, being that it wasn't human.

He trudged back up the stairs to his post.

Some guys had all the luck.

***

It was after midnight when Clark returned to the suite after giving his statement to the local police department. Surprisingly, or all things considered perhaps not, he found Eve still awake.

She glanced up at him as he entered the room, from where she was seated like a Buddha on the sofa. The soft blare of a beer commercial issued from the TV in front of her. Every available light in the suite was on. The doors to the lanai, and every window, were shut. The heat was stifling, despite the ceiling fans.

"Hi." She reached for the remote and muted the sound.

"Hi. I thought you'd be asleep." He glanced at her as he moved to throw open the lanai doors, letting in some of the cooler night air. He had to unlock them first. "Are you okay?"

She rolled her shoulders in a casual shrug. "Sure. I was just…" She looked away, back to the TV, her face shadowing. "Um…I…I got watching a movie and —"

"Eve, that's okay," he said. "You don't have to explain. Honestly." He moved into the bedroom and then the bathroom, turning off the unnecessary lights, and then came back into the living room. "The police might want to talk to you in the morning, take a statement. I persuaded them to leave it till then. I told them you didn't see much, it was over so fast. Will you be okay with that?"

She nodded.

"Seems I was right. About those guys who attacked us," he explained as he sat down on the sofa beside her. "The police knew them right away. They already have long records for mugging tourists and violent assault. Causing trouble."

"Oh. Okay." She uncoiled from the sofa. A quick move filled with nervous energy. "Want a drink? I just made up some cocktails."

Clark opened his mouth to decline and was surprised by a jaw-cracking yawn. He shook his head. "No, that's okay. I just need some sleep. Will you be all right on your own?"

"Sure." She lifted the cocktail shaker from the counter and returned to her religious observance in front of the TV. Clark watched her for a moment, a little concerned by her irrationally calm manner, but it was obvious she didn't want to talk about it.

"All right," he said finally. "I'll be right in there if you need me. Just wake me up."

She nodded again, seemingly more fascinated by the figures moving silently on the flickering screen than in what he was saying.

"Okay then. Goodnight, Eve."

He'd only taken a few paces when she said quietly, "Clark?"

He turned back. "Yeah?"

"Tomorrow night? When you…when you're out at the club? Will you take me with you?" She turned her head, her eyes beseeching. "I know you don't want to…to be with me. But…" Her gaze flickered briefly to the open doors and the lanai beyond. "…I don't want to be here alone any more."

"Club?" He stared at her, confused. He retraced his steps to sink absently down on the sofa beside her. "What club?"

"You know. The nightclub."

"Huh?"

"Well, you know, where you go nights? Alex says there's a real big one in town that's real good, he says most tourists go there, and I thought maybe that was where you were. You know, cos really I don't expect you to stay here with me. I know that you don't…like…I mean…it's cool, really, I understand. And I wouldn't have asked at all…it's just…" She paused and then ended in a rush, "I haven't ever been to one, so I…I just wondered if maybe…if I could go along…some time…" She paused again and, in a smaller voice, "You know. Maybe. If that was okay."

Clark shook his head. He hadn't heard much beyond her first sentence.

Club? Nightclub? She thought he was out there every night at a *nightclub*? Didn't she know what his life had been like lately? Searching out every place he could imagine Lois might be held in, fitting in Superman rescues whenever he could…

No. He held back a groan. No, of course she didn't. He hadn't ever discussed with her what he did on his nights away from the suite. Of course he hadn't. He remembered telling her that first day that he was going to do some checking around, see what he could find, but she could hardly have believed that Clark Kent was still tracking down sources and information, telephoning Perry White back at the Planet, or doing anything else a human man could do to find his lost love, right here in Hawaii and never leaving the islands, for all this time.

Clark cursed himself. Why hadn't he thought of that? Why hadn't he thought of giving her a cover story? But still…a nightclub?

"Wait a minute. What made you think I was going to a nightclub?"

She looked at him in surprise. "Where else would you go?"

Ah. Yes, well taken from that perspective he guessed he could understand her confusion. She would hardly have figured out that Clark Kent was flying around Metropolis, nights. He sighed.

So instead she had concluded that he had been avoiding her because he couldn't stand to be near her? Hoo, boy. When had his life gotten so tangled?

"Eve, I'm really sorry. I should have been more thoughtful," he said. His brain raced furiously as he offered the apology, trying to think of something else to prevaricate with. To his relief, however, Eve seemed to be purely concerned with her first visit to Hawaii's night scene.

"Then I can go? Really?"

He smiled weakly. "Sure."

She threw her arms around his neck with an exuberant squeal. When she pulled back her eyes were shining and he was struck with a pang of guilt. Not only for the deception, but for the fact that he'd left her here all those nights, alone. And obviously lonely. For shutting her out of his life. Of course he couldn't have really done otherwise. But still…

"Just let me know when you want to go."

"Now?" She jumped to her feet before he could answer, whirling off across the room in an explosion of motion, hands weaving impulsive enthusiasm in the air, and babbling up a storm. With the quicksilver change of mood and direction that seemed habitual in her she also seemed to have forgotten the earlier assault on them and her fright in her excitement. "It'll just take me a few minutes to shower and get changed, that'll be okay, won't it? If I get changed? Stay there! Don't move! I'll be right out!" she added gleefully at his reluctant nod.

Clark watched her in amused bemusement until the door slammed behind her and then shook his head. A nightclub. Hardly the first place he could envisage spending the next few hours. He rubbed at his eye and then smiled ruefully. Well, she obviously needed the emotional release of a few hours' fun. And if it took her mind off of her theories about Luthor wanting them dead…

He thought about that, the doubts that had pricked him back in the alley returning to haunt him. Could Eve be right? Despite his reassurances to her that she was jumping at shadows and the seeming evidence at the police station that the two men who'd attacked them were nothing more than petty criminals, well known to the local precinct, a small niggling voice in his head told him she might well be.

Why would Luthor suddenly want them eliminated? Had he seen through the sham of this honeymoon? Clark frowned. Would he care if he did? Suddenly he thought to shift the focus of his actions over the past few weeks. He had thought to buy himself — and Lois — time with this subterfuge. But back then, in his apartment, when this had all seemed such a good idea, he hadn't anticipated — perhaps naively — that he would still be searching futilely for his wife this far down the line.

He began to figure out a harsh truth. A truth that the long, unending hours of searching and playacting and rescues had left him no time to consider before now. Would Luthor really care any more? If he had to begin with? By now he must be feeling secure in the knowledge that wherever he was he couldn't be found. Or at least not found easily. He found himself returning to what he'd told Eve in the alley. Luthor had what he wanted. Everything he wanted.

Lois.

He had Lois.

And Eve had served her purpose. To keep him occupied and the truth of Lois' abduction undiscovered for long enough to enable Luthor to vanish into some…lair…somewhere…where they might never be tracked to.

Clark eased free his fingers from the fists they'd formed with the thought, refusing to let himself get distracted.

Why would Luthor care any more about either of them?

Maybe it was time to end this charade. Its gain to him — whatever gain it had ever had — was lost, long since. Maybe it was time to bring things out into the open, get help from Henderson and the Planet. Maybe all he was doing here was clinging onto a lost hope. Unwilling to let himself give up because to do so would be to admit Luthor had defeated him and Lois was gone. To admit that he'd failed. That she was lost. That he would never find her.

No!

<No,> he repeated savagely. He'd never admit that. But he could recognize that his plan of attack was flawed and that he needed to change course. Staying here with Eve, playing the role of husband and honeymooner, had become less about fooling Luthor and giving him time to track him down than it had about putting off the moment when he would have to return and face the truth of his situation, deal with the trauma and mess that would follow in the wake of his revealing the truth. To accept that he couldn't do this alone. That even Superman was helpless here and in need of help.

He glanced at the closed bedroom doors. Then he rose to his feet and picked up the phone. He dialed the front desk and requested the number of the local airline agency. Flights were scarce, but he was willing to take just about anything, and finally secured them two seats, economy class, on an afternoon flight. Cutting the connection, he redialed reception and, citing a sudden family emergency back in Metropolis — not entirely a lie — made arrangements for them to check out later in the morning. He blew out a soft breath as he put down the phone.

As he turned away, a commotion of new images on the TV caught his attention. On the silent screen, flames flickered, yellow-coated figures raced into shot and away, and the banner scrolling across the screen proclaimed the news of a four-alarm fire in Chinatown, San Francisco.

Clark was halfway out of the suite before he groaned and detoured swiftly for the closed doors of the bedroom. He rapped on the wood. "Eve?"

"Yeah?" the voice came distantly from within.

"I forgot — I think I left my Raybans down by the pool. I'm gonna go get them. I should be back by the time you're ready. Okay?"

He barely heard her answer before he was slamming the door of the suite behind him.

It wasn't until he was flying steadily over the outskirts of San Francisco that what she had said struck him with the force of a hammer.

He screeched to a halt in mid air before recovering and barreling on, his instincts to speed to the rescue of the fire victims over-riding the shock that had just frozen his mind. But though his attention remained on the task ahead of him, his thoughts echoed with the startling and disconcerting memory that had just popped into his head.

<Alex says there's a real big one in town…>

*Alex*?

Who the hell was Alex?

***

The guard outside her door this morning was Carlson. A good omen, Lois judged, though she despised the man and hated his spells of duty.

She had been mistaken a little in her first assessment of the men that Lex had hired as his private army. Though the leadership of the mercenaries fit her profile, a fair portion of the rank and file were more in the line of hired thugs than professional soldiery. Mostly they were respectful enough of Lex — or more correctly of the pain he could bring them — to stay at a reasonable distance from her and give her no problems, keeping their thoughts, and more importantly as far as she was concerned, their hands, to themselves.

There were the some, however, like Carlson, who let her know silently and without a word ever being spoken exactly what they'd like to do to her if they ever got the chance. Mostly, they were impotent though and caused her few concerns. She was aware of how tight Lex's grip on them was. It had to be. As she'd noted in the past, he was a long way from the law here too. Hiring men who would do as they were told and were unlikely to offer any challenge to his absolute authority would have been his primary concern. None of them would overstep the boundaries he laid down for them, with her or in any other matter. So long as Lex was around to keep them in check, of course.

Carlson was the type to undress her with his eyes and the thoughts that squirmed in his head were of the basic variety and not hard to decipher when he trawled his slimy oil-slick of a stare over her body.

She had gone so far on one occasion as to ask him tartly if he had a cousin named Ralph back in Metropolis. But he'd only given her a blank stare in response.

She hated him being around her, hated his brooding presence, the touch of his eyes on her that made her feel unclean and had her bolting for the shower as soon as she was free of him. But he had one other thing in common with Ralph. He was dumb as a post. Which she judged a blessing. Particularly now.

"Lex has a book I want to borrow. In his office," she told him tersely as she emerged into the corridor and confronted him.

Carlson looked back at her with the leer that seemed to be habitual to his expression. "Mr. Luthor's off base."

Lois faked exasperation. It wasn't much of a leap for the imagination to make. "I know that, you idiot. He said I could go get it while he was gone."

The flash of anger in Carlson's face at the insult melted into hesitation. He looked nonplussed. Lois didn't give him time to process his way through the sludge of thoughts in his Neanderthal brain to a denial of her request. She set out in a brisk march along the corridor. After a moment, she heard him curse and catch up to her. She hid a triumphant smile.

"Mr. Luthor's orders are no one goes into his office while he's gone," Carlson said with a frown.

Lois sighed heavily; she didn't falter in her march, knowing that she who hesitates is lost was an apt adage right then. "Well, he didn't include me in that, did he?" she challenged as though this was logic beyond dispute. And that, since it *was* beyond dispute, she didn't expect to have one.

Carlson's frown deepened as he considered it. "No…" he finally ventured reluctantly. "But —"

"Well there you go then. And he did *say* I could. He probably just didn't have time to let you know he'd given me permission to go fetch it. Ask Benton. He probably told him."

Carlson hesitated.

Lois watched him process that, then reject it as she'd known he would. There wasn't a commanding officer she'd ever known who took kindly to being interrupted by his subordinates over trivia and who wasn't quick to make it clear to the offender exactly what a transgression that one was. Or a grunt who put himself in the firing line if he could help it.

Carlson shrugged, apparently coming to the same conclusion. "Don't suppose there's no harm in it," he judged. "So long as you're quick, mind. An' guess you can't get up to nothing, with me there. Not like you can get into anything you shouldn't up there."

Lois didn't answer. Her skin itched as they marched in silence through the corridors, feeling the weight of his stare on her like a touch of slime. She let loose a small sigh of relief when he finally opened the door of the office and ushered her through.

Lois stopped in front of the bookcase that lined the left-hand wall of the room. "It's not here." She turned away, eyes searching through the office. "He told me he'd leave it out for me," she said, her tone irritated. "You look over there." She pointed at the bookcase on the opposite wall. "I'll see if he left it on his desk."

"Uh uh…" To her irritation a flicker of low cunning that was almost as good as intelligence entered Carlson's eyes. "You don't go near the desk."

She shrugged, trying to conceal her dismay. "Okay, you check the desk. Why don't I check these shelves?" she added, stepping up behind him as he rummaged half-heartedly over the desk with a scowl.

It brought her up way too close to his rancid body and she suppressed a shiver as he moved, brushing against her momentarily, but mouthed a silent thanks to whatever gods ensured that his libido and his current task were keeping him occupied. Quickly, she made a pretence of moving items on the shelves and checking them over.

She sighed. "It's not here either." She went back to the bookshelves as Carlson grumbled something under his breath. "Oh, here it is!" She grabbed a book at random, waved it briefly at him with a smile, and then headed for the door.

"Wait a minute!"

She froze as he followed her briskly and tried not to show anything of her anxiety on her face as he reached out suspiciously and pulled the book from her limp hands. His face worked as he scanned the title, then he shrugged and handed it back.

"Okay. Let's move then. I got things to do."

Lois followed him without further comment. She waited until the office was a few corridors behind them before she said, as though the idea had just occurred to her, "I think I'd like some fresh air. Take me up to the Lookout."

Carlson threw a glare at her. "You can go later. Get someone else to take you, I got —"

"Things to do. So you said. I'm sure Lex will be very interested in hearing what was more important than keeping me happy."

Carlson muttered something she should probably be happy she hadn't caught and then gripped her arm in a hold that was punishingly tight as he changed direction. Lois pulled herself pointedly clear. Carlson's glower deepened, but he didn't try to stamp his physical authority on her a second time. Irritated as he was, he knew better. And that if he tried it again he'd best have a better reason than pique for it, if called on to explain the bruising later to Lex.

They ascended to the Lookout in silence. Carlson hung back as Lois made her way up the staircase to the metal door. As she opened it, a blast of frigid air and a bluster of sleet entered the stairwell. Carlson glanced past her and then stopped on the top stair, within the lee of the door. "Uh…I'll stay here. You got five minutes."

Lois silently blessed Carlson's laziness and dislike for getting cold, and hastily made her way out to the edge of the Lookout. She stood there for a moment, staring out into the chasm and its breath-taking view. Then she glanced across her shoulder. She couldn't even see Carlson, who seemed to have retreated even further into the shelter of the stairwell. Well, he couldn't stop her anyway. Not now. All she needed was one moment. Even if he saw her, even if he guessed her intent or understood what she was doing, by the time he ran across the rock floor of the platform it would be all over.

She could deal with what came after if she needed to.

She reached into the pocket of her heavy ski jacket and pulled clear what she'd hidden there.

It glittered on her palm, turning the enclosure around her into a Halloween cavern of pulsing green light. Lois pulled in a breath, and then she drew back her arm and hurled the kryptonite out into the chasm with all the strength she could muster.

The weak sunlight struck sparks of emerald from it as it tumbled over and over in the air. It seemed to hang there for a moment, defying gravity as its eerie light glanced off her eyes, blinding her. Then it began to fall. She followed it down until she lost it in the depths.

Her heart soared with satisfaction as she turned away. She was aware that it might not be over. That it was possible Lex had more than this secreted away to use against Superman if he ever found his way here. But, deadly as it was, the green rock was in short supply. She had to believe that this was all he had.

Now, with the threat to Superman hopefully eliminated, she could make her move.

Hopefully.

A chill gust of wind swirled around her; she had broken out into a cold sweat. She shivered. At her sides, her hands clenched and unclenched into nervous fists. Then she turned abruptly on her heel and marched back the way she'd come. She'd done all that she could. It would have to be enough.

Carlson shifted as she entered the stairwell, standing up from his slouch against the wall.

"I want to go back to my room now."

Carlson grunted as he followed her down. "'bout time."

***

Eve slowed as she got to the bottom of the white stone staircase that led down to the hotel gardens and pool. Ahead of her was a wide colonnade, beyond which the dark sentinels of the palms fluttered in the cool night breeze.

She'd never been down here after dark before. It wasn't like the fun, sunlit place it was during the day. It was somehow…creepy. Just like that movie she'd watched the other evening. Hands of the Axe Murderer. She shivered a little and glanced warily across her shoulder as she descended, feeling the rapid thump of her heart against her ribs.

She paused on the last but one step, ducking to peer under the overhang and out into the slow-moving shadows. She straightened and looked upwards again. Up there lay the safety of the suite. What was she doing down here anyway? Clark had only been gone for an hour. It wasn't that long.

<Longer than it takes to pick up some glasses.>

Yeah.

And she wanted to get to the club. She'd got all dressed up and she wanted to go. And why was it taking so long? And where *was* he anyway?

<Maybe he ran out on you. You know, like, maybe he was *tired* and maybe he didn't *want* to go to a *club*, but you're just so — >

"— pushy at times!" she ended her castigation aloud and then startled at the sound as her voice broke into a silence that had grown heavy and ripe with foreboding around her. Like disturbing the peace of centuries in a sealed tomb newly opened. She glanced anxiously out into the darkness, but the night stayed empty and quiet, undisturbed.

No. Clark wouldn't have just gone off without telling her. If he was too tired to take her out he'd have said so. <You're just paranoid, that's what,> she told herself scathingly. <Clark's not *always* running off just to avoid you.>

<Just sometimes.>

She sighed. That wasn't true. She knew it wasn't true. Maybe at first he had. But not now. Not now they were friends.

<He wouldn't just…run off. He wouldn't.>

<Are you kidding? He does it all the time,> a new voice in her head snorted.

She sighed again. She stood where she was for a moment, nervously pulling at the diamond ring on her finger, a habit she'd somehow gotten into when she was stressed. Why he'd vanished wasn't important right now. What mattered was that, whatever the reason, he *had* been gone an awfully long time. Longer than he needed to be. So, eventually, she'd gotten impatient and come down looking for him.

And maybe that had been like just the worst idea. She didn't like the look of it out there.

"It's just trees," she told herself firmly. "Only a baby gets spooked by *trees*," she added under her breath, putting a fine amount of disgust into that last. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and then moved down the last stair until she was standing on the white block paving.

The soft lap of water out in the darkness coursed another small shiver down her spine.

"You're being dumb."

She didn't like to be dumb. Not any more. Only little kids were afraid of the dark. And she wasn't a little kid. She was grown up now. Grown ups weren't afraid.

Lois Lane wouldn't be afraid.

She had come to admire Lois Lane over the past days she'd spent with Clark. A whole lot. She had learned a lot more about her than Lex had ever taught her. Things that he hadn't considered important but that mattered. Lois was brave. And smart. She saw all of that just looking into Clark's eyes when he spoke about her. She saw too just how much Lois Lane inspired love. That was in his eyes too. And although she knew that in his eyes she was barely an adequate copy, she had come to understand that to be loved she needed to pattern herself after her template as closely as she could. Not loved by Clark, she chided herself mentally. That wasn't possible. She understood that now. She'd known that for a long time. But to be loved at all. To be loved by…anyone…someone…she had to be more than Lex Luthor and Dr. Mamba had made her to be.

If she wanted Alex to…to like her…she had to be good and smart and brave. Just like Lois. She'd been trying real hard. She couldn't stop now.

Lois wouldn't stand here shivering, thinking about running headlong back up those stairs to her room and locking all the doors tight.

<You're not Lois Lane.>

She flushed, feeling her cheeks heat at the contempt with which that inner part of her had made the judgement.

No, she wasn't. Of course she wasn't.

But…well, *she* could be brave too.

Couldn't she?

She took another step out into the darkness.

And froze as a soft sound came from behind her.

She whipped around, heart beating up a storm. But there was no one there.

Behind her, the staircase continued downwards in one, last short flight — no more than four or five steps — and at the bottom of that flight was a gray, metal door. A door that was just a little ajar. From beyond it, the soft noise came again.

Clark…

Eve frowned. That was silly. Why would Clark be down there, she questioned the sudden certainty that had leapt into her head with the low, secretive scuffling beyond that door. She had seen the hotel staff taking garden stuff out of there during the day. It was just a storage place. Clark had no reason to be in there now. No one had at this time of night.

<But there is someone in there.>

<Someone who's trying to hide.>

That sound had been…furtive. Yes, that was the word she was looking for. Furtive.

Clark had come down to the pool. And now he was gone. And in there…in that dark place…someone was hiding.

She took a small step forward, opened her mouth to call out, and then the sound caught in her throat as the memory of a dark figure leaping out at her from shadows suddenly flashed into her head. She flinched, shying back into the shadows as though the attack had been real.

What if he was hurt? What if…what if Lex had sent more men after them? She hadn't believed Clark's reassurances about locals and muggers — and she was pretty sure he didn't believe them either. Lex had sent those men to hurt them. Maybe kill them. She knew it. And he had failed. What if he had tried again? What if the men he'd sent this time had caught up with Clark here at the pool? Dragged him into the storeroom to…

What if he was down there and they were — ?

She whined softly in her throat, an imagination honed on horror movies and soap operas showing her clearly how much trouble Clark was in. Her gaze flickered toward the staircase. The way to safety and escape. She could go for help. She could go find help. She could run and -

<…save yourself. Leave Clark to be hurt…>

<Just like you did last time. >

No…

<Yeah, go…run out on him…>

<Coward!>

She flinched, tears springing to her eyes, shame burning darkly in her as those inner voices flayed her with their contempt, as she recalled how she had cowered in a heap at the feet of her attacker. She hadn't even *tried* to help Clark. She had just crouched there, shivering. Like some…some whipped puppy. She hadn't even tried to hit back or kick or…

She had been so *scared*.

<You think Clark wasn't scared? That he couldn't have been hurt? Maybe even…even…*killed*? But he didn't just give up, did he? He didn't stand there whimpering and waiting for the hurt.>

She *was* a coward. She should just slink off into the darkness like the coward she was. Clark wouldn't blame her. He wouldn't expect anything more from her. He knew she was a coward too. She had seen it in his face, back in the alley. She was sure she had.

<Go on. Run.>

Her face twisted, sudden anger rising in her at the continued castigation of her conscience. No. No, she couldn't do that.

Lois Lane was brave.

Lois Lane wouldn't hesitate to rescue Clark if she could.

Lois Lane wouldn't have let that man hurt her.

Lois Lane would have fought back.

It was time to fight back.

Clark might not expect anything more than cowardice from her, but she did. Slowly, she had come to expect much more than that from herself. And she wasn't going to change her mind about it now.

She glanced nervously around her. In the corner, against the wall, someone had taken the umbrellas from the poolside tables and left them piled neatly, ready for use the next morning. Eve darted over and bent to pick the topmost one up. Holding it by the folded umbrella end, she tested the metal pole with a few swashbuckling swishes in the air. Then, looking doubtful, she tightened her grip on it and held it hard against her side as she returned to the head of the stairs.

Heart beating like a rabbit's, she moved fearfully down the stone steps toward the metal door.

***

It was lucky that, by the time Superman made it to Chinatown, the local fire-fighters had the blaze nicely under control. The few people who had been in the warehouse at the time had already been evacuated, so, after a few quick words with the Fire Chief, a very distracted looking superhero was able to leave the scene, knowing that all was well.

Clark thought that he'd never been so grateful to leave a rescue behind him. His mind turned restlessly and relentlessly over what Eve had said back in their suite and still it came to no conclusions.

Alex.

Alex who?

<Alex says…he says…>

A guy. She'd been meeting some guy while he was gone. Become close enough to someone else that she was on first name terms. Was taking advice from him. Listening to him. There had been a note when she'd said his name that you only used about someone important to you, someone you believed in. Counted on.

What the hell had she been doing all these nights he'd been gone searching for Lois?

<Maybe you should have asked before now.>

He sighed. Maybe he should. But honestly, how was he to know that the minute his back was turned she'd -

She'd what?

What *had* she done?

His heart sank. She was supposed to stay in their suite when he wasn't around. Anyone watching them, the staff, were supposed to believe that they were holed up in honeymoon bliss and too immersed in themselves that they didn't feel the need to emerge. What on earth had people been thinking, seeing her with some strange guy doing…what?

What? What? What?

Always he came back to what.

Eve and he needed to have a serious chat, he was thinking glumly as he ducked into the basement storeroom of the hotel, which he had taken to using to change in and out of the Suit in. It was mostly deserted and a quick scan before entering usually made sure he was safe there.

If he hadn't been so concerned, so deep in anxious wondering about the mysterious Alex, he might have realized as he ducked behind some packing crates and spun into his civilian clothing that this time he'd forgotten to scan.

Sunk in his thoughts, he barely acknowledged his surroundings as he emerged from behind the crates of garden and pool equipment, and then his head jerked up, startled, as a high gasp from the shadows alerted him to the fact that he wasn't alone.

Eve stood just a few feet away, her mouth a wide circle as she stood with the light of the basement window framing her slender figure. She dropped something in her hand — beach umbrella? he thought in confusion — and it hit the floor with a metal clatter. Clark ignored it, his eyes fixed, stricken, on her face. He held back a groan.

<Oh no…>

He hurried toward her as she finally worked her way up to forcing sounds through her throat. Sounds and then words.

"You…you…"

Her hand rose, finger pointing at him accusingly with the stammer. Clark ignored both, bundling her up and pulling her with him, deeper into the shadows.

"You…you…you…"

"Yeah, me," he agreed. "Okay, sit. Eve? You listening? Sit!"

She obeyed like an automation, face blank, as he pushed her to sit on one of the crates with the words. He took hold of her hand in his as he crouched beside her and watched her steadily.

"Okay, good. Now breathe for me. Deep breaths. That's it. Good girl. And another… Okay. Feeling better?"

Eve nodded dumbly, her eyes fixed on him as though he was a stranger. Clark shook his head. "What on earth are you doing down here anyway?"

He hadn't meant that to sound accusing, but it had a slight note of vexation in it all the same. He'd chosen this storage room extremely carefully. No one should have been down here this early in the morning. By all reasonable expectations he should have been safe enough, for heaven's sake.

Eve's expression turned defensive. "I…I…you said you were going down to the pool. And then…then you…you were gone so long and…I wanted to go, you know to the club, and so I came to see where you were and…and…" Her voice was strained.

"Eve, it's okay…just…just relax…"

"I thought you were hurt…I thought they might be hurting you —"

"Hurting me? Who? Eve, what are you talking about?" he said, confused.

But she was shaking her head. In the diffused light he could see how pale she was, how dilated her pupils were. It worried him.

"I heard a noise…I heard a noise down here and I thought maybe — when you didn't come back — I thought maybe…Lex…maybe…you were in trouble and —"

Clark stared at her. He glanced at the open door and then returned his gaze to her. "You thought I was in some kind of trouble down here and you just came rushing on in?" His tone castigated her for the recklessness of that. There was a hint of surprise in it too.

She gave him a weak smile. "Eve to the rescue." She gestured in the air in desultory aping of someone waving a flag. "Yay."

"Eve…" He shook his head, exasperated.

"Lois would have," she whispered. She looked away.

Clark put up a hand, placing it beneath her chin and turning her head until their eyes locked. "It was very brave," he said. She pulled away from him. Clark sighed.

"It was just a stupid cat," she said. "It's not like it was a…an axe murderer or nothing." Her eyes returned to search his face and now there was almost wonder in them. "I was just going to leave and go look down around the pool and then…whoosh…and…and…" she gulped, running out of breath all at once, and made a spinning motion helplessly with her hand instead. Clark sighed.

"Oh," he said.

"Course you don't need rescuing," she said darkly, as though the fact had only just pierced her brain through her babble of shock. "You're…him."

Clark had the insane urge to dissemble with 'Him who?' But her face decided him against it. He nodded. "Yes, I'm him."

"Right," she said. Her tone was so bland now that he had trouble deciphering just what mood lay behind the word. She got to her feet and moved slowly away. Clark watched her worriedly as he moved absently to take her place on the vacated crate.

"Eve?" he said cautiously after a moment, as she wandered around the small area, arms folded tight under her breasts, lip tugged thoughtfully between her teeth and saying nothing more. "You know you can't tell anyone. Don't you?"

She turned around, wearing a frown now. "Course I know that!" She glared at him. Anger at the perceived slight seemed to have short- circuited her shock all at once, distracting her attention. "What, you think I'm stoopid?"

"No, I don't think you're stoo — uh, stupid. I just —"

She put her hands on her hips. "You think Lex didn't give me any smarts up here when he made me?" She tapped at one temple with an indignant finger.

"No," Clark protested, abashed. "Eve —"

"Well, I understand. I understand more than you think!"

Clark frowned, bemused by her sudden ferocity. "Eve, I didn't mean — " He tried to make amends again.

"Running around all over the place, keeping secrets — I've seen Superman on TV! That's where you've been, isn't it? You've been out there flying around!" Her face crumpled abruptly, her voice losing its sting as she said plaintively, "Does this mean we can't go to the nightclub?"

Clark sighed. "Yes, we can go to the nightclub. But…I just need to know you understand no one can know about this. This is important, Eve. People could get hurt if my secret got out. You could get hurt. If Luthor knew…"

She looked at him, turning pale.

"Besides," he said, just a little tartly and stung by her earlier accusatory tone, "I'm not the only one who's been keeping secrets, am I? We're kind of even there."

Eve frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Who's Alex?"

"What?"

"You said *Alex* told you about a nightclub in town. Who's Alex?" he repeated and this time he was less piqued than anxious.

Eve looked away and Clark's concern increased as he saw how uncomfortable she was with the question.

"Eve…?" he prodded.

"Nobody," she said defensively. "Just…some guy I met."

"Some…some guy?" Protest jerked him to his feet. "Eve!"

"What?!"

"You know what!" He advanced on her, tone sharp with urgent concern. "Luthor's men are out there watching every move we make! You know that. And the minute my back is turned you're out meeting other men? You're supposed to be my wife! This is supposed to be our honeymoon!"

"Yeah? So why are you flying off all over the place leaving me alone every night!" Eve countered. "On 'our honeymoon'!" She put a viciousness into that quote that made him blink.

"What?" he said, confused by that tone.

She folded her arms and glared at him.

Clark's eyes grew round. "Wait — you don't expect me to actually…"

She raised a brow at him in challenge.

"Eve, I thought we'd covered this already. This is just pretending here, you know that — " he started, flustered.

"Oh lighten up." Eve snorted. "I wouldn't want to anyway. I've decided you're not my type. And what that stupid soul says doesn't count." She made a bleah face.

"Oh." Clark shook his head, feeling as though his thoughts had just been violently derailed. "Okay, good," he ventured firmly, getting back on track. "Then what *do* you expect me to do?"

She sighed suddenly. "Nothing. I just…I don't like being here on my own. It scares me."

She looked so woebegone all at once that he reached out with a sigh and enfolded her against him. "Okay, so you went out when I was gone. Alex?"

"Just some guy," she reiterated. "He's real nice."

"I bet he is," Clark muttered.

Eve pulled back from his embrace, giving him a sharp, defending lioness look that silenced him. And sent a ripple of surprise through him too. Was that how things were? He looked at her curiously as she went on, "He runs things."

"What things?"

"For people. He can take you flying. Or out on the water. All sorts of things."

"Oh. One of the beach vendors." Clark looked worriedly at her. "What have you told him? How do you know he's not working for Luthor?"

"He isn't."

"But how do you know?"

"He's nice." Eve looked at him soberly. "He talks to me like I'm a real person."

Clark blinked. That was all it took to gain this woman's trust? Just treat her as anything more than an object?

Eve looked away. When she looked back up at him, her eyes were bright.

"Did I do bad?" she asked quietly.

"No. No, this is my fault." Clark sighed. "I should never have left you on your own for all that time. I do want to meet *Alex* though," he added grimly as he took her abruptly by the elbow and ushered her toward the open door.

"Now?" she squeaked, looking up at him with a startled expression.

"Yeah, now." He stopped, turning to lay earnest hands on her shoulders. "Eve," he hesitated, not wanting to frighten her or tread too heavily on whatever romantic notions she might be harboring. But this was too important to let go. "What if Alex *is* one of Luthor's men?"

"He's not!" She shrugged herself out from under his hands, her expression darkening.

"Yeah, okay…maybe he's not," Clark conceded hastily. "But just…hear me out, okay? What if he is? Eve, he might know where Luthor is. He might be able to tell me where he's holding Lois. I have to talk to him. You can see that, can't you?"

She frowned at him, then shrugged reluctant assent. "I guess. But he doesn't know anything. And don't you hurt him! You won't, will you?" she added anxiously.

"Just talk that's all," he added reassurance. "So, where would he be? Right now?"

She shook her head. "Don't know where he lives. At the Mai Tai, maybe," she suggested doubtfully. "That's where we've always met."

"Okay, we'll start there."

"And then we go to the club. Right?" she asked, getting over her disgust at his suspicions of her friend and becoming reanimated with her usual mercurial switch of mood that always left him floundering in her wake.

He sighed. "Yeah, then we can go to the club," he agreed. Geez, even Lois wasn't *this* single-minded.

"Okay." She fairly bounced up the steps ahead of him in her eagerness. Clark shook his head as he followed and almost ran his nose into the space between her shoulder-blades as she stopped dead in front of him without warning. She twisted around to face him. "You think Alex would come to the club with us?" she asked.

He awarded her a vexed look. "Eve…"

"Okay…okay…going. Sheeesh." She rolled her eyes and continued upwards. "Bet people never think Superman gets grouchy," she added under her breath. "Bet the Dirt Digger would pay heaps for that kind of inside info."

"Eve!"

She flashed him an impish look. "Kidding. Just kidding. Geez…" She punched him lightly against the arm with a grin. "Lighten up."

Clark sighed.

***

Lois put out the call on the intercom at twelve thirty three.

She had thought long and hard about who she would direct her request to and had finally decided on Major Benton. Not only because his higher status within the military social structure might come in handy if her plans began to fall apart and not only because he would have access to areas the lower ranks wouldn't. But because she sensed that deep within the man lay a particular brand of chivalry and integrity that he believed made him good. It wasn't especially a moral code she accepted, but she understood that within its boundaries, as Benton saw them, he would hold to it.

Above all, he was a consummate professional. He would adhere to the orders he'd been given by Lex and that meant using no force against her unless it was strictly necessary. Petty revenge and anger would be no part of his response in any situation. Nor would his own pique or wounded pride lead him to disobey those orders. He was a man who kept his personal emotions and his professional demeanor very much in separate compartments while he was on duty.

And those too — these facets of his character which she had studied, looking for some chink to exploit, and which had steadfastly worked against her — would aid her now.

So, it was Benton she asked to attend her in her new rooms.

"Miss Lane?"

She stood, breath shallow in the moist air of the bathroom as she heard him enter the room beyond, her fist clenching and unclenching against her hip, feeling the grip of the spray bottle in her other hand slip as her palms grew damp. Why hadn't she thought to use a cloth to wrap around the grip?

<Stupid. Damn stupid,> she thought, and then tensed as she heard Benton's steps move in her direction.

"Miss Lane?" He sounded deferential and she guessed he was hesitating in the middle of the room, not wanting to venture into the bathroom unless it was strictly necessary, even though the door was ajar. "Miss Lane? You in there? I — dammit! What the — ?"

From the surprised tone and the sudden squelch in his steps, Lois surmised he'd abruptly walked from dry to sodden carpet all at once. She imagined that, by this time, the spreading pool of water in which she too was standing had seeped well into the bedroom.

"Benton? Benton, is that you?"

"Yeah." She heard relief brighten in his voice. "What's going on?"

"I'm so glad you're here! The sink's blocked and I can't get enough of a grip on the tap to stop the water running. It's flooding the room! Can you — ?"

She heard him mutter something. "Well, how the hell did that happen? Did — ?"

He stepped through the doorway, and froze as she twisted out of her hiding place and shoved the barrel of the plant sprayer into the side of his neck, pressing a deep indentation into the skin. His eyes swiveled to view her.

"Might be because I shoved the towel into the basin and blocked it," she answered him mildly and then, quickly, knowing she had to let him know just how much of a dangerous situation he'd just stepped into, before he got any crazy ideas to dismiss her as a threat and try to overpower her, "You know what a BK flamer is. Right?"

Benton, who hadn't moved from the moment he felt the muzzle of the spray bottle prod its way into the side of his neck, somehow managed to grow even more still as her soft voice whispered against his ear.

"I — " The rest of his sentence was lost as he swallowed hard. He had broken out in a sweat, she noted with satisfaction.

"You may not know this, but I shadowed the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines for three days and nights out in the Gulf. I won an award for the story I filed. I'm sure you know how it goes down before you head out on a mission. Way too much time on your hands. We played cards a lot. And, boy, do those guys like to talk. And brag. They told me quite a lot of trade secrets over poker. Including how easy it is to make yourself a working flame-thrower with just a few handy household objects."

She pressed the muzzle harder against his skin and watched him flinch.

"Now, this BK probably isn't top of the line. I had to improvise quite a bit and I was never good at following a recipe. So, you know, maybe if I pull this trigger all you'll get is a bad sunburn. Or, maybe, you'll just be drenched in Moroccan Fantasy and smell real good to the guys for a while. On the other hand…maybe you won't. And to tell you the truth, I'm a bit twitchy right now. So maybe you don't want to go doing anything that might make my trigger finger start to itch. Maybe you don't want to find out whether I listened hard enough or not."

Benton's shoulders clenched as he listened. But his voice showed nothing of whatever fear he might be feeling as he said coldly, "Maybe you should just quit this right now, Miss Lane. Put the BK down and this won't go any further. I give you my word on it. We both know you won't kill me. You don't have the guts."

"It doesn't take guts," Lois told him, throat working convulsively around the softly uttered words. "All it takes is desperation. You think I'm not desperate, Major?" Her hand jerked with the sudden intensity injected into those last words and Benton flinched slightly, gagging a little as the muzzle of the sprayer sank into his jugular before she eased up the pressure.

"I don't want to kill anyone. But I do want to get out of here. I *need* to get out of here. Very badly. Don't underestimate how badly. Please…" she said again, and his gaze flickered sideways. He obviously didn't trust himself, or that trigger finger of hers, to turn his head to view her.

Whatever he saw — in the stark pallor of her face, in the tight determination of her expression, in what was harbored in her eyes — seemed to persuade him.

"My finger's getting tired," she reminded him. "So…do we have an understanding, Major?"

"Yes." The admission was ground out of him, but it was sincere.

Lois nodded. "Okay, then. Here." She fished the short length of twisted wire that had once formed the core of a lamp flex out of her pocket and handed it to him. At the surprised flicker of his eyes in her direction she said, "I want you to use that to hot-wire that gun of yours. Disable the locking code."

"I don't know if —"

"Oh, please. Don't yank my chain, Benton. Any half-savvy car-thief can hot-wire an ignition. And I haven't seen the technology yet that was secure against criminals. Tell you what, why don't you just give it a try? And I'll just wait here and practice finger-press-ups."

He moved to unsnap the holster at his side. "Slow and easy," Lois advised. "Remember, you don't want to spook me here unless you're looking to be prime rib at the barbecue."

She had no idea if she was right in her theory. But Jimmy had taught her all there was to know about hot-wiring cars, including how to break into one that had computer technology in its design, and she couldn't believe one computer chip was all that different from another. Besides, she was pretty sure that Benton was going to give it his damnedest to prove her right.

In the end it took him just over a minute. She was proud.

When he handed the gun over, Lois stepped back a couple of paces, keeping the flame-thrower pressed tightly in place and her gaze firmly on his as she did so. She stretched out her arm, aiming the pistol at the floor. This was the weak link in her plans. If he had tricked her, hot-wired it wrongly or disabled the silencer, her attempt at escape was going to come to an abrupt end right now.

She pulled the trigger.

There was a satisfying pop as the bullet tore into the floor. Lois gazed at Benton in silence for a moment. Then she stepped back in close, quickly snapping open the gun and checking that the magazine was full before pushing the clip back in place.

"Good boy," she said, prodding her captive as she shifted. She laid the flame-thrower down on the shelf behind her without taking her eyes from him and then replaced it with the more reliable pistol, jamming it into the gap between his third and fourth rib.

"Now, take a deep breath. We're going for a little walk. And I'd rather not attract company. Remember, if we do…well Southern Fried Crispy may be off the menu now, but this — " She prodded harder. " — can make me a freezer-full of dead meat just as easy."

For all his stoic silence, she thought Benton looked a little green around the gills as she hustled him through the bedroom and toward the door.

***

Clark steered Eve through the gyrating crowd, skirted the edge of the dance floor, and found a space in the crush at the bar, his protective arm around her waist shielding her from the bulk of the pressing bodies filling the space around them.

"Do you see him?" He raised his voice above the pounding beat of the music. This early in the morning, the Mai Tai got pretty lively.

She shook her head.

The bartender had appeared in front of them. He grinned at Eve. "Hey, Lois." His gaze flickered sideways to take in Clark and seemed to cool, becoming distant for a moment. "You found your stray then."

Clark's eyebrows rose. But he subsided as Eve giggled beside him and for a moment took the time to be amazed at how he had bristled at the implied criticism in both tone and eyes of the Hawaiian. He forced himself to relax, recognizing that the evening had left him strung out and on the edge of his nerves.

"Hi, Akamu. Seen Alex around?"

"No, he's been gone since yesterday. Word's out he went over to Maui. Had some family business to do there. You want your usual?" he added, ducking under the counter to bring out a glass. Eve nodded and he glanced at Clark, who shook his head.

"Nothing for me. Know when he'll be back?" Clark asked quickly. "Alex?"

Akamu turned his head to bestow a studious look on him. His gaze flickered briefly to Eve and Clark understood that the bartender wasn't too sure why the husband of the pretty lady his friend had been spending evenings with wanted to know. Clark looked to Eve. She smiled. "Clark and I wanted to see if Alex would join us for dinner tomorrow evening. Clark's interested in meeting my friend."

Akamu's eyes shuttered. <Yeah, I'll bet,> his expression said. But he took another look at Eve and seemed to soften. He shrugged. "Sorry, kaikamahine, no idea when he'll be back."

Clark wasn't unaware of how Eve's face fell with this news. Studying her woebegone expression he frowned. He was beginning to form some ideas as to just what kind of relationship Eve had with this…Alex. And it wasn't making him feel comfortable. He knew that, technically, it wasn't any of his business. But…well he felt responsible for Eve. Her…guardian…in many ways. He didn't want to see her hurt. Or taken for a ride by some beach bum who had a new tourist on his arm each week. She was vulnerable to that kind of thing. Naive. He resolved to get to the bottom of exactly what had gone on between them later.

"Well, anyway, Mr. Kent." The man extended a cautious hand. "Interesting to meet you at last. Lois has told us a lot about you."

Clark took the offered hand absently, giving Eve a quick, apprehensive look. Interacting with other people hadn't been in his game plan. She was too volatile, too prone to chameleon-quick changes in mood and character for it to be safe. And although she'd proved that she could immerse herself in Lois' personality when called to it, he was sure she couldn't keep it up for any length of time. What had she told this stranger?

"I hope you don't mind that we've been monopolizing the company of your brand new wife here. Lois tells me you two are here on your honeymoon?"

Clark nodded. Silent agreement seemed to be the wisest counsel, lest he risk contradicting something Eve had said.

"So, have you been enjoying your stay with us?"

Clark forced a smile and slipped an arm around Eve's waist. He almost jumped when she pressed herself against his side in response. "So far it's been…idyllic. Hasn't it, darling?" He looked down at her with what he hoped could be taken for an affectionate smile. She smiled up at him and then nodded as she returned her gaze to the bartender.

"Although," he qualified, "my…business…has meant I've had to spend a bit of time working, I'm afraid." He figured that was safe enough. Even if Eve had given them a different reason for his absence, the bartender would probably assume he was trying to save face if he'd got it wrong.

Akamu's burnished face adequately conveyed his opinion of that. If *he* were on honeymoon on an island paradise with a beautiful new wife he wouldn't stray from her side for a second, that expression said clearly. Clark couldn't exactly disagree with that. Sadly, he considered that if he really had been here with Lois, like they'd planned, nothing would have taken him away from her either.

"Well, I'm glad that Lois found some company while I was gone," he said lamely. "So…Alex —"

A shrill screech and a dull thud brought his head up sharply. Oh no. Car wreck. He could hear someone screaming in pain. And the scent of gasoline was sharp in his nostrils all at once.

"Uh…" He glanced frantically at Eve, aware that they were both staring at him. "Um, I have to…go…" He gestured vaguely with his hands. "Men's room!" he blurted and then darted off into the crowd.

Behind him, he heard Eve confide, falteringly, "He had lobster for dinner. I don't think it set too well."

He rolled his eyes and barreled out of the bar and into the street, in search of the nearest deserted alley.

It seemed his luck was holding. The wreck was a minor fender-bender and passersby had dealt with rescuing the woman passenger of the Pontiac Grand Am which had come off worst in the crash by the time he got there. Her injuries were superficial and Clark could already hear the sirens of the fire service and ambulance a couple of blocks distant when he made the scene.

He scanned the vehicles surreptitiously from his place on the sidewalk, among the gawking crowd that had gathered, and judged there was no danger from leaking fuel. He hadn't even needed to get Superman involved. His rapid assessment of the situation from the air as the superhero had overflown the scene had enabled him to make a quick judgement and land in a nearby alley. He had changed back into himself before he pushed his way through the onlookers, simply becoming another rubbernecker in the crowd.

When he returned to the Mai Tai, Eve and Akamu were deep in conversation, huddled close and conspiratorial and laughing like old friends. He paused on the edge of the dance floor for a moment to observe them, noting with a pang how animated Eve was. Struck once again, as he had been so often these past days, by the ways that she had changed.

She was…all grown up. Yes, he decided. That was it. She was all grown up. A beautiful, vibrant woman in her own right. She was almost…confident…independent… she was…

She was like a young woman blossoming under the wonder of her first taste of love, he thought, all at once, startled by the notion as it ambushed him suddenly out of the welter of memories and mind- images he held of her over the past few days and melded them all together into that one revelation.

First love.

He sighed.

<Is it Alex, Eve? Is it Alex you have your heart set on?>

Brooding over that speculation and hoping he was wrong, he joined the couple at the bar, giving Akamu a bland smile. "Having fun?" he asked as he slipped into place beside Eve.

"I've been trying to persuade Lois to hire out one of the para- gliders." Akamu tossed a conspiratorial grin at Eve. "Alex owns a small rental business down on the beach. He'll give you concessions."

"Oh," Clark said. "Well, we don't really have time to — " he started brusquely.

Akamu held up a hand. "Yeah, that's okay. I know. Don't worry about it."

<Know? Know what?> Clark gave Eve a quick, suspicious glance, but she'd buried her nose in her glass and was apparently deeply intent on her drink.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of," Akamu was continuing. "Lots of people are afraid of heights."

One of Clark's eyebrows shot into his hairline.

"Heights?" he ventured incredulously.

"Yeah. Lois told me all about it. Nothing to be ashamed of, man. But Lois could still go up, right?"

"Um…oh, sure. Right." He bestowed a fixed smile on Eve. "I'm sure she'll have lots of fun." He straightened. "Anyway, we should be heading up to…erm, we should be going."

Akamu's grin widened. "Sure you should. You two lovebirds have some real le'ale'a." He winked at Eve. She blushed. Somewhat prettily and convincingly, Clark thought, as he hustled her with him through the pulsating crowd and into the cool, refreshing air of the street.

He took hold of her by one elbow and steered her along the bustling sidewalk. "Afraid of heights?" he questioned through the stiff smile pasted onto his face.

Eve gave him a quick glance and then looked away.

It took Clark a moment or two to realize that the tremble he felt in the flesh beneath his hand was because she was laughing herself silently into a fit.

He stopped dead and looked at her in astonishment.

"Did you just set me up?" he accused.

She turned around in his grip, sidling so close against him suddenly that he lost his train of thought. She spread her hands against his chest.

"All work and no play makes Eve a real dull girl, sweetie…" she purred up into his startled eyes and then with a giggle she whirled away and sashayed up the steps and into the neon glow of the nightclub, leaving him wide eyed behind her.

Oh, yeah. She had changed all right.

***

"Stop," Lois said, pushing the pistol's muzzle a little harder into place to emphasize the command.

Benton obeyed instantly. He had been astute enough not to venture any protests as she'd walked him through the Citadel's corridors, obviously having already figured they wouldn't get him anywhere or change her mind on anything.

He had probably been pinning his hopes instead on them encountering other guards and being able to overpower her by superior force before she reached her objective.

He'd been disappointed. Lois hadn't spent her days studying the habits and routines of the guards for nothing. If there was one thing you could depend on the military for, it was settling into a quantifiable pattern of behavior and then refusing to deviate from it. Learn the pattern and you were halfway to defeating them, Lois had always figured. And when you had time on your hands and nothing to do all day it was easy enough to figure it out.

Her intelligence-gathering would have put most army commanders to shame. And it had paid off. They hadn't seen a single man as they'd traversed the complicated, convoluted route she had taken to reach her destination.

She had sensed Benton's growing confusion as she'd walked him cautiously through the mapped-out journey in her head. He had no doubt expected her to head straight for the helipad. Lois held back a snort of derision. As though she'd be that dumb. Escape, even with a hostage of Benton's stature in tow, would be too risky there. She would be caught and overpowered long before she made it. And Benton was no pilot. She'd need one. Making it two men she'd have to keep under her control. Two men at least to work in tandem against her.

No. Her plan — not to escape — was better. Risky, certainly. And she had no idea what the consequences would be once she was through. What would come next was the most dangerous yet. Some might even say reckless. Clark, she thought with a wry twist of her lips, would undoubtedly be first in the queue there. She preferred to term it…calculated risk. But, in truth, calculated or not it was the only risk available to her to take. The only way. She might crash and burn, there were few guarantees of success, and even if she was successful, what came after might put her in worse danger yet. Worth it? Worth that risk? She had to believe so. No matter what lay in store for her through the remainder of this day — her last day trapped in this nightmare, she vowed silently to herself — it had to be less dangerous and less painful than the alternatives. Risk and danger were always relative. And when your back was to the wall you took the choices you had, and the risks that came with them. And hoped that fate was with you.

Whether what she was about to do left her worse off or better than the future Lex had mapped out for her…well, she would soon find out, which it was going to be, one way or another. Much would depend on how fast -

Faint, coarse laughter broke into her musings and she chided herself sharply for losing focus. Luckily Benton hadn't noticed her inattention. <Stay sharp, Lane!> she told herself angrily.

"Keep real quiet," she whispered against Benton's ear as she tugged him with her into the alcove beside them. She moved behind him, shifting the gun into the small of his back, and fixed her eyes on the junction of corridors a few feet distant — and the plain metal door directly ahead across the open cross of space those corridors formed.

"What time is it?"

Benton hesitated, then carefully lifted his arm to view his watch. "One-fifty nine. Almost two." His puzzlement bled into his tone and Lois hid a smile. Well, she could put him out of his misery a little, she decided magnanimously.

"At precisely two o'clock each day, the three men inside that office go to the mess hall for lunch," she told him.

Benton stiffened a little and she sensed his sharp surprise at her intimate knowledge of their movements. Then his head jerked upwards a fraction as the door opposite was pulled open. Lois jabbed the pistol closer in warning and he winced but made no sound.

Together, they watched the men laugh and jostle their way down the corridor and out of sight. Lois counted a slow thirty, then prodded Benton on. "Okay, let's go. Quick and quiet. Stop before you get into that room and you won't have much time to regret being stupid."

She turned her head fractionally to look after the men as she and her captive crossed the few feet of dangerous open space. They were almost out of sight, so it was sheerest ill-luck that made one of them stop abruptly, toss a few words to his companions, and turn around to head back toward them — just in time to widen his eyes as he saw the entirely unexpected sight of Luthor's prisoner holding a weapon on his superior officer.

"Hey!"

His companions looked back at his startled yell and then all three were running for her. Lois cursed and shoved Benton hard in the back, staggering him into the room. She followed in a whirl of motion, forgetting Benton for the instant it took to follow him in and slam the door to behind her. She threw the lock and backed up sharply as the door shuddered with the blows suddenly rained on it. Sharp voices raised themselves outside and there was the sound of running feet. Lois ignored them, whipping around and bringing up the gun. It stopped Benton in his tracks so hard that he just about impaled himself on the weapon before he managed to halt. Lois felt sweat trickle coldly down her spine. It had been that close. One more second and he would have been on her.

"Back up," she ordered sharply. "Now!" as he hesitated. Benton relaxed, raising his hands in a placating gesture as he obeyed. Only when he had put distance between them, did Lois take another breath.

The pounding on the door increased in its intensity.

"They'll be through in minutes," Benton told her evenly. He was watching her intently, curiously, as though trying to fathom her. Like she was an interesting conundrum. "You may as well give up now. You can't go anywhere." His expression had grown less tense — it seemed he thought she'd made a tactical error as he informed her, with an air of telling her news she didn't already know, "There's no other way out of this room. You're trapped. And you can't stay in here forever. "

"I'm not stupid, Major. I'm also not intending to go anywhere. Well, not for the moment at least. And a few minutes is all I need." Lois ushered him brusquely to the other end of the room with a gesture of the pistol.

Benton's eyes had grown puzzled — and just a little disappointed that she hadn't collapsed in abject surrender at his warning. Then they narrowed as he finally saw her intent. He sat where she indicated, before the computer monitor. He folded his arms. "I won't do it. You know that."

"Please," Lois whispered huskily. "Don't make me."

Benton smiled coldly, his eyes fixed on the blinking cursor on the screen. The nearness of rescue and her pending recapture had apparently made him bold. Lois cocked the gun and pushed its muzzle gently to rest against his temple. "Do it," she said quietly. "They won't break through soon enough to save you if you don't."

"You shoot me, you don't get the password."

"Maybe I'll take that chance. I wouldn't really have anything to lose, would I? But you would. And if you don't, you're not going to be around to find out *what* happens next. I have a friend at the Planet, knows most everything there is to know about computers. He showed me quite a lot. About hacking mostly," she added the lie. "Maybe my chances without you aren't as bad as you think they are."

Perhaps it was that that persuaded him. Or it could have been her calmness, her lack of emotion, the absence of anger or fear in her that made him co-operate most of all. The mark of someone who had nothing to lose and her life to gain by what his next actions were. And what her next actions were too.

He sighed and opened up the mailer program. "Okay. Go ahead."

"Type fast," Lois demanded, pressing the gun just a little harder against his skin. "And only what I tell you. Remember, I don't have much time."

She had to admit that he was cool in the face of threat. He didn't prevaricate, didn't try to delay her. He typed to her dictation, she suspected, faster than he ever had in his life. He believed in the threat she posed to him. The message was short and to the point. In just a few seconds, this lifeline to the world, to her survival, her very sanity and successful rescue, lay spread out before her, black and stark on the white page of the screen:

Lex has me in complex under Swiss Alps. Lead-shielded. May have Kryptonite. Private army — maybe 50 men. Nearest location Kandersteg approx one hour away by helicopter. Tell Superman. Warn Clark — Lex is watching.

Lois

"Wait," she said sharply as Benton made to hit the final key. In deference to the command, his finger hovered, poised.

Lois quickly scanned the message, checking it over, looking for something that he might have tried to get past her that would make her last hope null and void. Everything seemed as it should be. The email addresses were all correct, as she'd given them to him. To Clark Kent. Perry White. Jimmy Olsen. People she could trust to pass it along.

She had briefly considered sending the email to as many Planet staffers as she could recall email addresses, but she was less than certain who she could trust, beyond those three. And if the Planet had been compromised, she figured it was more risk than she needed. She had copied the message to Inspector Henderson. She had, after a moment's thought, discounted copying it also to Jonathan Kent. She was reasonably — desperately — sure that Lex couldn't divert or subvert the arrival of this, that he would have no time, be more occupied with escape before Superman arrived. But she couldn't be sure he wouldn't try. Couldn't be certain he didn't have men in key positions already, who could act swiftly to deny her her chance. And Benton knew where the emails were heading. Sending it to Clark's parents put them at too much risk, should Lex decide to try and eliminate the message at its destinations. And how much easier to attack the Kent farm than a city newspaper or police precinct? A risk she wasn't willing to take. Even to save herself.

<Enough,> she told herself and then, <It has to be enough.>

<Please…please god let it be enough. Let it make it through.>

"Okay," she said.

Benton pressed down firmly on send.

Lois watched the outgoing mail folder highlight, her heart pounding hard against her breast, her breath caught and held in her throat. When the small numeral beside the folder vanished, she heard Benton sigh softly. "Check it," she said.

His second sigh was more exasperated. But he clicked on the sent items folder and Lois allowed herself to feel a small modicum of relief as she found the message there. "Open it."

There it was. Clark Kent. Perry White. Jimmy Olsen. Sent to. No doubt already arrived. Perhaps rescue even now being organized.

She bit down sharply on the urge to believe in that rescue to the point of letting go. Not yet. She wasn't out of the woods yet. There was still Lex. There was still time to fail. Time to hurt. Time to die.

Now…more than ever…she had to hang on. Be strong.

Survive.

She flicked a glance at the door. How many more minutes until they broke through? Not many she judged, as she watched the door shudder in its frame beneath the blows thudded onto it. Someone had found something heavy to use by the heavy pounding to it — an axe perhaps. No, not long at all.

Every minute counted now. Every minute she could stay safe, give Superman time. Logically, she should use every minute she had holed up here that she could. Keep out of their way and avoid recapture for as long as possible before they broke that door down. Phase two of her plan had always been to make her way with Benton to a storage room she had long since marked out during her explorations of the areas of the base that she was permitted to wander in. Small, easily defended, she could use the items stored there to quickly barricade herself in. Benton, she would have tied up. And there she would have stayed for as long as possible until Superman arrived. She knew that they would find her — probably fairly quickly once they reviewed the security camera footage. But she would have been able to hole up and hold out long enough against them in her bunker.

Phase two, she had always recognized however, was less likely to succeed than phase one. It would have required that she make it through several other corridors with Benton in tow and even the most detailed planning and reconnoitering wouldn't have reduced the increasingly likely risk of running into someone before she made it. She had always anticipated that phase two would fail. And that instead she would be forced to depend on her wits and sheer good fortune to survive until rescue came.

Calculated risks.

And cold, hard facing up to facts.

Yes, perhaps the logic of her current predicament suggested she should try and hold out here instead, for as long as she could. But…the thought of being overpowered — of the door crashing open and being borne down by more than one man — she didn't like that thought. It had more possibility for risk to her than surrender did. That risk wasn't worth two or three minutes more of safety. In the heat and confusion who knew what might happen? Better to give up in a moment of stillness, of calm; a moment under her control, not theirs. In calm lay her greatest chance of surviving the next hour.

Decision made, all risks calculated, she stepped back, clicked on the safety, and handed the gun to Benton as he watched her carefully.

She drew in a hard breath.

"*Now*," she said softly. "You can open the door."

***

"Hey," Clark said, reaching out to take Eve by the arm and pull her to a quiet halt as they stepped out of the elevator. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spoil your evening."

He was aware that he hadn't exactly been the most stimulating companion over the last hour or so and that Eve's first venture into the world of clubbing had been slightly less enthralling than she'd imagined it would be, as a result.

But he just hadn't been able to get his mind off Alex Hopewell. He had no real reason to suspect the man, other than that he didn't exactly believe in the co-incidence of a chance meeting in a hotel bar. But then again…Eve was beautiful and she'd been alone there, night after night, while he was occupied elsewhere. Was it really so difficult to believe that some bar fly would find her vulnerable and easy pickings? Or even that some nice guy she could learn to trust and believe in — love? — might be attracted to a lonely young woman neglected by her new husband? He guessed it wasn't *so* farfetched.

But still, the thought that there might be something else involved, something nefarious, had had him itching to investigate Hopewell's background.

He'd spent the last hour watching Eve, as she'd tried gamely to ignore his black mood and experience club-life to the full, and brooding over what he knew. And what he didn't. He had the scent of a lead in his nostrils, that familiar itch between his shoulder-blades that his reporter's instincts told him meant he was on to something. It might fizzle out into nothing, but maybe…just maybe he was on the track of the clue that would lead him to Lois. He'd found himself wishing he were back in the suite, where he could fire up his laptop, make a few calls, send out some mail, and hopefully have some information on the man before morning.

Eve had been the one to ask to go back to their hotel — just as he'd come around to deciding on heading back to do that investigating and before he could approach her about it — and she'd been subdued all the way back to their suite. He *was* sorry he'd spoiled her fun. He'd been aware that his darkly watchful presence had dissuaded more than one hopeful from asking her to dance or getting too close and that she had begun to spend more time giving him anxious side glances than enjoying the party atmosphere in the club. Of course, it wasn't exactly in the new husband handbook to sit in a nightclub on your honeymoon and let your wife dance with other men. But he was beyond caring about that now. They were leaving in the morning anyway and in another twenty-four hours the subterfuge would be long over. What did Luthor's spies matter now?

She looked up at him and then smiled softly. "That's okay." She shifted in his grip to slip her hand through his arm. "It wasn't so great anyway. Besides, I'm kinda tired."

He covered the hand on his arm for a moment, giving it a soft squeeze in thanks for her understanding. More and more she surprised him lately. He flushed a little as they came up to their door and he eased himself clear of her in order to unlock it, ashamed that she should. Why should there be surprise that she could be capable of empathy and compassion? She was patterned on Lois, after all. And, as her own woman, she had seemed to flourish and grow, day by day as he'd watched, by building on the strong foundation that Lois had given her.

The thought reminded him of his earlier speculations — and suspicions. He studied her profile thoughtfully as he pushed open the door and stepped back to let her go through ahead of him. "You really like him. Don't you?"

She glanced over her shoulder at him with a surprised look. "Who? That guy I was dancing with?" She looked amazed and shook her head vigorously. "No way! The guy had breath like onions!"

Clark couldn't help chuckling at her response. "No, Alex," he said, sobering. "Alex is more than a friend. Isn't he?" he said astutely.

She'd been moving ahead of him, into the room. Now she turned on him, eyes wide. "More than a — ? Are you suggesting…?" She drew herself up abruptly. "I…did…*not*!" she breathed out on a scandalized breath. Two spots of high color had appeared on her cheeks, to match the outraged indignation in her voice. "Alex isn't like that!" she added an insistent denial. "We never did — *that*!"

"Oh," he said. "Um, I mean, no. No, that's not what I was thinking." Actually, he really hadn't been. Given what he knew of Eve's history and the aversion to men and sex that Luthor had brutally taught her, it had never for one second entered his head that she and Alex might have, well, that they could have…she would have — he could feel his own color heighten now. "No, I never thought that," he reiterated quickly. "I just wondered…well, you seem to…well, care for him a lot, that's all," he explained tentatively as she raised a skeptical brow at him.

He watched the pink tinge to her cheeks deepen as she shrugged, becoming a little mollified. "I like Alex. He treats me nice," was all the concession to his theory he got out of her though as she moved further into the room, apparently intent on dismissing the subject entirely.

Ah. Was that the way of it? She liked him…but she wasn't so certain of his feelings for her? And was right to wonder, by the looks of it, he thought regretfully. Alex Hopewell had, after all, bailed out on her, left the island, without apparently feeling any necessity to tell her he was going. Or, probably more importantly to Eve, when he would be coming back. If at all. Clearly he didn't view her as the confidante she obviously thought him. His heart ached for her.

"Eve…" He hesitated as she turned to view him questioningly and he sighed. "I don't want to spoil anything for you, Eve, but…be careful. Okay? I don't want to see you get hurt."

"Alex won't hurt me."

"How do you know?"

"He just wouldn't."

"But how do you know?" he persisted. Lord knew she'd made him more than aware that this was a taboo subject, but he couldn't help but worry about her and he wouldn't be much of a friend if he let it lie. "Look…you said he introduced himself to you, right? And he'd been hanging around the bar for a few nights before that. What if he was there to watch you? What if Luthor told him to get closer to you? He might —"

"That's not true." Eve's lips tightened and her eyes flashed dangerously as she turned and stalked for the bedroom. "Alex is my friend!" she insisted.

Clark looked at her soberly. "A friend who's vanished into thin air as easily as he found you," he told her reluctantly, forcing himself to be hard on her. "A friend who didn't tell you he was leaving or where he was going or if he'd even be coming back and —"

"You heard Akamu! He's on business! He will be back! He will!" But her lip trembled and her voice choked over the words. He saw tears well up in her eyes and felt like the biggest heel in the world for beating her down this way. But he wanted her to be safe. He needed her to be safe. He needed her to understand that there were more men like Lex in the world. Men who would — who could — hurt her badly. He couldn't always be there to protect her. She needed to know, he told himself again, but he still felt like a heel.

"Maybe he will," he said quietly.

She glared at him and then swiped a quick, angry hand across her cheek. The gesture was so reminiscent of Lois all at once that it knifed its way into his heart before he could guard against it.

"Oh, Eve…" he said. "I —"

"You don't know Alex!" she said furiously, riding roughshod over him. "You don't know anything about him! Or me! You don't know — " She broke off abruptly, growling with frustration, before she lashed out, "You're just…just…jealous!"

Clark blinked. "Eve — " he sighed. "I am not jealous. And Alex means a lot to you. I can see that. If he's okay no one is going to be happier than me that you found someone you like. All I'm saying is…well maybe you should let Superman check him out. Okay? To be sure?"

"I am sure. And you leave Alex alone! You're just trying to —"

Over on the rattan table beside the sofa the phone burred, taking them both by surprise. Clark automatically checked his watch and then frowned. He crossed the room to pick it up with a brief, 'we'll get back to this, don't go away' glance in Eve's direction. She folded her arms and looked away, glowering.

"Clark Kent," he said distractedly into the receiver and then, tone and attention tightening as the voice at the other end of the line exploded agitatedly in his ear, "Perry? What's wrong? Well, we just got back, we were out at — okay. Sure, yes, I'm listening."

And, as he listened, the world faded away.

He was dimly aware of mumbling a response, something about agreeing with Perry that he'd be able to find Superman, but he couldn't have repeated what he'd just said if his life depended on it. Slowly and carefully, as though any sudden movement might shatter the fragile hold he had on his emotions, he replaced the receiver.

He stood there for a moment, strangely aware that he was waiting for something to happen…except he had no idea what it was. Aware that he had been here, in this timeless, endless moment before… Before, he realized, with a self-deprecating twist of his lips. Yes, that was it. Before. He was waiting for the next step in the sequence, for the dream to end, for his surroundings to melt into the cold darkness of dawn and the loneliness of reality, just as it had a hundred times before. He had been here in this room, hearing that voice tell him Lois was safe, too many times.

Waiting. As though the slightest sound or motion would jar him out of sleep and back to a world he didn't want to be in.

It didn't happen. He stayed right where he was. In the brightly lit suite. The echoes of Perry's voice, taut with emotion, still rang in his ears, didn't fade to the blackness of a Hawaiian night and the claustrophobic confines of his room. Perry had sounded close to tears, his legendary gruff exterior nowhere in evidence for once.

Was it real?

Could it actually be real?

The moment he'd waited for all this time, the news he'd longed for, the clue that would see an end to this misery, this playacting.

That one moment that would give him back Lois.

Could it actually have arrived?

As he stood there, numbed, he gradually became aware of his surroundings. Someone was clinging onto his arm. He looked down into Eve's ashen face. In her eyes was a question, and concern.

"What is it?" she said, her tone that of someone who had asked before and been unheard, the strain in her voice taut like a violin. Whatever she was seeing in his stance, in his eyes, had obviously frightened her. "What's wrong? Oh, Clark…" Her voice caught and her eyes widened. A hand pressed itself tight against her lips in shock before she whispered, "Is it…is she — ?"

He shook his head violently, almost superstitiously, as though fearful that should she finish that question, the worst of all possible news, it might come to pass even now. He put a quick hand over the one on his arm and squeezed reassurance into her fingers.

"Lois is alive," he said thickly. His vision blurred and he shook his head fiercely as the impact of it — words and thought — hit him like a blow in the heart. "Oh, god, Eve, she's alive. And she got word out to Perry about where she is."

He found that he was moving as he said it, heading for the lanai, shaking off the lethargy that shock had wrapped him in, as he became aware of the constant, slow bleeding away of seconds as he stood there, dazed. Seconds that put Lois in danger, at risk. Seconds he didn't have to lose.

<Lex is watching…>

Perry's words, Lois' warning. He growled impatiently and reversed course, breaking into a run for the door to the corridor.

"Wait!" Eve caught at his arm as he passed her. Startled, he gave her an impatient glance. "I'm going with you," she said, breathlessly, as she let him go and ran back to snatch up her heavy jacket from the sofa.

"What?" Clark halted abruptly to stare at her in consternation as she pulled it on over the dark pants suit she'd chosen to wear for the club. "Eve, you can't go with me."

She stopped in the middle of zipping up and looked up at him. Her brow furrowed in a tight frown. "Why not?"

"Why not? You know why not!" Clark stepped closer as his voice rose in indignation. "This could be dangerous and —"

"And all of this wasn't?" She waved a hand around the suite. "I almost got killed in that alley earlier, you know!"

"That's different. You can't —"

He stopped as Eve finished zipping up in one furious movement and strode forward until she was so close in front of him they almost met at the nose. Her head tilted up and to his alarm he saw she had her mule face on.

"Eve —"

His protest didn't get off the starting block.

"Now, you look here, Clark Kent," she hissed, poking a finger into his chest. "You think you're the only one got things to settle with Lex? You think I don't have things to reckon up with him too? I got as much right as you have. Maybe more. And I'm going to get what's owed me."

"Eve, that's not the point of this —"

"Is for me."

Clark sighed. "I don't have time for this," he said harshly. "Lois needs me. You're not going and that's that," he decided, turning back for the door as he tossed over his shoulder, "Stay here and wait for me to get back."

"You leave this room, mister, and I'll scream so hard I'll make your ears rattle."

Clark didn't break stride this time. "Go ahead," he challenged. "I'll be gone by the time anyone comes along to find out what's happening." He hauled open the door.

She caught up with him at a run before he made the end of the corridor, skipping to keep up with his longer stride. "I mean it. I'll scream. And when they do come, I'll tell them!"

"Tell them what?" Clark said, exasperated now as he shoved his way through the door to the stairwell.

She looked a little flustered. As though she hadn't quite thought out the details of that threat, until called on it. "I could tell them lots of things," she snapped, recovering. "Maybe…maybe I'll tell them you're a clone!" she warned him, with a certain amount of grim irony in her expression. "Maybe I'll tell them the real Superman died and you're a clone made by Lex, just like the President, and maybe they'll shoot you down with missiles or make you go with them and answer questions, and then who'll rescue Lois?"

She folded her arms and glared at him. Clark shook his head, rolled his eyes, and let go of the door in his wake. Eve dropped her pose abruptly as she realized it was about to swing closed between them and he was about to vanish from view. She hit the door with the heel of her hand and darted through after him as he turned away. He heard her hastening down the stairs at his back.

"Okay then! I'll tell them who you are!" she added the breathless threat as he ignored her.

Clark propped to a sudden halt and she jolted back a step as he swung around on her. He looked at her, aghast. "You wouldn't."

"Try me."

"You promised you wouldn't tell."

She raised a brow at him, apparently unmoved by the clear sound of hurt in his voice at this betrayal. "Don't think I did, actually. Anyway, your risk."

Clark groaned. "Eve, I *can't* take you with me," he appealed desperately. "Lois is in trouble, even more than ever now. I don't have time to waste hauling you along with me. Every second counts. I can be there in half the time if I can fly at top speed, without having to worry about —"

Eve threw back her head and opened her mouth wide.

"Okay, okay!" Clark pre-empted her scream hastily as he grabbed at her arm and hustled her downwards with him. "You can come along. Let's go!"

***

It had been an interesting jaunt.

Lex carefully brushed at the sleeve of his jacket, noting with a moue of distaste that a few specks of blood still marred the cuff. He would have to send it directly to the laundry as soon as he got changed.

His lips curved in a smile as he recalled the grace and lithe speed of the snow leopards as they'd raced across the winter landscape of Riccardo's Swiss estate. Such beautiful creatures. Such muscular power beneath those deceptively sleek bodies. And fast. The buck had had little chance once Riccardo had released his 'hounds'. The chase had been thrilling — arousing — but all too short.

As he had watched the snarling predators tear at the dead beast, his thoughts had surprised him by turning to his upcoming nuptials with Lois. He had grown more aroused by the moment as he'd watched the savagery played out before him and contemplated the pleasure he would take from the body of his conquered victim later.

Hunting and sex. Two not dissimilar pursuits. Both capable of making the blood beat faster, of stirring the heart with primitive lust. Both concerning pursuit and conquest. Dominance.

To the strong and the powerful, conquest came naturally. Whether it was the victory of one beast over another or man over woman. The weaker of the two submitted to the greatness and glory of their superior.

A lesson he would take great pleasure in teaching Lois this evening.

He had been so increasingly taken with the restlessness of his lustful thoughts that he'd cut short his visit with his old friend and returned to the Citadel earlier than he'd planned. His vision had been full of Lois in that dress…silk and satin…and the pleasure of removing it, slowly, inch by inch, to reveal white skin and soft, inviting flesh. His appetite had been for more than the sumptuous venison dinner Riccardo had invited him to attend after the hunt.

It was truly astonishing, he thought, as he examined his reflection in the burnished window of the helicopter, how bedding a woman could restore the equilibrium. Especially when the woman in question had taken the chase and the hunt to new levels and been an itch he'd been desperate to scratch for so long.

She had been quite a challenge.

But now the moment of surrender had come. And tonight he would finally bring her to heel. Finally have her quivering beneath him, soft and…well if not willing at least obedient…as he took his reward.

To the victor, the spoils. He sketched a mocking salute at his blurred reflection with a grin.

Slowly, he had broken down Lois Lane, and now began a new phase of his plans for her. He would reshape her, piece by piece, night by night, into the perfect woman. His perfect woman…

"Mr. Luthor?"

He frowned, irritated by the interruption to these pleasurable musings, as he looked away from the window and into the face of the soldier hovering over him from the seat opposite.

"The pilot reports the radio is out again." His aide glanced out through the window to his right and the white swirl that obscured the view. "Weather's coming in hard. There'll be a small delay, sir. We'll circle and come around again."

Lex peered through the glass beside him as the helicopter swung over the rim of the bowl beneath it. Below, the lights of the helipad's landing circle blazed out into the darkness, as the snow lifted its masking veil for a brief moment.

"The pad is already open," he noted to his subordinate.

"Yes, sir," the man agreed. "The second bird must have just come in — or be going out. A lucky break, sir." He hesitated, listening through the headphones he was wearing, then reported, "Knecht's seen it too. He says he'll take us in on automatic. With the pad already open, the transmitter should pick up our radio signal, hold off on closing it till we're down. We'll be landing in just a few moments, sir. On schedule."

Lex settled back into his seat, with a nod of impatience, seeing little to be proud about in the other's tone. He was paying these people enough that he expected 'on schedule' as a matter of course. Getting it wasn't a perk or added extra as far as he was concerned.

Still, it was too good a day to hold on to annoyance, and a moment later, as promised, the helicopter dropped down to land within the bowl of the helipad, white flakes swirling like restless ghosts around its body as it came to rest. The pad held its usual air of eerie silence under the brilliant wash of the arc lights, as he descended from the cabin and stood beneath the whirling blades.

He paused in the helicopter's shadow for a moment, narrowing his eyes against the flurries of snow as he hitched up the collar of his jacket. He hunched his shoulders against the cold as he bulled his way across the short distance toward the entrance door at a rapid march.

As he came closer, his pique, which had been slightly mollified by the lack of delay, returned full force. He stopped, scanning the area, but there was no sign of the guard who should have been on duty at the door. He gestured irritably at the soldier following him. "Stay here. Guard the door till I send someone up to relieve you."

"Yes, sir."

He pulled open the door, without acknowledging the bland response, his brows drawing together in a deep frown. Where was that damn guard? If the man had sneaked off again, he would flay him alive. He had warned Benton before about this kind of sloppiness from his men. There had better be a good reason for his absence now because if it was the laxity of duty he suspected, then he was about to insist it was somewhat messily rectified.

Soothing himself with that thought, he stepped into the elevator. Enclosed within the metal box as it smoothly descended, his irritation faded as he refused to allow the day's minor annoyances to get in the way of his pleasurable anticipation of seeing Lois again. His thoughts returned contentedly to his conquest. Lois…and the evening ahead.

Soon he would be able to enjoy the product of his labors. How sweet that would be. To spend his nights savoring his success. She would learn to please him. Learn what he liked. What he demanded…

He had no illusions that tonight would be perfect of course. He had every anticipation, in fact, that she would be deeply disappointing. But there would be other nights, other pleasures, and slowly and certainly he would bring the wax doll he took here this evening to life beneath him. To know that pleasing him was the reason she remained alive would become the driving force within, eventually. In some ways, she was a smart, intelligent woman, and her will to survive was stronger than anyone's he had ever known. She would recognize the parameters of the silent bargain between them that kept her alive. And she would grow, not to love him perhaps or desire him, but certainly to desire to please him. If she knew what was good for her. Which was the same thing, after all.

He shifted, as the images in his head excited him. He would make her scream so deliciously this evening. He would make her cry out for him before he was through with her. He would force her into submission if it took all of -

The elevator juddered abruptly to a halt, and he lurched forward with the sudden deceleration, only narrowly avoiding ploughing headfirst into the control panel as he put up a quick hand to stop himself and recovered his balance. He glanced upward in momentary confusion, and then at the glowing numbers.

He cursed mildly — was fate determined to get in the way of his happiness today? Was the whole damn place falling apart on him?

He pushed at some of the buttons at random, then the red alarm button beneath them. But there was no change to his predicament. The elevator stayed firmly trapped between floors and there was no reaction or response as he hit the alarm again.

***

Mousa shifted from foot to foot, trying to stop the slow bite of cold seeping in through the layers of his boots from taking hold. His fingers clenched and unclenched around the grip of the AK-74 he carried, slung at hip level. Knecht had finished the 'copter's post- flight checks a few minutes before and descended into the base, leaving him with just the softly swirling snow, drifting down beneath the arc lights, for company.

He glowered out into the bowl of the rock.

He didn't mind the discomfort. What he did mind was being stuck up here doing another man's work for him. He had no idea why there had been no guard up here when they'd come in, but when he found out who it was who'd landed him here, instead of down in the mess getting some coffee inside him, he'd make him wish he'd been more dedicated to his duty. Mousa held few grudges; he was generally an easy-going sort who believed in keeping your head down, getting on with the job, and not distracting yourself with petty irrelevancies along the way. But one thing he never forgive easily was being stiffed by a comrade.

His stomach grumbled and he coughed, watching the fogging of his breath linger on the air in front of him for a moment, before he lifted his head to view the clouded sky overhead. Looked like this was going to thicken into a blizzard soon. He expected that the command to lockdown the base would come through any time soon. Perhaps they'd be confined to base for days before it cleared, with flights grounded. Mousa couldn't say he'd mind. He was due a little R&R. Some chilling out time.

He grunted, amused by the thought. Though not as chilled as he was right now, thanks be to whoever was making the arrangements in his life these days. He shifted again, and then abruptly slung the machine gun over one shoulder and stamped his way across to the corner of the small, square building opposite. He might as well radio in, give command a weather report. Maybe jog a few decisions out of them a little faster.

He kept his head ducked low against the thick flakes that tried to adhere to his brows and lashes as he trudged carefully over the already slippery ground, and then ducked beneath the metal canopy that protected the building's locking panel from the worst of the weather. He tapped out the entry code with a gloved finger, and then hauled the heavy door open. He reached out for the light switch as he entered, shivering against the chill that reached out to grip him from inside, it was colder in there than it was outside. Like a meat locker.

He got two steps before his foot struck something soft and yielding on the ground in front of him. A startled cry escaped him and he almost ended up on his face on the floor before he managed to recover balance. In the same instant, the lights blazed into life and he grew still. His shoulders tensed, his body moved into a defensive crouch, and the weapon came off his shoulder and snapped into his hands in a lightning move that was both reflexive and practiced to the point of being almost balletic. He swung the gun around the area, as he backed up against the wall, out of sight of anyone outside who might try ambushing him from behind.

No one leapt at him. The silence remained heavy and unbroken. Carefully, he eased a little out from the protection of the wall and then reached to slam and lock the door. There was nowhere for anyone to hide in here — the building was nothing more than a small square, its only decoration the radio system on its far wall. The boxes and cartons of supplies it held were stacked tight against the wall opposite and only to waist height. No one could be hiding behind them.

Reassured that he was under no immediate threat, Mousa relaxed and crouched beside the first of the men lying face down on the floor in front of him. He knew this one was dead. The three bloody holes in the back of his fatigues signaled that pretty well. He hauled the body over — it still held some warmth, so death had come upon the man recently — and recognized the face on it as one of his colleagues. He couldn't remember the man's name. He thought that maybe it wasn't important any more.

He lifted his head and gave the other two bodies lying a little further away a cursory examination with his eyes. He'd seen enough dead men to know there wasn't anything he could do for them either. The awkward positioning of their bodies and the thick, copper stench of blood in the air told of their condition clearly enough. He got slowly to his feet.

As he did so, he saw for the first time that the computer station which controlled the helipad operations, and which had been set against the wall behind the door, was smashed beyond repair, an irregular stitching of bullets across desk and screens and wall behind it giving silent testimony to what had gone down here, in this room.

Mousa didn't waste time trying to stitch together the story made out of the evidence. He spun hastily around, intent on radioing in with more than the weather report that had brought him here in the first place.

The radio was a mess of wires.

Mousa narrowed his eyes. Then, carefully, he took up a tight, crouching stance as he pointed the machine gun at the door. Slowly and carefully, he slid back the lock. He counted a slow three and then ripped it open in the same instant as he darted back against the wall. No hail of bullets swept through the space where he had been standing. But if there was no chatter of gunfire, there was a sound that shouldn't have been there. One that was instantly familiar. A steady throbbing that translated itself into a tremor in the ground beneath his feet. A sound he recognized immediately. He should have. He'd flown enough black ops missions before he'd turned freelance.

Heart hammering now, he ducked around the corner of the door and took a step or two out to stand in the shadow of the building. Tilting back his head, he stared up to where the dark and heavy bulk of the troop carrier hovered above him. Men were rappelling down from its belly; two of them hit the ground as he watched.

Mousa didn't know who they were — and he didn't care. He only knew that he was getting out of there. Right now. If he could lock the entrance door behind him, he'd delay them for enough time that he could get back into the base and warn the Major…

He whipped around and came to a confused, startled halt, as he found himself face to face with the soldier in fatigues, who had apparently come up out of the stairwell behind him and — now between those stairs and him, blocking his escape route — had been standing quietly at his back and watching him.

His comrade smiled congenially. "Hi," he said. He looked out briefly into the snowstorm and the helipad before coming back to Mousa's baffled face. "Nice weather for it, isn't it?"

Mousa snarled and swung up his weapon…

…and that was when the lights went out.

***

Imprisoned in the narrow metal box, he didn't panic. Lex Luthor did not panic. But he felt distinctly…uncomfortable…as the minutes ticked by with excruciating slowness. Hackles raised themselves at the back of his neck as instincts, honed from a childhood spent on the streets of Suicide Slums and his predatory business dealings since, began to whicker insistently in his head. There was something wrong here. He knew it. A pad already open. A missing guard. And now…a defective elevator? Too many glitches in his normally smooth-running world to be co-incidental, surely?

But then…

Benton had reported a problem with one of the soldiers on guard duty up top, he reminded himself. Just the other day. And, as Mousa had pointed out, the secondary helicopter could have been leaving the pad or returning from a supply mission just as they'd arrived. His flight was ahead of schedule, after all, and no one had been expecting his return until later in the day. For reasons of security, of course, flights in and out of the Citadel were strictly curtailed. But they did have to be made. Benton supplied him with a list of all scheduled flights for the day, but he rarely looked at it. He didn't pay monkeys so that he could eat the bananas himself. Benton kept the base ticking over reasonably efficiently — lax guards aside — and he was perfectly content to let the man get on with it. So, perhaps it wasn't so much of an oddity that the pad was lying open as they'd approached it.

<The radio was out.>

A small tick of unease began in his jaw. Then he shook his head, irked with his continuing to jump at vague shadows. The radio was frequently out. The weather saw to that. That was why the Citadel's original creator had engineered other ways of ensuring the pad would open other than radioing ahead to have it done manually. Secondary systems were built into all the base's operations. Backups upon backups.

As for the elevator — well, elevators broke down in buildings all over the world every day. What was there unusual in that? His lips twisted in a wry grin for his twitchiness. There was no problem here. No danger. Simply his nerves, made raw by lust and the anticipation of sating it, making him more strung out than usual.

He chuckled softly. Seemed he was more in need of a warm body and a night's entertainment to relax him than he'd supposed. But…all in due time.

The elevator suddenly rumbled into life again, breaking the course of his thoughts, and he straightened, chafing at each second of delay as it moved smoothly down through the remaining floors and then bounced gently to a halt at its destination.

Its doors slid open and he recoiled, driven back as they let in a shrill, piercing shriek from the complex, which hadn't made it through the thick metal doors as the elevator had descended. The Citadel's alarms, wailing out a warning that reverberated in the tiny space that confined him.

All thoughts of pleasure whirled out of his head. His spine tightened.

Only one of two things could have led to Benton setting off a general alarm — but that was impossible. There was no way for Lois to have escaped the Citadel. Or for Superman to find them.

Impossible!

Escape? Rescue? No! No, he wouldn't permit it! Not now! Not when he had come so close to claiming her. She wasn't going to escape him now!

Agitated by the very thought of being denied what he had sought and planned to take for so long, Lex cursed viciously as he exited rapidly into the corridor. He hurried for his office. Along the way, he encountered some of his men, but they ignored his demands for answers, hurrying along, grim-faced, on whatever mission they were embarked on, and their refusal to obey him — more, their complete disinterest in him and their somber preoccupation — boded ill tidings more than anything else.

Benton was standing outside the door to his office, among a small knot of men, as he directed them with furious gestures.

"What is going on here?" Lex demanded as he came close.

"Mr Luthor!" Benton turned on him. There was no panic on the man's face, but he was in a state of controlled agitation that didn't reassure Lex any. "I'm sorry, sir." Benton recovered from his surprise instantly. "We weren't expecting you back till later. We're evacuating, sir. I'm sorry, no time to talk — I'd advise you get back to the helipad. We'll take you and Miss Lane out soon as you're ready."

"Evacuation? Emergency?"

"Miss Lane got word out to Superman. He'll be on his way —"

"That's what this infernal racket is about?" Lex demanded. "Why the hell aren't you following procedure? My instructions were to lock down the Citadel if Superman discovered its location! You're ex- military! Don't you understand the concept of camouflage, you idiot?! Locked down, we're *camouflaged* here! He'll never find us!"

"Not any more we're not. I instructed lockdown, sir," Benton informed him calmly. "Unfortunately, a couple of the men panicked when they heard Superman was on his way. They were up on the helipad when the alarm went off; guess making a run for it was just too tempting. Blake radioed down a report — one of them was brought down immediately by Irwin, but the other managed to open up the platform before he was taken out."

Lex's expression had grown taut as he slotted this new information into the facts he already had. A missing guard, a radio that was silenced — he'd been right. Not co-incidence at all. Not glitches. But still, Benton's reactions were premature. Nothing was lost yet. Not for a piece of broken machinery! "Then get it closed down again! This place needs to be sealed up fast! We need that lead shielding in place."

"We can't." Benton looked frustrated. "There was a pitched battle up there; the machinery got damaged in the crossfire. We can't close it down. It's wide open." He gave him a scathing glance. "Didn't it strike you as odd there was no guard up there? You should have stayed in the air, Mr. Luthor. Coming on in was reckless. We don't need you in the danger zone too. We have enough to deal with as it is. The sub- systems are breaking down." He raised his head briefly to scan the corridor around them, as though expecting something else to happen any moment. "Maybe more machinery than up top got damaged. I don't know." His gaze came back to fix hard on his superior. "What I do know is that I'm losing control here and I don't like it. I don't like it one bit."

Lex flushed. "I don't have time to keep track of your men, Benton. That's what I pay you for. I didn't notice anything going on up there. It was quiet. There was no reason to suspect —"

<Wasn't there? A radio that was out? A missing guard? You're growing soft, Lex. Careless.>

He cut off the thought with an irked glower. He wasn't about to defend himself to this…hired lackey! He was paying the man to deal with the kind of emergency.

Benton sighed before he could remind him of that fact and of just who was the subordinate here. "Well, the pad machinery's in one of the outbuildings. No reason you would notice the damage there." His voice still held just a frisson of military contempt for civilian amateurs that Lex didn't appreciate, but he had no time to do anything about it. Benton was on a roll and seemed to believe that he was the one in command. Lex chafed at the realization that the man was probably right. He had to give way to his expertise if he had any hope of turning this around, of winning. He filed away Benton's lack of respect for a later time, though, promising himself retribution when he had time and luxury for it.

"Anyway," Benton continued, "communications went out up top completely five minutes ago. I've no idea what's going on up there any more. Superman might already have breached the perimeter for all we know. I sent a detail up to see what the damage was, report back, but there's no time to wait on them getting back to me. Evacuation's our only choice now. With luck, if there is a mutiny going on up there, my men will have secured the pad by the time we get there. We'll just have to take our chances till we know for sure. And fight our way out if it comes down to it."

"No." Lex shook his head savagely. "No, there'll be no evacuation. For god's sake cut those sirens and stand down your men, Major! If Superman wants to crash the party we'll just give him a welcome he'll remember."

"Sir?" Benton queried, confused, and then, "We don't have much time, sir!" he added urgently, as Lex swore impatiently and pushed past him into his office.

By the time Benton followed, he was standing in the middle of the room, staring blankly at the empty niche on the shelves behind his desk.

"Where is it?" he said numbly, and then, whipping around on the startled officer, fisting his hands into the front of his shirt as he pushed him back against the wall, "Where the hell is it?!"

Benton simply stared at him in confusion.

"The kryptonite! Where the hell is it?" he yelled.

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't know —"

Lex pushed him clear of him with a snarl. "Where is she?"

"I had Miss Lane taken back to her rooms till we were ready to take her out. Sir! Sir, we don't have time for this! You need to get to the helipad now!"

Lex ignored the advice and the man as he stormed down the corridor. Dimly, beneath the red beat of rage that bloodied his gaze, he heard the Major curse virulently, then bark a command to two of his men before he caught up to match his swift pace.

She was going to pay.

Oh, she was going to pay for this.

If he had to beat her to bloody bones, she would pay.

***

Superman swept up and over the mountain range in a swift, swooping arc, beneath the concealing curtain of the blizzard.

Dawn was already gathering its skirts around the little village laid out below him, making the low-storied houses a patchwork of shadows and light, their outlines stark against the glistening of snow that gleamed white under the puddles of amber cast by the street-lamps.

Eve had been tense and silent in his arms throughout the short flight, but as he dipped abruptly low toward the ground she clenched her hands more tightly on the folds of his cape she had caught up in her fists and which she'd been clinging to fervently ever since he'd taken off from the grounds of the hotel. He had insisted on wrapping it around her to keep out the worst of the snow and the cold. She raised her face abruptly from where she had ducked it tight against his shoulder and suspicion twisted in her expression as she glanced around her.

"What are you doing?" she demanded sharply, squirming around to look up at him.

He alighted gently on the ground, in the shadows of a barn on the village outskirts, and set her on her feet before answering. She watched him dumbly as he carefully eased her fingers clear of his cape.

"Leaving you here," he said firmly, and, holding up a hand as she started to protest, "It's going to be dangerous up there, Eve. You'll be safer here. I'll come back for you once I've found Lois."

Her face clenched, twin spots of pink suddenly flaring in her cheeks. "You promised you'd take me with you! You promised you would!"

"Don't think I did actually." His tone was grim as he threw her own words from earlier back at her.

Her eyes hardened. "You know they say on the news *all* the time that Superman doesn't lie. Guess they're wrong, huh?"

"I said you could come with me. I didn't say all the way." His eyes softened on her as she folded her arms under her chest and glared at him. "This is far enough." He paused to study her, concerned. Snow had begun to settle on her lashes and in her hair and she was shivering. She wasn't dressed for an alpine snowstorm. He pointed out up the hill a little. "There's a hotel just up there. You can keep warm there until I come back for you." He put a brief hand to her arm, squeezing gently, and then, turning abruptly away, rose into the night.

"No, wait!"

He ignored her, but paused as she darted forward to grab at the billowing edge of his cape. He looked down at her, impatience blooming darkly in his gaze. "Eve —"

"*Please*! You can't leave me here. You can't!" To his surprise, there was an almost frantic note in her voice as she begged him. Her eyes were suspiciously bright under the light of the lantern hung from the barn's mantle. Was she crying? He guessed he could understand her being scared. He knew how strangers confused and frightened her, how strange places worried her. He didn't want to leave her here, afraid, but he had to go, and she was safer here than she would be with him, even if she couldn't see it.

He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder as the urgency of his quest tugged at him, and then came back to her with a frown, as she pleaded desperately with him, "I *have* to go. Don't you get it? I've got to!"

He sighed, settling back a little as he hovered a few short inches from the ground. "Eve, Lex will wait and besides I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to —"

"No, it's not…that's not what I mean! I don't care about that…I mean I do care about that, but…but that's not why — " She shook her head and now he clearly saw the tracks of tears glistening on her cheeks. She drew in a hard breath and started again. "I have to help you find *her*. Don't you understand that? I have to help you. Help her. I owe her that. I owe her…lots of things. But I can *do* this!"

Her voice was rising. Across the way he saw a light brighten in one of the windows. He dropped hastily to land, reached out and pulled her further into the barn's shadow, putting a quick finger to his lips. "Sssssh. I don't want to waste time answering questions here."

She simply looked at him. "Please," she whispered as he drew back again. "This is my fault, it's all my fault and — and I have to do something to make it right. Please, Clark, let me make it right."

"Superman," he corrected automatically, but his mind was intent on what was in her face. Remorse and guilt. "No," he said gently. "Eve, none of this was your fault." He held her by the upper arms, intent on making her believe it. "None of it was. And none of that matters now." He frowned. "I will come back for you, you know," he reassured her. "I promise. I won't leave you here, if that's what you're worried about. I said I'd come back for you and I will."

"I know. I know you will." She hesitated and he saw something dark squirm behind her eyes for a moment, something calculating, before she said, "You won't find Lois without me."

Clark paused and she pressed her point before he could work up an objection to it, almost choking on her words as she rushed to get them out before he could stop her.

"You know how big that place is? Course you don't, 'cos you've never been there. Well, I'm tellin' you, it's like a whole big city under the rock. Bigger than Metropolis, maybe. And I'm the only one out of both of us who knows their way around. You won't find her up there, Clark. Not without me."

Clark stared at her, dismayed. For one more instant he hesitated, torn. He couldn't take her with him, not into what he was heading. It was far too dangerous and she didn't have his invulnerability. No. Best to leave her here. She could go up to the hotel, be warm…safe… Besides, she'd only slow him down. This was something he needed to do — had to do — on his own. The need to be there, to find Lois, quickened in him again, like a dark pulse, his muscles tensed in readiness of propelling him into the air. He didn't have time for this! She was going to have to stay and that's all there was to it.

<Bigger than Metropolis, maybe.>

His resolution died in him as the thought echoed. Was she telling him the truth? Or was she lying to get what she wanted? Either was possible with her. And yet…could he take the chance?

"You could wander round that place for weeks and never find her," Eve said, sensing him waver. "Months, maybe."

Clark sighed. Then, without another word, he moved to sweep her off her feet and back into his arms. He leapt skyward. He had the small, brief satisfaction of hearing her startled squeak as he did.

She wrapped her arms in a convulsive, constrictive grip around his neck, her fists clenching once more in handfuls of his cape at the back. She was trembling fiercely against him.

"Cold?" he asked, pulling her reflexively tighter against his own body heat.

She gave a short, stiff shake of her head and he let it be. After a moment, she said, fierce and quiet, "Don't ever try that again. Don't you ever try leaving me behind again, Clark Kent. You hear?"

He did hear. Even though her voice had been barely a whisper among the freezing wind swirling around them. He bent his head. Her eyes were dark and distant. He sighed, but didn't answer. It wasn't a promise he had in himself to grant her. He had no idea what they were facing up ahead and he knew that promises or no, needing her or not, the first chance he was offered to leave her somewhere safe and out of danger he would take in a heartbeat. And, if he was deeply honest with himself, not only because he was afraid for her, afraid she might get hurt along the way. She would slow him down. He was better on his own. And…and he suspected that Lois wasn't going to be happy to see her doppelganger.

Besides, now that he was so close, so close he could taste the sweetness of it in his throat, he wanted nothing to be between him and his wife when he saw her again. Nothing. They had been torn apart by others interfering between them for too long. He wanted to stand there and for there to only be her. Her and nothing else in his world.

His thoughts ranged ahead, growing darker. What *was* waiting up ahead? he wondered anxiously. He was aware that Lois wasn't in his arms yet. And that finding her — if Eve's knowledge of the Citadel was correct — might be no more easy than it had been in all his nights of searching. A city. An entire city under the rock. His heart sank. And Lois? What of her? Lex would be enraged, he knew. He might…Lois might be in the worst danger now than she had ever been. She had been alive only a brief span of minutes before — when she had sent the email. But since? What had happened to her since? What had Lex done when he had discovered she had thwarted him? That his plans were dissolving around him, lying in ruins? Was she still alive? Was he going to be too late? Even now he could be…

He wrenched himself clear of the thoughts and images in his head. He wouldn't believe it. He wouldn't believe that she could be taken from him now. Not now, when he was so close. It wasn't fair.

<Was it fair to begin with?>

He ignored that bitter voice within him. He would find her. And he would find Luthor. Somewhere, deep within these mountains. And there would be an ending to it. Now.

NOW.

The fury in him, and the fear, were cold in the steely gaze he swept the dark bulk of the mountains below him with. They resisted him; black sentinels in the darkness, featureless, cold and implacable. The snow was their ally, concealing and delaying, getting in his way. They were indifferent to his fear and his longing to find the clue that would lead him into their heart. His eyes searched each rock face, each plateau, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. He swung west, curving around to quarter another section of the range.

"Clark…"

"I know," he said softly. "I'll find it. It *has* to be here."

"No." She shifted in his arms. "Look."

He followed the arm she lifted and the finger she pointed, back behind him, the way they'd come. Out into the dark. He saw nothing. Mountains and snow rearing darkly into the black night. Patches of dark on dark and nothing to tell between them.

"I don't see — " he started and then, suddenly, he did. A flash of light further along the range. Brief and then gone as it reflected against the thick layer of cloud. He stopped dead in the air, feeling his heart begin to labor sharply in his chest as he stared at that patch of darkness. Just as he was beginning to think he'd imagined it, it came again. Two flashes. Three. A storm brewing? But he knew it wasn't.

He started in the direction of those lights, his eyes never leaving the spot where they'd flared. As he flew closer, the sharp rattle of automatic weapons reached his ears and he realized that what he was seeing was a firefight down there.

He stopped directly over the flashes of light and looked down into the deep bowl of the mountains. He would have seen it immediately if — when — he had flown directly over it, but if Eve hadn't spotted the lights it might have taken him many hours for his search pattern to include this section of the range. It was invisible until you were right above it. He suspected that normally it was invisible even then. But now, directly beneath him was a circle of concrete. Two dark shapes sat on it — helicopters. It was too dark to tell from here if there was anyone in them.

From the fire flashes, he was able to count five men, though. Three were crouched in the shelter of one of the supply buildings on the right hand side of the man-made crater; one was firing blind from the cover of a steel door set into the rock. The last of them seemed to be caught between the two, perhaps wounded. He was firing erratically from beneath the body of the helicopter on the blind side of his line of sight, down into the maw of the mountain.

Another flash of light exploded beneath him and he saw smoke billow — some kind of grenade?

"Did I do good?" he heard Eve whisper and he knew that she wasn't looking for an answer. There was a note of smug satisfaction in her voice. She already knew she had. He nodded anyway.

"Real good," he agreed absently. "Now, I want you to be real *quiet*."

Cautiously, he floated down into the bowl of rock. Over on the far side from where the battle was progressing, its protagonists seemingly unaware of his approach, a squat, metal building lay. Almost butted up against the rockwall on one side, there was a narrow gap between the two that formed a short alley. He alighted without a sound, covered by the deep shadows within, and let Eve stand on her own.

"Stay here, keep out of sight, and don't move. I'll be right back." He strode off before she could speak, turning back briefly to lift a hand at her and mouth a reinforcement of that command — Stay! — before he vanished around the corner of the rock and out of view.

***

Stay.

Stay?

Something within Eve bristled as she watched him mouth the command at her. What the hell was she, some kind of poodle here?

<Of all the heavy-handed, arrogant — >

She paused, startled by the vehemence of her thoughts, which seemed suddenly to have a life of their own. She peeked around the corner and then pressed herself closer to her rock shelter. Actually, the indignation of her other self or not, she'd had no intention of doing anything different. It looked bad out there and besides…

She figured Superman could afford to be commanding. Who was going to say no, after all?

And…she had seen his face. She had seen what had been in his face as he'd marched away from her and it had been…terrible. And she didn't think she wanted to tell the man wearing that mask of rage and cold, bitter determination that she wasn't going to do what he told her to. Uh uh. She wasn't going to say anything at all to turn those dark, ice-cored eyes on her. A shiver rolled through her.

The reflection in her head of what had been in those eyes as they'd swept over her — already dismissing her, she could tell, forgetting about her, ranging ahead to the men out there — bothered her enough that she didn't want to dwell on it. She wasn't *afraid* of him — not Clark! — course she wasn't. And yet…she hoped he'd shed the mask when he came back to her. The mask scared her. Yes, it did. With it on, it was like…well, like he wasn't Clark any more. Like he was some stranger. A stranger who was capable of…she didn't know what. Even that first night, even then, when he had scared her so, when he had been so mad at her, she had never seen him wear that face. Or seen that bleak darkness in his eyes. She pitied those men out there, who had no idea what was coming for them through the black night.

He had almost been like another man entirely. There hadn't been much of Clark in him. Not the Clark she knew. Who'd been kind to her, protected and comforted her, listened to her fears and hopes, all through these difficult days. Who had cared about her and for her.

Nothing at all.

<Well, of course he was like another man,> a voice snorted derisively in her head. The voice that always made her feel small and stupid inside. <Duh! He's not Clark, is he? He's Superman.>

Superman.

She had only ever seen Superman on TV and never up close. Was he always that way? Maybe he was. Maybe that was why Clark hadn't been in those eyes. But…no one seemed to be afraid of Superman. And she was sure they would be if he looked at them that way.

She wasn't sure she liked Superman. She was also sure that now wasn't the best of times to be thinking that she didn't. She was going to be keeping company with him for the next few hours at least, down there…down there in…in that…that…place.

She tore her thoughts away from that route, before they could summon up memories she had no wish to revisit. She peeped around the corner of her haven, but she couldn't see anything. Was the gunfire growing weaker? Thinner? As though elements of it were being taken out, one by one? Three guns now rather than four? Two rather than three? She hadn't heard any yells or screams.

Superman wasn't at all what she'd expected him to be, she pondered, as she listened and waited for him to return, all the while not knowing if she wanted to still be there when he did.

Superman.

Clark was Superman.

Her eyes grew absently wide with renewed awe as she let the revelation of that roll over her again. Since she'd seen him spin out of the Suit and into Clark Kent back there that wonder had never entirely left her. She had never really thought about Superman. He had always seemed such a remote figure, far removed from any importance in her life. All she really knew about him was that Lex hated him almost as much — if not more — than he did Clark. She had listened to his scathing mockery of the superhero as he'd watched him perform some rescue or feat of strength. She hadn't dared then to voice her opinion that she kind of thought he was pretty cool.

That spin thing had been pretty cool too.

But she had never thought that she would actually meet him. He'd been as real to her as any of the characters in Ivory Tower. Larger than life, exciting and cool but not…not real. And then…he was Clark. Who was all too real, all too familiar to her.

It was hard still to bring together all the images she had of both of them — Clark Kent and Superman — and form them into the image of just one man. Unsettling. Strange. She guessed it really made no difference, not now, and yet…somehow…it did. It made a lot of difference. She didn't quite know how to assimilate it yet, or whether she ever would, but it was a puzzle for the future.

And now, that awe was fading rapidly. Replaced by emotions that confused her. Nothing was as it seemed. Clark had been lying to her all along. Was anyone what they appeared to be?

Had Alex lied to her too?

He hadn't even told her he was leaving. The betrayal of that had bloomed like a dark rose in her chest when Akamu had said it. Now ice had formed around that core of darkness within her and it was cold. Colder than anything she'd ever known. He'd said he…he cared about her. He'd said he was her friend. And then…he'd been gone. Just like that.

Miserably, like dark seeds planted insidiously in her mind, she found her thoughts returning reluctantly to what Clark had said back in their suite.

Could it be true? Could Alex really have…?

No. No, she wouldn't believe it. She couldn't.

Yet, she found herself remembering things he had said and done that with hindsight seemed a little…odd? Suspicious?

No. No, he'd just been…nice, that was all. Wasn't it possible there was just someone out there who was nice? In the whole, wide world? Just one?

<Like Akamu?>

Akamu. Had he been part of the lies too?

Friend or foe? Enemy or ally? Was this what the real world was like? A dark place where you could never trust? Where you had to be on your guard all the time? Where you never dared open up your heart to anyone for fear they would betray you?

What kind of world would that be like to be alone in?

To live alone in?

And Clark. He would be gone too, wouldn't he? Soon. He would leave her too. Would he have the decency to tell her first? Or would he simply leave her behind? As he'd tried to do earlier. As Alex had done.

Would he abandon her as well?

"Eve!"

She started violently and glanced up across the bowl of the helipad, suddenly aware that the guns had fallen silent. A blur of red crossed in front of her and she watched as Superman wrenched the rotors from the helicopters, as easily and without thought as a child wrecking a toy. Mangling them into balls of useless metal, he let them drop carelessly to the concrete and then his head came up and he met her eyes across the thick swirl of snow between them.

It was too dark to read his expression. But a chill swept over her that had little to do with the icy blast of wind that coursed down from the mountain tops and over the concrete hollow in the rock.

Superman waved a hand at her and she obeyed the silent command, darting towards him and following as he strode to a metal door in the rock and ripped it clear of its moorings. He tossed it behind him and then started down the flight of stairs revealed behind it.

Eve glanced across her shoulder. There was no sign of the men who had been waging battle before they'd arrived. No sign at all. No bodies, no weapons, not a scrap of cloth or flesh to say they'd ever existed there. What had he done with them?

What had he done *to* them?

All things considered, she was glad suddenly that she wasn't part of the problem anymore. Not part of what — and who — was in Clark Kent's way.

Glad she was his friend and not his enemy.

Her gaze swept the deserted helipad. No, she wouldn't want to be his enemy right now at all.

"Eve! Let's go!"

Trembling, she followed the superhero down into the rock.

***

Lois prowled the confines of the bedroom, uneasily.

After unlocking the door and pushing her out into the corridor with him, Benton hadn't wasted any time. He'd simply shoved her unceremoniously at one of his nearby lackeys and ordered her taken back to her rooms and locked in them until Lex returned to deal with her, apparently instantly forgetting her as she'd been hauled away down the corridor and he'd begun barking out orders for a lockdown of the Citadel.

It seemed that her earlier assessment of him had, thankfully, been justified. Thoughts of revenge or retribution for any embarrassment or loss of face her capture of him might have made him suffer were of no consideration to him. He had other, more important, things on his mind and she might almost have faded into invisibility for him, now that he was back in control. Barely given more than a passing thought on how best to put her on ice, while he dealt with more immediate concerns. Even if he hadn't been otherwise occupied, he was well aware that the prerogative on punishment here in the Citadel lay with Lex. Especially where she was concerned. No one else had those rights over her.

She, of course, had no intention of still being around to be punished by the time Lex returned. Or of submitting to it even if she wasn't.

She would be out of here by then, she reassured herself, attempting to ignore how weak and afraid the small voice inside her head was as it tried to persuade her. It had to work. It was all she had left. So…that was all there was to it. It had to work. End of story.

But…

A lock down. Lois fretted on that. She had hoped that her email might have sparked an evacuation. But if the Citadel was sealed tight, enclosed beneath its protective armor of lead-shielded panels, would Clark be able to find it? The Alps were a large area to cover. And she had the dark sense within her that her time was running out, that rescue had to be quick if she was to survive. The clock was ticking.

She had also half-hoped that once Lex's men realized that Superman was on his way that they might panic, bail out on him. Only half-hoped, though. Somehow she couldn't really regret that Benton seemed to have retained the loyalty of his men and that he had things firmly under control. Weighing up all of the pros and cons, she figured that she had a much better chance of surviving until Superman arrived if the military structure and rule of law was maintained, than if the Citadel erupted into chaos and every man for himself.

A cold trickle of sweat coursed its way down her spine. She knew how fine a wire she walked here, how slim a lifeline these assumptions were.

She'd tried yelling for Superman a couple of times, but she'd had no real expectation of him hearing her. The room was crafted so that no sound escaped it. The thick metal door yielded no clues as to what was going on beyond it. Out there might exist nothing for all she could tell. She'd pounded on the door until her hands became bruised, aching like a bad tooth, and screamed until her throat grew raw, but the metal deadened the sound, ate it up and swallowed it, and she had no idea if it reached the outside.

She was anxious and alert — and curiously, now that it was almost over, now that she had almost won — desperately afraid. Perhaps more afraid than she had ever been, right from the moment she had woken to find herself trapped in this insane nightmare. She felt drawn up tight, held up by strings, jittery and restless as a marionette being jerked around by its puppeteer. A puppeteer who might cut those strings loose at any moment.

The thought that perhaps Superman was *not* on his way, that any number — a thousand and one scenarios that had played out in her head, despite her attempts to stop them — of things might have happened to delay that email en route simply wasn't to be borne. Couldn't form part of her thinking now. If she let even the tiniest suspicion that it might be so take root in her, then she was truly lost. She had to cling to hope, had to believe that it had made it to at least one of its destinations. Had to trust in her superhero to save the day.

He always had before. Had never failed her yet. He wouldn't now.

He couldn't now.

Wrenching herself clear of the dangerous path her thoughts had begun to travel, she paced another circuit of the room and gnawed fitfully at her lip. She hugged herself tight around the ball of ice that had formed itself deep in her stomach. She knew the source of this anxious inability to settle. She was so close. So close and yet further away from Clark than she had ever been. And she might fail yet. To be so near to it and yet to know that she might fail…

A small moan escaped her. More than ever, she felt trapped like an animal, helpless to aid herself or stop the swirl of fate dancing around her, the machinations of others forcing the course of her life, the next minutes, the next hours, of her life out of her hands and impossible for her to steer the course of. It chafed at her like manacles and chains, wrapping her tight in despair.

Lex was due back soon — would he get here before Superman did? If he did, there was still time for him to take his revenge on her. Would he go so far as to kill her to prevent Superman from rescuing her? To prevent her escaping him once and for all? She thought once that she'd known the man well — well enough to spend her life with him. Over the dismal days of her captivity here she had gained further glimpses into the dark pit of his mind and the insanity of his thoughts. But had she gained enough knowledge of what motivated him to predict his every move? She doubted it.

Twice before, Lex had shown he was willing to kill himself in preference to capture and prison. He had thrown himself from the penthouse window of the LexCorp building and tried to electrocute himself without a second thought. Would he hesitate any the less to dispose of her if that was the only revenge against Clark and Superman that was left to him? If his own life could be so cheaply squandered, would it trouble him one iota more to take hers if he was backed into another corner, if he had no way out and saw his plans fall in ruins?

And, then, perhaps death alone wasn't all that was in his plans. Wasn't all that she had to fear from him now. Revenge would be uppermost in his thoughts if he accepted he was defeated, she knew him enough to be certain of that at least. And revenge on her could take more than one form.

A soft shudder rolled through her and she skipped hastily over any deeper study of that possibility. But her hands clenched into tight fists at her sides and her body stiffened in rejection of those thoughts, nonetheless.

She had to get out of here. Someway, somehow, she had to get out. Now! She couldn't sit here, like a lamb waiting for slaughter, for whatever fate Lex was planning for her to arrive. She simply couldn't!

Her mind had ticked constantly over building and rejecting plans to delay any attempt to remove her from her rooms — now the only form of attack left to her. She had considered a major rearrangement of the furniture. Barricading herself in would have given her more security while she waited him out; even if someone had tried to enter they would have been delayed precious minutes breaking through. Minutes might be all it took for Superman to reach her. The difference between life and death. Victory or defeat.

But, unlike her apartment, what furniture there was here in the bedroom was either built-in or firmly bolted to the floor. Not by chance, she was sure. And Lex had proved that locking herself into the bathroom wasn't an option or an impediment to him gaining access. The BK, not entirely to her surprise, had been retrieved. It had left with her guards when they'd locked her in. There was nowhere to hide that would conceal her safely from a searcher for more than a few seconds. Nothing she could use as a weapon to fight off an attacker, even to gain some of those precious seconds.

She had no choice but to wait. And pace the small room. And to hope that Superman arrived in time. She was playing a dangerous game, she knew, and one in which success could still be snatched away from her at the end, and being this close…so close she could taste freedom sweet and heavy in her throat…and yet so close too to possible disaster and ruin was slowly twisting her insides out.

But there was nothing she could do about it now. Except hold on to hope, delay anyone trying to remove her from the Citadel before Superman got here as best she could and by any means possible…

…and pray that Lex was thwarted in whatever he attempted to wrest victory from disaster.

***

Superman caught up with Eve just as she headed around yet another corner.

"Wait! Hang on…" He glanced around him as she stopped. "Eve," he questioned urgently. "Is this the place you were talking about? Where you…where they made you?"

She nodded. She was hugging herself tight and she was pale. Clark put a hand to her shoulder and frowned as she flinched away from his touch. Carefully, he removed his hand.

"You okay?" he asked, concerned. She'd been quiet since they'd entered the complex. Clearly this was not a happy homecoming and she had no pleasant memories of her birthplace. She'd barely said two words to him, tagging along in his wake in dogged silence — except to argue against him when he postulated she might be safer staying behind. Even then the fire seemed to have leeched itself out of her. Though she had scowled at him almost as fiercely as before, and there had been as much heat in the stubborn refusal to obey him, her eyes had held a different story. There had been fear in those eyes. Fear and…something else he couldn't quite pin down. Mistrust? Wariness.

Well, he sighed, hardly surprising, he supposed. No doubt she'd convinced herself that if he couldn't persuade her to stay behind and hide until he was ready to take her out of this…this dungeon under the rock…he'd find a way to force her to it. He flushed. He could hardly blame her, he guessed. Since it was practically what he *had* tried to do back in Kandersteg. He supposed, thinking about it, it hadn't been very bright or very considerate to try making that decision for her. No wonder she was suspicious of his motives.

But, dammit, it was dangerous in here! They'd already met a few soldiers along the way as they'd marched through the confusion of corridors, Eve hurrying to keep up with the rapid pace he'd set. Most of them had seen sense at the sight of Superman and run in the opposite direction. But in deference to that universal law which seemed to hold that any man with a gun who felt himself under threat by the superhero would fire it, even when he knew it would do no good, some had paused long enough to empty whole rounds at him — and his companion, by default.

He had the impression that few of them had even paused long enough to be sure what they were firing at, although one or two had brought up their pistols and then changed their minds. He had the curious impression that it wasn't always because they had realized they were outgunned by what they were aiming at and decided that running blindly in the opposite direction was the better part of valor after all. A couple of them had seemed to be looking beyond him — to Eve — when they had had their changes of heart. Perhaps they thought she was Lois? It seemed the only logical conclusion to their behavior.

He didn't know what to make of that if they had. Was it a source of hope if Lex's men weren't sure where Lois was? If they thought she'd escaped? Or would it bring more danger down on her? Put her more at risk? He didn't like the way his thoughts were speculating on that one, so he closed them down, tried to ignore the increased beat of tension in his skull as he concentrated on finding Lois first.

Only a few corridors back he had seen the movement out of the corner of his eye and whirled to sweep Eve into his embrace, the flaring of his cape around them at his sharp movement and the planting of his back to the threat all that had saved her from dying under a hail of bullets. The narrowness of that escape made him break out into a cold sweat now and every time he thought of it. She was going to end up being killed!

He should never have been foolish enough to agree to bring her here.

He needed to be on his own. Without having to worry about Eve being accidentally hurt. But so far she hadn't been amenable to his suggestions that she find a bolt-hole and stay out of the way in it till he found Lois, had dealt with Luthor and his men, and was ready to leave, and even though he had the distinct impression that she was near terrified, she had stood her ground against him on it. And yet even so, the paradox was that she was quite clearly becoming more and more uncomfortable with every second she shadowed him, despite how vehemently she insisted on it.

At her tight nod now in answer to his question, he sighed. "Eve," he started tentatively. "If it's really bothering you being back here don't you think — ?"

She scowled. "I said I'm coming along, okay? Don't start with that again."

He sighed again. His obvious disgruntlement and capitulation seemed to spark some decision in her, as though his continuing defeat in the face of her defiance had jolted her into voicing something that had been on her mind for some time, given her the courage to tackle it.

"What did you do with them?"

"Huh?" He looked back at her, puzzled. "Who?"

"Those men up there. Outside."

He watched her swallow hard and frowned. She looked suddenly as though she were wishing she hadn't asked. He almost thought she'd grown a little paler. "I took their guns off them, restrained them safely, and locked them up in one of the supply buildings," he said. "They'll be fine there until the authorities can pick them on up later. A little cold, maybe, but — why?" he thought to ask.

"Oh," she said. And then, "Oh!" She blushed suddenly. "I just…well, I just wondered. You were real fast," she said. "Cool!"

Clark studied her for a moment. He had the impression that wasn't really what had been on her mind to say at all. "Um…yeah," he said finally. She seemed to have brightened all at once, her expression had become animated and her eyes had lost that brooding hint to them that had marked them lately. She was looking at him like… oh, god. She wasn't going to start idolizing him like Lois had way back when, was she? He didn't think he could deal with that right now!

"Eve," he started hastily. "This…" He indicated his Suit. "It's just…me, you know. I'm the same Clark." He gave her a slightly wry smile. "Just a bit more…colorful."

To his surprise, she laughed. He raised a brow at her, feeling a little wounded by that response, and his sense of confusion deepened as she leaned in close to pat him almost maternally against the arm.

"I know," she said. She looked up at him and smiled softly in a way that made him think abruptly of Lois and set his heart to aching anew for her presence beside him.

"I'm just glad you're back, that's all," Eve said quietly.

Before he could ask her about that, she started off up the corridor again. Clark looked after her for a moment and then shook his head. Women. Earth women. Clone women. If he lived to be a thousand, he didn't think he'd ever understand them.

As he hurried to catch up and put himself in front of her, his thoughts returned to his previous concerns.

"I still don't like this," he muttered as he kept a watchful eye on the way ahead.

She made no answer and he sighed. The argument was old and he knew he was on to a loser before he started. She wasn't going to do what he said and the plain truth was that he needed her. The fact that he did — and that that need forced him to put her in danger — jacked up his frustration a notch. He knew that he shouldn't feel guilty for it — she was insistent on coming with him after all, and he had the distinct feeling that if he did leave her behind without her agreement he'd have to do something drastic like tie her down if he didn't want her just following after him soon as his back was turned. But still, guilt rode him hard nonetheless.

He glanced up ahead, where the bleak, gray corridor stretched seemingly into infinity. Just one more corridor, like all the others they'd been through so far. They all looked alike to him. The place was a maze, he thought, dismay welling up in him as all of his notions of storming into Luthor's lair and sweeping Lois into his arms began to unravel in his head. How big was it? And without his powers to aid him — his vision stymied by the lead-shielding that seemed to permeate the entire complex, his hearing smothered by soundproofing — it could take him days to find her in this. Weeks…

Intolerable.

Eve was watching him knowingly. He studied her obliquely. Somewhere, along the way, she'd picked up a thick spar of wood about three feet by one. She was holding it now in both hands, close against her breasts as she marched along at his side, looking incongruously and for all the world like some fearless vampire hunter wielding a cross; gut full of fire and sure in its protection. Or some warrior protector. He sighed. She watched way too many movies. And had a dangerously inflated sense of her own competence in defending herself, it seemed, as a product of all that time spent in front of the TV in their suite.

But, a small voice reiterated in his head, it would take him days…weeks…

Unless he had help.

Right now, she was all he had.

"Okay," he capitulated reluctantly. "So, where would Lois be?"

She looked abruptly less sure of herself, the fighter's stance she had adopted, no doubt in preparation for battling her corner against him on this one for the hundredth time, relaxing into confusion as she stopped in the middle of the corridor. "I don't know…the apartment maybe?" she added, a little hesitantly.

"Apartment?" He held up a quick hand as she moved to answer. "Never mind. Where?"

She glanced around her at the crossing of corridors they had stopped at. "I'm…not sure. It's been a while," she defended herself as he looked impatient.

"Eve, please. Think," he urged her desperately. "Where?"

She faltered. "Maybe…this way."

She struck out along the corridor she'd chosen. Superman followed after her, grimly. She paced along, brow furrowed, and he held his breath, not daring to question her, even when she abruptly retraced her steps with a mutter or backed up and struck out on a different route. Finally, she stopped dead in the middle of a meeting point where two corridors intersected. Clark waited for her to curse again and try another route, his heart sinking. Then he realized she was looking at him expectantly. He followed her glance to a metal door further up.

"This is it?" he said.

Eve nodded. "I…I think so."

Clark didn't need telling twice. He strode forward. The door had a keycard locking plate attached, but he ignored it, grabbing the door handle and wrenching the door clear out of its frame. It was designed to open inwards, but he wasn't going to risk Lois being right behind it if he shouldered his way through. His heart was trapped in his throat. Dimly he heard the lock shatter, and he tossed the rectangle of metal behind him without a second thought, barely registering its clatter against the corridor floor as he darted through the opening left behind it…

The first thing he was aware of was the taste of dust, thick and cloying in his throat and then Eve had found the light-plate behind him and switched it on, flooding the space before him with brightness from the strong, industrial light fixtures overhead, and he became aware of the vast space he stood in.

The vast, empty space he stood in. A muscle ticked in his jaw as he stared blankly into that void. A faint trace of…something…lingered in the air. All that was left of…of her? He didn't recognize the perfume, it wasn't a scent he associated with her. But beneath it…faint like a lingering sigh of her voice on the air…were the scents that did speak to him of her. That he would have recognized anywhere. She had been here. She had been in this room. But the trace was faint. Too faint. A stale spoor, and elusive. And it had not been in the corridor. She had spent some time here, he decided. But whenever it had been, it wasn't now.

Where was she now?

At the far end of the…hanger…his super-sharp eyes caught a faint glitter. He marched toward it and when he got there, crouched to pick up what lay on the floor. It dangled in his grip from the short length of diamond rope, three gems long, the emerald-studded heart attached swinging listlessly as it struck sparks from the starkly powerful light overhead. Its sparkle seemed to mock him. His fist clenched abruptly around the bauble. He bowed his head, eyes closing.

He remembered giving her the earrings in a black velvet box. Her birthday. Her face lighting with delight as she had opened it, her smile as she had looked up at him, her eyes holding a sparkle to make the gems' own glow fade, unable to compete…

<Oh, Clark! They're beautiful…>

<You're beautiful…>

…all of it was etched into his mind's eye, clear and shining as though it had been yesterday.

"I'm sorry," Eve said from behind him. Her voice echoed faintly as it shattered the strained silence that had enveloped him.

Clark opened his eyes and then slowly rose to his feet. Almost reverently he tucked the earring away for safe-keeping, vowing that he would return it to his wife soon. He took a moment out of his disappointment to put a hand to Eve's shoulder, squeezing briefly, and then drew in a hard, bitter breath, reining in his emotions hard as he focused on the here and now. He swept the space around him with darkened eyes.

"Are you sure this is where the apartment was?"

"Yeah." She looked around her with a frown. "Just down from the gym and the pool. This was it. I'm sure of it."

He sighed. "Well, it's not here now." He thought furiously for a moment. "What about Luthor? Do you know where his rooms are?"

When he got no answer he turned his head from where he'd gone back to his study of the cavernous, windowless room and his expression tightened. "Eve? What's wrong?"

She shook her head. She'd lost color and was trembling. "Nothing. It's…I'm okay. Yeah…" She took a small breath as he watched her, concerned. "Yeah, I know where Lex…I know where his room is."

"Good." He wanted to move, struck by the sure and sudden beat in his chest that time was running out on them, but still something in her manner made him hesitate. Having speculated on her history here with Luthor, he had an idea of why she was spooked at the thought of going back to that room. Had that been where…? He forced down his pity. He couldn't afford it. Lois couldn't either. He had to find her. Now.

Reluctantly, he pressed her, "Can you take me there? If Luthor's there maybe Lois is too. Or I can make him take me to her. I won't let him hurt you, Eve. Not again. Okay? You don't need to be scared."

She looked stung. "I'm not scared," she said. "I'm not scared of anybody." To Clark it sounded like a child defying the dark and the monster hidden in the closet. She scowled fiercely at him, challenging him to contradict her. He watched her hands contract nervously around the wooden spar, but he said nothing.

"Let's go," she said.

With a sigh of gratitude, Clark followed her out into the corridor.

He had taken a bare two steps when the lights failed abruptly, plunging them into darkness. He stopped, hearing Eve's small gasp from directly ahead and the sound of her heart ratcheting up to a gallop. Before he could reassure her, low wattage emergency lights began to flicker into life, their reduced glow casting pools of blood across the walls and floor. He heard her sigh and move on. She was too far ahead of him. He hurried to catch her up.

"Wait. Let me go first. Stay behind me," he said, pushing her to his back with the words. He turned the corner — and found himself face to face with a stranger in army fatigues.

Clark thought the man was almost as surprised to find himself confronting Superman as he was to find himself facing him. But before either of them could speak or move, Eve erupted out from behind him with an explosive, "Hai!", and drop-kicked the man in the chest.

Still looking surprised, he bounced off the wall behind him with a solid thud and a startled grunt and then dropped to the floor. As he tried dazedly to lever himself back to his feet, Eve pounced to deliver a substantial whack across his skull with the spar of wood in her hands. The soldier's eyes rolled back in his head and he toppled over backwards. He was out cold before he hit the floor. As he subsided in a heap, Eve landed on her knees, straddling his chest. She grabbed a double handful of his hair and began to repeatedly slam his head off the tiled floor of the corridor.

"Hey!" Clark shook himself out of the open-mouthed shock that had frozen him in place watching her, and moved hastily to grip her under the arms. He swung her clear of her victim, ignoring her protests, and landed her on her feet a few steps behind him. He crouched quickly to test the man's pulse and then sighed in relief as he caught the dull tick of it beneath his fingers.

"Isn't he dead?" Eve demanded breathlessly, sounding both disappointed and surprised as he shook his head and rose to his feet. The man would have a king-sized headache when he woke and a sizeable lump on his skull, but he'd probably live. He gave Eve a glance of censure and then caught at her firmly as she moved with the clear intention of giving it another go.

"Eve…"

She subsided reluctantly and then shrugged, decidedly unapologetic, as he lifted a disapproving brow at her.

"It worked on Xena," she said, eyeing her victim clinically as he gently picked the man up and deposited him in a side room where he'd be safe until he could be collected later, like his colleagues. "Kick. Boom. Dead. Just like that. Actually," she mused thoughtfully, "it worked a lot better on Xena. Course…she had this really *big* sword…and she cut the guy's head off…and —"

"Uh, yeah," Clark cut in hastily as she wound herself up to an enthusiastic ramble. He put a steadying hand to her shoulder. "Eve, you do know that when they do that kind of thing on TV the dead guy gets up later and goes off to have lunch. Right?"

Eve gave him a pointed look.

"I know, I know," he sighed. "You're not stupid."

She nodded. "Right. I know dead is dead and acting is acting. But you know, when you get right down to it, any way you cut it, I'd rather the bad guys were dead than acting. Less trouble that way. When they're dead they don't come back."

Clark grimaced. "Yeah," he said acerbically. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" He shook his head, knowing she was getting him off track, and made another attempt to make her understand that you couldn't just go around hi-kicking people to death all over the place, even if they were on the other side. "Eve — " he started.

She looked over her shoulder. "Let's get going," she said, interrupting his intended lecture.

Clark looked after her in amazement as she started off up the corridor again, humming softly under her breath and tapping the wooden spar in her hands against her palm in time to her perky tune. What had happened to the timid little mouse of a woman, who cowered from him when he so much as frowned, was afraid of storms, and hid in closets while she slept?

"She gets more like Lois by the day," he muttered and then hurried to catch up with her before she made it out of his sight. Just what he needed. Wandering around this…mausoleum…with Xena as his sidekick. It was only fortunate that he had super powers.

Without them — and with Eve in tow as his 'protector' — he might never get out of here alive.

***

Lois traced another, agitated circle of her room. Her eyes flicked over the bed, the dresser, the wardrobe…but there was nothing there that would aid her, nothing that she'd overlooked or missed. The soldiers had taken everything obvious with them — right down to removing the mirror of the dresser, which, smashed, would have made a handy weapon right then. The room had been quite efficiently and thoroughly stripped of all but the basics. Even so, there must be *something*. Something she was overlooking. Surely. She gnawed fitfully at her lower lip and stalked out another circuit, her gaze roaming the room restlessly.

A click over by the door spun her around. She stiffened, mouth turning dry, heart beginning to hammer, as Lex stormed into the room, flanked by two of his men. A somewhat flustered-looking Benton hurried in after him. What was in Lex's face when he entered the room tightened her spine in anticipation of a blow.

"Where is it?" he snarled as he stalked for her.

"What?" she said, genuinely confused, and then flinched back instinctively as his fist lashed out toward her. The blow never fell. Lex turned an astonished face to the Major, who had darted out a hand and clenched it around his wrist.

"If you beat her senseless now, sir," Benton advised soberly, "it'll just delay your escape. The helicopter's waiting. You can deal with this later. Once we're out of here and you're out of danger."

"Let me go," Lex said coldly. Benton locked stares with him for a moment, that dark gaze warning that he wasn't about to let Luthor's personal business get in the way of his own escape from the Citadel, even if Luthor had lost sight of the important things for now. And that, if Luthor didn't take heed, Benton might take steps to remind him of his priorities. Then the officer complied with a sharp nod.

Lex wrenched his arm clear of his subordinate's grasp, but made no more move to strike her. The rage in his face had barely cooled, but he held it in check, apparently recognizing the wisdom of the Major's advice. He had never been a fool. His eyes when they returned to her held a threat in them, though, a promise of retribution to come when he had the luxury for it.

"Mr Luthor wants to know what happened to the kryptonite," Benton advised her coolly, apparently deciding to take charge of the interrogation and allow Lex time to recover his temper. Lex seemed to think it a sound idea also. He moved to the other side of the room, out of the way of temptation.

Lois' gaze flickered to follow him. Elation seized her. What she'd taken from his office had been all he had. It had to have been, otherwise he wouldn't be so enraged by its loss. He was defenseless now. Superman was safe. Despite her precarious position, she allowed herself the smile of triumph that had been locked within her all these long days.

"I threw it from the Lookout. If you hurry after it, you might catch it on the way down." She couldn't resist the jibe. "Ask Carlson," she added quickly as Benton looked skeptical and Lex's face suffused with fresh rage. "He was there."

The distraction worked and she had the bonus of a moment's savage satisfaction in seeing Carlson blanch. "I never…" he blustered as Lex turned a cold look on him. "I mean…she made me take her to your office and then she did go outside, but I was watching her! All the time! She couldn't have —"

"You cretin!" Lex contained himself with a visible effort. He glanced back to the bed and his face changed. He slowly picked up what lay there. The discarded rags of what had once been an expensive and elegant cheongsam. His hands clenched around the mass of silk and he couldn't quite conceal his fury beneath the mask of mocking congratulation as he turned back to view her. "Very clever," he said smoothly. "Yes, very clever."

He let it dribble through his fingers, that symbolic ruin of his plans, then he tossed it back to the bed. "But not quite clever enough," he decided.

He straightened as he transferred his attention to Benton. "Get some heavy weather clothing up here and make sure she's dressed for the journey. I don't care how you make her put it on, but get her up to that pad and get her up now. I'll meet you there."

"I'll have a detail escort you, sir," Benton said, as he took out his radio and relayed the order to his men. Lex acknowledged that with a bare nod of his head as he headed for the door. His furious glare at Carlson as he did gave testimony to the fact that the soldier had been added to the list of people he was going to settle up with later, when he got the chance. Carlson grew paler still.

"You're going to be too late! You'll never make it out of here now! You should let me go! Now!" Lois yelled after him as he exited into the corridor, but he paid her no mind.

"Carlson, go get some clothes from the store. And don't screw up this time," Benton barked out. "Please, Miss Lane," he told her as the soldier nodded hastily and exited on his mission at a fast dash. "Sit down on the bed and keep quiet."

Lois turned on him, mouth opening to try persuasion on him. Benton forestalled her by snapping his pistol up and aiming it directly at her. "Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it," he told her softly.

Lois glared at him, eyes scathing. "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "You're not going to shoot me just to shut me up. Maybe it's *time* you let yourself hear the truth, Major." Her gaze wanted to flicker to the other soldier, to judge if her words were affecting him, if he was showing signs of weakening, but she focused grimly on the Benton. "The truth is you're dead in the water, you don't —"

"The truth is," Benton interrupted coldly, "that if you say one word more I'm going to get Carl here to gag and hogtie you and we'll carry you up to that damn bird like a butchered pig. Now sit down, lady, before I make you sit down."

Lois hesitated, then complied. There didn't seem to be much more to say. An unsettled silence fell on the room until Carlson returned in remarkably short order.

Benton threw the clothing onto the bed beside her. "One minute, Miss Lane. We'll be waiting outside. If you're not dressed by then we're dragging you out of here any way you like."

"Benton…" She hesitated as he turned back at her soft use of his name. "You can't get out of here. You know that. Superman is on his way." And this time her words weren't threat but warning, earnestly delivered. A warning she hoped he would heed. Truly she did.

Strange that she should feel some obligation to him. His intervention here aside — and that had been motivated more by self-interest than any true concern for her welfare — he had never aided her, it was true, and never would, thanks to his twisted sense of honor. But he had treated her with courtesy all the same. Even when she had humiliated him, laid him open to Lex's rage.

Their eyes locked for a brief, timeless moment.

"One minute," was all he said and then he was gone.

Lois let loose the breath she hadn't been aware that she was holding as the door closed at his back. Her palms were damp. She rubbed them fitfully against her thighs. So far, so good.

She looked at the jeans and sweater that lay on the bed and then down at the light blouse and pants she was wearing. What Lex had decided was today's choice for day wear in the Citadel. Not exactly the right thing for travelling, she agreed with him. And although the method *she* intended to leave this hellhole by probably wasn't the one Lex was planning for them, still, she had never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

She was going to have to be dragged out of this room and up to that helipad, kicking and screaming every inch of the way. Lex was going to learn just how long a journey it was. She was going to make every second count against him and in her favor. Her biggest weapon now — delay. Delay Lex — thwart him at every possible turn — until Superman arrived.

She tugged hastily at the buttons of the blouse and shrugged quickly out of it, abandoning it in a careless heap on the carpet as she reached for the sweater.

***

Eve had vanished up ahead again.

Clark muttered under his breath and hurried after her. What was that he'd said about being like Lois? Didn't either of them ever listen? He'd told her to stick close, not go wandering off.

He was about to put on a burst of speed and catch up to her, when, from close up ahead, around the corner, came a startled cry, quickly cut off. It almost stopped his heart.

"Eve!"

He zipped around the corner and found Eve standing in the middle of the corridor, one hand held tight against her throat. Her shocked heartbeat beat a frenzied clamor in his ears.

Clark followed her stricken stare down to what lay at her feet. The body of a man in army fatigues. He dropped to one knee. The soldier was sprawled on his back, arms flung wide. A neat line of bullets tracked their way across his chest.

Clark tested the man's pulse, even though he knew it was useless. Like cornered rats, it seemed Luthor's army was turning on itself, snapping and clawing at each other in their attempts to escape the trap that this city under the rock had become for them. He regretted that necessity. As soon as he was sure that Lois was safe, as soon as he had Luthor in custody, he would try and find as many of them as he could, he promised himself. Round them up and keep them confined until the authorities could take care of them. Where they couldn't hurt each other. He had nothing to cover him with, but he reached up and gently closed the dead man's eyes.

"It was so dark…I didn't see…I fell over him…" He heard Eve gulp breathlessly as he took note of the pistol lying at the man's side. He picked it up, made curious by the red glow it emitted from the base of its grip, and then paused as he noticed from the corner of his eye the way that Eve was watching him.

She stood on the other side of the dead man lying between them, ramrod straight and tense as a drawn bowstring. At her side, her hands were clenched into tight fists. Her face was blank, devoid of expression, her eyes hooded and unfathomable as they rested on his face.

The dead man. He berated himself for not offering her comfort. Tripping over the body, in the dark, like that, it must have frightened her half out of her wits.

Absently, he dropped the gun to the floor again, rising to his feet as he reached for her. "It's okay, he can't hurt you — " He stopped as she jerked out of his reach.

"I don't care about him," she said and then, as he looked his surprise at her, gave him an impatient shake of her head. "He's dead, Clark. Dead men can't hurt you any." She glanced down on the body. "It's the live ones you got to look out for," she added a tart mutter.

"Oh," he said. He regarded her quizzically, recognizing that she definitely had something on her mind, if not the dead soldier. Her gaze came back up to fix him intently.

"You're not going to let me. Are you?"

He straightened. "Let you what?"

"I thought you would…you were so angry, so afraid for her…and I've been thinking 'bout this so long, wanting it for so long…" she went on cryptically, ignoring him. "But you won't. *Superman* won't. I didn't know that's who you were. And even when I did, I didn't really understand." Her eyes dropped to the dead man again. "But now I do. Superman doesn't kill. Won't kill. No matter how mad he gets, no matter how bad people hurt him. And he won't let anyone else kill either. He won't even let someone kill *him*. Not even if he's hurt someone real bad. Not even if he's hurt someone Clark Kent loves."

"Kill…" he'd started, bewildered, but her final words crystallized her meaning in his head. "Eve…" he said softly; a protest. "No."

"Don't you understand what he did to me?" she whispered as her eyes came back up to fix on his. "He *made* me. And what am I supposed to do, Cl…Superman? What am I supposed to do now? When you find your Lois? When you leave? Stick around like some gooseberry? Hang around watching you play out your lives? Go back in my box in the closet?" That last came out bitter.

"Eve, we'll work something out. Whatever you want. Wherever you want to go, I can help —"

"I don't want your pity!" she shrieked. "And what if I don't want to *go*? What if I don't *want* to just sneak off into the sunset, so you can forget me, like I never existed! You can't just…just…switch me off when I'm not needed any more like some…some…*toaster*! You did this! You did this to me! You *and* Lex! He made me but you…you…" She shook her head violently, choking on the words as her fists clenched suddenly at her sides. "*You* did worse! You showed me how to be human! You showed me there was more than Lex decided I should be! You taught me how to be a person and now, now you want to just — throw me away? You make me sick! The two of you, deciding, planning, working out my whole life!"

"Eve — " he started, appalled. "I didn't —"

"Well, not any more! You hear me? I'm not listening any more! Not to you, not to him! I'm me! I'm not — I don't belong to you! I don't belong to anyone!"

Tears had begun to streak her face now and he watched in dismay as she whirled away, along the corridor. He hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder, chafing at this delay — another delay — to his search. But…he couldn't leave her. And he couldn't let her go off on her own. Not like this. He cut her off before she got more than a few steps, putting a hand to her arm and pulling her violent forward march to a halt. "Eve, please…" he said softly. "Wait."

"Don't tell me what to do!" she snapped, but the heat had gone from her and the face she turned up to him was miserable. Lost.

"I don't want to tell you what to do. I just want…let me help you, Eve. Please."

A soft sob escaped her and he sighed, tugging her into his embrace as he cradled her against his chest. The anger in her seemed suddenly to be lost, crumbling like a defensive wall under the assault of friendship. "I don't want to exist," she whimpered. "I don't. I don't want to be alone. I don't want to have to feel…to make choices…decisions…I can't…"

Clark tightened his hold on her soothingly and then drew back to let her view his face. "Then you won't be. I'm not going to just abandon you," he promised and, as her face clenched, "It's not pity, Eve. You deserve to be happy too. I want to help you find that."

"Getting even with Lex would make me happy," she muttered defiantly.

He shook his head. "Eve, listen to me." He put a hand beneath her chin, tilting her head gently to fix her eyes on his when she refused to. "You want revenge. And maybe you're entitled to it. Perhaps more than any of us. Me, Lois…all of the others Luthor's hurt or killed over the years. The lives he's devastated. Maybe you are. But you know what? Living on — living well — that's the best revenge you could take. Luthor is going to pay for what he's done. I promise you. But not like this. You're right. I can't let you. Not just because it's wrong and not for Luthor. But for you. Revenge…the kind of revenge you want…it's like a poison. It gets into your soul and rots there, warps it. You're a good person. I don't want that to happen to you. Don't take that path, Eve. Luthor isn't worth it."

"Maybe I'm not worth it either," she said quietly. "I'm not real. Don't you know that? I'm…an…an…abomination!"

Clark winced. Had he ever said that to her? In the heat of anger, when he'd first discovered what she was? He had no idea. But he had certainly thought it often enough, in those first days. That and worse. Clear enough in his face and in his actions, if not his words, for her to know that he had felt that way. Regret welled up in him for that.

"I wasn't meant to be, Clark. You said it yourself, remember? Lex was wrong to make me."

"Eve, that wasn't what I meant — " he started to protest, but she put up a hand to his lips, stilling him.

"It was true. You don't have to…to…worry about me…or care. I don't hurt. Or f-feel."

"That's not true. And you're real to me. You're important to me. I don't want to see you hurt, Eve. Don't let Luthor get inside your head. Don't let him hurt you any more than he already has. Please. Don't give him that much power over you."

She shook her head, almost wearily. "I just want it to be done. The hurting." Her eyes beseeched him for an answer now. Answers he didn't have. "And I'm not sure it can. I think —"

She startled violently as a ragged burst of gun-fire sounded further along the corridor in the direction they'd come from. Clark set his lips grimly. "Stay right here," he said before he gave her a swift, apologetic look that promised he'd be right back. He put a hand briefly to her cheek and then darted off.

The fire fight was between two factions, three men on one side of the corridor junction, two on the other. It took only a few, super- powered seconds to deal with them. Superman was in no mood to either ask questions first or listen to any complaints.

Relieved of their weapons and locked in a storage room together, with a stern warning of how much of Superman's displeasure they'd be risking if they continued to settle their differences with anything other than raised voices, they became slightly less exuberant.

When he returned to the corridor, Eve was gone.

To his dismay, so was the gun the dead soldier had been carrying.

***

Benton pushed the keycard into the locking panel as he closed the door to behind him.

"I'm getting out of here," Carlson said abruptly at his shoulder. "No job is worth this. Not going up against Superman. There ain't no bitch worth that."

Benton turned to face him, wary and tense all at once. Carlson had been twitchy ever since he'd heard that Superman was probably on his way. Now he looked positively jittery. And it probably hadn't helped that he was in Luthor's black books either. A man as strung out and panicked as he was was a threat. Benton had learned that from hard experience. Liable to lash out at anyone who got in the way of his running. Not someone you turned your back on, leastways.

"Get yourself together," he told him tersely. "You've got a job to —"

"Major!"

He jerked up his head. He could see by the expression on the face of the lieutenant racing for him that this wasn't going to be good news. By this point, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. One email and the whole world was crashing down around their ears. Technology sucked. Sometimes he wondered if life hadn't been easier when everyone just had clubs and bearskins. Least it was simple. Direct. Predictable. Things were on a level playing field.

Still…he hadn't signed up to this life to get it easy. And a loathing of the predictable had been what had gotten him into this mess.

On the other hand, he thought, as he eyed his subordinate warily, there was only so much unpredictable excitement a man could stand in any one day. He sighed. "What?"

"Been up top," the soldier said raggedly as he reached them; he'd been running hard. "The 'copters are out of commission. Looks like someone ripped the rotors right off them."

"He's here." Carlson glanced over his shoulder into the dim and shadowed corners with the hoarse whisper. His eyes were wide and round as a child hunting closet monsters. "We're trapped in here," he moaned, a low croon of terror in his throat. "We're trapped and he's coming for us."

"Not me!" That was Denby from behind him. He looked scared now too, but he was retaining more nerve than Carlson as he stared back at his superior. "And, if you're halfway smart, not you either. I'm out of here."

"There's nowhere left to run," Benton told them hollowly. "Those birds were the only way out of this damn hole."

"Yeah, right. You think we don't know about Luthor's little escape plan?"

Benton frowned. "What escape plan?"

"Well…" Denby looked a little less certain, but he rallied with, "He's smart is Luthor. Like a fox. He has to have a backup plan to get out of here. He wouldn't rely on just those birds. He made himself a way out." Denby's voice had risen with desperation as he tried to convince himself that what he was saying was the truth. "I know he did. There's another way out of here. Has to be. I say we go find it. Before Superman finds us."

"Look, Denby —"

"No! You stay here all you want, if you like! But don't expect the rest of us to. I'm gonna find Luthor's way out."

Denby backed up with the words, ready to bolt. Benton looked at Carlson, who had already retreated a little further along the corridor, while his attention had been distracted by Denby. As their eyes met, Carlson mouthed, 'not me', and turned tail. It was all the spur that Denby needed. Like a sheep following the instincts of the flock he went after Carlson, both of them vanishing around the corner in another instant.

Benton cursed and then glanced at Archer. "What about you? Heading out looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow too? You've got as much chance of finding it as they do, Mark," he added quietly. He wasn't going to beg the man to stay loyal, but he was willing to try persuading him to see more sense than the likes of Denby and Carlson. Archer had always had smarts. He was a good man. Reliable when you were backed up in a corner, someone you could trust at your back. He'd hate to lose him now.

Archer shook his head, eyes glinting like flint under the dim lights of the corridor. "Oh, you're wrong about that. There's a pot of gold here all right." He looked out thoughtfully in the direction that the other two soldiers had fled in. "The only thing those two morons got wrong was where it is." His pale eyes returned to lock with his superior's. "We've got better smarts, though. Right?"

Benton had grown still, listening. His hand hovered just shy of the pistol at his belt. A motion another man might have missed. Archer's gaze flickered to follow the gesture and then came back to his friend's face. He smiled. "Her." He gestured at the closed door behind Benton. "She's our pot of gold, Gregg.

Benton looked beyond him, to the stretch of empty corridor, extemporizing while he gathered the thoughts spinning frantically in his head, gaining himself time to think. "Did you see Luthor up there?"

"Luthor's dead in the water, Gregg. We both know it. So do they — it's every man for himself now. It's chaos out there. They're stamping over each other's faces to get out. You going down with them? Carlson and Denby? Luthor? We're smarter than that!" he hissed urgent persuasion. "Luthor's gone. If they're right, maybe he's even got out of here by now. Sure thing is he's not coming back. That's a given. So, you gonna get some of those smarts working for you now? Or am I on my own here?"

Benton hesitated.

"She's the only way out of here now," Archer insisted. "The one bargaining chip we have left. We take her up top, we make a deal. You got to bet Superman's gonna be willing to pay to get her back from us. We tell him to get us out of here, he gets her back when we're clear."

Benton looked dubious. "Cutting a deal with Superman… He's fast; maybe too fast to trick. He could take us out like — " He snapped his fingers, the sound explosive in the tense air between them.

"He may be fast. He may be stronger than us, he might even be smarter, but we've got the winning hand, Gregg. He's weak where it counts. She makes him weak. She'd beat the odds in Vegas. Hold a gun to her head and he's not going to test how fast he is and whether he can beat a bullet. He never lies. He won't kill. And if we broker a deal with him he'll keep whatever promise he makes. We're home free. And if we aren't…hey, what we got to lose? What's our second choice, plan B? Stay here and rot? Let him pick us up like rats in a hole, without any fight at all? We take her up top and, when we're ready and in place, we make her call him. Make him take us out of here if he wants her back." Archer glanced across his shoulder and then back. "What you think, Gregg? Think the big guy wants her back?"

Benton sighed. He had a reputation to maintain. A reputation was all a man had of value in this profession. And he knew his was good as dollars in the bank. He had never run out on an employer in his life. But…this was a unique situation. And there was a vast gulf between bravery, loyalty, and sheer stupidity. He removed the pistol from its holster, checked it over and then returned it to its place at his hip. He looked up at his colleague.

"Let's get going. We're running out of time."

Archer grinned slowly.

***

Lois was pulling the sweater on over her head when the door was thrown open again.

"Hey!" Hastily she pulled it fully into place and glared at the two men who had entered, reserving the full weight of her ire for Benton. "That wasn't a minute! What you trying to —"

"Shut up," Benton said without heat. "Cover her," he added over his shoulder to Archer. Archer nodded and pulled out his gun as the Major ducked to grab her discarded blouse from the floor where she'd left it.

"What's going on?" she said, warily, irritation vanishing abruptly as she caught the spoor of tension in the air, like smoke from a campfire drifting on a breeze. The scent of sour sweat was on them and looking between them she saw urgency and determination in their faces.

This wasn't good.

"Change of plan." Benton drew a large and very serious looking knife from his belt.

No. Not good at all.

Lois backed up a pace, her face closing down into the focused look of someone who knew all the moves and was preparing to use them. Her stance became loose as she assessed this new threat and what she was prepared to do to prevent them removing her from the room. Where were they planning to take her? To Lex? But that had *been* the plan, hadn't it? So, what had changed? And why? And where were they taking her now if not to -

"Where's Lex?" she blurted.

Benton ignored her, slashing the blouse into a heap of ribbons with a few deft strokes of the blade. He sheathed the weapon again, wadding up one of the strips of cloth into a thick ball as he advanced on her.

"Co-operate and you get out of here alive," he said as she eyed the wad of cloth.

Their eyes met for an interminable instant. Hers flickered toward the gun pointed at her. Then she shrugged, accepting the inevitable. She could tell when someone meant what they said and when they were bluffing. And there was nothing of hesitation or softening in the eyes of either man. The wrong move here could get her killed in a heartbeat, she understood clearly. Desperation rolled off them in waves. And a gun in the hands of a desperate man — or woman, as she herself had told Benton earlier — was more dangerous than anything. Desperation was a hair trigger, ready to fall at the slightest provocation. Tempting fate now wouldn't be a smart move. It wouldn't be smart at all.

Relaxing a little out of her defensive stance, she made no move to stop Benton as he pushed the improvised gag into her mouth and secured it with a second strip of cloth. Pulling her hands behind her, not exactly gently, but no more roughly than he had to, he tied those too.

"Now it's my turn," he told her as he came back into her field of view. "I'm sorry, Miss Lane. But we have to go now and we don't have time for any games. You do as you're told, you'll be fine. But give me any trouble and I'll blow your brains all over that pretty sweater in a heartbeat. Got it?"

The words were said without rancor or satisfaction and she understood that he was sincerely regretful of the necessity to threaten her. But she also knew that he meant every word of it. She nodded imperceptibly.

Benton gathered Archer with a look. "Let's go."

They moved in to take her by an arm each, crowding her close between them. Clearly, they were taking no chances. Lois put up no resistance, biding her time. They would never reach their destination. She was sure of that. Superman was out there — it was the only reason that made sense for this. For the flicker of concern she saw in their expressions. Passive resistance to delay them might just give Clark the edge. She slumped in their grip, letting them work hard to move her along, and heard Benton grunt in irritation as he was forced to all but drag her.

He shook her hard. "Get walking," he said shortly.

Lois eased up. Just a little. But not entirely. Once more, she was waiting for The Chance.

Once more, she was going to be ready when it came.

***

Lex whirled around and swept the counter clear of glass bottles and instruments with a vicious swipe of his arm, face contorted with the fury that consumed him as he watched them crash and shatter on the ground.

Insects! Pitiful, pathetic, scurrying little insects!

None of them had dared to impede him as he'd stormed through the corridors of the Citadel; he would have torn them apart with his bare hands if they had. Lucky call. Right then, he would have torn them apart had they got close enough even if they'd come to obey him. He'd needed something — anyone — to lash out at, to let loose this seething rage within him at, but one look at his face it seemed had been all that had been needed to send them scurrying out of his path. As he thought about that, and the mangled helicopters up top, the bloom of fury within him burned bright again. It had been a particularly unsubtle message from the Super Irritant. That Spandexed thorn in his side.

<You're trapped. Now I'm the only way out of here.>

He growled. If Superman thought it was going to be that easy, he had less brain cells than he'd given him credit for. And he'd never accredited the SuperCoward with much of those to start with.

Stymied from leaving by helicopter, deserted by his men, who seemed to be more interested in killing each other than obeying him or helping themselves, he had simply moved on to Plan B.

The medical facility had been deserted when he'd got there. Callinson, it seemed, had abandoned his post, just like the rest of them. His lip curled in derision. One hint of a gaudy blue cape and over-tight, muscle-bound spandex and they ran like lemmings, rushing headlong to throw themselves from the cliff-edge.

Ingrates. Didn't they know that brain was more than equal to brawn any day of the week?

They thought he was finished.

He stood breathing heavily in the aftermath of the rage that had destroyed the room around him. Flutters of cotton batting drifted in the air, the survivors of the packets he had ripped apart and strewn around him. Gradually the spasms of anger died and he looked around himself with cold eyes.

Finished? Hardly! Oh, admittedly, his defenses had been weakened, but he wasn't about to submit to defeat. Some men might have seen their plans crashing into flames around them, but not him. Superman may have breached his fortress, Lois Lane might have aided and abetted him by removing the kryptonite, but he had never been so foolish as to place all of his trust in that — and certainly not in her. Treachery, thy name is woman. He had always known that bitter truth. Had always expected the sting of that particular viper.

If they thought for one moment though that they had beaten him, they were about to be shown the error of such thinking. Lex Luthor was smarter than that. There wasn't much left in the Citadel for him, he was ready to admit at least that the better part of valor lay in saving the fight for another day. He had taken the advice of Sun Tzu, that master tactician, to heart and knew it to be sound counsel. He had attacked his enemy when he had had five times his strength; when equally matched with the superhero he had engaged him with good plan. Now, it was time to put into place the remainder of that ancient strategy, for it held as good for him today as it had centuries past. He was weaker and should be capable of withdrawing. In all respects unequal — for the moment &