Purgatory

By Stopquitdont@bellsouth.net

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: September, 2003

Summary: Betrayal and revenge set the stage for an experience our favorite couple will never forget. Will Lois and Clark be able to live through hell on earth and bring those responsible for their misery to justice?

This is certainly a story a long time in the making. I started this, stopped, started again, wrote, re- wrote, then added even more. What started out to be just a moderate piece, has grown into a massive bit of writing. But I feel very proud of it and thrilled to share it.

This was inspired by a movie, a remake of a book, probably easily guessed, but I won't say which until you've read it. It was a labor of love and I hope it brings others as much joy as it's brought to me.

I have to thank my wonderful beta-readers. Jenni, without you there's no way I could have finished this and gotten it posted. Your last minute clean-ups were what I needed. Your continued praise of this piece still makes me feel very thrilled. Avia, you forced me to create better scenes than I'd originally intended. It may have frustrated me to rewrite so much, but I'm proud of the finished product. A couple others offered up praise along the way. That encouragement helped me finish this. It's taken a while to finally get it sent to the archives, but I'm glad I made the effort.

No infringements of any kind was intended. The characters do not belong to me. I borrowed them for a while, but put them back. I don't think there are any others I need to credit for direct quotes or borrowed words. If there are some of those scattered around in here, I hope you all can point out my short-comings.

Thanks again for all the wonderful comments I received when posting this to the boards. The response was much, much more than I'd expected and it was an incredible ego-booster. Enjoy!

***

"Are you serious?" Clark asked Lois with an incredulous expression on his face as the two partners squared off in their latest argument.

Lois, in usual fashion, crossed her arms and glared at him defiantly. Who did he think he was, interfering in her life like this? She answered to no man, especially this one. If marrying Lex Luthor was what she wanted to do, she'd do it. The only problem was she didn't want to. She'd also be damned if she'd let Clark know that.

"Lois," Clark started in a softer tone, relaxing his stance a bit. "Think about this. Do you really know him well enough to marry him?"

"That's none of your business. What I do in my personal time is off limits!"

Clark sighed heavily. She'd just made it perfectly clear that she had a relationship with Luthor that went beyond what he'd imagined. The thought made him nauseous. How could such an intelligent woman be so ignorant when it came to the mighty philanthropist?

<<She's ignorant about you.>> His conscience reminded him.

Another sigh to gather his thoughts and he looked at Lois sadly. "Do you love him?"

Lois could only stare at Clark. She hadn't expected that question from him. Then again, why shouldn't she? It was exactly something he would ask.

She dropped her arms slowly and turned to walk to the window in her living room. She stared out into the darkness, taking precious moments to gather her thoughts.

Lois was so confused. She'd been overwhelmed by Lex's attention toward her in the beginning. He was successful, well educated, and he was taking the time out of his schedule to pursue her. If that wasn't enough to impress any woman, she didn't know what was.

Around the same time though, she started to notice someone else. She told herself at first that her attraction to this other man stemmed from the fact that she hadn't had a relationship in so long. She just wanted the attention. But as the days went on, Lois became more aware of this man. His little pet peeves, his intelligence, his physical appeal, and his apparent infatuation with her were all that she thought about when she was alone. However, when she was with him, she tried her best to act as if she was oblivious to him at all. Now she couldn't do that any more. She didn't want to do it.

Lois turned to Clark with new resolve and determination. "No, Clark. I don't love Lex."

"Then why even consider his proposal?"

"Because, I was using him as a shield," she answered flatly, her voice void of emotion in this instance.

"Excuse me?" Clark's brows arched in confusion.

"About three months ago, I realized I was attracted to someone else. It scared the hell out of me, so I took Lex up on his offer to go out. I thought the distraction would lessen the appeal of this other man."

Clark inwardly groaned. He was pretty sure she was talking about his alter ego and didn't particularly want to hear this.

"It only made him more attractive." Lois lowered her head momentarily before looking back up at Clark. "I realized a few weeks ago that I was in love with this man."

There, she'd just confirmed his worst nightmare. He closed his eyes briefly to get hold of his raging emotions. When he opened them, Lois was standing inches from him. Suddenly his heart was pounding loudly in his ears. He didn't want to hear her undying love for the one-sided character he'd created.

"I've been denying it ever since because. because I was afraid that if I admitted it, it would change things between us."

<<Huh?>> What was she talking about now?

Lois lifted her hand to cup Clark's cheek in her palm. "Clark, I am so in love with you," she whispered.

<<WHAT?!!>>

Clark had to remember to breathe. Had she just said what he thought she said?

"I tried to fight it. I was at a place in my life when a relationship with anyone was just not what I needed. And when I noticed that you had an interest in me. Well, there was no way I was going to get involved with you. You're my partner. at work. Work and romance don't mix. at least in my experience. So, when Lex proposed, I saw a possible out." She lifted her other hand to hold his face. "Only I don't want out any more. I want you."

Clark's hands lifted to grasp her sides gently. "Please mean that," he told her huskily.

"Every word," she assured him before she raised up on her toes to touch her lips to his.

<<Oh god.>> Clark couldn't believe this was happening. He had Lois in his arms, kissing her the way he'd dreamed of countless times. This was better than anything he'd ever known. This was better than flying!

He reluctantly broke their encounter on that last thought. Lois didn't know about him. Should he tell her now? She would be angry and disappointed. Would she be hurt? Feel betrayed? Clark had to stifle a groan when he looked down into Lois' beautiful brown eyes. They had darkened with a desire that he'd never seen in a woman's eyes before. Maybe one more kiss wouldn't hurt.

He leaned down to capture her mouth with his own again as he lifted his hands to hold her face. Lois thrust her arms around his neck and poured herself into the exchange. Clark melted into her. He was in heaven. The woman he loved had just told him she loved him back and was allowing him to kiss her senseless. Or at least she was having that effect on him.

Clark was about to break the encounter again when Lois wrenched her mouth from his and planted wet kisses around to his ear.

"Make love to me, Clark," she whispered breathlessly to him.

A shiver ran down his spine. He couldn't do this. Not now. Not until she knew.

His legs nearly gave out from under him when she stuck her tongue into his ear. Then she nibbled his lobe gently and he lost all coherent thought. He'd wanted this for far too long. He didn't think he could stop now. She'd just rubbed his..

"Lo-is," he hissed as he bent to lift her into his arms. A few quick steps and they were falling onto her bed. His only hesitation was when he stopped to whisper, "I love you," in the darkness. For once in his life Clark Kent surrendered to his desires, banishing his reasoning into the far corners of his mind.

***

Clark traced lazy patterns over the bare shoulder beside him. Lois was lying on her stomach, looking at him, a slight smile playing on her lips.

"Does this change everything?" she asked softly after a while.

"I would hope it makes it better," he told her before he leaned to kiss the skin he'd been stroking.

"I love you, Clark."

"And I love you, Lois." He smiled as he brushed her hair back off her face. "Please tell me I no longer have to worry about a certain proposal."

Lois rolled to her side and reached out to touch his face. "You never did," she assured him.

Thankful beyond belief, Clark leaned forward and kissed her softly. Lois was smiling when he drew away. "What?"

"I was just thinking about Lex's expression when I tell him no. He hates to lose, you know."

"Yeah." Clark's expression had turned grim. "Lois, he will be angry."

"He'll get over it."

"Still." Clark ran his hand down Lois' arm. "I just don't like the thought of him becoming angry with you. He's dangerous."

"Well, then we'll just have to prove that to the world." She inched closer, wrapping a leg around Clark's and snuggling into his chest. "Right now all I want is for you to hold me."

"Just hold?" he asked in a teasing tone.

"Mmm," was her only response as she started to kiss his chest. Maybe holding was overrated.

***

Clark had a permanent smile pasted to his face and an extra lift in his step as he walked down the sidewalk in the bright morning sunshine. The last few days had been the most remarkable days of his life. The woman he loved had declared her love for him. She'd allowed him to make love to her. every night since then. He'd been to her bed and she'd come to his. Life couldn't get much better.

They were planning on a quiet evening in tonight. He would cook something, maybe Italian, and they would have a much-needed discussion about a certain secret he'd kept from her. That was the only thing that worried Clark. How would Lois take it when she found out he was Superman? He hoped that eventually he'd be able to prove his love to her and she'd get over the hurt and anger he was certain she'd feel.

He made his way into the Daily Planet lobby and over to the elevators. Inside the car, he punched the button for the elevator to take him to the newsroom floor, silently reliving intimate moments from the last three nights. Not even Lois' trip to visit Luthor today could deflate his happy balloon.

Luthor would no doubt be angry. The man didn't appreciate having his ego deflated by anyone. Clark was a little worried for Lois. But she wasn't about to let Luthor interfere with her happiness right now. She sported the same smirk Clark did. It was hard to believe this was the same woman, who had just a year ago, told her partner not to fall for her because she didn't have time for it.

The elevator doors opened onto the newsroom floor and Clark came face to face with the love of his life.

"Hi," she told him with a smile as she entered the car.

"Hi, yourself. Where ya' going?" Clark accepted the offered kiss after the doors slid shut.

"I'm meeting Lex for lunch. I thought it was time to tell him about us." Lois noticed as Clark's face drew into a frown. "Come on, Clark. You knew I had to do this."

"I know," he pouted. "I just wish you didn't have to at all."

"I know." She stuck her arm through his and leaned into his body. "I promise not to be long and I'll be at your place by six."

He stopped as they stepped out of the elevator. "You're not coming back to the newsroom today?"

"No. Perry has me going across town to write some fluff piece. Can you believe that?" Her hands waved as she told Clark about her latest assignment with disgust. Emotional pieces weren't her strong point and her editor knew it!

"I think you sell yourself short. You're a great writer." He reached out to rub her arm lightly. "Even when it's fluff pieces." She smiled at him. "Do you want me to meet you and go with you after lunch?"

"I wish. Perry wants you to do research on the Grady case." Lois patted his chest and smiled again. "So we'll have to settle for dinner this evening to see each other again."

Clark groaned loudly as she grinned at him. "The hardships," he said with a lifted hand to his chest in an attempt to look wounded.

She giggled and turned to leave. Clark watched her go through the revolving door before he turned to get back on the elevator to go back upstairs. He hated allowing Lois to go see Luthor alone, but knew she'd be angry if he followed. He'd just have to trust she'd be all right alone. And if she needed him, all she had to do was yell.

He groaned again on that thought. He just hoped she'd still talk to him after tonight.

***

Lex smiled up at Lois as Nigel showed her into his office. "Lois, darling," he drawled as he stood and held out his hand to her. His expression registered one of surprise when she stopped across the desk. He decided to shrug it off and enjoy his lunch. "I thought we'd eat out on the balcony." He stepped back and held out his hand for her to go through the open door first.

Lois didn't move. She'd had a little time to think about this lunch with Lex on the way over. She'd decided that she didn't want to eat with this man. There was only one man that rated that kind of attention from her now and Lex was not him. She smiled to ease the tension in the room. There would be plenty of that in just a moment.

"Lex, I don't think lunch is such a good idea."

"Excuse me?" He turned fully to her, his expression growing confused. "Have I done something to offend you?"

"No, no." She started to pace in front of the desk, an action that meant she was nervous. Clark's warning was repeating itself over and over in her head. Suddenly she wished she'd asked him to come with her. Finally, she stopped and looked up at Lex. "I can't see you any longer."

Lex's brows rose into his hair. "This is sudden."

"Actually, it's something I've been thinking about for some time."

"Would you care to tell me why?"

"I. don't have feelings for you and it's not fair for me to lead you on."

Lex regarded her for a moment before he sat back down behind his desk. He busied himself with lighting a cigar so that he could get control of his anger. There had never been a woman who brushed him off and it stung, not that he'd give her the satisfaction of knowing that.

He blew out a puff of smoke before he looked back at Lois. "Lois, surely you're just nervous because we've been moving so quickly?"

"I'm not nervous. I can't see you anymore. I'm really sorry."

Without giving Lex time to say another word, she turned and left. In the elevator on the ride back to the lobby, she wanted to kick herself for not telling him the truth. But for some reason, she couldn't bring herself to tell Lex about her relationship with Clark. Did part of her not want to anger him? Or was she not comfortable in the relationship she was building with her partner? She immediately answered no to that question. She was completely comfortable with Clark and couldn't be happier. Well, maybe not completely comfortable. It had been she who'd insisted to Clark that their new relationship be kept quiet for a while. She'd told him she didn't want to tell everyone just yet and wasn't exactly sure why. So why hadn't she told Lex? Was she ashamed of Clark and what they were building together? No. No, she was not ashamed of Clark. She just didn't feel Lex should be privy to her newfound happiness. She felt that belonged to her and Clark and no one else.

She smiled when she thought of her sexy partner. He was truly remarkable. She fought her feelings for him and now she couldn't figure out why. Clark was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and Lois would spend the rest of her life showing him how much she loved him. That included telling everyone about them, something she'd change first thing tomorrow. With a happy, contented sigh, and thoughts of the night to come, she exited the elevator to finish her day.

***

Clark had thought the day would never end. By five, he was glad to be able to finally leave the Planet behind. He loved his job, but was anxious to not only hear how Lois' lunch with Luthor had gone, but also get their discussion out of the way. After that, hopefully, they could get back to being blissfully happy.

Lois found Clark whistling as he stood at the stove cooking their dinner. "I thought we were ordering out?" she asked as she kicked her shoes off by the door.

He looked up at her and smiled. "Hey." He couldn't help but feel overjoyed she was comfortable enough to use the extra key he kept under the flower pot to let herself in without knocking first. He'd offer her that key tonight. maybe.

"I was tired of take-out," he continued. "I wanted something home-cooked. How's baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables sound?"

"Mmm. delicious." Lois licked her lips as she sniffed over the food on the stove. "It smells wonderful." She looked at the food one last time before she gave Clark a lingering kiss.

He smiled widely when she drew away. "Now that's the best way to start the evening."

"Absolutely," she agreed as she stole another kiss. She patted his chest before moving to make a drink.

"How did your lunch go?"

Lois hesitated a moment before answering his question. "Would you mind postponing that discussion until after dinner?"

Clark frowned slightly, but quickly agreed. "Sure." He leaned to take the chicken from the oven, afraid the reason for her postponement was because Luthor had not been happy. But surely she would have told him if he had reason to worry. Then again, this was Lois he was thinking of. He pushed down his concern in order to concentrate on his lovely date. He wasn't about to let Lex Luthor spoil his dinner. He would taint his evening soon enough with a revelation of his own.

***

Lex Luthor concentrated on lighting his cigar while he digested the unsavory piece of news he'd just heard. He'd had Nigel investigate the real reason Lois couldn't see him any longer after she'd left his office earlier in the afternoon. Just as he'd thought, there *was* another man.

There was a heavy silence in the room. Finally, he turned back to his subordinate.

"So, Nigel, you're telling me that my rival for Lois Lane's affection is a lowly reporter?"

"Yes, sir. I checked with the operatives you ordered to tail her and they report that she went to his apartment after work. An informative that I spoke with inside the Planet today told me she's been spending a great deal of time with Clark Kent over the last few days."

Lex frowned, but his voice was skeptical. "Well of course she does! He's her partner at the Planet. They are work colleagues!"

"I am well aware of that, sir, but nevertheless, my informant insists that Lane and Kent are spending social time together. He insists that they look decidedly cozy when they arrive at work. together. They also leave together. I am assured that they are an item. They are, in fact, together as we speak. It seems as if Ms. Lane was not the woman you thought she was, sir."

If it were possible Luthor looked even more irate. "You might be right about that, Nigel. I thought that Lois had the potential to rise above the mundane, but it seems she has chosen that nobody Kent over me. I think that my dear Lois deserves to be taught a lesson." Lex swung his chair towards the window and contemplated the darkening sky, yet it could not rival the darkness of his soul. "And Mr. Kent is becoming extremely tiresome. I had a phone call from Thomson today."

If Nigel St. John was taken unawares by the change in direction of his boss's discussion, he was not going to show it. "May I ask what it was about, Mr. Luthor?"

The man in the chair sat perfectly still, almost as if St. John's words hadn't penetrated his deep contemplation. Then abruptly he turned and answered his aid-de-comp, "He tells me that Kent has been investigating his drug-dealing scheme and he's afraid the reporter is getting too close."

"Does that mean we need to worry, sir?" Nigel asked conversationally.

"Could be, though I'm sure Thomson knows the score. I doubt he'd be so foolish as to bite the hand that feeds him and his family." Lex's threat was clear, though his voice remained smooth. "However, Mr. Kent is becoming troublesome in more ways than one, it would seem. I think he needs to be shown that no-one interferes in my business affairs, or steals what is mine with impunity!"

"Have you a plan in mind, sir?" The two men chatted about the downfall of the Daily Planet reporter as casually as they would the weather.

"Don't I always, Nigel." Lex couldn't resist a grin at his own inventiveness, as he drew contentedly on his Cuban cigar. "The secret of success, Nigel, is always being able to turn misfortune into gain. Do we still have a contact in the DEA?"

"Indeed we do, sir. I find it fortuitous to keep our informants' palms well-greased."

"Good!" Lex acknowledged his lieutenant's foresight. "Then get in touch with him immediately and offer him his usual fee to pass on some false information to Perry White, editor of The Daily Planet. Then contact Warren in Port Stanley — the man owes me some favors and I'm about to call them in. Both Lane and Kent will rue the day they chose to meddle with Lex Luthor."

***

Lois and Clark had shared a wonderful dinner by candlelight. Conversation revolved around their current stories at work. Soon enough it was time for Lois to come clean about her lunch with Lex. She knew leaving Clark hanging hadn't been very considerate and she could also see it had taken a great deal of effort for him not to ask about it. She took a deep breath and faced him across the table.

"Clark, I told Lex that it was over."

Clark took a sip of his wine before speaking. "How did he take it?"

"He was certain I was just anxious because we were moving too fast." Lois wiped her mouth and leaned forward on the table. "I told him I wasn't and that I was sorry if I'd led him on."

"I would have thought that he'd have been a lot angrier when he found out."

Lois was about to respond when his words registered. She pushed back from the table and quickly paced into the living room. Clark knew instantly that there was something she wasn't telling him. As she continued to pace, it dawned on him. He rose to go stand behind her.

"You didn't tell him about us, did you?" he asked.

She stopped and slowly turned to face him. She didn't have to confirm his question with words. Her expression said it all. Clark's anger rose, for what reason he wasn't sure. All he knew was that he felt. betrayed in some way. She'd told him she loved him. Why hadn't she been able to tell Luthor the same thing?

Lois watched as Clark twirled and went back toward the kitchen. He started snatching the empty plates from the table to carry to the sink. She hurried after him.

"Clark, please don't be like this."

"Like what?" he asked as he faced her again. "Excuse me for getting a little upset because you didn't tell your boyfriend about your lover!"

"That's not fair."

"Isn't it?" Clark stared at her with a stern glare. "You won't tell anyone at work about us. I can't even tell my parents about us. And now this? What am I supposed to think?" He was more upset than he'd thought possible. Suddenly her not telling Luthor was very important.

Lois sighed heavily and shoved a hand through her hair. "You're right," she told him softly. "All my insecurities." She turned away from him and slowly made her way back into the living room.

Clark wanted to console her, but his bruised ego wouldn't allow it. Before either could formulate another thought, the phone rang.

Lois looked down at the ringing phone, then back at Clark as he picked up the receiver in the kitchen.

"Hello?" He listened to the caller for a moment, his expression growing serious. "Yes. No, no. We understand. Okay, Perry. Sure. We won't." When he finished the call, he faced Lois. "That was Perry. There's been a break in the Thomas drug investigation. A long time source informed him Thomas has been to Port Stanley at least six times over the past two years and it's highly unlikely the man was vacationing. He wants us on a plane to South America within the hour."

Lois felt the sting of hot tears, knowing their conversation would have to wait. They were professionals and they had a job to do. She wiped her cheek and nodded her head. "Do you want to pick me up on the way?"

"No. Just wait. It won't take me long to be ready."

She didn't answer aloud, only nodded again. He took a deep breath and went to gather his things for their unexpected trip. Clark could tell Lois was disappointed they would have to put off their conversation for now. He was just as upset as she was, but knew this case was important to them both. They'd been trying to catch a break in the Thomas case for more than a month. From the way Perry talked they would be in and out of South America and able to return to concentrate on their relationship in a couple of days. At least he hoped so.

Less then two hours later, and with not one word between them about their earlier disagreement, Lois and Clark boarded their airplane.

***

Two days later, the reporting team was convinced Perry's tip had fallen through. They were unable to find anything to link businessman Adam Thomas to any kind of wrong doing at all, let alone a connection to the drug underworld that seemed to highly influence the small South American village of Port Stanley. Deciding to cut their losses and chalk one up to the unknown, Lois and Clark headed for the airport once again for the return trip home.

"I really wish you'd talk to me," Lois told Clark as they made their way through the small airport to the appropriate gate.

Clark shifted the bags he carried to the hand opposite Lois. "I think we should wait until we return home."

"Yeah. there's something you need to add to the discussion," Lois said sarcastically. She was exasperated. She'd tried several times to talk with Clark and he'd told her he wanted to wait until they were home because he had something to say as well. It didn't do any good to argue, so she kept pace beside him toward the entrance to their plane.

Clark wanted so badly to speak with her. He also felt he should wait until they were home. He'd had some time to think about things and to cool down. While he was a little hurt and disappointed that Lois hadn't told Luthor about their relationship, he could understand her hesitancy toward certain issues. After all, he'd shied away from many people because he felt he was different. He also knew a little of Lois' past emotional history. She, too, shied away from others, though for slightly different reasons, but the principle was the same. Neither knew very much about how this relationship should work. Because of that, he'd made the decision to apologize for how he'd acted. It couldn't hurt. He was going to throw another wrench into the works anyway. Once Lois found out about his alter-ego, he was sure she'd get as far from him as possible.

Lois came to a halt when the security officer asked her to open her bag for a search. She gladly complied and waited patiently for him to finish. Clark was about to put his bag on the conveyor to send it through the metal detector when one of the guards lost control of the dog he held tightly by its leash. The dog barked loudly and headed straight for Clark's bag. It started biting the canvas and pulled with unforgiving force to free the bag from Clark's grasp.

Clark's eyes darted between the dog and the officers. He still held the bag, but wasn't sure what to do. One of the officers rushed forward and pulled back on the dog's chain.

"Heel," he shouted. The dog continued to go wild, attempting to tear into Clark's duffel. Finally the policemen managed to get the canine under control.

"Open it!" the young officer shouted to Clark.

Confused by the dog's actions, Clark couldn't figure out what was happening. Obviously the canine thought there was something in his bag that shouldn't be. That was impossible. The only thing there was his clothes. He dropped the bag onto the table next to the metal detector and unzipped it. He'd already decided that if they wanted him to prove he was on the level, he would gladly accommodate them.

Shock, fear, and every other emotion in the world ran through Clark's mind when he saw what was in his bag. How could he have missed the pungent smell? He could only think that he was too preoccupied with his thoughts of Lois, and he couldn't deny that he'd tried to ignore the decaying smells which seemed to pervade the small town.

He felt his cheek make contact with a metal surface as he was roughly pushed to the table surface under him. Two police officers swore loudly as they cuffed him.

Lois couldn't believe what she'd seen. Clark's bag was filled with small white, brick shaped items. She'd done enough drug investigations to know exactly what the items were. She heard the words that were being sworn in angry Spanish and saw what was happening to her partner.

"Hey," she tried to yell in vain. A moment later she was bound just as tightly as Clark and both were ushered through the small airport and out into separate vehicles. She kept yelling, insisting their US citizenship should be taken into consideration and the proper authorities contacted. Her only response was that the proper authorities had been contacted and for her to shut her mouth.

What was going on? Clark's mind raced to understand exactly what had happened. He had understood every word that had been said. They were being arrested for possession of narcotics. The bricks were believed to be cocaine. The question on Clark's mind was how the heck it had gotten into his bag.

A short time later, his vehicle screeched to a halt outside the local police station. He could see the officers from the other car taking Lois inside. His door was opened and he was dragged out and led inside to be placed in a small, empty room with only two chairs and a table. There was also a mirror, most likely two-way, hanging on the wall. He was instructed to sit before the officers left.

He had no idea where they'd taken Lois. What were they doing to her? Did she, too, have drugs in her bag? More to the point, how did they get out of this? Clark wasn't načve. He knew enough to know that things were handled quite differently in these small impoverished nations. He would be tried quickly and if his guilt was proven, he'd be sent to some prison that was probably not very livable. If ever there was a time he needed to have a clear head, this was it.

The door burst open and what appeared to be a high- ranking officer stepped inside. He looked Clark over very carefully before he spoke.

"Where did you get the drugs?" he asked in heavily accented English.

"They're not mine. I have no idea how they ended up in my bag."

"Nonsense. It was your bag."

"Believe me," Clark told him earnestly. "I have no idea how or why there were drugs in my bag."

The man studied Clark for a moment before he dropped the piece of paper he held to the table. "This child. died this morning from an overdose. We believe you had something to do with that."

Clark's eyes grew wide as saucers. "I assure you. I have no idea how that child got drugs!" Clark had wanted desperately to say he didn't know the child, but he couldn't. He and Lois had received information from the boy the first night they were in the country. They had both been surprised that such a young boy could know so much about what was going on around him. They'd figured that's how he made enough money to feed his family. His parents were both very ill and unable to work.

"This child," the man said as he jabbed a finger onto the picture. "Was last seen talking to you and your lady friend."

"I admit we talked to him," Clark said, his voice starting to rise in pitch from the panic he felt. "But we DID NOT give him drugs! We're reporters for the Daily Planet in Metropolis, USA. We're here on a story. The boy gave us some information. That's all!"

"Is your lady in this with you? We found no drugs in her bag." The man crossed to stand behind Clark.

"Neither of us is into anything! We did not pick the drugs up from anyone." Clark looked up at the man with a fierce expression. "Look, we're US citizens. We have the right to contact the nearest Embassy."

The man stood in silence for a long moment before he walked back to the door. Without another word, he left Clark alone again.

Clark sighed and looked over at the image of the boy they'd talked to. He looked peaceful, almost as if he were asleep. What happened to him? How had he gotten the drugs? Clark had been almost certain the child was not strung out; would have bet money on it. Apparently that assumption had been wrong.

Clark tried to figure a way out of this. He was obviously going to be charged with possession and his or Lois' status as US citizens clearly meant nothing here. He would be sent to prison for an indefinite amount of time, if the trial followed suit with the arrest, which had clearly started to resemble a set- up to him. Hopefully Lois would be released so she could go back home to call up reinforcements. Once back in the states, surely she would be able to figure out what was going on. The Department of Foreign Affairs would certainly be able to offer support and help to straighten all this out. And if all else failed, he could wait until the time was right and escape with a little super help.

A long sigh escaped his lips. He hated to use his abilities for such purposes, but in this instance he may not have a choice. If someone truly had set this up, his alter ego might be the source of escape for the reporter.

***

Lois had been questioned and had given up on the sarcasm when it seemed to just get her into further trouble. She'd given the same answers that Clark had. She neither understood nor did she know how the drugs had gotten into her partner's bag. She'd been dismayed when she learned of their young informant's death. When her story stayed the same after being asked more than twice, Lois started to insist the Daily Planet and the US Embassy be contacted. The officers ignored her and changed tactics. They tried to get her to tell them about Clark's illegal activities. That angered her and she began to insist more forcibly that the proper US authorities be contacted. She calmed only when someone asked:

'How well do you know Mr. Kent?'

She'd immediately clammed up and began to really take in the unfolding situation. Reluctantly, she surmised that Clark had already been found guilty and the best thing she could do was figure out how to get out of here so she could find out who had gone to so much trouble to set this up.

And someone had done that. Clark wasn't a drug dealer. He didn't give drugs to small children. He didn't transport them or do any of the other things they were accusing him of. She'd been asked if Clark had been alone right before they left their hotel. The truth was he had. They hadn't shared a room so Clark was alone in his the whole time they were here. They'd decided that was best until they talked their feelings out over their argument. He'd also gone out a few times alone, not to mention those dang disappearances.

Lois stopped to think about that. Clark 'did' disappear a lot.

<Stop it, Lois! You know Clark. He's not a drug dealer.>

She banished those thoughts immediately and started to evaluate the situation. It was obvious they'd gotten too close to someone, but whom? Surely they'd missed something in their investigation. There had to be some bit of information that would answer this puzzle. They'd been about to leave the country when they'd been arrested. Had they truly overlooked something that would lead to all of this? Or had they simply angered someone by asking questions?

Before she could think that through, the door to her room came open and she was ushered out and down the hall to a small cell. She was told Clark's trial would be held first thing the following morning.

She couldn't believe it. How could such injustices be so readily accepted? Again, she started her demands that proper authorities from the United States be contacted. And again, she was told to hush; things were done differently in Port Stanley and no one would be contacted. Clark would be tried and that was that!

She'd sighed heavily at that. Clark wouldn't be allowed to defend himself. These small countries worked on their own set of laws. No matter how loudly she protested or how many times she demanded they couldn't do this to two United States citizens, things remained the same. She was put back into a cell to await a bogus trial that would convict her partner for crimes he never committed. He was a dead man!

***

Guilty! He'd been found guilty, not only of possession of the narcotics, but for murder as well. It was determined that the small boy had died of the same drugs that had been found in Clark's bag. He just wondered how in the heck that had been determined so quickly.

Clark sat in disbelief as he stared at the rigid face of the judge who shuffled a few papers before speaking.

"It is the sentence of this court for you," the judge told Clark, "to be held in one of the local prisons until formal arrangements are made." The man gathered his papers and exited the room.

Again, Clark could only stare ahead. What had just happened? He'd been sentenced to be imprisoned in some place that barely passed as a jail until formal sentencing arrangements were made? What did that mean?

Though he'd traveled extensively before settling in Metropolis, he'd never been privy to the goings on inside the inner world of impoverished countries such as this. He'd seen a lot and worked side by side with natives to improve their way of life, but he'd never seen just how the underworld in these places worked. Though he'd figured he'd be railroaded, he'd had no idea it would be so swift or so severe.

He'd spent the biggest portion of the night sitting on the cot in his cell trying to figure out what to do and how to get out of the mess he'd found himself in. It was obvious he had made someone pretty angry at him or that he and Lois had missed an extremely pertinent detail during their investigation. Though if the latter was the case, it didn't explain why he was the only one being charged and sentenced to prison.

Maybe it was time for Superman to make an appearance. Clark glanced at Lois. She looked as if she was in shock. Her eyes were wide and clearly reflected the fear inside her. How could he risk anything happening to her if he chose to escape as Superman? What would they do to her? No, he had to wait until she was safely out of this place before he did anything. It would take him only minutes to get away and maybe then, he and Lois could get to work trying to figure out what was going on.

Lois felt lightheaded. They'd just sentenced Clark to prison. And what else would they do to him? Formal arrangements? Were these people whacked?

She swiped a hand across her face as the sting of hot tears pierced the backs of her lids. Her large brown pools were glued to Clark. What must he be feeling right now? She'd spent the most awful night of her life, pacing and wracking her brains trying to figure this whole mess out. How had they gone from investigating a story to becoming the story?!

Her thoughts were put on hold as she watched the man she loved be manhandled by an officer.

A large officer hauled Clark to his feet to be transported to the prison immediately.

"Could I at least talk to her?" He motioned to Lois with his head.

The officer stepped over to consult another man before leading Clark down the hall to a room. A moment later Lois was shoved in with him. The two officers stood guard by the open door. Lois hated that she and Clark would have witnesses to their farewell, but it was better than nothing.

"Clark!" She went to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. His hands were bound behind his back so he had to settle for her comfort, unable to return it. She drew back and looked at him.

"We have to get you out of this. They'll kill you in that prison."

"I know. Lois, I'm so sorry."

"For what? You didn't put those drugs in your bag. Did you?" Why had she asked that? Lois had banished those thoughts the day before when the officers questioning her implied Clark's guilt. There was a lot she didn't know about her partner; she would be first to admit that. But the one thing she did know was that he was no drug dealer.

"No! How can you ask me that?" Clark was a little hurt and very annoyed. He'd spent the last twelve hours pacing his cell in an attempt to come up with some kind of plan. "Listen to me, Lois. When you get home." And she would get home. They'd told him they were putting her on a plane within the hour. She was to leave this country and not come back. "Call my parents."

"I will. And I'll figure out what the hell is going on."

"I know you'll try, but we have to be honest. Whoever has done this means business."

"I know that. They went to a lot of trouble to set you up and that kind of thing takes a lot of money and influence, and that is traceable. It has to be." Clark wanted so badly to touch her. Large tears filled her eyes as she pulled him back into an embrace. He would get out of here. He had to. for her.

"Lois," he said into her neck. He waited until she drew back before he continued. "I will wait a few days. let them lock me up, then I'll get out."

"Get out? How?"

"Lois," he said and glanced away from her for a moment. He met her eyes with a serious expression. "Look at me. I *will* get out. There's only one thing that could keep me from it."

"One thing? Clark, what are talking about?"

"Take my glasses off."

She lifted her hand and did as she was told. He looked so much like someone else. How could she have been fooled by a pair of glasses? She knew exactly what he meant. "Oh god!" Lois drew away in shock. Her partner, the man she thought she knew, was someone totally different.

"Please, please understand," he begged. All further talk was cut off when the officers stepped through the open door and Lois was demanded to leave.

Quickly she slipped his glasses back in place. She didn't want to leave like this. She couldn't let Clark think she was angry. Well, she was, but she was more hurt than anything. Her mind raced as she stepped forward to grab Clark again. She was held at bay by a strong hand on her arm. Lois protested loudly as she was dragged out of the room, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks.

"I may not understand completely, but I'll be waiting," she whispered.

Clark sighed and let his head drop. Her words comforted him a little. It would make the next few days easier to endure.

"I love you, Clark," came a final whispered thought through his hearing before Lois was shoved out of the building. Clark caught a final glance of the woman he loved more than life as he was taken out to the corridor to be ushered to the prison. There was no way he'd stay here in some hellhole any longer than he had to. He would return to her and together they would figure this whole thing out.

Unfortunately for Clark, escaping as Superman wasn't an option at present. He'd been taken to the local jail and thrown into a large, overcrowded cell. There was no way that Clark could use his super powers in front of his curious cellmates. Clark settled down to wait till night, hoping that in the darkness when the others were sleeping, he might be able to leave surreptitiously. But it seemed that none of his fellow inmates slept much. There didn't seem to be much trust amongst these rough looking prisoners and perhaps they were too afraid of not waking up in the morning.

He would have to wait until these mysterious arrangements were made and hope for some privacy to disappear.

***

"Is it done?" Lex asked the man standing behind him. He watched the commotion outside the seedy little courthouse as Lois was pushed inside a waiting vehicle.

"It is. And he's being sent to Purgatory."

"Excellent. Men tend to get lost there."

"No one comes back from Purgatory," the man assured Lex.

A wide smile graced the lips of the most evil monster alive. He took a drag from his cigar before speaking again. "And the insurance? Is it in place in case Kent's alien savior shows?"

"The stone's buried just inside the door. The super hero won't get in without feeling the affects."

"Very good. Our boy scout in tights will certainly try to rescue his friend. He's so predictable. I want to be notified immediately."

"The instant he shows up," the man assured him. "But you do realize Superman will probably fly off again when he realizes the situation?"

Lex smiled widely. "Yes. And by then, Kent will be but a memory." He reached into his jacket slowly, grasping cool steel. "You *have* given the order to do away with Kent in a few days?"

"He will be executed by week's end."

"Very well done. And Kent's body? The stone? I want that little gem returned after Superman shows up and Kent has been taken care of. Should the 'boy wonder' fail to show up, send it back as soon as Kent's dead. Superman won't be needed then."

"The stone will be returned upon Kent's death and the body will be lost forever. I've already made all the arrangements, and you can rely on me, sir. Everything will be as you wish."

"Good. I don't want that little bitch to have it back to grieve over him. I want her to always wonder what happened to him."

"But I thought you wanted proof of his death sent back?"

"Oh, I do. Send. his clothes, his wallet, glasses. and a lock of hair." Lex grinned, more to himself than to the man before him. "That should really keep her mind occupied. I just don't want a body sent back. I want her to always wonder what his last days were like. Did he suffer? What was done with his remains? You know, the kinds of things that can drive someone out of their mind."

The man smiled brightly. "Most evil, Mr. Luthor."

"That was nothing," he said as he turned to the man and withdrew his gun. Lex's heart fluttered as he saw the fear register in his victim's eyes. He squeezed the trigger of the gun he held. An instant later, the man's body slumped to the floor. "That, Mr. Parsons, was most evil. Didn't anyone ever tell you that when dealing with the devil, it would be best to keep some insurance handy?" He turned the barrel of the gun upward and blew the smoke away from the silencer. "Most evil."

Lex turned on his heel and walked quickly away, the sound of his malevolent laughter left echoing behind him.

***

Clark had been put into the backs of vans, the bellies of planes, thrown into empty rooms, and now was being led through dark, damp corridors. They were traveling downward, into the belly of what could only be termed a dungeon. He'd made a few inquiries earlier and they were ignored or answered with a firm order to shut up. He'd remained silent about his true identity for fear of the unknown. He couldn't risk the safety of his parents or Lois for that of his own. No. He'd wait and when the moment was right, he'd escape and try to help sort this whole mess out. It had been nearly two days since he'd been taken from the courthouse. Lois should be home and about ready to crack this case wide open.

Clark was halted outside a door. One of the guards turned to him and ordered him to strip. He was told to hand over his shoestrings and was given a thin shirt and pants. All of his other personal items had already been taken days before. Once the guards were satisfied with his appearance, one of them opened the door and the other shoved Clark inside.

"Get comfortable. You're going to be here a while."

The door clanged shut, sounding loudly off the walls. Clark let his gaze roam over his surroundings even as his mind raced to understand why he was suddenly in so much pain. That could only mean one thing: kryptonite. His eyes roamed the cell that was only about ten feet by ten feet, made of stone. There was nothing in the tiny place save the pan on the floor by the door and the bucket in the corner. He could only imagine the use for that. Could they have hidden the rock under one of the stones? That had to be the explanation. The deadly substance had to be here. What other explanation could there be for how he felt? And if that was true, did that mean someone had figured out who he was? Is that why he was here, in this place? Was someone getting revenge in a sick, demented way? Could that mean his parents and Lois were now in trouble? Would they suffer because of him?

No, that couldn't be true, he immediately told himself. If whoever had done this wanted to hurt Lois, she would have been subjected to their evil plans when they had her in their clutches, assuming *they* were part of the police force that had put him in this prison.

He sighed heavily. This was a little worse than he'd first thought. His head swam as he became lightheaded. If there really was kryptonite here, how would he live through it? He struggled over to the farthest wall and sank to sit in the stream of sunlight coming in through the small opening at the top of the cell. Hopefully the life giving rays would be enough to keep him alive until help could come. He could already feel his powers starting to drain. He'd horribly underestimated his captors and now it might cost him his life.

<<Please help me figure a way out of this.>> He closed his eyes and tried to remember happier days.

***

Lois threw the file across the desk. Nothing. Always nothing. She'd been consumed with trying to figure out what had happened to Clark. She'd returned home nearly two weeks ago and had used every contact she could think of to find out what had happened to him.

Lois had rushed from the airport when she got home straight to Clark's apartment. The place had been torn apart. Though nothing seemed to have been taken, it was obvious someone had been looking for something. Knowing it was useless, she still busied herself picking through the remains only to come up empty handed.

That night she settled in Clark's bed, clutching the shirt he'd worn the night before they left for South America. It still held the faint smell of Clark's scent and helped comfort her a little. It hadn't even occurred to her that she had figured out that he was Superman until the following day. She had only been concerned for the man she'd fallen in love with and spent the last few days with. Martha and Jonathan flew in the next day and together the trio went to work to find out what happened to Clark.

Hot tears had stung Lois' eyes as she looked at the two people alive who loved Clark as much as she did and told them their son had been convicted of ludicrous crimes, then sentenced to some third world prison. Martha's strength had shown through as the older woman grasped the information she'd been given. Yet, it was all too plain for Lois to see a mother was dying inside for the loss of her son. Jonathan was there to offer comfort that only he could; a strong arm around her shoulders, a firm grip cupped around her small arm.

Once the Kents had collected themselves, they sat down and listened while Lois related everything that had happened in the past few days. She told them about her confession of love for their son, only to be engulfed her Martha's arms. The older woman told her she was so glad the younger couple had finally come to their senses and admitted their love for one another. Lois went on to tell them about the three days of bliss she and Clark had shared, then about the disagreement just before the trip to South America. She continued with the details of the investigation, their arrest, Clark's trial and conviction. Lois also told them that Clark had shared a certain secret with her. Both Martha and Jonathan agreed he'd done that for Lois' peace of mind, but they were also happy that he'd chosen to share all of himself with the woman he loved. That night a young woman was welcomed into a new home and the bonds of family were solidified.

The trio had searched diligently since then for answers to their mystery. Nothing had panned out. Tips from sources went dry almost immediately. No one knew why this had happened to a reporter from the Daily Planet. Perry had called in every favor he was owed. Other than the initial arrest and trial, nothing else could be found to indicate that Clark Kent had ever been to Port Stanley. Whoever was doing this had virtually wiped him from the surface of the planet. Disgusted beyond belief, Lois was coming to the end of her rope. She'd never give up. Clark needed her. She would fight with every fiber in her being not to let him down. But she couldn't spend every second on it anymore. Perry needed her to cover other stories. The Kents had reluctantly gone back home to run the farm, and she'd promised them she'd bring their son back. Only now that was something that seemed to be impossible.

Lois and the Kents had taken into consideration that Clark was still Superman and that he would eventually get out of wherever they'd taken him. When he didn't come back after a week, everyone began to worry that his secret had been discovered and he was unable to escape. By the end of the second week, they all knew something went horribly wrong. Lois quickly composed an article that stated Superman had to attend to some personal problems. Though not a total lie, it left a lot of unanswered questions. If Clark couldn't be found, Lois would have to write a more in depth article at a later date.

She'd called in the FBI and other government agencies. They, too, had come up empty. It seemed they had no authority in the small South American country and it would be almost impossible to get an American out of one of those prisons. Without anymore options, Lois had even called Lex. That would probably have gone over like a ton of bricks with Clark. But Lex did have contacts and pull all over the world. Only this time even he had come up empty. Lois wanted to cry at the thought that Clark might not come home again. She lowered her head to hold it in her hands.

"Lois Lane?"

She looked up to see a messenger standing in front of her desk. "Yes?"

"This is for you."

Lois took the offered envelope and opened it slowly. It was a telegram from the Kents. As she read, she went pale and her heart screamed in pain.

***

Lois stood silently beside the Kents. They had gotten the official message from the Department of Foreign Affairs in response to their many inquiries into Clark's arrest, trial, and imprisonment. It read simply,

"This is to inform you that on April 14, 1993, in accordance with the laws established by this country, Clark Jerome Kent was found guilty of possession of narcotics and murder in the first degree. On April 18 at 12 noon, local time, he was executed for his crimes. Due to the nature of his crimes, it is our right to dispose of his body in our facility. May God have mercy on his soul."

Lois would have never believed the correspondence if it hadn't been for the fact that Martha and Jonathan's message came with his effects. His wallet, items that had been in his pockets, his clothes, shoes, his glasses, and a lock of his hair were all included. Lois, being the type of reporter she was, had immediately had the hair sent for DNA confirmation with other strands she'd gotten from his mother, hair Martha had cut from Clark's head before he'd become invulnerable. Two days later the results were conclusive. Both samples belonged to Clark. That, by itself, didn't mean he was dead, but the simple fact that hair had been cut from Clark's head at all did indicate that something had gone horribly wrong.

Government agencies were contacted again. Someone from each authority insisted it was not their place to interfere with another country's laws. However, the UN sent a representative to discover what had actually happened to the reporter. The official report that came back was delivered personally to the Kents' residence, just as the official notice of Clark's execution had been, by a representative of the United Nations and stated that conclusive evidence had been discovered to substantially determine Clark's guilt. A simple 'I'm sorry' was the last the little family would glean from their government.

Martha and Jonathan had been devastated. Lois had flown to Smallville immediately after she'd received the telegraph from the Kents informing her that something was wrong with Clark. Martha had fully denied that her son could be dead. He was invulnerable! How could he have been executed? The trio threw around scenario after scenario, trying desperately to cling to some kind of hope that Clark was still alive and that this was all some kind of horrible mistake. When the DNA report came back proving beyond doubt that the lock of hair was indeed Clark's, the small family had had to face the fact that something far more serious had taken place.

Did Clark's mysterious murderer know he was Superman? Had they injected him with some liquid form of Kryptonite to be able to kill him so quickly? Or was this all some kind of cruel joke? Was Clark alive somewhere, suffering an unbearable fate? Those thoughts led Lois back to Port Stanley, unable and unwilling to accept the UN's evaluation of the situation. What she discovered in the small country had nearly killed her. Lois had spoken to the executor himself, after several days of insisting the authorities give her some kind of answers she could live with. The officer told her that Clark had become ill when he'd been put into his cell and had almost welcomed his death to end his suffering.

"It was over quickly," she'd been told. Though she had a nearly impossible time believing the man, eventually her heart had to face the facts presented to her. She'd spent the next two days swirling all the events around in her head. Somewhere during that time she realized that the person who'd done this thing knew Clark and while this person might not have known he was Superman, it was well known Clark and Superman were friends. With that fact, Kryptonite could have been used as insurance in case Superman showed up to attempt an escape for his friend. Unbeknownst to anyone, Superman was already there. For Clark, that meant possible deadly results. In this case, possible had become reality.

Lois took her devastating news back to Smallville to Clark's parents. Together, the small group grieved that night, finally accepting with their mind what they had refused to accept with their heart. They just couldn't believe that Clark was gone. However, the following day a memorial service was planned for the son and most recently, the companion that was lost. The more rational side of the adults knew they had to let Clark go. It would do none of them any good to hold on to something that couldn't be again.

Martha had insisted they erect a small stone in Clark's memory. It was placed beside his great- grandfather Kent's stone in the family plot in Mt. Olive Cemetery in Smallville. Nearly all the town had turned out to say their good-byes to the wonderful man that would never come home again.

With the service over, the crowd began to slowly file away. Lois remained behind, looking down at the name on the stone. Never again would she see the man that name belonged to. She wouldn't see his smile, hear his laugh, or feel his touch.

"Oh, Clark," she breathed through fresh tears. "I will always love you. I won't rest until your killers are brought to justice." She bent and placed the rose she held on the stone. "You'll never be forgotten. And I will never forget how much you loved me those last days." She stood and hurried to catch up to the car waiting to take them back to the farm. She may have lost the only man she had ever been truly loved by, but she found solace in the family he left behind.

***

What time was it now? Hell, what day was it? How long had he been here? Weeks? It seemed like years.

He laughed out loud. How stupid could one man be? His determination to keep his secret quiet had caused that secret to become nonexistent. Though he knew he couldn't just blurt out that he was Superman, he could have taken into consideration the severity of his situation. But no.

He'd thought it would be a piece of cake to wait a day or two before escaping. Only he hadn't thought about the lack of sunlight and he certainly hadn't expected kryptonite to be buried in his cell. At least he could rest a little easier knowing those bastards didn't know about his other identity. They'd come back into his cell a few days after he'd been thrown in and dug up the fatal rock. It was just a small piece, buried near the door, but it had done its damage. The guards had joked to each other in Spanish about how the 'flying hero' had failed to come for his friend. Unaware Clark could understand their taunts, they'd continued about how, if the boy wonder had come, they had been instructed to kill him slowly.

It was a relief to Clark to know the kryptonite had been put there as insurance in case the super hero showed. While they didn't know he actually had, which Clark felt was tragically ironic, it did relieve his anxiety about his family having to suffer because of his secret.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he muttered. It may have been some consolation his secret hadn't been revealed, but it didn't help solve his dilemma. His exposure to the green gloater had lasted long enough to drain his powers. The lack of sunlight would ensure those wouldn't return.

That had been. how long ago? He wasn't sure any more. It had been long enough for his hair to grow below his collar and his slow growing whiskers to start to resemble a beard.

The guards had come for his shoes on what he estimated to be the second week he was locked away. They had also cut a lock of his hair. Knowing his invulnerability was completely gone, he realized he was in deep trouble. He'd spent the next three days trying to figure a way out of the whole mess. But Clark became frustrated and decided it was easier to accept his fate. He'd searched frantically for an escape, any escape, with none to be found. It would be up to Lois and his folks now. And he'd decided that was all the help he needed.

Where was everyone? He'd thought that the day he gave up and every day since. How long ago had that been? He had no idea. It had been well after the day they came for his shoes. He'd been convinced it was only a matter of time before someone discovered what had happened and he was on his way out of this dungeon. But no one had come for him. No one had figured out what happened to him. Were they even trying? Would they give up on him as easily as he'd given up on himself? That had been the thought that had made him realize that no matter what, he couldn't lay down and die. There had to be a way out of this and he'd find it. sooner or later.

***

Funny the things you tell yourself in order to keep going. Clark had decided there was a way out of this mess and that he'd find it sooner or later. Only trouble was sooner had become later. a lot later.

The guard came by earlier and had graciously told him that it was October 20th. He'd been here for six months! That had only served to make his outlook even bleaker. So now he sat slumped in the corner, miserable, cold and afraid.

What must his parents think? And Lois? Oh sweet Lois. He missed her so. The ache for her was nearly unbearable those first weeks. Though painful, he could at least think about her now and still be able to breathe.

<<Will I ever see you again?>> He smiled as he remembered their last night in his bed. Those thoughts would be his only company now. And he'd ached every day for not resolving their standing argument.

Clark had had plenty of time to think. Hell, there was nothing else to do. He frequently thought of how much differently he could have handled things with Lois. He could picture their entire conversation in his mind. He'd have agreed that telling Luthor would have been like flaunting their relationship in his face, something he never wanted to do. He would have told her that he understood her reluctance in telling everyone about their relationship until she was comfortable. After all, who was he to judge someone wanting to keep things to themselves. He'd kept a huge secret his entire life.

There were other times his thoughts revolved around who had sent him to this place. Obviously it was someone with a great many connections and plenty of influence. That automatically made him think of Luthor. Not only did he have the means to pull something like this off, he was also evil enough to do it.

So, had Luthor found out about his relationship with Lois? He would have been angry, but would he have been angry enough to do this? Clark immediately answered in the positive. Lex Luthor was the type of man who did not like to lose. He'd set his sights on Lois and to have her simple partner win her affections would have infuriated him.

Clark was afraid for Lois. If Luthor really had set all this up, what must he be doing to her now? Had he told her it was he who took away her beloved? Just to torment her? Was this all part of some huge plan to get her back into his bed?

Wait! He remembered a conversation he and Lois had had in bed that last night. She made the comment about not allowing her feelings to surface for fear of losing control, until him. Did that mean she hadn't been intimate with Luthor? He sure hoped so. He also hoped she was safe from that monster's influence now.

He closed his eyes, squeezing out the pain being locked away like this was causing him. He needed to figure a way out of all of this. He needed to get back to Lois.

***

Being an ordinary man was not all it was cracked up to be. Why had he dreamed of that for so long? The super powers that had often been his greatest obstacle in life would now be his blessing. Oh, how he wished he'd done things differently.

He should have told Lois the truth. She shouldn't have had to figure out such a thing the way she had. Or had he imagined that whole exchange? He was certain that glint in her eyes was recognition. Her breathed sigh of disbelief certainly meant she'd figured out his secret. If so, what must she think now? Could she and his parents believe he wasn't coming home on his own accord? Or did they believe him hurt and without his powers; unable to get home?

Poor Perry. Clark was sure the man would feel guilty because it was his tip that had sent them to South America. The old editor had probably turned the investigative world upside down to get him home.

And Jimmy. He would be terrified for his friend. With the abilities the researcher possessed on the computer, Clark was positive it would have only taken Jimbo a matter of days to get to the bottom of all this mess. Had Luthor really covered his tracks that well?

Clark automatically answered that with an affirmative yes. He'd been investigating Luthor for months and had yet to link him to anything more shady than a parking ticket. Evidence gleaned with his powers would have never held up in court, so Clark was forced to try to dig out the dirt the old fashioned way. Only there appeared to be no dirt to dig. Luthor was good. He knew how to hide and hide well. It also appeared he could do the same with someone else.

Though he wasn't sure this had been the philanthropist's doing, it was so much easier to lay the blame on someone. A man could only sit in solitude for so long before he started to lose his mind. Clark was fast approaching that point and Luthor was the perfect target on which to direct his anger and bitterness.

***

Same thoughts, different day, Clark mused as he settled on the floor against the wall. He'd been served up his usual allotment of slush for the day and had spent the afternoon roaming his cell in hopes of finding a loose stone or two. When he failed, once again, to find anything that could help him to escape, he gave up and decided to sit and think, just like he did every day now.

He was staring at the blank, gray wall as usual when he heard the small door on the bottom of his cell door open. It wasn't time to gather his waste bucket. What was going on? His eyes widened when he saw what had been pushed through the opening.

Clark scrambled across the floor, staring down at the flat book and the lone pencil. Paper! Glorious paper! Who had brought these to him?

"Thank you," Clark cried out to his 'angel of mercy'. As he settled against the wall in the small stream of sunlight, he thought it funny to be so happy over paper and a pencil. But with these he could talk to Lois and to his parents, even if it was only here in this dungeon and in his own mind. For the first time since he'd been locked up, Clark cried softly. Several minutes later, he wiped his face and started writing.

***

'It's cold. Cold all the time. The guard told me yesterday it's May. May! I've been here over a year. It seems unbelievable, yet I know the reality of it all.'

***

'Being a normal man. That's what I've always wanted. How načve was I? Normal. it's taught me just what humility is. It's taught me that any man can be broken. It's taught me just how fragile our existence is.'

***

'Sometimes the cold is so unbearable. My bones ache. I lost feeling in my feet months ago. I was given a pair of thin pants, an even thinner shirt, and a pair of slip on canvas shoes when they took my clothes. The shoes seem to hold the cold even more. And the clothes do little to help. So I just sit and shiver. I do think I'm beginning to get used to it though. I hardly notice temperature changes any more. It's just cold all the time.'

***

'I have to sharpen my pencil on the rocks. Never thought I'd miss a sharpener. Whoever it was that gave me that first pencil and notebook brings me another every few weeks. Sometimes I run out long before he gets here with the new ones. I use that time to try and remember what everyone looks like.

'You wouldn't recognize me. My hair is long and filthy. Hell, I'm filthy. I haven't bathed since I've been here. How long is that now? Oh yeah. Today is December 20, 1995. I've been here two years, eight months, almost to the day. I finally got smart and asked the guard for the date about three months ago. Since then I've been keeping track. Not much point though. (me laughs hysterically)

'I'm not getting out of here, am I? This is where I will die. Damn! What must you all think? I pray they told you I was already dead. I couldn't stand to know any of you have hurt each day not knowing what was going on. I miss you so much.'

***

'My sweet, beautiful Lois. I bet you've grown more beautiful over the years. Honey, I've tried to remember what you look like. Nowadays all I can see when I try to picture you are those gorgeous eyes. But your touch. I can still feel that even through the unbearable cold that finally faded into numbness. The only time I feel alive at all is when I think of your touch.

'Do you still think of me?'

***

'You won't believe what happened today. The guard spoke to me! Not the one that tells me the date, but the other one. the one that brings me the paper and pencils. He told me 'Good morning'. Can you believe it?!'

***

'Wow! My 'angel of mercy' has been a guard in this hellhole for over fifty years. He was only twenty-two years old when he 'sold his soul to the devil'. Whatever that means. He said we'd talk more later. Hope it doesn't take three weeks like it did this last time.'

***

'He won't tell me his name, just that he's a monster. He'd stayed watch over men that he knew were innocent. Men have died here from lack of food, water, and from the unsanitary conditions. To him they were nameless souls he never took the time to acknowledge. So why me?'

***

'The guard hasn't talked to me in two months. I'm beginning to think I imagined the whole thing.

'Mom, Dad. I guess you're both pretty disappointed in me. I should have had enough sense to get myself out of this mess. I was thinking of you. I didn't want whoever did this to hurt you or Lois. When I realized it was time to make a move, I couldn't.

'I've tried to get out. I really have. I had thought maybe a few loose stones could be pried up and used to dig. Digging every day would be better than just sitting here. No loose stones.

'No stones to use for a hold to scour the wall to the small opening about fifteen feet off the floor either. I can see a tiny speck of the sky, just enough to drive me crazy with wanting. I want so badly just to see that beautiful, blue blanket again. I would willingly live out my days as just an ordinary man if I could do that one thing.'

***

'This situation seems so surreal. I have been here for over four years! How the hell is that even possible?

'I wonder sometimes what happened to Clark Kent on the outside. Do you all know he's alive and suffering so miserably? I would think not at this stage. And for everyone's sanity, I would certainly hope not.'

***

'My 'angel of mercy' seems to have disappeared. I haven't heard from him in. nearly two and half years now. I still receive paper and a fresh pencil every other month without fail. Maybe he convinced someone else to be a little compassionate. I just wish he'd talk to me again. I was beginning to think he might actually help me out of here.'

***

'I have over thirty of these notebooks now. Sometimes I write things I remember from growing up. Sometimes I only write one word: Lois. I have letters to you, my dearest love. I have letters to my folks. I've even written to myself. I've drawn a few hundred pictures and spent even more time just lying on the hard floor staring at the ceiling.

'Sometimes I talk to myself, just to hear a voice in this unbearable silence. I sing, I laugh, I cry. Lois, I can still hear your voice the one time I heard you sing at the Metro Club. That was beautiful. something I will never hear again.

'You have no idea what isolation can do to a man. I have thoughts of killing everyone who had anything to do with putting me in this hellhole. I have thoughts of hurting the people I love for not finding me and getting me out of here. I even entertain thoughts of taking my own life to end this suffering.

'I tried once, you know? To kill myself. I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my neck, determined to hold it tight until I lost my air and slipped into unconsciousness. All I did was succeed in giving myself a horrible headache. I threw up for two days. Haven't tried to hang myself again.'

***

'I found out today why my 'angel of mercy' hasn't talked to me again. After all this time, another guard finally spoke to me. The older guard died. over a year ago. Before that he was ill and had to quit work. It seems he was known to slip the prisoners things like paper and pencils to help them pass the time. A friend of his has continued his quest out of respect for his lost comrade. These people seem to be loyal to one another if nothing else.'

***

'Today is February 28, 2002. 2002! Wow! A new century has dawned. Was there all kinds of paranoia around the turn of the century like folks were predicting? Bet it was something to see.

'Oh yeah. Today is also my birthday. I am 35 years old. In April, I will have been here for nine years. Nine long, excruciating years. It just amazes me I haven't lost my mind. or at least much of it.

'I can tell you that being here has changed me considerably. Mom, Dad, the gentle son you once knew no longer exists. Lois, honey, your compassionate, loving partner is gone forever. Clark Kent really is dead. The only thing left is this sorry ass man that writes and talks to himself to keep some kind of presence of mind.

'I do hope the best for you all. I hope you've moved on, grieved for my passing and built a new life without me. They say time heals all wounds. In my case, it has created those far too deep to ever heal.

'I know I will only leave this place in my death. I've accepted that. After my passing and one day after all of yours, I hope we're united again. I love you all.'

***

'It took a while for the guard to talk to me again. He slipped me a new book three days ago and told me hello. He told me not to worry. Warren would soon set me free. I don't know about that, but I sure wish someone would.'

***

Clark was about to lift his book into his lap again, when his cell door opened. Several guards entered and stood at attention. Another man, one clearly of importance in the outside world, entered and looked around in disgust. His eyes lighted on Clark. Both could only stare at the other. What the hell was going on now? This was the first time Clark had seen another person face to face since he'd been here. He was actually shocked. and afraid.

The man turned and said a few words to one of the guards before he approached Clark. He stopped a few steps beside him, then kneeled to get a better look.

"What is your name?" the man demanded.

"Do." Clark's dry mouth had trouble forming the words. It had been sometime since he'd last talked to himself; he'd given up in favor of just writing. With difficulty, he swallowed and tried again. "Does it matter?" Clark answered, barely above a whisper. It had been so long since he'd been known as anyone, what did this man want to know his name for? And there was something about this man he didn't like. He wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

"It matters considerably to you," the man told him. "I was told that a once famous reporter from the Daily Planet was here in Purgatory. You're not native, so I take it you might be the one."

"What if I am?"

"Then my trip has not been wasted." The man's eyes strayed to the books lying beside Clark.

Clark followed his gaze to the pile of notebooks. "Don't even think about it," he told the man fiercely. They had taken everything from him. He'd be damned if they'd take his thoughts as well.

The man's brows rose at the boldness he heard coming from the young man before him. "If you'd confirm my suspicions, it will not be necessary for me to look at those."

Clark stared down his opponent for several moments before he spoke. "My name was Clark at one time."

The man nodded his head once in apparent approval. He'd heard what he came to hear. He stood and faced the guards. "Get him cleaned up and put some clothes on him. I want him on the boat this afternoon."

Clark pushed up off the floor in obvious shock. "What?"

The man turned back to look at his captive. "No one has ever left Purgatory alive, but you have earned a reprieve." He gave Clark a smile and turned to go.

"Come on," the guard ordered Clark. He grabbed roughly at one of his arms.

"My books," Clark protested.

"Put the books in a bag," the guard told his comrade. Clark was hustled out of his cell and down the corridor. After nine long years, he was leaving his tomb. But what lay ahead for him? Was he to go from one death to another? He was sure he'd find out soon enough.

***

Clark sighed deeply and leaned back to rest a bit against a crate. Actually standing outside and breathing fresh, clean air was overwhelming. This was his first chance to enjoy his freedom since leaving his cell. Although cloudy, Clark was basking in the sight of the sky above him. The feel of the wind on his face, the sounds drifting around him, and even the sight of other people threatened to send his system into sensory overload.

He stood on a pier, beside one of the guards from the prison, waiting on some ship that man had said he should be on. They'd graciously stripped him of his rags earlier and gave him an icy shower, straight out of a hose. He didn't feel much cleaner, even in the newer clothes, but he had been grateful to feel the water on his body. It was the first time he'd felt that much water in nine long years. And why him? Why was he waiting to board a ship? Where was he bound now? Maybe he'd find all the answers he sought before long.

What seemed like days later, a small cargo ship could be seen coming into the docking area. Clark watched as the ship came in to dock. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a black car pull up. The man who had ordered him from his cell earlier emerged and waved a hand to Clark's guard.

"Come on," the guard ordered. Clark followed slowly down the old wooden platform, until they were standing directly in front of the other man.

The man looked Clark over a moment before he spoke. "I should introduce myself. I am Warren."

Clark gave a slight nod and readjusted the bag he held over his shoulder that contained his only possessions in the world.

The man noticed his struggle. "Take that bag for him," he ordered another man beside him. "Can't you see this man is weak? We were given specific orders to take care of him."

The man shuffled to do as he was told and took the bag from a reluctant Clark. "It's okay. He'll simply take it to your quarters on board. They won't be harmed," Warren assured Clark.

Clark eyed the bag warily as the man who took it swung it over his own shoulder. By now, a man from aboard the ship had approached the group.

"I am First Mate of the 'Countess'."

Warren extended his hand. "Warren," he stated simply. "I was told you are the best."

"I am. You will be carried to your destination post haste."

"Very good." Warren turned to Clark. "Come aboard and we'll get you a hot bath and some clothes."

Clark nodded and made his way up the plank and onto the ship. Within minutes they had put out to sea again and were heading south west.

The first mate approached Clark where he stood watching the land where he'd been a prisoner for so long disappear.

"Sir?" Clark faced the man. "I am Edward. I will make sure you are taken care of until we reach the 'Countess'."

"Countess? I thought this was."

"No, no. This is just an old cargo ship. The 'Countess' is the yacht that will take you back to the states."

"I'm going to the United States?"

"Yes. Warren has instructions to take you back there. I was hired to make sure you get there and are taken care of along the way. Now come. Your bath is being drawn."

Clark almost pushed Edward along. It had been so long since he'd bathed. He was definitely not passing this up.

***

The 'Countess' turned out to be a massive and very elegant vessel. Clark couldn't ever remember being somewhere so luxurious. He'd been cleaned and provided with new clothes and shoes. He also couldn't remember when food and water had ever tasted so good. He'd been given some of the most wonderful food to eat. He'd eaten so much that he'd spent two days with a stomachache.

He'd recovered fairly quickly and was now enjoying the warm sun on the deck as the yacht raced across the ocean. Clark refused to go below deck until he soaked up the wonderful rays shining down on him. Being locked away so long had given him an appreciation for such mundane things. The first few days he'd been out of that horrible cell, the sun had been hidden by a thick blanket of clouds. It had rained endlessly that first night on the cargo ship. Though he'd enjoyed the rain, when the sun peaked through the clouds this morning, Clark nearly cried.

He titled his head back and let his mind take him to places he hadn't been in such a long time.

It was well over a week into his trip when Clark revisited his bag full of notebooks. Years of thoughts were on those pages. And all the misery he'd endured. He thought briefly of throwing them overboard, but that just seemed too painful to do. So he took his precious books back to his room and read for a while before he decided to write.

***

'A man named Warren came and released me from that hellish dungeon. As I write this I am aboard a yacht bound for the states. I have yet to understand this all, but I refuse to look at this as a bad thing. For the first time in years I am clean, warm, and full of good food. Whoever gave the orders for this, I thank him.'

Clark paused in his writing to think about his parents and Lois for the first time in days. How had he actually let them drift from his mind?

'Mom, Dad. Thoughts of you have gotten me through the hell I was thrown into. I can't even imagine what my life would have been like if you hadn't found me. I owe the man I once was to you both. Please know I will always love you. But now you have to understand. Time has changed me. Being locked away in that dark, cold cell has robbed me of all feeling except that of revenge for whoever it was that put me there. Because of the lack of spirit or even the will to live as Clark Kent, your son, again, I have to build another life. I will make inquiries to check on you. And I will never cease to make sure you both are well. Forgive me this. I love you both.

'Lois, my dearest Lois. I can't imagine how breathtakingly beautiful you must be now. I would bet time has only matured you into a stunning woman.

'What are you doing with your life now? Are you married? Did you finally trust another with your fragile heart? I only hope he's worthy.

'Do you still work for the Planet? How about Perry and Jimmy? Are they still the only friends you have? I hope not.

'Oh, Lois. I wish you all the best. I will love you forever, but I must finally say good-bye. I am no longer the man you once knew. I would sooner die than to hurt you. Seeing me as I am now would surely do that. Please know you were in my thoughts every day and will be until the last day. I love you, Lois. I will always love you. I will always look out for you as well.

'Today I say good-bye to Clark Kent. forever.'

Clark shut his notebook and tucked it back into his bag. He stretched out on the small bed and closed his eyes. Maybe tomorrow would bring more answers along with a new life.

***

New York City in the year 2002 wasn't much different than it had been in 1993. But Clark had to pause as he took it all in. He wasn't sure exactly where it was he'd been all this time. He could clearly recall starting out in South America, but if they were docking here, that clearly meant he'd been taken somewhere other than the place he'd started from. Along the route, the air had been crisp, indicating they had no longer been near the equator. They'd also traveled a great deal of time at a South Westerly heading before turning North, a sign he'd been taken across the Atlantic before being locked away. Since he hadn't recognized the port they'd left from, he wasn't exactly sure where he'd been.

Besides, Clark decided, it didn't matter now. He was out and that's all he was concerned with.

Clark felt a little anxious and overwhelmed as he gazed upon the sights he thought he'd never see again. He hadn't realized that since he'd gotten out of that prison, he was slowly coming back to life. It didn't resemble, in any way, the life he'd had before, but it was still a life.

He didn't have long to take in his surroundings before Edward ushered him into a waiting car. Warren took his leave, explained that his job was done and Edward would make sure the last leg of the journey was completed as ordered. A little while later, Clark boarded a small plane. When it landed, he was put into another car and driven through some of the most beautiful country he'd ever seen. Of course, he *had* seen it before. He was somewhere in the New England states of the US. He contented himself with staring out the window at the beautiful fall colors as the scenery rushed by. When a massive estate came into view, he sat up a little straighter.

***

Clark felt like a kid in a candy store as he walked through the large hallway of the mansion he'd entered. Nine years in a tiny room built of rock had certainly given him an appreciation of the finer things in life, and he had to admit that this seemed to be a very fine house. He was led to a huge library where a man was looking up at the contents of the bookcase before him. The man turned to look at Clark when he came in.

"Welcome," the man offered softly. "I am Travis."

"Travis," Clark answered in a flat tone. He 'd been locked away far too long to dance around formalities. He'd rather jump directly to the point. "Would you mind telling me why I'm here?"

"Certainly." The man who called himself Travis waved to a chair and moved to take one himself. For a long while he could only look at Clark and smile understandingly. The sudden change in circumstances for the young man surely had to be a bit of a shock.

The man's scrutiny made Clark uneasy, but he chose to occupy himself by looking around the room. Finally Travis spoke.

"Warren didn't tell you much, did he?"

"He didn't," Clark answered looking back at Travis. "And who was he anyway?"

"Just a man hired to get you here. Look at me, young man."

Clark's expression remained blank. What was he supposed to see? "And?"

"I am Travis Devon," the man told Clark. "And I am very pleased to meet you." He thrust his hand out to shake Clark's.

Clark grasped the man's hand wearily. "Do you mind telling me what all of this is about? Why is the fact that you are Travis Devon supposed to mean something to me?"

"Just look at yourself. Well, maybe not now. With a haircut and a shave, we could pass as father and son."

"What?"

Travis reached for a photo that was laid faced down on the desk beside them. "Look." The man chuckled slightly. "Actually, the coincidence with our looks is somewhat of an ironic added bonus."

Clark didn't respond to the vague and confusing answer, but took the photograph, eyes widening in surprise. The image staring back at him did look an awful lot like himself. His eyes lifted to the man before him. "This is."

"I know, though that was taken a long time ago. So, now I guess you want to know why? Why did I bring you here? Why did it take me so long?"

"Those are all very good questions," Clark said ruefully as he dropped the photo back onto the desk.

"Let's start this way. The place where you were held is called Purgatory."

Clark snorted his indignation. "Yeah, well, it was named perfectly."

"I know. That place and several like it have been in place all over the world for years. It is where the governments of the world send those who have embarrassed them. or those who have simply ticked them off. Hundreds of missing persons have been lost inside those horrible walls."

"I can see why."

Devon smiled and waved a hand in the direction of the door. Immediately a servant was there with a tray of food and drinks.

"Please. Eat." Devon lifted a glass to his lips and sipped the liquid as he watched Clark.

After a few moments, Clark put his empty glass down and looked back over at his benefactor. "So what does that have to do with me?" Clark found himself wondering if he'd been wrong about who'd sent him to Purgatory. Could he have annoyed the government… and which government? In fact, Clark was beginning to get the uneasy suspicion that perhaps the US government had somehow discovered his secret and wanted to get rid of an over-powerful being, just on the off chance that one day he might pose a threat. The older man's next statement, however quickly relieved his fears.

"But… you didn't do anything to any government, did you?" Devon let that settle with the young man a moment before he continued. " Instead, you upset a very powerful, man, but I'll get to who later." Devon cupped his glass in his hands in front of him. "Meanwhile, I want you to claim my fortune and expose this person as one of the largest evils in this world."

"Excuse me?"

"We look so much alike, no one would ever doubt you if you claimed to be my illegitimate son. That would make you heir to my fortune and with the kind of money I have, you could cause a lot of trouble for the monster that has caused us both a great deal of misery."

Clark paused mid-bite on a piece of fruit. He looked at Devon as if he had just grown another head. This man couldn't possibly mean who he thought he meant.

Devon couldn't help but smile. This young man across from him knew exactly who he was referring to. He carefully set his glass down and folded his hands across his lap.

"I see you know exactly of whom I speak."

"Yeah, well, it wasn't very hard to figure out," Clark said sarcastically. "And with all that free time." He shrugged slightly before continuing with his piece of fruit.

Travis smiled at the younger man. "He's also made my life hell over the last few years and it's become so damned annoying."

"With your money," Clark was quick to remind him, "It seems you could have handled him a long time ago."

Devon laughed aloud. Kent was a wonderful choice. "I could have," the man agreed. "However, wouldn't you agree that revenge is much sweeter when it's just a tad ironic?"

Clark finished chewing the food in his mouth before he spoke again. "What makes you so sure I seek revenge?"

"Come now, Mr. Kent. Surely you want Luthor to pay for sending you to that damn place?"

Clark's eyes lowered to gaze at the plate before him. He couldn't deny that making Luthor pay for sending him to Purgatory was the main thing on his mind these days. And it would be hilariously ironic to do so as someone else.

Devon saw the expression of concentration on Clark's face. He knew this man had thought often of revenge. But to think it out and carry through with it were two totally different things. "As I've said, Luthor has been giving me a significant amount of trouble for a matter of three years or so. Actually, it's been much longer than that…" The older man seemed lost in unpleasant memories for a few moments, though he quickly brought himself under control. "But I digress… I decided late last year to have him researched in more detail than what is usually customary." He chuckled softly. "Most of the time, bad guys keep no more dirt than is necessary for their selfish purposes. I had unearthed a fair amount of that, but felt there was much, much more to my enemy than your standard profile. So. a little more digging produced you."

"Excuse my bluntness, but how is it you were able to find me when others haven't?" Clark felt he had to ask that question. After all, Lois was the best investigative reporter in the world. Why hadn't she found him?

"Mr. Kent, I travel in entirely different circles than your brilliant partner."

Clark almost spat his drink across the room.

"Relax. I'd hardly know about you without knowing about Lois Lane."

The young man wanted to ask more about that particular topic of conversation. At the same time, he remembered his promise to himself not to contact her. He would eventually check up on her. It was just too soon. He had to organize his raging emotions and his torturous thoughts.

"As I said, after a little digging. and some persuasion. I discovered what the evil Mr. Luthor did to you." He stopped to watch Clark. When the man showed no expression at all, he continued. "It wasn't easy to find you. You were supposed to be dead."

"What?"

"Luthor had given the order to have you executed. He called in quite few debts to get rid of you. One of those debts was with a certain power head in the underworld. He runs most of the smaller countries in the southeastern part of South America. He's known to the world as Diego."

Clark searched his frazzled mind for a moment before that name registered. Diego was supposedly the drug lord of the southern continent. When he and Lois had been working on the Thomas case, Perry's informant had led them to believe that a trail could be followed directly back to Diego's organization and hopefully to the kingpin himself. Of course, that tip had been a plant, orchestrated by Luthor.

Devon continued when he noticed Clark knew of whom he spoke. "Diego has never been one to take orders. He felt Luthor was giving them and decided it wouldn't hurt to keep a little insurance in case the need ever arose to use it."

"You mean he kept me alive to use against Luthor if the man ever got on his bad side?" Clark asked ruefully. Not only had he been one man's play-thing, he'd been two, possibly three.

"Yes," Devon answered soundly.

"And it helped that the man giving the orders would never know."

"That it did," Travis answered with a smile. "Word was passed along that you were taken care of and that was that. Luthor never bothered to check or decided Diego could be trusted because they both were members of the same brotherhood."

Clark thought about that for a moment. He had to admit he could clearly see the irony Devon had spoken of.

"Now you understand the irony." Devon smiled and took another sip of his drink.

"I may understand it from my point of view, but what will you get out of it?"

"The satisfaction of knowing that bastard slipped and someone discovered it." Sometime during his statement, his expression had grown grim. "Mr. Kent, you don't know the half of what I have endured at the hands of Lex Luthor."

"I think I have a good idea," Clark said sarcastically.

Once again, Devon's expression cleared. "I guess you do. That's why I chose you to help me carry out my plans."

"And those are?"

"Bring Luthor to his knees. expose his evil empire. then watch his face when he realizes his ugly past has reared its head to bite him on the ass." Devon let his head fall back and laughed fully.

As he watched the man, Clark couldn't help but picture the scene that had been described. Luthor would swallow his own tongue if he were to see the face of the man he had been so sure was sent away to be killed brutally.

Devon collected himself and addressed Clark again. "Tell me, Mr. Kent, why do you think Luthor sent you to that hell hole?"

That hit home with unforgiving force. He knew exactly why he'd been sent away, but that was a subject he was not about to discuss with this man. Never mind he owed his freedom to him.

Devon understood immediately. He knew what Luthor's motives had been. That, too, had been one heck of an ironic situation that still brought a smile to his face when he thought of it. However, he completely understood Clark's reluctance. He recognized it as an imaginary boundary that would not be breached and respected that.

"Understood, Mr. Kent. It will not be mentioned again. Now. will you help me?"

Clark didn't answer. Instead he stood and walked around the room. They were in a library, every wall was covered with shelves and filled with one of the most eclectic and rare collections of literature Clark had ever seen. He studied the titles all the while his mind ran the invitation around in his head.

If he took this man up on this, wouldn't that put him in the same class with Luthor? Quickly he decided that didn't matter because he no longer belonged to a class anymore. Luthor had seen to that. He'd seen to the end of his life as he knew it. Travis Devon offered him that new life he'd said he would create. Purgatory had turned him into someone he neither knew or respected. Did it matter what kind of life he created and lived out now? Hardly. Any kind of life was better than the one he'd lived inside those stone walls. That had been existence. And did it matter that he would live for the sole purpose of torturing another man? Why not? That man had done nothing less to him.

He faced Devon as a new light sparked in his dark eyes. "I love irony."

Devon smiled and rose to extend his hand to the younger man. "Welcome home. son."

***

The man's ambivalent brown-eyed gaze looked down on the city he hadn't seen in ten years. Moments later the leer jet skidded on the runway and came to a halt. When the door opened, he stood and shook himself from his thoughts, then made his way out. The stretch limousine left little to doubt the man's importance. His expensive shoes clicked on the pavement as he strode quickly toward the car. His waist length jacket flapped in the breeze, covering his custom tailored suit. He was the picture of wealth, right down to his perfectly manicured nails.

He smoothly slid into the car through the open door and settled as the driver climbed into the driver's seat.

"We will arrive at the hotel in plenty of time for you to unwind before the event tonight, Mr. Devon," the driver told the man as he looked at him through the rearview mirror.

"Good," was the clipped reply before the man turned to look out his window as the city began to pass by.

It had been so long since he was last here. Metropolis certainly had changed. It was even larger, busier than it was ten years ago. He didn't think such a thing was possible. There had been modern architectural advances in his absence, he noticed as they drove along. Obviously life had gone on for the city he once regarded as his home, while his had been cruelly brought to a halt.

They pulled to a stop in front of the 'Majestic', a new, elaborate hotel in downtown Metropolis. The large expanse of steel and concrete boasted a nearly entirely glass front. Huge stone statues marked the gold trimmed doors leading into what was surely a magnificent lobby. The driver held the door as Mr. Devon exited the car and made his way inside. His assistant, Edward, quickly came to his side from a traveling position in the passenger's seat of the limo.

"The penthouse has been reserved, sir," Edward explained as he led the way into the hotel.

"Good," the man replied as he followed Edward up the desk and stood silently.

"This is Conner Devon," Edward announced to the man behind the counter.

The man behind the desk looked up and immediately pasted on a smile on his face. Conner Devon was the son of the wealthiest man in the world and the man's recent introduction to society had started a media blitz. Since word of the younger Devon's arrival had spread through the hotel, the staff had been filled with curiosity about their mysterious guest.

Travis Devon had been rumored years ago to be a playboy, unable to put down roots of any kind. Of course, that was speculation. The world was well aware the infamous billionaire had been in seclusion since his late twenties, hiding away from society when the pressures of living a public life had become too much for him to handle. With the announcement that the billionaire had discovered the existence of a son, the claims of the wild youth lived by the senior Devon were confirmed, and the world couldn't wait to meet the young man. There had been no pictures, no video media coverage of the heir at all. When it was announced the wealthy son would soon be traveling to Metropolis, every person in the city hoped they would be the first one to get a peek at the man that was causing such a buzz.

"Mr. Devon, welcome to the 'Majestic'. I am David, head concierge."

Conner simply nodded as Edward stepped up to talk to the manager. "I am assured you have his suite ready?"

"Yes, of course. The penthouse is polished and waiting."

"Very good. The car is out front. Have his things sent up immediately."

"Of course, of course," the manager hurried to assure Edward. He summoned a bellhop and instructed him to take Mr. Devon's luggage up to the penthouse. "I will have someone take you up."

"That won't be necessary," Edward told him as he reached for the security card. "If we are in need of assistance, we will call."

"Yes sir. Please call me personally."

"We'll do that." Edward turned and held up his hand for Conner to go ahead of him and quickly fell in step beside his boss as they made their way to the elevators. Behind them the slow hum of excited voices filled the air.

"It will be common knowledge that you're here before the end of the hour," Edward told Conner.

"I know," he answered with a frustrated glare at the many eyes staring at him as he entered the car. When the doors slid shut, he let out a long breath.

***

The dark surrounded him. The unbearable cold numbed his body, while silence echoed around in his mind. No! Why me? Why put me in this horrible place? What did I do to deserve this?

Suddenly he jerked awake and sat straight up on the large bed. His eyes darted around the room, registering the fact that he was in the penthouse suite of the Majestic hotel. It had been just a dream.

The sun was beginning to set in the beautiful spring skyline over the city. Earlier he'd come into the bedroom to lie down before he had to make an entrance at the 'Man of the Year' event tonight. It only took a moment before sleep had claimed him, as it usually did when he slowed down.

He pushed himself off the bed and trudged into the bathroom. A weary hand was forced through his unruly hair as he came to stand in front of the mirror. He looked at the man before him with a mixture of loathing and awe. He didn't even recognize himself any longer. As he leaned closer to the looking glass, his fingers stroked his temples and the silvered hair that now graced them. He'd believed at first that the silvery-gray streaks would revert to their original dark shade with the return of his powers, but that hadn't happened. Who knew, he thought with a shrug. Perhaps silver hair was part of his genetic makeup. It certainly helped make up his disguise.

His normally short hair had been replaced by nearly shoulder length, perfectly groomed locks. An expertly trimmed goatee adorned his once clean-shaven chin. Long sideburns added to the effect the small beard was trying to create. Although the hair did wonders to change his looks, it was the deep lines around his dark eyes that made the most difference in his appearance. Those lines spoke of years of pain suffered.

Conner took a deep breath and shook his head at the man he'd created. Even the name was a lie. Conner Devon had come into existence when Travis had related the story of his life to Clark Kent in the library of the mansion in New England nearly six months ago. Clark could still remember that first conversation with his benefactor. A vivid picture had been painted for the one-time reporter as Travis told of the many devious and underhanded things he'd been subjected to at the hands of Lex Luthor. The older man had explained why he'd decided to select Clark to become his 'son' and help him in his plans of revenge, and Clark had agreed to take on this new persona. Being locked away in a filthy hole in the wall for nine years had hardened a once compassionate man and the last thing Clark wanted to do was become a hero to the people, because toppling Luthor would make him one. Even if no one ever knew that.

After only a moment's consideration, Clark had decided that using Devon's money to avenge himself wasn't so bad after all and it suited his purposes of starting a new life. He might as well be Conner Devon, as any one else. Together they'd tailored Travis' plans of making Clark his long lost son and putting the younger man in position to cause Luthor and his organization irreparable damage.

Other than what Clark had gleaned about business dealings from his time reporting on them, Clark knew very little about the corporate world, but he was a quick study. Luthor's holdings were bought out, shut down, taken over, and sabotaged. Piece by piece, Lex Luthor's empire had started to crumble. When word had reached Travis and Clark that Luthor was starting to scramble to save his beloved LexCorp, they'd decided the first phase of their plan was running successfully and the announcement had been made that Travis Devon's son had been discovered.

Word had traveled back that Luthor was interested in a meeting with Devon, an obvious attempt to form some kind of alliance in an attempt to salvage whatever was happening to him. Luthor was grasping at straws, trying to utilize whatever means necessary to find out what was happening to him and his empire. Apparently he believed an alliance with the wealthiest man on the planet couldn't hurt. Devon had answered that he would be in Metropolis for his first appearance in over forty years at the end of March to introduce his son to the world and he would speak with Luthor then.

Only Travis Devon's time had run out. Fate had played its cruel hand and he was found dead in his bed in late February. The once powerful man had suffered a massive heart attack. In private correspondence left for Clark, Travis told him to make quick work of destroying Luthor and move on with his life. The money was left to him to do with as he wanted, even after Luthor and his empire fell to the ground. There was provisions made to turn the money over to Clark Kent if said man ever decided he wanted to resurrect the long dead persona. To Clark, that whole situation had turned out to be the most ironic of all.

But Clark Kent was dead. He'd discovered that almost immediately. Travis' sources told him that everyone was led to believe that Kent had been executed almost immediately after his imprisonment began.

Conner closed his eyes and thought of the benefactor that had gotten him to this place. Travis Devon had been the richest man in the world, holding that distinction through hard work, unlike Luthor. He'd made ruthless business decisions, but had refrained from the villainy so often associated with wealth. Travis had buckled under all the pressure of being at the top of the financial food chain and had gone into seclusion to live a more peaceful existence, at least in his mind. However, the best intentions go awry and when pushed to their limits, even the most gentle men become volatile.

Almost without realizing, Clark had grown fond of the older man, who'd plucked him from his living tomb. He'd thought he was done with emotions, yet he had to admit that Travis had somehow got under his skin. He'd enjoyed the long talks they'd had together in the library by the fire during the long winter and he missed him. Now he had to go on alone.

Conner took a deep breath and splashed some water on his face. It was time to get ready for this event tonight. Metropolis' 'Man of the Year' was Perry White. As he wiped his face he tried to remember his one time boss.

He'd learned that the no nonsense editor had left his position at the Daily Planet in late 1998 to become Mayor. He wasn't sure why Perry would have done something that seemed so drastic, but it certainly seemed to have been a wise choice. Crime was at an all-time low and Metropolis had been voted the number one city in America to live in, for the second year in a row. And that was with Perry in office only five years. He'd recently been reelected to another term.

Before the old man's death, Clark and Travis had been discussing what would be the best time to introduce Conner Devon to the world. When Clark discovered who was being honored at this year's ceremony, he'd decided this was as good a time as any. He couldn't put off going public forever if his plans were to work, and he'd decided that it was time to check on all those that had once meant something in his life. As for his revenge, he'd decided that when Luthor was finally brought to his knees, he wanted the man to know exactly who had been responsible. Even if the world only ever knew him as Conner Devon. So, tonight was the night to 'come out' and start the second phase of his plan.

***

Conner looked out at the city as the car made its way through the streets toward the Metropolis Convention Center. He'd asked Edward to sit in back with him this time to fill him on some information he'd asked the assistant to gather.

"Do you have anything for me?" Conner asked.

"Yes." The man opened his notebook and read through his files. "Martha and Jonathan Kent no longer reside in Smallville."

"What?" Conner turned to look at the man. His decision to look in on the people from his past also included the older couple.

"Following the death of their son, they moved to Metropolis."

Conner stared at Edward in disbelief. Jonathan Kent lived in the city? That was one place the old man had said he would never live. What had happened?

"And?"

Edward shrugged slightly. He wasn't sure why his master was interested in these people, but he'd gathered the information anyway. He'd been quite surprised to discover that the unhealthy rack of bones, masquerading as a person who had boarded that cargo ship months ago was really the son of the wealthiest man alive. And when the young man asked him to stay on as his assistant, he'd been extremely grateful. So, he'd indulge him in nearly any request.

"They live up town, in one of the condominiums of Port Royal."

"Port Royal? What is that?"

"It's a building erected about three years ago by." He read through his papers for a moment. "Lois Lane."

Conner had been gazing out of the window again. At the mention of that name, his head jerked around to his assistant. "Did you say Lois Lane?"

"Yes. The famous reporter, novelist, and activist."

"Novelist and activist?"

"Yes. According to my research she has written several very successful novels and has campaigned for all sorts of worthy causes over the years."

Conner rolled that information around in his head. He had deliberately left Lois' name out of any research he wanted Edward to do because he didn't want old pain brought to the surface.

"She had Port Royal built for several different reasons."

"I don't want to know," Conner cut him off and turned back to look out into the darkness. Until this moment he hadn't given much thought to the fact that Lois would probably be at the event tonight. When he'd made the decision to come, he'd known she'd be there. He wanted to see her. He had to know she was okay, but at the same time it wasn't something he looked forward to either. He knew as soon as he saw what kind of life she had now, he'd live through more pain. He wished only the best for her. He just didn't have to like the life she'd built without him.

He could only sigh. Why was it, even after making the decision to stay away from Lois, she was nearly all he could think about? She, and his parents, had been on his mind constantly for the past few weeks. He guessed it was because of his decision to come to Metropolis and the fact that he'd known Lois would be here. For all of his arguments with himself over staying away from her, he had to force himself to keep from turning back to Edward and request everything he knew about Lois Lane. He loved her still. so much. And that was why he couldn't bring himself to cause her more pain than she'd already endured because of him.

"We're here," the driver's voice cut through Conner's musings.

***

The turn out for Metropolis' 'Man of the Year' was the largest in memory, even larger than the turn out for a certain superhero many years ago. Perry White was certainly deserving of the attention. He'd worked hard to make the changes he had and his city was proof of that.

Perry smiled as he made his way around the room greeting people.

"This is one hell of a shin dig," Perry commented to the young man at his side.

"Yes sir," the man answered.

Perry clapped a hand on the man's shoulder as his soft bellow rang out. "Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Chief? We may not be at the Planet any more, but I still like to hear that name."

Jimmy grinned widely up at his surrogate father. "Okay, Chief." They shared a laugh and started to exchange a few words about the gathered crowd.

"I hear Conner Devon is supposed to make an appearance," Jimmy commented after a while.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm looking forward to meeting him. His father supported a lot of worthy charities in this city over the years."

Just then Perry and Jimmy turned as the attention of those in the room was drawn to the entrance. A well- dressed, apparently very important man was greeting a couple of Perry's administration team.

"That's him," someone came rushing over to whisper to Jimmy.

"Who?" he asked.

"Conner Devon."

Jimmy and Perry both turned back to watch the man as he eased into the crowd. He certainly looked the part of someone extremely wealthy as his polished appearance left little to doubt his clothes had cost a small fortune. Not a hair was out of place as he moved with the grace of an athlete. What both men did notice was the lack of emotion in the man's expression. His slight smile was forced and he looked to be speaking in short, clipped sentences.

"Who are you two looking at?" a female voice interrupted them.

"Conner Devon," Jimmy told the woman who'd joined them.

She craned her neck, only glancing at the man across the room. Dismissing the talked about billionaire, she smiled up at Perry. "I can't tell you how proud I am of you, Perry."

The old man looked down into the eyes of the woman he considered his daughter. "Ah, Lois, honey. You say the nicest things." He pulled her into his chest for a warm hug. When he pushed her back, his grin faded to a frown.

"Where's that boy of mine?"

"Around here somewhere. He's very proud of his Grandpa Perry."

"To me, honey, you and that boy, Jimmy over there, and my boys and their families are my greatest achievements."

Lois blinked as her eyes filled with tears. She wrapped her arms around his neck for another hug. To her, this man was her father. He'd taken the position when her real father refused to do so. And Perry had been through so much the last few years. It was his need to see certain injustices righted that had led him to run for mayor. Lois had worked at his side and their city was changing for the better.

Perry had also lost his wife to a tragic car accident right after he took office. His sons had rallied to support their father. The once wayward sons came home again. They had met and bonded with both Lois and Jimmy and all were one big family now, along with spouses and children. As much as such things had once scared Lois to death, finding her place in a loving environment, surrounded by others that loved you in return as much as you did them, was now the only place she wanted to be.

The emcee announced it was time to start the ceremony and everyone quickly took their seats.

***

Conner watched as the brunette hugged Perry White. Even with ten years added to him, he'd recognize that man anywhere. He also recognized the younger man to his right. Jimmy Olsen barely looked a day older. Inwardly he smiled as he remembered the spirit behind that boyish exterior. When the woman turned and started toward a table, Conner gasped.

"Lois," he whispered. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. For so long he couldn't picture that face, but seeing her again made all the memories he ever had of her rush around him. He felt his face flush and his stomach lurched.

"Sir? Are you all right?" Edward asked as he saw Conner's expression.

"Yes," he finally managed. "I just need to go splash some water on my face."

"Certainly." Edward watched as Conner made his way through the crowd to use the facilities.

Conner rounded a corner and leaned against the wall to catch his breath. He'd thought he could handle a meeting with Lois Lane. If this is how he reacted to seeing her across the room, there was no way he could actually face her. He squeezed his eyes shut and mentally searched for the misery the last decade had invoked in him. He found it and latched on with new resolve before making his way into the restroom for a quick splash of water. A pep talk later, he reentered the convention hall and made his way over to the table Edward was sitting at. The ceremony had begun and thankfully Lois Lane sat with her back to him on the other side of the room.

As soon as the ceremony was over and the crowd began to drift back into a comfortable hum of conversation, Conner gritted his teeth and made his way over to Perry. He'd waited until Lois was on the other side of the room though. Tempting fate was not something he did any more.

"Mr. White," he began as he reached the older man. His heart thundered in his chest as he wondered if the man would recognize him.

Perry looked up at the man and slowly started to smile. "Mr. Devon. How nice to finally meet you," he told him as he extended his hand.

Conner took the offered hand in a firm grasp. "And you, sir. My father spoke highly of you."

"I wish I could do the same. Fact is I never met him."

"I know. It was with deepest regrets he never made it to Metropolis." Conner bowed his head momentarily before lifting his eyes back to Perry. "I wanted to extend my congratulations and assure you that I intend to continue any support my father had started with your administration."

"Glad to hear that. Your father supported many worthy charities here in Metropolis."

Conner wanted to tell the man he didn't know the half of what the senior Devon had supported, but chose instead to say, "My assistant will be in touch to schedule a meeting so we can discuss any other needs you may have."

"That would be great, Mr. Devon."

"Please. Call me Conner."

"Conner it is." Perry was about to turn to introduce Conner to Jimmy when he was interrupted.

"Grandpa Perry, have you seen my mom?"

"Ah, no. Don't think I have. Last time I saw she was headin' in the direction of the ladies room."

"'Kay," the boy said and squeezed past Perry and Conner.

Perry laughed softly, but failed to see the strange expression on Conner's face. "Grandkids. gotta' love 'em."

"I'm sure," Conner answered dryly. "Again, congratulations. I really must be getting on. I have much to take care of."

"Ah, sure. I'll be looking forward to hearing from you."

"Until then." Conner bowed and turned to leave.

Perry watched as he strode across the room, this time he didn't stop to converse with anyone. He waved off the assistant holding his jacket and never broke his stride to the door.

"Not very social," Jimmy commented as he came to Perry's side.

"He comes from a line of men that have lived in seclusion," Perry told the young man. "Let's hope the rumors that he's a recluse like his father aren't true. He could really make wonderful changes with his presence here in the city."

"Yeah. Something about him kinda' got to me."

Perry looked down at Jimmy in surprise. "You, too?" Jimmy nodded. "He got to me. Something about his expression. He appears to be a man who has known some pretty hard living."

"Not just that, Chief. There's something in his eyes." Both men turned and looked back at the door Conner Devon had left through. Were they wrong in their assessment of this man or was there something more there?

***

Later that night, Conner once again stared at the man in his mirror for a long while. Finally, but with a heavy heart, he resolved that all he was working to accomplish was more important than whatever he'd once felt for Lois Lane. Edward had told him on the way home that she lived at Port Royal with her on again, off again boyfriend. It also seemed that the man had given her more than his company. He'd given her his son. Lois had a son. Conner had been devastated. Obviously whatever she'd once felt for him was merely an infatuation because the child was old enough to have been conceived within weeks of his imprisonment. She hadn't wasted any time putting Clark behind her before she'd moved on.

And what did that mean in regards to his parents? They lived at Port Royal as well. He also learned they worked for Lois in one of her many endeavors. Did they, too, bury him in one day and move on the next? He forced those thoughts to harden his heart even further. It didn't matter what he felt for Lois Lane. It didn't matter what he felt for his parents.

<<Correction, Clark's parents.>> He told himself with a stern insistence.

He glared at the man before him.

"Clark Kent *is* dead." He squared his shoulders and strode into the other room. Kent may be dead, but Conner Devon was alive and well. And he had important business to attend to.

***

"What the hell is going on?!" Lex Luthor ranted as he stared at the figures on the paper before him. "A month ago this business was thriving."

"I have inquired everywhere, sir. I can't seem to find any sabotage. Sales are simply falling, at an alarming rate."

"And why is that?"

"Competition. The smaller company in Simmons and a couple elsewhere are putting us out of business."

Lex threw the papers across the desk in frustration. This same thing had been happening to all his smaller companies. Lately larger endeavors had started to experience trouble as well. Star Labs had taken over Lex Labs, an oil division in Texas had gone to another competitor, and now it seemed the last of his smaller companies was failing to thriving competition. What was going on? It seemed as if there was a concerted effort to destroy his business empire, but, so far, they'd been unable to find proof of any conspiracy. Yet, despite that, if this kept up, LexCorp would fall. That was something he couldn't live with. He'd already fallen from the position of third richest man in the world to tenth. He couldn't stand to fall any further.

"I want to talk to Devon. We need to propose that alliance I was going to approach his father about."

"I'll set it up."

Lex turned and looked out over Metropolis. He might need Devon Jr's backing to save his power- base here, but then he'd find a way to be rid of him. This was his city. There was no way he would turn it over to some sniveling brat he hadn't even known about until a few months ago.

***

Conner leaned back in his chair and stared across the desk at the man on the other side. Nigel St. John had come on behalf of his boss, Lex Luthor. It appeared his plans were working perfectly. LexCorp was falling and Luthor wanted to insure his fall from grace never happened. What made men like St. John do the things they did? And did it really matter anyway? It seemed it was true that there was no loyalty among thieves. Conner had heard that St. John had done many things behind his boss's back. Heck, Nigel could have been instrumental in Travis finding a lost reporter in Purgatory for all he knew. Besides, what was more important right now was the business at hand.

When Nigel finished his request for a meeting between his boss and the man across the desk, Conner leaned forward and rested his arms on the cool mahogany. "You go back and tell Mr. Luthor that I do not have need of such an alliance. I am wealthy and my businesses are thriving. I am saddened to hear of his impending monetary difficulties, but I can not associate myself with him or any of his holdings. My financial forecasts point to the inevitable take over of LexCorp by summer's end and I will not put any of my holdings in a compromising position." He stood, indicating the meeting was over. "Tell your boss I bid him well in his endeavor."

Conner couldn't stop the smile as he saw Nigel's shocked expression. Undoubtedly, Lex Luthor was never turned down when he made a proposal. Well, there was always a first time for everything.

When Nigel shut the door, Conner sank back to his seat and began punching the keys of the computer before him. He would prove Luthor's involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Clark Kent and he'd make damn sure the man knew he'd done it. He only wished Travis had been able to get that proof for him, making his job easier and more expedient. However, all the information about Clark's disappearance and Luthor's involvement had been obtained by less than reputable means and often simply through confessions of informants that feared for their lives. Nonetheless, Conner would find what he was looking for. Luthor was panicked and panicked men made mistakes. When this one did, Conner would be there to pounce on him.

***

The media attention Conner had foreseen when he came to Metropolis had in reality been relentless. Reporters camped out in front of the hotel to get a glimpse of the billionaire, making travel almost impossible. He'd finally had to issue a statement and answer a few questions. That seemed to calm the masses.

With his new freedom to come and go, Conner took advantage of the warm sun of the April day. He liked to simply walk and bask in his ability to do so without worry of being locked away in some cell. The first few weeks after his escape had been a little painful. With the sun's rays also came their healing properties on his once powerful body and it actually caused him physical pain as his body adjusted to metabolizing the energy after not doing it for so long. It had taken nearly four months for his powers to return, but they had remained unreliable. It seemed being without the sun's healing abilities for so long had indeed caused some damage. While he felt healthy and some of his powers seemed to work normally, others did not. For instance, he was not as invulnerable as he once was. He often woke in the morning with aches and pains and could feel temperature changes. His hair no longer displayed invincible properties, allowing him to have it trimmed and to shave normally. And though he'd floated a time or two in his sleep, he'd yet to be able to fly.

But when he decided to bury Clark Kent, he'd buried all of him. Without having powers to take advantage of for so long, it would have been very foreign for him to attempt to use them again. So he'd decided that normal was all he'd ever be again.

Conner looked up at his surroundings. That's when he noticed he was standing directly across the street from Port Royal. The building was massive, at least fifty stories high. He stared at the doors only a moment before he turned and made his way down the sidewalk. Centennial Park sprawled before him and he couldn't stop the smile on his face. This had always been one of Lois' favorite places. Leave it to her to build her building where she could see it.

Why was it that no matter how many times he told himself he wouldn't think of Lois Lane, his thoughts returned to her? The isolation of the past decade did very little to dissuade his heart where she was concerned. Was he doomed to carry this woman around with him forever?

He made his way through the entrance of the park and started for the center, curious to know if the fountain was still there. He stopped when he heard the soft cries of a small child. Conner headed in the direction of the noise to find a boy sitting on the sidewalk clutching something in his hands. As he neared, he realized the boy was holding a small dog.

He approached the boy slowly, not wanting to scare him. "Excuse me? Is there something wrong with your dog?"

The boy looked up at Conner with large tears rolling down his cheeks. "He. he's dead."

Conner stopped and stared down at the boy. He looked familiar. It took a moment for him to realize this was the boy from the other night that had called Perry his grandfather. He was also easily the most beautiful child Conner had ever seen. He eased forward and kneeled in front of him.

"What happened?"

"Kenny and his gang. They hit him with a skateboard."

"What?!"

The boy smoothed a hand over the still form of his beloved pet. "They don't like me very much and they killed him on purpose."

"That's horrible." Conner reached out a hesitant hand to check and make sure the dog was indeed dead. The boy pulled away at first, then decided to allow the stranger to touch his pet. Conner felt a lump form in his throat as he confirmed the dog was gone. "I'm so sorry," he said softly.

"Thank you," the boy said as he wiped his cheeks. "I guess I need to take him home and tell my mom what happened."

"Yeah." Conner reached to help him stand. "Would you mind if I walk you? If those boys will kill your dog, they might try to hurt you as well."

The boy was about to protest, after all, his mom told him never to talk to strangers. Then his eyes met the man's. There was something behind the man's concerned gaze that the child instantly trusted. "I think I'd like that."

Conner smiled and led the boy back out to the entrance. "Where do you live?" he asked at the crosswalk.

"At Port Royal."

Conner blinked. "What?"

"You know, right there." He pointed to the building across from them.

"Yeah." Conner glanced at the building, then back down at the boy. How had he not seen it before? The boy looked like his mother. "You're Lois Lane's son?"

"Yes. And you're Conner Devon," the boy stated, unable to hide the pride in his powers of observation.

"Ah, yes. How did you know that?"

"The same way you knew who I was. I saw you at Grandpa Perry's ceremony the other night. I've also seen all the papers and television broadcasts with your pictures."

Conner had to smile. "Guess I am pretty widely known."

"Mr. Devon, everyone who's anyone knows who you are."

Conner smiled again before leading the boy across the street to the entrance to Port Royal. "Think you can make it alone from here?" He really didn't want to go into the building Lois Lane had created.

"Sure. I wish you'd come up and meet my mother."

"Maybe next time."

"How about next week at the benefit for the Superman Foundation?"

Conner knew his eyes widened in shock. He wasn't sure he'd heard the child correctly. "Superman?"

"Sure. You do know who he was?"

"Yes, but I thought he left years ago?"

"He did, but Mom's kept the foundation alive."

Conner's brows rose in surprise. "Really?"

"Sure. Everyone knows Lois Lane is Superman's greatest supporter. How do you think Port Royal was built?"

Conner glanced over at the building, then back at the boy. "Your mom used the foundation's money to build this place?"

"Sure. Port Royal is home to some of the largest charities on the planet." The boy looked at Conner for a moment. "Where have you been, Mr. Devon, in a hole?"

Conner couldn't suppress the chuckle that rose from his chest. "You could say that." He reached down and rubbed the child's dog again. "I really am sorry about your dog."

"Thanks." He stroked the soft fur in his hands. "Will you come to the benefit?"

Conner wanted desperately to tell the boy he couldn't make it, but one look into his large brown eyes was his undoing. He could not deny Lois Lane's child any more than he ever could her. "I will be there."

"Thanks, Mr. Devon."

"You're welcome." Conner smiled at the boy and watched as his small legs took him inside.

Conner turned and gazed down the sidewalk. What had he done? He must be crazy for agreeing to go to a benefit for Superman. Surely everyone he wanted most to avoid would be there. Of course, if he'd really wanted to avoid those people, he would have never come to Metropolis. He liked to defend his logic with the excuse that he could get further in his research on Luthor if he came to the city in which the man lived. But Conner knew that was just an excuse. Though staying away from everyone ever connected to Clark Kent was the best decision for all involved, he couldn't stop the overwhelming desire just to make sure they were all happy.

He wandered slowly back in the direction of the park as the boy's words raced around in his mind. Lois had kept the Superman Foundation alive and thriving. Why would she do such a thing? Was it the influence of the foundation that attributed to some of the many changes taking place in the city? Maybe so. He'd have to ask Edward exactly what it was that went on at Port Royal.

His walk had led him to the fountain in the middle of the park. Pleased to see it still there, Conner turned to sit down. That's when he saw the statue off to the right. He moved slowly up to the larger than life stone figure that stood proudly in the afternoon sun. Conner gazed in awe at the huge 'Man of Steel' that watched over the visitors to Centennial Park. The inscription on the plaque below the statue read:

'Superman: Savior of our fair city; defender of truth, justice, and the American way. He may be gone from our world, but he will be forever remembered in our hearts.'

Conner was shocked. He hadn't known his absence would be perceived this way.

<<Correction: Superman's absence. You're no longer that mythical hero.>>

He shoved a hand through his hair and turned to hurry back out of the park. It suddenly occurred to him to question how Superman's absence had been explained. Did the world know that Clark Kent was Superman? Would his folks and Lois have told his secret to keep alive a foundation for the sake of various charities? Did it really matter?

He quickened his pace as he reached the sidewalk and stuck his fingers in his mouth to whistle for a cab. Suddenly Conner was having to deal with a new mix of emotions. Would this ever get any easier?

***

Several copies of the Daily Planet lay sprawled across the top of the desk with a few other less reputable publications. Conner couldn't do anything except stare at them in surprise. Lois' by-line graced each and every Planet article written about Superman since Clark Kent was imprisoned.

Looking over the various stories, Conner discovered that it hadn't taken long for the people of Metropolis to notice the hero's absence in their city and various motives had been put forward for his disappearance, not all of them complimentary. It seemed that the public had come to rely on his services and many of them were more than a little resentful when he was no longer there to rescue them in their hour of need.

Lois had written her first article very soon after returning home from the disastrous trip to South America. She'd informed her readers that Superman's absence was due to the fact that he was extremely busy trying to discover the truth behind Clark Kent's conviction on a drug-smuggling charge. Obviously, she'd tried to buy some time for him to escape from prison and to fly back to the US. When that hadn't happened she must have been mystified, but she'd never stopped trying to cover for him.

Yet, judging by the reporting of some of the tabloid press, Lois had only played into their hands. Many of those writers began to suggest that Superman was so upset by the incarceration of his *friend*, that he was ignoring the needs of the people he'd sworn to protect, and very soon they were insinuating that the pair had been involved in an illicit affair. When news of Kent's death came through, the same journalists reported that Superman was so distraught he'd chosen to abandon Earth.

Lois had tried very hard to counter that claim but it had been an almost impossible task, especially since it seemed likely she was also reeling from the news of his execution. But Lois was not a quitter, and she'd released an article claiming an interview with Superman, stating that he was searching for Clark's body to bring him home to his family for a proper burial.

Reading between the lines, Conner could guess that Lois and his parents must have been trying desperately to cling to the hope that the word they'd been given was wrong and that Superman, being invulnerable, couldn't be killed. Though as time went by and he didn't reappear, they'd come to realize that something had gone terribly wrong and that someone had found a way to murder the man they loved. Slowly, Lois' articles changed from suggesting that Superman would return, to defending the hero's reputation in the eyes of the people.

Later, LNN had led a campaign to imply that Clark Kent had actually been trafficking drugs for his friend Superman. They'd scandalously suggested an elaborate plot in which the super hero intended to take over the city by manipulating the people. The special news bulletins had inferred that his first target had been the children of Metropolis and that his devious plot had been to introduce them to these new drugs which Kent was bringing into the city.

It had been an inflammatory and emotional accusation, and one which had not a single shred of evidence to back it up. However, scouring the many libelous articles in the tabloids, Conner understood that truth hadn't counted for much in the hysterical outcry and Superman had not been around to defend himself. The anti-Superman brigade were in ascendancy, though Conner wouldn't have taken any bets against Lex Luthor's interference in this very public character assassination — it was highly likely that the man had orchestrated the whole affair.

Yet through it all he'd had one staunch defender — Lois Lane. She had led another campaign in support of the super hero. Even though the public refused to see Superman's continued absence as anything other than an admission of guilt, Lois had refused to back down. She'd gone on to write a series of in-depth articles explaining the events which had led up to Clark's imprisonment and his totally unjust execution. She'd detailed her investigations and included several interviews with prominent citizens who were willing to attest to Kent's good character. But her trump card had been an interview with Superman, the man who stood for truth and justice. An interview which, Conner surmised, his parents had helped her with.

Little by little the population began to sway in favor of the super hero and his friend. The subsequent outcry from supporters of both Superman and Clark was overwhelming. People all over the world were outraged by the injustice which had been done to two good men. With heavy hearts the population of the world had accepted Clark's untimely death and Superman's decision to return to his home planet in order to clear his friend of collusion, and alleviate any fears that he would ever have the inclination to rule this world.

Later, articles continued to cover Lois' investigations into what had happened to Clark.

<<She had tried to find you.>>

From the looks of it, she hadn't stopped investigating what really happened. Though the information she sought now clearly focused on bringing justice for his murder.

<<So they did believe you were killed.>>

Conner shot to his feet and called into the adjoining room for Edward to ready the jet. An hour later they were boarding the plane about to take off for Kansas.

***

Conner stared down at the cold, gray stone that had been placed along side those of his relatives. The words 'In memory of our beloved son, Clark Kent' seared his brain and drove the knife deeper into his heart. What kind of pain had his parents felt when they'd had this stone erected so many years ago? En route to Smallville, Edward told him that Clark Kent's family was informed two weeks after he had been imprisoned that he'd been executed just days after his trial. Now he was more confused than ever.

For nearly the entire ten years Clark had been 'dead', Lois had campaigned for his alter ego's continuing benefits for the world. She'd written a powerful interview where Superman told the world that he was going home as the public seemed to have lost faith in his integrity and that of his friend, Clark Kent. His departure from this world seemed to propel him to more of a legendary status than he'd ever had and Lois had kept alive his memory even though she knew he'd never return.

How had she lived that way? Did that mean she was stuck in some weird limbo, still in love with a fantasy? How could she possibly stand to live out her days like that? And what of her son? Did he know why she did all those things? Did he know his mother had once been the lover of the hero?

Conner mentally kicked himself. He hadn't allowed his mind to drift to such thoughts in over a year. It was plain silly to have those kinds of desires. Sure, there was a slight possibility that another woman someday might warm his bed.

<<But will any be able to warm you?>>

Conner turned on his heel and walked quickly back to the waiting car. Inside Edward was pouring over some files, oblivious to what was going on with his boss. The faithful assistant truly believed he was the son of Travis Devon and that his father had found him after a long search and brought him home where he belonged.

"Tell me about the Port Royal charities," Conner told Edward.

"Let's see." He closed the file he was working on and pulled out another. "Boys and Girls Club International, Big Brothers-Big Sisters International, Feed the Children, Coates Orphanage, Displaced Workers Association, Feed the World, MADD, YMCA, YWCA, Celebrate Life, American Heart Association, Goodwill International, Salvation Army, Arm in Arm, Foundation For Life, Elder Care Center, Star Labs-Children's division, Tiny Tots, Special Olympics, Single Parents International, two floors of special housing, and two floors of condos all are housed inside those walls."

"Really?"

"Yes. There's also a small publishing company, a soup kitchen, a theater, a science center, a gym, and various other forms of entertainment. all designed to be available for the many children that would otherwise be unable to enjoy such things without Port Royal."

Conner nodded his head slightly as he sat back against the leather seat. He didn't know why he had to come to Smallville so suddenly. He had this insatiable desire to see the life he'd left behind. The Kents had leased the farm rather then sell completely. A new family, with two small children, lived there now. He'd seen them playing in the yard when they drove there to take a look at what had happened to the Kent farm. Conner had been unable to stop the smile from touching his lips when he saw their youthful exuberance.

"Sir, shall we go back to the airport?" Edward asked, bringing him out of his musings.

"Yes." They settled into silence as Conner rolled the past few days' events over in his mind. What had started out as a mission of revenge was quickly beginning to resemble something else. The pain that had clenched a tight fist around his heart seemed to be loosening.

<<Is revenge what you really want?>>

The thought had come out of nowhere. But was it true? Did he really want revenge or justice? Conner couldn't answer that, but without a doubt, he wanted Luthor to pay for what he'd done. How did he actually intend for that to unfold? Did he plan to kill him? If he'd found out that he was responsible for his misery those first months, the answer would have been a definite yes. He would have killed Luthor without thought. But now? Did he still harbor those feelings? Sometimes he guessed he did. He wouldn't be human if he didn't.

<<But you're not human.>>

He mentally told himself to shut up. It didn't matter if he was human or not. All that mattered was how he handled himself as a member of society. So that brought him right back to his question. How did he plan to take Luthor down? Would he send him to Purgatory? Deliver him to the same deplorable cell he had been locked away in for so long?

<<What purpose would that serve? Two wrongs will never make a right.>>

Damn! Why did his conscience have to be so upstanding after all he'd been through? He should be able to take his fury out any way he wanted. Yet, there was something deep inside that refused to do that. He couldn't lose control. Could he?

Conner mentally cursed himself. He wanted to hold on to the anger and pain. He didn't want to let it go. He wanted revenge.

<<Do you? Or do you just want to feel alive again?>>

He thrust a frustrated hand through his hair and closed his eyes. His mind needed to rest. He'd force himself to think about his agonizing dilemma later.

***

Conner was now even more confused than he was before. He kept waking at night. Not with nightmares of his prison, but with wonderful dreams of an older couple and a young woman. In his dreams, he was happy. He smiled, real smiles that reached his eyes. He laughed, hearty bellows that made him feel good. And the others. they were happy and laughed to prove it.

He also had dreams of a small boy. The boy was sad and lonely. His dark eyes held a certain emotion that begged for acceptance and asked for those around him to be kind and love one another. The child was wonderful and had the most beautiful spirit. Despite the woeful emotions etched in his expression he was still happy and loved.

Conner opened his eyes to the early morning sun. He didn't think he'd ever grow tired of seeing those wonderful rays. Trying desperately to sort all of his emotions, he pushed himself up and went to take a shower.

He couldn't help but chuckle slightly as he thought of Edward's initial attitude toward his constant showers. Conner probably took six or eight showers a day. Being denied that sort of privilege for so long, he relished in the luxury now. He also drank almost constantly and ate several times a day. The one and only thing he did not do now was write. Since he'd put away his notebooks that last day, he hadn't so much as scribbled another word.

However, all of a sudden he felt that simple task was exactly what he needed most. Writing had kept him from losing his mind. There was also many times it helped to sort through mixed emotions. Maybe he'd try it right after his shower.

***

The doorbell rang at the plush home of Lois Lane. A one time self confirmed workaholic, she now spent her mornings with her son. Opting to instruct him herself when he proved to be more advanced than any institute in Metropolis, Lois relished in watching him learn new things.

"I'll get it," she told her son. "You finish that math."

"Yes, ma'am." He offered up his usual brilliant smile before she left the room. Lois answered to find a messenger holding what appeared to be a dog carrier.

"Yes?"

"I have a delivery for Master Lane."

"Master Lane? Do mean my son?"

"If you're Lois Lane, and I know you are, then yes." The man shifted the carrier and sat it just inside the door. He also handed over another box that had been sitting on the floor in the hall.

Lois signed the invoice and went to retrieve a tip for the man.

"No need, ma'am. It's been taken care of," he said with a smile. "And thank you. for all your hard work here. Us little people want you to know it's appreciated."

"Thank you." Lois closed the door and kneeled to get a look inside the carrier. The most adorable puppy peered out at her. Around his neck was a blue ribbon. Lois looked around at the other box, finding an envelope on top, she opened it to see if it gave a clue as to where the gifts had come from.

"I realized this morning that I never asked your name. I'm not exactly sure what to call you. Hey you seems so impersonal.

"Seriously though. I couldn't stop thinking about you and your puppy. Again, I am so sorry you lost your pet. I saw this little guy this morning and immediately thought of you. Please accept him. I know he could not possibly replace the one you lost, but he could be an awful lot of company.

"He doesn't have a name so feel free to call him whatever you'd like. I took the liberty of sending over a box of things to help with his care. Maybe I'll see you guys at the park again. And next time I hope those nasty little boys will stay home that day.

"I'm looking forward to seeing you again tomorrow. Enjoy!

Conner"

Lois smiled as she bent to retrieve the puppy from the carrier. She carried him, along with the note into the room where her son was still busily doing his math problems.

"Hey, kiddo, look what came for you."

The boy turned and his eyes widened with delight. "Oh wow!" He rushed to take the small animal from his mother. "Mom, he's fantastic."

"Don't thank me. Thank your friend, Conner."

He looked up at his mother with wide eyes. "For real? Conner sent him to me?"

"Yup." Lois handed him the note.

When he finished reading, he looked down at the puppy in delight. "Conner's the best."

"Sure seems like he's an all right guy." Lois had listened to the story of how the billionaire had found a sad little boy in the park, holding his dead dog. Her son had appeared unaffected by the man's famous status, but impressed with the genuine concern that had been in his eyes. He'd told his mother the man seemed so sad and lonely that he wanted to ask him to dinner. When an offer to come inside had been turned down, another was extended to the Foundation benefit. Now it seemed Conner was every bit as compassionate as described.

Lois smiled over at the dark haired little guy as he played with his new friend. It was times like these that he reminded her so much of his father. Oh how she wished she could have seen them together.

***

Conner had tried to reason with his rampant thoughts for the last week. He'd told himself that he shouldn't be thinking of Lois Lane and her son. That child was the product of an obvious relationship that had happened fairly quickly after his imprisonment. He should be angry with Lois. She'd betrayed him.

<<Had she?>>

Edward told him that Lois shared her home with a man off and on and had done so for the last two years. That was so out of character for Lois. Obviously, the man wasn't her son's father, but who was he? And where was the illusive sperm donor? Conner had been too afraid to ask Edward in fear he'd tell him something he didn't want to hear.

And the boy. He shouldn't feel such a connection to this child. He represented the blinding truth of Lois' true feelings. Yet.

Conner couldn't stop what he was feeling for the child. No matter who his father was, no matter how, why, or when he was conceived, the boy was part of Lois. And the fact was. any part of Lois would always touch his heart.

Conner sighed heavily as he checked his appearance one last time. He'd admitted to himself just today that he did indeed still have feelings for Lois Lane and always would. He may never be able to tell her who he was or to have her in his life again, but there was nothing he couldn't feel.

And he did feel for that incredible woman. It also appeared he was starting to have feelings for her son. What had happened to the declaration to avoid his past, or the decision that his family and Lois were better off without him?

<<It's not like you're waltzing back in and picking up where you left off.>>

That thought was almost ridiculous. There was no way he could ever go back. Too much had happened.

<<But wouldn't it be wonderful?>>

"Stop it, Clark." He stopped when that name left his lips. In one short breath, he'd admitted that he could never deny who he'd once been. And suddenly he wasn't so sure he wanted to anymore.

He groaned and pulled his coat on after glancing at his watch. He needed to hurry or he'd be late.

***

Conner made a small scene when he entered the ballroom on the ground floor of Port Royal. He wasn't sure why Lois had chosen that name, but it seemed to fit the design perfectly. Though not overly elaborate, it was beautiful. He'd taken a moment when he arrived to look around the ground floor a bit. He was most impressed, and amused, with the Superman museum. Sometimes it was hard to believe he was ever actually that man.

His conscience was about to remind him of his vow not to mention those facts again when he heard someone call his name. He turned to see a very handsome young man in a pint sized tux approach.

"Mr. Devon!"

Conner smiled and reached out to take the boy's hand. Without thought, he knelt so they were at eye level. "I thought I told you to call me Conner."

"Sorry." The boy smiled at the man as his hand fell back to his side. "Thank you for the puppy. He's the best."

"I'm glad you like him."

"I love him. I named him Jerry."

Conner furrowed his brow at the boy, curious to know how such a name had come about. Instead of asking, he waved his hand around the room. "This is really some event."

"Gets bigger every year." The boy beamed even brighter. He was about to say something else when a voice caught his attention. Conner's head snapped up when he saw the woman coming their way. His heart began a race inside his chest, his mouth was instantly dry, and he could feel himself start to sweat. Slowly he rose to his feet as she neared.

"Conner, I want you to meet my mother. Lois Lane." The boy reached out to take his mother's hand. "Lois Lane meet Conner Devon."

Lois involuntarily squeezed the smaller hand she held as she got her first look at the man before her. For a moment, she was speechless. The dark eyes bore into hers like none other she'd ever seen. He, too, seemed just as stunned. He was staring at her with his mouth slightly agape.

Conner couldn't speak, couldn't think. All he could do was stare. God, she was beautiful! All of his senses began to tune into her. He could hear the fast drum of her heart, smell the delicate scent of her perfume, and almost feel the warmth of her body, even from two feet away.

Lois was first to recover and swallowed several times to regain her voice. "I, ah, I am very glad to meet you, Mr. Devon." She slowly extended her hand.

Conner's eyes flashed to the hand, then back to her eyes. He couldn't touch her. If he did, he'd lose it. Not waiting for a command from his brain, his hands lifted to hers. He took the delicate hand in both of his.

<<Damn! She feels wonderful!>>

He could feel the electricity the moment he touched her. Did she feel it? Or was it just wishful thinking? He looked back up at her and was stunned by what he saw. Lois' eyes were huge as she watched him.

Forcing himself to speak, Conner opened his mouth. "I should have introduced myself a long time before ago," he said softly.

Lois' hand twitched and grasped the larger one holding hers. His voice! He sounded exactly like.

<<That's impossible, Lois. You're just missing him a lot today.>>

Conner had felt her tighten her hand and his heart flipped in his chest. It was still there. All the feelings, the emotions, and the overwhelming desire he'd always felt for this woman. it was all still there.

He was about to force himself to speak again when the emcee announced it was time to start.

Lois jumped and pulled her hand from his. "I have to go, but I would be honored if you'd share our table."

"Thank you. I'd like that," Conner told her before looking back down at her son. The boy was staring at him with almost the same exact expression of awe and surprise that had been on Lois' face. "You okay, buddy?"

"Ah, sure. Come on." The lad reached out and took his hand. He stopped only for a second to look at the man before turning to drag him to the front of the room.

Conner settled in a chair next to the boy, forcing his racing emotions to calm. He could do this. He could.

"Hey you."

Conner's head jerked to the side when he heard another familiar voice. Martha was leaning to kiss the boy's cheek.

"Hi, Grandma. Yo, Grandpa." He smiled and gave Jonathan a high five.

<<Grandma? Grandpa?>>

Before Conner could roll that over twice, Lois was speaking from the podium.

"Welcome to the annual benefit for the Superman Foundation. It is generous supporters like all of you that have kept alive the dream of a true hero.

"He's been gone from us for nearly ten years now, but what he left behind will last forever." She dropped her head and moved some papers around before looking back up at the crowd. "It was my dream that he would someday return to us, to the world and the city he loved so dearly. But he sacrificed his life here for the sake of a friend. By leaving for Clark Kent, Superman proved beyond reason, that a real friend is one to be cherished."

She took another breath and smiled out at her son. "This year I chose this date for a reason. Today is April 18. It marks the ten year anniversary of the death of Clark Kent."

At the table Conner gasped. He remembered reading that date on Clark's tombstone.

"Many have said that Superman remaining gone even after Clark's death was pointless. However, to me it only proves the incredible devotion of the superhero no one ever truly knew.

"It was with great thought that he chose to start the Superman Foundation. Although small at first and focused mainly on local children, it has spread to include the world."

Lois smiled brightly and glanced toward her table again. "Tonight I'm pleased to present a very special speaker. He came to me a few weeks ago and asked if he could say a few words tonight. I was unsure if he was ready for this, but he was quick to remind me that it was time for him to publicly thank his hero for making such a sacrifice for his father."

Conner was stunned by her words. What had she just said?

"Ladies and gentlemen, this year's speaker is Clark Kent, Jr."

Breathe! Breathe dammit! Conner was seeing spots and his ears were ringing. Lois' son had risen from the table and was stepping up onto the podium. A man moved to put a stool in front of the microphone so he could reach it.

"Thank you," the boy started. "Thank you all for coming out and supporting the man and the giant." He grinned at his mother as she stepped off to the side.

Her eyes shifted to the guest at their table. Conner was staring with huge eyes at Clark. He appeared to be gasping for air. Was he okay?

"I never met my father. He died before I was born. I do feel I know him. My mom has kept him alive through pictures and articles and long discussions at night. My grandparents still buy him a birthday present and a place is always set for him at the table on holidays. My daddy will always be part of our lives. Even if his body is never with us, his spirit will live on."

Lois' gaze was glued to the man at the table. His reaction was so strong; He was mesmerized by Clark's words; His right hand was clutching his leg, the tick in his jaw.

The what?! Lois unconsciously moved a step closer to the edge of the stage. Her eyes wondered over the face of the man sitting next to her surrogate parents. Suddenly she gasped. Aware Clark was still speaking, she covered her mouth and tried to force herself to concentrate on his speech.

"Superman stands now as an icon for everything that is good and honorable in our society. We owe it to him to uphold those ideals and make our world a better place. But in this instant, I just wanted to say thank you to him for the wonderful person he was inside. It was the person who made him who he was. That person had the compassion to protect a friend when he was wrongly accused of ridiculous crimes that he'd never committed."

Clark stopped and looked directly at Conner. "I'm sure that if he was still here, that person would fight to find and hold tightly to the many wonderful emotions that I feel each and every time I think of him." Clark continued to stare at Conner even as the applause rose in the hall.

Conner was visibly shaking now. Tears welled in his eyes. He was right. The boy. Clark, he corrected himself was right. Those emotions were wonderful and he was feeling them all at this moment.

And it was too much. Conner shot to his feet, turned and nearly ran from the room. His abrupt exit caused everyone to watch and start to whisper.

Clark glanced at his mother, silently asking her if what he'd just witnessed could possibly be true. She nodded as tears filled her eyes, then she glanced out at the Kents. They were confused by all the commotion, but remained seated. Lois wanted nothing more than to rush to tell them what she'd discovered, to run after him and find out what was going on. However, the night's events were moving on and she had a job to do. She forced herself to concentrate and continue the benefit. Besides, she knew the shock he felt now and knew they both needed time to process it all.

Conner ran down the sidewalk as fast as he could. He shot into an alley and threw himself into the air. It was only when he hovered somewhere amongst the stars that he realized what he'd done. He floated in the darkness as he heaved to catch his breath.

<<Too much! This is too much!!>>

He threw his head back in frustration and yelled out his pain.

A son. He had a son. No. Clark Kent had a son.

<<You *are* Clark Kent!!>>

"Not anymore," he yelled out at the stars. "I can't be him again."

<<You will always be him.>>

Conner dropped his head and sobbed miserably. What was he supposed to do? How could he handle this? He couldn't bring a man back from the dead. He couldn't cause more pain to those who thought him so perfect. They were better off without him. They didn't need him. They'd be just fine.

<<But you need them!>>

"God, help me. I do," he said through fresh tears. He slowly dropped back into a dark section of the park and started toward his hotel. He was much too tired to pretend anymore. He did need those people. He needed Lois, his parents, and.

His son. His heart swelled with pride at the same time it lurched with humiliation. He'd thought Lois had betrayed him, that she hadn't truly ever loved him. But she had. What they'd shared those nights together had been real and wonderful. It also seemed it had been overflowing with their love. That love had created a perfect little person that he'd never known.

His thoughts drifted to the boy he never knew existed. Clark Kent, Jr. Lois had given their baby his name. She had thought of him. A piece of him remained here, constantly reminding her of the love they had shared. And it looked as if she couldn't be more proud of that little fellow.

Hell, he was proud of him and he didn't even know him. This sure explained why he felt such a connection to the child.

A smile touched Conner's lips as he pictured the child and warmth spread through his body. That boy was his son. *His* son. He'd made him with the woman he loved. How could he possibly deny that? He didn't even want to.

Conner walked past his hotel, needing to think more about the sudden turn of events. He spent well over three hours aimlessly walking through the city streets. The air helped him to make some very tough decisions. When he felt he had a handle on his emotions and with a new resolve, he made his way back to his suite.

***

He slipped the security card into the metal box and waited for the beep to allow him entry. He pushed open the door and stopped dead in his tracks. Standing in the middle of the living area was Lois.

"I, ah, talked your assistant into letting me in. I'm sorry if I made the wrong choice," she told him.

"Uh, no, no. That's fine." Conner dropped the card on the table inside the entry and shut the door before stepping further into the room. He was confused as to why she was here. Had she figured out who he was? Her next sentence answered that question.

"I never thought I'd see you again," she said through tears.

"Wh. what?"

"Don't try to deny it, Clark. I know who you are."

Clark could only stare at her. How did he ever think he could stay away from this woman? He should have known she'd know him. The passion they'd shared the short time they were together solidified the connection Clark had always felt for Lois. She'd even told him she felt that same connection to him. If she ever felt half as much for him as he did her, it was no surprise she'd figured out who he was. He lowered his head as tears threatened to spill over.

"Why?" she asked quietly. "Why all this deception?"

"To spare you from the man I've become," he said just as softly.

"Oh, Clark." She wanted so desperately to go to him, hold him, tell him it was all right. But it wasn't. So much had happened and so much time had passed. She wasn't sure if things would ever be all right again.

He lifted his eyes back to hers. "I tried to get out. I really did. After a while. it was just so much easier to pray to die."

"Do you think I don't know that? I knew if there had been anything you could do, you would have. I knew something was horribly wrong."

"It was all horribly wrong from the start," he reminded her.

"It was," she agreed. "I've spent a decade trying to bring whoever did that to you to justice."

"I know. I've read your articles." He stopped to drink in the sight of her as he tried to find words to express what he was feeling.

"My beautiful, Clark," she whispered and took a step toward him.

He backed away. "Don't. I'm not that man anymore."

"I know you've changed. I see it in your eyes, but inside. deep inside, you're still that man." She had reached him and lifted her hand to lie it on his chest. "It feels so good to touch you," she gasped through tears.

"Lois," he breathed as he fought to keep his hands from lifting to touch her. "So much has happened. I'm not him," he finished on a whisper.

"Sure you are," she told him. "I can see past the pain and anger. I see. warmth." She lifted her other hand to rest on his chest, too. "And love." Her eyes drifted to where her hands rested on his chest. "I see how sad you are, too." She lifted her eyes to meet his once again. "Won't you let me help you to be happy again?"

A sob escaped Clark's mouth and he lifted his hand to cover his mouth. He'd convinced himself that staying away from this woman was best. Yet, standing before her as she made an offer to help him heal was more than his emotionally spent heart could take. Still, he had to try one last time to convince himself. and Lois that he'd changed far too much to ever be happy again.

After a moment he was able to speak again. "You couldn't possibly want to do that," he told her without lifting his eyes back to hers. "I've become a bitter, vengeful man. Thoughts of hurting people overwhelm my mind. I've been angry with the monsters responsible for putting me in that prison. I've been angry with myself. I've even been angry with you." His eyes slowly rose to meet hers. ". and my parents." He took a breath, shoved his hand through his hair, then turned to walk a few feet away from her. "I don't know how to be a man anymore. How could I possibly be anything to you?"

Lois' heart wrenched for him as she watched him struggle with his demons. It was plain to see that everything that had happened to Clark had taken its toll on him. At the same time, she could still see the man she'd known so long ago. "Clark."

He interrupted her before she could say more. "I'm glad you were able to move on with your life," he told her softly. He'd had to say something to shift the direction of this conversation. His emotions were simply too raw and he needed time to sort out everything rolling around in his head.

"What?" Before Clark could respond, she realized what he meant. "Clark, no. My life has revolved around my son and trying to bring his father's murderers to justice. The Superman Foundation and charities, Martha, Jonathan, Perry, and Jimmy. that's my life."

"But. I thought…" He caught only part of what she'd said, completely overlooking the fact that she'd mentioned their son. He sighed before moving on. "I had Edward do some checking. He told me you were. involved."

Lois smiled softly. "His name is Dan Scardino. He's a federal agent that was put in charge of your case about six years ago when the DEA got tired of me raising hell about not investigating your imprisonment. He wanted more, I didn't. So we became friends. He worked on your case off and on, although he had other cases. He called me about three years ago and told me he'd been approached by someone that wanted him to join the other team."

"The other team?"

"As in the people responsible for your death." Clark's brows rose. "He and I formed a plan to play both sides. The need arose for him to. 'keep a closer eye' on me, so we decided to let everyone believe Dan and I were living together off and on. He was able to convince them that he was reporting my activities while being able to learn everything that was going on."

Lois had made her way over to him and lifted her hand to his arm. "Clark, it's worked. We know who did all that to you."

"Lex Luthor," he told her sharply.

"You knew?"

"It wasn't hard to figure out," he said, pain evident in his voice. "And it wasn't like I was too busy to make that deduction." He knew he sounded a little harsh, but he just couldn't help himself. Lex Luthor had taken away his life and at times, it was really hard not to lash out.

"Yeah. I suspected it." Lois withdrew her hand and started to pace the room. "I had started to investigate him after I asked him to use some of his connections to help me. The way he acted made me suspicious. So by the time of your memorial service, I was convinced he knew more than he was telling me. The bastard all but admitted it to me the day of your service. He was there, at the cemetery. Said he came to offer me comfort. We argued and he basically said he'd done it. Then the slime dared me to prove it!"

Lois turned away and stared out the window into the darkness. "When I failed to be able to do that after a year or so, I resigned from the Planet and started writing novels. I had to find an outlet for my pain and writing about it helped. Later, the Superman Foundation became a way for me to insure that your ideals lived on, and my quest went a long way toward tormenting Luthor." Lois dropped her hands and continued her trip around the room. "But I never stopped investigating. The director of every agency in the world knows me on a first name basis. I ran into wall after wall until Dan and I started working together. We almost have enough evidence to nail Luthor."

"For my arrest?"

Lois stopped and looked at Clark sadly. "No, but for about a dozen murders. That would be enough to ensure he'd never get out of prison to harm anyone ever again."

The part of Clark that had died inside that dungeon wanted to scream that wasn't good enough. He wanted to shout that prison was too good for the monster. But the part of him that was starting to come alive again won out. He gazed at Lois with compassionate eyes, allowing his mind to admit his feelings for this woman, even after everything that had happened.

"As long as he never harms you, I can die a happy man."

"I think you've been dead long enough," she told him softly. Again, she approached Clark, wanting nothing more than to reach out to him, hold him, and shout that she still loved him after all this time. "There's someone else to consider now."

"I know," Clark croaked out. He'd wondered how long it would be before conversation shifted to their son.

<<When did he become *your* son?>> His conscience couldn't help but ask. From the moment he'd met that child, he'd been unable to control his feelings for him. When he'd only known he belonged to Lois, he hadn't been able to understand how he felt. But now. now he felt.

<<Like you're coming to life again.>>

"You have a son, Clark. We created a wonderful life during one of those three nights we spent together. He's been my saving grace." This time she did lift a hand to his chest. "He's wonderful and beautiful and so much like you," she told him as tears filled her eyes.

"Like I used to be, Lois," he reminded her, grasping her wrist with the intention of removing her hand from his chest. Instead, he could feel himself begin to tremble, and he continued to hold her against his body. "You have no idea what being locked away can do to a man. I've changed; become bitter and angry. How could I possibly be a father?"

"Because for all that's happened to you, I think you need him more than he needs you." Lois refused to let him slip away from her. She lifted her other hand to cup his cheek. He flinched momentarily before she persisted and made contact with his face for the first time. A soft smile danced across her lips as she watched his protective barriers begin to crumble behind his dark eyes. Dark eyes that may have changed, now filled with pain and anger, but still held the light of she'd once seen there. And his face, his beautiful face— marked by deep lines of one who's known horrible strife, was framed by long, thick hair. Hair that had started to show age at the wearer's temples. But none the less, this was still Clark— her beautiful Clark.

Clark couldn't breathe. Her hand felt so good. He involuntarily leaned into her touch, wanting to feel more comfort, more warmth. It had been so long since he'd felt like a man. One touch from her reminded him of just how wonderful that sensation had been. He was a fool to ever believe he could stay away from her. This woman had kept him alive all those years. It would be incredibly more painful to walk away from her now that he'd come this far.

And this wasn't far at all. They'd done nothing more than talk.

<<And she's thrown you a lifeline in the form of her touch.>>

Clark closed his eyes to squeeze out the tears pooling behind his lids.

<<And she's given you *your* saving grace in the body of your son.>>

Another sob escaped his lips and that was all Lois could take. She pulled him forward in an embrace, offering the comfort he'd needed for so long.

Clark didn't even try to pull away. Hell, he didn't want to. His face was buried against her neck as more tears came unheeded. He didn't respond beyond crying at first, but slowly his hands lifted to grip her sides. After denying himself the benefit of a good cry for a very long time, Clark began to sob with abandon.

Lois held him, content to stay that way for as long as he needed. Her own tears made paths down her cheeks, but she remained silent. Her pain was nothing compared to what he must feel. Her hand smoothed over his back and through his hair. After a long while, he began to calm.

Finally Clark was able to whisper against her neck, "Lois Lane kept me alive."

Lois chocked back her own sob and held the back of his head firmly. "And Clark Kent kept me alive," she told him as she eased back to look at him. "Both of you."

Clark could only stare at her. She was truly amazing. In the span of just a few minutes, she'd crumbled all of his emotional barriers that he'd so carefully erected to protect not only himself, but her as well. As if it had a mind of its own, Clark's hand lifted to her face. "How could I have possibly believed I could live without you?" For the first time in a very long time, Clark's mind began to settle. He needed this woman. To him, she was the air he needed to breathe. It wouldn't do any good to deny that or argue otherwise. But his son was a different story. He wasn't at all sure how he was supposed to feel about him.

His hand slowly lowered back to his side and he stepped away from Lois. "How do I just." He stopped and waved his hand in the air. ". come back again? How do I become someone's father when I'm not even sure I can be a someone again?"

"Do you want to come back?" Lois asked bluntly.

Clark met her gaze, drinking in the deep emotions he saw there. Did he want to come back? Did he want to be Clark Kent again? Better yet, could he?

Lois closed the distance between them once again. This time stopping a foot or so from him and folding her arms over her chest. "Clark, it seems to me you made a tremendous leap on the road to healing tonight."

He sighed and dropped his head to study his hands. "So much has happened," he whispered.

"So much *will* happen," she reminded him. "You can't expect me to just walk away now that I know you're alive. And I refuse to keep quiet about you to your son. He knows you're alive."

Clark's head snapped up so he could look at Lois again.

"Clark, I've never lied to Clark Jr. about what happened to you. He was introduced to you on day one and has continued to be acquainted with you. as if you'd been there all along. I've told him everything I know about you and so have your parents, including the fact that you were Superman. And tonight, when you jumped up the way you did… I think he had already started to feel a connection to you, but you gave it away when you ran from the room. He knows who you are and that you're alive, and he wants to meet you. Whether you choose to be in his life, you will always be *part* of his life."

His eyes stayed glued to hers for another few seconds before he turned to walk to the large window. He stared out into the night sky, his raging emotions coursing through his entire body. He wasn't sure what Lois expected of him now. Did she want him to just step back into a relationship with her as if nothing had ever happened? As if he hadn't been gone at all? Did she expect him to care for Clark like he'd been there from day one? And how would the boy view this all? He sighed and spoke softly.

"What do expect from me, Lois?"

She came to his side, choosing to gaze out the window with him. "Well, I expect you to meet Clark, as yourself, not Conner Devon."

"Then what?" He faced her slowly. "Am I supposed to take him every other Friday for the weekend? Or are you expecting me to just waltz back into your home like I've always been there? Should I coach Little League? Help with homework? Should I."

Lois placed gentle fingers over his lips to stop his questions. "Why don't you just meet him? We can take everything else from there."

Clark let out a long breath before turning back to look out the window again. When he didn't answer right away, Lois became a little worried for her son. He'd dreamed of nothing more than being able to know his father in life as he knew him in spirit. It would devastate the boy to have to walk away without even meeting the man.

"Clark, do you want to meet him?"

He turned his head to face Lois, tears started to gather in his eyes again. "Yes," he whispered.

This time Lois' tears pooled behind her lids. She lifted her hand to his arm and was about to speak, but whatever she was going to say was interrupted by another voice.

"Mom?"

Clark's head jerked in the direction of his room. The young Clark was standing there looking at them, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Lois glanced back at the boy before turning a smile up to Clark. "He wanted to come with me. I guess I should have told you he was asleep in your room."

Clark hadn't taken his eyes off the boy. The young Clark was watching him with wide, hopeful eyes. When Lois finished speaking, the boy started toward the couple.

"You're a dream come true," Clark told his father. "You're like Christmas and every birthday I'll ever have all wrapped into one." His large brown eyes were filled with so much hope.

Clark started to tremble again. Somewhere during his walk earlier he had decided that he wanted to know this child, his child. That wasn't too much to ask. After ten years of constant suffering he had every right to ask for that.

The large man turned fully toward the small boy he felt so many mixed emotions about. He kneeled before him, barely able to control himself.

"I think you're a wonderful gift, too," Clark told him.

Clark Jr. took another step. "Mom's always told me everything about you."

Clark's eyes filled with tears. "I'm not that man."

Young Clark had to strain to hear his father's words of defeat. His mother had told him about this man being wrongly accused of drug charges and murder and being taken away so suddenly. She had told him that they were informed Clark had been executed for his crimes. Now it appeared that was wrong. The man had been locked away somewhere, unable to escape and come home. Even his nine-year old mind knew whatever had happened to his father was horrible, but he wanted desperately to just be able to get to know him. He'd listened to the stories of how being Superman made his father take so much guilt onto himself when he was unable to save someone. If he'd been trapped, it had to be without his powers. That would mean lots of guilt. And he was smart enough to know that the guilt was stacked on top of a lot of hurt.

Clark Jr. slowly allowed his lips to spread into a smile, hoping to ease some of his father's pain. "How about me being your friend? Everybody needs a friend." He smiled even brighter, showing the pearly whites that matched his father's perfectly.

Clark could only look at the boy. He had large brown eyes, filled with so much of the same compassion he'd once possessed himself. The words he spoke were something he would have said at the same age. Slowly, tentatively, Clark's hand lifted to the small cheek before him. "I think I'd like that."

Young Clark almost beamed now. His daddy was here with him, had told him he would like to be his friend.

Clark finally allowed himself to smile, the first one to touch his eyes in over ten years. Slowly he lowered his hand back to his side before glancing up at Lois. "What do you say we order room service? I'm a little hungry." He pressed a finger to Clark Jr.'s nose briefly. "And we could talk a while." Unsure if he'd taken liberties he shouldn't have, he met Lois' gaze again. "If you'll allow me, that is."

"Oh, Clark. You don't have to worry about me minding that you spend time with your son."

"It's getting late."

"Clark, you just met your son. your nine year old son. It's not too late."

Clark smiled at her before looking back at Clark. "You agree?"

"I learned a long time ago that it's wise to *always* agree with Lois Lane."

Clark's hearty bellow bounced around the room. Lois and Clark Jr. could only watch. To hear him laugh was an added bonus to getting him back. Slowly they started to laugh with him. When they'd all calmed, Clark stood and went to dial the number for room service.

"Do you want something special to eat or drink?" he asked the boy before him. Lois had moved over to stand next to the lad and Clark couldn't help but inwardly smile at the picture they created. The woman he'd loved with his very being and *his* son were standing, together, in his living area. It was truly a beautiful picture.

"Could I have chocolate milk?"

"You can have anything you want." He finished dialing the number for room service and quickly put in an order for a buffet supper with lots of junk food and plenty of chocolate milk. Remembering Lois was once a chocolate fanatic, he ordered chocolate cake and coffee.

"There," he said when he replaced the receiver. "It'll be here in ten minutes."

"Room service in ten minutes? You must be a huge deal," Lois commented off handedly.

"It helps to have a billion dollars," Clark told her with a grin.

"How did you get all this money?" she asked.

"Long story. Do you mind if we postpone that conversation until tomorrow maybe?"

"I did it again. I'm sorry."

"No. It's okay. I know you have a lot of questions and." He looked back down at Clark standing patiently by her side. "I think I need to answer them. Not just for you, but for me as well. And I will. Just not right now." He flashed another brief smile before he moved toward the table. "Please, come sit," he told his guests.

Clark Jr. was first to move toward the man he hoped to get to know better. Clark may be his father, but he was just as much a stranger as the next guy on the street. He seated himself in a chair that would allow him to see both his parents, choosing to keep Lois in sight as well. The adults settled across from one another and there was a stiff silence before Clark cleared his throat and spoke.

"So. tell me when you were born," Clark asked his son.

"December 16 at 4 a.m. I weighed only six pounds and was eighteen inches long."

"You were small."

"Grandpa said I was scrappy."

Clark smiled at him. He glanced over at Lois, who was smiling at the unfolding scene before her. "I'm glad you had help."

"Your parents made arrangements to move to Metropolis within weeks of finding out I would give birth. They didn't want to miss anything." Lois gave him a sympathetic smile; he'd missed so much.

Young Clark saw the shadow pass over his father's face when his mother said that. He guessed he was reminded of how much he'd missed, too. "Hey, guess what?"

"What?"

"Grandpa takes me fishin'."

"Does he?"

"Yep. He taught me how to fish and I caught my first one on a trip to Smallville when I was four. It was great. It was a huge bass. I caught it in the pond on the back side of the farm."

"I caught my first fish in that same pond."

"I know. Grandpa told me. He said you also fell in."

Clark chuckled softly. "I did and got an awful cold. That was the last time I was sick."

"I've never been sick."

"Really? Are you. special?" Clark had briefly wondered if Clark Jr. had inherited any of his powers. He's started to develop the first of his at about this same age.

"Some. I can see really well and hear things I shouldn't." He grinned over at his mother. "I have a photographic memory. I was three years ahead of my class at school. every school for that matter. So Mom took me out and teaches me at home to keep me from getting bored."

"I would think you'd be more bored at home."

"There's tons of things to do at Port Royal. I've helped in nearly every office there. I'm a big brother," he announced proudly.

"Excuse me?"

"Big brother. You know, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America."

"Oh. I didn't know they let such young men do that."

"Usually they don't, but I got pull," he said with a wink. Clark smiled at him. "His name is Tony. He lives in one of the low-income apartments on the twentieth floor. He turns four next week." Clark Jr. sat up straighter and smiled brightly. "Hey, you'll be able to meet him. Will you come to the party?"

"Is that what you want?"

"Sure, I do. 'Sides, friends do things together," he pointed out. He was sure if he didn't keep doing that, his dad would slip back into the sad mood he'd been in earlier and the few times he'd seen him before. Tonight, he'd managed to bring a smile to the larger than life man before him that had made his eyes twinkle. He'd much rather see that sparkle than the dull expression that had been there previously.

Clark had to drop his gaze to the table for a moment. It appeared his son was as much like Lois as he could get. Reminding him of them becoming friends was something she'd definitely do. Finally he looked back up at the boy. "You're right. Friends do things together all the time."

Clark Jr. smiled up at his father, receiving a smile in return.

Lois had watched the entire exchange in silence. This was a moment she never imagined she'd see. She'd longed for it. She'd prayed things could have been different. And she'd always ached for Clark never knowing his son existed. She'd kept the man alive for her son. Not a day had ever gone by that this man was not mentioned in their home. The younger Clark had prayed every night, from the time he was old enough to speak, that his father was taken care of. Clark had been part of his son's life in every way he could have been but the most important one. Now it seemed that could change. Though she wanted nothing more in her whole being, she was also scared to death. Clark had a long way to come back home. Could she and Clark, Jr. and his folks be the support he needed to heal? It certainly appeared the process had begun. Father and son were smiling at each other. And she could feel the admiration pass between them. She was almost certain that one small touch from the boy would tumble the rest of Clark's defenses.

Clark let his gaze roam over his child's body. "I guess you take after your mother. You're a tiny thing."

"Mom says dynamite comes in small packages," Clark Jr. told him proudly.

Clark grinned as he looked back into his son's eyes. Slowly the grin spread into soft laughter. He glanced around at Lois before looking back at Clark. "At one time, your mother came with a warning label."

Clark, Jr. stared at his father a moment before he fell into a hearty roar of laughter. It was catching because Clark, too, started to laugh in full. As he laughed he could feel the pain, the hate, the years of misery start to ease from his body. He didn't begin to fool himself into believing that one good laugh could heal so many wounds, but it felt good to have a start. He had to wipe his eyes, as tears from laughing so hard, were slipping from the corners. He was finally able to gain control of himself and looked down at Clark Jr.

"There was a time that if you laughed at your mother like that, she'd give you an ear full."

"I know. Uncle Jimmy says she was named 'Mad Dog' because she took no prisoners."

"I haven't been 'Mad Dog' in a long time," she was quick to point out to her son.

Young Clark looked around at his mom. "I know, Mom." He offered her a smile before turning back to Clark. He was about to speak, when the bell rang.

"Must be room service," Clark told them as he rose to answer the door. A few moments later, they were sharing their bounty along with more small talk, allowing father and son to get to know one another.

***

With great reluctance, Clark walked Lois and Clark Jr. to the elevator. They'd talked for nearly three hours and it would soon be dawn. Though he wanted nothing more than to have them stay and continue to talk with him, he'd seen little Clark yawn several times as he fought desperately to stay awake with his dad. The boy had protested mildly when his father suggested they go home to get some sleep. But Lois quickly reminded him that maybe his dad was tired as well. That seemed to do the trick and Clark Jr. rose to gather his jacket to go home.

The trio paused as they waited for the elevator. "Will I see you later?" Clark Jr. asked his dad.

"Absolutely," he assured the boy. "I just want you to remember that there's a lot to this whole situation."

"I know." He glanced at the large hand just a short distance from him. He wanted so badly to reach out and take that hand, offer his father his comfort. At the same time, he was still incredibly nervous. For as much as he felt he knew this man, the fact was that he was still a virtual stranger. And his dad was unsure of himself and how he felt. He'd give him the time he needed. That would also give him time to come to terms with this new development. It wasn't every day your dad came back from the dead!

Clark smiled at his son. He was a smart boy; Lois had done well with him, especially with all she had to deal with. He finally looked back at Lois. "I'd, ah, I'd appreciate your confidence."

"I don't intend to lie to your parents."

"I know." He looked down, worrying with his hands for a moment. "I'll, um, I'll." Clark sighed heavily. "I'll try to pull myself together enough to see them soon."

"Clark, it was never my intention to come here and demand you do anything you're not prepared to do." She hoped he'd understand that statement. Lois knew he had a lot to deal with and couldn't be expected to do it all at once. "I just can't pretend you're not alive or that you're someone else."

"I know," he admitted softly. "I just need time to organize my thoughts."

"I think we all do," she answered just as softly. The elevator dinged, announcing the arrival of the car.

Clark watched as the doors opened, then looked back at Lois. "I'll call you."

"Good." She offered him a smile and stepped into the waiting elevator her son held open.

"See ya', pal," Clark told his son.

"See ya'," the boy offered without much enthusiasm. He reluctantly stepped back to let the doors close. Just before they came between him and his father, he yelled, "Don't wait long to call!"

Clark grinned at him. "I won't," he shouted, hoping the boy had heard him. He shoved his hands into his pockets as he stared at the closed doors. "Son," he whispered as an afterthought a few seconds later.

***

There he was. standing just a few feet away. His black hair danced as the wind blew around him. His large, dark eyes so much like his mother. He was bright, full of energy, wanting nothing more than to learn everything he could about the world and about the father he'd only just met.

<<Find out what?>> Clark demanded of himself.

You've spent the last decade in a damn hole in the wall. What could you possibly have to tell him? I know. you can tell him how you writhed in pain when you first entered that cell. You can tell him how you realized there must have been kryptonite there; how it made your eyes burn and your stomach churn. You can tell him how the guards laughed at you, thinking you were sick with fear from realizing what kind of trouble you were in.

Then you could tell him how you crawled across the room to get away from the effects of that rock. Luckily it had been a small piece or you wouldn't be telling anyone anything. You'd be dead!

<<I am dead! Clark Kent is dead!>>

Is he? It sure felt like he was alive last night. when Lois touched you, when she held you. And how about when you saw Clark? You can't forget how you felt when he smiled at you. It felt wonderful. Then when you touched his small face.

<<He doesn't need this. He's just a boy. No boy deserves a father with so much going on inside. You're hateful and bitter and so pathetic. How could you possibly interact with him?>>

What would you talk about with him? How degrading it had been to go to the restroom in a bucket? How nasty the slop tasted that was the only food you had in almost ten years? How you'd almost cry when you'd drink all of your allotment of water for the day and you wouldn't know how long it would be before the guards refilled it? Or should you tell him about sleeping on a stone floor? How much your back hurts, even now? Even with super powers?

And what about those dang powers? What the hell are you supposed to do with those now?

<<What if Clark inherits them?>>

You have to stay to show him how to use them! He needs you!

<<No one needs me!>>

Yes they do, Clark… and no matter how hard you try to pretend differently, that's who you are! They need you. Did you see how much longing was in Lois' dark eyes? She wanted nothing more than to hold you. And little Clark. he wanted so desperately to touch your hand last night when you waited with them for the elevator. They do need you. The question is. do you need them?

<<There is no question of need here! Do you have the right to *need* them?!>>

Clark jerked awake and looked around the room. He was in his hotel suite and even in his dreams, he'd been thinking of everything that had happened. A rough hand tried to flatten his unruly hair before he threw his legs over the side of the bed and rose to go take a shower. Another shower… he used showers like they were some sort of pacifier… as if he'd never feel really clean again!

Long after Lois and Clark had left this morning, he'd stayed awake thinking about his changing life. He'd been convinced that starting over as Conner Devon was the best thing he could do in the circumstances. He'd believed that he could find some sort of peace, but that was before he'd seen Lois again.

And his son. That was mouthful, but one that Clark was beginning to find he liked. He had a son. He and Lois had created that special little life and she'd done a fantastic job up until now to bring him up to be a wonderful person.

<<Without you! She's done it all without you!>>

"It wasn't my choice," Clark shouted aloud. "Dammit, I never wanted to leave her. If I'd had that option, I'd have been here with her, for her. I'd have helped raise our son together. I'd be married to her, a father to him." Clark's voice quieted down and he slumped against the shower wall. "I wanted to be here," he whispered.

<<She says you were. And Clark says she's told him all about you.>>

"Oh, Lois," he cried out softly before sinking to the tile floor and sobbing out his frustrations yet again. Would this continue to be so painful that he could hardly bear to breathe?

***

Lois and Clark Jr. had slept into the afternoon, following their late night visit with Clark. They'd started to worry when he hadn't called and Clark Jr. soon plagued his mother with requests to phone to see what could be wrong. However, when they failed to get an answer after several attempts, they decided to go over to his hotel again.

He wasn't there. His assistant informed them very politely that Mr. Devon had showered, dressed, and left four hours previously without so much as a single word. Unsure of what to do next, Lois and Clark Jr. returned home, both extremely disappointed. Neither of them spoke, but both were almost certain that Clark Sr. had chosen to leave them again… and without saying goodbye.

Lois had to fight back tears as she unlocked her door. Clark Jr. pushed past his mom and went to seek out Jerry, his new dog. If he couldn't have his father right now, at least he had something his father had given him.

The boy stopped just inside the living room door when his gaze lighted on his dad. The man was kneeled down on the floor, stroking the small dog, but when he realized there was someone in the room with him, he rose and stood, rather nervously, on the other side of the room. Clark Sr.'s eyes seemed to be filled with fear and uncertainty as they stared at his son.

"I, ah, I was awake for a while after you and your mother left." He paused as Lois stepped into the room, her eyes immediately glued to him in surprise. "I hope you don't mind me being here. I talked the security guard into letting me in."

"That's fine," Lois told him, a little breathless with relief just to see him here in her apartment. She didn't care how he'd gotten in as long as he was here.

Clark looked at her a moment before continuing. "I. there was so much to think about." He looked down at his hands before lifting his eyes back to his audience. "There's a, ah. I have a very long, very difficult road ahead of me… and I'm not sure I can make it alone." His voice was just barely a whisper.

"We can help," young Clark suggested as he took a few steps toward his father and glanced down at the puppy rubbing against his legs.

"If, if… ah, if you think you can stand it, and I'm sure you can, I… I do want to get to know you… and be part of your life." It was hard for him to speak past the lump that had formed in his throat, but he'd been tossing these warring thoughts around in his head since the night before and they were threatening to overwhelm him. He needed a sounding board. He needed Lois' opinion, and his son's. After all, whatever he decided to do now would affect them, and he was so worried that he'd ruin the lives they'd built for themselves while he was gone.

Part of him wanted so much to stay with them. For so long he'd lived without the loving touch of another human being… someone with whom to share a simple word or caring glance. Was it unfair of him to want that from these two people before him?

Yet, at the same time, he wanted to protect his family… his son, and part of that protection was from the person he believed he'd become… the vengeful man who was plotting the downfall of another human being without so much as an inkling of remorse. He'd even been enjoying it! How could a man like that expect to start a life with a family who loved him?

Though, try as he may, since seeing Lois again and finding he had a child, he'd been unable to find that bitter, angry man. All he found was just the empty shell of his former self. Was it possible that Lois' simple act of reaching out to touch him had started the healing process? And was that what he wanted? He was still determined to see Lex Luthor and all he stood for brought to justice, but it was no longer an obsession.

Yes, he wanted desperately to heal. More importantly, it was what he really needed! Yet he'd learned, in a very hard school, that wanting and needing something didn't always mean it would be so. If that were the case, he'd have escaped from Purgatory a long time ago.

But he couldn't deny that it seemed Lois' gentle caress had cracked the ice that had frozen his soul. What would the next touch bring? Or that of his son?

Meanwhile, they were standing silently, waiting for him to speak…

"I won't lie and tell you I can ever completely come home again."

Clark Jr. took the few steps needed to close the distance to his father and reached out to take his large hand. "How about you just agree not to leave?" he asked tentatively.

"You may want me to. I'll have bad days."

"Yeah. I have those, too," the boy told him as his eyes drifted to the fingers wrapped around his smaller ones. "Grandma gives me buttermilk. She and Grandpa says it's."

". good for what ails you," Clark finished with him. His eyes misted over and he kneeled to look at his son. For a moment, nothing was said as Clark drank in the sight of the young man before him. This was his son. *His* son. How could he not want to know him? Or be with him? Or. love him?

"You're so beautiful," he whispered after a moment.

"So are you," the boy told him. Unable to stand it any longer, he inched closer and wrapped his arms around his father's neck for the first time in his life.

Clark was momentarily stunned. But he quickly recovered and lifted his arms to surround the child who was so thoroughly pouring out a generous dose of healing to him. He squeezed gently causing the boy to tighten his grip. After a moment, soft cries could be heard coming from both Clark Kents. The younger Clark turned his face into his father's neck and inhaled deeply before placing a kiss on his skin.

The unexpected action caused the man's hardened heart to melt a little more. He lifted his hand to stroke the back of the boy's head before he pulled back to see his face again. Clark reached up to wipe away the tears staining Clark Jr.'s cheeks. Unable to speak, he contented himself with softly touching the child's face, hair, neck, and shoulders. It was such a simple gesture, a man touching his child, yet for Clark Kent is was a gift he'd never allowed himself to dream. Finally, he decided that gripping his son's sides was what he wanted to do.

Clark Jr.'s arms were still resting on his father's shoulders, his fingers playing in the soft hair that fell over the edge of the collar there. His eyes met his father's when the man spoke.

"You remind me of myself at this age."

"That's what Grandma says all the time."

Clark smiled softly. "I'll bet she thinks you're about the most special thing alive."

"Yeah. I think she's pretty great, too."

Clark almost said he agreed, but decided against it. Of course he knew it to be true. It was just so hard to take that extra little step. He was still unsure if he had that right anymore. Maybe after seeing his parents again, he'd think that to be silly. He squeezed the small sides under his hands before looking up at Lois. She quickly wiped away her tears and offered a slight smile.

"I'm sorry about not calling like I told you I would," Clark told her.

"It's understandable. You have a lot on your mind."

"Yeah." He turned back to his son. "I'd like to see your room."

"Sure!" Young Clark drew away from him and grasped his hand to tug him to his feet. "You'll love it! It's decorated in a Superman theme! Come on, Jerry."

Clark chuckled softly as he allowed himself to be tugged along behind an excited little boy. "Guess I'll be back," he told Lois as he passed. Even the puppy seemed thrilled; he barked happily as he chased the duo up the stairs.

Lois laughed softly as the two men she loved more than anything in the world went to explore a little.

***

Clark soaked up his surroundings with an unexpected feeling of joy. It was strange to feel that way; he'd been emotionally numb for so long. As he stood in his son's room, getting a feel for the person this little guy was, he found himself aching to be the kind of man he once was. He, of all people, knew there was no way he could ever go back. But he did know he could move ahead. And ahead was here, with his son. and hopefully with his son's mother.

He refocused on the treasures his son showed him. They spent the next hour going over everything inside the room in detail. Clark Jr. told the story behind a great many things there, but some didn't need an explanation because Clark was already aware of their significance. Some of his son's things were once his.

"You sure have a lot of the things that used to be in my place," he commented as he touched his game ball from his college football days.

"Grandma and Grandpa kept everything. It was in storage for a while, but last year I asked if I could have some of it. 'Course, some things were already here. This is your bed," he said as he flopped down on the double bed his mom had put in his room when he'd been old enough for a big bed. "I've always had it," he told his dad as he stroked his puppy's fur where the animal lay across the comforter of his bed.

Clark eased over to sit next to his son and reached out to rub Jerry as well.

"And the bookshelves, your desk, and the pictures." The boy gestured to many frames scattered about the room. "There's always been a picture of you on my nightstand." He pointed to the picture beside his bed.

"I guess you've really hated me."

"Hated you? What for?" His little eyes were filled with confusion.

"Because I wasn't here."

"But that wasn't your fault, and you were here. I just couldn't see you."

"Or touch me or talk to me." Clark couldn't help himself. The guilt he felt was beginning to suffocate him.

"I talked to you all the time," Clark Jr. told him. "When I felt bad about something, I told you. When I got mad at Mom or had a bad day at school. I always talked to you."

"That must have been a little difficult."

"Just different." Clark Jr. pulled his leg up on the bed and shifted to look at Clark.

"But different can be. difficult." Clark knew. That was the story of his life. He'd been different for as long as he could remember.

"Different can be great! If you hadn't been different, I wouldn't have been born." "What?"

"Well, sure. It took a different kind of man for my mom to fall for. So, if you hadn't been, she wouldn't have been interested!" He finished his explanation with a small flurry of his hands.

Clark chuckled softly at the child's reasoning. He couldn't deny that one. It did take a different kind of person for Lois. He'd often wondered how she'd settled on him. Had he really been that worthy?

Jerry jumped to his feet, barked once, then jumped from the bed and ran from the room.

Both Clark's chuckled softly, before Clark's eyes settled on his son again. "Guess he's protecting his territory."

"Or thought he heard Puppy Chow hit his dog dish," Clark Jr. offered.

"So, how did you come up with Jerry for a name?"

"Our middle name, of course," the boy told his father with an expression that clearly thought the adult should have been able to figure that one out.

"Of course," Clark agreed. "And your other dog…?"

"His name was Kal."

This time the child's expression couldn't suppress the older Clark's laughter. It was clear his son's mind and life had always been filled with a fair of amount of… himself.

Clark Jr. smiled brightly before getting to his feet. "Come on. I'll show you the rest of the house."

"Okay." Clark followed his son in silence as he was shown the spacious residence Lois now shared with her son. It was completely different from the small place she'd had on Carter Avenue. This place seemed to be filled with character and with love, along with most of his belongings. It was the kind of place you wouldn't mind spending time in and he certainly wasn't minding much right now.

***

When the two Clarks finally decided to make another appearance downstairs, Lois was setting places at the table. She'd ordered out Chinese while she allowed them as much time as they felt they needed together. She looked up from her task when they came into the room.

"Hey. You two hungry?"

Clark looked at the table with appreciation. Since getting out of that prison, eating was something he enjoyed. He glanced down at his son, who seemed to be licking his lips as well. "I think maybe we are," he answered as everyone moved to take a seat at the table. The next little while was spent eating and talking more.

After dinner, the trio settled in the living room to share more conversation and dessert. They talked about everything under the sun, except Clark's imprisonment or his status as Conner Devon. They'd decided those topics would be saved for tomorrow, after Clark had time to digest his situation a little more.

Clark's eyes drank in the sight before him. His son and the woman he loved.

He stopped on that thought. Did he still love Lois? Was it right for him to? Was it something he could actually do? So much time had passed. No matter what his heart was clamoring for now, the fact was he had spent a great deal of time alone and in horrible emotional pain. There were dark days when he felt he'd lost the power to communicate in even the most basic ways and he couldn't just expect it all to go away.

Young Clark scooted across the sofa closer to his dad when he noticed the man seemed to have drifted away from him. He reached out a hand to grasp the large one that lay on the lap beside him.

Clark's heart screamed loudly, louder than it had the night before when Lois hugged him, as the smaller hand folded sure fingers over his larger ones. There was that touch again, dragging him back from despair. It was coming from Clark this time instead of Lois, but it was no less powerful. He gently squeezed the small hand before looking down at Clark Jr. and smiling. He immediately received a beaming smile in return.

"You know," Clark said. "I sure could use a hug," he blurted out. He didn't know where that had come from, but at that moment he felt an overwhelming desire to hold this child, reassure himself he was real.

Young Clark smiled briefly before he rose to his knees and wrapped his arms around Clark's neck. When the boy sat back again, he was smiling. "I can promise a million hugs. Grandma says nothing is better for soothing the soul than a warm hug."

"Your grandma is right. I can already feel my soul starting to sooth."

"Maybe my hugs are super powered." Clark's nose crinkled when he said that, causing his father to laugh softly.

"Maybe they are," Clark agreed.

"Definitely," came a mumbled reply from the other sofa.

Both heads turned to Lois. The older Clark looked back at the boy. "We kind of forgot about her, huh?"

"You can never forget Lois Lane," Clark told his father.

Clark's smile faded as he looked at his son, then his eyes slowly moved back to the woman sitting across the room. "You can't even force yourself to," he said without taking his eyes from hers.

Clark Jr. watched the exchange between his parents. He could almost see the electricity dance between them. He'd only seen one other couple look at each other that way-his grandparents. Mom had said it was because they loved each other so much. Did that mean his parents loved each other? He sure hoped so. To have both his parents with him all the time would be a dream come true.

Clark realized he and Lois were staring at each other and too many raw emotions were jumping between them. He forced himself to look back at his son, a tear escaping from the corner of his eye.

"Why are you crying?" the little guy asked.

Clark reached up to wipe his face. "There's just a lot of pain."

Clark Jr. pulled his hand from his dad's and placed it on his chest. "It hurts in here?"

"Yeah. But not so much as it did before I met you."

His small eyes looked up to meet the larger ones, which were still underlined by deep shadows. "You want to feel the warmth?"

"I do feel it. I want to feel more."

"I promise I'll help."

"You're already helping," Clark said with a smile.

"I'll bet another hug would help."

"I think a kiss would be better." Clark held his breath. Why had he said that? Young boys didn't like to kiss their fathers. But he'd been unable to stifle the irresistible urge to make sure this child was real, in every way possible.

Small hands covered his cheeks as the child leaned forward to grant his father's wish. Clark had made the request in hopes that the child would press his lips to his cheek and maybe allow one in return. Tears stung his eyes when he felt the warm touch of his son's lips against his own. Clark was stunned, but managed to lift his hands to cradle the small head against his chest when Clark Jr. ended the kiss and laid against him. He rested his cheek against the dark shock of hair beneath his chin, sighed contentedly, and closed his eyes to savor the moment… a moment too long in coming.

"Was it?" Clark Jr. asked after a moment.

"Was it what?" he replied without opening his eyes.

"Was it better?"

"Yeah," Clark answered as his arms encircled his son's body to complete the hug.

"You can hold me all you want," came the soft whisper in his ear.

Clark squeezed his eyes to stop the tears that were threatening to spill over. After a moment, he caressed the head of the boy that had literally helped save his life. "I think I'd like that," Clark whispered back.

The small boy kissed the side of Clark's neck. "I love you."

That broke him again. He could only hold the boy and cry, allowing years of pain and misery to slowly leak from his soul. When he finally drew back, he grinned widely. Once again the smile touched his eyes. "You're gonna get sick of me hugging you and crying like a baby."

"If it means you'll be with me, then please don't stop," Clark Jr. told him.

Clark lifted a hand to stroke the boy's face. "You're incredible."

"I have good genes." Clark waggled his brows, then turned to ask his mother if she agreed. She wiped tears from her face and he turned back to his father. "She's the best." He was about to get up and go offer his mom a super hug, when his father stopped him.

"I think I'll just hang onto you a while longer." Immediately Clark had felt his son start to move; he felt inexplicably bereft. Just a few more moments… He pulled the boy to his lap and settled his small back against his chest before he wrapped his arms around him.

"Hang on all you want. I kinda' like hanging on to you, too." Clark Jr. smiled and squeezed the arms holding him. He couldn't understand why he'd been nervous about getting to know his dad. This man was his dream come true. Sure, he could see that there was painful thoughts going on behind those brown eyes as they looked at him, but with the simple logic of a child, he was also sure that if he let his dad hold him long enough, that pain would go away. He smiled and snuggled in closer. He'd give his father all the time he needed, too. He liked being held. And to have someone other than his mom and grandparents do it was wonderful.

***

Clark awoke sometime later, still clutching his son to his chest. And for the first time in a long while when he slept, there hadn't been nightmares to disturb his sleep. He shifted to look at the small face in his arms only to be pleasantly surprised to find twinkling eyes staring at him.

"I thought you were asleep," he said to the boy.

"I was, but I woke up a few minutes ago and didn't want to bother you. You were smiling in your sleep. Mom says that's a sure sign that someone's happy."

"I am happy, Clark," he told him.

"I am, too. I'm happy you're here."

"So am I." Clark cupped his cheek, needing the reassurance of being able to touch the boy when he needed to. It was a moment later when they noticed Lois also had dosed off in her chair. Shifting his son off his knee, Clark rose and took her up to her room, tucking her into bed before returning to his son, so caught up in his excitement of this new family situation, he failed to register that he'd held the woman he still loved in his arms.

When Clark returned to the living room, father and son continued to talk about everything under the sun, from Little League to Math problems. They deliberately kept the conversation light and cheerful. There would be plenty of time for heavier topics later.

It wasn't until they noticed the sun starting to rise that they moved. Clark took his son in his arms and they stood at the window and watched the day break together.

Clark quietly talked about some of the places he'd seen the sun rise, but here his voice faltered and his eyes once again became shadowed by suffering. With the insight given to children, Clark Jr probed gently.

"I guess you didn't see the sun much from your cell?"

A wry grin which was almost a grimace crossed Clark's face. "Hardly at all! There was just one tiny window way up in the roof and it only let in enough light to remind me of what I was missing."

"But you don't ever have to go back there and now you can see as many sunrises as you like. Shouldn't be difficult for a man who can fly! Maybe you could take me sometimes," the young boy suggested quietly, suddenly shy.

"I don't fly much, these days," Clark Sr. replied and at his son's apparently crestfallen expression, he added, "Of course, I do have a Leer jet at my disposal, so if it's okay with your mother, then I'd like that."

"Cool! And will we always talk like this?" the boy had asked his father.

"I sure hope so." He was about to tell Clark Jr. that there would probably be a time he wouldn't want his father to know what was happening in his life, but something about his expression wouldn't allow him to burst the bubble so quickly. "I'll always talk to you."

"And I'll always talk to you." As if knowing what his dad had been thinking, he added, "Even when I become a teenager and think I know it all."

Clark smiled and hugged Clark Jr. to his chest briefly before pointing out a flock of birds. Their happy chatter broke the still of the April morning.

***

Lois awoke slowly, her mind immediately going back to the night before. She remembered falling asleep in her chair, but how had she gotten to her room?

Clark. That answer came when she heard happy voices coming from down the hall. She trudged her way from her room in search of the men in her life.

<<I hope.>>

They may have buried Clark, believing him dead, but his spirit had lived on. He'd been with her every day and she loved him more now than she did ten years ago. Others had failed to exist after him. She now understood what older couples said about hoping they left the world with their spouse so they would never be alone. Lois had fully accepted the fact that there would never be another man in her life save her son. She hadn't even thought of another. Clark was the only man that had a place in her heart… and that included her fantasies.

Her rational mind reminded her that he was different. Too many things had happened to him for her to expect he'd ever be exactly who he was when he was taken away. She just hoped he'd let her in to get to know the man he was now, or the man he thought he was.

She smiled when she saw little Clark sitting on the bed in his room. He was looking up at someone Lois couldn't see and talking a mile a minute. As she drew closer she saw the older Clark standing in front of him.

<<Damn! He's still gorgeous!>>

He wore the same tee shirt and jeans from the night before, but suddenly she was all too aware of him as a man. He was apparently fielding questions from the young Clark.

"Good morning," Lois told them.

Clark stopped his animated explanation and turned to face her. "Good morning. Sleep well?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"You're welcome. What for?"

"Putting me to bed."

"Don't thank me. Clark did it."

The boy smothered a giggle. "You're funny."

Clark just waggled his brows dramatically before turning to Lois. "I sent out for breakfast; a little of everything and it's in warmers by the table."

"Thank you."

"Absolutely."

"Will you two join me for breakfast?"

"We've already eaten. And we've showered. We're going down to Nemons and buy me some new clothes," Clark Jr. told his mom.

"You have clothes," Lois told him.

"I know he does," Clark spoke up anxiously. "But we never shopped for anything together. I hope you don't mind."

Lois immediately regretted her remark. Clark's eyes were full of pain and screamed for acceptance. Did he really think he had no place with his son?

"I'm sorry, Clark."

"No, no, Lois. You don't have to keep apologizing." He ran a hand through his hair in an attempt to gather his thoughts. "I just. I want to spend time with him and I've never done that. So, I thought buying him some clothes would be fun."

"I understand and you should."

"Thank you. We'll wait for you to eat."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why are you waiting for me? Go. Have fun."

Clark stared at Lois. "Alone?"

"You do know how to shop?"

"Well, yeah, but." He glanced over at Clark Jr., then back at Lois. "I just thought you'd come along."

"Clark, as much as I'd love to come along, I really think you and Clark need to spend some time alone together. The time will help you. both."

Clark sighed, as her words reminded him of the past, and dropped his head. "It's easy to just pretend none of that ever happened."

She didn't have to pretend she didn't know which *that* he spoke of. He clearly meant his imprisonment and all the horrors involved with it. "But you'll never heal if you do that."

"I know." He nodded and looked over at his son. "And I want to heal." The boy smiled at him. He returned it before he faced Lois again. "Your trust in me just threw me off."

"Clark, I trust you with my life. And that's our son."

"Your trust means more than you know."

Lois offered him a smile before she turned and left the room. "Have fun," she called over her shoulder.

The two Clarks stared at each other a moment before they scrambled to get their shoes on. They raced downstairs, making a game out of leaving. Clark stopped and looked over at Lois, where she sat at the dining room table eating her breakfast. "I'll have him home before lunch time."

"No need. Spend the day with him. Bring him home for dinner. I think maybe a couple of people would like to see you."

Clark felt a little nervousness at the mention of his parents. "Yeah."

A small hand took his. "It'll be okay. I'll hold your hand and give you lots of hugs."

Clark smiled brightly. "Thank you. I may need them."

"Any time." He smiled at his father and pulled on his hand. "Now come on."

"Okay."

"Take care of, Jerry, Mom," Clark Jr. called back as they went through the door.

"I will." She turned back to focus on her breakfast and let her tumbled thoughts drift through her mind. She lifted her head when Clark spoke again.

"I'll stop at the hotel and tell Edward to provide you with a security card. I want you and Clark to come and go as you please."

"Edward?"

"My assistant."

"Oh. Does that mean you'll be staying in Metropolis?"

"I'd like to."

"I think you need to."

"I do," he agreed. "But I don't want to make assumptions either."

"Your place is with your son," she told him firmly.

Clark smiled. "My son. That's amazing."

"He's amazing."

"I agree. He's also waiting."

"So go!"

"Thanks, Lois. Not just for today, but for him."

"I think that was a mutual gift."

Clark wanted to say more, but now was not the time. They'd talk later. He offered one last smile before he disappeared.

Lois let out a breath and continued with her breakfast. So much had happened in the last forty- eight hours. She needed a little time alone to sort through it all.

***

Martha stared down into her coffee cup, her thoughts whirling wildly. Lois had told her and Jonathan earlier about Clark being alive. They were shocked. It was almost time for dinner and he would be here any moment. Martha was actually nervous about seeing her son again.

She knew enough to know that he wouldn't be the same tender-hearted man he once was. She wasn't sure if she could face seeing what had been done to him for so long. Part of her had died the day they were told Clark had been executed. She didn't think she could go through something like that again. And if she were feeling apprehensive, how much worse this must be for Clark. She had had to suffer his loss, but he'd spent these last 10 years in something which sounded a lot like hell. The fact that he'd survived it all to return to her was like a miracle.

Jonathan was pacing the den, too anxious to sit himself. He believed what Lois had told them, but he'd be so much happier to finally see for himself that Clark was alive.

"And he was sitting right there with us the other night?" Martha finally asked Lois as the younger woman scrambled to get dinner finished.

"Yes." She stopped to look at her surrogate mother with a smile. "He's not the same, Martha, but he *is* Clark. And he needs us. all of us."

"That I don't doubt, honey. It's just. I didn't sense a thing. Why didn't I know my own son?" The older woman's shoulders sagged in distress that her only son should be so close and she hadn't realized!

Lois placed a comforting hand on Martha's shoulder. "Mom, it'll be all right. You'll see."

Martha let the tears that had been pooling in her eyes fall. "I know it will. He's alive and he's come back to us. That's all that matters now."

"That and the fact that we have to help him heal."

"We will," Martha assured her with a teary smile. Both ladies' heads snapped in the direction of the other room when they heard the commotion as both Clarks entered the condo.

Clark's laughter died when he and his son stepped into the entryway of Lois' elegant condo. His eyes had fallen on an older gentleman waiting patiently for the duo to come all the way inside. Jonathan Kent may have looked a little older, but Clark would know his father anywhere. His feet seemed frozen to the floor. Clark Jr. urged him to set the packages down and pushed him toward the older man waiting to speak with him.

Jonathan's eyes were glued to the young man before him. In the span of just a few moments, he could clearly see his son's *hard* life etched in that tense, yet much loved face. Finally he smiled. "This old man sure is glad to see you, son." He took a step in the direction of the son he thought he'd lost so long ago.

"And, ah, and I'm glad to see you." Clark hesitantly closed more of the distance to his father.

Yet the older man needed no such caution. "My boy," Jonathan whispered as he reached his son. His hand lifted to grasp the back of Clark's dark head. "Why didn't I see it the other night?"

"I'm sorry."

"Hush, boy." Jonathan lifted his other hand and held Clark's face as he leaned forward and kissed his son's forehead. He pulled him into a powerful embrace, reveling in the fact that he could hold him again after so long.

Clark gripped his father's shirt and held on for dear life. His face was buried in the warmth of the familiar neck that had always been able to offer him comfort and this time was no exception. He could feel more pain seep from his body and soul as he held tight.

"I remember," Clark started softly as he continued to hold his father. "When I was about sixteen and Grandpa Kent died. You held me while I cried that day. And you never even told Mom."

"I'll always hold you when you need to cry. That's what Daddies do, boy." Jonathan held fast, allowing Clark the comfort he needed and wanting the young man to pull away in his own time.

Clark reluctantly released his father, but still kept the contact. "I'm a Daddy now." His voice was low, but he couldn't disguise his pride in that simple statement.

"And I'll bet you've been holding that boy all day," Jonathan said with a smile.

Clark glanced back at his son with a grin. "Every chance I got," he confirmed, then looked back up at his father. "Thank you for taking care of him. He told me you and Mom moved here to be close to him."

"We did. We couldn't let Lois do all this alone. She's our daughter."

"I'm glad she had you guys." Through his smiles, Clark was trying to choke back tears. It felt like his emotions were on a rollercoaster ride and he wasn't sure he could handle it, but he wasn't about to give up. Being with his father after so long was like some sort of miracle.

"Always." Jonathan grasped Clark's head and pulled him over to place another kiss on his son's forehead. He pulled the younger man against his side, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, then looked down at Clark Jr. "Don't you ever think you're too old to kiss your Daddy, champ. You hear?"

"Not a chance, Grandpa." He walked over and took his father's hand. "We better go see Grandma before she skins us all."

At his son's words, Clark felt like the floor moved beneath him… His mother! He was about to see his mother again. He forced himself to join in Jonathan's chuckling, but his feet wouldn't quite cooperate with his brain as they made their way into the den. He was sure he was going to stumble. Yet, on either side of him, his father's arm and his son's smaller hand steadied him, lending him the strength to go on.

Jonathan let his arm fall as Clark pulled away. He approached his mother slowly, his eyes conveying *years of sorrow.* But a mother doesn't need for her child to say a word when things have happened he doesn't understand. Martha closed the distance to Clark and wrapped him in her embrace.

Until now, Clark had buried the knowledge that he needed his mother's comfort. It felt so good to be in her arms again. He gently held her and let himself melt into her body, his soft sobs muffled against her shoulder as she rubbed his head.

He turned his head and kissed her face. "I. I didn't know how much I missed you until just now," he whispered. He kissed her again and drew back to see her face. "How I ever thought I couldn't come back to you I'll never understand."

Martha lifted her hand to caress his face, her eyes sparkling with tears. "I am so glad you're here."

"Me, too, Mama. Me, too." Clark covered her hand on his face and turned his head to kiss her palm. He couldn't resist one last hug before pulling back and looking around for Clark Jr. He had to keep reminding himself that the boy was real. He hadn't been able to go more than ten minutes all day without touching him and he hugged him at least a hundred times.

"I'm right here." Clark Jr. came to take his hand. The boy seemed to understand his father's insecurity and had taken his actions in stride, even somewhat enthusiastically. He, too, was enjoying being able to touch and hug his father any time he wanted to.

Clark squeezed the small hand that had taken his. "I told him he'd get tired of me hovering before long."

"Never," young Clark said with a smile. "But I would like to eat. I'm starved."

Clark laughed softly. "This kid eats more than I did when I was little."

Martha smiled up at her son. "Now you know how we felt."

Clark pulled her against him with one arm. "And it feels great." He placed a soft kiss on her head before turning to face Clark Jr. "Hey, do you think your mom would mind if I took a quick shower?"

"No way. Come on. You can use my bathroom."

Clark shot his parents an apologetic smile before following Clark out of the room.

The younger Clark left his father to shower after a few minutes of waiting patiently in the other room and went in search of his mother. She was getting the last of their dinner ready when he entered the kitchen.

"Hey, kiddo," she said when she looked up at him.

"Hey. My daddy's great," he said as he climbed onto a stool. "I know why you liked him."

"He's the best," she told him. She leaned forward for a quick kiss before continuing her task. "Mom said he's showering."

"Yeah. He's taken at least four showers since last night."

"Really?" Lois stopped to look at him.

"Says after not being able to do it for so long, it helps him to feel clean."

Lois' heart ached for Clark. What kind of existence had he led? And would he ever be able to make it through his days with peace of mind again?

"Mom, he suffered so badly."

"I know, baby."

Clark eased from the stool and took the bread basket from his mother. "Think it would be okay if I stayed with him at his place for a while?"

Lois thought for a few moments, feeling a bit relieved that Clark Jr. had suggested spending time with his father. She'd been thinking of asking him if he'd like that, in an effort to try and ease some of Clark's pain and confusion. Though she'd also miss her son's boisterous presence, she couldn't think of herself here. She'd had Clark Jr. to herself for all this time, she couldn't begrudge Clark the company of their son. Besides, she was pretty certain there would be time for Clark and her to renew their relationship later… she just hoped it wouldn't take too long. The restraint was killing her!

"I think that would be wonderful. He needs you, but we have to make sure he's ready for that kind of responsibility. He's been through a lot and he might not be up to taking care of another person all the time."

"Yeah." Clark hadn't thought about that. "But I can help him out a lot. It's not like I need anyone to take care of me," he said in exasperation. Didn't his mom realize he wasn't a baby anymore?

"I know you can, honey. I just want you to realize how stressful things are for your dad right now."

Clark Jr. sighed. "I do know, Mom. And I'll talk to him."

"If he doesn't think it would be too much to have you around, I think it would be wonderful for you to spend as much time with him as you can."

The boy smiled brightly up at his mother. "Thanks, Mom."

"You're welcome," she offered along with a smile of her own. "Now, how about taking those rolls out to the table?"

"Yes, ma'am." He took up the basket, pushed the door open to the dining room and sat the bread on the table. His father had made it downstairs and was talking to Jonathan at the other end of the room. When Clark Jr. saw him there, he flashed him a smile. The older Clark returned it with the same enthusiasm.

"Feel better?" Clark Jr. asked his father.

"A little."

Jonathan clapped his son's shoulder. "In time things will get better, son. Just don't try to rush it." His father seemed to understand what his answer had implied. Jonathan had always seemed to understand what was on Clark's mind and what it was he needed, even when he was little.

"I won't." His head snapped up when Lois entered the room. His heart flipped as their eyes met and she smiled brightly, sending a rush of excitement through his body.

<<Damn! She is still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.>>

He let his lips spread slowly, the grin reaching out to add a little twinkle to his eyes. Lois offered him a wink before she disappeared back into the kitchen, causing Clark to almost have to reach out and grasp a chair to keep from falling down. Lois was flirting with him and. he liked it.

<<Correction. I love it!>>

"Let's eat," Martha announced and everyone started to settle at the table.

***

Conversation over dinner evolved around things going on at Port Royal. Martha and Jonathan told Clark about the family that had leased the farm and he listened to Lois talk about her novels. He'd told them that after dinner he would talk to them a little about what happened to him. They didn't push for more, everyone was just happy to have him here.

A hush fell on the room when they heard the door open and the soft whistle of a man echoed through the house.

"Hey, honey, I'm." The newcomer's voice died when he stepped into the dining room and saw they had company. "Conner Devon," he said in awe. "Wow! Guess Lois is getting everyone's attention these days."

Lois rose from her chair and moved around to the man; Clark had also risen. "Dan, this is." She looked back up at Clark to gage his reaction. She wanted Dan to know the truth, but didn't want to do it without Clark's approval.

He looked at her, seeing the trust she had in this man, and wishing he could feel as confident. Yet, he'd always put a lot of faith in Lois' judgment, so he nodded, if a little reluctantly. She gave him a soft smile before turning back to Dan.

"Dan, this is Clark Kent."

Dan's jaw dropped in shock. He looked at the man, then back to Lois. "What?"

"It's a long story that he intends to relate after dinner. But this *is* Clark."

Dan's gaze shifted back to the stranger, studying him closely, then allowing a smile to spread across his face. He was witnessing the downfall of Lex Luthor in the dark eyes before him and it was better than he'd imagined. He stepped forward and thrust out his hand in greeting.

"You're probably the best damn thing that could have ever happened around here."

Clark smiled awkwardly, but took the offered hand in a firm grip. "I am glad my presence is appreciated."

"You better believe it's appreciated. These people have missed you more than you'll ever know."

Clark's smile faded as he let his hand drop back to his side. "I think I know a little of how much they've missed me."

Dan's expression grew compassionate. He'd come to know this man through Lois and the Kents over the years. Heck, he'd actually missed him. "Yeah. I'd imagine you know only too well," he replied softly.

Clark was surprised at the understanding he heard in Dan's voice. He'd been uncertain how he'd view this man. He'd known at some point he'd probably meet him, but hadn't been looking forward to it. He could see why the man had gained Lois' trust and decided it was all right to like him. He nodded, unable and unwilling to let his thoughts drift to darker things before he'd finished his dinner. There would be a trip into that area in a bit. Right now he wanted to enjoy a little normalcy with his family and hoped Dan would understand that from his silence.

The DEA agent understood Clark's unspoken request perfectly. He pasted his wide smile back on and said, "I just have to say that I'm looking forward to the rise of the house of Kent." Dan grinned down at Clark Jr. who was smiling brightly. "This is great, huh, kid?"

"This is the best day of my life, Uncle Dan." He reached out to touch his father's side. Clark immediately looked down with a smile.

Clark eased back into the chair beside his son. "Mine, too," he whispered, then ruffled the dark locks on the small head.

Dan threw an arm around Lois' shoulder and guided her back around the table. Clark tried not to let the action bother him as he continued his meal. Dan and Lois settled as Dan related some information to her that he'd learned over the last day or two.

It was some time later, when everyone finally got up to go settle in the den so they could listen to Clark tell something of his long stay in Purgatory. He shoved a last bite of cake into his mouth — almost comfort food— before turning to follow the group.

"Clark, if you want something else to eat, you're more than welcome," Lois told him as he caught up to her.

"I'm fine. for now." He grinned widely. "But I do eat a lot. Even more now than I did before."

"If you want something, just say so. I'll be glad to get you something, or send Clark. but of course, you're welcome to raid the fridge yourself."

"You may regret that."

She stopped and reached out to touch his arm. He stopped and looked down at her. "Clark, you're home," she said softly.

His gaze moved from her eyes to the hand still lying on his arm. Slowly he lifted a shaking hand to cover the small one that was squeezing his arm. The contact was better than he could have imagined. Once again the heat was roaring through his body. Without realizing it, he took a half step toward her and looked up to meet her eyes.

"What would you say if I told you I wanted to come all the way home?"

<<Where did that come from?!>>

"I'd say." Lois swallowed, her mouth suddenly very dry. "Welcome home." This time it was she who stepped toward him, putting them just inches apart.

Clark's hands moved to her face, gentle thumbs caressing her cheeks. Her hands lifted to grasp his waist, her whole body trembling in anticipation. He was going to kiss her. she hoped. And every fiber in her body was screaming in excitement.

"I haven't felt emotions like these in years," Clark whispered.

She could feel his soft breath on her face and it only served to further inflame her roaring desire for this man. "Clark," she breathed, unable to stop her heart from racing in her chest.

He should stop. He shouldn't be doing this. He was such a mess. How could he possibly offer her any kind of life? How could he stop what he was feeling either?

He leaned forward and gently touched her lips with his own. When he pulled away to look at her, she closed the distance and crushed her lips to his. The flame was stoked and Clark wrapped his arms around her and gave as good as he got. The world faded for the two lovers. They were both coming home again and it felt wonderful.

Clark groaned when Lois shoved her tongue into his mouth. Reluctantly he became aware that they had an audience and broke the kiss to hug her.

"If we keep this up, there won't be a talk tonight," he whispered in her ear. He was shocked to realize where his thoughts had drifted. Is *that* what he wanted? Was it what she wanted?

"Talking is overrated."

It seemed that maybe she did want the same things he did. Clark held her just a little tighter as he laughed, his hands rubbing up and down her back. "God, lady, I missed you so much."

"Oh, honey, I missed you, too." She squeezed him again before she pulled back to look at him. "I'm really, really glad you're here."

"Me, too." He leaned down and kissed her nose before pulling away. She wouldn't let him go completely, holding tightly to his hand as they faced their audience.

"Way to go!" Clark Jr. yelled at his parents.

Clark could feel his face burning in embarrassment as Lois pulled him a little closer and grinned. He gave into the smile that tugged at he corners of his mouth, unable to bring himself to stay embarrassed over the way he felt about Lois. The years apart, the vow to stay away, all of it was washing away. Only an overwhelming love remained. He loved this woman and he wanted to express it. That's all there was to it!

They settled on the sofa, under the approving smiles of their family, so Clark could talk to them. They all waited patiently for him to start.

***

Clark Jr. eased over onto his father's lap, huge tears threatening to spill from his eyes. He'd listened as his dad related some of the terrible things that had happened to him, although he knew he'd only heard a small portion because he was too young to know all the horrors and all of his dad's fears. He listened to him talk about the pain, the solitude, the cold that became part of his very soul. He might only be nine, but he was smart enough to know his dad could have died in that cell. He suddenly knew the incredible strength that lay beneath the surface of the man who, until now, he'd only known through his mother's story telling.

Clark's own tears fell as he continued talking. His hand gripped Clark's hip, pulling him a little closer to his body.

"So. needless to say when Lois introduced this little guy as Clark Kent." Clark rubbed a hand up the boy's back. "I was stunned. I don't know why I didn't think he could be mine." He glanced around the room, everyone, including Dan, had been incredibly affected by his story. His mom and Lois were wiping the tears from their cheeks. His dad had his head lowered to avoid anyone seeing him out of control of his emotions, and Dan sat in silence. The agent looked horrified and angry at the same time. Clark could see the wheels turning in the man's head- he realized that Dan was now even more determined to bring about the fall of the house of Luthor.

Clark Jr. put his arm around his father's neck. "Are you glad?"

"Clark, I am overjoyed. Don't you ever doubt that."

Clark looked at his father for a long moment before he spoke again. "Do you love me?"

Clark's brows rose into his hair. "What?"

"Do you love me?"

"Of course. Why would you ask me that?"

"Well, I had to ask if you were glad I'm yours and you haven't told me that you love me." The child couldn't hide his bruised feelings at his father's lack of communication. He knew it was a little selfish of him to feel this way. After all, his dad had been through a lot. But he still felt incredibly hurt over the situation and felt he should voice his opinion.

"Clark, your father just told you some of things he's been through. Give him time."

"It's okay, Lois," Clark stopped her. "He's right. I haven't said it. Truth is until just now I didn't really know what I felt. Sure, I knew I had feelings for you and that it was love, but at the same time." He shoved a frustrated hand through his hair. "This is hard to explain." He shifted Clark to see his face more fully. "Clark, you're my son. I would love you no matter what. At the same time I was scared to death. I had decided that I couldn't ever come home again. Yet, here you were and you being here forced me to realize that I *had* to be with you. There was a time when I could say 'I love you'. I said it often to my parents and I finally worked up the courage to tell your mother before I was arrested. I've written it so many times in those notebooks. But." He took a breath. "So much happened… I think I stopped being able to talk to people." He lifted his hand to hold Clark's face. "I do love you."

"I'm sorry. I just wanted to hear it once. I'll wait on you to hear it again. until you're ready."

Clark leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "Your mother did one heck of a job with you."

"Good genes," the boy reminded him again. He grinned up at his father before turning to settle against his chest. Strong arms were wrapped around his small body, content to stay that way forever.

"I made some calls today," Dan spoke up. "We should have a search warrant by the end of the week."

"Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, Clark. Edward called and said Devon International was ready to move forward."

Clark nodded at Lois. "I'll call him and tell him to go ahead."

"With what?"

"Hostile take-over of LexCorp. I've been taking over or shutting down his businesses one by one. I wanted enough picked away so he couldn't fight the take- over." He saw the look in Lois' eyes. "Don't say it. I know what I was doing wasn't very healthy, but I had to do something."

"I wasn't going to say a word." She reached out to rub his arm. "Clark, we can sit here and tell you all day that we know what happened and that we understand, but we'd be wrong. We can't ever know. You have to find your way. Besides, taking his assets isn't so bad."

"Yeah, but seeing his face when he realizes Clark Kent is alive." Dan started. "Now *that* I can't wait to see." He chuckled as he rose to his feet. "I'm going downtown to see about moving these warrants along."

"Thanks, Dan."

Dan smiled at Lois and said his goodbyes to the rest of the group before leaving them alone.

Soft snoring made Clark look down at the boy in his arms. "I think someone was worn out."

"Seems so."

"So are we," Martha told them as she and Jonathan rose. To tell the truth, tonight Martha was feeling every one of her years. She'd listened in silence to Clark recounting his time spent in that awful prison and she'd felt her heart break. Yet for her son's sake, she'd choked back her tears. Telling his story must have been a hard enough task for him without having his mother break down in a flood of tears. And one glance at Jonathan had told her that he was feeling just as broken. Now she just wanted the privacy of her room and the shelter of her husband's arms, but for a few more moments she would stay strong for Clark. So she smiled warmly on him as she made her excuses to retire. "Us old folks can't stay awake long any more." She leaned to kiss Clark. "We'll see you tomorrow?"

"Absolutely." He reached out to take his dad's hand. "Night."

"Goodnight, son." Jonathan clapped his shoulder, needing one last contact with his boy before following Martha out.

Lois smiled as she watched Clark shift his son to look down at him. "Would you like to stay with him tonight? Or you could take him with you?"

Clark looked over at Lois, his hand coming up to hold her face. He'd been fighting the demons in his head long enough. ten long years. And he'd been alone long enough. "What if I said I want to stay. with you?"

***

The smile faded from her face as the uncontrollable desire for him came to life again. She'd kept so many emotions at bay for so long. There had never been anyone she wanted or needed but this man. And that hadn't changed in over a decade. She stood and held out a hand to Clark.

"Let's put him to bed."

Clark almost jumped up, carefully cradling Clark Jr. Lois laughed softly as she led the way to the stairs and up to the boy's room. Clark carefully tucked his son into his bed, kissed his face, and whispered, "I love you, son."

He straightened and reached to grasp the hand Lois held out for him. Neither said a word until they were standing beside her bed.

"I won't try to pretend I don't want something to happen," Clark told her as he gripped her waist and pulled her closer.

"I don't want you to." She started to pull his shirt from his pants.

"Lois, I haven't felt. desires in a very long time."

"Neither have I," she said as she lifted his shirt over his head.

"I was beginning to think I couldn't." He moaned as she smoothed her hands across his chest. He almost whimpered when she started fumbling with his pants. He grasped her hands to stop her.

"I thought you wanted this?" Her eyes reflected a little hurt and a lot of disappointment.

"I do, but if this keeps progressing at this rate it will probably be over before it starts."

"We have all night." She leaned and kissed his chest.

He once again stopped her by gripping her head and lifting it until their eyes met. "I'm not him any more."

"Show me who you are."

"That's the problem. I don't know."

"Then let's find out together." She pushed forward and kissed him softly.

Again, he drew away. "Lois, what happens tomorrow? You keep saying you're glad I'm home. What does that mean? Am I supposed to just move in here like I haven't been gone at all?"

"Clark."

"No, Lois. Listen to me." He grasped her hands in his as he spoke. "For nine and half long years I was the only company I ever had. All that kept me going were memories. I dreamed of you, of my folks, my old life. At some point I came to accept that I'd never have those things again. Then I was pulled from that room and suddenly all of those things were right in front of me. only I had grown so bitter, so cold… like I'd died inside. How could I come back to you if I had nothing to offer? I decided I loved you all enough not to cause you any more pain. So I resolved to stay away from you, but all that changed with one touch."

She pulled one of her hands from his to stroke his face. "And I don't want to stop touching you."

"I don't want you to stop, but Lois, I'm different. I bathe at least ten times a day, I change clothes four or five times, I eat enough for three men, I sleep on the floor because sometimes I just can't get used to sleeping on a mattress again."

"Clark, we can work all that out. These are things I can live with, now that you're here." Her hand smoothed down his neck to rest on his shoulder.

"But it may be too much, Lois!" His eyes pleaded with her to understand. He wanted her so much, but at the same time, he wanted her to know what she'd be getting herself into. He dropped his head back and took a deep breath. "Lois, I have a phobia about going to the restroom. I didn't get that privilege for a really long time," he pointed out seriously. "Now I go every few minutes and stay forever. You'll never know how degrading it was to have to use a bucket in the corner of room. And the smell. I smelt as if I were dead!"

"But you're not. You're here and you're clean, safe, and you always will be. Please, don't say you're going to leave me. I'd die. I can't lose you again."

"Oh, Lois." Clark lifted his hand to cup her cheek. "And I can't lose you. I just want you to realize that life with me won't be easy. So maybe we should slow this down. Maybe I could get a place and we could spend time together."

"No, Clark!" He flinched at the tone of her voice. "You've been gone from me for ten years. ten long years. Each night I go to sleep aching to hold you. I wake up each morning aching to see you. You're here now and I don't think I'd survive if you lived even in the next apartment."

Clark drew back, unsure what to say.

"You don't have to. sleep in the same room with me and if you're not comfortable with starting a relationship right away, I understand. But this is your home and I'll be damned if I'll let you leave again."

Clark's brows rose. She was gasping to catch her breath, obviously this was a very serious matter to her. "Damn!"

She looked at him with wide eyes. "Sorry."

He smiled and reached out to hold her face. "Don't be."

Her hand came up to cover his on her face. "Just say you'll stay. We'll work everything else out later. We can even crawl into bed and I can just hold you tonight."

Clark slowly lifted his other hand to hold her face, his thumbs stroking her cheeks. "Lois, I don't think I could lie with you all night and just hold you."

She moaned and leaned forward to kiss him softly. Clark surrendered and deepened the kiss. In a matter of only a few moments, both were surfacing from their encounter. Their clothes hadn't even been completely disposed of in their rush to reunite. He was looking down at her, his breathing heavy.

Clark lifted his hand to drag a gentle thumb across her cheek. "I won't apologize for that. It was incredible."

"It was… short, but awesome," Lois agreed with a satisfied purr. "Let's do it again."

Clark grinned down at her. "And again." He kissed her lips, then her neck. "And again."

"And again," she said with a giggle. Several hours passed before they fell asleep.

***

Clark slept so soundly that night he forgot he was in a bed. He'd only slept in a bed a few times since he'd been out of his prison cell. Out of habit, he usually ended up sleeping on the floor. There was a lot to be said for being home.

His eyes fluttered open to see Lois looking down at him with a smile playing on her lips.

"Good morning," she told him before she leaned to kiss his lips.

"Good morning," he answered when she drew back. "What time is it?"

"About nine."

"Wow. I haven't slept this late since."

"Not today." She covered his lips with a finger. "Clark, last night was wonderful."

He grinned at her, somewhat pleased with himself. "It was. Sometimes I forget." He stopped and sat straight up. "I forgot."

"Forgot what?" Lois was a little worried by his reaction.

"You know, forgot. We didn't take precautions."

"Oh." Lois shifted and looked across the room.

"And last time when we didn't, we seemed to hit the target fairly easily."

Lois tucked a strand of hair behind her ear before she slid to the edge of the bed. She reached for her robe, not able to stamp down the disappointment at Clark's reaction to their neglect of birth control the night before. Intelligently she knew they didn't need another complication right now, but emotionally her heart didn't agree. She'd be ecstatic to carry another child of Clark's.

"Lois?"

"No. You're right. I didn't think. The only thing on my mind last night was you. I'm sorry." She had risen and was walking to the dressing table to brush her hair.

Clark heard the disappointment in her voice. He eased out of bed and slipped on his shorts before going to kneel beside her. "Lois, baby, tell me what's wrong." His hand reached out to hold her free hand.

She let her brush stop and took a deep breath. "I don't take birth control. There was no need. The only man I ever wanted to sleep with again was gone."

Clark's eyes widened at that. "There hasn't been."

"There was no one, Clark." She looked down at him. "My heart wouldn't allow me to do something like that."

"It would have been okay."

"Not in here," she told him with a hand over her heart.

Clark's heart swelled even more for this woman. "So, what's wrong? Why did you leave the bed?"

"If I'd stayed, we would have been in trouble. We still don't have any protection."

Clark was momentarily confused. His face burned a little with her admission even after their night together. He was about to reply when the meaning of what she said hit him. His eyes snapped to hers.

"You don't think that I wouldn't want our baby, do you?" When she lowered her gaze from his, he rushed to reassure her. "Lois, I was thinking of both of us. Do we really need to add something like that to everything else right now? Honey, I've just started to heal after being locked away so long. Right now I'm not sure I'm fit enough to be Clark's father… or even fit enough to… to live with you."

She met his gaze again. "I know you're right, but for a moment." She looked down in embarrassment. "It just felt a little painful that you might not want something like that."

"Something like that? Baby, we've already made a beautiful son."

"But?"

"But." He looked into her eyes, his own confusion reflected back to him and he made a decision a second later. He stood and lifted her in his arms. When he settled with her on the bed, he finally whispered, "But nothing." A gentle hand came up to caress her face. "I've been gone far too long. I *want* you, our son, and a life together. We'll work everything out just like you said. And if you get pregnant, then I'll have one more person to love. Besides, it would be really wonderful to take care of you and help bring our baby into the world… together." His voice had been a soft whisper and it brought tears to Lois' eyes. Clark leaned forward and initiated a passionate kiss. Just as he'd done several times the night before, Clark made love to Lois. without taking a single precaution.

***

Clark Jr. contented himself with his conversation with Edward. The faithful assistant had come to see Conner. Unfortunately, the man in question was locked away inside his mom's bedroom. The boy couldn't be happier. Clark had told him the day before how much he loved his mother and how she'd kept him alive through the dark years. There had been a silent prayer then that his parents would end up back together again, although it appeared they had never really been apart.

The boy and man turned when they heard happy voices coming from the hall. Clark and Lois were laughing softly when they stepped into the kitchen. Both stopped when they saw the two before them.

"Good morning," Clark Jr. told his parents. "Sleep well?"

Clark couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face. He stepped forward and lifted the boy into the air. "Yeah, wise guy. We slept very well."

"Uh huh," he said laughingly.

Clark threw the boy over his shoulder effortlessly before turning to Edward. "Good morning, Edward. Isn't it a lovely morning?" Clark's grin widened at the man's puzzled expression. "I'm sorry, I guess there are a few things I need to discuss with you."

"Only if you wish to, sir."

Clark patted his son's bottom before lowering him to the floor. He settled at the table and began to tell Edward an abridged version of his story. Needless to say the man was surprised.

"Edward, when all this is over, we will find a place for you here at Port Royal," Lois told him.

"What of the Devon estate?"

Clark leaned on his elbows where he rested them on the table. "The manor in Maine will be turned into a home for children. I want to use some of the money to further the efforts of the Superman Foundation, some to make sure Luthor's business is completely shut down, and the rest to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. to anyone."

The assistant nodded slowly.

"There are provisions that allow for me, as Clark Kent, to take control of the estate. I'll be happy to show them to you. Travis knew exactly who I was and at some point down the road I will probably be ready to take control as myself. For right now, I will be helping Lois and Agent Scardino to gather evidence against Luthor and getting to know my family again."

Edward squared his shoulders and smiled at Clark. "I will help you."

"Good."

The man smiled over at Clark Jr. "It is very nice to meet you, Master Kent."

"You, too. My dad's told me a lot about you."

"Your dad spared me from having to return to sea in order to make a living. I will be forever grateful."

Clark smiled up at his father before looking back at Edward. "Thanks for taking care of him for me."

"You're welcome," Edward told the boy before rising. "I must attend to business now. We proceed with the take-over as planned?"

"Yes."

"Very good." Edward smiled and turned to go. "Nice meeting you, Miss Lane," he told Lois as he passed her.

"You, too." She looked back at Clark, who was already in a battle with Clark Jr. They were wrestling and laughing happily. "I like him."

"Yep," he agreed without stopping his battle. "He's okay." Clark pulled the smaller Clark against his chest and started tickling him. "Say uncle."

"Nope! I'd rather say DADDY!"

Clark stopped his assault on the small body he held, then very slowly lowered him to his lap. "I, ah, I think I like hearing it."

Clark Jr. smiled up at his daddy. "So, *Daddy*, did you and Mom. talk last night?"

Clark stared open mouthed at the boy. "And what business is it of yours?" he asked as Clark Jr. eased from his lap to retake his seat.

The boy turned fully to his dad to answer him. "Well, up until yesterday I was the man of the house. I have the right to know if someone is making plays on my mother." He crossed his arms over his chest and shot Clark a stern glare.

Clark laughed out loud. "If you had a suit, you'd look just like a miniature Superman."

Clark Jr. smiled but didn't relax his stance. "Don't change the subject, mister."

Clark held up his hands in defeat. "Clark, I told your mom I loved her and she asked me to come stay with you guys."

"Way to go, Dad!" He dropped his arms and jumped onto his father's lap. "You best be good to her or you'll answer to me."

"Yes sir." Clark ruffled his hair. "You need a haircut."

"So do you."

"You're right. I do. Tell you what, as soon as Dan tells us he has the warrant for Luthor, we'll get a haircut."

"Deal." He smiled and shoved a buttered roll into his father's mouth off the plate Lois had just set in front of them. "Will you do my lessons with me today?"

"Sure," Clark mumbled around a mouthful of bread. "We need to put away those clothes we bought you yesterday, too."

"Got it." He took a bite of his food before shoving a fork full into Clark's mouth. "And tonight, we get to have Kent-mas."

"What's that?"

"It's a celebration to welcome you home. Mom told me a long time ago that if by some miracle you were to come home, we could celebrate. Just us and Grandma and Grandpa. It'll be hard to find a tree so we'll decorate the artificial plant in the living room. We have gifts and ornaments and videos and pictures. all for you."

"Really?"

"Uh huh. And we can take our shoes off and sit on the floor and talk and just be happy you're home."

Clark's smile faded. "Up until two days ago, when I found out about you, I was convinced I'd never be able to come home again. There's still so far to go."

"How about we agree to take it one day at the time?" Lois told him softly.

"I can do that," Clark assured her.

"Good." She smiled brightly before turning back to her breakfast, triumphant and very pleased.

Clark was also pleased, and amused. He wanted to stay as much as Lois wanted him to. He knew there was so much he still had to deal with, but Lois was right. If he took things slowly, one day at a time, with his family by his side, he'd make it back to where he could respect himself again.

***

Clark stood looking out the sliding glass door in Lois' room. The small family had spent the previous evening celebrating his return. He'd laughed and cried when they presented him with the various treasures that they'd collected through the years. His favorite was a video that showed a very pregnant Lois and chronicled the birth of his son. Later, when he and Lois had taken the boy to bed, he'd held them both in his arms. He'd told them quietly that he was so happy to be with them he wasn't sure he'd ever get over the feeling. They'd told him they didn't expect him to.

He'd been so convinced they would all be better off without him. Yet, now he couldn't imagine how he could ever have wanted to do that to them. He'd told each one, including his parents, that he loved them and that he was amazed to find he'd still been a part of their lives even when they'd thought he was dead. That moved him another step out of the pain and misery.

Clark hadn't protested when Lois led him once again to her room. In the light shining through the glass doors of the balcony, Clark made love to Lois slowly, passionately, and with his very soul. Kisses were interspersed with words of endearment and he even told her that he loved her, then listened as she told him. Their souls wove around each other and Clark felt his life become complete once again. Everything in the world that mattered was right here, right now.

He smiled when he felt warm hands come up around his waist; a soft cheek was pressed to his back. "I missed my heater," she told him softly.

He turned and pulled her against him. "I like watching the stars." A soft kiss was placed on her lips. "I didn't see them for so long."

Lois glanced out before looking up at Clark. "I can't begin to imagine what that was like for you."

"Mmm." Clark pulled her close, dropping a kiss on her hair. "Would you listen while I tell you some of it?"

"I'll always listen to you, sweetie." She pulled back to look at him. "Why don't you come back to bed so I can hold you while you talk?"

"Lady, that's the best offer I've had in years," he teased.

She stuck her lip out in a mock pout. "I would have thought last night was."

"Lois," he began seriously as his smile faded. "Making love to you is incredible. Last night was incredible. But. just being able to see you, hold you, talk to you. that means so much more. Don't get me wrong. I hope you'll allow me to continue to make love to you. I just." He shrugged. "I feel so much closer to you when you're just holding me."

"In that case, I don't ever intend to let go." She pulled him in for an embrace. "I love you, Farmboy."

He chuckled and moved his hands over her body. "And I love you, honey."

She drew back to look at him. "Honey. I like that."

Clark smiled and took her hand as they went back to bed. She settled against the headboard and he settled against her, his back to her chest. She wrapped her arms around him and softly stroked his skin as he began to talk.

***

Clark lay with his cheek against Lois' chest. He'd talked for hours, cried for a while, and even laughed some. The whole time she'd held him close, offering him the comfort he'd ached for so many cold nights inside that cell.

After a long silence, she spoke. "Did they. hurt you physically? You know. beat you or."

"No."

"You would tell me, wouldn't you?"

He lifted his head to look at her. "They didn't hurt me… not like that. After the kryptonite there was nothing… and that was just by accident. They didn't even realize how much damage they'd done to me." His voice drifted off as he contemplated the hurt he'd endured for those few days he'd been locked in the cell with the one thing that was poison to him. Yet even his physical pain had paled into insignificance when compared to the mental torture of the following years. "Sometimes… sometimes I used to wish they had beaten me to death."

Lois wiped the tears rolling down his cheek again. "Then you would have never come home to me."

He stared into her loving eyes for a long moment before he settled his cheek back on her chest. She sighed and gently ran her fingers through his hair. There was no way she'd ever be able to understand how this man had lived through all of those horrible things he'd told her about, but one thing she did know was that she'd hold him as often as he wanted her to. They continued to lay in the silence, happy to be able to share this time together. It was a while before Clark spoke again.

"Lois?"

"Yeah?"

His hand splayed over her stomach. "I'd be happy if we made another baby."

"I think I would, too," she admitted.

"Lois?" he said after another silence.

"Huh?"

"Will you marry me?"

"Absolutely," she answered without hesitation.

He simply pulled her closer and his tears started again. When he calmed, Clark leaned back up so he could look at her, losing himself in her eyes. "Make love to me, Lois. Take away the pain."

Not another word was said as she leaned forward to kiss him. This was one request she would spend a lifetime granting.

***

Lois hadn't lied when she told Clark she was glad he was home. It would have literally torn her apart to have to say good-bye to him again, even if it was so he could go to a home that was as close as just across the hall. The memory of him being dragged away that day was imprinted into her mind. Even when he would go from one room to another, that image reared its ugly head.

But Clark. what must he be going through? He'd told her some pretty awful things. How had he survived the cold and the endless lonely hours? His strength certainly took her breath away. Lois realized that she loved and respected him more than she'd ever thought possible.

Soon enough though, their safe haven inside her bedroom had been breached. They'd had to rise and face another day. And something Clark had said the night before was starting to echo inside Lois' mind.

"Clark?" Lois called his name as she slipped her slacks on and buttoned up her blouse.

"Yeah?" He buttoned his shirt and reached for his tie.

"Did you really mean what you said last night?"

He stopped with his tie dangling from his hands, his eyes fixed on Lois'. "Lois, I meant every word. I've been locked away far too long not to mean what I say."

"I know that. It's just…" She moved around to his side of the bed and sat so she could look up at him. "I meant it when I said yes," she told him softly.

Clark took a breath when he realized what she was trying to say. He slowly eased down beside her to set some of her worries at ease… and hopefully some of his own in the process. "I love you," he said after a moment.

Lois turned to look at him. "And I love you," she promised.

Clark met her gaze before continuing. "I've been 'dead' too long, but the last few days you've shown me how *good* it feels to live again. All those years, I never imagined how wonderful life could be… I can't go back, Lois. Yes, I have a long way to go and I'm sure I'll stumble along the way, but, Lois…" He reached out to take her hands. "I *need* you… and our son. I *want* an us."

Lois smiled through tears that had started to pool in her eyes. "I want those things, too, Clark."

"Then I'll ask again…" He eased to his knees on the floor, still holding her hands. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes," she whispered softly.

Clark smiled and kissed her hands before stretching up to kiss her lips. "You know, I'd really like to take you out tonight."

<Where had that bit of bravery come from?>

Clark was unsure what had possessed him to ask her to go out. He still wasn't comfortable with crowds or being around people other than Lois, Clark Jr. and his parents, but for some insane reason, he suddenly felt the urge to prove to himself that he could live again. If not for himself, for Lois and his family.

What he'd just said began to sink in with Lois. "Clark, how do I pretend to be out with Conner Devon? I want to tell the world that the man I love, the *only* man I've ever loved is home… with me and that we're getting married."

Clark dropped his eyes to stare at their joined hands. Dan still hadn't contacted them about the warrants for Luthor's arrest and he didn't want to ruin the chances of finally bringing that monster down by revealing himself too soon.

Lois watched as he battled with himself. Why had she said that? While all those things were very true, she was also smart enough to know that Lex Luthor was still connected enough to possibly escape justice if too much was given away too soon. She pulled one of her hands from his and placed it alongside his cheek.

"Clark, I know we need to wait for the warrants and I understand completely."

He lifted his eyes back to hers. "I'm sorry, Lois, but this is important to me."

"Honey, I know it's important and I shouldn't have protested."

"You have every right to protest. God, I want to shout to the world that I'm home-that Luthor didn't kill me."

Lois couldn't help but smile. Clark had just made an astonishing admission with that statement. The healing process was amazing when you had the right therapy.

Clark clamped his mouth shut, then changed directions. "Just go out with me. We'll get a private table so you won't have to call me Conner, and I'll ask the manager to make sure we're not bothered." Which was usually what Edward did when he went to a restaurant.

"I think maybe you need to get out," Lois told him.

"Yeah." Once again his insecurities surged to the surface. How could any woman want to be with him? He pushed himself to his feet and continued to dress.

Lois had felt his withdrawal almost immediately. She stood and reached out to help him fix his tie. "Don't," she told him firmly. "The fact that you even suggested we go out proves just how far you've come in such a short time. Please don't close the door. I can't get in if you do."

Clark dropped his hands to allow her finish with his tie. "Why?"

She stopped and looked at him. "Why what?"

"Why would you want all of this?"

Lois didn't even have to pretend she didn't know what he meant. "Because I love you," she told him softly. She pressed a kiss to his lips before pulling back with a smile. "Now, are we going out?"

"What about Clark Jr.? He won't like it if we leave him behind?"

"Clark, your parents would be thrilled to have him stay with them a while. And we can't spend all of our time with him. We have to have a little for ourselves."

Clark laughed softly as he wrapped his arms around Lois and pulled her close for a hug. "You're right. Mom and Dad would love to have him all to themselves."

"Good." Lois pulled back again. "You finish dressing and I'll go see where that boy of ours is. Meet you in five."

"Okay." Clark reached out to grasp her hand before she could get very far. "I love you," he whispered before he released her hand.

She smiled brightly and left in search of their son. Clark was left to stare at her retreating back. It was strange how quickly things changed. A decade ago, in a matter of hours he'd been sentenced to die in some hole in the ground and now, in the span of a few days, he'd had life breathed back into his soul.

He took a deep breath of contentment before heading out in search of his family.

***

Clark had grown nervous as the time for his date with Lois drew close. His parents had happily agreed to care for Clark Jr., more than thrilled to have time alone with their grandson as they always were. Martha's eyes had been filled with tears as the couple exited the apartment. She knew the emotional price her son had paid over the years, and for him to be able to do something as simple as go out with Lois meant that he was indeed healing. She wasn't naive enough to think he'd heal and be the man he once was, but he was certainly on the way to becoming someone he could at least respect. More than anything that's what her son needed.

Lois, too, was nervous by the time they left for their date. She was so excited to be able to do this thing. She'd held tight to Clark's arm as they walked along the streets and talked about nothing in particular. It never once occurred to either of them that others might question why Lois Lane was suddenly spending time with the elusive billionaire, Conner Devon.

One such person to notice was Lex Luthor. He'd been sitting at a table in the upscale restaurant when Lois and Conner entered. He watched as the couple were seated across the room.

Nigel, who accompanied his boss on this night because they had to discuss LexCorp's current financial difficulties, noticed that something had distracted Lex from the conversation. He turned in his chair to see what could possibly be so interesting. He was surprised to see Lois Lane with Conner Devon.

"Very intriguing," Nigel commented when he straightened in his chair again to face his boss.

"Yes. Very." Lex focused on Nigel. "I wasn't aware that Lois knew Devon." He was finding it hard to believe that another Devon was causing him irritation.

"Neither was I, sir."

Lex glanced at the couple again. They were snuggled close together and smiling happily at one another. "It seems their dinner may not be totally professional," he commented with raised brows. "Wouldn't Daniel love to see that?" Lex leaned back in his chair to gaze over at the couple that seemed to be unaware of anyone else around them.

"I'm sure he would," Nigel said unconcerned. He didn't care for Dan Scardino very much. In fact, he didn't care for very many people.

"Tell me, Nigel, how is it that an intelligent woman such as Lois Lane could turn down offers from an educated, well-traveled man such as myself, spend years searching for a nobody boyfriend while two- timing that lover's memory with the likes of a dirty DEA agent, then suddenly be all over a sniveling brat like Conner Devon?"

"It is mystifying, isn't it?" Nigel rarely ever got excited about anything, and Lois Lane wasn't about to change that. He'd never cared for the woman. He thought her arrogant and too nosey for her own good. He'd had to cover up a lot of his boss's actions over the years so that she wouldn't stumble across them by accident. Nigel had been relieved when she'd resigned from active investigative work. That meant his workload would be lighter. When the irritating woman started writing those novels, he'd known his rest was over. He'd discovered over the years that Lane continued to investigate Luthor, just so she could have research for her books. Of course, he'd also wondered how long it would be before she connected Luthor with Kent's murder. After a few years, when she'd failed to produce the needed evidence to implicate Luthor, Nigel started to think that maybe he'd overestimated her. He'd chalked her lack of success on that investigation up to her being lovesick over that nauseous nobody partner of hers.

Lex had gone back to watching the couple as they shared their dinner and conversation. He'd once wanted to conquer that woman. She'd attracted him like no other ever had. What he wouldn't have given to possess her. When she'd thrown their relationship in his face for the likes of Clark Kent, he'd been livid. His plan, that he so affectionately dubbed 'Divide and Conquer', quickly took shape and in less time than it takes most people to balance their checkbook, Kent had been sentenced to die while Lex planned to ease into Lois' bed… just to offer her comfort of course. However, it seemed Lois was more intelligent than Lex had given her credit for. She'd suspected he was behind what happened to her precious Clark. His plans had to be altered, but no matter what he'd attempted, she just wouldn't come to him.

His expression changed slightly when he noticed Conner rise and head in the direction of the men's room. Maybe it was time for another talk with the 'boy wonder'. This time he'd handle that topic himself.

"Excuse me, Nigel. I have business to attend to." Lex rose and placed his napkin on the table before striding off in the direction Conner had gone. He entered the restroom and pretended to wash his hands while he waited for Devon to come out of the stall.

Conner opened the stall to the toilet and almost slammed it shut again. The last person he'd expected to see tonight was Lex Luthor. He wasn't prepared for this at all. He was about to leave without acknowledging his presence when the man noticed him there.

"Well, if it isn't the infamous Mr. Devon," Lex said as he turned to face Conner.

Conner just stood there in silence, trying desperately to control his rising anger. He'd thought about this moment countless times. He'd wondered how he'd react when it finally came. Would he lose control and do something he'd regret? Would he immediately tell Luthor he suspected him to be an evil monster? Would he tell him he was Clark Kent? It appeared he'd do none of that. All he could manage was to glance away before he moved to one of the sinks to wash up. He felt that if he had something to distract him that maybe the sudden urge to see if he was as strong as he once was would slowly dissipate.

Lex smiled coyly as he watched Devon wash his hands. "I must say, Mr. Devon, I am disappointed that you haven't accepted my invitation to merge our empires. We'd be a force to be reckoned with."

That finally sank in. Conner stopped his hands under the water, then looked up at Lex. "As I told your assistant, Mr. Luthor, I'm not interested in resurrecting a dying business."

"Dying business? Surely you don't mean LexCorp?"

Conner reached for a napkin to dry his hands, doing so as he spoke. "I'm sure I do." He moved around Lex to throw his napkin in the trash.

"LexCorp is a financial giant and if it merged with another, just think of the possibilities for the world."

Conner stopped to look at Lex. Even while trying to convince someone to help save his butt, the egotistical crook was still looking ahead to the power that action could give him. "Mr. Luthor, I am *not* interested." With that, he turned to leave.

"No, of course not. You're too wrapped around Lois Lane," Lex mumbled, in a voice that was meant purely to aggravate the other man.

Conner stopped at the door and slowly faced Luthor again. "What?"

"Well, I couldn't help but notice how you've been all over that woman since you two came in."

Irritated beyond belief, Conner took a half step back toward the man he viewed as his enemy. "You've been watching us?"

"I couldn't help but notice. You two are making a sickening display. Don't you know how to control yourselves?" Lex turned to straighten his tie in the mirror. "Too bad it's all for nothing though."

"Not that it's any of your business, but I was not making any kind of display with my date." He stressed the last word, suddenly feeling the urge to make sure Lex knew exactly what his relationship with Lois was.

Lex turned back to face Conner. "Let me give you some friendly advice. Lane is a tease."

"What?" Conner couldn't help but take another step forward.

"She led me along on a string some years back, then embarrassed me by making scenes with her idiot partner. Not that she jilted me, you understand. My intentions with her were never *that*… emotional. Woman are to be just wooed, won and conquered. Of course, a man of your stature knows exactly what I'm talking about, don't you?" He smiled slyly at Conner.

Conner had to clench his fists to keep from grabbing Luthor around his throat and choking the life from his body.

"Anyway, after the untimely… death of her partner, the woman became obsessed with trying to prove he was innocent and had been set up. Everyone knows that was just not true and she's been unable to prove her ridiculous claims. But I must let you know that she's become *friends* with the DEA agent put in charge of the case. They have been involved over the years. So, Mr. Devon, you're very much wasting your time with Lois Lane. She'll only lead you on and leave you high and dry." Lex smiled, clearly confident that he imparted some 'great wisdom' to this man.

Conner, however, didn't take very kindly to the advice of the deranged monster. He took another menacing step toward Luthor, backing him against the counter. "Now it's my turn to give you some *friendly* advice. Not only do I know Lois Lane, I know her *very* well. She and I have been friends for years and have recently decided that our friendship needs to evolve into something a lot deeper. So we did just that. I also know about her time with Clark Kent and I respect that."

"So you know her bastard son belongs to him?"

Lex crossed the line with that statement. Conner snatched him up by his lapels and turned to slam him against the stall doors behind them. "I let the comment about Lois being a tease go. And I can understand that you don't like to lose, so the comments about being jilted were again ignored. But you crossed the line when you started this conversation. Lois' son is not a bastard, she's not a tease, and you've as much right to give me advice as that damn wall has to get up and run out the door. I can't say I feel the least uncomfortable that you find it so hard to grasp the concept that there's actually a woman out there somewhere that doesn't fall at your feet. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy knowing you're upset because you can't 'get the girl' and I can. So, my advice to you, *Mr. Luthor*, is that it would be a very good idea if you kept your mouth shut from now on."

Lex could only smile at Conner. Knowing he could upset another man like that always gave him a sense of power. "My, it seems she's gotten to you, too. Don't say I didn't warn you though."

Conner was too incensed to speak, but he shoved Luthor a little harder against the stall door, clearly issuing a stern warning for the man to hush.

"Come on, Devon, the infatuation will wear off. She *will* turn to her memories of her dead lover. She's obsessed with him. Hell, she even moved his parents into that sanctuary of hers. Oh, and don't get me started on her obsession with that flying freak!"

Conner moved his arm up so that it pressed against Luthor's chest, emphasizing his threat for this man to keep his mouth shut. He was satisfied when Lex seemed to strain a little as he became uncomfortable. "As I told you earlier, I know about her relationship with Clark. I also know everything about her relationship with Superman. I respect her time with *both* men, so much so that when we take our wedding vows, it won't bother me one bit to know she'll still love her partner, the father of her son, and the man she considered to be a good friend as well." He could see what he said had hit home. He shoved hard one last time before he released Luthor to leave.

Lex had to take a moment to regain control before what Conner said sank in. By the time he raised his head, Devon was gone. He hurried out behind the man so that he could make a few calls. He needed to find out just how the hell Conner Devon managed to get Lois Lane to accept a marriage proposal.

Conner strode quickly back to his and Lois' table. She noticed his approach and immediately knew something was wrong. "Clark, what's wrong?" She said as he neared the table.

"I have to get out of here," he told her and quickly changed directions toward the door.

She scrambled to rise and gather their jackets so she could follow him. Just as she was about to start toward the exit, she noticed Lex Luthor out of the corner of her eye. He'd entered the main section of the restaurant from the hall leading to the restrooms.

<So, that's why he's upset.>

Lois' heart screamed for Clark. Was Lex Luthor ever going to leave them alone? She tucked the jackets she held under her arm and turned to go, but her need to protect Clark overwhelmed her and she marched over to Lex's table.

Lex noticed her approach and stopped speaking with Nigel when she arrived.

"One day, Lex," Lois started. "You will have nothing to hide behind. When that day comes, I will be there to document for all the world to learn just what kind of person you really are." With that, she stormed from the restaurant in search of Clark. He'd been so upset, she feared she might not be able to bring him back around.

Lex was left with nothing to say. There were only so many shocks a man could take in one night. Finding out that another Devon was about to make his life completely unlivable was enough. Top it off with Lois Lane throwing crazy insinuations at him, well… even the devil himself would become strained.

***

Lois found Clark pacing back and forth in front of a limo. When she was almost at his side, he reached to open the door.

"Clark, I'm…"

"Just get in," he told her in a clipped tone.

Her brows rose at his tone, but she climbed inside the vehicle anyway. Clark followed her and settled for the ride. The silence finally got the best of her and she turned to face him.

"I had no idea he was there," she told him.

"I know you didn't," Clark responded. He offered nothing further.

"You knew sooner or later you'd have to face him." She was trying desperately to breach his impenetrable wall.

Clark took a breath and looked at Lois. "Tonight was what I needed… in more ways than one."

"What does that mean?"

"It means it showed me what kind of person I really am and that I'll never be able to live a normal life again."

"And what do you mean by that?!" Lois feared she knew exactly what he meant, but she wanted him to say. Maybe he'd hear how idiotic such none sense sounded.

"It means… I'm going to take you home and say good- bye to Clark."

"Say goodbye?!" Lois' voice took on a hysterical note but Clark didn't answer this time-just turned to stare out the window at the passing lights. "I guess all that stuff you said means nothing!"

Clark's head shot back around to Lois. "I meant every word I said."

"Except the parts about staying around and being part of our lives."

"How can I be part of anyone's life? I can't even function when I think about the things that happened to me!"

"It seems you're doing a pretty damn good job to me," she shot sarcastically. "Or at least making some pretty stupid decisions."

"The decision not to cause you and Clark pain is not stupid."

"Leaving *would* cause us pain, Clark." Her voice had grown soft, full of emotion.

Clark dropped his head back, fighting his threatening tears. He'd told himself over and over the last few days that being with Lois was right; he deserved a little happiness after all he'd gone through. Seeing Luthor had set off every doubt he'd ever harbored. He just couldn't see an end to the pain. He should have never asked her out tonight.

<You were the one that said you wanted to shout to the world that Luthor hadn't beat you.>

Why did his conscience have to remind him of his bursts of bravery? Yes, he had wanted to shout to the world his will to survive. Seeing Luthor had shot his thoughts into a whirlwind.

<But you stood up to him.>

Clark lifted his head with that last thought. He had stood up to Lex Luthor. He'd been angered beyond belief, but he hadn't lost control. He'd effectively warned him to watch his mouth, without giving too much away. All in all, he'd handled the situation very well.

<So why are you having such a difficult time with this?>

Lois' sniffle brought him out of his haze. She was gazing out of her window, trying desperately to hold in her tears. When Clark had refused to speak again, she'd turned away to fight the rising emotions.

Clark wanted to die. He hated to see Lois cry-had always hated it. Now was certainly no different. He reached out a shaky hand to lay on her shoulder. "Lois."

"Just… don't."

"Please don't cry."

That brought her out of her haze. She twirled on him with fire in her eyes. "Don't cry? How dare you tell me something like that! I have ached for you every day for ten years. I have hoped against all hope that somehow you'd come home to me… and somehow you did. How can you say good-bye again?"

Clark's face twisted in agony when he saw the pain he was causing her.

"I know you've had a difficult time and I know there will be much, much more. You're the one that's been constantly repeating how far you have to go, but Clark, you can't run from every little thing that upsets you." She reached to take his hands. "You've had a taste of what living is all about again. Could you really leave all that behind? Could you live every day, for the rest of your life, not knowing what your son is doing? And think of him, Clark. How in the hell would you tell him you're going to leave him?"

The tears filled Clark's eyes as her words started to sink in. She was right. He would never be happy if he walked away now. At least if he stayed, he'd have a chance to live a 'normal' life again. He'd have nothing if he walked out on his son… on Lois.

He dropped his head forward so that his forehead was lying on their joined hands. His soft sobs cut through the silence inside the car as he broke down. Lois simply leaned over to press her lips to the back of his head, offering silent comfort for him. She could only hope her words were enough to convince him that walking away was not the answer. Together, and with Clark Jr. and his parents, Clark could one day become someone that he could feel good about again… only if he stayed.

***

Once Lois and Clark reached Port Royal, she led him to the observatory on the roof and they spent several hours having another emotional conversation about Clark's fears and insecurities. He confessed that he'd only been thinking of how happy he was to be with her the night before when he asked her to marry him. He told her of his fear of never being able to live up to her expectations or offer her any kind of stability. She listened as he voiced his fear of disappointing their son and his parents. Then he listened as she described her last ten years to him.

Lois visibly shook as she recounted those first days without him; how utterly helpless she'd felt as she'd had to fly home, leaving him in some prison cell and not knowing what was happening to him. She paced the small room as she relived the horrible pain that had hit her when they'd informed her of his death.

Clark listened to it all; her reluctance to accept the fact that he was dead; the joy and sorrow she'd felt when she found out she carried his baby; the indescribable feelings the day their son was born; and all the years since. She relived the last decade and when she was done, Clark was holding her as both wept once more.

He held her tightly as he apologized for ever thinking of leaving her again. His hand stroked her hair as he promised to be there tomorrow, the next day, and every day forward. Together, he told her. Together is the way they'd stay from that night forward. The road that lay ahead might be a long, winding, rocky one, but with her is where he'd be. And she promised to do everything in her power to help him heal.

When they'd finally reached an understanding, the couple had gone back to Lois' apartment, more relaxed and at ease than they'd been since their encounter with Luthor. Once there, Lois had convinced Clark to make plans to move in the next day. He'd voiced his concerns about what folks might think of Conner Devon living with her and she'd simply replied:

"People see and believe what they want to."

How true that statement was, he'd thought, as he remembered how he'd once convinced the world he was two separate men. But presently, his living arrangements didn't concern the world. If he and Lois were happy, then that was all that mattered.

And during breakfast, Lois laid a few of his other fears to rest by telling him that Dan had phoned to let them know it wouldn't be much longer before the warrants were ready for Lex's arrest. Until then, she'd implied that they didn't have to venture far from Port Royal, if going out made him uncomfortable. Lois would be very happy if they used the time alone to get to know each other again and discuss his feelings about Luthor and how Clark Kent would eventually reveal himself to the world.

Of course, Lois was right and he'd reluctantly given in to her suggestions. So it was a very nervous, but happy Clark who went to his hotel and retrieved his clothes. Other than the things he'd bought since he'd been with his family, his clothes were all that he had with him in Metropolis. He'd told them that the many lavish things he'd inherited as Travis Devon's son didn't really feel like his. The whole family had decided that 'one day at a time' included gathering material goods that were usually associated with being his own man again, and that was what Clark wanted very much.

While he was at his hotel, Lois cleaned out a section of the closet for some of his things and emptied a chest for the others. His hands shook as he laid his clothes into the drawers and hung them in the closet. She finally drew him into a hug and told him how much she loved him. That calmed him enough to finish his chore.

And in those first few days, he must have taken more than fifty showers. That made her heart ache so badly for him. Once, during the night, she'd even awakened to find him sleeping on the floor. Instead of rousing him, she'd drawn the comforter from the bed and settled beside him. He'd apologized a dozen times the following morning, but she told him that he had nothing to apologize for. She was simply trying to help him heal. That had ended with a sweet kiss and soft words of endearment.

***

Lois looked up from the work she was trying to do to watch the man in her thoughts. He was helping Clark with his school work. She sighed contentedly at the simple task. Just a few days earlier it had been all she could do to convince him to move in with her. Many hours talking out their fears, just as many holding each other, and a few hundred hugs and 'I love yous' later, Clark had started to relax a bit. In the last few days he actually seemed at ease. To Lois that translated to: 'he seemed at home'. She couldn't get much happier.

Clark seemed to sense that she was watching him and turned to offer her a smile.

"I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing you smile," she told him honestly.

"Yeah, well, it's really good to smile again." He leaned back in his chair and lifted his hands behind his head. "I've been thinking that maybe. after we nail Luthor that we could start planning that wedding."

Young Clark's, or Clarry as he'd affectionately been dubbed for confusion sake, head snapped up to his father. "What?"

Clark looked down at him with a smile. "I asked your mother to marry me."

"Oh wow! Really?"

"Really."

"Oh wow!" He turned to look at his mother; she was smiling brightly. "Oh wow!" Tears had started to roll down his cheeks. "Oh wow!" He swiped at his cheeks.

Clark dropped his hands and sat up in his chair when he saw the boy was crying. "Son, what's wrong?"

"Nothin'." He'd started to shake. "It's just." He turned to glance at his mother. "I'm so happy. How many kids get a second chance like this? My daddy's home. We thought he was dead. I've only known him from what everyone's told me about him. I've listened to my mommy cry because he was gone. And now. here he is." He wiped his face again. "And he's always gonna be here."

Clark was still a little worried about the boy's reaction. "Ah. do you not want that?"

"What?!" Clarry's eyes widened. "Are you kidding? I've prayed for this every day since I've been able to talk. My daddy's alive and my mommy's happy. Our family is all together again."

"Then. why are you shaking?"

"I don't know." He hung his head and started to cry softly. "I've never been happy enough to feel like this," he said softly.

Clark reached out and pulled the boy into his lap. Small arms surrounded his neck in a fierce hug.

"I am so happy, Daddy."

"Me, too, son." How could he have ever thought of giving this up?

They stayed that way for a moment before Clarry pulled back to look at Clark. "Nobody's giving my mom away but me. And if you even think about asking someone else to be the best man, I'll move in with Grandma and Grandpa."

Clark and Lois both laughed. Clark's large hand came up to hold the face before him. "Then we'd all look silly because we'd have to come, too." He leaned forward and kissed Clarry's forehead. "I was thinking more along the lines of something not so traditional in regards to the wedding."

"Really?" Lois asked as she rose to come sit beside them.

"I was thinking we could go to Maine. You two would love Devon Manor. It sits up on a hill out on a point overlooking the ocean. I thought we could get married at sunset on the beach."

Lois smiled brightly. "That sounds perfect."

Clark looked over at Lois with a frown. "I know most women want this huge event to mark their marriage, but Lois, honey, I don't think I could do that."

She reached out and rubbed his arm. "I want you, Clark. I wouldn't care if we went down to the courthouse as long as we get married."

He smiled and looked back at Clarry. "We can give her a little more than that." The boy smiled and nodded. "Anyway, I was thinking of thin cotton clothes. white. Bare feet, warm wind, Mom, Dad. us." He smiled at Lois again. "And I want Clarry to walk with both of us. I want him there, right in the middle, as we say our vows."

"Oh wow!" The boy looked over at his mom. "Just like the wedding you've always described, Mom."

"What?" Clark was looking between them.

"Mom has always said that if she could have you back she'd be married holding the hands of the two men she loves most in the world."

Clark stared across at Lois. "Clarry, your mother won't just be my wife. I told you how much I loved her and that she's the reason I lived all those years." He paused and continued to stare at Lois. "Simple reason for that is that she's my other half. When I got out of there and decided I wouldn't come back, I knew I'd always be able to feel her. The first time I saw her again, I knew I'd never be able to live without her."

Clarry looked between his parents. They were staring at each other and even he could understand the communication going on. "Kiss her already," he mumbled after a moment with an embarrassed grin.

Clark simply leaned forward and met Lois in a sweet, tender kiss. When he pulled back, she was smiling with tears in her eyes. "I love you, Lois."

"I love you, Clark." She smoothed a hand over his face before she rose and left the room.

Clark looked back down at his son. "We are the luckiest men alive."

"Absolutely," the boy agreed with a huge grin.

***

The dark surrounded him; cold, all-consuming. The unbearable pain leaked into his soul. Death. he could see it calling him. To him it was real. It was as substantial as any person had ever been, and it wanted to take him under.

From somewhere off to the side, he heard voices calling to him. They repeated his name over and over, keeping him from drifting toward that monster that wanted to take him away forever. They said his name and two other words he hadn't heard in so very long.

Home. What was that? *Where* was that? He didn't have one of those any more. Home had disappeared for him a long time ago.

Love. Definitely something that didn't exist. There was no love in the world.

But wasn't there? Wasn't there love? Wasn't that what saved him? And home?. Hadn't he found that? Hadn't he discovered he'd had those things all along? That they'd been waiting for him to reclaim them.

The dark figure at the end of the corridor laughed and told him he was only dreaming. None of those things were real. He was dead. He'd died in that cold, stone room. Even if his body breathed again, his spirit never would. His solitude, engineered by the evil plotting of Lex Luthor, and his own terrible thoughts that had become his only companions in that place had destroyed that spirit. *It* was gone. *He* was gone. Without his spirit, he was nobody.

"Don't listen to those things, Clark," came the soft feminine voice at his side. "They're wrong. Your spirit lives. It's something that could never be taken from you as long as you refuse to allow it. Death didn't win, Clark. And neither did Luthor. He locked you away to get the girl." She laughed softly. "Ironic, isn't it? The girl remained true to her heart. She kept *your* spirit alive within her. Please. Come home. And. there is love. *I* love you. Clarry loves you. Your parents. Clark Kent, you are, have been, and always will be loved."

He could feel it now. The cold was being replaced by warmth. The pain was fading and death started to scream.

Clark awoke with a jolt. His eyes roamed the room a moment before lighting on the woman that sat in the chair in front of the window.

She noticed he was awake and put her papers down and looked at him. "Hey, sleepyhead."

Clark stared at Lois for a moment without speaking, causing her smile to fade. "Clark, are you all right?"

After a moment, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, he was smiling. "I am now."

Lois rose from the chair and made her way to the bed. "Bad dream?"

"It was, but my heroine saved the day." He smiled and leaned forward to kiss her lips.

Lois smiled back. "Dan called." She watched as the smile faded from Clark's face. "The warrants will be ready by ten."

Clark glanced out into the brilliant morning sun before he spoke again. "It's finally over." It had taken nearly two weeks to secure enough evidence to satisfy the judge who was making a lot of demands before he issued a warrant. Every detail had to be in place before the chief justice would think of moving against one of the richest men in the world. Finally satisfied the crime lord would not simply worm his way out of the arrest warrant, the papers were issued.

Lois reached out and held his face to turn his head back to her. "It's over," she agreed with a whisper.

Clark's eyes filled with tears before he collapsed into Lois' arms. "You don't know how very sorry I am for leaving you all this time."

"Clark, what happened was not your fault. Can't we just admit it's something we can never change and move on? You're here now. Let's not waste another moment of our time together."

Clark knew she was right. They'd discussed this many times over the last two weeks. Both knew there would always be a part of them that would wonder what could have been. But the past was behind them and all they could do was move forward. A whole new life lay before them and Lois had taught him that he could face anything as long as he believed in himself. He'd told her that he could face that as long as he had her.

He drew back to look at her. "You're right. We've had enough time taken from us." He kissed her again before moving to get up.

"Where are you going?"

"I told Clarry we'd get a haircut when we brought Luthor down. I need to shave and get a new pair of glasses. No one will believe Clark's really back unless I look the part."

"You're ready to come all the way back?"

"Lois, I may never be all the way back, but I am ready to announce to everyone that Lex Luthor was unable to break me. That's something I've realized the last couple of weeks. He nearly killed me. He took away my life as I knew it. He separated me from you. But he could never break me."

Lois let her lips spread into a slow grin. "That's the man I knew was hiding in there."

Clark winked at her before he went to find his son. They had a lot to do before ten o'clock.

***

The climb to the top is always so much more enjoyable than the fall from grace, as Lex was finding out. Nigel had just informed him that LexCorp would fold by summer's end. He would be no more. He might have a tidy sum tucked away for a rainy day, but not enough to save him and what was money without power?

"Damn!" he swore as he threw a file across the room. If only that sniveling brat of Devon's had merged with him. There was wealth in numbers and the Devons, Luthor reluctantly admitted, had a lot of numbers. But not only had that pompous bastard refused to join with him to form the wealthiest empire the world had ever known, Devon had further irritated him by moving in with Lois Lane. It appeared the couple was indeed going to get married. And to make matters worse, Lex hadn't seen Dan once to ask what was going on.

Nigel had done some investigating for him and discovered Lane and Devon were playing house. However, attempts to contact Scardino had been unsuccessful. That had made Luthor question the man's true motives. Sure, the rouge agent had served his purpose well over the years. Luthor always knew exactly what Lois was nosing into so that he could remain just one step ahead of her. But now, with this announcement concerning Devon, Lex couldn't help but wonder what was really happening.

He turned to look out the glass doors of his office at the city that stretched out beneath him. He'd always liked knowing others had to look up to him. Power, control, being able to manipulate people-that was what Lex enjoyed most in life. One such person he'd lived to control was Travis Devon. He couldn't contain a snide smile as he thought of that one. That had been one of his major triumphs and the old man hadn't even known what he had done to him. Belinda Devon had been a beautiful woman and Lex could never resist a lovely woman, especially one who belonged to a rival.

He'd sampled her various talents often. Together, they'd carried on an affair behind her husband's back. But the ultimate slap in the face had come about when Belinda found herself pregnant. Lex had been adamant the child was his and not Devon's. At the time, he'd wanted her to leave her husband and come to him, but the silly woman had refused. So, Luthor watched sullenly as the richest couple in the world started *their* family.

Yet Belinda hadn't been able to refuse his advances and over the years, more stolen moments were indulged in here and there, but Lex had eventually grown tired of the game and told Belinda she'd only been an itch he'd scratched. He'd also had a change of heart and gone on to tell her that the child had to be Devon's because any seed he'd spawned would have surely been a boy. After all, Lex had moved on to other more interesting conquests and the last thing he'd wanted was to be saddled with a paternity suit. It hadn't been his fault that the stupid female hadn't understood the rules of the game, Lex reviewed with an evil smirk. The rejection had taken a tragic toll on poor Belinda, and sadly she'd committed suicide, leaving Travis and her young daughter behind.

Strangely enough, years later fate had played a hand in the game between the two rival billionaires when Lex had met the daughter that Belinda had delivered so long ago. The young woman had her mother's looks and, once again, he'd found himself attracted. The fact that this female might share his blood didn't really occur to him — he'd dismissed that idea long since — and the challenge of entrapping the girl just as he had her mother appealed to his perverted sense of humor. And history had repeated itself. The young woman had succumbed to Lex's charms, completely unaware of the past involved.

To further torment Devon, whom Luthor had grown to loath, he'd had no scruples about using the daughter to get at the father. Cruelly, he'd informed the girl about his affair with her mother and resurrected the question that she might even be *his* daughter, inferring that the two of them may have indulged in incest.

It was all too much for the girl. She'd been so upset when she'd run from him that on the drive up to Maine to seek consolation from the only 'Daddy' she'd ever known, the poor little rich girl had had a car accident. They'd rushed her to hospital and Devon had spared no expense to save the life of the only family he had left. There had been the need for a blood transfusion and because of a rare blood type, it had finally been proven that Devon was indeed the girl's father, despite Luthor's allegations. But even Devon's billions hadn't been enough to save her, and the girl died within a couple of days, making the whole situation so perversely comical… at least, to Lex.

Lex continued to laugh humorlessly as he thought of yet another life he'd ruined. Clark Kent had been a challenge that he'd proven fairly easily that he could overcome and getting rid of Superman in the process had been an added bonus. Lex was especially proud of that little task. He might not have won the girl, but knowing she suffered. all in the name of love, was so gratifying.

<<The name of love. how ironic!>>

He'd never believed in such nonsense. There was only self-preservation and power.

Enough! He had too many things that demanded his attention. There was no sense wasting time on the likes of a nobody like Clark Kent. The pitiful man was gone and so was his alien friend. Travis Devon was gone as well. He'd died a lonely man, without the knowledge that another man had crossed into his territory and stolen the only people he cared about.

Or had he known? Devon's brat had died about a year ago, the same time all of his troubles had started. Was it possible the girl had lived long enough to tell her father the information Luthor had relayed to her? That would explain this plot against him to bring down his empire. Devon and son must have set all of it up to get revenge on him!

Just as Luthor was about to focus on the files on his desk again, the doors swung open. Lex looked up to see Dan Scardino.

"Dan. Just the man I've been looking for."

Dan grinned widely at him. "Have you? That's good because I have an update for you…" he finished as he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket with a flourish. "Lex Luthor, you're under arrest."

"What?" Lex rose to his feet and snatched the paper from the man's hand.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Dan Scardino, DEA."

Lex stared at the man for several moments. He'd been told this worthless twit had been kicked out of the agency for using excessive force. Scardino was supposed to be a good cop gone bad. That's why he'd been hired.

Dan moved around the desk toward Lex as he pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. "Cooperate and this will be much easier."

Lex glanced at the paper, then the cuffs. He snorted and tossed the warrant to the desk. "Don't be ridiculous. Lex Luthor will not live in a cage."

"What's the matter? Think you're too good for it?"

Lex slowly turned towards the source of the new voice. As his eyes settled on the figure who entered the room they widened in shock and he stumbled back into the chair, landing with a thud onto the cushions, his obvious disbelief showing all too well. There, right before him, was a ghost from his past. The tall, dark-haired man looked almost exactly the same as he remembered. His short hair was styled in the familiar way it had always been, though touches of silver accented here and there. A pair of glasses set on his nose, while a loud tie finished off a GQ type suit the man seemed to fit into perfectly.

"What's wrong, Lex?" the voice asked.

"I. I. you're dead!" Maybe a little smaller than Lex remembered, but definitely alive.

"No. You may have wanted it, but it didn't happen."

Lex's eyes shot from the DEA agent back to the ghost before him. He'd had this man killed. How in the hell did he end up here? Once again, he shot to his feet. "But I ordered your death! This is not possible!"

Dan smiled as he reached for Luthor's arm. "You ordered who's death, Lex? You've killed so many."

Lex snatched his arm away from Dan. "Don't be a fool, Scardino! You know perfectly well who I mean."

"You mean, Kent there? Clark Kent?"

"Yes, you idiot, Kent. He was supposed to be dead! I was assured he was dead!"

Clark took a step toward Lex. All the pain and misery swirled in a horrible haze around his heart. "I was dead. For nearly ten long years I was dead. You ripped me from my life, from my family, from everything I had. And for what? The price of your bruised ego? I'll bet it burns a hole in you a mile wide every time you see Lois Lane and *my* son."

Lex launched himself at Clark, but the younger man ducked aside and, grabbing Lex, pinned him to the wall, in almost the exact way he'd done in the restroom of a restaurant as another man recently. For a moment, he could have sworn Luthor connected the two events. He held him there with his forearm across his chest. "How did it feel, Luthor? To know you'd gone through all of that trouble and she still wouldn't budge?"

"I didn't want her. not after I learned she carried your bastard!"

Clark's arm moved up to press more fully against his neck. "Watch your mouth! I've been locked up far too long to be sane." His eyes bore into Lex's.

Luthor recoiled at the murderous expression in Clark's stare. Yet, he almost felt like a proud papa. He'd created this new man from nothing. That was an accomplishment!

He smiled suddenly at Clark. "Try it, Kent. It feels liberating. Let the *real* man out."

"I did, but you're not worth it! I didn't let you break me. I came home and reclaimed the girl. Unlike you, she's agreed to marry me. Even after you went through the trouble of locking me away for a decade," Clark whispered. There was still that tiny part of his soul that wouldn't allow Lex to have the last laugh.

"Ah, but that's where you're wrong. She's moved past your memory and onto another…" Suddenly everything that had been said sank in. Kent had just said 'she's agreed to marry me.' And Conner Devon said he was going to marry Lane. Lex narrowed his eyes at the man holding him against the wall.

Dan understood immediately what had passed through Luthor's mind. "Oh, by the way, Lex, have you been properly introduced to Conner Devon?"

That wiped the remaining smile from Lex's face. "I should have killed you myself!" he spat at the man before him. He should have known Lois Lane would never have taken up with a virtual stranger when she wouldn't have anything to do with him. Devon had all but told him who he was when he'd said he and Lois had been friends for a long time. Why hadn't he paid more attention? How could he have been so careless? So stupid? He'd beaten himself at his own game.

"You should have… Because the past always has a way of jumping up to bite you. A fine old man told me that some months ago. You might remember him… Travis Devon. He gave me a message for you, Luthor. He said, and I quote, 'to be truly successful in a vengeful endeavor, make sure to add as much irony as possible.' I think he achieved success, don't you? It's a pity he isn't here to watch 'his son' make you squirm! Clark jerked the man away from the wall and shoved him toward Dan. "Get that filth out of here!"

"My pleasure." Dan reached forward and roughly cuffed Luthor, who was, by now, completely and utterly stunned. He held up a small recorder when he was done. "And thanks for the extra ammunition, Luthor. It'll come in handy."

Clark let out the breath he'd been holding as Dan shoved Luthor through the door. He heard another officer start to read the man's rights to him. Those were some of the best words he'd heard uttered in years. He took a final look around the office of the man that had tried to bring him down.

"You didn't win. You didn't beat me," he told Luthor just before the officers led their prisoner away.

Lois stood in the hallway as Luthor was led out. This time his expression of disgust made her smile. Her decade long battle to beat this man at his own game had finally come to an end.

Her eyes slowly shifted to the man that now made his way into the corridor. To her it looked as if years had been lifted from his features. The gray may have still touched the hair at his temples, but the dull light in his eyes seemed to be getting brighter by the second. She opened her arms to accept Clark as he came to her with a brilliant smile. A few moments later, they drew back to look into one another's eyes.

"We got him," Clark whispered.

"We got him," she confirmed before kissing him softly.

***

Time stood still as Clark cupped Lois' face in his hands. He slowly lowered his lips to hers in the first expression of their love as a married couple. He drew back several moments later to smile down at his beautiful wife. After a brief moment, they both reached down to take a hand of their son in each of theirs before they turned to face their clapping and cheering guests.

Clark Kent had come home. Following the arrest of Lex Luthor, Clark announced to the world that he was alive and well. He'd done so only after reacquainting himself with his former boss and friend. Both Jimmy and Perry were shocked beyond belief, but just as happy to have him back as his family had been. When the official announcement of his return was made, the world was stunned. Not only that Lex Luthor had been responsible for such a horrible act, but also because Superman had been sacrificed in order to achieve it.

Lois and Clark had had many heartfelt discussions about the return of the superhero. Along with the younger Clark and his parents, Clark decided to leave the hero in his forced exile for the time being. Superman's return alongside that of Clark Kent's just might prove to be too much of a coincidence, and, besides, it was felt that Clark's healing was much more important than resurrecting Superman.

To start that process was the extremely overdue wedding of Lois and Clark. They'd taken their vows in the twilight on the last day in May, with their son standing with them, just as they'd discussed. They would spend the rest of the summer getting to know each other and learning how to be a family. Edward had been retained to oversee business at Port Royal and Dan was entrusted to make sure Lex Luthor would forever remain the ward of the state of New Troy inside the confines of a prison cell.

As Clark started to receive congratulations from their guests, another section of his heart was mended. The sweetest words he'd heard, up until today, had been the name of his son. But the introduction of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Kent and 'son' was just as sweet.

He smiled over at his wife. She was truly incredible. It overwhelmed him each time he thought of how she'd kept him close to heart, even though she'd believed him to be dead. Even when he'd admitted that he'd never be able to stay away from her, he'd never dreamed this moment would be taking place, especially just weeks after he'd come home.

She turned and flashed him a smile and he had to close his eyes to savor the moment. The soft drum of his son's excited heart filtered into his very being. Lois' happy and just as equally excited heart raced to match his own thrilled pace. He sighed and let the quiet thumps sooth his battered soul. Slowly another sound filtered its way through and Clark's eyes shot wide open.

Lois watched him and smiled even brighter. She knew exactly what he heard. Just two days earlier she'd discovered their family had been enlarged. Lois had wanted to tell Clark later tonight; offer up this newest expression of their powerful love as her wedding gift to her husband, but it appeared he'd listened a little too closely. No matter. This was their special gift, one she couldn't be happier about. She reached over and squeezed his hand tightly. "Welcome home, baby," she said softly.

Clark smiled through tears. He was home. He was really home. He closed his eyes to listen once again to the sounds he knew now were his spirit healing. From a cold, dark hole in the middle of a rock called Purgatory to a pristine beach under brilliant stars on the coast of Maine. Clark Kent had endured years of pain and misery, his own private hell, to get here. But with a strength only known to a super man, he had not been broken. And through it all, he'd made it home.

THE END

…If you hadn't figured it out by now, this story was inspired by the latest remake of "The Count of Monte Cristo". From beginning to end, I loved that movie. all ten or twelve times I've seen it! No infringements of any were intended in writing this story. I hope you all enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. It certainly took long enough.