Rage

By Lynn M. <mccreadie67@hotmail.com>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: November 2003

Summary: After Clark's worst nightmare nearly comes true, he's forced to face a most unexpected enemy: himself. Will it cost him everything he holds dear? Warning: this story contains some violent scenes.

Author's Notes:

First, thank you to all the FoLCs on the Lois and Clark Fanfic Message Boards who were so encouraging and free with their praise and support. It was a fun ride and I'm glad you all came along with me.

Thank you also to Wendy Richards, who I think has been assigned the unfortunate task of being my own personal GE. I, for one, am eternally grateful for this situation, but I need to express my thanks to her for putting up with the same mistakes over and over. Wendy, with each story, I hope your job has become just a little bit easier <g>.

This story was originally written as an Nfic, so if you are of age and are so inclined, I highly recommend you read that version. However, I don't thing the story has suffered much by conversion.

I must warn you that this story is rather dark and does contain some violence as well as a few WHAMS.

Disclaimers: Most of the characters in this story are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. The story idea is mine, and no infringement on anyone's copyright is intended.

***

The phone rang only once before it was picked up. Good.

"Hello?"

"You alone?" Rule one. Always check.

"Yeah."

"You all set?" Rule two. Get to the point. No chit chat. And no details that weren't absolutely necessary.

"Yeah. How 'bout you?"

"Of course." He didn't stifle the irritation. "What about Ferrell and Jenkins?"

"They're all set."

"Good. Eight o'five sharp. No delays. You got that?" It was a command, not a question.

"I got it. Listen, there gonna be cameras at this thing?"

"Should be. It's a pretty big to-do." A tickle of apprehension in his belly. "That a problem?"

"Nope. We can handle it."

"Good. 'Cause this thing has got to go off without any screw ups." His voice was hard, echoing against the walls thick with peeling paint.

"We don't screw up."

It was said with confidence, so he let himself relax. Only a bit. "Man, after tonight everyone in this town's going to know about us."

"Yeah. Especially with cameras…"

"I'm telling you, the cameras are a bonus. When this goes down, there won't be a set of eyes in Metropolis that aren't glued to their TVs. Talk about power. You think the PD or the mayor ain't going to do what we tell 'em and risk having this blow up right during prime time family hour?"

"I guess."

"Damn straight, you guess. Now if you guys just don't screw up…" It bore repeating.

"We ain't gonna screw up."

"Eight o'five." Rule three. Always double check the time.

"Yep."

"I'm taking the phone so don't bother callin' this number. We'll meet up before."

"Yep."

With a violent jerk, he pulled the phone cord from the wall. The entire socket came with it, leaving behind some wires and a small pile of crumbled wall plaster.

***

Clark drummed his fingers on his desk, the rhythmic sound only slightly soothing as the phone issued its fourth ring without an answer. Two more and the machine would kick on.

"Hello?"

"Lois?" His relief instantly turned to concern when he heard her breathless answer. "You all right?"

"Yeah. Sorry. Bit out of breath." She panted slightly. "I was just getting the mail when I heard the phone so "

"You shouldn't be running!" he admonished.

"Clark "

"I mean it, Lois." His voice became louder. Sterner. He stood, glancing around the bull pen. Maybe he should dash home…

"Clark, it's not like I just ran a quarter mile in under thirty seconds! Besides, it wasn't running anyway. More like a slow jog. Or even a really fast walk. From the front door to the phone. I don't think I'm going to be setting any speed records."

A bit appeased by her teasing, he sat down, smiling sheepishly at the people who'd stopped their work to stare at him. "Still, I don't want you getting yourself tired."

She sighed loudly, no longer out of breath. "Clark, did you call just to yell at me?"

"No."

"OK."

He started again. "So, hey."

"Hey." Her reply was low and intimate, coming through the line to remove the last lingering concern. A warmth seeped through him, and he smiled into the phone. She'd left the office only two hours ago and already he missed her.

"How's the story coming?" she asked.

"Slow. Perry's still reading through our work-up." Clark leaned back in his chair, cradling the phone in the crook of his shoulder. He tapped a pencil against his palm, glancing at Perry White's door. "He's got the door closed. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

"Hmmm," Lois muttered, then remained silent for a minute. "You know, maybe I'd better come in."

"Lo-is…" He leaned forward, steeling himself for a battle.

"Really, Clark. You know how important this one is to me. I'd hate for us to miss tomorrow's edition just because I'm not there "

"Lois, you are not coming in," he commanded firmly. He heard her gearing up and could imagine her indignant frown. But this time he was just as determined. "I can handle it. Remember, we talked about this. You're going to slow down. And that one other thing. What was it? Oh, yeah. You're going to trust me. I've been doing this for a while now. Three years. Plus."

"I know. I know," she admitted, defeat in her voice. Clark blinked, a bit surprised that she had acquiesced so quickly. "It's just I feel like I'm playing hooky. It's only two thirty, and all that's on TV are soaps and talk shows. I don't know what to do with myself."

Clark chuckled at the image of Lois glued to a battle between cross dressers and the hair stylists who betrayed them. "Take a nap."

"Nap? Clark, I haven't taken a nap since I was seven."

"Well, maybe it's time you started doing it again," he suggested.

"Sure. That'd go over big. I'll just curl up on Perry's couch every day around three."

"Sounds good to me," he offered. He took a deep breath, ready to get to the point of his call. "So…"

"So…" she echoed.

"You gonna tell me how it went?" he prodded, playing her game.

"Oh, yeah." She sighed with great exaggeration. "Well, it went OK, I guess. I mean, I'm a little disappointed, but I'll probably be all right once I get used to it."

Clark tensed, his stomach clenching tightly. "Lois, what? Tell me!"

"Well, Jamie suggested a darker red, since the weather's turning and all. But I know you usually like the lighter shades. Still, I thought I'd take a chance and go with the Russet Rage."

He frowned, confused. "What are you talking about?"

"My manicure," she explained. "That appointment I had today?"

"Lois!" he scolded, relief once again washing through him. She had to stop doing this to him. His heart couldn't take it.

"I wish I were there," she murmured.

"What?" He was still trying to regain control of his runaway pulse.

"You're so cute when you're all riled up!"

"Lois, I'm about to lose it here."

"Sorry. Just teasing," she said with a lilting laugh that afforded her immediate forgiveness. "Actually, it went great. Really great."

"Yeah?" he asked, feeling the corners of his mouth begin to work into a grin.

"Yep. Dr. Payton says everything looks wonderful. She said that we've made it past the danger point with flying colors, and from here on out, it should be smooth sailing."

"And what about Dr. Klein?" he grilled, wanting a full report. He'd planned on going with her, as he had to all of her other appointments, but then the story had exploded and she'd insisted he stay behind.

"Clark, Dr. Klein isn't an obstetrician," she reminded him gently.

"I know," he acknowledged. "But considering our special situation, we need to keep him up to speed…"

"Dr. Klein agreed with Dr. Payton. He said that from what he can tell by the amnio results, the baby seems just like any other baby."

"Oh, Lois. That is great news!" The slow grin had blossomed into a beaming smile, and he waved at Cindy, a research assistant, slowing on her way past his desk to give him an odd look.

"Yeah, well, he said that at this point, it's hard to say what's going to happen. It might be that the baby will seem normal for a while and then…change or start showing signs that it's different." Lois's tone was cautious, but he could tell that she was smiling on the other end of the line. "But for now, all systems are go."

Clark released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and leaned back in his chair again. "God, Lois. This is such a relief. You don't know how worried I've been "

"Clark. You've got to stop." It was her turn to scold him. "Worrying about the baby. And me."

"I can't help it." He lowered his voice, both because of his fairly public placement and because the sentiment called for intimacy, his words meant only for her. "You two are the most important people in the world to me. I don't know what I'd do if something bad happened."

"Hey, we've gotten this far, haven't we? I mean, look at all we've overcome. And now the baby's fine and I'm fine. Relax, Clark."

Even filtered through the fiber optics that carried it to him, her voice had the ability to push aside all of his fears, wrapping him in a cocoon of hope and happiness. "I'm trying to. It's just really hard. I'm new at this, you know."

"Yeah, well, me too." She laughed. "Who'd ever have thought that you'd be the uptight one and I'd be so mellow."

"Yeah, no kidding," he agreed with a chuckle. He still marveled at the change the last three months had wrought on his normally frenetic wife. Everything about Lois had slowed and calmed. Except her devotion to the Planet, and he was working on that.

"You know, Dr. Payton said they could tell from the amnio what sex the baby is," Lois noted casually.

"I thought we decided about this? That we're going to wait until it's born to find out?"

"I know. I've just been thinking that maybe it would be nice to know. You know. So we can think of names and decorate and buy the right clothes. It just seems kind of crazy to wait if we can find out now."

"I don't know. There's something kind of nice about finding out the old fashioned way."

"Clark, this is the end of the twentieth century. There's nothing old fashioned about having babies anymore."

"Well, this one got in the old fashioned way, and I firmly advocate the method. Some things you just can't improve with modern technology." He smiled when she laughed appreciatively. "I'm still not convinced. Let me think about it?"

"I suppose," she agreed, then changed the subject. "Hey, I have something that might help you relax."

Her voice had taken on a silky smoothness, low and husky with a promise that he hadn't heard in a long time. He matched her now sultry tone with one of his own, his curiosity piqued. "Oh yeah? What is it?"

"It's a surprise," she teased. "I can't tell you."

"That's mean." He grinned, enjoying their game. He had a little bit of an idea of what she might be planning, but he loved the sensuous tease of cat and mouse.

"You won't think so once you…see it."

"See it? I'm intrigued."

"Of course you are."

"Maybe I should come on home now…" he suggested, checking to see if Perry's door remained closed.

"No," she retorted vehemently. "You need to stay and finish the story!"

"What story?" He'd stop on the way home and pick up some flowers. Red tulips. He knew a place in Holland. She'd pretend to be mad at him. Maybe even yell a bit. But then she'd smile. He lived to see her smile at him that way.

"Clark!" she yelped in indignation, but she was laughing.

"Just kidding! So, you'll show me when I get home?" His mind was already walking through the front door. It had been so long.

Taking the advice of Dr. Payton offered in deference to what she considered a high risk case, he and Lois had abstained from making love since her pregnancy had been confirmed nearly three months earlier. The obstetrician explained that the precaution was probably completely unnecessary and an overkill, but neither he nor Lois felt the need to tempt the fates in any way. They'd been given a tremendous gift, and they certainly weren't going to squabble about the fact that they had to make some sacrifices for the short term. But if Lois had received the green light today, the long drought was about to end.

She'd become very adept at pleasing him, a skill that she liked to boast of using a wide variety of euphemisms at very inopportune moments, such as when they were being seated at Chez Randolph's for a six course dinner with the owner of the Daily Planet. Or as she sat down next to him for the daily call meeting. Never before in his life had he needed to call upon his powers of distraction so often, and surely by now everyone at the office believed him afflicted with some sort of joint disorder that kept him seated long after they all had left the room.

But for good as she was, he missed her. Giving Lois pleasure had become such an intricate part of his sexuality that he felt handicapped, as if one of his senses had been taken away from him. He'd definitely enjoyed her attention to detail, and over the last few weeks he'd experienced pleasures that he hadn't known were possible. But it was nothing compared to the feeling of her body wrapped around his, while she trembled with the power of her own need. Nothing could match the sense of oneness, that he and she were so much a part of each other it was conceivable that they'd be unable to resume separate identities ever again. He'd never felt closer to Lois than he had during the last three months, and his body longed to make the same connection.

Lois was speaking, and he tore his thoughts away from the night to come. "No. Clark, we've got that thing tonight."

"Thing?" He tried to focus, pushing his mind as far away as possible from the surprise that awaited him.

"Clark. Don't tell me you forgot?" Lois wailed. "The benefit for the Metropolis Women's Shelter?"

"Oh, that. Yeah, sorry. I did forget." Clark felt his excitement sinking, a blessing for the moment but a definite disappointment as he knew what her answer would be to his next question. "Do we have to go?"

"It's a great organization. I really want to support this place. And you of all people should appreciate what it does for women."

"Lois, Lois. Stop. I know. Of course I want to support it. It's just…well, with the story and everything. And now you have a surprise for me. Couldn't I just make a celebrity guest appearance…" he offered hopefully.

"Clark. We need to go. As much as it cramps your style, we've developed a reputation, and I think our presence there is going to give this place some good press. Besides, all the papers are sending people. And Senator Jacobson will be there. And the Mayor. I think one of the local affiliates is even doing a live red-carpet thing. We have to go. Lane and Kent. Not Superman."

"Yeah. I guess." He sighed, resigned. What was one more night, anyway?

"Besides, aren't Perry and Alice going?" Lois reminded him.

"I think so."

"Perry'd kill us if we didn't show." She paused for a minute. "And maybe tonight we could break it to him. He's going to need some time to come to terms with this."

"You think it's OK? I mean to tell him?"

"Yeah. I think so. Dr. Payton says we look good, so I guess there's no reason to keep it a secret any longer."

"I kind of hate to tell anyone." Clark spun the gold band around his finger absently.

"Why?"

"I don't know. I guess, it's just been this special thing between you and me for these past three months. It's like this bond, bringing us even closer. I didn't know that was even possible. I just kind of hate to let anyone else in…" He trailed off. Lois remained silent for a minute, and he knew instantly that she understood exactly how he felt.

"I know. But Clark, we're going to have to tell people eventually. Sooner rather than later, actually," she said with a chuckle. "And just think how excited your parents are going to be. I can't wait to see the look on your mom's face when she finds out she's going to be a grandmother."

Clark smiled, imagining his mother in full-on grandma mode. "Yeah, she's going to love it. You know she's going to spoil this kid rotten?"

"Naturally. As she should."

"Well, between your parents and mine, we're going to have our hands full." He stopped as a movement on the edge of his peripheral vision caught his attention. Turning to it, he sat up straight. "Hey, Perry just opened his door."

"Yeah?" she asked expectantly.

Perry's face was twisted into a scowl, and Clark could see the sheets of paper crushed into his tight fist as the older man strode toward Clark's desk. "Uh-oh. Doesn't look too good."

"Is he wearing the same face that he had last year at the Christmas party when Ted Williams knocked over his Elvis mug and it shattered…"

"Yeah, something like that."

"Nope. That's no good."

Clark sighed, readying himself for a long afternoon. "Listen, what time is the benefit tonight?"

"Cocktails at seven…geez, what I wouldn't give for a cocktail," she muttered, "and the dinner starts at eight."

"You probably better plan on meeting me there. I can catch a ride with Perry and Alice or…you know, find some other mode of transportation. But it looks like I may be here for a while."

"Oh. OK." Clark smiled at the disappointment in her voice. "Well, what about your tux?" she added.

"Just bring it and leave it in the Jeep. I'll change when I get there."

"Hmmm. Sorry I'm going to miss that."

"Lois!" He hadn't missed the seductive drawl, feeling his face redden as his boss approached at an alarming rate.

"Promise you'll call me if you need help with the story. Really, Clark. I mean it. Just because I'm pregnant doesn't mean I'm incapable. I can be there in fifteen minutes."

"Go take a nap," he insisted, cutting her off.

"Why do husbands always tell their wives to take naps when they're pregnant? What I want is for you to tell me to take a nap once the baby's here and I'm totally exhausted."

"You can do that too. Listen, Perry's standing right here. Gotta go."

"OK. Call me…" she stressed again.

"I love you," he whispered, low enough for her alone to hear.

"Love you, too." It was almost as good as a kiss. Almost.

With a smile, he gently set the phone down and turned to look up at Perry. "So, Chief, what do you think…"

***

Placing the phone gently on the table, Lois touched a fingertip to her lips, feeling the soft smile that had settled there. No matter how many times he'd told her, and it had been oh so many over the past year and a half, hearing it again always sent a warm flush of joy through her heart. And instead of feeling burdened by the weight of his love for her, she reveled in it.

It was as if she no longer had to worry about her heart. Clark owned it, and he took such good care of it that she didn't have to give it a second thought. The effect was one of overwhelming security, of being so safe that nothing could touch her. Somehow, his super abilities had expanded to envelope her, the shield of his love a barrier against the harshness of life. For as long as she lived, it was the one certainty to which she could return for strength and comfort. Clark loved her. And she loved him.

They existed in a world so separate from those around them, sometimes they had to remember to let others in. Lois understood completely his reluctance to tell others about the baby. It was a gift that belonged to them, something so precious and hard earned that they felt justifiably selfish about keeping it to themselves. Intellectually, she knew that the happiness of others for their good fortune would only add to their own joy, but in her heart, she wasn't quite ready to let anyone else in on the secret they had created together.

The security of Clark's love, along with the appreciation of how blessed they were, had done much to assuage her fears about impending motherhood. In a way so contradictory to her normal approach to things, for once Lois was happy to go with the flow. She blamed her new lackadaisical attitude on the hormones pumping through her system and on Clark. She accused him of rubbing off on her, and with a devilish grin, he'd promised to keep doing so, preferably if they were both naked.

God, she loved him. It scared her sometimes, the intensity of her feelings. She'd never known she was capable of loving someone so fiercely. Lois had no doubt that the child born from such a love would be special beyond all abilities, super or not. And if what she'd heard was true, her feelings for this baby were going to be beyond her comprehension.

Still grinning, the new and more relaxed Lois headed up the stairs, wondering how to fill the hours before she needed to get ready for the benefit. In truth, she agreed with Clark and secretly wished for a good excuse that could get them out of attending. But she'd been right about insisting. This benefit was important. They would show up, have some dinner, and head home for a long night of slow, delicious dessert.

Walking across their bedroom, she reached up to tug the plastic dry cleaner's bag off of the black evening gown that she'd pulled from her closet that morning, hanging it up on the door to let any small wrinkles fall out. A tight sheath of crepe chiffon, the low v-neck bodice was held in place with thin straps and exposed a substantial expanse of her skin and a dizzying view of cleavage. She stood back to examine it with a small frown. Cleavage. That could be a problem.

Her normally ample breasts had definitely benefited from the pregnancy hormones surging through her body, becoming even more rounded and full during the past few weeks. It was quite possible that she now possessed too much cleavage for the gown, and the thought of spilling out in an embarrassing display in front of Senator Jacobson was less than appealing. Perhaps she'd better try it on.

She shimmied the long tube of black crepe over her shoulders, letting the straps slide into position. As the fabric neared her middle, it halted, meeting resistance of some form. She grasped the dress at her hips, tugging softly. With her encouragement, the sheath finished its journey to the floor with a whisper, the cool satin refreshing against her skin.

Turning to look in the full length mirror, she moved this way and that, trying to see what had caused the hiccup. With a gasp, she saw the smallest bulge at her abdomen, imperceptible in all circumstances except when encased by a form-fitting, black evening gown. She rubbed a hand down her stomach, pressing slightly when she reached the offending bump. There it was. Small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things to come, but there all the same. She was officially "showing".

With a mixture of elation and disappointment, she maneuvered the gown over her head and hung it back on its hanger. It was the first item of clothing that her condition had rendered un-wearable. She had other dresses. It was just that this was one of Clark's favorites. One that never failed to spark a certain light in his eyes, and his lingering glances were held a few seconds longer and containing a few degrees more of expectant heat. Perhaps it was because she'd informed him once, as they'd been about to enter the crowded reception for a visiting foreign ambassador, that due to the form-fitting nature of this particular dress, she wore nothing under it to mar the lines. Nothing. Needless to say, they hadn't stayed long at that particular gala.

A rush of excitement coursed through her at the thought of her husband and his reaction to the dress. She'd entered that glorious phase of pregnancy where the morning sickness was gone, as well as the aching breasts. Her figure was still pretty much intact, and as promised by her What to Expect book, her libido had taken a swing upward. It was probably a good thing Dr. Payton had suggested they hold off from sex, because in her current state, she imagined she and Clark would have not made it very far from their bedroom.

If she had to admit it to herself, the past three months hadn't been entirely miserable. She'd certainly missed making love, and if she had to face the prospect of an entire nine months of abstinence, she'd probably go mad. But she'd proven to herself and to Clark that she could be quite ingenious in getting around technicalities. She'd lived vicariously through Clark, who had greatly benefited from her repressed energy.

If it was possible to know someone else's body better than one's own, Lois felt certain that it applied with her and Clark. For weeks she'd explored every inch of his beautiful form, thrilling in the steely muscles and smooth skin that twitched and heated beneath her fingertips and mouth. It remained a mystery to her how a man who had no ability to feel pain could be so responsive to her touch and derive such pleasure from it. In those moments, she felt immensely powerful and slightly in awe, aware that beneath her hands she controlled the strongest being on earth.

He'd had a hard time learning to receive pleasure without giving all that he wanted in return, but she'd been insistent that he remain as passive as he could stand. The heated caresses that he'd tried to give her only caused her monumental frustration, igniting an ache that took far too long to cool and left her feeling bereft. She'd rather not be teased, she explained, promising that the satisfied look on his face was pleasure enough for her. Besides, she had told him on many, many occasions as he lazed in the afterglow of her attentions that she was banking all of this and planned to collect with interest as soon as Dr. Payton gave her the go-ahead. He'd always agreed with a lazy smile and a sleepy nod.

Today she'd gotten her stamp of approval, and she had her savings passbook in hand. Clad in her black bra and panties, Lois fetched the small fuchsia bag she'd carried in with her, the result of a quick stop at her favorite boutique after her successful visit with Dr. Payton. Reaching in, she extracted a tissue-wrapped bundle and, careful to keep the delicate paper intact, she unwrapped her surprise for Clark.

Lois brushed her hand over the black babydoll nightie, fingering the lace that bordered the top of the low-cut bodice and made up the hem. Black was Clark's favorite color in the lingerie department, and he was especially fond of lace. This particular item ended well above her mid-thigh, covering just enough to make it especially alluring. She'd known instantly when she'd seen it that it would drive him crazy.

Returning to the mirror, she held the black slip of silk up to her body. It wouldn't be much longer before she wouldn't be able to wear sexy stuff like this. With a frown, she wondered if they made black maternity lingerie, and if they did, how bad would she look? Of course, by then it wouldn't matter much. Clark probably wouldn't want to touch her anyway.

Lois took an inventory of her body, changing every day in mysterious and sometimes frightening ways. Her breasts were larger, a fact Clark had noticed almost immediately. She'd asked him if he was especially perceptive to those sorts of things or perhaps it was just another one of his super abilities. With a laugh and gentle hands cupping the body parts in question, he'd whispered in her ear that, even blind, he'd notice the change, just by touch alone.

While her waist remained narrow, Dr. Payton had assured her that, in a matter of weeks, she'd notice a thickening. Even now her normally flat belly definitely contained a slight swell that indicated something was happening deep inside her. Tucked safely within the warmth of her body, the life that she and Clark had created was growing, a physical manifestation of the love that they shared so intensely.

Wrapping the tissue around the nightie, she placed the soft package on Clark's pillow where he'd be sure to find it. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table. Three fifteen. She had plenty of time for a long bath and a couple of chapters of her book. She glanced at the bed. Maybe a nap wasn't such a bad idea, she thought with a smile. She planned to be up late. Very late.

***

"Over here!"

The shout ricocheted through the concrete cavern of the parking garage, making Hamilton wince. Damn idiot, Jenkins! Kid must have mashed potatoes for brains.

Striding over to the skinny boy who looked to be no more than seventeen on the outside, he grabbed a fistful of his black sweatshirt, hauling him up close. "Shut up! Do you want every cop in Metropolis to hear you?"

Bits of spittle landed on Jenkins' cheek, but he wisely didn't try to wipe them away.

"Sorry," he squeaked, turning beet red. His pale green eyes started to bulge as his air flow diminished.

Hamilton lowered the boy, holding his gaze with an unblinking glare until the kid looked away in shame. Satisfied, he shoved Jenkins away with disgust. Turner had brought amateurs.

"Enough of this crap. Let's go," Turner barked. A burly man with a thick brown beard, he walked toward the rear of a dark blue Intrepid, backed into its parking space and poised for an easy getaway. With a push of a button on the slim pad he held in his hand, the trunk popped open.

"Where's Ferrell?" Hamilton asked, looking around the dim garage.

"Should be here," Turner answered, unconcerned as he flipped back a dirty wool blanket to reveal an array of guns of various sizes. All were semi-automatics, and a tattered cardboard box was full to the brim with magazine clips.

The three men gathered around the trunk, each selecting weapons of their particular choice. An object laying to the side of the trunk caught Hamilton's attention, and he reached for the black-handled hunting knife, sliding it from its sheath. Smiling as the five inch blade picked up the weak fluorescent glean, he jammed the knife back into its housing and shoved the thing into the waistband of his black cargo pants. He selected the appropriate clips for two Beretta 9 mm's and filled its various pockets as well as those of his jacket.

At that moment, a tow-headed man jogged up to the Cadillac, winded. He wore black slacks and a white shirt covered by a black vest. A name tag pinned to his front identified him as "John" and bore the logo of the Royal Victorian Hotel.

"Where've you been? You're late," Turner remarked with a dark frown.

"Sorry," Ferrell apologized, still trying to catch his breath. He pulled at the black bowtie wrapped tightly around his thick neck. "Got caught in the kitchen. This undercover stuff is a pain in the "

"You got it?" Hamilton interrupted.

"Yeah." The waiter pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket, handing it to Turner.

Turner moved to the side of the car as he unfolded the paper, smoothing the wrinkles and laying it atop the car's roof. Hamilton came to stand next to him, squinting carefully at the stained diagram of ten circles placed in an orderly fashion about the sheet.

"Here." He indicted one circle and then another. "And here. Jacobson's at table one and the Mayor's at table three."

Turner nodded, then pointed at circles on the opposite end of the room. "I think we go for eight and ten. That puts us in good position if the cops decide to act heroic."

"OK. I take one and you get three. Jenkins can cover eight and Ferrell can handle ten." He glanced at his watch. 7:55. Time to roll. He scooped up the army issue backpack laying on the concrete, slinging one strap over his shoulder.

Hamilton looked at Jenkins and Ferrell, who was in the process of jamming a gun into the top of his pants and adjusting his vest over the handle. "Listen up. No mistakes. You hear me? You screw this up, they'll never find your bodies."

Jenkins had the decency to look scared, but Ferrell rolled his eyes.

Turner folded up the sheet of paper and shoved it into his pocket. "C'mon. Let's go."

As if to punctuate his command, he slammed the trunk closed, the echo ringing still as the four men exited the garage.

***

Lois glanced at her watch. 8:02. Sweeping the broad ballroom, she failed to spot Clark's tall form moving between the tables. Most of the dinner guests had been seated, only a few rogue souls venturing to the bar for a drink refresher. Three chairs remained empty at her table, and she smiled weakly over the black "8" at the other four guests who would be sharing conversation and the hopefully not-too-bland meal.

She could only imagine what had held Clark and Perry up at the Planet, and when she let her mind run with the possible problems, her blood started to boil. They should have called her if they were having trouble with the story. If they missed the morning edition, there would be hell to pay…

Taking a deep breath in through her nose and releasing it slowly through her mouth, Lois forced the violent thoughts from her mind. This was exactly the kind of thing she was trying to learn to control. It would help, she mused as she took a sip of the flat club soda tinged with the flavor of one thin slice of lime, if she could actually enjoy a real drink.

She smoothed the skirt of her dark red dress, the substitute she'd settled on after discarding her first choice. It afforded a higher neck line and an empire waist falling to a full skirt, assuring that both her chest and abdomen would receive adequate cover. It also offered the advantage of being Clark's second or third favorite, the deep crimson giving her a gypsy-like air that he claimed was a big turn-on. Of course, Lois was pretty sure that, even if she showed up wearing a gunny sack, Clark would still declare it to be quite the sexy little number.

For her part, she was anxious to see her husband attired in his tux. Something about a dark-haired man dressed in a black suit, especially her dark-haired man, never failed to stir her blood. She remembered the black nightie and wondered exactly how long they needed to stay to be respectable. After all, she'd already chatted with both Senator Jacobson and the Mayor, so she'd fulfilled her quota of face time. She'd even be willing to sacrifice desert for a little bit of Clark, she thought with a smile. Provided, of course, that it wasn't chocolate. OK, well maybe even if it was chocolate. Or maybe she could ask for it to-go. They could eat it together. In bed. Before. Well, OK. After.

Of course, that was if he ever showed up. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned back in her chair as the master of ceremonies began to rap on his crystal water goblet, signaling that, with or without the presence of Clark Kent and Perry and Alice White, the evening's festivities were about to get underway.

***

Clark thanked the valet, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that no curious eyes followed him before dodging at super speed between the parked cars to the Jeep, buried in the back of the parking lot. His tux hung neatly on the hook inside the back door, as promised by Lois, and he smiled to himself when he saw that she had even shined his black dress shoes.

Thanks to the odd skill that enabled him to don the complicated suit within a tightly controlled spin, the deed was accomplished in mere seconds. Checking in the side mirror that his bow tie was straight, he nodded slightly, satisfied with his clean-up efforts. Not too bad, if he had to say so himself.

He ambled back to the street and down the short block to the Royal Victorian Hotel, wondering absently what Lois might be wearing. She had quite a few evening dresses that he liked, but his favorite by far was the black full length one that hugged her curves like a caress. Of course, if she was wearing that one, he doubted that he'd make it to desert. He wanted his surprise.

Clark glanced at his watch, wincing when he noted that it was already 8:20. Hopefully, Lois wasn't too angry and had saved him some of the first course. Rubber chicken or no, he was starving, and he quickened his pace slightly, anxious to see her.

As he pushed through the revolving door, he was surprised to see the grey head and dark back of Perry and the full length midnight blue gown of Alice White. They'd arranged to meet up with him in the ballroom. Both figures were huddled at the back of a crowd focused on something that Clark couldn't make out. With an eerie sensation that pulled on the hairs at the back of his neck, he heard the low, unmistakable wail of sirens, their pitch increasing as they neared the hotel.

"What's going on?" he asked as he reached Perry. Lifting up slightly on his toes, he could see several security guards and a few police officers pointing at a security monitor mounted behind the concierge's counter.

Perry turned at Clark's question, his weathered face full of concern. "There's been an incident."

Clark's heart started to hammer. "What kind of incident?"

***

"Vacation my ass," Sergeant Roy MacKay uttered under his breath. If that SOB Henderson hadn't left for a week fishing in the Poconos, he'd be the one dealing with this instead of MacKay.

The older sergeant had believed his seniority bought him out of tough pinches like this. Hostage situations never ended well. In his twenty three years on the force, he couldn't recall a single incident when everyone walked away pleased with the results. He shook his head sadly. SOB Henderson.

As he barked orders at a young rookie who was letting some of the gathered crowd move too far past the police line he'd established, the worried murmur filling the hotel lobby dimmed slightly, and he glanced over his shoulder with a frown. Parting like the Red Sea, the crowd separated to allow a tall form to move past them, stunned silence turning to admiring whispers.

Superman strode up to the concierge's desk that now served as mission central, his long red cape billowing behind him authoritatively. The junior officers stepped back, giving him clear passage as they stared with open awe. Even after three years in Metropolis, Superman's presence still inspired amazement. Everything about the man exuded confidence and strength.

For his own part, MacKay felt an odd mixture of relief and apprehension over the appearance of the Man of Steel. Superman had always been a friend to the MPD, but in this situation, the boy had better understand that orders came from MacKay and MacKay alone. He wasn't about to tolerate any fancy heroics or tricks. MacKay had too much to lose. Too many lives at stake.

Crossing his brawny arms over his chest, Superman nodded respectfully to the senior officer, which earned him several points. With no preamble, he got down to business. "Tell me."

Stepping to the console that housed six security monitors, MacKay pointed to two of them, indicating the dark forms. The image was grainy and in black and white, but still it was clear that the figures were pointing weapons. "There's four of them. You can only see two now. They've all got semi-automatics. May have a few hand grenades. We're guessing about fifty hostages, based on the head count for the benefit."

Superman nodded, understanding. "What do they want?"

MacKay sighed. "We're not sure yet. We've got a negotiator on the phone with the leader, but he hasn't made any demands."

"Do you know who we're dealing with?"

"The head guy's name is Hamilton. Joseph Hamilton. He's a member of the Peoples' Republic for White Purity."

"The PRWP?" Superman started, his dark brows lifting with surprise. "Aren't those the "

"Yeah," MacKay confirmed. "Next to the Klan, they're the second largest hate group in the U.S. Got chapters all over the country. Apparently, a pretty big one here in Metropolis. This guy Hamilton's got quite a reputation down at the station. He's wanted for questioning in the murder of a Metropolis University student, and he's already served time for aggravated assault."

"And he told you his name? So he must not be too concerned about getting caught," Superman surmised, leaning down to peer closely at the monitor.

"Nope." MacKay agreed, offering the theory that he'd arrived at minutes after learning who was responsible for the situation. "The PRWP's made it pretty clear how they feel about Senator Jacobson. They wouldn't go so far as to assassinate a U.S. senator, but we're guessing that Hamilton is out to be some kind of martyr. Take out the Senator and maybe even the Mayor, who was pretty vocal in his support of Jacobson. It would be quite a coup even if the PRWP doesn't openly claim credit for it."

"What about the others?"

MacKay rifled through the handful of computer printouts that had been shoved into his hands minutes after they'd learned the name of one of the terrorists. "We think one of them is Gerald Turner, another upstanding member of the PRWP. Big guy with a thick beard. He's a real problem. Spent fifteen years in the Army before receiving a dishonorable discharge for assaulting a superior."

"And the other two?"

"Don't have positive IDs, but from what we can see on the surveillance camera, one looks like a waiter. We've questioned the hotel's staffing manager, but all he can tell us is that the guy started less than a month ago. His work application lists him as John Tarlin. We're running a check on that name now, but we're not hoping for much. He was probably a plant, sent in to case the place."

Superman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He glanced up the wide marble staircase that led to the hotel's mezzanine level and its largest ballroom. "If all they have is semi-automatics, I should be able to take them out. I can have them down before they even know I've shown up…"

MacKay shook his head. "Won't work. They've split up."

"What?" Superman swung his gaze back to stare at the sergeant, and MacKay felt slightly uncomfortable at the fierceness he saw in the man's dark brown eyes. If he hadn't found Superman's sheer physical strength intimidating, the determination etched on his face was certainly enough to inspire such feelings in a man with less experience and self confidence. Thankfully, MacKay had twenty-three years behind him and refused to be cowed.

"They've split up into two groups. Turner and the waiter have taken the Senator and the Mayor and about a dozen others into a service corridor. Hamilton's keeping the rest of them in the main ballroom. It's a sure bet that they've got comm established, and if we try to go after one group, the other pair will execute the people they're holding." MacKay shook his head sadly. "These guys might not be the most rational beings walking around, but they know what they're doing. They're incredibly dangerous."

MacKay noted the twitch in Superman's jaw, his dark eyes becoming harder. The man might be a force to be reckoned with, but so was the Sergeant. He wasn't about to let Superman go barging into the ballroom without a firm plan in place. "Unless you can be in two places at once, we can't let you go up there, Superman. I don't care how fast you are. You may be bullet-proof, but those hostages up there aren't."

"Hey, Serg," a skinny officer named Sam called out, clutching a phone to his chest. "It's Paul."

MacKay took the receiver. "This is MacKay. What do you got?"

"They don't want ransom," the soothing voice of Paul Harrison, the MPD's negotiator explained. "They want a helicopter on the roof. Without a pilot."

MacKay glanced at the sheet of paper he held. "Yeah. Says here that Turner was a chopper pilot. Figures. No wonder they weren't too worried about getting caught."

"There's more," Paul went on. "They want us to send up the camera crew. The one that was doing the red-carpet event."

MacKay rolled his eyes, incredulous. "You've got to be kidding? They really think we're going to send a camera up there? What, are they hoping we'll interrupt all programming to broadcast on "

"I think that's exactly what they want," Paul interrupted. "These guys hate Jacobson. They want him dead, and if they can put the fear of God in every ethnic group in Metropolis by killing him on live TV, all the better."

Paul's theory sent a shudder down MacKay's spine. "They don't really think we'd let them do that?"

"If we don't send the camera crew up in fifteen minutes, they're going to start killing people," Paul warned.

MacKay was silent for a moment, processing the information. This was where it got ugly. Really ugly. "You think they'll negotiate?"

"I can see," Paul replied. "Tell him if they send down the women, we'll send up the crew."

If they could get the women out of the way, that would reduce the number of hostages to less than thirty. "It's a start. Make it happen," MacKay ordered grimly.

"Yeah. I'll get back to you." With a click, Paul severed the connection.

MacKay placed the receiver down and looked up to see Superman staring at him intently. He sighed loudly. How much easier it would have been if they could have just sent this guy up to wipe the floor with these lunatics. SOB Henderson. "Hamilton wants us to send up a camera crew. If we don't, they're going to start dropping people."

***

Lois lifted her head slightly, trying to look inconspicuous as she swung a low-level gaze around the room. If the situation hadn't been so dire, she might have laughed at the sight of all of Metropolis's movers and shakers with their heads resting on their folded arms, like kindergartners taking a nap. At least these brutes had let them stay in their seats.

The room was eerily quiet considering the pure chaos that had reigned less than a half hour earlier. Screams and indignant shouts. Shattering crystal, harsh commands and the loud clap of shots fired in warning over their heads. Pleas and sobs, then finally acceptance. Now all she could hear was the occasional sniffle or whisper. But the men who'd burst into the room only seconds after the Senator had taken the podium for his welcome speech tolerated no noise and were quick to subdue any insubordination.

From her head-tucked position, she'd heard one of the attackers barking orders and a group of people being led away. Now she could see the two empty tables at the head of the room. Senator Jacobson and the Mayor were gone. The rest of the guests remained in their seats, huddled over their arms with their faces pressed firmly out of sight. She didn't blame them. One look at the sheer quantity of guns the four men had brandished about convinced everyone that these guys meant business.

She tried not to wonder what might have happened had Clark and Perry arrived on time. There were four of the captors, and they had quickly spread around the room, pointing their weapons at anyone who dared to protest. Clark might have been able to disarm one or two of them, but all four would have been problematic. And any efforts he could have made would have blown his Clark Kent cover once and for all. She'd lived through that scenario before, and going through it again held no appeal whatsoever.

It was probably a good thing that he had been held up at the Planet. Now Superman could make an organized attack with help from the police. Lois glanced at the ballroom's main entrance, the heavy doors tightly shut. Any minute, he would burst through them and they could go home.

Suddenly, her view was blocked, and she looked up into the face of a young man, his pale skin covered with freckles. He scowled down at her, and she smiled sheepishly. "Sorry," she whispered, ready to return her head to her arms still folded neatly on the table.

"Hey, you look familiar." The boy squinted as he looked at her more closely. "I've seen you before."

"Hmmm," she answered noncommittally. But instead of putting her head down, she stared at him. He wasn't even really a man, more like a kid. Of course, she didn't know many kids who walked around with the handle of a gun sticking blatantly out of their waistbands. She wondered how someone so young found himself in this situation.

He rubbed his thin chin, thinking. "I know. On the side of the route 313 bus. An ad for some newspaper." Suddenly, his face brightened, a wide smile showing front teeth that were slightly crooked. "You're Lois Lane!"

She nodded regretfully. Once again she had reason to curse the ad manager who had insisted on the splashy "Lane and Kent" ads spread all over Metropolis. The side of the bus, for heaven's sake!

"Wow! I read your stuff all the time. In the Daily Planet, right?" the boy gushed. "Wow. I can't believe it. Lois Lane!"

Sitting up a little, she leaned on her elbows trying to find a comfortable position. "And you are?"

"Adam Jenkins," he offered without hesitation, and Lois thought his chest puffed out slightly. "Geez, you know, I remember this one article you did. About guys who scam old people out of their savings by telling them that they've got poison gas in their basements. And just after that, this jerk tried to do that to my grandma. If I hadn't seen your story, she'd have lost it all. But I ran the guy off. Could tell from a mile away he was a total scumbag."

Adam was shaking his head with disgust, and Lois tried to fathom a world where this boy, who had helped to take a room full of people hostage, could be outraged by a petty crook who'd tried to scam his grandmother.

"I'm glad you found the story useful," she said quietly, still afraid to call undue attention to herself. Adam's sudden fixation on her was making her nervous. She glanced over at the larger man, who had his back toward them. He seemed to be talking into a cell phone, so she let herself relax. Maybe, if this kid was a fan, she could convince him what a horrible mistake he was making.

"Oh, yeah. You're the greatest," Adam was saying. "And don't you work with some guy named Kent? You two are married or something, right?"

Lois nodded. "That's right." She had the strangest feeling that under different circumstances, Adam would simply pull out a chair and bend her ear all night. She didn't want to like him.

"And isn't he, like, really good pals with Superman?" The kid grinned, clearly pleased with his sudden brush with celebrity.

Seeing a chance to influence the boy, she nodded vigorously. "Yes, and I'll let you in on a little secret. Superman isn't going to be too happy with what you and your buddies here are doing."

"Oh, we don't got no problem with you, Miss Lane." He rushed to assure her, and she took mild comfort in the knowledge that this attack wasn't, for once, aimed at her personally. "It's that Senator Jacobson that we're after."

"Senator Jacobson?" she repeated, trying to make a connection.

"Yeah. Hamilton " he indicated the older man " and Turner says that we gotta get rid of him and any more like him."

She tried to understand. What was wrong with Senator Jacobson? He'd won by a wide margin, nearly a landslide. "Why?"

"'Cause he ain't white," Adam stated simply. "And nobody's going to come to no good if we let people like his kind run our government. No sir. People like us are the real Americans, and in America, you don't have no business running stuff unless you're an American."

Lois felt her stomach twisting. So that was what this was all about. A group of idiotic bigots trying to make a political statement the medieval way. "Sounds like a real nice bunch of friends you got yourself there, Adam."

Adam crouched down next to her, bringing his light green eyes level with hers as he tried to make her understand. "No, Miss Lane. You don't understand. You see, once you get people like that Jacobson in the government, well they're just going to start taking over. Already they're giving away all the jobs to people like them. My brother lost his job last year 'cause those people started passing laws and stuff. And he's got four kids."

She shook her head in disbelief. What kind of people were these guys? They'd totally brainwashed this poor kid and dragged him into their mess. They were blaming all of their problems on anybody not like them. "So what are you planning to do?"

"Get rid of Jacobson."

Lois gasped. "You're going to kill him?"

Adam shrugged his shoulders. "I guess. Not me, though. Hamilton, or maybe Turner'll do it."

"It won't matter, Adam," she warned him stridently. "Even if you aren't the one who kills him, you'll still go to jail as an accomplice."

Adam's eyes grew larger and his face paled until the freckles stood out in sharp contrast, but he shook his head vehemently. "Turner says that the PRWP will protect us. We're going to get out of here real easy. We'll be heroes."

"And will the PRWP keep you from getting killed when the cops come barging in here?" she asked, afraid for him. Afraid for everyone in that room. "Sounds like you maybe just let these guys talk you into this. If you help me out, maybe I can put in a good word for you with Superman and the police. Make sure that they aren't too hard on you "

"What the hell are you doing?!"

Lois jumped, her heart pounding when the deep voice sounded behind her. Adam leapt to his feet, looking guilty.

"Uh. Nothing. Just talking," Adam explained. His voice took on a boyish tone that tore at Lois's heart. He really was just a kid. "Hey, Hamilton. You know who this is?"

"The queen," Hamilton guessed sarcastically, clearly not caring.

"No. It's Lois Lane. From the Daily Planet. Did you know she's friends with…"

Hamilton raised his gun as if he were going to pistol whip Adam, and the boy lifted an arm over his face protectively.

"I don't care if she's friends with the President," Hamilton growled. "Just shut up and stop talking to her."

Adam gave her a sad smile before walking away. Lois cowered down in her chair. She'd caught the look in Hamilton's watery blue eyes. It was one of intense hatred. A kind of hatred that was steeped in delusions and mistrust. She started to shake, and as surreptitiously as possible, she lowered her head back down to the table. The less this man was aware of her existence, the better.

She wasn't sure how much time passed before she heard Hamilton murmuring into his cell phone again, and she didn't dare lift her head for another look around. So when the rough voice sounded right next to her, she jumped, her heart racing.

"Well, Jenkins. Looks like your lucky day," he snarled. "We're letting the women out of here, but I think we'll hang on to your friend, Miss Lane. If she's a great reporter like you say, maybe she'll have something good to say about us in that paper of hers."

He placed a tight grip on her shoulder and squeezed painfully until she lifted her head slowly. The sneer on Hamilton's face made her stomach twist. "That is, of course, if she's a good girl and doesn't make any trouble."

He let out a short laugh and walked to the wall where he leaned, his arms crossed with a gun in each hand as he surveyed the room.

Tears welled in her eyes as she watched Jenkins herd the twenty-odd women out the door, several pausing to give their remaining partners grief stricken glances. One elderly lady was openly sobbing, and her husband had to pry her arms from around his neck. Lois thought of Clark. Would she have the strength to leave him in such a situation? It was a question she would never have to answer; unlike these women. Clark could survive anything. Lois, on the other hand, could not.

Never before had she felt more vulnerable. It was as if suddenly she were made of the thinnest glass, a mere breath of wind all it would take to shatter her. A terror unlike anything she'd ever known crept over her, and she had to bite her tongue to keep from pleading with Hamilton to let her leave with the rest of the women. It wasn't pride that kept her from begging. It was certain knowledge that he'd never let her go simply because she'd asked and would take inordinate pleasure in seeing her cry.

Always before a small portion of her had retained an emotional detachment during dangerous situations. She was the reporter who was neutral, who took no sides and saw all actions as objectively as possible with the story uppermost in her mind. It was that part of her that enabled her to ignore fear. Scrape after scrape, she'd managed to keep it at bay, divorcing herself from the situation as though she weren't really a part of it but merely a sideline observer.

Now, she searched desperately for that ability, feeling the rising tide of panic as she failed to find it. The reporter's instinct was gone, replaced by one inbred into her very genes and thousands of years older than ink and paper and printing presses. Lois's hand moved to her abdomen, cupping protectively over the life it concealed. She had so much more to live for. It wasn't just her life that was in peril.

Inwardly, she sobbed, crying out for Clark. And it wasn't his superpowers that she wanted. She needed him to wrap his strong arms around her. To tell her that everything was going to be all right, that nothing could touch her. She wanted a chance to see him again. Her only solace was that her last words to him had been a declaration of her love.

***

"Perry!" Clark skidded to a halt behind the chief, once again dressed in his tuxedo.

Try as he might, he hadn't been able to convince Sergeant MacKay that Superman should be allowed to assist with the rescue, and his frustration had hit near panic levels. Only the assurance that the attackers had agreed to let the women go had kept him from ignoring the surly sergeant altogether. He'd changed out of the suit, deciding that he'd probably get farther as the husband of a hostage than as an unwelcome super hero. Of course, he and Lois would stick around as long as it took to get this situation under control. But then they'd go home, and he would hold her so tight she'd fuse with him.

"Clark! Where've you been, son?" Without waiting for an answer, Perry continued, highly agitated. "These idiots won't tell me anything."

Clark glanced around, frowning when he didn't see his wife. "Where's Lois?"

"She's not with you?" Perry asked, making the same sweep of the area that Clark had just completed.

"No. I was…" Clark paused, deciding how to explain the minutes he'd disappeared. "Um…talking with the sergeant. They let all of the women go. I just expected that she'd be with the rest of the crowd."

Before he'd ducked outside, he'd seen the stream of frantic women trickling down the wide staircase. And knowing that Perry was firmly planted at the base of the stairs, he'd felt comfortable slipping out for the few seconds he needed to change.

Now he felt the same odd prickling sensation at the back of his neck. "Have you been standing here the whole time?"

Perry nodded, then blanched as he reached the same conclusion that Clark came to a nanosecond earlier. Glancing up the staircase that now produced no more women, his eyes widened with fear. "Dear God. You don't think she's still up there?"

Clark didn't remain to respond to Perry's dire speculation. With his heart falling into his stomach, he flashed through the revolving door and straight up into the sky.

***

"I'm going up with the camera." Clark stormed up to Sergeant MacKay, ready to do battle if necessary. He wasn't going to take no for an answer.

As he'd expected, the sergeant shook his head. "We can't let you do that."

"Why not?" Clark insisted, this response expected and prepared for. "I'm a reporter. Clark Kent from the Daily Planet. They've had to have heard of me. They want media attention, I'll give it to them."

"I don't care if you're Walter Cronkite. It's too dangerous. We can't take the chance that they'll take you hostage, too."

When MacKay turned away from him, apparently finished with the discussion, Clark grabbed his arm firmly. The sergeant looked at Clark's hand, then up to his face. Assured that he had MacKay's full attention, Clark spoke low and hard, leaving no room for misunderstanding. "I'm willing to take that chance. If you don't send someone up there, someone they've heard of, these maniacs are going to start killing people. We don't have time to argue, Sergeant."

MacKay looked at him for a long minute, then nodded slowly. "All right. But you aren't going to try anything heroic and stupid, do you understand? You're going to do exactly what I tell you, which is nothing."

Clark nodded and removed his hand from the sergeant's arm. He'd agree to anything if it would get him in the same room as Lois.

MacKay indicated a man standing nearby, waiting patiently as a camera harness was strapped around his torso. "Officer Hanson is a member of the SWAT team," MacKay explained. "He's going to go in as the camera man. He'll be trying to locate the transmitter these guys are using to communicate with each other and take it out."

"Superman told me that he saw a backpack," Clark offered, glad that he'd been able to give this information. He'd floated for long minutes outside the building, scanning the length of the ballroom. Now, he tried not to let his mind wander to the image of Lois in her red gown, seated at a table only a few feet from a man waving a semi-automatic pistol.

"Superman!" MacKay snapped. "I thought I told him to stay away?"

"He did. He took a look from outside. That's all." Clark hurried to assure the sergeant. He didn't want MacKay to take his anger at Superman out on him, possibly denying him the chance to do something. Of course, MacKay or no, he was going to do something.

"Hey, Hanson." When summoned, the SWAT officer came jogging over, his equipment firmly in place. "Kent here says that Superman spotted a backpack. Transmitter's probably in it so try to locate that. Once you put it out of commission, we'll send a team into the corridor. The second team's going to be waiting right outside the doors."

Turning his attention back to Clark, MacKay went on to give the rest of the details of the plan. "Kent, you'll have the microphone. Once Hanson's taken out the transmitter, you need to give us a sign that it's OK to advance."

Clark accepted the microphone the real camera man shoved into his hands. "Anything specific I should say?"

"Keep it casual. Say something like 'What exactly do you hope to accomplish by doing this?' It's a legitimate interview question so they won't suspect anything. When we get the signal, we're going to send the teams in, so you'll need to get out of the way." MacKay shouted at a young officer. "Sam, get Mr. Kent a vest."

"I don't need it."

MacKay snorted loudly. "What, are you impervious to bullets? If you want to go in, you'll wear it. Besides, they'll probably make you take it off anyway when they see it."

Before Clark could argue, a vest was being strapped to his chest.

A few short minutes later, he and Hanson were heading up the wide staircase. Clark resisted the urge to run. He had to stay calm. He forced himself to take several deep breaths. This was nothing more than a normal rescue. He wouldn't look at Lois. He'd deal with these guys and get her out of there. Then he'd think. And he had to remember that more lives were at stake than just Lois's. She would never forgive him if he did something stupid all in the name of saving her.

"Hanson. We're giving you twenty," MacKay called after them, and Hanson lifted a hand in silent acknowledgment.

Clark stopped and turned, not understanding the cryptic message. "What do you mean, 'giving him twenty'?"

"If Hanson can't take out the transmitter in twenty minutes, we're going to send in tear gas through the vents."

"You can't do that!" he protested heatedly, taking several steps back down the stairs. "There's innocent people in there!"

"Tear gas won't do any lasting damage," MacKay insisted. "It'll be enough for us to take these guys out. Sometimes we have to do this if we want to get these people out alive. I think they'll be willing to deal with a little discomfort knowing that it'll save their lives."

Clark shook with fury. He wasn't a doctor, but he knew enough to be sure that any kind of toxic gases would be detrimental to Lois and the baby. They weren't talking about minor discomfort. It could be catastrophic for them.

Still, he remained silent. He'd take care of this in less than twenty minutes. As they turned the corner at the top of the stairs and headed down the short foyer to the closed doors of the ballroom, he reached across and ripped the bullet proof vest from his chest.

***

Adam Jenkins shifted from foot to foot, restless. Hamilton was talking to Turner on the walkie-talkie again, and he'd been given the important job of shooting anyone who "so much as breathed wrong." Adam wasn't quite sure exactly what that meant, and he wasn't positive he'd actually be able to shoot someone over something that seemed to him kind of stupid. But Hamilton was the boss, and you didn't mess with him if you wanted to live long yourself.

He glanced around the room, his eyes lingering on the one female hostage that Hamilton had insisted remain with the fifteen others. Her dark head rested on the table in front of her, her red back like a drop of blood against the white table cloth. Adam still couldn't believe his luck. Lois Lane!

She was so nice. Adam had never met anyone famous before, and he would have thought that she'd be all stuck up. But she talked to him just like she was a regular person. She even treated him like he was a grown up. Not like Turner or his brother or Hamilton. Those guys always treated him like a kid even though he was almost eighteen.

Gosh, she sure was pretty. Way cuter than that picture on the side of the bus. Her eyes were so big and dark, with long, thick eyelashes. And when he'd crouched down next to her, the spicy scent of her had tickled his nose. The red dress she was wearing had given him a good view of her creamy chest, dipping low enough that he'd been able to see the dark valley between her breasts.

Adam felt his heart race, his young body responding embarrassingly to his wayward thoughts. He shifted uncomfortably, feeling a rush of heat flood his face. What was it Charlie had told him to think about when he had this problem? Something about calculating batting averages. Problem was, he'd never been very good with math.

Instead, he ran over the details of the plan. Turner hadn't told him much, only that he should do whatever Hamilton told him and keep his mouth shut. They were going to get that Senator Jacobson and a couple of others and take them away on a helicopter. Turner had promised him they wouldn't get caught, so he'd been pretty relaxed until he found out he was going to have to be pointing guns at a bunch of fancy people.

He wasn't quite sure why Hamilton had wanted the cops to send up a camera crew, and he wondered absently if they were going to be on TV. If so, maybe Charlie and Linda would see him and make a tape so he could watch himself. He'd never been on TV before.

It was funny. Adam wasn't even supposed to be there. His brother, Charlie, had to back out at the last minute when his oldest kid broke his arm, and he'd told Adam to go with Turner. Turner hadn't seemed too happy with the change, but it was too late to do much about it. Truth be told, if Adam had known where Turner was taking him and why, he sure as hell would have put up more of a fuss about going. He was hungry, and his beef with Jacobson wasn't bad enough to risk going to jail for.

A hard thump on the doors made him jump, and he remembered what Miss Lane had said. Something about the cops busting in. He felt a wave of fear creeping up his neck, his body tensing. He glanced at Hamilton, who was pocketing the black walkie-talkie. The dark scowl on Hamilton's face did little to ease Adam's concern, and he started to sweat all over.

"Camera!" A muffled voice called through the closed doors, and Hamilton nodded, motioning for him to open them.

Adam pulled the wide door open a crack and peered cautiously around it, half expecting to see an entire army of cops pointing their guns in his face. Instead, two men stood a few feet away. One man carried a big camera. The other was dressed in a tuxedo and held up a microphone, as if showing Adam that he was legit.

He had dark hair and wore glasses, but for some reason they didn't make the guy look wimpy. Adam thought of his own glasses, lost somewhere in the disaster that was his bedroom. He never wore them even though it meant that the whole world looked a lot blurrier from a distance. He thought they made him look like a geek. This guy looked pretty cool, though.

Adam stepped back to let the two men pass by. The man carrying the camera held it up against his face, blocking his features, but the guy carrying the microphone looked Adam right in the eye. He felt a sudden chill when he caught the fierce hardness in the dark brown eyes, and the uneasiness of moments earlier when he'd imagined his life was over came back with a new intensity.

Closing the door, Adam leaned against it and clutched his gun a little more tightly in his hand. The microphone guy was huge, and he was glad he had something that that man didn't. Hamilton was mean, but something about the tuxedo-clad form made Adam think that Hamilton wouldn't stand a chance in a fair fight. Good thing Hamilton never fought fair.

When the dark head swept the room, taking it in, Adam was afforded a brief glimpse of the man's profile. Something about the guy looked a little familiar, but without seeing his face full-on, he couldn't quite place him. He guessed that it was just because this guy was on TV, and he thought about moving across the room to get a better look, amazed that he was meeting two celebrities in one night. Then he decided he didn't want Hamilton to yell at him in front of all of these people, especially not Miss Lane, and he remained rooted where he stood.

"You wanted to see us?" The microphone guy addressed Hamilton, his tone even and firm. Adam felt a flicker of admiration. This guy didn't seem very afraid of Hamilton, and even the burly Turner held a healthy respect for their leader.

"Took you long enough," Hamilton barked. He indicated the camera by pointing his gun at it. "That thing on?"

"Not yet," the man holding the camera answered, lowering it away from his face.

"You able to send a live feed from anywhere?" Hamilton asked.

Camera Guy nodded.

Hamilton smiled, his thin lips pulling back into reveal teeth stained with nicotine. "Good. You two are coming with us."

Microphone Guy asked, "And where exactly are we going?"

"A few of us are going for a little ride. 'Course, I'm sure you'll understand why I can't be more specific than that. And I can't guarantee who's getting a round trip ticket and who's not." Hamilton laughed at his own joke.

"Why are you still holding these people? You have Jacobson and us. Let them leave," Microphone Guy suggested coolly, and once again Adam admired the man's bravery. He was big, but Hamilton was holding a semi-automatic pistol and had another tucked in the waistband of his pants. The guy must have nerves of steel.

Hamilton snorted. "Until that helicopter is sitting on the roof, nobody's leaving this room."

Microphone Guy gestured toward Miss Lane. "Why not her? You let the rest of the women go."

Adam was glad he'd asked that question, because he'd been wondering the same thing himself but hadn't dared ask. Hamilton didn't take too kindly to having his commands questioned. Adam had a sickening feeling that Hamilton was planning on making Miss Lane one of the people they took with him, and he wasn't too sure he was on board with that part of the plan.

"'Cause she's no better than one of them," Hamilton explained as he walked to the table where Miss Lane sat. He stood behind her, grabbing a handful of her dark hair and using it to pull her head upward so that Adam could see her pale face. He felt an odd pinch in his stomach when he saw her big brown eyes, looking kind of scared like his little niece did when she woke up from a bad dream.

Hamilton kept talking to Microphone Guy, holding Miss Lane's head back. "She's another commie reporter who helps those people get into power then tells their lies to the public. You people are all the same. You think we don't know what's really going on? What your plans are? Well, I know."

Hamilton leaned down into Miss Lane's face, holding her head still when she tried to pull away from him. "You getting all of this, honey? For your story?"

With a rough shove, he pushed Miss Lane's head forward and released her hair. From where he stood, Adam heard her forehead make hard contact with the table, and he felt a bubble of anger welling from deep within him. Microphone Guy took a step toward her but stopped suddenly, as if he had changed his mind.

"Jenkins," Hamilton bellowed, and Adam jumped slightly at hearing his name. "I want you to stand next to your friend Miss Lane here while I call Turner. If anyone in this room so much as breathes wrong, you shoot her. Got it?"

Adam blanched but nodded submissively, glancing at Miss Lane. She'd lifted her head at the sound of her name. She looked really scared, and there was a red mark on her forehead where she'd banged the table. He felt sorry for her as he hurried to stand next to her. When he got close, he could see that she was shaking a little, and the pinch in his stomach tightened.

Grasping his gun with both hands, he found himself unable to actually point it at her head. Instead, he kept it directed at the ground behind her, shifting nervously as Hamilton stepped to the far side of the room. Adam could feel Microphone Guy's eyes boring into him, and with a hard swallow, he kept his eyes fixed on the pulse he could see pounding under the smooth skin of Miss Lane's neck. He wondered briefly what it would feel like if he were to touch that spot with his lips. He bet it would be warm and soft.

Gosh, she sure was pretty. Too bad she was married.

***

Acutely aware that the clock was ticking, Clark spared a quick glance at his watch. It had been almost seventeen minutes since MacKay had issued his ultimatum. Soon tear gas would begin pouring through the vents, filling the room with its poison. He had no more time to waste. With Hamilton a safe distance from Lois and distracted with his conversation, Clark moved into position, uncaring if Hanson saw what he was about to do.

The backpack hadn't been moved from the spot where he'd located it from his earlier scan, and he sent two short bursts of heat into it. Another scan revealed the transmitter, two charred holes rendering it useless. He tensed, ready to leap toward Lois the minute he heard the SWAT team make its move.

Hamilton pulled the walkie-talkie away from his ear and started to bang it against his palm, confused as to why it had suddenly stopped working. He looked up with a frown, and Clark lifted the microphone to his mouth.

Just as he was about to say the words that would bring the waiting team of police bursting through the doors, the kid named Jenkins pointed directly at him, his eyes wide with recognition. "Hey, you're Clark Kent! Of Lane and Kent!"

"Adam, no!" Lois cried, trying to stop him. But it was too late.

Hamilton looked from Lois to Clark, a furious expression hardening his watery blue eyes to chips of ice. He glanced down at the malfunctioning walkie-talkie clutched in his hand, then tossed the thing on to the floor where it broke into several pieces. His lips twisted into a cruel sneer. "Kent of Lane and Kent? How cozy."

"So, this was all just a set up. Did ya think to come in to save the little missus? That's real sweet. But I'm just not that stupid. Jenkins, do it!" Hamilton commanded sharply.

Clark felt his heart stop and looked at Jenkins. The boy's eyes had grown large and round, and he shook his head slightly as the realization of what Hamilton had just commanded him to do sunk in.

"You little bastard! I knew you were going to be trouble," Hamilton bellowed as he strode toward Lois and Jenkins. He lifted his arm, leveling the barrel of his gun directly at Lois's head.

"Miss Lane, watch out!" Jenkins cried, lunging toward her.

The impact of his body sent her flying out of her seat just as a deafening crack echoed through the room. The shot meant for Lois hit the boy instead, and he landed hard on the floor next to her.

Clark swung his eyes from Jenkins' inert form to Hamilton just in time to see him pull the trigger again. Hanson reeled backward with the force of the bullet slamming into his shoulder, sending the gun he'd drawn flying from his hand and the camera crashing to the ground.

As Hamilton trained the barrel on him, Clark focused intently, sending a beam of heat directly down the shaft of the pistol. Hamilton cried out as his hand was burned, his reflexive jerk sending the bullet far to the right as the gun fell to the floor and skittered away impotently.

Before Clark could rush forward, Hamilton had hauled Lois to her feet. Spinning her around so that her back was pressed tightly against his chest, he pinned her arms firmly to her body with his left arm, eliciting an indignant yelp as he crushed the air from her lungs. In one smooth motion, he pulled a black-handled hunting knife from his waistband. Clutching it tightly in his right hand, he rested the long blade against the side of Lois's neck, its point poised just below her left ear.

Clark felt the blood drain from his face. "Let her go."

Hamilton laughed sharply, a dry bark. "No chance of that, pal."

"You're making a mistake. Let her go," he commanded again, taking a step forward.

"You take one step closer, she's a goner."

Lois gasped when Hamilton tightened his grip across her chest, clutching his forearm until her knuckles turned white. Clark spared a glance at her face, then quickly looked away, unable to bear the pure terror he saw in her dark eyes. He swallowed hard, fighting against the bile that burned the back of his throat. For as long as he lived, that look would haunt him.

"Bet you don't feel so smart now, do ya? Did you think I was just going to walk out of here with my hands raised over my head like some kind of pansy-assed wimp?" Hamilton shook his head, dragging Lois backward as he moved toward the service door. With every step he took, Clark felt her slipping further and further from his grasp.

"Some kind of big hero you turned out to be," Hamilton continued. "Since you've ruined plan A, I'm just going to have to resort to plan B. She's coming with me, and if I even think that you're following me, I'll do it."

The knife's blade indented Lois's tender skin as Hamilton applied pressure, giving emphasis to his threat. Panic flooded through Clark. There was no way he could get there fast enough.

"Don't…" The warning was issued so low and hard it was almost guttural, an animal sound coming from the most primal element in him. He reached out his hand instinctively.

"WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED. PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND LIE DOWN ON THE FLOOR." The booming command was magnified by the SWAT team's megaphone. Like a voice from above, it left no room for disobedience.

Hamilton glanced at the doors, his eyes widening slightly. Clark could see the uncertainty flicker across the man's face before being replaced by a wild glee, as if he relished the thought of dying in such a way. It was a look of complete insanity. MacKay had suggested that Hamilton saw himself as some sort of martyr, and Clark realized at that moment that Hamilton didn't care if he died or not.

Even more than the knife pressed against Lois's neck, the knowledge that Hamilton didn't even value his own life sent icy terror running through Clark's veins. There was nothing he could do or say to stop this man from slitting her throat. Right there in front of him, Hamilton was going to kill her.

"I'm not going down alone," Hamilton drawled coolly, giving voice to Clark's fears as he held his terrified gaze. The pale blue eyes mocked him as he laughed, the evil sound echoing through the massive room.

At his words, Lois twisted desperately, struggling to get away. The blade glinted, as if alive. The movement of Hamilton's hand was so slight, so infinitesimal that Clark thought he'd done nothing at all. Then he heard Lois's indrawn breath, knew the moment that the knife broke through her skin.

Almost instantly a razor thin line of blood appeared. So dark against her pale skin, it seemed unnatural, as if it had been drawn with a fine-tipped black marker. The effect was soon destroyed when small beads welled up, their own wet weight pulling them downward to create rivulets of bright red following gravity and the curve of her neck, only to meet again in a steady course along her collarbone. She didn't cry out, but Clark heard the whimper, a sound so small that only his super hearing could detect it.

Lois's eyes rolled upward before being concealed by unconsciousness. She slumped forward, and Hamilton let go of her immediately, allowing her body to slide to the floor. As if to display the true horror of her injury, her head lolled to the right, hair spilling darkly against the contrasting marble tiles. Its terrain altered, the stream of blood trickled down the back of her neck to puddle in a crimson pool that almost nearly matched the deep red of her dress, tangled around her legs.

Clark let out a roar, the anguished cry filling the vast ballroom and rattling the crystal chandeliers. In the blink of an eye, he reached Hamilton and hoisted him over his head, hurling him against the wall nearly twenty feet away. Hamilton impacted with a crash, shattering the plaster as he fell heavily to the floor.

Sparing only a second to make sure that Hamilton wasn't moving, Clark turned his attention to Lois. He bent over her carefully, his own breathing stopped as he watched her chest, searching for the reassuring rise and fall of life. When it came, shallow as it was, he let a strangled cry escape and scooped her into his arms. She felt lighter than she ever had, and he was reminded of a bird whose wing had been broken.

The doors burst open, the room filling with officers from the SWAT team. Their heavy boots and loud shouts blanketed the space, moving to hover over Hamilton and Jenkins' inert forms with their guns drawn. Paramedics and the sound of metal gurneys being wheeled across the floor added to the cacophony. Clark turned in a confused circle, Lois's voluminous red skirt tumbling over his arms.

"Sir, right here!" a young paramedic shouted as she rushed a gurney toward him.

Clark shook his head, swallowing hard as he tried to find his voice. "No. I can take her "

"An ambulance is faster. And she needs medical attention…"

"No, Superman. I mean, Superman can fly…"

"Superman isn't here, sir."

Clark shook his head again, ready to argue with her. He glanced down, ready to point to the S on his chest. But the paramedic was right. There was no magic S. Only his white tuxedo shirt, streaked with blood. Lois's blood. It was everywhere.

"Please, sir," the paramedic was insisting. "We need to stop the bleeding…"

Reluctantly, he placed Lois on the gurney, then stepped back as the paramedic began to examine her.

The sounds of the room receded to a low muffle, shouts and urgent calls reduced to background noise. Clark stared at his wife's face, taking in the milky white skin so pale and cold. He wanted to clutch her to him, to send the heat of his own body into her until she opened her eyes and complained that she was too hot. At that moment, he'd have given anything to see her sit up, to hear her laugh. Or argue. Or yell. Anything. He wouldn't survive if Lois died. If he lost the baby before he even had a chance to know it…

Clark struggled against the terror pulling him down, fought the darkness that was wrapping itself around his heart. He watched Lois's chest rising and falling, forcing his own to keep the same rhythm. Breathing with her. For her. If he just kept breathing for both of them. For all of them.

The paramedic was speaking, and he brought his focus back to her. "She's lost some blood and she's in shock. But the cut's angled almost straight down instead of forward. Thank goodness it missed the jugular and carotid. Still, there may be some internal damage, so we need to "

"She's pregnant."

"Excuse me?"

"She's pregnant," he rasped. "Almost seventeen weeks."

"Charlie, we got a hot one here," the paramedic shouted over her shoulder, and a young black man came running from where he crouched helping an elderly gentleman with silver hair.

"Pregnant. In her sixteenth week," the woman explained as she pulled out an IV bag from her red box and laid it on Lois's chest. Quickly she gave vitals to Charlie as she prepared Lois's arm. Charlie placed a stethoscope on Lois's abdomen, squinting in concentration.

"You the husband?"

"Huh?" Clark started. The paramedic was speaking to him and staring pointedly at the ring on his finger.

"Is this woman your wife?" she repeated patiently.

He nodded, unable to speak.

"Do you know if your wife's allergic to anything, Mr…" she asked as she tapped the back of Lois's hand, looking for a vein.

"Kent. No. I mean, I don't think so," he stammered. After all the tests, why didn't he know for sure?

The paramedic stopped her work to lay a plump hand on his arm, obviously sensing his distress. "My name's Barb. We're going to take good care of Mrs. Kent here."

He didn't correct her, the woman's mistake giving him an odd flare of comfort. He tried not to notice that Barb hadn't mentioned anything about taking care of the baby. He picked up Lois's free hand, stroking the top of it gently with his thumb. Her skin was so soft. So fragile.

Taping the IV catheter into position, Barb turned her attention back to Charlie. "You got a fix on the fetal heartbeat?"

Charlie nodded. "Yeah, it's here. Pretty faint but steady."

"Let's call it in."

***

Clark watched as they slid Lois's stretcher into the ambulance, giving her hand a tight squeeze before she drew out of reach. If she felt it, she gave no indication. Her eyes remained closed, her pale face serene. He took solace in the fact that she didn't seem to be feeling any pain. A bandage now covered her neck, and he fixated on the red stain seeping through the pristine white gauze.

"Would you like to ride with her?" Barb asked over her shoulder as she handed the IV bag attached to Lois's arm to Charlie.

He nodded mutely. Placing a foot on the low step, he prepared to hoist himself into the ambulance. A shout from behind caught his attention, and he turned. Light bulbs flashed, blinding bolts slashing through the dark as reporters focused their cameras on the entrance of the hotel, shouting questions one on top of another without waiting for answers. Clark looked beyond the crowd to see what caused their fascination.

Two police officers led Hamilton, limping, from the building, his arms clapped behind him in handcuffs. As if in slow motion, the man turned his head toward Clark, thin blue eyes meeting dark brown ones in a flash of defiance and contempt. Aware that he'd captured Clark's stare, Hamilton's mouth drew back in a wide sneer, a mocking smile so chilling that Clark felt his blood run cold.

Images flashed before his eyes, a horror-filled slide show. Bottomless brown eyes full of terror. A line of deep red slashed across creamy skin. Falling. Falling. Dark hair spilled across the marble floor in a silky pool. Tangled red wrapped around her legs. Crimson puddles of blood. Lying so still and pale. Motionless.

An intense pain seared through his brain, blinding white hot like a brand. He staggered slightly, his vision narrowing to a pin-point tube. All but that in front of him diminished to blurry shapes and colors running together like a watercolor thrown into the sea. Blue and red blended, lights flashing in the dulled periphery of his eyesight. The earth spun wildly.

Blood pounded through him, a steady beat so full of bass that he imagined it reverberated through the street like a car stereo cranked to maximum volume. The sounds around him receded, the only thing left the scream of anguish that echoed through him when Lois had fallen. Underlying it wailed the constant drone of sirens, unrelenting in their plaintive cries.

He reached out an arm, blinded, trying to understand what so completely controlled him that every muscle locked until the tension resembled steel cables supporting a suspension bridge. His body felt as if it would shatter, brittle shards of glass falling on the concrete in a million rainbow splinters. The disquiet built, his chest clenching tighter, crushing him until he felt that he would implode with the force of it.

As he struggled to pull air into his constricted lungs, he tried to place the feeling. Like he was going to die. Or worse. Only one thing had ever made him feel such agony. Glowing green poison. But this time, it wasn't kryptonite. And he couldn't escape it no matter how far or fast he flew. It was inside him, living and breathing and growing.

It was rage.

A rage so overpowering that it obliterated all rational thought and, more importantly, any inhibitions that might kick in as a fail safe. He was a nuclear device, armed with launch codes and dropped from a bomber, hurtling toward the earth to destroy everything in its path. In his life he'd known anger and hatred. But never before had the two emotions mixed so intensely within him to create the toxic heat flooding through his body.

"Mr. Kent. Mr. Kent! You have to let him go! You're strangling him! Let him go!!"

From a distant place, penetrating the haze of red surrounding his brain, someone shouted. He felt a hard pressure against his arm, and he flicked it away with no more thought than one gives a bothersome gnat. Faceless voices shouted over him, a movie soundtrack running without the visual and coming from another world.

"You're going to have to shoot him, Sam!"

"Sir, it was his wife. The one who got cut."

"Mr. Kent! Please. We don't want to hurt you!"

"Clark! Son. Let him go."

A voice strangely familiar broke through, triggering something in his awareness. He felt his hands relax slightly, the edge of the pain dulling to a steady pulse. He turned toward the voice and his vision started to return. Perry came into blurry focus. "Let him go, Clark. You have to let him go now."

As if the man were on fire, Clark released Hamilton immediately, his heavy form falling limply to the ground. The two officers who had escorted him from the building dropped to their knees.

"Is he dead?" His own voice sounded like it came from someone else, hoarse and far away.

One officer looked up at Clark, his young face etched with horror. "No, unconscious."

"Come on, Clark." Perry pulled him, dragging him away from the heap on the cement as the reporters moved in. He blinked, the flashing cameras snapping in his face finally breaking through the lingering haze. "There's nothing the police can't take care of here."

Lois's ambulance had already departed, and as he ducked into Perry's waiting car, Clark heard the police officer named Sam shouting. "We need an EMT over here."

***

Clark let the door close behind him only after being assured by two nurses and Dr. Payton that Lois was sleeping comfortably. He walked to the waiting room, feeling oddly like he was moving through water.

Perry leapt to his feet, hurrying from the cluster of leather-clad chairs meant to convey a sense of home to anyone waiting for word on a loved one. Somehow the effect was lost when combined with the institutional-gray walls and the antiseptic smell permeating the waiting room. It was a hospital, and no amount of leather or framed prints or homey fabrics would let anyone forget that fact or the reasons they had found themselves there in the first place.

"How is she?" Perry asked anxiously. His bow tie lay crumpled around his neck, his salt and pepper hair disheveled. Clark thought that the Chief looked twenty years older than he had when they'd left the Planet only a few hours ago.

"She's suffering from shock, and she's had about fifteen stitches. But overall, she's in pretty good shape considering what she's been through," he answered, his voice leaden.

"Oh, thank God!" The editor's sorrowful face brightened considerably. A weak smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and Clark felt a brief twinge of guilt for delivering bad news.

"There's more, Perry." Clark raked his hand through his hair, a sudden wave of exhaustion making him feel dizzy. He took a deep breath. "Lois is pregnant."

Perry's smile quickly disappeared, replaced with a look of astonishment. "What?"

"We were going to tell you tonight. She saw the doctor this afternoon and got the word that everything was progressing fine." Clark laughed at the irony. "We were just waiting until she was out of the danger period…"

"Oh, Clark. I'm so sorry. Is the baby…?" Perry seemed afraid to say the words, as if speaking them would cause the deed for certain.

"The baby's heartbeat is erratic. It's too soon to tell either way. All they can do is watch them through the night. Dr. Payton says they should know better tomorrow…but she warned me that Lois lost a lot of blood and this kind of stress might be too much."

Clark used almost the same words Dr. Payton had used, his voice strangely neutral as he dispensed the information. It was almost as if he himself were no more than a medical professional talking about a generic case, and he wondered if the key to such detached numbness was in the cliches.

But when he delivered the final blow, the stab of pain that pierced his heart was just as strong as when he'd heard the words himself, obliterating his theory. "They don't have a lot of hope."

Perry paled visibly as he took in the information. He turned abruptly and took a few steps back toward the chairs. Clark noticed a slight shake in the older man's shoulders and briefly thought to offer comfort, but then he realized he had none to give. All he felt was hollow, as if every emotion had been wrung from him.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am, son." Perry turned back to face Clark. His eyes held a shininess but his voice was firm. "But you just remember. Lois is a strong woman. If anyone can come through this, she can."

"Thanks, Chief." The words were meant to help, but they did little to offer any real hope. How could anyone be strong enough to come through this? Even he wasn't strong enough to do that.

Taking a deep breath, Clark prepared to ask the question that had tormented him since he'd been assured that Lois wouldn't die. "Did they bring him here?"

"Who?"

"Hamilton."

"Uh, yeah." Perry paused a minute. "Listen, Clark, I think you should let me take you home…"

"How is he?" Clark asked, uncowed by Perry's attempt to change the subject.

Perry proved to be as stubborn. "I don't think you should be worrying about that right now, son."

"Tell me, Perry." Clark felt an uncomfortable twitching in his chest, a tightening that made his breathing come shallow.

Perry sighed. "They had to intubate him. His trachea was nearly crushed, and his collarbone is fractured on both sides of his neck. You did some pretty serious damage."

Clark nodded. "Will he live?"

"Yes, unfortunately," Perry muttered, then shook his head. "I never knew you had it in you, Clark. Of course, no one could blame you, after all. I would have killed the bastard myself if…"

Clark didn't hear anything else. Inside, relief warred with fury that Hamilton lived, and he felt his hands clench tightly as he struggled to subdue the wave of pain that started to pound in his head. A bitter taste flooded his mouth, and the room started to spin.

Through the descending haze, he felt Perry's hand on his arm, and he focused on it, using it to pull him above the churning pool of anger. He forced himself to breath deeply through his nose and exhale through his mouth, a silly exercise Lois had taught him in a vain attempt to show him the benefits of yoga.

"C'mon. The car's out front." Perry gestured in the general direction of the hospital's main entrance, expecting Clark to follow.

He took several more breaths, feeling a little calmer. "I'm staying here," he said stonily.

"Clark, you need to get some rest."

"No, she might need me." Clark turned to leave the waiting room, anxious to get back to Lois.

"At least go home and change," Perry urged. "You might feel better if you get out of that monkey suit."

Clark looked down, blinking in surprise when he saw that he still wore his tux and blood-stained shirt. It seemed like years since he'd put it on. An entire life time ago.

Nodding silently, he let Perry lead him out of the waiting room.

***

Clark didn't bother turning on the light in the bedroom, thankful for the darkness that matched his mood. Yanking off the black jacket, he threw it in the general direction of the corner. With a few jerks, he unbuttoned his cuffs and shirt front. His bow tie had been discarded and lost long ago.

As he passed the bed on his way to the closet, a ghostly glow of white lying atop his pillow caught his attention. He walked to it, lifting the tissue-wrapped package slowly. Reaching over to turn on the bedside lamp, he frowned.

Slipping a finger under the small gold seal holding the tissue closed, he let the filmy white paper fall away. His hands were filled with black silk, cool and slippery between his fingers. Maneuvering the fabric, he managed to right it, holding up a nightie with thin straps and lace edging the top and bottom.

It was not one he recognized, and he knew instantly that it was the surprise to which Lois had alluded that afternoon, in their phone conversation. He could imagine her slender form filling out the sleek silk, her mischievous grin as she paraded seductively in front of him.

He clutched the fabric tightly, bringing it to his lips and inhaling deeply. It smelled new, but he could detect a hint of her fragrance, transferred perhaps when she'd tried it on or held it up to admire. Lowering himself down to the edge of the bed, he felt his eyes sting, a raw ache tearing at the back of his throat. When the tears started to flow, he didn't stop them, and before long, his shoulders started to shake as the sobs lifted from deep in his chest.

***

From the overstuffed chair angled in the corner of their bedroom, Clark watched Lois sleep. Hands tented, he rested his fingertips against his lips as he glanced at the bedside clock, the red numbers glowing across the darkened room like the timer on a bomb. 2:20. It always happened at nearly the same time every night, and by his calculations, she'd start screaming in about ten minutes.

When he'd called her trauma specialist in a panic after the first three nights, the kindly doctor had assured him that this was all perfectly normal. Not only were Lois's nightmares to be expected, but their surprising punctuality was simply a part of her body's natural sleep rhythms. In way more detail than Clark had needed, he'd received an education about REM sleep and alpha waves and dream cycles. Apparently, these nightmares were Lois's very healthy way of coping with what had happened to her, and her body had a very specific internal clock that meant that Clark now dreaded the time of 2:30 a.m. Only Dr. Rosenblum's assurance that, over time, the dreams would lessen and eventually stop altogether kept Clark from going completely insane.

The first time it had happened, he'd broken out in a cold sweat, the sounds of her screams sending a terror through his body that made him nauseated. When his mother had headed back to Smallville after her two-week stint as Lois's in-home caregiver, she'd mentioned to Clark that Lois was having bad dreams. What Martha had failed to explain, however, was that "bad dreams" were her highly softened description of what Clark termed full fledged night attacks. He'd almost called her after his first night alone with Lois to beg her to return to Metropolis immediately. He didn't think he could bear night after night of the pure hell they endured, Lois subconsciously and he all-too consciously.

The nightmare always started with a whimper, a small cry that quickly escalated in both volume and intensity. Within seconds, Lois would begin thrashing about the bed, tearing at the neckline of her nightgown. After the first two occurrences, she'd had to cut her fingernails nearly to the quick to keep from scratching her own skin, the long, red welts she'd inflicted upon herself adding additional distress to an already disturbing situation.

As the dream continued, she bolted upright, sitting ramrod straight amidst the tangle of sheets and blankets as her unintelligible cries became real words. Real pleas for her assailant to stop hurting her. To stop hurting her baby. When she began to call for Clark in a voice so full of fear and despair, he could barely contain his own tears, pulling her tightly against him while he murmured assurances into her unhearing ears. It was at those moments when his own nightmare began afresh, but his was a terror for which there was no waking.

Thankfully, the entire ordeal played itself out in less than ten minutes, after which she would sag weakly against him, and he would lay her back against her pillows like a limp doll. Brushing the damp strands of hair from her tear-streaked face, he watched until her breathing evened. She never completely woke up, and in the morning when asked, she never remembered any details. Only Clark knew what she begged for in the darkest hours of the night, and it served as a constant reminder of what he'd been unable to give her.

The trauma doctor had been correct in that the quantity of the dreams had diminished, dropping from the half a dozen episodes in one night down to the single performance at 2:30. It had taken six weeks for that to happen, but at least now he could make sure to be there when she needed him. And when confident that she was once again soundly asleep, he wasted no time in changing into the suit and flying straight up into the blackened sky. It took his own body an entire hour to calm down, and it wasn't until he returned to the house at dawn that he felt even close to normal.

As the last digit on the clock's display inched toward zero, Clark felt himself tensing. Readying. His head started to pound, his lungs constricting as it became harder and harder to breathe. When the number flipped from eight to nine, his vision started to blur, narrowing to a thin tube as the darkness around him became a palpable thing that pressed against him. He leaned forward, his hands clenched together tightly as he tried to remain calm. Lois needed him to be calm.

The whimpering started, but this time instead of the thrashing, Lois sat up slowly. She reached out a hand, as if she were trying to touch something. Suddenly, her mouth lifted, a small smile lighting up her face. Even though her eyes remained closed, Clark could tell that whatever she saw pleased her. He stood, not sure what to do. This dream was different than all of the rest. Instead of panicked, she seemed very calm. Almost joyful.

Suddenly, the smile disappeared and her brow creased. A sadness pulled her face downward, and she stretched her arm further out in front of her, reaching. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. "Please, don't go…"

He took a step toward the bed, calling out softly, "I'm here. I won't leave."

"Don't leave," she repeated, a little louder and with such a lonely tone it pulled at his heart.

Clark walked to the bed and sat on the edge of it, but instead of pulling her into his embrace, he watched her carefully. "I'm here, Lois. I'm right here."

She nodded, appeased. Then she laid back down. He watched her for a minute, her face now serene. Somewhat disbelieving that it was over, he gazed into the darkness of the room.

This was so different. So unlike the other nights full of cries and frantic movements. Could it be that she'd turned a corner? That maybe now, the dreams would stop altogether? Or was this the start of another symptom? Another result of what had happened. With a heavy sigh, he released the air he'd been holding in his lungs.

"Clark?"

He started, turning back to see her eyes opened wide and lucid.

"You're awake?" he asked, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.

She nodded and struggled to sit up. He reached out to help her, then stopped himself, pulling his hands back before they could touch her. Lois reached over to flip on the bedside lamp. Both of them blinked when the low-wattage bulb cast its warm glow over the bed.

"I was dreaming, wasn't I?" she asked, smiling apologetically. "Was I talking again?"

Clark nodded. "Let me get you a drink of water," he offered quickly, grabbing the glass from the bedside table without waiting for her to object.

He took his time rinsing out the stale water from earlier that evening, waiting until the tap ran icy cold. He needed the minutes to gather himself. To get control of the emotions spinning through his belly. Never before had she awakened. Always he'd been able to slip away to safety.

Returning to the bedroom, he handed the glass to Lois, who gave him another smile. "Thanks." She took a drink, clasping the glass between both hands as she lowered it to her lap.

Clark returned to the edge of the bed, careful to keep a fair distance between himself and her blanket-covered hip. Staring at a point just beyond her right ear, he hoped she wouldn't notice that he didn't look her directly in the eye. He'd learned that if he wanted to retain control, he had to avoid looking into her dark eyes.

"Do you remember anything? What you were…dreaming about?" He asked the question knowing that really, he didn't want to hear the answer. He knew very well what she was dreaming about. It was the same thing that had kept him awake for six weeks.

Lois took another sip of her water and nodded slowly. "Yeah. Sort of. I was swimming in the ocean. Underwater. I didn't have any kind of scuba tank, but I could still breathe. And everything was so beautiful. All blue and shimmery. With tons of fish in all kinds of rainbow colors. It was amazing." She stared ahead wistfully, as if she could still see the image.

"Then this dolphin came up to me. It nudged my hand with its nose or snout or whatever its called. It was like it was telling me that it wanted to play. I touched its side, and it was so smooth and cool. It felt wonderful. We started to play. Chasing each other. And I was laughing. Underwater." She laughed, remembering. "I was laughing."

"Then all of the sudden, the dolphin turned around and swam away really fast. I called out for it to stop but it kept going. Upward, toward the surface. Like something was chasing it. I turned around to see what it was, but I nothing was there. Only the dark water, getting blacker as it got deeper. That's when I woke up." Her story finished, she returned her gaze to him and shrugged her shoulders.

Clark looked away, not sure what to think. The dream Lois described certainly didn't sound anything like the nightmares that caused her to scream in terror. He didn't dare hope that it meant something significant. It wasn't his to hope anymore for anything. "You should probably tell Dr. Rosenblum about it. It's the first time you've remembered anything."

"Yeah. I suppose," she agreed with a frown, as if being reminded about Dr. Rosenblum took away some of the pleasure of the dream.

Rumpled from sleep and wholly vulnerable, the sight of her sitting in their bed sent a surge of panic through his chest. It swelled up, pushing aside the tenderness that he wanted to feel but couldn't grasp quickly enough to convert into physical action. As had happened many times since she'd come home from the hospital, he found that his mind was waging a war with this body and heart, and to his growing bewilderment, the more irrational part of him was winning.

Instead of pulling her in for a warm, reassuring hug, Clark stood, unable to remain next to her any longer. She looked up, startled by his sudden departure. "Aren't you coming back to bed?" With a glance over to his side of the bed, she noticed that the coverlet and linens remained fairly neat, an indication that he'd never been there in the first place. "Or coming to bed at all?"

"Not yet. I need to take a pass over the city." He offered a reasonable excuse, then added another just in case. "Besides, I'm not really tired."

Lois squinted at the clock and noted the late hour. If she thought it odd that he wasn't tired at almost three in the morning, she didn't mention it. Instead, her smile became sultry. "You know, Dr. Payton said if we wanted to make love, it would be OK."

He swallowed hard. The low light cast a golden glow over her skin, and her eyes held something that fueled the unease in his chest. Trying to keep his tone playful, he shook his head. "You need to get some rest."

She laughed lightly. "I think I've rested more in the last six weeks than the whole of my adult life. I'm fine, Clark. Actually, I'm feeling pretty good. Why don't you come to bed?" As if to add emphasis to her invitation, she patted the empty spot next to her.

"I really need to check things out," he offered again, feeling a bit guilty about the lie. He'd perused the entire city at least ten times already that night.

He turned away and walked to the window, unable to bear the disappointment on her face. It had been so easy those first weeks after she'd come home from the hospital, her fragile condition and overall exhaustion offering perfectly acceptably reasons for them to refrain from making love. Even after she'd returned to work, the dreams and the stress had sent her to bed far earlier than he, her breathing soft and even when he'd stick his head in to check on her a mere half hour later.

Now, he could no longer count on her to offer excuses for their continued abstinence. She was starting to ask questions, and he had no good answers for her. For that matter, he had no good answers for himself.

"Yeah, I guess you should check things out," Lois agreed behind him, spurring his guilt with her easy acceptance and understanding. She remained silent for a minute, and he prepared to spin into his suit. Her next question stopped him cold. "Clark. Have you slept in this bed at all since "

He wouldn't let her finish. Couldn't let her finish. "I've been sleeping in the guest room mostly. I thought you needed the space. And the sleep."

He didn't bother telling her that, mostly, he hadn't been sleeping at all, much preferring the dull haze he walked through during the day to the visions that came to him when he did manage to lapse into unconsciousness. The constant tiredness was comforting, casting a numbness around him so that any emotions that managed to fight their way to the surface became faded and weak. He used his insomnia like a drug and had found it highly addictive.

"Well, really, there's no reason for you to sleep in the guest room anymore. I'm fine. And I think I'd actually get more rest if you were next to me," she speculated with a sheepish grin. "I've missed you."

"I miss you, too," he whispered, his voice choked.

Before his resolve disappeared completely and sent him across the room in two long strides, he spun into the suit. With a final apologetic smile offered over his shoulder, he launched himself out the window and headed directly toward the moon.

***

Lois opened her eyes slowly, blinking against the slanted light pouring between the wooden blinds. With a groan, she looked at the clock. 8:30. Drat. She'd overslept. Again. Clark must have turned off her alarm, deciding that she needed the extra sleep. It was sweet of him and appreciated, but now she was going to be late. Again.

Sitting up, she glanced over her shoulder to his side of the bed. The coverlet remained as it had several hours earlier, neatly tucked except where her own restless movements had pulled the covers askew. She shook her head sadly. He'd never made it to bed. With a frown, she wondered if it was a Superman emergency that had kept him away or a Clark-made one.

The sound of the shower running sent her out of the bedroom and down the stairs to start a pot of coffee. She yawned as she puttered around the kitchen, turning the radio on to a light rock station. Pushing several pieces of bread into the toaster, she poured herself a glass of orange juice and headed to the front door to get the paper.

Shaking her head, she scanned the front page as she walked back to the kitchen. It had been several weeks since the night of the benefit had garnered much column space, and certainly nothing on the first page after the first week. But today, she winced when she read the headline. The calls would probably start again.

Lois only hoped no one would be parked on the front lawn, waiting to ambush her or Clark. The first time it had happened, he had nearly lost it, a broken camera and a severely frightened reporter the result of his displeasure. It was hard to be on the opposite side of the story, she mused, having your most personal information splayed out for all the world to know. Setting the paper on the table, she determined once again to make sure that, in the future, she was always on the telling side.

Clark entered the kitchen, pulling the knot of his patterned tie tightly against his shirt collar. His hair was still damp, and she could smell the clean scent of his aftershave as he brushed past her on his way to the coffee maker. Her heart raced and warmth crawled over her skin. She thought briefly of taking the morning off if she could convince him to do the same.

The small scowl on his face made her think twice, and chalking it up to his lack of sleep the night prior, she gave him a sympathetic smile. "Thanks for letting me sleep. You should have taken the extra hour for yourself. Did you run into trouble last night?"

"Yeah, something like that," he said absently. She tried not to be hurt by his brusque attitude or the fact that he hadn't even offered her a good-morning kiss.

"Man, Superman sure has been busy lately. He may have to take a vacation. That or find a sidekick to cover for him." She chuckled at her own joke, then noticed that he wasn't at all amused. In fact, he seemed in a very foul mood. "Really, Clark. I'm worried about you. You look really tired."

"I'm fine. I just need some coffee." He poured himself a cup, and taking a sip despite the thick steam floating in a cloud over the rim, he headed to the table.

"Hey. Take a look at the front page," Lois called over her shoulder as she spread a thick layer of strawberry preserves on the slices of toast. "They've set Joseph Hamilton's trial date. They're saying they may have to move this out of the county in order to get a fair and impartial jury."

"Yeah. I see," he mumbled, flipping the front section to the side without looking at it.

She carried the plate of toast to join him at the table, pulling a chair out to sit down. "You know, I was thinking I might try to get in to interview that kid, Adam Jenkins. I think he'd be willing to spill a lot about the PRWP and maybe even name some names."

Clark set his coffee cup down with a loud bang, sloshing the black liquid over the top and onto the newspaper. "Lois, I told you that I thought it was a really bad idea for you to do any kind of story on these people."

"I know." She grinned. "But since when did I ever let that stop me? Besides, this is Pulitzer level stuff, Clark. The attempted assassination of a U.S. Senator "

Clark stood up abruptly, knocking his chair over with an angry clatter. "That's your problem! You never listen to what other people have to say. If just for once you would take the advice of someone else, you might save yourself a lot of grief."

The sting of hurt over his outburst was quickly replaced by an indignant defensiveness. "What's that supposed to mean? Are you talking about what happened at the benefit?"

"No," he retorted sharply. "I'm just saying that you manage to get yourself into a lot of trouble because you just can't let go of a bad idea."

She stood, placing her hands on her hips. "I think you *are* talking about the benefit. I think maybe you think its my fault that I was there when those lunatics came busting in all over the place." She waited for his denial, and when it didn't come immediately, she felt herself crumbling inside. "Is that it, Clark?"

"Of course not," he said softly, reaching down and righting the fallen chair so that she couldn't see his eyes to know if he really meant what he was saying. "Nothing about that night is your fault. I just want you to be a little more careful. And I want you to stay as far away from Hamilton as possible."

Feeling a bit appeased by his explanation, she returned to her seat, ready to convince him that she wasn't looking for trouble. "I didn't say I was going to interview Hamilton. I was talking about that kid, Adam. He was really chatty that night, and I think…"

"Lois, I don't really care what you think. It's a bad idea, and that's all there is to it." Clark turned sharply on his heel and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" she cried, bewildered by his complete dismissal of both the topic at hand and her personally.

"To work," he called over his shoulder, and she ran after him, clutching her robe tightly around her.

"Aren't you going to wait for me?"

He shook his head as he shrugged on his long wool coat. "I've got some stuff to get done before the call meeting. I'll meet you there."

"Clark," she demanded, "what is wrong with you?"

"I'm late. That's what's wrong." He pulled the door closed behind him with a heavy bang.

Lois bit her lip, tears of confusion streaming down her face. What had just happened? What had she done wrong?

***

Clark pulled his chair away from his desk with a hard yank. The office was quiet, only a few dedicated souls and chronic procrastinators pounding away at such an early hour. They'd all become used to his new schedule and were very much aware that he didn't like to be approached, assuming that he simply needed a few cups of coffee to ramp up to a respectable politeness. By the time they would have noticed that he'd had ample time to consume a good quantity of the brew, they had become so busy with their own work that they took little notice that he'd become no less surly.

It wasn't a new-found dedication that brought Clark to the Planet just as the night cleaning staff was packing up to leave. It was pure and simple avoidance. Ever since their argument at the breakfast table a week earlier, Clark had made it a point to leave for the office before Lois was out of bed. In fact, his routine had become a matter of flying home for a quick shower and change of clothes before heading right back out again. Lois hadn't complained about his absence because he hadn't been around enough to give her a chance.

He'd just turned on his computer when the faint cry came. It was feeble, the plea of an elderly person. He sighed loudly. There was no way he could ignore it.

Touching down softly on the sidewalk only a few blocks from the Planet, Superman was immediately approached by a frail woman with tightly curled white hair who rushed over to him as fast as her stooped form would allow.

"Oh, Superman. Thank goodness you came!" The woman placed a gnarled hand on his forearm. "That thug stole my purse. He just came out of nowhere and snatched it right from me. Nearly knocked me down!! And I just cashed Harold's disability check. Oh, heavens. I don't know what we'll do without that money." Her thin voice held panic, and he winced inwardly at her distress.

"It's all right m'am," Superman assured her with a small smile. "I'll get your purse back. What did this guy look like?"

"Oh, let's see. He wasn't nearly so tall as you. Not as big either. Just a skinny thing. Wearing a black jacket, I think. And a cap." She thought for a minute, her wizened face scrunching tightly with the effort. At last she nodded, confident in her memory. "Yes, a blue cap, like those baseball players wear. He ran off that way."

Superman scanned the length of sidewalk in front of him, following the woman's pointed finger. Less than four blocks away he could make out the blue-domed head of someone wearing a cap, dodging between the rush-hour pedestrians before ducking sharply to the left and into an alley.

He launched himself upward, going only high enough to perfectly arc back down into the alley where a black-jacketed, blue-capped man was frantically digging through a large white handbag. In one long step, Superman grabbed the man's collar and hoisted him clear off the ground. The thug issued a loud gasp and dropped the purse immediately. His face quickly became covered with dark red splotches as the realization of who it was who'd found him reached his dull brain.

"You like taking money from old people?" Superman hissed dangerously, disgusted by the creep. "Is it fun scaring them? Knocking them down?"

When the purse snatcher didn't answer, Superman gave him a rough shake. The motion sent something tumbling from inside the terrified man's jacket, and with a clatter it landed on the concrete. Superman glanced down, taking in the silver pocket knife that skittered a short distance before coming to a stop.

Suddenly, a sharp pain pierced his skull, blood pounding in his ears until the sound of it was deafening. He could feel his chest tightening, and the ground began to spin. Every muscled tensed, and he hoisted the thug higher, his grip almost painful.

As the turmoil within him increased, Superman hurled the man across the alley with a snarl. The thug hit the brick building with a loud thud, dropping several feet to land in a motionless pile.

Superman took several deep breaths, trying to resist the urge to pick the guy up and throw him again. Waves of nausea washed over him, and he staggered back slightly.

"Superman, you need some help?" a voice sounded behind him, offering a welcome distraction.

He turned to see a police officer slowly walking into the alley. As his vision came into focus once again, he noticed that several people had stopped to watch from the sidewalk.

"Guy's over there." He motioned toward the heap slumped against the wall as he scooped up the abandoned purse.

Stopping only long enough to return the handbag to its grateful owner, Superman shot straight up into the air, flying as fast as he could away from Metropolis. He headed west, finally landing on a mesa high above the arid floor of Arizona's Painted Desert. The time difference meant that the day had yet to completely rise over this portion of the country, and he faced the rose-tinged sky, seeking the warming rays as the earth turned toward the sun.

It was getting worse. It took less and less to trigger an attack, and seeing the silver switchblade had almost thrown him completely out of control. If things kept going the way they were, he was going to have to turn himself in. He was becoming a real danger to people, and despite his current attitude, he still retained the knowledge that he couldn't let that happen.

The problem was, he couldn't stop it. The emotions that had been unleashed the night of the benefit were now like a pride of unruly lions, impossible to capture or cage. Just as he thought he might have regained control, the smallest incident would set him off. It was why he didn't sleep. He needed the foggy feeling of exhaustion to dull the colors and sounds of the world. For the first time ever, he had a true empathy for alcoholics and drug addicts. Facing life and the pain within it while sober was simply too hard.

Lois was another matter. When he was with her, he oscillated between panic and guilt. He didn't understand why he couldn't talk to her. Why the words just wouldn't come out or even what words they would be had he been able to say them.

Even more confusing was his own body's reaction to being near her. Simply standing close to her or looking at her face sent the earth tilting beneath his feet and the odd twisting in his stomach. Waves of panic crashed over him until he had to get away.

It was becoming completely impossible for him to be around her. Only by staying away was he able to ignore the emptiness that being so close to her yet being unable to touch her created. But it was getting harder and harder to come up with excuses. And the pained look in her eyes every time he flew away tore him apart.

Almost more troubling than his inability to get close to her either physically or emotionally was his new uncertainty about the love that they shared. He'd always thought it was strong enough to weather anything, so steeped in mutual need and tenderness that nothing could tear them apart. But now he was letting them both down. Something beyond his control was causing him to lash out at her, or to hold her at a rigid distance. His love was failing them, and he felt completely powerless to do anything about it.

In truth, he was tired of fighting against it. If he could get away for a while, regain some semblance of control. He'd talk to Perry. Come up with a viable story to send him out of town. It wouldn't take more than a couple of weeks. Or maybe a little longer. Just enough time to regain his equilibrium. Then maybe things would get back to normal.

His gut clenched with a sudden guilt. After all they'd been through, Lois would never understand why he was leaving. As the sun turned the desert rose and gold and all the shades in between, he felt a hard indifference settle over him. It didn't matter what she wanted, or thought she wanted. He couldn't allow his own confusion to cause her any more heartache.

***

When he stepped off the elevator, he paused slightly when he saw Lois seated at her desk. She looked up in time to catch his eye, and her face brightened with a beaming smile. A silky cream scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck, perfectly matched with her cream suit as if the item was purely used as an accessory rather than as a disguise. He, of course, knew what lay beneath the filmy fabric. A rush of heat flooded through him, and he looked away, unable to meet her gaze.

"Hey. I missed you this morning," she called as he passed her desk, not stopping.

"Yeah, sorry. Couple of things I wanted to get done early." He explained away his departure before she'd even awoken that morning. Sitting down, he began leafing through the pile of phone messages. With careful determination, he avoided glancing up at her, hoping that she would return to her own work.

Undeterred by his obvious distraction, she rose and approached his desk, perching on the edge of it. "You just take care of a call?" she asked, her voice kept low.

He nodded, trying to ignore the sudden increase in his pulse that her intimate tone generated. Lifting his eyes from the messages, he caught a long expanse of her thigh, exposed as her short skirt hitched upwards. Clearing his throat, he quickly looked back at the slips of paper in his hands, mentally spelling out each individual word in an attempt to quell the panic rising in his stomach.

"You and Superman sure have been a busy pair," she teased. "You've got to be exhausted. It's a wonder you're able to walk, much less fly. I don't think you've been home from the office before ten a single night this week, and I guess I just move too slow for you in the morning. I'm starting to think you're avoiding me."

It was all said playfully, but Clark didn't miss the hurt and accusation in her tone. Lois wasn't stupid, and if he'd ever deluded himself into thinking that she wouldn't notice his intentional absences, he really was losing his mind.

Lois walked around behind his chair, her chest brushing against the top of his back as she placed her hands on his shoulders. Her fingers kneaded them gently, but instead of the relaxation her massages had wrought in the past, he could feel the muscles tightening. The now familiar pain pounded in his head, and he started to feel dizzy.

He shrugged off her hands as gently as he could. "Hey, listen. Could you stop. Please."

She stopped instantly, standing behind him for a long, weighted minute. "Clark, I don't understand. Have I done something wrong?" she finally asked.

Clark leaned forward and began to shuffle papers across his desk, as if he had something very urgent that needed tending to. "Lois, this isn't the place to talk about personal stuff."

At that, she walked around to face him, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. "Well, I can't ever seem to catch you at home anymore "

"We can talk later," he promised with a hiss. Anything to get her to stop talking about it. "There's nothing wrong. You shouldn't be getting all upset."

"I'm not upset," she retorted, her voice becoming a little more strident. "I'm just confused. Why won't you let me in?"

Thankfully, Perry chose that moment to stick his head out of his door and call across the short distance. "Hey, Clark. You wanted to see me, son?"

Clark stood quickly, relief washing through him for the timely interruption. "Yeah, Chief," he shouted to Perry, then turned his attention back to Lois. "Listen, I need to talk to Perry."

She smiled brightly, but the hurt still haunted her eyes. With a forced cheerfulness, she teased, "Oh? You got a hot lead you're hiding from me?"

"No. It's something else," he said offhandedly, not ready for her to know his plans. "Listen, I'll talk to you later."

Without waiting for an answer, he brushed past her and headed for Perry's office. On the way, he took several deep breaths, and by the time he stepped through the door, he felt almost calm again.

***

Lois watched Clark's back as he traveled the short distance to Perry's office. He didn't even glance at her when he turned to shut the door firmly behind him, and the same hollow emptiness that she'd been feeling for weeks washed over her. She didn't even try to make excuses any more. Clark was shutting her out. Every day the gap between them was widening, and she felt powerless to stop it.

She walked slowly back to her desk, fighting the tears that threatened to spill over at any minute. The phone was ringing softly, and she reached for it without looking away from Perry's closed door. "Hello?" she snapped sharply, unable to make the transition from confused frustration to pleasant politeness quickly enough.

"Hi, honey." Martha Kent sounded startled by Lois's curt greeting. "Am I getting you at a bad time?"

"Hi, Martha," she said with a weary sigh. "No, it's not a bad time."

"Well, then I won't take it personally," Martha offered brightly. "But you sound like you just lost your best friend.

"I think I might have," Lois joked, trying to force lightness into her voice.

"What's wrong?" Martha demanded to know, her voice instantly full of concern.

Martha had come to take care of her when she'd been released from the hospital, and in the two weeks she had stayed at the house, Lois had come to love her as much as her own mother. Martha had the uncanny ability to read through all pretenses, knowing when Lois needed to talk and when she needed space. It was a gift that the mother had passed on to her son, one that Lois had never truly appreciated until he had taken it away from her.

"I don't know. That's the problem. I don't know what's wrong," she admitted, feeling the stab of frustration that had been her constant companion since the fight she and Clark had had at the breakfast table. "For the last week, I feel like I've been living with a total stranger. Well, it's not even the last week, really. More like seven. Ever since the night of the benefit."

"Clark?"

"Martha, I know he's your son. And you know how much I love him," Lois explained, not wanting to hurt the older woman's feelings by talking smack about her son. "But right now, I really could kill him."

Instead of being insulted, Martha seemed to know exactly what Lois was talking about. "That bad, huh?"

"Yeah. That bad. He's never acted like this. If I thought he had an evil twin, I'd ask you about him."

"What's he doing?"

"It's what he's not doing." Lois mentally started listing Clark's odd behaviour over the past month and a half. "The man is so polite it's like I'm living with a stranger off the street. And when he's not being polite, he's completely withdrawn. His mind is somewhere else, and I have no idea where. Of course, he only acts this way when he's home, which is hardly ever. Every night he flies off to check on things, and I don't see him until the next morning. Usually at the office."

"He doesn't sleep?" Martha asked, incredulous.

"Well if he does, I don't know where. It's certainly not with me. In any sense of the word." The last was muttered quietly, more to herself than to the woman on the phone.

The ever-perceptive Martha caught it. "Do you mean…"

Lois squirmed, her cheeks heating. This was Clark's mother, for Pete's sake. "I feel kind of funny talking about this with you…"

"Don't be silly," Martha laughed. "I changed the boy's sheets when he was a teenager. I was just thankful that he seemed normal in that way."

"Martha, you're too much!" she chuckled, appreciating her candor.

Lois didn't have a girlfriend she felt close enough to discuss something so intimate, and with Clark, things were made even more difficult. Martha was truly the only other woman who might come close to understanding Lois's frustrations, so she took a deep breath and swallowed her discomfort about talking sex with her mother-in-law.

"I don't know what's wrong. Maybe it's me. Maybe I disgust him." She fingered the scar under her left ear absently, wincing as she recalled the vivid red line that scarves could only do so much to conceal. "But he won't touch me. I got the go ahead to…you know…make love…nearly two months ago, and he hasn't even so much as kissed me on the lips. It's like he's totally lost interest in me physically."

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

"It's not your fault. I just don't know what I've done wrong." That wasn't completely true. She had one idea of what he might be thinking, and going for broke, she confessed her fear to Martha. "I'm afraid he blames me for what happened."

Martha gasped, clearly outraged by Lois's suggestion. "He doesn't think that! He may be acting like an idiot right now, but he would never blame you. You have to know that."

"I guess so," Lois agreed though not quite convinced. "I've tried to talk him into seeing Dr. Rosenblum…"

"He's your "

"Trauma specialist," Lois confirmed. "He's really helped me work through a lot of stuff, and it might do Clark some good to talk to him. But he insists he's fine."

"He gets his stubbornness from his father, you know. I swear he didn't get that from me!" the older woman insisted with a chuckle.

Lois laughed along, but suddenly, she felt tears stinging the back of her eyes. She reached for a tissue, afraid that she might just have a break down right in the middle of the bull pen. "I just don't know what to do. I'm afraid I'm losing him, Martha. And it really scares me. Almost more than that night…"

"Lois, don't you give up on him." Martha insisted, her voice almost strident in its appeal. "Clark loves you. More than even himself, I would guess. I think that's the problem. He almost lost you, and knowing Clark like I do, I'll bet anything that he's blaming himself. He's always been that way. Beating himself up about the things he couldn't do instead of just being grateful for what amazing things he does. You need to get him to talk. And let him know that it's not his fault, what happened. Any more than it was your fault."

"It's kind of hard to talk to him when he's always flying off."

"Yeah, I guess the rest of us with normal husbands don't face that particular problem," she conceded. "Really, Lois. Just keep trying. What you two have is too wonderful to let it be destroyed by what happened."

Lois nodded even though the woman on the other end of the line couldn't see her. "I know, Martha. I'm not letting him go without a fight. Especially now."

"That's my girl!" Martha applauded. Then, changing the subject, she asked, "So, everything else all right? You feeling OK? I mean, work isn't tiring you out too much, is it?"

"Wow, for a mother-in-law you sound suspiciously like my real mother!" Lois accused with a gentle tease. Martha's concern touched her deeply. Not a day had gone by that she hadn't received a call from either Martha or Jonathan or both. It solidified her place in the Kent family, assuring her that they really did view her as the daughter that they'd never had. "Thanks for the concern. I'm fine. I feel great, and being back at the Planet has been a real help. I finally feel like things are getting back to normal. Well, at least some semblance of that, if I can just get Clark back on board."

"You let me know if you need me to step in. Even Superman isn't dumb enough to mess with Superman's mamma!" Martha threatened with a laugh.

"Thanks Martha. Listen, Perry just motioned to me so I'd better go." Lois was staring at Perry's office where just seconds earlier he'd stuck his head out and motioned to her. More disconcerting than the fact that her boss was summoning her was the knowledge that Clark had slipped away once again without telling her.

"Of course," Martha said affably. "I'll call you tomorrow. Take care, honey."

***

"Hey Perry. What's up?" She greeted the Chief, who had taken a seat behind his desk.

Perry gave her a sad smile and indicated the red-plaid wingback chair that Clark insisted must have been chosen by Alice. "Sit down, honey, and close the door before you do."

Lois followed his direction, shifting in her seat until she was comfortable. Satisfied, she looked up at her boss with a smile that quickly froze in place, the solemn expression on his face sending both curiosity and a strange sense of foreboding down her spine. "Geez, if I hadn't been gone so much to know better, I'd think I'm in some kind of trouble."

He waited a long minute before beginning, as if it were imperative that he choose his words carefully. "Lois, is everything OK? I mean between you and Clark?"

She blinked, not expecting a question along those lines. "Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, it's been really tough after what happened and all." Thinking that perhaps she didn't sound very fair to Clark, she quickly offered an excuse on his behalf. "But I think he just needs some more time."

"Has he talked to anyone about what happened at the benefit?" Perry asked. "You know, he was pretty messed up that night. Like I've never seen him."

"I tried to get him to see my trauma specialist, but he won't go," Lois said, feeling a slight tinge of deja vu from her earlier conversation with Martha.

What she hadn't told Clark's mother and intentionally neglected to tell Perry now was how Clark had refused to talk about pretty much anything having to do with that night, including the idea of seeking help for any post-traumatic problems that might raise their ugly heads. He'd acted pretty much as though the whole thing had never happened, and she had assumed that he was simply dealing with it in his own way. Some people talked. Some people didn't. In this case, she was the former and he was the latter.

Perry shook his head and pressed his lips together tightly, unhappy with her answer. "Honey, you might want to try again on that one. And if you can talk him into going, see if he'll take his buddy Superman along. Those two might qualify for a discount rate."

"What's wrong with Superman?" she asked, the tinge of foreboding becoming a full fledged dread.

"I got a call from Henderson over at the MPD this morning. I guess Superman stopped a guy who snatched some lady's purse."

"That doesn't seem too unusual," Lois noted with a small shrug.

"No, that part's not what's strange," Perry explained. "What's odd is the fact that Superman roughed up the guy pretty bad. Threw him nearly twenty feet into a solid brick wall. Kid's got a cracked rib. That seems to be a pretty extreme reaction to a purse snatching, don't you think?"

Perry studied her face, and Lois looked away, afraid that her obvious horror might give away too much. "Yeah. Pretty extreme," she agreed softly.

"And that's not the first time our resident super hero has gone a bit overboard on the apprehension part of his job," Perry went on. "Henderson says there's about half a dozen thugs ended up in the hospital suffering from his…what should I call it, enthusiasm. Now, not that I'm knocking Superman's methods. If were up to me, I'd throw the lot of them in Hobbes Bay. But lawyers and the general public don't take too kindly to extreme force."

Lois absorbed what Perry was telling her. Why hadn't Clark mentioned any of these incidences? Could it be that he just wasn't aware of what he was doing? She knew instantly that that couldn't be the case. In the three years that Superman had been fighting crime in Metropolis, he'd never shown himself to be vindictive. Yet the evidence at hand spoke of something else. Something that she couldn't ignore despite her fervent desire to believe that all Clark needed was some more time.

"Why did Henderson call you?" she asked, feeling the need for more details. Clark wasn't telling her anything, so she'd have to find out what was going on her own way.

"We've been underplaying this stuff over the last couple of weeks, but it's gotten bad enough that we can't do it anymore." Perry sighed. "It's going to start hitting the front page, if not in the Planet, in the Star or some other rag. Henderson thought maybe you or Clark might talk to Superman and get him to calm down before he gets himself into some serious trouble."

"Yeah. I'll talk to him," she assured him firmly, adding the knee-jerk cover, "or Clark will. Thanks, Chief."

Lois stood, ready to find someplace quiet where she could try to wrap her brain around the confusion swirling through her. But Perry lifted a hand, stopping her before she could take a step away from the chair.

"Lois, that's not really why I called you in here."

"Great." She sat down, the urge to cry twisting in her chest. Man, she was doing that a lot lately. Crying. Or almost crying.

Perry stood, walking around his desk to perch on the front of it. His demeanor instantly became less boss-like and more paternal, his eyes taking on a softness that Lois had noticed he reserved for herself, Clark, and Jimmy. "Normally, I wouldn't think to meddle in your personal business, but under the circumstances, I feel like I should "

"Perry, what is it?" she asked tiredly, wanting him to just get it over with. Like getting a shot at the doctor, this needed to be done as quickly as possible.

"Clark just informed me that he's planning to head over to Balkistan to cover the increase in terrorist activity that the CIA has reported over there "

"What?!" She leapt to her feet, Perry's words like ice cubes poured down her back. Clark was going where? To do what?

He shook his head and muttered to himself, "How come I had this feeling you didn't know about this?"

"Perry, what is he thinking?" Lois moved away from the desk to the small stretch of clear floor where she could pace. Her head started to pound and she rubbed her temples with her index fingers.

"I don't know. He told me that he's got some good information and a source that can get him pretty close to some terrorist leaders. He thinks he's got a great angle for a story. Kind of a 'on the front lines' thing." Perry paused for a moment before continuing. "There's more."

"More? Perry, how can there possibly be more?" she wailed. Why hadn't Clark told her? She knew instantly why he hadn't. They hadn't been in the same room together privately for more than five minutes in over a week. Still, how could he make such a decision without consulting with her first? He'd even talked to Perry about it before talking to her!

"He's planning to be gone for a while,"

"A while?" Lois felt the flicker of heated anger, a welcome change from the overwhelming confusion and frustration her husband's strange behaviour had elicited the last month and a half. "Well, since my husband doesn't seem fit to tell me what his plans are, why don't you fill me in on exactly how long 'a while' is."

"A month. Maybe two," Perry offered cautiously, leaning back slightly as if he were afraid she might throw something at him.

"You have got to be kidding!" she shouted, the anger turning to fury. "Clark is planning on leaving for a month…or maybe two…to cover a story in a country ravaged by civil unrest and ruled by terrorists? This is just great."

Perry stood. "Listen, you're getting pretty upset "

"You think!" she snapped. Upset didn't even begin to describe what was going through her at that moment.

He lifted a hand, a soothing gesture that did absolutely nothing to soothe her. "Maybe you should head on home. Try and talk to Clark before he leaves."

She stopped her pacing to stare at him. "Perry, you're not going to let him go?"

"It's not really up to me," he admitted. "I guess I could threaten to fire him, but really, don't you think that if he's determined to leave that there are some serious issues the boy's trying to deal with? And I don't think the problem's so much here at the Planet."

"I know." Lois suddenly felt defeated, the anger shriveling to humiliation and a terrible feeling of loneliness. How could Clark even think of leaving her now? "Oh, Perry. I just don't understand. In a span of two seconds, everything in my life just fell all apart."

"Yep. Stuff can happen that way. I'm just sorry it happened to you and Clark," he offered by way of an apology for their incredible bad luck. "You two have been through more stuff than Elvis and Priscilla."

"Is there anything else I should know?" Lois asked forlornly. "Has Clark joined some secret cult or something?"

"Naw!" he chuckled. "Now, why don't you head on home. Try to get some rest. You really shouldn't be getting all upset like this."

"Yeah, well, tell that to Clark," she snorted as she headed for the door.

Clark was nowhere to be seen in the bull pen, and she didn't bother looking for him any place else he might possibly be. She was certain he wasn't in the building. Stopping at her desk just long enough to fetch her purse and coat, she strode toward the elevator.

It was time for a showdown, she determined as the doors closed behind her. And for the first time since the night of the benefit, she felt strong again.

***

Lois flipped the pages of the magazine absently as she leaned against the pillows propped up against the headboard. She hadn't read a single word, but there was no way she could sleep. She glanced at the clock for the tenth time in half as many minutes. 12:08. She hadn't heard from Clark since he'd gone into Perry's office that morning, and finally she'd changed into her pajamas and crawled in to bed.

Her mind was made up, and nothing like the flimsy excuse of Clark's absence was going to deter her from talking to him. He wasn't getting off that easily. If he didn't come home soon, she was going to put her clothes back on and start searching the streets. Not that he'd be likely to be walking.

She had just turned to an article that promised to show her how to make twenty meals with less than four ingredients, hoping that the information might give her a laugh, when she heard the front door shut softly. Every fiber in her tensed. This was it.

It took another ten long minutes before his footsteps sounded on the stairs, but she resisted the urge to fly down them and confront him immediately. Diplomacy had never been her strongest attribute, but in this case, she needed to handle things carefully. Clark reminded her of a wounded animal, one who desperately needed her help but would flee the instant it felt threatened. Whatever it took, she would remain calm. Controlled. She shook her head, wondering at the state of things that had put them in such a role reversal. She was pretty sure it had been in their wedding vows that he was supposed to be the rational one while it was her job to be over the top.

Clark's steps slowed as he saw the light spilling from the bedroom and out into the hallway. He'd expected her to be asleep, and in truth, he'd only come upstairs to make sure she was safely in bed. Had he known she was still awake, he would have stalled another hour or two before coming home. But she had most likely heard him and he couldn't slip away without at least saying hello, so he entered the room, giving her a small smile as he tugged on the knot of his tie.

"Another late one, huh?" she noted casually, returning her eyes to the image of a pot roast on the slick page lying in her lap. Calm. Controlled. Calm. She repeated the words over and over.

Clark didn't look at her, focusing instead on emptying the loose change from his pocket, placing it on the small pewter tray set on the dresser for just such a purpose. "Yeah. Sorry."

"Did you eat anything? There's some left over Chinese in the fridge."

He shook his head. "Thanks. Already ate." His trivial chore completed, he turned to face her.

She leaned forward expectantly, her arms resting on her slightly bent knees. Her eyes were bright, without the least hint of weariness, and Clark felt his heart pound. She'd been waiting up for him on purpose. And no matter what she was waiting for, sex or serious discussion, he was in no mood for either.

"Listen, since I got held up at the Planet, I haven't had a chance to do a check of the city, so I'm just going to " He made the upward sweep of his hand as he motioned toward the window.

"Don't you leave! Don't you dare fly out that window again, like you've done every night for the past seven weeks!" she shouted, the accumulated tears of those weeks stinging hotly in the back of her eyes. She slammed the magazine closed and tossed it across the bed. Screw the calm and controlled.

"Lois, I have things I need to do." He glanced out the window and muttered an expletive under his breath. A couple strolled down the sidewalk, and there was no way to make a discreet exit from the second floor. He turned and strode from the bedroom.

Lois followed on his heels, running down the stairs. He wasn't leaving. Not this time. "What could you possibly have to do that's more important than me? Than us?"

"Hey, you knew what you were getting into when you married me," he threw over his shoulder. "It's what I am."

"That's crap, Clark! When I married you, I knew that I'd have to share you. And never once have I complained when you've left to go save someone or take care of some catastrophe. But I never agreed that I'd fall so low in your priorities that you'd leave me here alone night after night." She crossed her arms, ready to hurl the final accusation. "And I certainly never agreed that you'd leave me to go cover a story in Balkistan without any discussion whatsoever."

He sighed loudly, placing his hands on his hips. Still, he didn't turn to face her. "Perry told you?"

"Yeah, thanks a lot," she bit sarcastically, the hurt of that moment in Perry's office coming back fresh and raw. "Do you have any idea how humiliating it was to sit in Perry's office and learn that you were planning to leave for two months? To hear it from my boss instead of my husband? Were you ever planning on telling me? Or were you just going to send me a letter from the road?"

"Of course I was going to tell you," he retorted sharply, his own temper rising. He wasn't that much of a jerk.

"I'm not so sure about that." Lois wasn't having any of it. He wasn't entitled to indignation. This was her beef. She was the wronged party here. "When was the last time we talked? I mean other than a 'yes please' or a 'no thank you'?"

He didn't answer, and Lois took a deep breath, ready for the battle she'd spent the whole evening preparing for. "What's going on, Clark? Tell me. Whatever it is, I'd rather know than sit here wondering."

She was holding nothing back. This was a fight for her marriage. For her very life. And she'd say whatever she had to if it meant the difference between losing her husband or getting him back. "Is it another woman?"

He stopped cold. Was that what she thought? "Lois, don't be crazy."

"Oh, you think I'm crazy?" It had been a wild accusation, meant to shock him into finally reacting. But as the thought gelled, she wondered if maybe she wasn't so far off base after all. "You're gone every night. You barely talk to me anymore, and when you do, you're so polite it makes me sick. You haven't touched me in weeks. Hell, if it weren't for the Planet, I don't think I'd see you at all. I think I'm pretty sane here."

"There's no other woman," he stated flatly. It was such a ridiculous proposition that he didn't even bother to give his denial any fervor.

"Then what is it?" Lois started to pace. "Is it me? Did I do something wrong? Is it about what happened "

"I don't want to talk about that," he interrupted. Instantly, his head started to pound and his chest constricted. It was like Pavlov's dogs.

She stopped, turning to stare at him. It didn't take a genius to see the connection. "So it is about that…"

"Lois, I don't want to talk about this. Not now." His voice got louder and a bit higher as he felt the wave of panic approaching. It was late, and he just wanted to get out of there.

"When, Clark? When are we going to deal with this?" she insisted. "In a month? A year? After we've grown so far apart that we don't even recognize each other anymore? You've cut yourself off from me. From your parents. From everything."

"You know I've been busy. With work. With stuff," he offered, knowing how utterly lame the excuse was but too tired to come up with anything better or to really even care.

She laughed sharply, insulted by his wimpy answer. "With a bogus story in Balkistan? Oh, give me a break!"

He felt it then. The churning within his stomach and the spinning beneath his feet. It was what he feared most, but once again, he was powerless to turn it off. He strode over to her, managing to keep a couple of feet between them. He knew he could never hurt her, but he wasn't willing to take a chance. He'd learned too much about himself. Things that he'd been much happier not knowing.

"All right. You want to talk about it? Let's talk," he nearly spat. "Let's relive it all, why don't we. What part do you want to discuss first? The time I spent in the lobby of that stupid hotel watching every woman but you walk down those stairs, realizing that you were still up there with those lunatics? Or how about the minute that Hamilton put that knife to your throat and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it!"

Lois blinked, stunned by the deliberate meanness in his words and the cruelty in his normally gentle voice. His jaw twitched dangerously, but she felt just as formidable, her anger filling the space around them to mix with his until it settled in a heavy cloud above them. She folded her arms across her chest and tipped her chin up, defiant.

She used her own fury as a tool to add fire to her retort. "That's a good start, because I sure as hell hope you're not going to try to sell me on the idea that you blame yourself. That it's all your fault that you couldn't get to me before Hamilton cut me. Because I know you know there's no way I'll buy that lame crap. What happened to me is no more your fault than mine, so don't even try it, Clark."

"Why not?" he bit back. "It's true. And you forgot the part about my being late. If I'd gotten there on time, none of this would have happened." How many times he'd played the scenario out in his mind with different parameters he'd lost track. But none of the other options involved Lois lying in a pool of her own blood. Or doctors telling him there was little hope…

"Well, what if I hadn't insisted that we go to the benefit. Or if Jacobson hadn't accepted his invitation to speak at it. Or if the Metropolis Women's Shelter hadn't planned it in the first place," she listed, angry that this was all about blame. "How far back do we need to go until we uncover where the real blame lies? Believe me, you can't do it. And I know, because for nearly every minute of that hour, I sat there thinking about how things could have been different. About what might have happened if you'd been sitting next to me when those guys came in with their guns blazing. And in the end, I was thanking God that you weren't there. You know why? Because you would have done anything to stop them. Even if it meant sacrificing everything we have. Your identity. Our life together. You would have done it. Just like you almost did two years ago at that nightclub."

He turned and walked away, not wanting to hear her words. She didn't understand. This wasn't just about blame or what might have happened if only. And he didn't give a damn about his identity. He didn't know who he was anymore anyway.

"What's this really about?" Lois asked, a little more calmly. Martha was right. He was just being pigheaded and holding himself responsible for things beyond his control. She needed to get him to talk. Convince him how wrong he was. "You've been faced with this before. I can't even count how many times you've pulled me out of some mess or another, and this isn't the first time I've been threatened by some maniac. I've even been hurt before. And you've always accepted the fact that it wasn't your fault. But you've completely lost it. Why, Clark?"

"I haven't lost it. I keep telling you I'm fine." God, he really wanted to leave. He stared out the window at the black sky, starless.

"I see. So you expect me to believe that you're totally OK with what happened?" She stared at him, incredulous. What kind of idiot did he think she was? "And exactly how am I supposed to explain to Perry and Inspector Henderson why it is that Superman has decided that capital punishment isn't such a bad thing after all?"

"You don't owe them any explanations. Nor does Superman. If they're unhappy with the way I handle things, then maybe I should just take my services elsewhere," he snapped, irritated that now Perry and Henderson were butting into his personal business. Why couldn't everyone just leave him the hell alone?

Lois gaped, momentarily stunned by his threat. She started to shake, the realization of how deeply Clark was troubled starting to sink in. This wasn't just about blame or guilt. This was about something way more complex, and her confidence in her ability to turn him around dropped away, leaving her floundering in fear.

"OK, then forget about Superman. What about us?" she asked, afraid of his answer. Still, the not knowing was worse than anything else. "I'm starting to wonder how you really feel about me. I can tell that you don't want to be around me. Hell, you practically cross the street to avoid me. You said that you didn't blame me for what happened, but if that's really the truth, then maybe you don't love me so much after all. Maybe you never really loved me…"

Clark jerked around to face her, finally pushed beyond his carefully constructed limits. The words poured out in a shout, the inner turmoil finding release at last. "Don't you see? I love you too much. It's consumed me. The power of it has pushed aside my ability to control myself. My abilities. And that scares the hell out of me. All I've ever believed in was the value of life, but now all I can think about is…" He stopped, unable to say it.

Lois wouldn't let him off the hook, moving to stand in front of him. "What, Clark? What is it that you can't stop thinking about? You have to tell me. Why are you punishing yourself like this? Why are you punishing us?" she implored.

Clark couldn't see her, the moments of that night playing before him. The red and blue lights spinning, broken by the white flashes of cameras. Shouts and the wail of sirens. And then the mocking blue eyes. The cruel smile, so pleased with the pain he'd caused. Completely unrepentant.

"I couldn't see. I couldn't think." He recounted his confusion and distress, reliving it. "All I knew was that I had to kill him. Kill him for hurting you. For hurting our baby. He tried to take you away from me…"

Then the moment at the hospital, learning that Hamilton lived on. And the painful realization that the fury over that fact far outpaced the relief. He'd regretted that he hadn't killed Hamilton. And it was that regret that ate at him still.

"I tried to kill that man. I still want to kill him, and I know if I saw him standing here now, there's nothing that would stop me. And I also know with absolute certainty that if anyone ever tried to do that again…if I ever thought that someone might hurt you, there's no telling what I would do" he admitted, finally telling her about the emotions that wouldn't be contained. "I can't control it anymore. It's beyond me."

It was the thoughts of what he'd done to Hamilton that he fled from. That he tried to dull with insomnia and frenetic activity. But even more than what he'd done, it was the knowledge of what he still wanted to do that he fought desperately to push away. That was the problem. The rage hadn't diminished. It was still there, hot and red and vivid. Like Lois's scar.

He swung the window open, needing to feel the cool night air on his face. In the long weeks since that night, he'd never spoken about those minutes when he'd lost control. Finally, the words had come, but instead of feeling closer to her, he felt numb. Now she knew. There was a darkness in him, a darkness so deep that it had the power to kill. And once tapped, he wasn't sure if it could ever be buried again.

Lois had listened silently, a deep ache settling around her heart as she saw his pain and torment. It wasn't that he blamed himself for what had happened to her. It was that he felt guilty about how he'd reacted to it. He was angry with himself, but he was angry, too, at the love that had driven him to seek such horrible revenge.

She placed her hand on his arm, tears flowing down her cheeks unabated. "Clark, you are not super human on the inside. You may be strong and fast. But you still have feelings. And sometimes those feelings are going to push you to the edge. Just like every other person walking on this earth. No one blames you for what you did."

He shook his head. She didn't understand. He couldn't afford to have feelings like everyone else. He wasn't like everyone else. "It took over, Lois. The rage. It took over, and I can't allow that to happen again. Ever."

"But you didn't kill him." She tried to reason with him. "Clark, you didn't kill him. You could have snapped him in half before they could have stopped you. But you didn't. Something inside of you kept you from doing that."

"I still feel it. When I remember. When I sleep and dream and see you laying there. It all comes back, as strong as it was that night. I taste it. I breathe it. I feel it in every muscle and cell." It had become the constant specter that tailed him, giving him no peace. "And now I know what it is. It's hate."

"And that hate has taken over your whole life," she cried, desperate to get him to see how damaging that hatred was. "Every time you take down some stupid thug, you take that hatred out on him. You're even taking it out on me. Pushing me away."

"Don't you see?" The frustration swelled again. He didn't know how to make her understand. "I can't love you. I can't love anyone. God, do you know what I went through when I thought I might lose you? I can't go through that again."

"Clark, I'm going to die sometime, and yes, probably before you. We both have to accept that. Wouldn't you rather live the moments we have then dread when it will all end? Be happy in the love that we share now "

"That's easy for you to say," he interrupted bitterly. "You didn't watch that bastard pull a knife across my throat. I'm invulnerable, Lois. You'll never have to watch me die."

A cold terror passed through Lois, so chilling that she shivered. "So your solution is to stop loving me? To stop caring at all? Are you just going to shut yourself off forever? From me? From your parents? From our children?"

He stared out the window. If shutting himself off was what it took to retain control, then it was what he had to consider. It was regrettable that she had to suffer, but he didn't know what else to do. The genie was out of the proverbial bottle, and he'd found that it wasn't a benevolent creature. It was a monster, a beast that had to be contained.

"Clark, I need you. I need you to love me. Completely. Without reservations," she said carefully. "If I've lost that, then Hamilton should have just killed me that night."

"Don't you ever say that," he hissed, horrified that she'd even think such a thing. But strangely, her dire threat sent a flicker of something through him that he hadn't felt in a long while. A rush of emptiness at the thought of his life without Lois in it.

"Why not?" she stormed. "You condemn me for wishing I was dead. But you've killed yourself. Sure, your body is here. But your heart is dead, Clark. And without it, you might as well be, too."

She reached up and placed a hand on his cheek, pulling his face down so that she could see his eyes. She almost stepped back at the pain the dark orbs contained, and she wished that she could pull that pain into her own body. Seeing him hurt so deeply was far worse than anything Hamilton had done to her.

"Let it all go. Let it go so I can have you back," she pleaded softly. Desperately. "It's over. You have to let it go."

It was what he'd been trying to do for seven weeks. Let it go. But it had such a tight grip on him that he wondered if it was all that was left. The darkness and the hatred. And the rage.

"I can't," he said quietly.

With a soft rush of air, he launched himself through the open window, leaving her staring after him with an emptiness that nearly consumed her.

***

If the guard thought it odd that a man waited outside the prison gate for visiting hours to begin despite the frigid temperatures and unholy hour, he didn't show it. Clark imagined the guy was used to seeing some pretty strange people, and he was no more unusual than the next.

He'd spent the night in the Painted Desert. For some reason, the place soothed him, and he found himself returning there time and time again. Perhaps it was the sharpness of the terrain, the jagged rock walls neither welcoming nor apologetic in their rigid permanence. That, mixed with the barren, lifeless land and the crisp howling winds that echoed through the mesas and canyons, somehow reflected what he imagined his insides looked like. His emotions had run dry, nothing left to nurture green things or hope. He was a desert.

Just as the sun had been about to break over the horizon, he'd headed back to Metropolis to begin his vigil in front of the prison gate. Visiting hours didn't begin until mid-morning, but something inside him that he couldn't fathom compelled him to wait. The hours gave him time to try to understand what need had brought him there, and by the time the gate opened to allow him entry into the fortress, he'd decided that this was some kind of test. A baby step to see exactly how much he could handle.

The steel door buzzed, and as the guard held it open for him, Adam Jenkins entered the visitation room. When he saw who sat on the other side of the plexi-glass wall, he stopped and paled. Clark motioned for him to approach, offering a smile to assure the kid he wouldn't be coming through the glass at him.

Still skeptical, the boy pulled out the chair positioned in front of the round circle of perforations placed there to allow nothing more physical than sound to pass between inmate and visitor. He looked down at his hands, folded neatly in his lap.

"Hello, Adam," Clark began. So far, so good. His head remained pain-free and there was no sign of the tightness in his chest he'd come to equate with everything having to do with that night. "How's the arm?"

Adam nodded. "Pretty good. I was only in the hospital a couple of days."

Clark had known that, but he nodded as if he hadn't. Adam's wound had turned out to be non-life-threatening, the shock of being shot the reason for his dramatic reaction and subsequent unconsciousness. Lois had openly expressed her relief that the boy would be OK, but Clark had remained silent on the subject.

"And they're treating you OK in here?" Clark asked, not sure exactly what he was hoping to discover by such inane questions.

"Uh-huh."

Adam lifted his head, and Clark was struck by how young the boy looked. His fair face was covered with freckles, and he wore a pair of round, wire-framed glasses. Attired in the prison-issue jumpsuit, he looked a far cry less menacing than he had the night of the benefit, dressed in black and brandishing a couple of semi-automatic pistols. Hell, the kid should have been on a date that night. Or playing basketball. Or studying or drinking illegal beers with his buddies.

The inexperience of youth proved to be a blessing for Clark, because Adam cut past the small talk. "Mr. Kent. I want you to know how sorry I am. About what happened to Miss Lane."

Clark nodded, appreciating the sincerity in Adam's voice and the concern in his pale green eyes. It was clear that the kid felt the weight of his part in what had happened and regretted it deeply.

"You gotta believe me. I never meant for Miss Lane to get hurt like that," Adam rushed to explain. "Really. I thought we were just going to get that senator and that was it. But Hamilton's always been kind of mean. I guess I just didn't think about what he might be planning to do."

"So how did you get mixed up in that mess?" Clark asked, because it was something he had to know.

Adam shrugged his narrow shoulders. "I don't know. Just stupid, I guess. My brother, Charlie, knows Turner real well, and he was the one who was supposed to go instead of me. But then he couldn't and he told me to go along 'cause they needed four guys. When I found out it was Hamilton who was leading the whole thing, I wished real bad that I had said no way."

He hadn't come to see Adam to find out about Hamilton, but now that the subject had come up, Clark couldn't resist the urge to ask. It was the paradox that had twisted inside of him ever since he'd tried to kill Hamilton, the need to know everything about the man and the desire to know nothing at all. Now he figured it was all part of the test.

"Tell me about him. Hamilton."

"Don't know much about him," Adam admitted. "Nobody does. He's a real loner. Don't have no family that I ever knew about. I saw him at the couple of PRWP meetings I went to, but he never talked to me until that night. Thought I was a punk kid. All I know is that he hates people like Senator Jacobson. Of course, he hates almost everyone, I think."

Adam looked beyond Clark and up at the small window that sent a thin shaft of light down to the gray concrete floor. "I used to feel kind of sorry for him, you know? My brother, Charlie, he says that guys like Hamilton are the way they are 'cause they don't care about nobody but themselves. I think maybe its 'cause they don't have nobody else to care about. If you don't have somebody that gives a flying fig what happens to you, you start to think it doesn't matter much if you live or die."

Clark remained silent, stunned by the compassion this kid was showing. Instead of hating Hamilton for shooting him, or nurturing bitterness because he was sitting in a jail cell as a direct result of Hamilton's influence, Adam was trying to understand the man's reasons for hating so deeply.

"I kinda felt that way when my mom died," Adam continued. "Then I went to live with Charlie and Linda. They treated me real nice, and it got a whole lot better. Until I got stupid and started to listen to Turner's crap and the stuff that the PRWP was saying. Man, now I'm looking at spending the rest of my life in this place." He looked around the small room, the dull gray walls cold and oppressive. Clark noticed the shudder that passed through the boy.

"So you don't really believe all that stuff the PRWP says?" Clark asked, sorry for the kid. He'd really been a victim of bad circumstances and a couple of poor decisions, but he was right. Adam was looking at some hard time spent with guys who had meant the crimes they committed.

Adam shrugged. "Not really. Seems to me that we all got problems. I was mostly mad because my brother's been out of work for so long, and things are getting pretty bad at home. I got four cousins and Linda's pregnant again. Plus there's me, and I eat a lot."

Clark smiled softly, imagining the truth in that statement. Adam Jenkins was tall and lean and still growing.

"Turner and the others said it was Jacobson's fault, and it kind of pissed me off." Adam's brow furrowed, a thought playing across his fair features. "It's funny. I've heard people say that you do some pretty crazy things if something bugs you enough. I guess that's what happened to me. I just got bugged enough."

When he looked at Clark, Adam seemed to think that his answer wasn't enough. That maybe Clark still thought he was as hard-hearted as Hamilton. He shook his head vehemently. "I'm not like Hamilton and them. They were freaks, man. Completely around the bend. Hamilton's got nothing left in him that's good. Would've been better for everybody if he just got himself killed like he wanted," Adam speculated, and Clark wondered briefly if the kid knew that he had almost killed Hamilton himself.

"I wanted him dead," Clark admitted out loud, finding it a little bit easier to say. Just a little bit. "I still want him dead even though I know it's wrong to feel that way."

Adam blinked in surprise. "He tried to kill your wife," he stated simply, as if that was all the explanation anyone would ever need to justify such murderous feelings. Adam Jenkins certainly didn't blame Clark one bit for wanting to see Hamilton dead.

"I'm just glad that she's OK," the boy said uneasily. "I kind of feel like it's my fault she was there in the first place."

"Why's that?" Clark asked, relieved that the conversation was turning away from the edge of a deep precipice. He was curious to know what Adam had done that he felt put him in position to shoulder more of the responsibility than picking the wrong people to hang with.

Adam shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I was the one that told Hamilton who she was. He didn't seem so interested in her until then. And it was my big mouth that blabbed about you. I guess Charlie's right. He says I couldn't shut up if they put my head in a hole."

Clark remembered how Adam had blurted out his identity, bringing Hamilton's attention to the setup. At the time, Clark had wanted to shove his fist down the kid's throat. But after all that had happened, Clark knew that with or without Adam's gaffe, the situation might have ended the same. There were too many variables to pin one down as the absolute cause. "You couldn't have known what Hamilton would do. It's not your fault."

"Yeah," Adam agreed, but he didn't sound convinced. He shook his head sadly, as if remembering that night. "Man, I was freaked out. But mad, too, you know? She was so scared. I could see her shaking, like a little animal. It made me feel like I was going to puke."

"Still, you jumped in front of that bullet," Clark reminded him, the image playing before him like a bad movie reel.

"I guess. Hurt like hell." Adam rubbed his arm, as if the pain was still fresh. He lifted his gaze to look Clark directly in the eye, his voice solemn. "But I do it again. I'd take another bullet if it meant keeping her from being scared like that."

Clark's stomach lurched, the sentiment expressed by this boy the very one that made up the driving force of his own life. "Yeah. Me too."

"I don't know how he does it. Superman, I mean," Adam clarified at Clark's confused look. "He's saving people all the time, seeing them scared and hurt. It's gotta be pretty tough. I could never do that."

"But you did. You were a hero that night," Clark pointed out, somewhat humbled by the admiration this kid was showing. If he only knew what Superman really thought, what his innermost desire was, he might not find his hero so noble.

"You think so?" Adam wondered, then his face darkened a little. "I'm not as brave as him, though. Or you. You stood right up to Hamilton even though he had a gun pointed at you."

Clark laughed, almost wishing he could tell Adam how truly scared he'd been, but that it wasn't Hamilton's gun that had sent the fear ripping through him. Fearlessness wasn't a sign of bravery. Action in the presence of such fear was.

Clark tried to explain that fact to Adam. "Even though you were scared of Hamilton, you wouldn't do what he told you. And you threw yourself in front of Lois even though it meant you got shot. That all sounds pretty brave to me."

"Huh. Yeah. I guess you're right." Adam's face brightened, his smile broad at the prospect of his own bravery. He glanced down, pulling up the short sleeve of his orange jumpsuit to reveal a dark red circle high up on the front of his arm. "At least this scar looks pretty tough. Makes the guys in this place look at me a little different. Kind of like they respect me, you know?"

Clark smiled sadly. Only someone so young would find the glory in being shot. Adam remained safe in the delusion of his own immortality, still not totally aware of how lucky he'd been. Clark knew better.

"Adam, I came here because I wanted to thank you. For saving Lois," he said quietly.

Adam looked up from where he had been admiring his scar, his eyes wide with surprise. "Oh. Well, you're welcome. You're a real lucky guy, being married to her and all. She's amazing. Treated me real nice even though I was being a total jerk. And man, she's hot…" Adam flushed bright red as the realization of his blunder reached his brain. He smiled apologetically as he tried to backtrack to safer ground. "I read in the papers that she was going to have a baby?"

"Yeah." Clark felt his heart start to pound, the conversation getting too close to personal for his comfort. He was determined to keep the rage away. "Listen, I need to get going."

"Oh. OK." Adam stood, accustomed to following orders when dismissed. He turned back to Clark after only a couple of steps. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Clark agreed, as long as the question had nothing to do with Lois or the baby, he added mentally.

Adam looked worried, and Clark was reminded once again how young he really was. "That cop, the camera guy. He died. Do you think they're going to say that I helped do that? That I was an accomplice or something?"

Clark thought a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think so. When Hamilton shot Hanson, you were already unconscious. They can't hold you responsible for that."

He held the boy's gaze, a strange hope that what he'd just said was true flickering inside him. With a surprising surge of brotherly protectiveness, Clark realized he didn't want to see this kid's life ruined. "I have a feeling you'll be out of here before too long. You're a good kid, Adam. Just got mixed up with the wrong guys."

Once again, a smile parted Adam's lips to reveal his slightly crooked teeth, the pale green eyes brightening. "Hey, thanks."

Before he reached the guard standing patiently next to the door, Adam turned once again. His face held a wistful expression, almost dreamy. "Uh, do you think it would be OK if I visited Miss Lane sometime? You know, after they let me out of here and stuff?"

Clark smiled. It wasn't so long ago that he'd walked around with the same look on his face. "I'm sure she'd like that."

***

The rotting board came away from the fence post almost too easily, denying Clark some of the physical outlet he'd sought since waking that morning. There were other things that he could have done, such as pounding granite into dust or digging a tunnel through layers of bedrock. But the fence needed to be repaired, and he might as well do something useful with his excess energy.

He attributed some of his new-found vigor to the fact that for the first night in nearly two months, he'd slept twelve hours straight. His father claimed it was the clean Smallville air, but his mother guessed it was simply the comfort of being in his old bed mixed with pure exhaustion. Clark knew the truth.

Something had happened when he'd gone to see Adam. Or rather, something hadn't happened. He'd gotten through the entire visit without having an attack. He'd felt the stirrings, to be sure, but he'd been able to keep them manageable. And for the first time since Hamilton had pressed his knife to Lois's throat, Clark could breathe easily. The tightness in his chest had lessened. Apparently, he'd passed his test.

That victory was sweet, but he hadn't felt it significant enough to risk returning home. He needed time, and facing his parents' disapproval was preferable to facing Lois's pain and confusion. So he'd headed to Smallville, arriving in time for dinner. With several carefully chosen words, he'd made it clear that he would tolerate no questions, and although his mother had pursed her lips in obvious disapproval, they'd heeded his demand.

Now, however, it looked as if his grace period was over. From the corner of his eye, he could see his father approaching, his hands thrust into the pockets of his heavy flannel work jacket as he cut across the expanse of neatly trimmed lawn. Clark returned to his task, removing the remaining three rails in quick order.

Jonathan bent to lift a freshly cut board from the tall stack Clark had carried out earlier, holding one end in place while Clark fit the other firmly to the post. With a single, precise tap of the hammer, the nail penetrated both rail and post clear to the head. His father used his own hammer with slightly less efficiency as he pounded nails into his end. Two more rails went up in the same manner before Clark broke the silence.

"Did you come out here to tell me I'm running away from my responsibilities?" he asked, ready for the reprimand he knew he deserved.

"Nope. I don't need to do that. I raised you right," Jonathan commented matter-of-factly, moving to the next section of fence where he began yanking at the top rail. "By the way, your mother called Lois to let her know you were here."

Clark laughed dryly, stepping close to his father in order to pull the rail off the post. "Hate to admit it, Dad, but it's quite possible that Lois doesn't really care any more where I am."

"Why's that?" Jonathan asked with a stern frown.

"I haven't been too easy to live with lately," he admitted honestly. "And after all she's been through, she may just decide I'm not worth the headache."

Jonathan was silent for a few minutes, watching as Clark removed the rails and stacked them into the pile that would soon be converted to fire wood. The older man let out a whoof of air as he bent to pick up another new board. "Seems to me that you think what happened that night only happened to Lois. It happened to you too, you know."

Clark stilled his hand, hammer poised in mid-air. He'd expected a lecture on how husbands should cherish their wives, so his father's reference to that taboo topic threw him. Without taking his eyes off the nail, his voice became hard.

"Hamilton didn't hurt me that night," he stated firmly, sending the nail straight through the board and the post, out the other side to disappear into the field beyond the fence line. With a yank, he pulled the hammer's head out of the hole he'd created and tossed the damaged board away.

"Not on the outside," Jonathan agreed, ignoring the dangerous change in Clark's tone as he continued to insert nails into the bright, clean board. "But he got you someplace far more painful. He scared you but good."

The two men worked silently for a long time, making their way through several sections of the fence. Clark rolled his father's observation around. He had been scared. But he wasn't quite sure that he would agree that what had happened had happened to him. It was more a matter of it happening in spite of him.

Regardless, his father had been right in that he had been hurt. Was still hurting. In fact, what he felt now was far more painful than any physical thing he'd ever endured. And truthfully, not talking about it hadn't made him feel any better.

His whole life, he'd always found relief by confessing his sins to his parents. Any punishment they'd distributed had been a cheap price to pay for the absolution he'd receive, the weight of his transgression lightening by a thousand fold simply through the admission of the deed. Taking a deep breath, he determined that perhaps that simple truth of childhood might still hold the same power.

"I tried to kill him," he said softly. "Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd wrapped my hands around his neck and tried to crush the life out of him."

Jonathan nodded, needing no explanation of who Clark meant. He continued his work, lifting one end of the next board while he waited for Clark to do the same. The silence around them was soon filled with the ringing smack of steel hammer on galvanized nails.

Clark didn't know what to think. His father's lack of comment could mean that he understood and forgave his son, or it could mean that he was so horrified that he had no idea what he could possibly say. Needing to know, he pushed on.

"The thing is, I still want to kill him. It seems to be all I can think about." Clark waited for the admonishment, the denial from this morally pure man that any son of his could harbor such thoughts.

Instead, Jonathan nodded again, as if agreeing with him. "Of course you want to kill him. He hurt someone you love. Tried to take away the most important thing in your life. Any man would feel the same way."

"But I'm not just any man," Clark reminded his father.

"Nope. You're not," Jonathan agreed, but his tone became hard. "Do you think you're better than any other man? Do you think you aren't going to have the same fears and worries that plague all the rest of us?"

Jonathan stopped hammering, turning to look at his son with an angry frown. "Clark, being able to lift a tractor trailer and zip around the world in less than five seconds are some pretty amazing gifts. I think you're asking a bit much to expect that you wouldn't have the same weaknesses as the rest of us have on the inside. We all struggle with the worst parts of ourselves. You're no different."

Lois had accused him of almost the exact same thing. Telling him that just because he had super human abilities, he couldn't expect to have super human resistance to his feelings. Hearing the same thing from his father made him feel somewhat humbled. Had he really believed himself to be above the basest emotions that most humans worked to suppress?

"I went to see the boy that saved Lois," he said, hoping that changing the topic might help settle the confusion that had taken up residence in his stomach.

"Yeah?" Jonathan offered by way of encouragement, his tone no longer disapproving.

"I wanted to thank him," Clark explained, using the same reason he'd given first to himself and then to Adam. "He seems like a good kid."

"Too bad he's found himself in a heap of trouble," his father remarked without rancor.

"He told me that he'd do it again. Get shot, I mean," Clark clarified. "Because he hated to see her scared."

He shook his head in amazement. A total stranger had been able to do more for her that night than her own husband. With a firm tap, he sent a nail through the wood. "I know how he feels. I would have done anything to keep Lois from getting hurt."

"I think she's hurting right now, son. But it doesn't seem to me that you're doing too much about it." Jonathan shoved the handle of his hammer into the loop on his jeans, then rubbed his hands down the length of his thighs, brushing off the grime from their work. "Lois needs you. Now more than ever. If you love her, you'll be there for her."

Apparently feeling that he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do, Jonathan turned abruptly and walked toward the barn. Clark watched him for a minute, scowling at Jonathan's last words. *If* he loved her…No matter what confusion swirled through his own brain, the thought that his father might doubt his love for Lois was unacceptable.

"I do love her, Dad," he called out.

Jonathan didn't stop, simply raising a hand in acknowledgment. "What are you telling me for?"

The question was carried to him on the wind. Clark stared at his father's back, watching until Jonathan disappeared inside the barn. He glanced around the ground, amazed to see that the massive stack of new rails had been replaced by weathered, gray ones. They'd repaired nearly a football field's worth of fence.

He moved the old lumber to the side of the barn, then headed toward the house thinking that he might be able to stomach some lunch. As he walked up the gravel drive between the two buildings, he could see his mother standing on the front porch.

"Clark, you have a phone call," she called across the distance that still separated them.

He sped forward, hesitating before he accepted the cordless phone she held out to him, her hand diplomatically placed over the speaking end. "Is it Lois?" he whispered loudly, needing to know so that he could ready himself.

"No. It's Perry White," she whispered back, mocking him. With a gentle tap on his chest, she handed the phone over, returning into the dark recesses of the house.

"Perry?" Clark felt a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. He hadn't told anyone where he was. Of course, his mother had alerted Lois, and his heart quickened, concerned that there might be a problem.

"Clark. Sorry to bother you at your folks', son. But I couldn't reach Lois at home, and this was the only other number we had on file for you," Perry explained.

"No problem, Chief." He relaxed slightly, strolling to the white railing and looking out over the farm. Lois not being home was no reason for panic. But still, the very fact that Perry had gone to such trouble to track him down wasn't a good sign. "Is there something wrong?"

"Well, no, not really. I just wanted you to hear this from someone you know rather than read about it in tomorrow's paper."

"Yeah?" he prodded. Something big enough to make the papers?

Perry was silent for a minute. "Joseph Hamilton's dead, Clark. Five thirty this morning. Killed by a fellow inmate. Apparently, being a bigot's not such a great thing to brag about when you're in prison."

Clark clutched the phone tightly, stopping only when he heard the plastic parts creak under the pressure. Hamilton was dead. It was the wish that had haunted him for weeks, the end that he himself had sought to render that night when the world had been pulled out from under him.

He waited for the rush of relief. The feeling that now it was all over. He'd been granted what he most wanted and could sleep guilt free, knowing that he was innocent in its realization. Instead, he felt strangely hollow. There was no satisfaction in learning that Hamilton was dead. Only the same emptiness.

Suddenly, the pounding started. Clark winced against it, his frustration mounting as his breathing once again became labored. Why was this happening? Why did he still feel it? He looked around him desperately, wanting to cry out for it all to stop. He couldn't bear it any more.

Perry was speaking, nearly shouting. "Clark? You there, son?"

Startled back to the present, he took several deep breaths and returned the phone to his mouth. "Yeah, I'm here," he managed to choke out.

"You coming on home any time soon?"

***

The fact that Joseph Hamilton had no family and that Perry White was an old friend of the coroner allowed Clark entrance into the morgue where the man's body was being kept. There was to be no funeral. It was simply a matter of waiting for the final autopsy report to confirm what everyone could readily see before he was shipped off to be buried in an unmarked grave.

Clark had been driven to go there by a hope for closure. Hearing Perry say it hadn't been sufficient. Even knowing that it would be printed in the paper the next morning hadn't made the truth real enough to supply the rush of relief he kept waiting for. Perhaps by seeing it with his own eyes it would come. The end of the attacks and the return of the peace that he had come to fear would elude him forever.

As the lab assistant pulled the blue sheet away from the still form, Clark steeled himself. He hadn't seen Hamilton since that night, except in the countless nightmares and continual replay through his mind. Knowing how the mere thought of that night caused such a severe physical reaction, he expected his body to respond almost violently to the actual site of the man, and thankfully, the assistant left him alone in the icy cold room.

Hamilton looked much smaller in death than in life. Perhaps it was the fact that he carried no guns to add artificial strength to his otherwise thin stature. Or maybe it was that the soul did in fact have substance, a weight to it that once gone left a space in the body that caused settling. Hamilton's soul apparently took some of his presence along with it to hell.

Although the mocking blue eyes were closed, the thin smirk was the same, and Clark tensed, waiting for the tightness in his chest, for his eyes to blur and his blood to pound. Instead, he felt nothing.

For long minutes he stood there, staring at the man who'd caused him so much pain and confusion. He allowed the scenes from that night to play through his mind, probing them like a hot brand thrust into an open wound. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he felt nothing more than heated anger. The rage and its suffocating effects remained at bay.

The skin around Hamilton's neck retained the sickly yellow and green pallor of healing bruises, and Clark thought that he could almost make out the exact position his hands had taken when they'd been wrapped around it. With a slightly detached amazement, he wondered that he hadn't done more damage. Lois had been right. He could have snapped the man in half if he'd but tried a little harder. Instead, he'd allowed Hamilton to live just long enough to meet a more gruesome end.

He wasn't happy that Hamilton was dead. He wasn't relieved that the world had been rid of a source of such hatred and bigotry. He couldn't even manage a flicker of satisfaction in learning that Hamilton had died by the blade of a homemade knife, plunged into his body several times by a much meaner convict who held no love for members of the PRWP. Some would say it was poetic justice, but Clark saw no poetry in it at all.

Hamilton had lived violently and died violently. He had no one to mourn him, and indeed, many probably rejoiced in his passing. His was a life full of hate, and it was hate that killed him. If Clark hadn't been so closely affected by this hatred, he might have found the whole situation terribly tragic.

But he couldn't bring himself to feel compassion for this man. Nor would he give him the benefit of excuses for why he'd done the things he'd done as Adam Jenkins had so generously tried to do. The most that Clark would allow was for Hamilton to occupy a small corner of his conscience, singing the tiniest part in a choir of voices that reminded him that he was different and therefore had to hold himself to a higher standard.

With a polite word of thanks to the lab assistant, Clark left the morgue, flying toward the only place that seemed big enough to contain his confusion.

***

Perched once again on his mesa, Clark tried desperately to make sense of what was happening to him. Why didn't he have an attack when he saw Hamilton's body? Why, instead of the panic and the overwhelming sense of losing control, did he feel nothing at all? As if the man lying on that stainless steel slab was a complete stranger rather than the monster who'd tried to kill Lois as Clark stood by, watching impotently.

Perhaps it was because Hamilton was finally dead. He'd received the punishment that Clark had thought he'd deserved and tried to mete out himself. The images of the yellow bruises came to him, evidence of his efforts to inflict an equal measure of pain on the person who had tried to take everything that Clark valued. What he had failed to achieve, someone else had accomplished successfully, and now Joseph Hamilton could never hurt anyone again.

Clark's eyes narrowed as he thought about the bruises. *What he had failed to achieve*. He, the strongest being on Earth, could have snapped the man in half, yet he hadn't done it. He'd inflicted serious injury, but he'd left Hamilton alive. Something inside him had acted as a brake, keeping him from doing that which he knew was wrong no matter how angry he was. Perhaps he'd only wanted to punish Hamilton, not kill him.

But he'd regretted it. Every day he'd thought about killing that man for hurting Lois. For hurting his child. And thinking about it had nearly driven him mad. *The thought of killing Hamilton had nearly driven him mad…*

Suddenly, as clear as the crystal blue sky shining over the desert stretched before him, he understood. It wasn't Hamilton or the memories of what he'd done that caused Clark to feel such anxiety. It was a fear of himself. He'd regretted that he hadn't succeeded in killing Hamilton that night. And somewhere, deep inside, he was afraid that he might lose control again, this time with more successful results.

Now that Hamilton was dead, there was no possibility that Clark could hurt him. He no longer had to fear the darkest part of himself that might push him to hunt the man down and finish what he'd started that night in front of the Royal Victorian Hotel. The temptation had been removed, and with it, the fuel for his attacks.

He'd been punishing himself, not only for trying to kill Hamilton, but for harboring the desire to make good on his failed attempt. For some reason, he'd found it completely unacceptable to feel such hatred, such a need for revenge. So his body and mind had conspired to fight against those feelings. The panic and disquiet were the penance he'd sentenced himself, but despite the restitution, he remained unforgiving, his own worst judge and jury.

No one blamed him for what he'd tried to do. Not Lois. Not his parents. Not Adam Jenkins. Hell, even the Metropolis prosecutor had determined that his wasn't a case worth prosecuting, exercising his right of discretion to pass on a situation he'd deemed understandable taking into consideration Clark's extreme mental distress. In the interest of justice, Clark would not stand trial nor receive public punishment despite the absolute certainty of his guilt. A crime of passion, it had been deemed, somehow rendering it far more romantic than brutal or immoral.

He wondered if perhaps even Hamilton had expected him to react the way he had. <When something bugs you enough, you do some pretty crazy things> Adam Jenkins had said. It was instinctive to want to protect those you love. Perhaps, as his father had stressed so harshly, inside Clark was more human than not. What had happened to him was no more than a reaction to such a strong instinct, the need to protect what was his. It wasn't right, but it was understandable.

<Would've been better for everybody if he just got himself killed like he wanted>

Adam's words and the crazy gleam in Hamilton's eyes when he saw the end in sight came to Clark in a flash. Hamilton hadn't cared if he lived or died. He had no one. His had been a suicide mission, and when it seemed that he wasn't going to succeed in that goal, he'd intentionally provoked Clark. There was no reason for the man to kill Lois unless he'd wanted Clark to retaliate. The knowing sneer, the cold taunting eyes that had held his with no remorse or regret. Perhaps Hamilton had welcomed Clark's attack. Wanted it. Asked for it.

Still, knowing that maybe Hamilton had intentionally pushed him to the edge didn't explain why Clark had fallen off it. His whole life had been about control until that moment. As Lois had pointed out, she'd been in danger before. Even been hurt and near death. But none of those instances had incited within him the rage and the complete inability to control that anger. Had it been the fact that she was pregnant? That inside of her grew his child? His future?

Maybe it was because this whole thing had absolutely nothing to do with Superman. It wasn't a maniac trying to dominate the world or a crime ring taking revenge for a story that Lane and Kent had written. It was simply a matter of Lois being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something so unpredictable as to be almost random. No amount of caution could have prevented it. But then it had turned personal. And in the end, it made no difference if Clark was Superman or not. His abilities had meant nothing.

By simply pressing a knife to Lois's neck, Hamilton had rendered him completely vulnerable. He'd used something far more powerful than kryptonite to bring Clark to his knees. He'd used Clark's love for his wife against him.

That love, so safe and all-encompassing, had become a weapon. And the pain that that weapon had wrought ran so deep that he'd run from it, trying to push it away so that never again could it be used to hurt him. Loving Lois had made him weak, so he'd determined that he wouldn't love her anymore.

It made so much sense now that he wanted to laugh. It was why being near her had caused the wave of panic. He'd come to equate his love for Lois with losing control. With that night and all of the hurt it contained. When the love would swell within him, he would fight it. His body would revolt physically as it received twisted signals from his brain, trying to deny what his heart knew as the truth.

The problem was, he couldn't stop loving her. And more importantly, he didn't want to. He needed her as much as he needed air and food and water. The distance between them the past weeks had been as debilitating and painful as his confusion over his attack on Hamilton.

<If you don't have somebody that gives a flying fig what happens to you, you start to think it doesn't matter much if you live or die>

The pure truth in that statement stunned Clark, yet there it was, given to him by a seventeen year old boy sitting in the depressing space of a prison visitation room. Without Lois to love and to love him in return, there was no reason for him to be. He was as dead inside as Hamilton's lifeless body.

So it was simply something he needed to learn to accept. With exquisite love and joy came the sorrow. He loved her so fiercely, so completely, that it stood to reason that any pain associated with that love would be equally as strong. There was no half-way or respectable distance he could maintain to keep from being devastated if something happened to her.

And in loving her, he was taking the chance that he might lose control again. He had to face the darkness within him head on. Stop denying that it existed or trying to run away from it. He had to try to find a way to live with it and control it, as he'd learned to control everything else. The alternative, to cut her out of his life completely, was as inconceivable as pulling his own heart from his chest and putting it in a box.

***

Lois was asleep on the sofa, a cream chenille throw tossed loosely over her legs. Her book lay spread open across her chest, and Clark smiled when he read the title. My Sweet, Tempestuous Love. The more upset she was, the better the book titles became.

The joyous relief that he felt when the sight of her failed to ignite the fearful pounding in his head was tempered by his regrets and overwhelming guilt. On top of all that she'd suffered, he'd put her through hell as well. If she never forgave him for his treatment of her over the past weeks, he could blame no one but himself.

He sat down in the chair across from the sofa, watching her sleep. He'd been ready to turn his back on her, to walk away from everything they'd shared. Now he realized how foolish he'd been. Leaving her wouldn't have made the pain go away. Leaving her would have killed him. He started to shake, seeing how dangerously close he'd been to ruining every chance for happiness he would ever have. What Hamilton hadn't taken, Clark had been ready to give away.

Standing, he went to crouch down next to the sofa, his face only inches from hers. His finger lingered as he brushed away an errant lock of hair from her forehead, brushing softly against her silky skin. She sighed lightly, but her eyes remained closed. Leaning over, he placed a gentle kiss on her lips, holding his own there while he reveled in the closeness that generated only a familiar, heady breathlessness.

Lois felt the soft warmth against her lips, and sure that she must be dreaming, she kept her eyes closed. It was so wonderful, so real, that she couldn't bear to wake and find that it was all just a fanciful illusion. She took a deep breath, marveling in the perfection of a dream that not only allowed her to feel Clark's lips on her own but also supplied an intoxicating waft of his clean, masculine scent.

When she reached out a tentative hand and felt silky hair instead of the empty air, she opened her eyes. With a gasp, she pulled back, stunned to find Clark looking at her intently, his dark brown eyes only inches from her own. She blinked, disbelieving. He was back. And kissing her.

For a long minute, she stared at him, drinking in his features. His eyes held warmth, put pain still lingered in their mocha depths. Pain and a new wisdom that she had never seen before, as if he'd traveled a long way and had seen much on the journey.

"I'm sorry. That I left," Clark apologized softly. "I'd tell you that I needed time to think, but it doesn't matter. I shouldn't have left…"

She placed a hand on his cheek, stroking it gently. "It's OK. We both needed some time."

He nodded, taking the book off her chest and placing it on the coffee table. Then he stood upright and reached a hand out to help her to sitting. Lois smoothed her hair, suddenly self conscious. After everything that had happened and the angry words that had passed between them, she certainly hadn't expected to see him standing over her.

"What are the bags for?" he asked, stepping back from the sofa and inclining his head toward the front door.

"I was going to catch the morning flight," she replied, following his gaze to the two small suitcases waiting patiently side by side.

He felt his stomach drop. She was leaving. He'd pushed her too far. What if he had waited until the morning to return? Would she have been gone already? Maybe forever? And was it too late to talk her into staying? To beg her.

"Oh." His dark eyebrows lifted and he tried to give his tone a casualness that he didn't even remotely feel. "Planning a trip?"

Lois smiled softly, the worry in his eyes both flattering and heartbreaking. "You didn't think I was going to let you walk out of my life just like that, did you?"

Clark swallowed. His mother had called her. She'd known where to find him. "You were coming to get me?"

The smile left her face, and she became deadly serious as she stood and walked the two steps to stand right in front of him. "Clark, I'd follow you into hell if that's what it took."

He swayed slightly, the impact of her declaration making him weak. She had every reason to hate him, to tell him that she never wanted to see him again for all the pain he'd caused her. Instead, she was ready to do anything it took to bring him back to her. She *had* walked through hell with him, but still she stood by his side.

His hand reached out to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing over it gently. Lois turned her head slightly, pressing her lips against his palm as her hand came up to cover his and hold it against her mouth. The butterfly kiss sent a shiver up his arm, his heart swelling as the tenderness he'd wanted to feel so desperately over the past weeks filled it to overflowing. He loved her so much, he could barely stand it.

Wanting more than anything to pull her close and never let go, he resisted the urge, knowing that they had things that needed to be said. At the very least, he owed her an explanation. And probably a minimum of a million apologies.

When he removed his hand from her face, the air that brushed it felt cooler. Lois bit the inside of her lip, praying that this step forward wouldn't be followed by two steps back. That kiss was the first that Clark had given her since she'd come home from the hospital, and it was like a single drop of water to a person perishing in the desert.

Still, she needed to know where she stood. A gesture now and again would not be enough to sustain her, and if he was unable to give her more, then she owed it to herself to find out. She wanted the closeness and love they'd shared in the past, and she wasn't sure that after knowing such happiness, she'd be able to accept anything less. It was just too painful to be shut out of his life and heart.

She knew that she should be angry with him. For leaving her. For putting her through such despair and confusion. But somehow she couldn't conjure that emotion. What Clark had done he'd done out of his own pain and confusion. He hadn't meant to hurt her, and she imagined that in the weeks to come, he was going to be feeling the effects of his guilt like a bad hangover. At that moment, all she wanted to know was that he planned to stay. That he would give her a chance to help him work through his pain. That he still loved her.

Needing to put some space between them, she sat back down on the sofa. "Did you hear about Hamilton?" she asked carefully, tensing for his negative reaction.

Instead of bolting, he just nodded his head. "Perry called me."

"Is it over, Clark?"

"Almost."

"Are you going to Balkistan?" she whispered, holding her breath.

"No. Unless you want me to go. But I have to warn you, I don't think I'm in too much danger from the terrorists if you're hoping to get rid of me." A slow grin lifted the corners of his mouth, and her heart faltered. He hadn't teased her that way in months.

She grinned back at him, but suddenly the tears came. He wasn't leaving. "I'm sorry, Clark. I'm sorry that because of me you did something that hurt you so much. I understand now why it's so hard for you to be in the same room with me. I remind you of what you did."

After their argument, she'd thought long and hard about what he'd said. About how he loved her too much, and that he couldn't allow himself to ever lose control like that again. And the more that she thought about it, the more it became clear to her that Clark blamed loving her for what he had done to Hamilton. As much as she herself saw the flaw in that logic, she couldn't fault him for feeling that way. He'd done something that he'd found so horrifying, he needed to know what had driven him to do it and to find a way to make sure it would never happen again.

Lois knew that she could bear anything except Clark hating himself for loving her. If it meant giving him up, she would do it even as it destroyed her. If he stayed, it had to be because he wanted to, not because he felt he had to.

"I don't want you to ever regret loving me," she said. "But I can't stop loving you. So if leaving me is what you need to do to be happy again, you're going to have to tell me…"

Clark shook his head vehemently, sitting down next to her and lifting her hand into his. "I could never regret loving you."

He didn't think he'd ever uttered truer words in his life. His only regret now was that he'd ever believed he could stop loving her and had let that delusion push them apart. Taking a deep breath, he readied himself to try to explain to her the reasons for his asinine behaviour.

"After I lost control, I tried to understand what had driven me to do it. I was blaming my love for you for what I did to Hamilton. And I guess I thought that if I stopped loving you…or if I tried to stop, anyway…that I'd never lose control like that again."

"And now?" When he didn't answer immediately, she felt her heart drop, repeating her question anxiously. "What do you think now, Clark?"

"I think I figured out that it wasn't loving you that drove me to what I did. It was the thought of not having you around to love. Hamilton tried to take you away from me, and that prospect just pushed me too far." He smiled to himself, remembering Adam's artless wisdom. "Someone told me that if something bugs you enough, you'll do some pretty crazy things. Guess the thought of you dying just bugged me a little too much."

"But why this time?" she asked again, the same thing she'd wanted to know when they'd argued before. With her penchant for finding trouble, it made no sense to her that he'd go ballistic just like that.

"I haven't quite figured that part out," he admitted sheepishly. "I don't know. The baby, maybe. Or it could just be that I felt so helpless. It didn't matter that I had super human strength or could fly. I'd never felt so vulnerable."

She nodded, understanding. "Falling in love'll do that to you."

Her tone was so resigned he had to grin, teasing her in turn. "Yeah, well, since there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about loving you, I guess I'm just going to have to deal with it."

"Is loving me so bad?" she asked, her dark eyes shining with a poignant vulnerability that tugged at his heart.

"That's the problem," he said, reaching up to rub his thumb across her lower lip, full with her small pout. "It's so good that I can't manage to give it up. I'm afraid you're stuck with me, temper and all."

She took in a deep, shuddering breath, the overwhelming relief filling her with the urge to weep. Trying to keep the tears at bay, she forced her thoughts in a different direction, turning to a topic sure to offer certain distraction for both of them.

"You know, they say that people with a hot temper are generally blessed with a very passionate nature."

As she said it, her tongue snaked out to lick the tip of his thumb, and he felt a shudder wiggle down his spine. "That right?" he said, his voice suddenly strangled.

"Mmmhmm. And since I wouldn't want that to change, I'll put up with your temper any day."

With a slight dip of her head, she took the end of his thumb between her lips and sucked it gently into her mouth. After a gentle nibble, she allowed it to slide out again, a thoroughly seductive gesture that left him slightly breathless.

Cupping his free hand behind her neck, he pulled her toward him, replacing his thumb with his lips in a delicate kiss. Like the one he'd bestowed earlier as she slept, it was full of affection and tenderness, but this one spoke of a promise that it might become something more.

When he pulled back, the bliss on her face made him smile. Her eyes remained closed, lips parted as if she savored the lingering sensation of his touch. Her ivory cheeks were slightly flushed, and with a small sigh, she released a warm breath that brushed over him.

She opened her eyes slowly, smiling back at him in a way that made his heart swell. Suddenly, her finely arched brows came down, confusion replacing the contentedness of seconds earlier. "You said this was almost over. What's left?"

"This." He indicated their embrace, the closeness between them. "Finding us again."

Her confusion was replaced with relief, then a cocky grin. "I think I can help you with that."

"You do?"

"Yep." Lois stood, and with a quick twist of her body, planted herself on his lap. Her arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders. "Watch this."

Clark groaned as she wiggled her rounded bottom over his thighs. By the time she had settled and turned to capture his mouth with her own, a long dormant tingle had ignited in his belly.

As the blood pounding through his veins heated, Clark felt a gnawing tinge of concern. While the sensations coursing through him now had little similarity to the feelings he'd had the night he'd tried to kill Hamilton, it was still the first time he'd allowed himself to experience something so deeply. He didn't stop kissing her, put he pulled back slightly, trying hard to curb the need swirling tightly within his stomach.

Lois felt the difference in his kiss immediately, the sudden cooling as if he were thinking of something other than the wonderfulness of being together again. She felt the pull of doubt, frowning as she broke away from him. "What's wrong?"

He felt completely in control now, but he'd come to learn all too sadly how fast that could change. He no longer had faith in his ability to keep his strongest emotions in check. Even those of love for her. "I might hurt you."

She smiled over his concern and placed a hand on his cheek. "It's been seven weeks since Dr. Payton said we could make love. I'm fine. Really."

"It's not that. I mean, I'm glad that you're OK. But it's me. I'm afraid I might hurt you if I got too…passionate or something."

"You could never hurt me, Clark. Strong as you are, I think I can handle it," she teased, attempting to reassure him as she leaned back for another kiss.

Clark pulled back, not finished with the discussion. "You don't know that. I lost control once. What's to say that it won't happen again?"

"I'm willing to take that chance," she murmured seductively, inhaling deeply and wondering how she could get his mind off talking and back on touching and kissing and more.

"Well, I'm not!" He stood abruptly, lifting her from his lap and placing her firmly on the sofa. She wasn't taking this seriously enough.

Lois blinked in surprise. They'd made love more times than she could begin to count, and she'd seen him delirious with passion, completely oblivious to everything around him. And never once had he come close to hurting her. It just wasn't possible. But it was clear that the prospect of such an event really bothered him.

"I wouldn't let you hurt me, Clark," she insisted firmly.

He laughed out loud, her confidence admirable but so delusional. "Lois, you're being ridiculous. You couldn't stop me. No one could stop me if I lost control."

His fear was so absurd that she had a hard time accepting it. Her eyes narrowed suddenly as her hand flew to the side of her neck. Normally confident in her appeal, she now felt a flare of uncertainty. "Is that the real reason you don't want to make love to me? I know I look different now. And most guys would be pretty turned off…"

"God, Lois. How can you think that?" he asked, stunned that she would doubt how gorgeous and sexy she was. "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever met. I only have to look at you and it makes me feel weak. I want to make love to you, but "

"Then do it, Clark," she said, standing and closing the distance between them. "I'm collecting on my debt. For all of the times I showed you, I need you to show me now."

Her plea along with the heat of her fingertips stroking his chest through the soft fabric of his shirt did much to convince him that it was worth at least going a little way down this road. After all, she had a point. He did owe her quite a bit of payback from the days of her enforced abstinence. And giving her pleasure couldn't pose too much of a threat.

"We can take it slow," she promised, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him down.

True to her word, the kiss she placed on his lips was gentle. Almost tentative. It held in it a sweet innocence, as if they were beginning again. He allowed the sensuous massage she was giving his neck and upper back to distract him from his concerns, and soon the kiss lost its experimental flavor and became a full fledge expression of his rising hunger. She tasted so good, so familiar, that without conscious thought, he found himself wrapping his arms around her and pulling her tightly against him.

With a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, he felt his body responding to her kisses. Still, the turmoil twisting within him was of a caliber that he found most pleasing, the dawning of a deep ache that he hadn't felt in so long he welcomed it more than dreaded it. His heart hammered hard in his chest, and the blood pulsing in his ears was a primitive beat.

Lois let him take the lead, responding to his increasing intensity in equal degrees. She smiled inwardly. There were some things that no man could control, and with a little convincing, she was sure that Clark would see the folly in thinking that he should resist her. This was something that they both needed too much to waste time playing games. There was only one way to show him the truth, and she was determined to do it as soon as possible.

It also didn't hurt that his hands had moved down to cup her bottom, his fingers trailing heated circles over the thin cotton of her panties. When he bent down, ready to scoop her up and carry her to their bedroom, it was with great difficulty that she pulled away, stopping him before he could lift her off the ground.

"Clark, wait," she said, trying to catch her breath. "If I'd known you were coming home, I'd have worn something a little more…well, not this." She indicated the oversized tee shirt that she wore, soft and faded from countless washings. It was his, and she'd put it on hoping to feel closer to him. Now she felt a girlish need to dazzle him.

With a nervous flutter in her stomach, she realized that it almost felt like a second wedding night. A second first time, between two people who had changed so much that they needed a chance to get to know each other again. And for as much urgency as she had felt moments earlier, she now saw the need to go a little slower. To make this something that they would remember, the night that they found each other again. She didn't want the memory to include a faded Buffalo Bills logo, although it might be fun to see if he had some kind of an unexpected reaction every time he watched the team play after that night.

"I'll meet you upstairs. Just give me a minute," she whispered against his lips, placing her palms against his chest and giving a gentle push.

He smiled and nodded, watching her as she climbed the stairs. He thought she looked pretty good in his Bills jersey, but he respected her wish. Before she disappeared through the bedroom door, she turned to give him a seductive wink.

Clark used the time to take a look inward. There was a tightening in his stomach, but with a growing sense of relief, he understood it clearly for what it was. He wanted Lois, and the familiar ache was an expression of that need. Instead of pushing them away, he reveled in the sensations that were washing over him. His heart pounded, heat flooding through him at the thought of her silky skin and the sweet taste of her. He smiled widely and took the steps two at a time.

He did love her, and she deserved to know how much. With hard determination to show her in several different ways, he strode to the bedroom door, coming up short when he saw her.

Lois stood in the doorway of the adjoining bath, tears streaming down her face. She clutched the edges of her thick white robe tightly around her. Her eyes were large, an expression of regret etched across her smooth forehead.

"Oh, God, Lois!" His heart dropped, pounding frantically. "What is it? Are you all right?"

She nodded her head, sniffing loudly. "I'm fine. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Especially after…" She gestured toward the door and the stairs, indicating what had transpired below.

"Then what is it? Why are you crying?"

"It doesn't fit," she whispered.

He took in the length of her, noting the voluminous folds of terry cloth that seemed more than ample for her slender body. It hung almost to her toes, and he guessed that the garment would probably fit him easily. She was correct in that it was far too big, but she'd worn it before without issue. "What doesn't fit?"

"The surprise I got for you. For that night…"

Clark nodded, the most he could do to acknowledge that which he most wanted to forget. She meant the black nightie. The one he'd found wrapped in tissue paper, waiting for a celebration they never got to have.

"It doesn't fit anymore," Lois choked, her hands moving to cover her face. "I'm too big!"

He strode to her quickly and wrapped his arms around her, drawing her tightly to his chest. He felt the sobs shuddering through her and whispered into her ear, desperate to take away her pain. "Oh, Lois. It's OK. Please, don't cry."

He kissed the tears glistening on her cheeks, the salty drops tangy on his lips and tongue. Gently, he soothed a path from her eyes down her cheeks, seeking her mouth as he tried to distract her. His hands grasped her face, his fingers threading deep into her dark brown hair.

His technique worked, and within seconds, her lips parted to welcome the gentle probing of his tongue. As he swept the warm cavern of her mouth, her sobs quickly became whimpers of need, the nightie and all it represented completely forgotten.

Lois reached between them, and with deft fingers, she worked the buttons of his shirt, pushing the edges away with smooth movements. She almost started to cry again, the heat of his firm chest underneath her palms so wonderful and familiar. In the darkest moments, she'd feared that she'd never again have this man standing before her, yet here he was. Kissing her and loving her. And letting her love him.

Taking her hands in his, he walked backwards to the bed and sat on the edge of it, pulling her to stand between his knees. His hands trembled slightly when he reached for the sash holding her robe closed. Loosening it, he pushed aside the edges, the thick garment sliding down her shoulders and arms releasing a warm rush of her body heat toward his face. He breathed deeply, the clean smell of her evoking emotions he'd tried so hard to bury deep inside. It was a sense of warmth and home and security. And love. All wrapped up in the essence of Lois.

Over the past seven weeks, he'd watched her body's transformation from a carefully maintained distance, noticing only that she'd started wearing different outfits. Now, the sight of her made his breath catch in his throat. No longer flat, her abdomen rose softly, forming a small globe of creamy skin, smooth and velvety. A bit uncertain, he reached out to stroke it gently. He blinked in surprise at the firmness beneath his fingertips. There was no give, no resilient springiness. It felt much like the steely hardness of his own muscles, nearly rock hard and solid. Her navel had flattened slightly, and he ran his fingers over the now-shallow dimple. His eyes widened at the wonder before him. Tucked deep inside her, protected from dangers they had never imagined, his child slept. Safe.

"Lois, I'm so sorry," his voice broke, and he swallowed. "Sorry I've missed this…"

He placed his hands on her hips, leaning his head forward to place a gentle kiss on the swell of her abdomen. Lois drew her breath in sharply at the contact, threading her fingers through his thick black hair and holding his head against her. His lips played over the tight skin, leaving a trail of heat that made her slightly dizzy. It had been so long since he had touched her this way, and she was almost afraid to move. Afraid that he might bolt like a frightened animal.

Clark pulled back, and his dark eyes searched hers carefully. "Honey, are you sure about this? I mean, is it OK? With the baby and all?"

Lois nodded. "Dr. Payton says I'm fine. We're both fine. There's no reason that we can't do this, Clark."

"I don't want to hurt you…" he repeated his concern from earlier.

She pressed her fingers to her lips, wincing inwardly at the concern in his voice and the vulnerability etched across his handsome features. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes."

"Then trust me. Like I've always trusted you to keep me safe. I would never let you hurt me or the baby. I promise." Leaning down, she kissed him gently, relaxing when he returned it without hesitation.

"Please," she murmured against his lips. "Please make love to me."

He broke contact to look at her, nodding his head slightly. She smiled and pulled the glasses from his face, setting them on the bedside table. Once again she was struck by his rugged beauty, the strength of his face and the gentleness in his velvety eyes. Her heart leapt, the knowledge that this amazing man had chosen to love her filling her with wonder. She brushed the tendril of hair from his forehead, her fingers lingering to trail down the side of his face and along his jaw. God, she loved him.

Clark stared at the exquisite creature standing in front of him. Long and lean, her skin glowed golden in the light cast by the bedside lamp, her face full of the love she felt for him. The face that now contained smoky eyelids lowered with desire and full lips darkened from his assault upon them.

No longer as narrow as before, her waist dipped in slightly, the gentle swell of his child rising upward from her hips to create a small mound of smooth ivory. She'd grown so voluptuous, her curves softer and even more inviting. He'd once had a friend tell him that he'd never found his wife as sexy as when she was pregnant, and Clark had smiled kindly but a bit skeptically. At the time, Clark couldn't imagine that Lois could be any sexier. Now he understood. She was life itself, glowing from within. Woman personified.

The heat from his gaze was so intense that Lois felt as if his hands were caressing every part of her. She didn't shy away, pleased that he still found her desirable even though her figure had changed. Soon, though, she squirmed, the promise in his eyes no longer enough. She wanted the real thing and stretched an arm out, inviting him to come to her.

He stood, needing no further invitation as he captured her lips in a hard kiss. Again and again his mouth slanted over hers, his tongue plunging deeply into it where her tongue joined it in its wild frenzy of exploration.

Leaving the hot wetness of her mouth, he planted small kisses over her cheeks and eyes before turning westward, moving down to her ear. There he took the soft petal of her earlobe into his mouth, sucking it gently while his hand made a lazy journey of its own. He focused on pleasing her, pushing his own growing need down as he tried to maintain control of the sensations spiraling through his body.

Even as his deliberate technique drove her mad with wanting, Lois found his careful attentions fueling a growing frustration. She could sense his tight control. His reluctance to let go. He pleased her, to be sure, but something was missing. Something raw and elemental. It was a teasing taste of pleasure that on the surface seemed pure but when examined more closely lacked something of the complete emotional connection they'd always shared in the past.

Since their marriage, their passions had known the full spectrum, from wild and frantic to slow and lazy, and they'd expressed them in every degree in between. But despite the fact that they hadn't been together for nearly six months, Lois felt it with every cell in her body. Something was different. Wrong. Even in loving her, he was holding back part of himself, and she couldn't bear it.

She'd lost him. Tears of despair slid down her temples.

She grasped his head tightly between her palms, pulling him back to look at her. His eyes were nearly black with passion, and he searched her face in confusion, wondering at her interruption.

"I need you, Clark. I need *all* of you. Please. Please…" she whispered, "love me."

Through the fierce concentration he'd wrapped around his brain as he tried to retain control, he heard her plea. And he knew then that she knew. He still hadn't let go of that last part of his heart. Even as he made love to her, he was trying to protect her. From himself. From the force of his own need for her. Afraid that if he let himself feel the depth of that need, he'd lose control. Again.

<…trust me…>

She'd asked him if he trusted her, and he had said he did. But he wasn't trusting her.

<Like I've always trusted you to keep me safe>

She'd trusted him completely, giving him her life and her heart to keep. He had to do the same. It was time to lean on her unwavering faith in him, to let her certainty be enough when his own was so questionable. As she kept their child safe, so she would keep him safe. He had to let go and trust that she would catch him if he fell.

Reaching down, he placed an arm at the crease of her knees, lifting her gently off her feet. This time she didn't stop him, her hands fisting into the hair at the back of his head as her mouth moved over his. When he laid her on the bed, he held nothing back as his long body covered hers. He met her hungry kisses with equal fervor, allowing the full power of his love for her fill his entire being.

At that moment, the dam exploded, releasing the torrent that had threatened to drown him. All of the emotions he'd kept bottled for weeks surfaced. The love and fear for Lois. The anguish over nearly losing the baby. Guilt and despair at what he'd almost done to Hamilton and regret that he hadn't succeeded. And rage.

It was there, too. The blinding rage at the thought of losing his young family so cruelly. Rage at circumstances that put Lois in that ballroom and kept him from keeping her safe. Rage that one person could so easily dismiss a life that he valued more than his own.

And rage that it wasn't up to him to decide what happened next. He knew it then. He had no control. *He'd never had control.* With all of his abilities, it still lay beyond his clutching grasp to stop that which higher powers than he had planned. For him. For Lois. For their child.

Being invulnerable, he was afforded some ability to steer his course through life. But in the end, he was no more than a bit of flotsam caught in the same eddies and currents that pushed them all along, never knowing what lay beyond the next bend in the river. Destiny and fate were not the same at all. One you could guide, but the other held you firmly in its fickle hand, uncaring if you loved or not.

It wasn't the fear of losing control of his body or his emotions that had gripped him. It was fear of the future. Unknown and uncontrollable.

With a ragged breath, he inhaled then felt a sob shudder through him.

The power of his realization rocked him to the core. He loved Lois so completely that he couldn't begin to see the end of it, but that love wouldn't keep him from losing her. Someday. There was no power on Earth that could stop that from happening.

"Don't ever leave me. Please," he choked into the dark warmth of her shoulder, a strangled whisper. "I love you so much. Don't leave me."

"I'm here. I'm here, Clark." Lois stroked his back gently, trailing her fingers along the firm muscles in a way that was meant to offer comfort rather than arouse. As she felt his chest heaving against hers, she shut her eyes tightly, warm tears squeezing out of the corners and running down into her hair. She murmured against his ear softly, as a mother croons to a child who's fallen down. "I love you, too. It's all right. We're going to be all right."

At last it was there. The closeness, the connection that united them so completely. And with the final chains removed from around his heart, Clark let his body follow. With gentle kisses and lingering caresses, he showed her how much he loved her, his body drinking from the well of hers as though he could never quench his thirst for her. Nothing remained between them but the love they shared. In the dim glow of the bedside lamp, he finally came home.

***

Their bodies satiated and their spirits replenished, Clark pushed up on his forearms to look down at her, using his thumbs to brush the dark tendrils of hair from her face. He saw the silvery trails running away from her eyes, and his heart wrenched.

<Wouldn't you rather live the moments we have then dread when it will all end? Be happy in the love that we share now…>

They were bound together, sharing the same uncharted path for as long as they both drew breath. He couldn't control how long that would be, but he could control what they'd do with the time that they had together. He'd been a fool to waste one minute of it.

He traced a finger over the thin red line below her left ear, looking at it directly for the first time since she'd come home from the hospital. It would always be there to remind him of how close he'd come to losing her and the baby. Over time, it would fade into a silver white ghost, imperceptible to all but those who knew to look for it. But he would know it was there, acting as his conscience and reminding him of how precious their time together was.

What was his to control, he would. And that which he couldn't, he needed to accept gracefully. In between, he would love Lois and his child like there was no tomorrow.

He smiled softly at her, and for the first time since their phone call on that fateful day, he felt a flicker of something that he'd missed almost as much as Lois. It was hope. Hope for the future.

His arm slid under her shoulders, and he tipped her, rolling to his back with her clutched tightly against him. Lois rested her head on his shoulder, stretching along the length of him to twist her legs around his. Skin to skin, it was hard to know where she ended and he began. She released a satisfied sigh.

As she listened to the steady beat of his heart directly under her ear, her fingers trailed mindlessly in small circles across his smooth chest. He rubbed her arm, long lazy strokes that made her feel both drowsy and excited at the same time. She yawned, for the first time in so many nights no longer afraid to close her eyes only to find him gone when they opened. He was back. Her Clark had come back to her.

Lois felt the flutter, the soft tickle of bird's wings that she'd been feeling for nearly three weeks. Always before it had filled her with a bittersweet joy, gratitude that the baby grew strong and healthy, and anguish that Clark wasn't there to share it with her.

With a small smile, she reached across their bodies and grasped his free hand, placing it on the soft swell of her abdomen. It only took a moment before his grip on her shoulder tightened, and she heard his indrawn breath, knowing the instant that he felt it, too.

She looked up at his face, desperate to see his reaction. His eyes were dark and round, full of amazement. Slowly, like honey running down a plate, his mouth widened into a beaming smile. She placed her hand on top of his, entwining her fingers between the ones that lovingly pressed against her belly, seeking more.

She was safe. They were all safe.

"So," she asked sleepily as she lay back on his chest, "what do you think we should we name him?"

Clark stiffened, uncertain that he'd heard her correctly. He was still reeling from the sensation of his child moving beneath his hand, proof that it grew stronger each day. "Him?"

Lois tilted her head upward, her smile apologetic. "I know we talked about waiting. But with everything that happened. I don't know, I just really felt like I needed to know. Are you mad?"

After the last few weeks and all that they'd gone through, he didn't think he could ever be angry with Lois again. "Of course not," he said, giving the tip of her pert nose a small kiss.

"Wow. A boy." He was unable to contain the burst of joy that shot through his heart. A son. He was going to have a son! Though he would never admit it to her, an odd pride that there would be a man to carry on his heritage surprised him. He would have loved a girl no less. But a boy!

"MmmmHmmm." Lois agreed with his awe. "So, how about it? 'Clark Jr.'?"

Clark thought for a long minute. His own masculine vanity over having sired a son didn't extend that far. His child needed a name of his own, not one borrowed from his father. "No. Not Clark."

"Then what? Maybe Jonathan?" Lois asked, the question muffled as her lips started a heated path across his shoulder and around the base of his neck.

He shivered as her kisses stoked the fire simmering low in his belly, the silky brush of her hair on his chest a sensuous tickle. Next to him lie his whole life, given back to him both physically and emotionally by an unexpected source. He planted a kiss on the top of Lois's head, then rolled over to cover her body with his.

Dipping down, he caught her mouth in a long, deep kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and as their need for each other climbed once again, Clark suddenly knew the best way to give thanks for the miracle he'd been given. He pulled away, looking into the dark eyes that mirrored the happiness he felt.

"I'm thinking *Adam.*"

THE END