Addicted

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

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: January 2004

Summary: An alternative universe story in which altClark struggles to come to terms with life without his own Lois.

Author's Note: My thanks, as always, to Wendy Richards for beta- reading this so swiftly, willingly and effectively — and for providing the idea for the epilogue. Thanks also to Elena for beta-reading a large chunk and offering invaluable cheerleading support. Finally, a thanks to all who read the story on the L&C Message Boards and gave very helpful and informative feedback.

This story grabbed me by the throat one Saturday afternoon and wouldn't let me out of its clutches until it was finished a few short weeks later. At times I felt very much as though the story was controlling me and certainly not vice versa. This means, of course, that I can absolve myself from all blame if it's no good…only kidding!

***

The apartment lights were off but for a single lamp casting a pallid glow across the living room. Dim light from the neon street lights filtered in through the window, adding a little extra illumination to the room, but the figure on the sofa was still largely shrouded in shadows.

Clark preferred the semi-dark. It suited his mood.

It allowed him to hide.

In brash, blazing light, you were exposed — to the world and to yourself. You were forced to acknowledge your surroundings, and if you were at home, your surroundings defined who you were. You couldn't hide.

In darkness you could be no-one. You could be anonymous. You could even be someone else.

His hand moved towards the small metal box perched in the sofa's arm. In the darkness it was someone else's hand, a different person who lived a different reality to Clark's.

He noted with detached interest that the hand trembled as it reached out and closed over the box. The person, whoever he was, was clearly in a bad way. He needed that box, and the contents therein, but he'd waited too long before allowing himself to open it.

Just one hit. That was all this person needed — just enough to take the edge off.

He watched as the hand transferred the box to his lap. The person who needed the hit got excited — relief was imminent and his pulse started to race in anticipation.

He disapproved of this person. No, more than that — he hated this person. They were weak and dependent, not at all like Clark himself. He'd been brought up to live life cleanly and honestly, to be strong and to face up to challenges head on. He wasn't the kind of person to cower in the darkness and tremble with craving like some pathetic junkie.

The hand slowly opened the box, red light leaking out around the edges of the lid as it was raised. Fully open, the box revealed its contents — a bright red crystal nestled within black silk.

He laid his head back against the cushions and let the numbness descend over his jangling nerves. His racing pulse slowed and his breathing deepened. Better. So much better. Reality retreated back into a comforting blur where nothing was really of any consequence and problems became mildly interesting puzzles.

Mustn't overdo it, though. He didn't want to become dependent, after all.

The hand closed the box and laid it on the carpet beside the sofa.

Clark curled up on the sofa and allowed his thoughts to drift aimlessly through the nothingness.

***

He could trace the point at which he became a junkie back to a nanosecond in time. It hadn't been the day he'd discovered red kryptonite; hadn't even been the day after he'd recovered from that first hit. No, it had been the split second after Wells had told him that, after a year of searching, Lois was nowhere to be found.

Immediately, he'd known that he would need a crutch, an alternative way of getting through the day. So far, his crutch had been the hope that Lois would be found, but with that gone, he would need something else.

At first, he'd mainlined on despair. Each day became a living hell, a struggle to get out of bed, drag himself to the Planet and sit at his desk writing mediocre copy. He performed his Superman duties like a robot, using the bare minimum of effort required to get the job done. At the end of the day, he would retreat back to his apartment and sit in front of the TV, flicking numbly through endless channels of pointless rubbish.

Perry noticed the change first. Clark was in the habit of occasionally visiting the new mayor of Metropolis and his wife for dinner, and like the good, well-mannered country boy he was, he continued to honour this social obligation and others like it, despite all that was happening within.

His old friend expressed concern. He noted that Clark was quiet, that he never smiled, seldom laughed and hardly ever initiated conversation. Clark didn't bother to deny it, but there was little Perry could do to make things better.

Then Clark discovered the kryptonite.

He'd been flying over Smallville, drawn there by some crazy notion that a sighting of his boyhood home might lift his spirits. No such luck — he'd landed on the track leading up to the farmhouse and immediately flashed back to the day of the car crash. The scene had been as clear as the day it had happened — his parents' car on a collision course with Wayne Irig's van, his ten-year-old legs running too slowly across the yard and down the track, the sickening thud as the two vehicles slammed into each other, and his scream of terror when he realised that his parents were dead.

He'd stumbled blindly away from the remembered scene, breaking into an aimless run that eventually took him to Shuster's field. He'd found himself in a coppice of young trees, a corner he'd not visited much before. Usually, when he visited the field, he'd trace the path of his spacecraft as it had been described to him by his father, reliving his spectacular arrival into the world. This time, however, he looked around himself and for the first time noticed a trail of strange-looking rocks.

He knew instinctively that they were Kryptonian. Unlike green kryptonite, however, these didn't appear to be causing him any discomfort. He studied them a little closer, noted their pale red glow, and decided that since they were one of the few things on the planet which connected him to Krypton, he would gather some up and take them back to his apartment. Perhaps a touch of home would lift the despair gnawing away at his soul.

Surprisingly, he did feel better as he flew home. Nothing seemed to weigh so heavily on his shoulders any more, and he even felt jovial enough to execute a small loop-the-loop before skimming down to enter his living room window. He stashed the rocks on a spare shelf of his bookcase and flew straight back out again to indulge in some recreational flying.

The next thing he remembered was waking up the following day in a sewer.

He had little recollection of how he got there, and of course, he was extremely shaken by the incident. He deduced that the cause was the red rocks from home, which he immediately dubbed red kryptonite. The name seemed to fit, since the rocks had caused almost as much distress as the green variety of kryptonite, even if he hadn't actually experienced the pain and nausea which usually accompanied exposure.

Clearing up the rocks proved challenging, but not impossible. Lead, which he already knew protected him from green kryptonite, also proved an effective defence against the red rocks. With considerable difficulty, he obtained a lead box and a heavy lead apron and working cautiously with frequent breaks to ensure he wasn't unknowingly being affected by the rocks, transferred them to the box.

The box, however, remained in his apartment.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, his thoughts returned time and time again to his lost day. The experience had been alarming, but also curiously liberating. For a whole day, he had been somewhere else, far away from the daily despair of life without hope. He remembered feeling happy as he'd flown back from Smallville, remembered rushing out to execute frivolous barrel rolls across the sky. He'd rediscovered a touch of the old Clark Kent that day.

All because of the power of red kryptonite. It numbed. It blurred. It blotted things out.

He wasn't sure when this other person had emerged. It just happened one day that this other person went out and bought a small lead box and found a way to safely hack the red rocks into smaller chunks. Then this person placed one of the small chunks into the lead box and placed it on his bookcase.

He ignored it for days. At the start, it was enough to know that it was there. That was his new crutch — the insurance policy on his bookcase. In fact, it was better than an insurance policy; it reassured him that he was still in control, because he never, ever went anywhere near it. He didn't need it.

But his work had begun to suffer. The aching chasm where hope had once dwelt consumed him, diluting his ability to write even mediocre copy. His editor complained. Clark heard the regret in the man's voice, understood that he didn't want to criticise his once-star reporter, but it was unavoidable. Clark was placed under close supervision, his work scrutinised and monitored like never before. The pressure to produce quality writing became a daily nightmare.

Superman barely functioned. He still responded to cries for help, but now he dragged himself through the work and bolted away at top speed whenever anyone tried to speak to him. The media were ignored, the emergency services hardly acknowledged.

And so it was that he found himself sitting on his sofa, staring blankly at the flickering images on the TV after rescuing two people from a fire and carrying out three dead bodies. There was no decision made, no conscious thought process engaged, but nevertheless, someone had stood up and fetched the lead box from the bookcase.

It had been a strangely calming moment. He'd simply sat on the sofa with the box in his lap and opened it. Easy. So easy he couldn't imagine why he hadn't done it before.

Those first few times he hadn't really been attuned to the rock's effects. He'd exposed himself for a couple of minutes without feeling a thing. The first time he wasn't even sure it had worked, until he noticed himself actually laughing at a TV sitcom. Then he'd felt great — the rock had worked its magic, and he was back in the real world again, where life was interesting and fun and it didn't matter much what you did so long as you enjoyed yourself.

Later, though, he began to notice the subtle changes when the box was open. Senses were dulled — the important ones, at any rate, like pain and loneliness. Tense muscles relaxed and the endless thoughts buzzing around his head like a plague of flies slowed and thinned out. He began to enjoy the transition, likening it to a session with a good masseuse or a dip in a jacuzzi.

But the real Clark Kent, the one who was brought up on a farm in Kansas and taught from an early age to respect himself and others, never acknowledged this thing that happened from time to time, late in the evening away from prying eyes. No, that was someone else collecting the box and opening it for a quick fix of oblivion.

***

The trouble was, oblivion didn't always stop conveniently when it was time to go to work. Sometimes he was late, and sometimes he was still a little too oblivious when he got to work. Worse still, oblivion sometimes wore off too soon during the working day, leaving him struggling against a near-overwhelming tide of despair during the afternoon.

This wasn't in the plan, if plan there was. No, the idea was to be totally pain-free at home, but for the effects to dilute down to a cosy feeling of well-being during the day.

So a new plan was hatched: take the box to work. That way he could take shorter hits and thus take better control of the ups and downs.

So this other person, the one who did all the planning and executing, bought another small lead box, hacked off another piece of rock, and slipped it into Clark Kent's desk drawer at the Daily Planet. Better, after all, to avoid carrying the box backwards and forwards from work — accidents could happen.

***

An unexpected side-effect of the rock was the discovery that women were attracted to him, and he to them. It didn't seem to matter any more that he couldn't have Lois; she was gone and so it was time to move on with his life and start dating again.

It was surprisingly easy, he discovered, to land dates with attractive women. In the dim recesses of his mind, he acknowledged that this might have something to do with Superman — they seemed to admire his strength and powers; even get turned on by them. But that was okay. He was Superman, they wanted Superman — everyone was happy.

Best of all, he discovered sex. That was a big plus. Lana had always refused him — not that he'd pressed very hard — claiming that she wanted to wait until they were married. There hadn't been anyone else in his life but Lana, so he'd remained celibate until now.

Losing his virginity had been a little like opening the lead box. Not so easy, perhaps, but still with that sense that he really shouldn't have waited so long. Sex was no big deal, after all. Women expected it after the first few dates.

And it was very enjoyable. Sex was also like the lead box — it stopped you thinking for a while.

***

Soon, the day rolled around for another of Clark's dinners with Perry and Alice. He found himself looking forward to the event, but just to be safe, he slipped the box into his coat pocket. No sense in being a party-pooper because you found yourself on a bit of a downer.

The front door of the mayor's mansion swung open. "Perry, my man!" exclaimed Clark heartily. "How are you?" He grabbed Perry's hand in both of his and shook it warmly.

"I'm fine, thank you," replied Perry. "Just fine. How are you, Clark?"

Clark grinned. "I'm good, Perry. In fact, I'm more than good — I'm super!" He laughed. "Get it? Super — superman."

"Ah…yes, I get it, Clark," said Perry. "Um, you think I could have my hand back, son? I think the blood's starting to back up there a little."

"Oh, sorry!" Clark released Perry's hand quickly. "Guess I'm just too happy to see you again."

"Yes…well, don't stand out there on the stoop. Come on in," said Perry, stepping aside to let Clark pass then shutting the door behind him. "Shall I take your coat?" He held out a hand.

Clark blanched. "No, that's okay, I'll keep it with me." The box was in his coat; he couldn't risk letting it out of his reach or, worse still, letting Perry find it. He laughed quickly to cover the awkward moment. "Never know when I might need to rush away on a rescue," he explained.

Perry looked puzzled. "Can't say as how I remember you worrying about that before. But sure, keep it with you if that's what you want."

Clark nodded his thanks. "So, where's the gorgeous Alice?" he asked, changing the subject hurriedly. "You got her chained to the kitchen again, Perry? Something sure smells good."

Perry raised his eyebrows. "Yes, the lovely Alice, as you put it, is in the kitchen. Why don't we take a seat in the lounge for a few moments? She'll join us shortly."

Clark followed Perry into the large, comfortable lounge and threw himself down onto one of the overstuffed chairs near the fireplace. "Boy, I wish my place was big enough for chairs like these!"

"One of the perks of the mayor's job, I guess," Perry remarked. "Big job, big furniture." He settled himself on another chair, perching on the edge and hunching forward. "Son, are you sure you're okay?"

Clark experienced a brief moment of panic — had he said or done something to give himself away? He didn't think so. "Never felt better, Perry," he said. "I think I'm really starting to find my feet, in fact."

"That's great to hear, son," said Perry. "But you seem a little…well, hyper, for want of a better word. Are you sure nothing's bothering you?"

"Nothing at all," said Clark. "I'm just in a good mood. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

"No, I guess not." Perry rubbed his hand along the side of his jaw for a few moments. Clearly he had something on his mind, but Clark didn't feel like prompting him — he had a hunch that he wasn't going to like whatever it was that Perry was building up to.

Eventually, Perry sighed heavily. "Look, son, I'll level with you. People are concerned about you. Some of your rescue work lately has been a little heavy-handed."

"When?" asked Clark, feeling the flutter of panic in his belly again. "When have I been heavy-handed?"

"I hear you crashed through the side of a truck on your way to that bank robbery the other day. And there's a twenty-foot crater in State Street where you dropped a crane last week," said Perry.

"The truck should have stopped, Perry," replied Clark. "Besides, the driver was fine, wasn't he? And that crane was in a really awkward position — I did the best I could in the circumstances." He laughed. "Even I'm not perfect, you know." His laugh seemed to echo around the room; a little too loud, a little too hearty, perhaps. He needed to tone down a little.

Perry grimaced. "Oh, I know," he said grimly.

Clark's panicky feelings increased. He wasn't handling this well, he knew that. He should be calmer; less defensive. "Look, I'll be more careful, okay?"

But Perry shook his head. "It's not just the rescues, son. People say your work isn't what it used to be, either. You don't meet deadlines, you miss meetings — heck, I haven't read one decent article from you in weeks. You just don't seem to care any more, is what they're saying."

"Of course I care!" insisted Clark hotly. "I'm just busy — you know how difficult it is balancing my two jobs. I can't always go to meetings or hit deadline. What would you rather I do, attend a budget meeting or save a life?"

"You used to be able to do both," muttered Perry. He sighed again. "Clark, I just don't recognise you any more. You're defensive, tardy and bordering on downright rude. What's going on, son?"

"I'm fine," Clark insisted, although his heart was pounding in his chest. Perry knew. Everyone knew. He wasn't in control and they all knew about it. "Look, I need to visit your bathroom, okay? Back in a minute."

He stood and walked as quickly as was decent out of the room, digging in his pocket for the comforting feel of the box. Once safely ensconced in the bathroom, he flipped the toilet seat cover down, sat and pulled the box out. Just a quick hit — a refresher to get him through Perry's interrogation. He lifted the lid and felt cool relief flood over him.

Better. Much better. Perry was being unfair, hounding him with all these questions. It was none of his business how Clark ran his affairs. Not his business at all.

Once his heart-rate had slowed again, he closed the lid. His hands trembled and he nearly dropped the box as he replaced it in his pocket. Then he flushed the toilet and stood up at the sink. The mirror above reflected a man he didn't recognise — pale and haunted, with bags under his eyes and lines of strain across his forehead. That would be the other person, he told himself, ducking away from the image to splash water on his face. Clark Kent was the guy who would be walking out into the lobby in a minute, all smiles and confidence.

And yes, he was. He breezed through the remainder of the evening, Perry having apparently given up on his third degree. Maybe he'd been more convincing with his answers than he'd realised.

***

Oh yeah, sex was good. It numbed his capacity for conscious thought, and all the right senses were heightened — pleasure, pleasure and more pleasure.

"Oh, Superman," she murmured.

Afterwards, he discovered they'd rolled over and she was lying sprawled on top of him. She was looking down at him, her pretty face puckered up into a small frown.

"What?" he asked.

"You're crying," she said.

"Am I?" He reached up to his face and found tears on his cheeks. "Sorry," he said, quickly wiping the moisture away.

Damn. He thought that had stopped.

"Sorry," he muttered again.

***

"I know he's a friend of yours, Perry, and I know he's gone through some rough times, but I just can't afford to carry him any longer. He's washed up — lost his edge."

Clark didn't usually eavesdrop on private telephone conversations, but somehow his unconscious radar picked up on this one — perhaps it was the constant mentions of his and Perry's names that did it.

"I hear what you're saying, but it's no use. The man's a liability, Perry. He's got to go."

He didn't wait to be told. He walked straight into his editor's office and handed in his notice.

"I guess you heard," said his editor.

Oh, yes, he'd heard. And he knew, deep down, that this had been on the cards for a while — he'd been living on borrowed time for weeks.

Words were said, well-meant phrases about how sorry the paper was to lose him, and how they'd gladly consider his application if he ever wanted to return. But he should get himself sorted out first. Take a break, go hiking in the Himalayas, visit some friends — whatever it took to fix it.

Well, he was pretty sure he was past being fixed, but it was kind of his editor to make some suggestions.

Anyway, things were probably better this way. Now he could devote one hundred percent of his time to his other job. Even Perry had noticed how difficult it was to hold down a full-time job and be Superman at the same time, so now he could prove just how well he could do the rescue work if he wasn't being distracted by his day job.

Although it was weird how little time you actually had during a day. Soon, he couldn't understand how he'd ever managed to work full time and fit everything else into his life. It was all those little things, like showering, shaving, brewing coffee, shopping for food — they all added up, especially if you didn't bother to do them at superspeed. What would be the point? Besides, he kind of enjoyed doing things the normal way, like everyone else.

Oh, and there was that person with the box. He'd taken to hiding the box from that person, shoving it to the back of a drawer so that they wouldn't be drawn to it whenever he had a quiet few minutes on his own. Mind you, they always found it. Walked straight over there, fished it out from under the pile of old newspapers, and brought it back to the sofa. He tried to limit the person to two hits per day, but sometimes things got a little on top of him and he had to let them steal an extra one.

Not every day, though. That would be letting things slide.

***

Sex was still good, though. Oh, yeah. Not so frequent as it had been a while ago, but he and his girlfriend just didn't ever seem to find the time to see each other these days. She had a new job, apparently, and that made her so tired in the evenings that all she wanted to do when she got home was make dinner and crawl into bed.

Not his bed. Her bed. By herself.

But once in a while, she'd come over.

"Clark, do you love me?"

This, after they'd just made wild, passionate love and he was lying dazed in her arms. "Of course I love you," he replied automatically.

At least, insofar as he knew what love was. He cared for her, laughed with her, made her dinner, made love with her — you didn't do that with someone you didn't love, did you?

"Don't do that," she said. "Don't just say the words as if they don't mean anything."

How did you say them with meaning? He kissed her ear. "I love you. There, was that better?"

She pushed him away and sat up in bed. "Clark, we never talk about anything — nothing important, anyway. We laugh, we drink, we eat, and then we have sex. Does that sound like love to you?"

A small kernel of panic began fluttering in his chest. Did she know? Had she figured out that Clark Kent was a fraud, a man out of control? He never took a hit when she was with him — he'd made that a rule. He was proud of it. "The laughing part sounds good," he said, keeping his voice light. He picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles.

She snatched the hand away. "We never do anything, either. Never go out, never see a movie together — never even go flying together. I'd hoped we'd do that…Superman."

"You want to go flying?" he said. "We can do it right now." He began to levitate them off the bed, up towards the ceiling.

"Clark, stop it!" she said. "Put us down."

"Okay," he said, bringing them back down to the bed. "I thought you wanted to go flying."

She put a hand up to her face, and for a horrible moment he thought she might be crying. "Clark, I'm going to ask you this again, and this time I want to you answer me honestly. Do you love me?"

He thought about that for a moment. Obviously his first answer had been wrong, because she was asking him again. Well, he liked her — liked her a lot. She was his longest-standing girlfriend to date, and that had to mean something. And the sex was great.

How did you know if you were in love? Did you break out into a rash, or start sneezing, or something? He thought back over his previous girlfriends — had he been in love with them? Probably not. How about Lana? He'd nearly married her, so that had to be love, didn't it?

On the other hand, he didn't really miss her, so maybe that hadn't been love after all. The one person he did miss was Lois Lane, and he'd never even met her.

Lois.

Oh, god, he hadn't allowed himself to even think her name for ages. The flutter of panic in his chest grew stronger, and he felt tears pricking the backs of his eyes. This was ridiculous — a grown man crying in front of his girlfriend just because he'd remembered a name. He needed to get control again.

"Clark, are you going to answer me? Do you love me?"

He looked at her — a sweet, pretty woman with a big heart and a great sense of humour. They'd had a lot of good times together.

"No," he said. "I don't love you. I like you a lot, but I don't love you."

"I thought so," she replied. "Well, thank you for being honest with me, anyway. Who is she, this woman that you do love?"

How could he possibly answer that? He couldn't even think her name without breaking down, let alone say it out loud. His pulse began to race, his heart thudding loudly in his chest. He might have to break the box rule if she didn't stop pressuring him soon. "I…I can't tell you," he said. That other person in his head was already planning how to get to the box, how to take a quick hit without her noticing. Maybe she'd be leaving soon anyway.

"Oh, Clark." She reached up with her thumb and brushed away a tear from his cheek. "You're a good man, deep down. You're sweet and kind, and more thoughtful than any other person I know. But you need help. Something is tearing you up so badly that it's taking over your whole life. Until you deal with that, there won't be room for anyone else."

"Does…does this mean we're breaking up?" he said, his voice sounding distant and strained.

"Yes."

"Okay." The box was just next door, in the bottom drawer of his desk. He knew exactly where it was, and he could get to it in seconds, if he needed to.

She climbed off the bed and dressed quickly. Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she looked down at him sadly. "Promise me you'll get the help you need. I'd hate to see you slide even further away from us all." She bent over him and kissed him briefly on his lips. "The world needs you, Superman."

And with that, she was gone.

As soon as he heard the front door close, the dam within him burst and tears flowed freely down his cheeks. Blindly, he stood and made his way over to his desk, yanked the drawer open and snatched up the box.

This time there was no pretence. This time it was just Clark Kent, the box, and sweet, sweet oblivion.

***

"Clark!"

The banging on his front door resumed, the force of the blows shaking it on its hinges.

"Clark, I know you're in there, son!"

Didn't Perry realise he was busy? He pressed a button on the TV remote and flicked to another channel. Oh, this was his favourite!

"Today we're going to make friends with the letter 'Q', kids. What words do you know that begin with 'Q'?"

"Clark! Please open the door — I need to talk to you."

He flicked a quick burst of x-ray vision at the door. Perry was thumping on it with his fist again. There were a couple of guys with him — aides to the mayor, no doubt. Clark felt a little sorry for Perry sometimes. He wasn't able to go anywhere on his own any more.

"Quotient," said Clark to the TV.

Maybe he should let Perry in. The guy wanted to talk and those aides didn't look like great conversationalists. He and Perry could talk for hours — at least, they used to. He hadn't been around to dinner with the Whites for a while. Perhaps that was what Perry wanted — to invite him around.

He dropped the remote on the sofa and crossed to open his door. "Hi, Perry," he said. "Hi," he added to the aides, who just nodded. Boy, they looked serious. No wonder Perry wanted to get away from them.

"Thank god," said Perry. He turned to his aides. "Wait here, okay?" They nodded again.

Clark was a bit surprised they were just going to hang around on the stoop, but if that was what Perry wanted, it was fine by him. "Come in," he told Perry.

"Sorry, guys," he said to the aides as he closed the door on them.

Perry hadn't moved off the landing. He was staring around at the apartment, and suddenly Clark saw the place through Perry's eyes. He hadn't tidied up for a bit, so there were a few more things lying around than usual. Newspapers, magazines, clothes — quite a lot of clothes, actually. Oh, and last night's dinner plate was still on the coffee table. With a few mugs.

"Sorry about the mess," he said. "I've been doing some spring cleaning. You know how you get to that stage where everything looks worse than when you started?"

Perry nodded slowly. "Sure."

Clark led Perry down to the living area and shoved a few things on the floor to clear a space for him to sit. Then he plonked himself down on his usual spot.

"Clark, can we turn that thing off?" said Perry, nodding at the TV. It was playing a cute song all about the letter 'Q' and flashing up dancing words that all began with the letter 'Q'.

"Oh, sure," said Clark, grabbing the remote and thumbing it off. "Sorry."

"Okay." Perry sat forward in his chair and faced Clark with a grim expression. "Clark, I've got something important to say to you, so I want you to listen carefully. It's not going to be very pleasant for either of us so I'm just going to come straight out with it, okay?"

Clark nodded. "Okay."

"Okay, here it is: Clark, I think you're ill. Quite seriously ill, in fact. Not only that, but I strongly suspect that you're on something. I don't have any proof of that, and heaven knows, I honestly can't imagine what would affect you in this way, but all the signs are there."

Perry paused, but Clark could only sit and stare at his old friend. He felt the blood draining from his face and the old familiar feelings of panic start up in his belly.

Perry knew. He really did know. Everything.

"Now, you can deny it if you like, and we can play this game where you explain why you're okay and I tell you why you're not, but I wouldn't advise it, Clark. Better to just tell me I'm right, and then we can move on to the part where I tell you how I'm going to help you."

But didn't Perry understand that he was past help? He snatched a glance over to his desk where the box was hidden. That was his crutch, his way of getting through each day. Nothing else helped like the box did.

"I'm…I'm just a little stressed, Perry," he said. "Superman…it's a big job, you know? Sometimes it gets on top of me a little, that's all."

Perry shook his head. "Don't do it, Clark. You won't like it when I tell you all the reasons why I know you're ill."

He glanced over to the desk again. He could feel the pull of the box already. It was calling out to him, asking to be opened — just for a second or two.

"Is that where it is, Clark?" said Perry. "This stuff you're taking? Shall I fetch it for you?"

Clark snapped his gaze back to Perry in mute horror. No! Not even if Perry knew the truth.

Perry stood up and crossed to Clark's desk. "Which drawer is it in?" Clark froze and felt his heart leap up into his throat as Perry bent down and opened the top drawer. "This one?"

He began to sweat, his sticky palms leaving patches of damp wherever he clutched onto the sofa cushions. But he couldn't move; couldn't speak while Perry continued his tortuous exploration of the desk.

Perry opened the next drawer down. "This one?" He looked across at Clark. "I'm getting close, aren't I?"

Clark closed his eyes. "Please, Perry, don't do this."

"But you need it, don't you?" Perry replied. "I'm just fetching it for you."

Clark heard him grasp the last drawer handle. *The* drawer. "This is it, isn't it?" said Perry. "This is where you hide your stash. Let's take a look…"

"No," he whispered.

"Sorry, Clark?" said Perry. "I didn't quite catch that."

He shuddered. It was over. Perry knew, the whole world knew. Clark Kent, the farmer's son from Kansas, was a fraud, an out of control kryptonite junkie.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, you're right." He fought silently with himself for a moment, defeat warring with the need to remain private, to keep the sordid little secret to himself. But Perry had cracked him open, and he soon found the words tumbling out of his mouth. "I can't…I can't live without it any more."

His voice broke and the tears came again, rolling down his cheeks, wracking his body with sobs he couldn't control. "I'm a mess, Perry," he sobbed. "I can't do anything right any more. Job, girlfriend, Superman…it's all gone to hell. The kryptonite is the only thing that gets me through the day."

"Hey, hey there." Perry's solid frame was suddenly beside him, strong arms hugging him tightly while he blubbered against his friend's shoulder. "We're going to get you some help, okay? Whatever it takes, we'll find it for you."

The words were comforting, but Clark knew in his heart of hearts that Perry would never be able to find the one thing that he really needed. Without Lois Lane, he was nothing.

"Son, did I hear you right? Did you say kryptonite?"

Clark nodded miserably. "Yeah, not the green stuff that makes me sick. This stuff is red…it has other properties."

"I see," replied Perry. "Well, that's a relief of sorts. For a minute there I thought you were dosing yourself up with something that could kill you."

"Not so far as I know, it can't," said Clark.

Perry pushed him gently away and held him at arm's length, resting his hands on Clark's shoulders. "Here's what we're going to do. First, you're coming home with me. Alice already has a room ready for you, and you're welcome to stay for as long as you need to. Then, once you're settled in, we're going to take you to see a friend of mine. He's got a lot of experience in helping people in trouble, and I think you'll like him."

Clark dropped his eyes. "He's a psychiatrist, right?"

"Yes, he is. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Clark," said Perry. "You're ill, and he's the best man I know to get you well again. Okay?"

Clark nodded.

"Good. Now, unless you want to do it, Alice is going to come by later and pack up a few things for you. Is there anything you want to take with you right now?"

Clark swallowed. This was it. This was where he admitted that he couldn't go anywhere without it. Not even to the corner shop and back. He dashed the tears from his eyes and turned away from Perry. "The box. I need the box."

"Of course you do. Do you…uh…need some now? Before we leave?"

He cringed inside, hating the person he'd become. The person who schemed and planned, who cowered in the dark, who hid from prying eyes but strode around with false bravado. He'd thought he was fooling everyone, but they had all known. He was the one who'd been a fool.

"Look, I'll just wait for you outside, okay?" said Perry. "You come out when you're ready."

He nodded, grateful to his friend for allowing him to preserve some semblance of dignity. "Thanks, Perry. You're a good friend."

Perry cleared his throat. "Hey, you'd do the same for me, right?" he said gruffly. "I'll be just outside."

Clark waited until Perry was safely out of the way and then retrieved the box. He didn't even bother to sit down first, he just opened the lid and stared down into the beautiful red crystal. It didn't give him such a good hit these days; he'd been considering hacking off a larger lump from one of the rocks and buying a larger box. Still, it was enough to take the edge off.

He wondered what it would be like if he just swallowed a piece. Maybe that would take the edge off permanently. It would be easier than carrying a heavy lead box around, that was for sure.

But Perry was going to get him the help he needed, right? He wouldn't need this stuff at all once Perry's friend was finished with him.

Yeah, that sounded better. He would be back to his old self, and she…well, he wouldn't even remember her name. She'd be erased from his soul.

***

The talking cure — that was what they called it, he'd heard. Well, they were right. He'd never talked so much in his life. George, Perry's friend, asked him an endless battery of questions, some of them laughably trivial, some deeply searching, and some highly personal and very embarrassing. All were designed, he understood, to assess his mental state and ascertain his needs, treatment-wise. Perry had been right — he did like George, a rotund, genial man with a wry sense of humour and a lot of sharp intelligence behind thick, heavy glasses.

George, after meeting him that first time, suggested he admit himself to a psychiatric clinic for a few days. They wouldn't be able to cure him in such a short time, but they'd set him on the right path towards recovery and prepare him for the remainder of his treatment, which would be home-based.

He declined. The thought of incarceration, no matter how civilised and friendly, filled him with terror. It fed into one of his most deep-seated fears — that of the scientist's lab and the instruments which poked and prodded at the alien lying on the examination table. His father had planted those ideas from an early age, and whilst his many foster parents hadn't added further fuel to them, the fear still remained with him.

So Alice and Perry became his carers. Alice mostly, because Perry was at work during the day and often had functions to attend in the evenings. She became an expert at detecting his mood swings, knowing instantly when he'd discovered her hiding place for the box and taken an illicit hit. Of course, hiding a box from a man who could see through anything except lead was almost impossible. Her only weapon was psychology — she knew that he wouldn't search in her underwear drawer, for example. Not at first, anyway.

The box had to be moved to the clinic where he was now a day patient. But even there, it wasn't possible to hide it entirely from his x-ray vision, and it soon became apparent that wherever they put it, he would find it. He could fly anywhere quicker than they could drive, scan an area vaster than they could reach within a reasonable length of time, so it wasn't even practical to store it offsite somewhere.

"Clark, what do you suggest we do?" asked George one day. "I know you're trying your best, but it's just not working, is it?"

"No." He'd tried to stick to the regime; he really had. But as soon as they made things a little hard for him, he faltered. If they made things really hard, asking the questions that he couldn't answer even if he wanted to, the other person came out and began searching systematically for the box. He'd become very good at searching over the past few weeks, and he always, always found it and got his hit.

"Ideally, I'd prefer that it was your choice not to look for the kryptonite in the first place, rather than our responsibility to hide it from you," George continued. "But I don't think you're quite ready for that yet, are you?"

"No."

"So, what should we do? Is there anything we can do with lead shielding? Plant decoys, perhaps?"

Clark shook his head. "I'd find it. It doesn't take long with superspeed."

"Well, then, is there anything we can do about your powers? Is there something which resists all your powers, not just some of them?"

His gaze, which up to now had been fixed on a neutral point somewhere on the carpet, snapped up to meet George's. Yes, there was, and he had a fairly good idea where to find some of it. "Green kryptonite," he said. "It weakens me."

"Okay, then that's the answer," said George. "Do you know where we can find some?"

***

He was eavesdropping on a conversation again. Some sixth sense always kicked in and told him when people were talking about him. He'd always ignored it in the past — after a few blows to his pride and self-esteem, he'd learnt that it was best not to listen in. But lately, he found that he wanted to know what people were saying about him. This time he was upstairs in his room at Perry's house, and two people were downstairs in the lounge arguing.

"George, I don't think it's a good idea. Do you realise what that stuff can do to him?" said Perry.

"He said it weakens him — sounds ideal to me. We make a shield of the stuff and put the red kryptonite inside. He won't be able to reach it," replied George.

"What he neglected to tell you was that it can kill him," said Perry. "It doesn't just weaken him, it causes massive pain and nausea, and if he's exposed for long enough, he'll die."

"Jeez, he never mentioned that!"

"I don't think it's a good idea to leave stuff like that lying around near him, do you?" said Perry.

There was a long pause, during which Clark heard someone pour out a large glass of something — probably brandy. The decanter stopper was replaced, and then George spoke in a low voice. "You think he's suicidal?" "What do you think?" replied Perry in an equally low voice.

There was another long pause.

"Well, you know him better than I do, Perry, but no — on balance, I don't think he wants to take his own life. Besides, couldn't he just fly off to wherever this stuff is and kill himself at any time — if he really wanted to?"

"True. But having the stuff conveniently to hand might just tip him over the edge if he was that way inclined," said Perry. "Heck, it's your decision, George. You're the expert here. I'm just here as his friend."

"And a damned good one, too. God knows what would have happened if you hadn't rescued him." George sighed. "I think we're making progress, but he's a hard nut to crack. He doesn't give much away."

"He's used to internalising everything. That girlfriend of his — not the one he just broke up with, the one he nearly married — she didn't do him any favours in that department," said Perry.

"Yeah? What was she like?"

"Self-centred and a control freak. Treated him like her pet donkey."

Clark tuned the rest of the conversation out — he didn't want to hear a re-run of his relationship with Lana.

So they thought he was suicidal, did they? He rolled the idea around in his head for a while. True, he'd neglected to tell George the whole truth about green kryptonite, but that had been because the pain and nausea part hadn't been relevant at the time. Also, he didn't like telling anyone, even his therapist, about the things which hurt him. That didn't mean he had an ulterior motive, did it?

No, he wasn't suicidal. He laughed internally — perhaps he should drop downstairs and reassure them.

On the other hand, perhaps not. He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Ten hours, fourteen minutes and twenty seconds to his next hit — boy, he was getting good at mental arithmetic these days.

He rolled over on the bed, curled up and pulled the covers over his head. Time for the nightly endurance test.

***

The green kryptonite was duly obtained. Clark had been right — there were deposits in Shuster's field, not so very far away from where he'd discovered the red variety. He'd been lucky not have gone too close, in fact.

The protection mechanism they came up with for the red kryptonite was simple — a nice, hefty lump of green kryptonite stored in the same box as the red. Clark was escorted to the clinic's medicine cabinet to witness its installation, standing a safe distance away but still near enough to view the proceedings.

So now he had a new dependency. No longer could he help himself to red kryptonite whenever he needed it, he was one hundred percent dependent on others to fetch it for him.

It was a tough regime, and for a long time, he felt that they were being far too stingy with his crutch. Gradually, or not so gradually, it seemed to him, he was being forced out into the blinding light of total reality. He felt naked and exposed out there. Edges were sharp, nerves jangled, and he could see himself far too clearly.

He didn't like what he saw. Clark Kent, the fine, upstanding farmer's son from Kansas, was a wreck. All too often, he got the shakes and broke out into a sweat when he was waiting for his next hit. He was a burden to Perry and Alice, although they treated him as their own and never once gave the impression that they didn't welcome him in their house. The staff at the clinic found him hard to cope with, because his special abilities made a mockery of some of their standard procedures.

Nevertheless, progress was made, and eventually he was down to one hit per day.

"Congratulations, Clark," said George. "You've done really well, and you should be proud of yourself for getting this far."

Clark's mouth twisted. "Thanks, George, but don't you think we should save the celebrations until I've no longer memorised the location of every single piece of red kryptonite on the entire planet?"

George laughed. "Maybe, but this is an important milestone. How do you feel?"

Clark met George's gaze. On the surface, this was a cosy chat between friends, but behind George's amiable expression lay piercing enquiry and deadly serious analysis. "The truth?"

"However ugly, yes. I've heard it all, Clark — you can't shock me."

Clark drew in a slow breath. "If I could lay my hands on a piece of red kryptonite right this minute, I'd do it." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."

George nodded. "That's okay. I wouldn't expect anything else at this stage. How do you think you'd feel after you'd taken the hit?"

"Guilty as hell," Clark replied immediately.

"Anything else?"

"Maybe disappointed," he said. "In myself, I mean. I've got this far, as you say, so it would be a shame to ruin all the good work."

"Okay, so you still want to get better?"

Clark nodded.

"Good, because I'd like to try something a little different today. We've talked a lot, you and I, haven't we?"

"Yeah," said Clark warily, wondering where George was leading him. "You know so much about me, you could be my official biographer if I ever needed one."

George chuckled. "Now there's a thought — Superman's biographer. Well, if I'm ever strapped for cash, I'll consider it. But for all that I know about you, Clark, there's one thing we haven't talked about at all."

"What's that?"

"Lois Lane."

Oh, god. Why did George have to do this to him now? He'd been feeling so good — relaxed and pretty much in control. They'd been having a cosy chat and now George had turned it into an ordeal.

"Clark? You okay, buddy?"

He began to nod automatically, but then turned the movement into a quick head-shake. "No. Can we talk about something else?"

"No, I'm afraid we can't this time. Take a few deep, slow breaths and then tell me all about Lois Lane."

He snatched a glance at the nearest clock. Eight hours to his next hit. Too long. "I can't, George."

"Yes, you can," insisted George, fixing Clark with those piercing, intelligent eyes of his. "Now do as I tell you and take those deep breaths. You want to lie down on the couch? You might feel more comfortable there."

"Okay." Anything to delay; keep the questions at bay. He moved over to George's couch, a traditional psychiatrist's model that he'd never have dreamt of being at ease on until his sessions with George. Nowadays it was his friend, a place where he could talk freely about himself without fear of embarrassment or worse.

Once he was settled, George came over and picked up his wrist, monitoring his pulse. "Okay, now take those deep breaths — remember what they taught you in those relaxation classes."

Yeah, they were part of his treatment regime at the clinic. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon — how to relax your cares away with Dr Deirdre Watts. He could hear her soft Irish voice even now. "Find your centre, Clark. Find your sea of tranquillity and cast yourself free upon it." Well, this was something he was pretty good at; one of his small successes at the clinic. He located that tranquil sea and was floating along as free as a bird in no time at all.

"Good." George gave him his wrist back and settled back in his chair. "So tell me, Clark, who was Lois Lane?"

"A reporter at the Daily Planet," he replied. That part was easy.

"And when did you first meet her?"

Now things were starting to get a little harder. "When she came back from the Congo." Not the real truth, but the official truth. "She'd been missing, presumed dead, for years."

"That must have been quite a shock, for you and everyone else."

"It hit Perry the hardest, I think," said Clark. "He was the only one left who'd known her before she disappeared. It took him a while to adjust, I think."

"And what about you? How did it hit you?"

Clark recalled the first time he'd seen her. She'd bowled him over — literally. One second flat into their meeting and she'd kissed him right on the lips. It was as if someone had struck him right between his eyes.

"Well, I never knew her before, so it didn't really have an impact on me," he said.

"Really? Didn't she kiss you that first time?"

Clark frowned. "George, if you already know all this, why are you asking me?"

"Because I like the sound of your voice. Now answer the question — did she kiss you?"

"Yes, she kissed me. But it didn't mean anything," he added quickly. "She mistook me for someone else." Now it really was starting to get complicated. He wasn't sure how much longer he'd be able to keep the official truth and the real truth straight in his head. George had a nasty habit of making you say things you didn't mean to.

"I see. Let's move on a little — you started working with her, didn't you? Tell me about that."

And so the session continued, with Clark relating a fairly sanitised version of events and George winkling out extra little details from him. Nothing too controversial, and Clark managed to keep to the official line throughout. He was feeling pretty pleased at having negotiated his way through George's interrogation so neatly, when they reached the official end of the story.

"She disappeared again, didn't she, Clark? What can you tell me about that?"

"Nothing," he said immediately.

"Oh, come now. You were working pretty closely together — you must have some idea why she left."

"I can't tell you."

"Can't or won't?"

His heart was thumping in his chest, his sea of tranquillity a raging Force Nine hurricane. How could he explain parallel universes and duplicate Lois Lanes to George? Even if he could, there was no way he could explain the feelings of loss, of deep longing and love for a woman he'd never even met.

"Can't."

George sat forward in his chair. "Clark, this is important. I know it's hard for you, but I want you to try. Give me anything you can — an idea, a hint, a small crumb of information. Anything will do."

"I can't."

"Come on, buddy, you can do it. One little morsel. A nugget."

"I can't."

"Okay, tell me why you can't," said George.

"It's complicated."

"I'm an intelligent guy. Try me."

God, he was so insistent. "George, believe me — I'd tell you if I could. You think I'm crazy now, but if I told you what you want to know, you'll pack me straight off to the lunatic asylum. And I've already said too much."

"Hey, this sounds really interesting," said George. "I like a good tale from a wacko."

"Not a very professional term, George," said Clark. "Won't you get struck off for telling me I'm a wacko?"

"Nah, you'd be surprised what we shrinks can get away with. My point, my friend, is that there is no way I'll be packing you off to the asylum, or anywhere else, come to that. You're not a wacko, just a guy with a story to tell," said George. "So come on, let's hear it. Why can't you tell me the reason for Lois's disappearance?"

Clark rolled his head back and forth on the couch. "I told you, I can't."

George sucked in air around his teeth. "Okay, buddy," he said softly, patting Clark's arm. "I guess we're not going to crack it this time around. Sorry I pushed you, but this one's important."

Clark felt the relief roll over him in waves. No more grand inquisition. He felt totally drained; he was drenched in sweat and his pulse was galloping along like he'd just lifted a spaceship into orbit.

"Here."

He looked up to find George offering him a glass of water. "Thanks," he said, taking it in one trembling hand and then needing both to steady it as he sipped.

"Look, is it me?" asked George. "Is there anyone else you'd prefer to talk to about this?"

Clark shook his head. He now knew quite a few of the staff at the clinic, but George was the only one he could imagine talking to about this stuff. There was Perry, of course, but he wasn't staff.

"Okay. You want to stay there a while, catch your breath? Have a snooze if you like."

Clark nodded. "Thanks, George. Do you do this for all your patients?"

"Nah, only the ones who give me a hard time." He grinned down at Clark. "We're going to get there, buddy, don't you worry." Then he produced a blanket and draped it over Clark. "Want me to kiss you goodnight and tuck you in?"

"George, it's eleven am."

"Oh, you noticed? See, I told you you're not a wacko."

***

The other person, the cool, calculating schemer, was on a mission, stalking the dimly-lit corridors of the clinic under cover of the night. At this time of day, there was only a skeleton staff manning the wards, and so it was easy to slip by unnoticed. If necessary, there was always the option of flying near the ceiling. Nobody ever looked up, not even the guard watching the security cameras.

It wasn't hard to reach the medicine cabinet. It was even easier to break the lock — the schemer didn't suffer the burden of a conscience to hold him back. Drawing out the lead box and placing it on the counter was hard, though. Hands trembled and the pulse quickened, making the task difficult and treacherous. A wrong move now, a bottle knocked over, or pills sent skittering across the formica floor — all would give him away and cause people to come running. People who would separate him from his goal.

But the box was safely extracted and placed on the counter. Now for the hardest part of all. He figured he had about a second to snatch the red rock before the green one forced him back. So a swift execution was needed. Lift lid, snatch rock, close lid. Simple.

Deep breath.

Lift lid — oh, Jeez! He staggered backwards, the pain nearly knocking him out instantly. His legs turned to jelly and he felt himself weave around, fighting for balance. He hadn't realised it would be this bad — he didn't remember being in this much agony the last time he'd encountered the green stuff. He could hardly believe his body was capable of inflicting this level of pain on him.

Almost blinded, he tipped himself forward towards the counter, reaching clumsily into the box to find his prize. White hot coals burnt his fingers, forcing him to snatch his hand away with a cry of surprise and pain. It burnt! He hadn't known it would burn.

Blackness began to creep in at the edges of his vision. No… But he was powerless to stop it. He crashed against the counter and down to the floor, the clatter of the box informing him that he'd knocked it over somehow. Great. No respite from the pain, then.

Darkness rescued him, pulling him down into oblivion.

***

He awoke to a dull, insistent ache in his limbs, a thick, throbbing headache, and a wretched feeling of nausea in the pit of his stomach. When he cracked open his eyes, he found the round, genial features of George gazing down at him. No smile, he noted. George almost always smiled.

"That wasn't so smart, now was it?" said George. "Why'd you do it, Clark?"

He closed his eyes again. "Don't beat about the bush, George," he mumbled sardonically. "Say what you mean."

"Yeah, well I like to cut to the chase," replied George. "So why'd you do it?"

"To get the kryptonite."

"Red or green?"

He forced his eyes open again and met George's steady gaze. "Red, George. I'm not suicidal. At least, not yet."

George raised an eyebrow. "You know, listening to other people's conversations is considered bad manners in some circles."

"Guess I don't move in those circles," said Clark. "Not any more." He turned his head away from the therapist, too tired to play any more word games with him.

"So how do you feel?" asked George.

"Lousy."

"Yeah, you look pretty awful. White face, sunken cheeks, bags under the eyes — the full set, in fact. As for your temperature, well, I was impressed. I never knew thermometers could go so high," said George.

"George, did anyone ever tell you your bedside manner sucks?" mumbled Clark.

"Oh, frequently. I flunked out on the bedside manner class." He leant back and clapped his hands together. "Okay, we have two choices here. Either we can move you to one of those very nice single rooms upstairs, with TVs, videos, en suite facilities and full room service — I know Carolyn, the head nurse up there, would love to have you — or I can call Alice and have her take you home. What'll it be?"

There was no contest, so far as Clark was concerned. "Home."

"Why did I know you'd say that?" said George. "You know, some day you and I are going to have to have a long talk about your fear of hospitals." At Clark's mute look of surprise, he grinned. "Yeah, it's scary what we shrinks can figure out about a person. Twilight Zone stuff, huh?"

Clark closed his eyes again. "George, I'm not in the mood. I may just have to throw up if you don't shut up."

He felt George's hand on his shoulder. "Hey, buddy," he said softly. "Hang on in there. We're going to get you through this, okay?"

"Yeah, you said." "I'll call Alice, all right?"

"Okay."

***

Lana came to visit him. As always, her timing was impeccable. He was lying on his bed feeling lousy, the day after his encounter with the green kryptonite. Alice had been cosseting him all morning, bringing him cups of tea and trying to tempt him with food, but when she stuck her head around his door and told him Lana was downstairs and did he want to see her, he nearly spilt his mug of tea all over the bedclothes.

Lana? What on earth did she want with him? Their paths hadn't crossed in almost a year.

Anyway, he decided he might as well find out, so he asked Alice to show her up. Lana, being Lana, stood at the threshold to his bedroom, arms akimbo, and declared, "Clark, you look awful."

"And nice to see you, too, Lana," he replied.

He didn't bother to climb off the bed to greet her, mostly because he still ached all over and any movement seemed to exacerbate the nausea. Perhaps he was also setting the tone for their encounter — she was tolerated rather than welcomed.

She came further into the room and looked around for something to sit on. The room wasn't large and didn't actually contain much other than the bed, a wardrobe and a set of drawers. Frustrated, she perched gingerly on the very edge of his bed, as far away from Clark as possible.

"So what brings you here?" he asked when she didn't immediately start talking.

She brushed her long blonde locks away from her face and then laid both hands neatly in her lap. "Steve and I were having a clear-out and found some of your old things. I brought them around in a box."

Steve was her brand-new husband, an accountant with one of the more stuffy legal firms in Metropolis. She'd wasted little time, after breaking up with Clark, in finding a new man and marrying him. Clark didn't know the guy, but had heard that he was the perfect match for Lana — reliable, unimaginative, predictable and totally devoid of any distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. Safe.

"Well, thank you, Lana. Congratulations, by the way," he said. "On the marriage."

She looked down at her hand and played with her wedding ring. "Thank you. He's a wonderful man."

"Yeah, I heard."

Her head snapped up; his tone must have given him away. "I love him to bits," she said. "Daddy likes him, too."

His mouth twisted. "Well, I guess that's as good a reason as any to marry a guy." Clark wondered idly if Lana had applied the same rules to Steve as she had to him, or if sex before marriage was okay if your fiance wasn't an alien? Not that he minded any more — he suspected that sex with the xenophobic Lana would probably have left him more damaged than sex with the Superman-obsessed women he'd eventually lost his virginity to. At least they had wanted him to touch them.

She fired him an angry look. "He's going to join Daddy's company. He'll probably end up running it one day, when Daddy retires."

A not-so-subtle barb aimed at Clark, of course, who had refused to join Daddy's company. Daddy and Clark just didn't see eye-to- eye on so many things.

"I'm happy for you, Lana. Sounds like you're all set for life. I guess the next thing is kids."

"Next year," she said primly. "Steve says we need to spend some time just on our own first."

Or maybe the poor guy was afraid of losing his hard-won conjugal rights. "Sensible guy," he remarked.

"Yes, he is," she said, shooting him another angry look. Seemingly, his tone of voice hadn't been quite right again. "You know, you really do look terrible."

"Thanks, Lana — you really know how to make a guy feel better, don't you?"

She pursed her lips together. "She did this to you, of course," she muttered.

It was his turn to flare up in anger. "Who, Lana?" he asked, although he knew perfectly well who she was referring to. "There have been a lot of women in my life lately — you probably heard — so I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."

"That Lane woman," she spat. "Lois Lane."

A pulse began thumping in his head. "Don't you dare, Lana," he said. "Don't you dare tell me this is her fault."

She laughed. "Look at yourself! Listen to yourself! You're a mess, Clark. Who else do you think did this to you if it wasn't her?"

"I did this to myself, Lana," he said. "No-one else. Just me."

She shook her head. "You're pathetic."

"Is this why you really came here, Lana?" he said. "To gloat? To tell me how low I've sunk and then show off your wedding ring and tell me what a wonderful life you're having? I'd call that pretty pathetic, wouldn't you?"

"She took you away from me," she said. "She turned you into that ridiculous circus act and then wrecked your life. No wonder you're a mess."

"She showed me what a mess my life had already become," he retorted. The pulse in his head was really beginning to hurt, to drive through his brain like a rapier. "You have no idea what Lois did for me."

He wrapped himself protectively around her memory, keeping Lana and her twisted version of events at bay. Lois had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. She was his inspiration and his guiding light through dark times. Lana had no right to attack her.

"Turned you into a drug addict, by all accounts," she snapped.

He closed his eyes, shielding himself from the pain and her barbed comments. "Just go away, Lana. You've said what you came to say, proved to yourself that you're better than me. Go away and have a nice life with safe Steve."

"You never used to be this bitter," she said. "You've changed, Clark."

"Funny, that's what my therapist says, too," he said. "Only he makes it sound like a good thing."

She snorted. "Drugs and therapy…your parents would be ashamed of you."

The pain in his head doubled at her mention of his parents. "Shut up, Lana. Just shut up and go."

He felt the bed move as she stood. "I hope you get the help you need, Clark. You deserve it," she added harshly.

And she was gone. At last.

He felt like he'd been flayed alive. He turned on his side, her accusations against Lois swirling around his aching head. Tears pricked the backs of his eyes as he considered the possibility that she might actually be right. If he'd never met Lois, he wouldn't have discovered what a sham his life had been, and he wouldn't now have to live with this aching chasm of loneliness and missing love. Had Lois turned him into a junkie?

No! He rebelled against the idea, but the doubt had taken hold.

He turned over onto his other side. God, how he needed some red K. This would all go away if he had some — not much, just a quick hit.

There was a soft knock on his door. "Clark? Are you okay?"

Alice. Alice could get him some red kryptonite. He could tell her he felt really ill, that he had the shakes and couldn't breathe properly. Yes, he'd die if he didn't get the red kryptonite — that was it. She'd get him some then.

No, no, no! He turned over again, fisting a handful of coverlet, fighting the craving. Please help me, he begged silently to anything or anyone that might be listening.

Lois didn't turn you into a junkie, he told himself fiercely. You did it yourself.

He curled up into a tight ball. Please make it go away…

"Clark? I'm just going to come in and collect your empty mug, okay?"

She mustn't see him like this! He turned onto his back and pushed himself up a bit on the bed — just in time for her to open the door. Lying rigidly on the bed, he followed her with his eyes as she moved across the carpet to his bedside table.

"Would you like a refill, dear?" she asked, picking up his mug.

He shook his head silently.

"All right. You're sure I can't tempt you with a nice hot bowl of soup?"

He shook his head again.

"Well, just you shout if you need anything, you hear?"

He nodded, then watched her cross back over the door, mug in hand. She opened the door.

"A…Alice?"

She turned, smiling back at him. "Yes?"

"Could…could you stay a minute?" he croaked.

"Aw, hon, of course I can!" she said, closing the door immediately and crossing to sit on the edge of the bed next to him. "What's up?"

"Nothing…I just need some company…"

To save me from myself… His hand screwed up a fistful of bedclothes tightly.

She frowned at him, her head cocked to one side. "Lana give you a hard time, did she?"

He nodded. "You could say."

"I knew I shouldn't have let her in, you being so poorly and all," she said, shaking her head with disgust at her own lack of care.

"Not your fault," he said. "I could have told you not to send her up."

She began rubbing her hand up and down his arm soothingly. "You do know not to listen to anything she says, don't you?"

"Yeah, but it's hard, you know?"

"I know, hon," she said.

He closed his eyes and leant his head back against the headboard of the bed. Alice was a big help — just sitting beside him and talking in that sympathetic, Southern drawl of hers made him feel better — but the craving was still there. Lana had lit it, kindled it and brought it up to a slow burn with her barbs and insinuations.

"Is it bad?"

She knew. Alice always knew when he needed some. "Yeah," he whispered. "Time for the Scrabble board, Alice."

It was their thing, their way of fighting the craving together. He'd lost count of the number of Scrabble games they'd played while he'd silently fought the internal battle between need and good intention. Sometimes it was difficult to place the finicky little pieces on the board, if his hands were trembling too badly, but then Alice would simply do it for him. Usually, he lost, but it didn't matter. The game was the thing.

"Coming right up, hon," she said. "You going to beat me this time?"

"Sure. I have this whole new vocabulary of psychiatric terms," he said. "You won't stand a chance."

She laughed. "Honey, your psychiatric terms are nothing against my Elvis terminology."

He couldn't even begin to imagine what she meant by that.

***

If Clark thought that self-inflicted illness would lend him a respite from George's treatment regime, he was wrong. He was allotted one day to recover from the worst effects of the kryptonite radiation, and then he was back on the treadmill again. Relaxation classes — although he was already so good, it was hardly worth attending, art classes — to help him explore his emotions, writing exercises — which irritated him because he was a professional and these people were amateurs, lessons on addiction — interesting but not exactly revelatory, and his sessions with George.

Amazingly, George actually apologised to him for the green kryptonite incident. Clark had imagined if anyone was going to be doing some apologising, it would be him, so this came as something of a surprise. Apparently, George had warned the clinic staff that he was about to hit Clark with some extra tough sessions, so would they please put additional security measures in place around the red kryptonite store — just in case his patient felt desperate enough to steal a hit despite the inherent risks to life and limb. But someone had been off sick, and someone else hadn't passed the message on, with the result that Clark had been easily able to reach the red stuff.

Clark was somewhat humbled by this behind-the-scenes look at how George was handling him. He hadn't realised the extent to which he was being carefully manipulated, and the realisation, surprisingly enough, increased his respect for his treatment schedule. He understood, at last, that all the sessions and classes had a purpose — and that basically, these people really knew what they were doing.

He didn't realise it at the time, but this was a turning point.

***

"Okay, Clark, today we're going to get into the real messy, heavy stuff," said George, rubbing his hands together. "You ready for some action?"

Clark eyed George balefully. "What if I say I'm not?"

"Then I ask you why you're not, and you say you're having a bad day, and we get into a really tedious session that takes for ever and gets us nowhere," replied George cheerfully. "Want to do that? Believe me, I can last longer than you can at that game."

"George, you can be really annoying, you know that?"

"Yeah, I pride myself on it. Okay, so here's what we're going to do." George opened a drawer in his desk, lifted something out and placed in on his desk in front of Clark. "You know what this is, don't you?"

Clark frowned, wondering what game George was leading him into now. "Looks like a lead box containing red kryptonite to me, George."

"Yup, you got it. Like I said, I'm going to be asking you some tough questions today, and we all know what happens when I do that, don't we? You get an overwhelming urge to hit the red stuff."

"Yeah." In fact, just George's promise of a tough session was enough to make his pulse race and ignite the craving that always hovered just beneath the surface.

"So I've made it easy for you, Clark," said George. "It's right here, whenever you need it."

Clark dragged his eyes up from the box to frown at George. "Sounds like one hell of a crazy way to deal with an addict," he commented.

George grinned. "See, that's how far you've progressed, Clark. You just told me you were an addict without even blinking."

Clark pulled a face. "Oh, sure, I can say the words. Doesn't mean I'm cured."

"Of course it doesn't. You're still one sick, screwed up individual, but you're less sick and screwed up than when we started."

"Gee, that's so encouraging, George."

George shrugged. "I try. So, here's the plan. I ask you questions, you answer them. Any time you want a hit, you just say the word. But you keep answering the questions, okay? That's the deal."

"Why?" asked Clark. "Why is it suddenly open season on the kryptonite?"

"Because I'm going to crack you wide open, buddy. I need you to tell me stuff, and if it takes the red K to keep you talking, then that's what it takes." George laughed. "Don't look so scared. It might hurt a little, but it won't be terminal."

Clark wasn't so sure. There was already a slight tremor in his hands and his mouth was dry. He knew exactly where George was heading and it wasn't just going to hurt a little, it was going to rip right through him like a dagger.

"Want some before we get started?" offered George once Clark was settled on the couch.

Clark almost laughed — he sounded like a butler handing around tea and biscuits. "No."

"Okay, first question — define your relationship with Lois."

Easy. "We were friends."

"Friends that kiss."

Oh, George thought he was being so clever! "She kissed me, George. I never kissed her."

Score two for Clark, zero for George.

He would have, though. Just one more millimetre, that time on her sofa late at night, when the barriers had dropped, when they'd forgotten who they really were. They'd been two lost people — she, without her husband, and he, stranded in the wrong universe and finding himself becoming more and more attracted to this wonderful woman called Lois Lane.

"Run that one by me again," said George. "You never kissed her? Not even a friendly kiss?"

"Nope."

"Did you want to kiss her?"

Damn. One to George. He closed his eyes. "Yes."

"When?"

"Once. Late at night on her sofa. We'd been talking. Things got a little…out of hand."

"What happened?"

"We…forgot. Got caught up in the moment…you know. But we realised…came to our senses, I guess, before anything happened."

"And why would kissing her have been so bad, Clark? I hear she was an attractive woman, you're a good-looking man — why not share a kiss or two?"

It started — the dull thud of his heart, the sweaty palms — sooner than he'd expected, but then again George wasn't wasting any time getting into the heavy stuff. "Because…because we weren't attracted to each other. Not really. It was just a late evening thing."

"But you'd broken up with Lana by then?"

"Yes, but that didn't mean I was ready to jump right into another relationship. Besides, she was married."

Damn again — he hadn't meant to say that. Two to George.

"Married? I didn't know that."

"No-one knew except me."

"So you were her confidante, as well as her friend."

The thud in his chest was steadily building, the need rising. "I guess so, if you want to put it like that."

"Did you sleep with her?"

"No! I just told you she was married."

"Oh, so you just wanted to sleep with her."

The thudding grew louder. He flashed on that restless night spent on her sofa, knowing she was just upstairs in bed. He'd tried to force his thoughts elsewhere, but they'd kept returning to the woman just out of reach up the staircase. Finally, finding himself staring up at the spot on the ceiling where he knew her bed would be, he'd allowed his x-ray vision to flick on. Just to sneak a quick peek — to make sure she was okay. Nothing more. "No, George."

He'd glimpsed her, though — sleeping on her side, curled up and looking incredibly cute in her pyjamas.

"I see. Ever find your yourself floating up to the ceiling just thinking about her?"

Oh, god. His pulse was racing in earnest now, nerve-endings jangling, thoughts skittering around his brain as he tried to fend George off. "I don't want to answer that."

"Oh, come on, Clark, it's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I think it is. She was married."

"How quaint. Look, it happens, okay? You're a guy, I'm a guy, we see a pretty woman, we get…interested. It's biology."

If only he'd stop. Shut up, George, you're getting too close.

And he was starting to lose control. Everything was okay so long as he was in control. George was messing things up. "You don't understand," he blurted out. "I wasn't supposed to be attracted to her."

"Because she was married?"

He grabbed onto the half-truth. "Yes." But that wasn't right. "No."

"Which is it, Clark?"

"I don't know." He shook his head, rolling it back and forth on the headrest of the couch. "You're confusing me."

"Why else shouldn't you be attracted to her, Clark? If it wasn't because she was married?"

"I can't tell you."

"Yes, you can."

"I can't, okay?"

"Come on, Clark, quit holding out on me. Tell me this one thing and then you can have some red stuff."

He shook his head again. "No…not supposed to…"

"I've made it okay, remember?" said George. "You can have some today. You just need to tell me this thing first."

His head was going to explode. If George didn't stop asking questions, making him say things he didn't want to say, his head would split open, spattering messy thoughts all over the room. And, oh god, how he wanted the kryptonite. The pain would go away if he could have a hit. He'd die for a hit. Say anything for a hit…

"She wasn't my Lois!" he blurted, the words tumbling out of his mouth. "She was the other Clark's Lois. My Lois was lost in the Congo, okay? Wells looked for her but he didn't find her. Came back and told me she was gone forever, but I need her, I need her so much. Can't live without her." The words were pouring out now, running away from him like an express train. "That's why I need the kryptonite — the kryptonite stops me thinking about her. It blurs, it makes me happy, blocks the pain, blocks everything. I need it," he gasped. "I need it so I can stop the hurting."

He'd lost his bearings, hardly knew where he was any more. The pain and need swirled around his head, making him dizzy and breathless. He felt a hand on his shoulder, heard George's steady voice. "Clark, open your eyes and look at me."

He did as he was told. George's round features gazed intently at him, focusing him, bringing him back from the swirling, dizzy hell of his unchecked, out of control emotions. "Here," said George, placing the box in Clark's hand. "Take it."

Still panting, he stared wildly at George for a moment, hardly understanding the psychiatrist's words. Then he looked down at the grey metal box, felt comprehension dawn, saw his other hand move shakily to the lid. It hovered there, millimetres from the lid but unmoving. Why wouldn't his hand lift the lid?

"It's okay, Clark," said George. "You can open it."

He looked back up at George, desperate to understand why his hand wouldn't open the box.

"Open it," said George. "You need it."

He turned his gaze back down to the box and saw his hand slowly open it. The red crystal glowed invitingly within the grey lead, leading him down into its blissful oblivion. Shame at taking a hit so openly, right in front of someone else, made him hesitate momentarily, but the pull of the kryptonite was too strong. He relaxed back on the couch and let the relief flood over him, feeling his muscles relax and his breathing slow down. Hell went back into its box.

"Okay, buddy," said George softly, patting his shoulder. "You did good. Just relax while I go take a leak, okay? I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Sure," he said, his interest as to whether George stayed or remained leaking away as the red kryptonite worked its magic on him.

***

"Okay, buddy, time for part two."

Clark opened his eyes and smiled hazily at George. "Sure, George. Anything you say, George."

"I think we'll just take this away, okay?" said George, taking the box from Clark's slack fingers. "You can have it back later if you need it."

"Okay." He felt mellow — George could have anything he wanted, if Clark was able to supply it. George was a good friend. He'd made Clark say a few things he probably shouldn't have, but that was cool. George wouldn't break a confidence. Clark could trust good old George.

"Feeling good, are we?" said George.

"Yeah. Real good."

"Great, because we've got a few loose ends to tie up here before I can let you go," said George. "I'm a little confused — you said Lois wasn't your Lois, but the other Clark's. This other Clark — he was her husband, right? The one no-one else but you knew about?"

"Yeah, that's right. He was in the other…" Oops, nearly mentioned universes. George wouldn't understand that. "Place. He lived someplace else."

"Where? Where someplace else?"

"In Metropolis. In a house. He's a journalist, just like me, actually."

"Really? Where does he work, Clark?"

"At the Daily Planet."

"That's where you work, isn't it?"

He frowned. Darn, he shouldn't have said that. Good old George had caught him out again. "I…I think he moved, actually. I've never seen him there."

"Where have you seen him?"

"At their house," he said, remembering his mirror-image who'd stood there so confidently and assuredly — a man certain of himself and his place in the world. "Told him he was lucky to have his Lois. Then Wells said he'd help me find my Lois."

"Who's this Wells, Clark? You haven't mentioned him before."

"He's…a friend." Score one very big point for Clark — he'd managed not to admit that Wells was a dead author from England. He was proud of himself.

"Does he live with the other Clark?"

He frowned again. George clearly hadn't got the hang of the set- up yet. "No, he travels around a lot. I'm not sure where he lives."

"I see. So the other Clark is married to Lois, and Wells is looking for your Lois. Is that about right?"

"Yeah, except Wells couldn't find my Lois. He's stopped looking now. That's why I need the kryptonite."

He felt a twinge of something, a slight shudder of unease. George's questions were starting to get to him again. He looked around the room, located the box on George's desk.

"There's one thing I still don't understand, Clark. You say the other Clark is married to Lois, and they live in Metropolis. He used to work at the Daily Planet, but you think he may have moved on to another newspaper," said George. "You've even visited them at their house. But we all know Lois disappeared a year ago. How do you explain the discrepancy?"

With difficulty. He flicked a glance across to the box again. "She…they moved away," he said, unhappy with the lie but unable to see another way to explain it. There was no way he could tell George about parallel universes.

"Clark, are you sure about that?" said George. "A minute ago you said they were living in Metropolis."

"I forgot. They moved." The box wasn't too far away; he could get there in less than a second. "They definitely moved."

Shame he couldn't levitate the box across the room. All these amazing powers, yet no levitation ability. What an oversight.

"I see. I guess that makes sense." said George. "Do you want it, Clark? Shall I fetch the box for you?"

He nodded. Just to take the edge off.

"Okay," said George. "I think we're done for today anyway."

A moment later, the box was open on his lap once more. Better. The unease faded away again.

He felt George place a hand on his arm. "Buddy, can you focus here a minute? I need to say something important."

He opened his eyes and looked up at the psychiatrist. "Hey."

"I know you don't like hospitals, but I really think it would be helpful if you stayed with us tonight." At Clark's unenthusiastic look, he nodded his understanding. "I know, but you've been through a lot today, and I'd be happier if you were here where we can keep an eye on you. Carolyn's already got a room ready for you, and I'm sure Alice wouldn't mind bringing over a few things."

"What exactly do you think I might do, George?" he asked.

"Probably nothing. It's just a precaution," said George. "But I strongly advise you to listen to me on this one, buddy."

Clark shrugged. "If you think it's necessary."

"I do."

***

The room wasn't so bad. Even sobered up, Clark felt reasonably at ease with his surroundings. There was a good quality en-suite bathroom, and the bedroom furniture was simple but well-made and attractive. The room was decorated in warm, neutral colours, and he even had a window with a view over the clinic's garden.

He'd spotted the spy camera straight away, of course — it was so easy, what with his enhanced vision.

He'd waved at whoever was monitoring the camera. Even considered zapping it with a burst of heat vision, but dismissed the idea. There wasn't any point in staying here if he didn't buy into the whole thing, spy camera and all.

"Perry, thanks for dropping by."

Why was it his hearing always picked up on George's voice whenever he mentioned Perry's name? This eavesdropping really was becoming a bad habit…

"Well, when Alice said that Clark was staying here overnight, I figured something must have happened. Is he okay?" Perry sounded anxious.

"He's fine. We're just keeping an eye on him as a precaution." There was a pause. "I can't tell you any more than that."

"Patient confidentiality, huh?"

"Kind of," replied George. "Look, do you mind if I put the radio on? I'll explain why in a minute."

"Sure."

Clark winced as loud rock music suddenly assaulted his sensitive ears, drowning out Perry and George's conversation. Okay, so George was obviously now wise to his bad habit of eavesdropping.

Sitting on the bed, he hunched his knees up to his chest and pondered the situation. The right thing to do was forget it — turn on the TV and ignore the fact that Perry and George were discussing him downstairs. That was what Clark Kent, the well- behaved farmer's son from Kansas, would do. Besides, nothing good ever came of eavesdropping — he knew that from bitter experience.

But Clark Kent, the addict and mental health patient, wanted to know what other people were saying about him. Were they saying he was a basket case, or were they celebrating a momentous breakthrough and expecting him to be back to his old self in a matter of weeks or even days?

He chewed on his bottom lip. He really, really wanted to know this. Especially given the stuff he'd told George today — he was a little hazy on the details, but he was pretty sure he'd told George things that he hadn't meant to. Things that no sane person would believe.

Maybe if he concentrated really hard, he could tune out the music and focus in on the two men's conversation. He closed his eyes, bowed his head and listened to the melee of noises, gradually locating the lower, unpitched tones of speech underneath the thumping, twangy rock music.

"…head trauma? Is that possible?"

"…doubt it. The guy's invulnerable." That was Perry, robustly dismissing George's question.

"That's what I thought." George sounded disheartened. "…sorry, but your friend…lot sicker… Does he have…doctor? …advice on medication…"

"No…"

"Damn. …identity disorder…medication…don't know what effect…"

Clark froze. Identity disorder? They thought he was confused about who he was? He was confused about a lot of things, but he knew darn well that he was Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas! And that was twice he'd heard the word medication.

Alarmed that they were totally misunderstanding him, he redoubled his efforts to pick out the conversation.

"…multiple personality syndrome? Is that what you mean?"

"Yeah, Perry. He kept talking about another Clark today, someone who lives and works in Metropolis — who even works at the Daily Planet. He was a little hazy on that last point when I pressed him, but I think that was only because he suddenly realised his story sounded a little way out there, so he changed it. And get this, Perry, this other Clark is married to Lois Lane."

"Oh, my. You think this other guy is Clark himself? He's split himself in two, with one half living in a fantasy world with Lois?"

"Something like that — and I think he uses the kryptonite to reach that other world. Our Clark said he needs the kryptonite to forget Lois Lane, but I think the other Clark needs it to remember her. Live with her, if you like."

"Have you tried talking to the other Clark?"

"No, not yet. Now that I've got him here tonight, I'm going to try and keep him here for a few days longer while we work through this stuff. It could get pretty messy. Which is why I could really do with someone medical on the case."

Clark had heard enough. They were going to lock him up and pump him full of medication! Terrified, he leapt up from the bed, flew downstairs and flung open the door of George's office. "You're wrong!" he cried. "You've got it all wrong!"

He took in the scene at a glance — Perry, with a cut-glass whisky tumbler in hand, twisting around in his chair and staring with shock at his sudden entry. George, already rising, concern written across his genial features.

"Clark, son, I don't know-"

"Perry, let me handle this," said George sharply. He finished standing and looked steadily at Clark. "Okay, buddy, let's take a couple of deep breaths together."

"I'm not crazy! At least, not like that. I-"

"Clark." George's voice cut through Clark's like steel. "Listen to me, buddy. I need you to do exactly as I say — take in a slow breath to a count of three-"

"Quit trying to humour me, George," snapped Clark. "I just need to tell you-"

"I'm not trying to humour you, Clark. You can have your say in a minute, okay? I just want you to slow down a little first. It'll be easier that way."

Clark caught a glimpse of Perry sitting behind George, his knuckles white as he gripped his whisky tumbler and watched the scene unfold. His friend looked alarmed — fearful, even.

That did it — the thought that he was scaring a good and trusted friend with his behaviour made Clark realise that he really did need to calm down a little. He followed George's advice and took the calming breaths, searched around for the good old sea of tranquillity and more or less found a calm spot where he could bob up and down in the gently lapping waves. Perry turned the radio off, and suddenly the room felt a lot more peaceful and civilised.

"That's better," said George. "Now come and sit down and talk to us."

Clark joined them on the comfortable chairs arranged around George's antique coffee table. Perry, he noted thankfully, seemed more relaxed, although he caught the reassuring glances which went between George and Perry as he settled himself.

"Want a drink?" offered George. "I've got a very good Glenmorangie here — if Perry's left any in the bottle, that is."

"No, thanks," said Clark. He preferred the peatier single malt whiskies, and anyway, the circumstances just didn't feel right for drinking, no matter how congenial George was trying to make things.

"Okay, then shoot. I guess you heard everything I said?"

"Yes. Sorry." Clark took a deep breath, framing the words he wanted to say in his head so that he didn't blurt out a story that would send George scrambling for the nearest straitjacket.

"Uh, maybe I should leave," interjected Perry. "If this is going to be a patient-doctor type of conversation, that is."

Clark shook his head. "No, Perry, this affects you, too. I'd prefer if you stayed." He smiled shakily. "I'm not sure I'm up to repeating this more often than I absolutely have to."

"Fine, then he stays," said George. "But any time you want him to go, just say the word, okay?" He looked over at Perry, who nodded his agreement.

"Thanks," said Clark. Another deep breath. "Okay, if someone had told you three years ago that there was an alien living in Metropolis, you'd have had serious doubts about their sanity, wouldn't you?"

They both agreed, and it was from there that he took them through the events surrounding his two encounters with Lois Lane. He kept it as impersonal and factual as he possibly could, but even so, it was a difficult and sometimes harrowing story to tell. Several times he had to repeat himself or explain things he'd forgotten to include, and they were naturally sceptical from the outset, causing him to expend a lot of energy in simply convincing them that he was telling the truth.

It didn't help that the first part of his story came as a complete shock to Perry, who had, until that point, believed that Lois had returned from the Congo just over a year ago. Clark had to witness the resurfacing of Perry's guilt — the guilt of sending a member of staff into a dangerous situation which ultimately resulted in their presumed death. Perry's stricken face when he finally accepted the truth of Clark's version of events brought Clark to a stumbling full stop.

There were several moments of complete silence.

Eventually, George cleared his throat. "I think Perry would appreciate it if you finished the story," he said to Clark. "That okay with you, Perry?"

Perry nodded.

"Clark? You okay to continue, buddy?"

No, he was very far from okay. His hands were trembling and his heart was thumping, and he was very aware of the fact that the medicine cabinet containing his red kryptonite was only just down the corridor from George's office. The addict in him was already scheming, thinking up clever ways to get to the stuff.

However, his fear of the consequences if he didn't persuade them to believe his story won over his need for a hit. He nodded tightly. "Yeah."

He finished the story, taking them through his visit to Lois's universe. In some ways that was even harder, because it was this second encounter that had really branded his soul with Lois's amazing personality. He'd realised exactly what was missing in his life; what would still be missing in his life when he returned to his own universe.

His whole body was trembling by the time he finished. "S-so now do you believe me?" he said shakily.

"Hell, yes," murmured Perry. "Son, that's one heck of a story. Do you know-"

"Perry, I think that's enough for tonight," interrupted George, his gaze flicking over to Clark with professional assessment. "Clark and I will pick this up tomorrow, huh, buddy?"

Clark nodded, wrapping his arms around his body in an effort to stop the shaking. "I hope you've got that medicine cabinet well guarded tonight," he said, attempting a sardonic smile. "I'm feeling just a little rough."

George grimaced sympathetically. "I wish there was something I could give you, but I'm reluctant to medicate you without medical advice."

"I understand," replied Clark. "I don't suppose you've got a Scrabble board handy, have you? It's Alice's patented cure for addicts with the shakes."

George laughed. "Sure, buddy. Let me show Perry to the door and then we'll crack out the Scrabble."

***

Over the ensuing days, Clark discovered an unexpected benefit of his confessions that night. The heavy cloud of despair, which had become part of his daily existence for so long he couldn't remember living without it, actually lifted a little. It didn't take him long to realise why — at last, there were two people; three, counting Alice, whom he gave Perry permission to let into the secret, who knew exactly what had happened to him. Even when he wasn't actually talking directly about his experiences, it felt good to know that there were people close to him who really understood what he'd been through.

He still had a long way to travel, though. Now that George understood more fully the causes of Clark's addiction, he began strenuous work on addressing those causes. He explored areas of Clark's psyche that Clark found intensely uncomfortable, such as the loss of his parents and his break-up with Lana. He delved deep into Clark's loneliness, bringing him to tears on more than one occasion, and spent a lot of time on his Superman persona.

In particular, he wanted to know how Clark dealt with trauma — if someone was badly injured, how did that make him feel? If he witnessed a death, or had to bring dead bodies out from a disaster scene, did he talk to anyone about it? Mostly, the answer was no, although now and then he did talk to Perry or Alice about his work — it depended whether one of their dinners happened to coincide with a recent event or not. George made him realise how dangerous this was — that he was bottling up a lot of strong emotions which had undoubtedly contributed to his present illness.

Clark's social life was also picked to pieces, particularly his recent run of short-term girlfriends. His attitude to sex within a relationship was analysed, and it wasn't very long before George discovered just how recently Clark had lost his virginity. Clark's confession of tears after sex then came as no surprise to George, who merely pointed out what Clark already knew in his heart of hearts — that, for him, sex wasn't something that could exist outside a loving relationship. He wept because he wanted to be making love with Lois Lane, not having sex with a woman he barely knew.

Bringing these issues out into the open helped Clark understand them better, but didn't really cure the root cause. He still longed to have his Lois Lane by his side.

***

"Clark, do you want to be Superman?" asked George one day.

"Yes," he replied, slightly surprised that George thought it a question worth asking. "Of course I do."

"Why 'of course'?"

"Well, because it allows me to use my abilities to help people," he said. "Before I was Superman, I'd do what I could, but I was never able to do as much as I wanted because I had to hide what I was up to. Now I can help whenever I want."

"Do you ever help when you don't want to?"

"Not really."

"It's never inconvenient for you?" George said. "What if you're in the middle of a date and you hear something? Do you want to be Superman then?"

Clark pulled a face. "Okay, so sometimes it's not convenient. But I have to go."

"Why do you have to go?"

"Because people might get hurt if I don't," he replied a little impatiently. This seemed like a pointless line of questioning to Clark — he did what he could, when he could.

"So does Clark Kent control Superman, or does Superman control Clark Kent?"

He frowned. "It doesn't work like that. I do what I have to."

"It's just that you're now saying 'I have to', when you started out by telling me that Superman was a good thing because you could help 'whenever I want'," pointed out George. "Which is it?"

This was becoming irritating. George seemed to be acting deliberately obtusely — but then, that was what George excelled at. "George, you can't do what I do half-heartedly," he said. "You either do it to the best of your abilities or you may as well not bother at all."

"Okay, I'll accept that," said George. "But tell me this — are you satisfied with what you do? Or could you do more?"

"There's always more to be done," he muttered.

"I see," said George. "So — ever thought of becoming Superman full time? If there's always more to be done, it would seem like the next logical step, wouldn't it? I'm sure you could persuade the city to pay you some sort of a salary if money was a problem."

"Yes, but…"

"But what?"

He'd never actually considered doing anything so drastic, but now that George was forcing him to consider it, he knew immediately why it had never occurred to him before. "If I was Superman all the time, I wouldn't be me."

George tutted. "Sounds like a pretty selfish point of view, Clark. Think of all those extra people you could save if you did it full time."

Clark rolled his eyes. "George, did anyone ever tell you how obnoxious you are?"

"Oh, yeah. Now answer the question, buddy."

"What question?" said Clark. "You made a statement."

"Smart-ass," shot back George. "Okay, why don't you want to save even more people by becoming Superman full time? Why isn't that selfish?"

Clark smiled. "Now you've asked me two questions. A good reporter only asks one question at a time."

"Well, lucky for you, I'm a psychiatrist and not a reporter. Answer the damn question, Clark."

Game over. He sighed. "Because I have to be me some of the time in order to be Superman the rest of the time."

"Wow, that's very noble of you," said George. "You spend time as Clark Kent only so that you can be as good a Superman as you possibly can? I didn't know I was psychoanalysing a saint."

Clark snorted. "Far from it, my friend. Okay, the truth — I'd hate to be that all-good, too-perfect cartoon cut-out all the time. It would drive me crazy."

George laughed. "I hate to tell you, buddy, but you already are."

"Very funny, George."

"So, tell me," said George, sobering quickly. "How do you square this selfish attitude of yours with your conscience? You're not willing to be Superman full time, yet you know you ought to do more. How does that work?"

Clark bit his bottom lip. As usual, George had boxed him into a corner and was asking him the unanswerable. "It doesn't," he said quietly. That was the big problem — he lived with a constant guilty conscience. Whatever he did wasn't enough, and he berated himself for not doing more. But even when he pushed himself hard, to the point of exhaustion, it still wasn't enough, because people still died.

No matter what he did, people died.

"Hey, buddy, talk to me. What are you thinking?"

He raised his hands to his face, hid behind the double safety of his closed eyes and palms. "People die and I can't stop them."

"And you think you ought to save them all? That pretty much puts you up there with God, doesn't it?"

"George, I'm not that naive," he murmured from behind his hands. "I know I can't save everyone. Intellectually, anyway. Emotionally…well, sometimes I forget."

"Which brings me to this — do you think you're emotionally well- equipped to be Superman?"

Clark knew the answer to this one. It was obvious — why else was he here, in a mental health clinic, receiving treatment for addiction? He sighed and pulled his hands away from his face. "No."

"Why not?"

He knew the answer to this one, too — had known it for over a year. "Because I don't have anyone to talk to at the end of the day. The other Clark had his parents, and then Lois, to talk stuff over with. I have to do it all on my own." He sighed, his voice catching on his next words. "Which is why I need my Lois."

Everything always came back to Lois. No matter what George said, what clever questions he asked, Lois was always the answer.

He knew he shouldn't pin all his hopes, his whole reason for living, on a woman he'd never met and was most probably dead, but he couldn't stop himself. Maybe it was because he couldn't actually believe that she was dead.

Missing.

It was such an ambiguous word. Missing from what? Missing from life? Missing from friends and family? Missing the way back to her old life?

She could be anywhere.

Maybe if he could just have some closure — be shown a dead body, or something.

His eyes smarted with unshed tears which had suddenly sprung up from nowhere. That was all he did these days — fight back tears and an absolute devotion to a stupid red rock he'd found in a field.

He felt George's hand on his shoulder. "You want to take five?"

"Yeah."

"Tissues are in the usual place."

He almost laughed. George could read him like a book.

***

He decided to pay Lana a return visit. She'd battered him to pieces the last time he'd seen her, but he was feeling a little stronger now that he had friends around him who understood him. The green kryptonite incident, too, had strengthened him in a strange way — he'd hit rock bottom that day, and now that it was over, the only way to travel was up.

It wasn't that he sought retribution with Lana; he just wanted to redress the balance between them a little. Show her that he wasn't quite as pathetic as she made out.

He didn't tell George he intended to visit her. George might not have approved — told him he wasn't ready to take on his waspish ex-fiancee. But Clark felt he could cope.

It probably helped that he'd got himself down to a day and a half between hits. That had just happened spontaneously — he'd made a spur of the moment decision on his way to the treatment room at the clinic where he was usually given his hits to simply not go there. He went for a flight around the city instead. Then he'd told the clinic he'd like to change his treatment schedule and they'd agreed immediately. Just like that.

Of course, he timed the visit to Lana very, very carefully. He made sure he was roughly half-way between hits — not too high that he didn't care what he said, but not so low that he was totally vulnerable.

"So, they let you out, did they?"

"Amazing, isn't it?" he replied. "Do I get to come in, or are we going to trade insults on your doorstep?"

She moved aside to let him in and closed the door behind him. Lana and Steve lived in a very nice house right in the centre of the smart end of Metropolis — all white paint, gold chandeliers and stripped wooden floors. Stylish and totally impersonal, in Clark's opinion. He preferred something with a little more character.

She led him into the lounge. More stylish features, such as an over-designed beige sofa that looked sleek and elegant but was totally uncomfortable to sit on, and brushed aluminium light fittings that wouldn't have looked out of place in an operating theatre. Clark wondered how all this chic smartness would fare once Lana started producing the brood of children she and Steve had apparently scheduled for next year.

"What can I do for you, Clark?" she asked, perching on the edge of the uncomfortable sofa.

"I thought I should return this," he said, holding up a lumpy old sweatshirt she'd borrowed from him many times. "I mean, you practically made it your own when we were dating, so I'm just returning it to its rightful owner."

She eyed it with distaste. He'd known full well that shabby sweatshirts certainly didn't fit with her new lifestyle when he'd unearthed it from the back of his wardrobe at home. This moment was to be savoured.

"Thanks," she said, making no move to take it from him.

He stood up and held it out to her. "Here, why don't you put it on for old times sake?"

"Clark, don't be ridiculous," she snapped, snatching the garment from him and dumping it on the sofa. "Is this some pathetic attempt to remind me about us? I'm married, Clark. You can't have me back."

"Lana, I wouldn't take you back if you paid me."

She bristled. "You wouldn't talk to me like that if Steve were here."

"No?" He drew himself up to his full height and looked down at her with his arms crossed over his chest, Superman style. "I'd be afraid of him, would I?"

She shot up from her seat and faced him defiantly, her arms crossed exactly the same as his. "At least he'll be able to give me children, which is more than you'd ever have been able to do."

The words hit him like a slap across the face, but he stood his ground. "Is that all a husband is to you, Lana? Someone to put food on the table, buy you a nice house, and give you kids? Oh, and join Daddy's company," he added. "Mustn't forget Daddy."

"Get out," she said. "Get out of my life and never come back."

"Gladly, Lana. Just remember that you were the one who brought us together again, though. You were the one who came to hurt me when I was down," he said. "I'm just here to show my gratitude, Lana — you made me a lot stronger that day, so I thank you for that."

"Any time," she replied sarcastically. "Now go, before I throw you out."

"Already on my way," he said, lifting slowly off the floor and gliding through the lounge door to the entrance. He particularly enjoyed the blatant use of powers in front of her — she hated that. "Don't bother to see me out," he threw over his shoulder.

He opened the front door and flew up into the sky, free as a bird.

***

Okay, so it had been a little immature of him to make that visit, but it had felt great. For once in what seemed like months, he'd been calling the shots. He'd been the one in control.

George had asked whether he controlled Superman, or vice versa. In the beginning, he'd definitely been in control. It had all been so new that he hadn't automatically heard every cry for help or every incident requiring the help of a superhero, so he hadn't been that busy, and consequently the job hadn't been so hard to slot into his life. People even helped — they accommodated his abrupt departures and late arrivals. For a while, he'd even thought he had a better deal than the other Clark, who always needed to create some sort of smokescreen to cover his disappearances. There came a time when he felt pretty good about this new life of his — by breaking up with Lana, he'd regained control of his private life, and by becoming Superman, he'd got control of his powers. Plus he was helping people — what could be better?

Later, though, he'd become more skilled at hearing all the important sounds of distress and, as a result, his response had become more immediate. Anything he heard required his attention. Control had begun to slip from Clark Kent to Superman. Superman wanted to do everything, and it was Clark who had to hold back, to keep a part of himself alive as just another guy in the street.

Just another guy in the street.

That was the other problem. At first, this new celebrity status had been novel and exciting. As Superman, he found it fairly easy to do the press conferences, the media interviews, sign the autograph books, and so on. As Clark Kent, he asked people at work to treat him normally and, mostly, they did.

However, when Superman became more widely known — and more importantly, the values he stood for became widely known — Clark realised that people expected him to be as perfect as his alter ego. It wasn't that he wanted to behave badly all the time, but he couldn't even behave badly for five minutes.

So, eventually, Superman controlled Clark Kent — he dictated when Clark had time to himself, and he dictated how Clark should behave.

Yet another two reasons why he needed his Lois.

"Do you think you'd need Lois so much if you weren't Superman?"

He blinked, George's question bringing him back to the present. He was on the couch again, playing their usual game of twenty questions. Or make that two hundred questions, he amended ruefully.

He pondered George's question. It was hard to imagine his life without Superman, but he supposed that logically, he'd been sort of okay when he'd just been plain old Clark Kent — he hadn't needed a Lois Lane back then.

But how did you erase someone from your soul once they'd branded themselves on you? Just as he couldn't imagine his life without Superman, he couldn't imagine life without Lois — even if he never met her again, she'd always be part of him.

So could he cope; live his life with just the mere memory of a lost love to sustain him if he wasn't Superman?

"Maybe — I mean, maybe I wouldn't need her quite so much," he conceded. "But you're asking me to imagine the unimaginable."

"Well, just humour me for a moment," said George. "How about giving up Superman? Given that you can't have your Lois, would that make things easier for you?"

He shook his head immediately. "No." As hard as he found the job, and as bad as things had become, he just wasn't prepared to give it up. "Superman is what I am — it's what I do," he said.

George cleared his throat and resettled himself on his chair. "Okay. Let's summarise things so far. You definitely want to be Superman, and, even though you have this big guilt problem because you can never do enough, you're not prepared to give up being Superman. And even if you can't have your Lois, you still want to be Superman." He chuckled. "I got to tell you, buddy, you've got a lot of determination — and that's what will probably get you through this, you know.

"But, and this is the big but, you told me the other day that you're poorly equipped, emotionally, to be Superman. Frankly, I'd agree — you don't handle stress well, and you don't have much of a support system in place. Occasional dinners with Perry and Alice just ain't enough, buddy."

Clark pulled a face. "You're really cheering me up here, George," he said. "I feel better already."

"Hey, I said you were determined, didn't I?" replied George. "Anyway, how do you suggest we fix this mess? How do we make you into an emotionally strong Superman?"

"Isn't that your job?" said Clark. "To tell me what to do?"

"Oh, no, that's your job, buddy. I just ask questions."

"Seems to me you're overpaid if all you do is ask questions."

George grinned. "Why do you think there are so many therapists in the world? We know a good thing when we see it. So what's the answer? I'll give you a big clue — the answer doesn't involve Lois Lane."

Clark closed his eyes, hurt by George's careless dismissal of her. "Then I don't know."

"Come on, buddy. Use your imagination — how else can you make yourself emotionally strong?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know, George."

"I'll give you another clue — support systems."

He shook his head. "Oh, no. I tried that — tried it a lot. They were all really nice women, but I couldn't love any of them."

"Why not?"

"Because I didn't have those sorts of feelings for them. I pretended a little, but they soon figured me out."

"But did you even try to love any of them? Love takes time, you know — it's not all that dewy-eyed, love at first sight crap you see in the movies."

"George, I'm not stupid," said Clark. "I know all this."

"So why didn't you give love a chance?"

"Because they weren't the right type…because I already loved someone else." Clark swallowed back the inevitable lump in his throat, determined not to give in to his emotions yet again. "Look, there's something you don't seem to understand," he said.

"What's that, Clark?"

"All those women…any woman I meet — they all know who I am. They date me because I'm Superman, not because I'm Clark Kent."

He flashed on his latest girlfriend, murmuring breathlessly beneath him. "Oh, yeah, Superman. You're so big, Superman."

They'd all been like that. And even if the women he'd dated while he'd been high on red kryptonite were shallower than the sort of woman he could imagine wanting to form a deeper relationship with, the Superman thing would always be in the way. He'd always wonder if they'd like him so much if he were just plain old Clark Kent, farmer's son from Kansas.

"Oh, you mean this?" said George, flicking a tabloid newspaper into Clark's lap.

"I SEDUCED SUPERMAN"

The headline was emblazoned across a two-page centre spread. Sub- headlines declared "He Was Insatiable," "Super-Sex," and "Love On The Ceiling."

"Or this?" George flicked a second newspaper on top of the first.

"BETWEEN THE SHEETS WITH SUPERMAN"

More lurid sub-headlines — "He Said He Loved Me," "Always The Gentleman," and, most embarrassingly, "Impressive."

Clark winced. He'd been aware of these, of course, but had resolutely ignored them; pretty much denied they even existed, in fact. At the time, he'd hardly cared what anyone thought of him, so long as they didn't know that he was out of control and high on red kryptonite. That had been the important secret to protect — by comparison, newspapers printing scurrilous gossip about Superman had seemed like an unimportant annoyance.

He pushed the papers aside. "I was out of my mind, George. I didn't know what I was doing half the time."

"Yeah, you could say. Yet you base your whole theory of relationships on your experience with these women? Did you even know any of them for more than few days?" said George.

Clark shrugged. "Mostly, no. One or two lasted longer. But that's not the point. Even if I met someone who I thought I might actually learn to love eventually, I'd still wonder if they were attracted to Superman or me."

"So it's safer not to risk finding out."

"Yeah."

"Sounds like a pretty lonely existence you've mapped out for yourself, buddy."

"I don't have a choice."

"You know, I think the women of the world might be a little pissed that you've written their whole sex off as shallow and undiscerning," remarked George.

"I'm not doing that," objected Clark. "I guess I'm just saying I don't think I could stand being hurt again. I've already been in one long-term relationship that ended badly — I don't want another that ends the same way."

"Love hurts, buddy."

"Spare me the fortune cookie stuff, George."

"Didn't you realise my whole therapeutic approach is based on fortune cookie sayings?" said George. "Okay, let's talk about Lois for a minute. Your Lois, that is — the one who disappeared in the Congo. Say she came back tomorrow — she'd know you're Superman, just like everyone else. How do you know she wouldn't treat you like those other women?"

"Because she just wouldn't," said Clark. "I've met her counterpart, and she wasn't like that."

"So she'd be exactly the same as the Lois Lane you met, huh?" said George. "Just like you're exactly the same as that other Clark, yeah? The one who grew up in a stable family home, broke up with Lana when he was a teenager, and doesn't have to deal with everyone knowing that he's Superman. I'm sure you're just like two peas in a pod, aren't you?"

Clark rolled his eyes. "No, George. But we have a lot in common, and I think my Lois would have a lot in common with the Lois I met."

"So your Lois is a safe bet, huh? You're certain not to get hurt in a relationship with her, is that it?"

"I guess so." George was so annoying sometimes. He made Clark's explanations sound stupid and narrow-minded.

George laughed. "You know, what? I think you're lazy. And a coward. It's easier to live your lonely, miserable life wishing Lois were here than it is to get off your butt and take a few risks."

"That's not true. I don't get off my butt, as you put it, because I know I can't love anyone else."

"How do you know until you've tried? I'll say it again, buddy — you're afraid of taking the risk."

"That's not true, either," protested Clark. "I take risks all the time."

"As Superman, maybe, but not as Clark Kent."

Clark bit his lip. George was right. Superman was the flamboyant part of his character — Clark Kent just plodded along in his wake, doing as little as possible to make waves. Especially during the last year, when he'd begun to lose his edge as a reporter. Once upon a time, Clark Kent would at least have broken the occasional major story; made a nuisance of himself until he uncovered the news that no-one wanted told.

"Look, buddy, I think that's enough for today. Hopefully I've given you a few things to think about, okay?"

Clark nodded.

George began scribbling a few notes on his clipboard. "It's time to start thinking about how you're going to live your life once you're out of this place and rid of my ugly face," he said, his head still bowed over his notes. "We'll work on that some more next time."

Clark unfolded himself from George's couch. "Actually, I was thinking I might move back to my own place soon," he said. "Do you think I'm ready for that?"

George's head popped up, a big grin spreading over his round face. "Do you know how long I've been waiting for you to say that? Bud, if you're asking the question, you're ready."

Clark smiled. "Okay, I'll tell Alice and Perry. I'm sure they'll be glad to get rid of me."

***

George's questions occupied a lot of Clark's thoughts over the next few days. He'd known from the start that he needed to find a way of living without red kryptonite — that much had been obvious. But what George had made him realise was that he needed to find a way of living without Lois.

In one of George's later sessions, it was suggested that Clark was really in mourning for the loss of his Lois. It made a lot of sense. Wells's news that he was unable to find her after his year-long search was almost the same as confirmation of her death, and that had plunged Clark unknowingly into a period of intense mourning. He'd turned inward, focusing on his grief and despair, just like a person might who'd been bereaved. Even his hope that she was still alive, and his dreams about her, could be compared to the feelings and experiences of a person who'd suffered the loss of a loved one.

George even suggested that Clark might like to hold a small memorial for her; perhaps lay some flowers on her gravestone and propose a toast or two to her amongst good friends — Alice and Perry, basically. Clark declined. He wasn't ready for that. He felt nauseous just thinking about the idea.

However, he did think that perhaps he could find a way of living with his loss. Other people managed that, so why couldn't he? Widowers even remarried.

So a fresh start was needed. He'd move back into his apartment, kick the kryptonite habit, and gradually ease himself back into normal life. He'd even date, but this time he'd look for the right woman, not just any woman willing to jump into bed with him. She'd be bright and funny, sensitive and intelligent, and somehow, by a miracle of fate, she'd want to be with Clark Kent and not Superman. As George had pointed out, there had to be at least one woman out there somewhere who could look beyond the cape and tights.

And who knew — in time, he might even find a way to love her.

Ripples of unease broke the surface of his otherwise tranquil sea whenever he found himself thinking that. Logically, he knew that there was no reason why he shouldn't love the right woman, but…well, it was that 'but' that caused the ripples. He wasn't sure what the 'but' meant, but it was there, nonetheless. However, his recent sessions with George had borne in him a new determination to make things right again, and that meant pressing forward — thinking positively.

Of course, it was easy to decide these things in the safety of his room at Perry and Alice's. It was considerably harder to actually do any of them.

The first part was the easiest. Within a week of making his plans, he was back in his apartment. Alice had arranged for a cleaning company to visit, and she'd visited herself to add a few personal touches, like a brand-new Scrabble box set prominently on his coffee table. He laughed out loud when he saw it.

It felt good to be home. He had all his own things around him again, and he could do exactly what he wanted, when he wanted. Control was back within his grasp.

Of course, he still had appointments with the clinic, and he soon found out how closely they were keeping an eye on him even though he was at home. He forgot about an extra session George had arranged for him with one of the relationship counsellors, and it only took them five minutes into the appointment time to phone him to ask where he was. Presumably if he hadn't answered the phone they would have sent out search parties!

Kicking the kryptonite was harder. For anyone else, the hassle of traipsing over to the clinic every other day for a hit might have lessened their craving, but for Clark, it was a breeze to fly there, get his fix, and then drift slowly back on a kryptonite high. The clinic usually held him back for the first couple of hours to make sure he was safe to himself and everyone else, but even that didn't seem like much of an inconvenience — he was too high to care.

However, the day eventually came when he decided that enough was enough. He was never going to get better if he was continually feeding his habit, so he told George he was giving it up and that was that.

***

Well, not quite. The trouble was, he didn't have anything to do all day long, and that made for an idle mind. Idle minds sought ways to relieve the boredom, and one great way of doing that was to disappear into a cloud of kryptonite-induced oblivion.

So he had lapses. The clinic had strict procedures for dealing with lapses. Any time he appeared on their doorstep begging for kryptonite, he was taken for assessment by one of the staff psychiatrists. Often, it was George, but not every time. They'd start by trying to talk him out of it, reminding him of how disappointed he'd be with himself afterwards, of the fact that it had been his own choice to give up the red stuff in the first place. Sometimes, they'd win the battle, and sometimes they'd lose. If they lost, a nurse would escort him to the treatment room and remain with him while he was granted the briefest of hits. She'd time his hit by monitoring his pulse — when it went below a certain rate, the box was closed and locked safely away with the green kryptonite once more.

It was all very medical, and designed, it seemed to Clark, to make him feel as guilty as possible. They never denied him his dignity, but boy, did his conscience take a battering.

The other strict rule concerned Superman. At his sickest, Clark really hadn't noticed the cries for help any more, hadn't been tuned into the unique sounds of distress and disaster which had dominated his life before his breakdown. But now that he was recovering, he began to hear them again.

"Clark, this is a cast-iron, non-negotiable rule," George announced. "This is one you do not break, okay? You are not to respond to any requests for help. I do not want you going anywhere near that red cape until I say so."

Clark frowned. "Not even the minor stuff? I can't stop old ladies from being mugged or catch petty thieves? Those sorts of rescues are good for me, surely. Make me feel useful."

"Yeah, but I don't think you know where the boundaries are, buddy. When does a minor rescue become a major rescue? When the mugger shoots someone? When the thief takes a hostage, or two, or three?" George shook his head. "I just don't think you're ready to cope with the emotional fall-out yet."

"But-"

"No buts. I'm the professional here, okay? Let me do my job."

So he ignored the cries for help. In truth, there were hardly any in any case, because people had lost the habit of calling for him during his absence from the skies.

Harder to ignore were the accidents. Metropolis was a big city, with an extensive transport system and the usual high volume of impatient, hasty drivers. Minor knocks were commonplace, and larger incidents were fairly regular. Clark valiantly ignored them all, until the day of the multiple pile-up on one of the major freeways on the west of the city.

He heard the radio reports first. Helicopter-based reporters, quick to the scene, described a terrible picture of twisted metal, jack-knifed vehicles strewn across the highway, and crumpled crash barriers. The TV news soon joined in, and it was when Clark heard the first human scream that he couldn't bear it any longer.

He didn't hesitate for a millisecond after that scream. He flung on the first available suit from his wardrobe and was airborne while the reverberations from the scream were still ringing in his ears.

At the scene of the accident, he had a brief moment of nervousness, not to say nausea, as he flew over the chaotic mass of broken vehicles. It was a long time — or at least, it felt like a long time — since he'd done this. Did he still have the skills? Would he be accepted by the emergency services? How much did they know about his illness?

They did indeed look at him askance when he swooped down to the hub of the rescue operation. However, having arrived, there was no going back, so he strode straight up to them and asked firmly, "What can I do?"

There were a few more sideways looks from busy rescue workers, but then one of the more senior-looking firemen stepped up and barked, "The jack-knifed truck near the other end. It's stopping the bigger fire engines from getting through."

He nodded once and then took off. That was the ice-breaker — after that first job, he became a member of the team, just like old times. The remainder of the rescue proceeded slowly and painfully, as these incidents always did, but eventually, all the injured were either in hospital or at home, and the freeway was cleared of debris.

He returned home and sat staring blankly at the TV for a long time. He didn't feel elated, but he didn't think he felt depressed either. He'd seen some pretty horrific injuries and a couple of extremely distressed people who'd been trapped in their cars for a long time, but none of it seemed to have had a significant impact on him. Mostly, he was confused because he didn't think he felt enough of anything at all.

The phone rang eventually. "Come and see me tomorrow, okay, buddy? Ten o'clock."

He confirmed the appointment and rang off. Relief settled over him — George was on the case and would explain these weird, non- feelings to him.

He tumbled into bed, exhausted.

***

Well, as usual, it turned out that George had out-smarted him.

"I knew you wouldn't be able to sit on your hands for very long," he said with a note of triumph.

Apparently, the non-negotiable, unbreakable rule had been a ploy — George's way of making sure Clark was ready when he went out for the first time again as Superman. The theory went like this: if Clark was prepared to break George's cast-iron rule and also risk his own well-being, then he was probably resilient enough to do Superman's work. Well, the theory appeared to have worked — according to George.

Not that George took Clark's mental survival from the accident for granted. He went over the incident in forensic detail with Clark, drawing out his thoughts and emotions both during the rescue and afterwards. To Clark's surprise, and considerable relief, there was reassurance to be gained, seemingly, from his lack of strong feelings after the event. George thought that was fairly normal — it was his first major rescue for quite some time, so he had every right to feel a little shell-shocked. As long as the feeling didn't persist for more than a day or so, Clark should be fine.

There were warnings and more rules along with the reassurances, however. He was granted a permanent licence to resume his Superman work, so long as he practiced the self-monitoring skills he'd learnt at the clinic. He was to continue attending a selection of classes and workshops at the clinic, and, equipped with a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, he ought to be able to detect the early warning signs that signalled he was pushing himself too hard. Weekly sessions with George would help, but Clark was now entrusted for the greater part with his own care.

Weirdly, it seemed like an awesome responsibility at first. He'd been cosseted and coddled, monitored and tested for so long that he felt a little exposed. After each of his first couple of small rescues, he prodded himself mentally all over, a bit like someone might do if they'd just miraculously survived a nasty tumble. Lack of the shakes — check. No guilt — check. No cravings — check. Sanity — check.

Phew. Safe to do it again, then.

Things grew easier, though. His confidence built as he gained more practice, and the people he helped were usually grateful for his help and often told him so. He began to rediscover his self- respect — one of the early casualties of his addiction.

People were also surprisingly forgiving of the kiss-and-tell stories in the tabloids — the general view seemed to be that he was just one of the many celebrity victims of the gutter press. He would never know whether they believed the wild stories of sex on the ceiling and positions only a rubber-limbed contortionist could manage, but he guessed that was the fate of anyone caught in the glare of adverse publicity. So long as it didn't prevent him doing his job, he would just have to live with it.

His addiction had been reported on as well, of course, but again, many people were sympathetic and told him how glad they were that he was better.

***

He wasn't better, of course. He was recovering, and suffering fewer lapses into depression and cravings for his drug, but he didn't seem able to shake them completely. George told him that these things took time, but Clark wasn't so sure. His world seemed to have shifted, seemed to be slightly askew. He came to believe that he might never be entirely cured. He'd reach a point where he could manage his addiction, and that was the best that could be hoped for.

George rejected that theory outright, naturally. He was positive, he said, that Clark would make a full recovery and undoubtedly emerge from the experience a stronger, more self-assured man than ever before. That was George's experience of these things, he said.

So Clark pressed forward, placing his faith in the man who had already taken him from helpless junkie to recovering addict.

George wanted him to start building up a social life. Clark couldn't see how he was going to manage that. Other than Perry and Alice, he didn't have any friends. He had work acquaintances, but none whom he would consider contacting socially. He wasn't a joiner of clubs and societies — even though he had a passing interest in vintage foreign language movies, for example, the thought of joining a club to sit around with a group of earnest men and women discussing the merits and demerits of Eisenstein made him shudder. He couldn't do sports either — something he'd always enjoyed at school — because everyone knew who he was. It was no fun playing against someone who didn't need to put any effort into beating you every single time you played against him.

He considered and rapidly rejected dating agencies. Again, everyone knew his face, and anyway, after all those tabloid headlines about his sex life, who would believe he wanted more than a quick roll in the hay? If they didn't laugh in his face first, that was, for claiming he needed help finding women.

"Clark, you need a job," pronounced George.

"I've got a job," said Clark.

"No, a real job," replied George. "Not that girlie stuff you do in tights and a cape."

"Girlie stuff, George?" said Clark. "Do you have any idea just how much strength it requires to lift a fully-loaded oil-tanker out of the sea and fly it to the oil terminal?"

George snorted. "Brawn and a nanosecond of brain power," he said. "No, a real job is where you sit behind a desk drinking stale cups of coffee and talking to people you'd rather send to Siberia than spend another five minutes with. That requires real strength, Superman."

"True," agreed Clark, laughing. "But," he continued, sobering quickly, "I have a problem. I'm not sure I could go back to the Daily Planet, after the mess I made of things there. I'm not even sure they'd want me back."

"There are other papers, Clark."

"Not like the Daily Planet."

"How about the Daily Star?"

"A tabloid rag posing as a quality newspaper," said Clark. "I couldn't work there."

"What would you say if I told you I'm a Daily Star reader?" said George.

"I wouldn't believe you," retorted Clark. "Either that, or you only read the cartoons."

"Okay, you got me," said George. "So, it's the Daily Planet or nothing, is it?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I guess you just have to swallow your pride and head on over there, buddy."

Clark nodded reluctantly. It was certainly true that he couldn't continue indefinitely without a job. He'd been living off his savings for too long already, and whilst Alice and Perry had refused to accept a cent from him while he'd been living at their house, now that he was back at home, his living costs were almost back at pre-job-loss levels. Ends just weren't going to meet before too long.

***

Walking into the Planet was the hardest thing Clark had done for a long time. Kicking the kryptonite had been harder, but only marginally. Previously, he'd been so out of his mind at work that he really didn't have a clue how bad his behaviour had been, especially during the last few weeks before he'd resigned. So when heads turned, or colleagues greeted him, he had no idea what was going through their minds. They were polite, of course, even cordial, but Clark knew that was no guide as to their real opinion of him. He suspected the worst.

His editor was the same — possibly worse, even. He shook Clark's hand warmly and invited him to sit, expressed his pleasure at Clark's obvious good health and successful return to his Superman work. All very welcoming. But for every friendly, pleasant sentence spoken, Clark felt that there were probably ten others which remained unsaid but probably contained much harsher and more difficult words.

Still, eventually the conversation wound around to Clark's possible re-employment at the Planet. Clark wondered, ever so tentatively, if there was any chance…?

His editor was enthusiastic — the Planet would love to have him back, just as he'd intimated when Clark had handed in his resignation. The thing was, though, they'd got this new guy — Ralph, his name was. He was a bit young and inexperienced, but he was enthusiastic and keen to learn, and…well…

Not an addict, Clark supplied silently.

Ralph was no way as good as Clark had been, no way at all, his editor insisted. At his best, Clark had been as good as they came; a potential Kerth winner and possibly even a Pulitzer contender. Ralph would never be as good as Clark. But the guy was here now, and his editor couldn't very well kick him out the door just because Clark was back, now could he?

It was all so very reasonable, so…so convenient.

"I'm clean, you know," said Clark bluntly. "Haven't been high for weeks."

"Really?" said his editor, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. "That's really great. Well done."

"My therapist says there's no reason why I shouldn't remain clean for good, now that I've kicked the habit."

"Great! So…you're still having therapy? How often is that?"

Clark kicked himself mentally — he shouldn't have mentioned George. At least, not until there was a glimmer of hope that he might actually get a job of any description. "Once a week. But I'm sure I could arrange evening sessions, so I wouldn't need any time off."

"I see. Well, that would certainly help." His editor shifted again, pushed a few papers around his desk.

"I'll do anything," blurted Clark. "Part-time work, freelance…obits, even. There must be some of those that need updating."

"Clark…you're a senior investigative journalist. I can't have you doing obituaries."

"Look bad, would it?" said Clark, unable to keep the note of bitterness out of his voice. "The Daily Planet employing Superman to do the office boy's work?"

His editor's face blackened. "That's not fair, Clark, and you know it. We've never let your other job influence our decisions here."

Clark had his own opinions on that, but he kept them to himself. "Well, then…?" he prompted.

His editor shook his head. "No, Clark. I'm sorry, but you're just too over-qualified to spend all day writing obituaries." He cleared his throat. "Look, here's what we can do. I'll take you on as a freelance, okay? If there's any extra work that can't be handled by the staffers, you'll be the first in line."

Clark sighed. "I was hoping for something a little more secure than that."

"It's the best I can do," said his editor regretfully. "You know how tight money is around here — the board won't let me increase headcount until the balance sheet is a bit healthier. In the meantime, I'm sure there will be plenty of work we can't handle in-house."

Yes, and it was usually the kind of work that the in-house staff didn't want to handle — the mundane stories which padded out the paper on a slow news day.

But recovering addicts couldn't be choosy about the work they were offered, Clark concluded. It could be worse — he might yet be reduced to sweeping the streets or cleaning public conveniences. He wasn't above doing any sort of work to remain employed.

***

George immediately put a positive spin on things — working freelance would allow Clark to ease back slowly into his old routine, while still giving him a chance to meet plenty of new people.

Well, yes, he certainly met plenty of people. Minor court officials, junior detectives, small shop owners — he met them all, interviewed them all, and wrote up their two or three paragraph stories for the centre pages of the newspaper. He was assigned a hot desk — shared with two other freelancers — situated conveniently close to the men's lavatories, and learned more than he ever wanted to know about the bowel habits of the male newsroom population.

Still, it was work that paid the bills and kept him occupied. Life could be worse.

***

"Lois!"

Her name exploded inside his head, expelling him forcibly from sleep. His heart was racing, his body drenched in sweat. He sat up and stared blindly into the darkness, frantically trying to get a grip on where he was and what had just happened.

He was at home. In bed. At night. He'd been asleep, dreaming…dreaming of Lois. She'd been in danger — some unseen, indescribable danger that had terrified her. He'd reached for her, but she'd disappeared as soon as he'd come close enough to touch her.

He passed a shaky hand over his face. Why now? He hadn't consciously thought about Lois for weeks — had deliberately kept his mind elsewhere. Building up his Superman work, easing back into life at the Planet, planning the future — those were the things which had occupied his thoughts lately.

He flashed on the lead box sitting in the clinic's medicine cabinet.

No. No, no, and no again.

He pushed himself off the bed and into his bathroom. Stripped off his sleepshorts and stepped into the shower, turning it on to full power and maximum heat. The hot needles of water danced against his skin, cleansing him of the sweat and the dangerous tendrils of his addiction. He turned his face up to the spikes of heat and let them wash away the dream.

Better. This was a minor set-back, that was all. He'd tell George and he in turn would say not to worry, these things took time.

***

So where was his love life in all of this? Non-existent, of course. How did you meet women when your desk was situated next to the men's toilets, you were only in the office part-time, and anyone else you met was either an interviewee or a rescue-ee? Things did not look good on the relationship front.

However, lightning strikes when and where you least expect it, and so it was with Clark and a certain blonde-haired young woman in the DA's office.

Their first meeting was somewhat…explosive.

"Help, Superman!"

He flew through the relevant apartment window and landed in the lounge with a thump. She was leaning up against a closed door wearing a rather anxious expression. Maybe there was even a touch of irritation in her body language? "That was fast," she observed.

He shrugged. "You yelled, I came. What's the emergency?"

Her face went a little pink. She jerked her head backwards at the door. "In there. The kitchen."

"What's in the kitchen? Or is it who?" he added, prepared to deal firmly with whoever had frightened this attractive young woman.

"I think it's about to blow," she said. "You better get in there quick."

That was enough information, he decided — if they spent any longer discussing 'it', whatever 'it' was, something bad would happen. "Okay, stand well back," he commanded.

She scampered away from the door and in he went.

BANG!!!

A metal lid came hurtling towards him, closely followed by a tide of scalding brown mush. He caught the lid but couldn't avoid the mush, which spattered all over his suit and down his legs.

Only slightly dazed, he walked further into the room to discover the source of the brown mush bomb. A battered aluminium pan sat on the stove, hissing quietly to itself as the brown stuff dripped down the sides and burnt on contact with the hot metal.

"Are you okay?"

He turned to find her standing hesitantly at the door. "Yes, fine," he replied. "But I think your pressure cooker is dead — or in its last throes, at any rate."

She picked her way carefully around the brown splotches on the floor and joined him at the stove. "I think you're right," she said, looking down at her ex-pressure cooker. "I'm sorry, I thought there was more time before it blew."

"That's okay," he said. "I'm invulnerable to flying pan lids."

She snatched a glance at him. "But your suit…and your hair…" She put her hand over her mouth, and for a moment he thought she was feeling queasy — until he realised she was trying not to laugh.

Well, clearly, he looked ridiculous in some way, but he was Superman, wasn't he? Superman was above such things. "Um…maybe we should get this cleaned up," he said, indicating the spattered kitchen.

"You do clean-up as well as exploding pans?" she said. "And there I was thinking you were just some kind of unpaid vigilante who thought he was above the law."

He raised an eyebrow. "Above the law? Never. I uphold the law."

She snickered. "Well, right now, you're upholding an awful lot of chilli…especially in your hair."

He raised a hand to his head and grimaced when he felt lumps of meat and globs of sticky liquid there. "Look, I know this is a little presumptuous, but do you think I could borrow your shower? Then I'll help you clean this up."

She nodded. "Okay."

***

And that was it. Mayson Drake was her name and she was an assistant DA. He learned fairly quickly that she didn't think much of Superman — thought he ought to leave the upholding of the law to appropriate agencies such as the police and the FBI. That attitude made for a lot of spirited debate, which certainly broke the ice and in a weird way helped the relationship along, but best of all it meant that she wasn't enthralled by the guy in tights and a cape. If she liked him at all, it was because he was Clark Kent, an okay-looking guy who worked part-time at the Daily Planet and came from Smallville, Kansas — not Krypton, The Universe.

Actually, he was pretty sure she thought he was more than just okay-looking. That first day, after he'd showered and changed, he got his first clue when he walked back into the kitchen to help with the clean-up operation.

"Okay, where's your mop?" he asked.

She stared at him with an open mouth.

"What?" he asked, a little self-consciously. "Did I miss some chilli?" He ruffled his hair experimentally.

She shook her head slowly. "No…I-I thought you'd come back as him, I guess. Superman. Tights. Cape. Not that…not…you." The 'you' came out rather squeakily. She cleared her throat.

He looked down at his black jeans and t-shirt. It had been a last-minute impulse to change into his own clothes — he wasn't sure why, it had just seemed like a good idea at the time. Apparently she didn't agree. "I'm sorry. Would you rather I changed back?"

"No!" she exclaimed quickly, making him jump. "I mean, no, you're fine as you are," she continued more calmly. "Absolutely one hundred percent fine. Stay just exactly as you are." She turned around and grabbed a cloth from the sink. "Wow," he heard her mutter under her breath.

He felt his cheeks heat up. He was pretty certain she found him attractive — and not just a little, either.

***

George was on cloud nine when he heard. "Way to go, buddy!" he said. "She sounds great."

She was. Clark really liked her. She was as sharp as a razor, held strong convictions — not all of which he agreed with, but enough that they could find common ground — had a good sense of humour and shared a lot of his eclectic tastes in music and movies. Not only that, but she looked pretty stunning, too. Shoulder-length, wavy blonde hair, intelligent blue eyes, fine, youthful features and generous lips.

Their relationship blossomed over the ensuing weeks. He visited her place, she came over to his, they went to movies and concerts, shared sandwiches and fruit juice in the park at lunchtime, and even played Scrabble late into the evening.

Physically, things were a little hesitant. Clark held back deliberately, not wanting to rush either Mayson or himself. He'd been in relationships at both extremes of the physical spectrum — carefully-controlled kisses and caresses for years to full- blooded sex after two or three dates — so with this one, he wanted to do it right.

She'd read the papers, of course. Knew about the sex scandals in the tabloids, was aware that he'd suffered some sort of crisis and was slowly putting his life back together again. He tried to be as honest as was comfortable with her, answering all her questions but never volunteering any information that wasn't requested. He didn't tell her about Lois, or time-travellers and parallel universes. Any of that would have ended the relationship in about five seconds, he figured. He did tell her about his addiction, though, and his continuing therapy — there seemed little point in trying to hide these things when they still occupied a large part of his life.

Mayson seemed to take his problems in her stride. Perhaps it was her work in the DA's office that made her more sympathetic towards breakdown and addiction. Whatever, it didn't appear to scare her off, to Clark's relief. No, she was pretty understanding, in a brisk, no-nonsense sort of a way. He appreciated that — it made it easier for him to confide in her, as he did increasingly as he became more confident in the relationship.

Never Lois, though. Mayson could never know about Lois.

***

"So, you slept with her yet?"

Clark rolled his eyes. "George, don't you ever think about anything else other than sex?"

"Blame it on Freud," said George. "Just be thankful I haven't asked you if you ever wanted to sleep with your mother."

Clark snorted. "I thought Freud had been discredited."

"Oh, there are still some die-hards around. But seriously, I'm guessing you haven't, yeah?"

Clark nodded. "We're not ready for that yet. We're taking things slowly."

"We or I, buddy?" asked George.

Damn the guy — did he know everything? Clark sighed. George was right — Mayson had been dropping heavy hints lately, trying to take their kisses and petting just that little bit further than Clark was comfortable with. He'd fended her off, trying to make it into a playful game, but more and more, he knew that the fun was wearing a little thin as far as Mayson was concerned.

It wasn't that he didn't find her attractive. He did, and all the right things happened in all the right places when he thought about her. The mechanics were working just fine.

But mentally…mentally, he just couldn't. There was a barrier that stopped him taking the next step — taking any steps, really. Even his petting was a little forced, if he were honest with himself. God help him if Mayson ever found out — so far, he was pretty certain that she hadn't noticed, and he was just hoping that in time, he'd really mean all those intimate caresses and kisses.

But did George have to know all this? Was nothing sacred any more?

"We," he replied firmly. "We don't want to rush things."

"Let's see…it's been, what, three months since you met her? You sure the lady's not getting even a little hot under the collar? You said she eyeballed your body from day one — I'd say three months is pretty long time to hold on to all those raging hormones, wouldn't you?"

Again, he was right. Clark knew it was unfair of him to make her wait, and he felt more than a little guilty about that.

But he couldn't. That barrier…that damned barrier…

Suddenly, tears were pricking his eyes, tears that came from nowhere. He bent forward, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers to try and stem the tide. "Shut up, George," he muttered.

He felt George's broad hand on his shoulder. "Hey, bud," he said in his softest tones. "Easy there. You still having those dreams?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah."

The dreams where Lois was in danger. He'd had one last night — always, he sensed her fear, knew that she was in danger and that people were hurting her, but the threat was invisible. He could never attack it, never make it go away for her. He couldn't even touch her, or talk to her. He just hovered on the sidelines, watching her pain.

"Look," said George. "I think there are some issues here that we need to discuss in more detail than we've got time for now — am I right?"

He nodded miserably.

"Okay. Come and see me the day after tomorrow and we'll thrash them out together. Usual time."

Clark closed his eyes, mortified and depressed by this latest development. Booking an extra session with George seemed like such a retrograde step. Things had been going so well. "What's happening, George?" said Clark. "Am I…regressing? Getting worse again?"

"No, I doubt it. This is just one of life's curve-balls. We'll get you through it, don't worry," said George reassuringly. "You're still clean, aren't you? The dispensary haven't reported any kryptonite requests for months."

"Yeah, I'm still resisting," said Clark. "Can't say I never want the stuff, but so far, so good."

George patted his shoulder. "Good man. I'll see you Friday, okay?"

***

Unfortunately, Mayson wasn't interested in waiting until Friday. No, she picked Thursday as the day she would finally lose patience with her boyfriend.

The evening began normally enough. Dinner at Luigi's, their favourite Italian bistro, followed by coffee back at Clark's place. A video was mentioned, although things went off the rails well before a choice could be made and the video rented.

Mayson was feeling amorous and clearly wanted Clark to know it. Any time their hands touched, or bodies brushed up against each other, Mayson lingered just that little bit longer than usual. Her smile became just that little bit more seductive, her eyes alluring; even her laugh seemed sexier than usual. She wore Clark's favourite suit — the burgundy one with the short skirt and neckline that just skimmed the swell of her bosom — not too much on show, but enough to tantalise.

Clark responded. He didn't really have a choice. Mayson knew all the right buttons to press, what turned him on and what made her hard to resist. And even if there was a growing unease at the back of his mind, how could he made her feel unwanted when she was trying so hard to please him and clearly wanted to be loved?

When her caresses became more intimate, he tried his usual game of playful resistance, but this time she wasn't to be deterred. She smiled and shushed him, slanted her open mouth over his and continued her explorations with her hands.

His head began to cloud over. He lost his perspective, his clarity of thought. The unease grew stronger, but so did his desire. Perhaps if he'd still been a virgin, his resistance might have been stronger, but this was familiar territory, and it had been a very long time since he'd last made love. She led him onwards, helped him to discover that she was as beautiful as he'd suspected, as desirable as he could ever have wished.

Things began to spiral rapidly out of Clark's control. His one chance to break the spell might have been when they transferred from the sofa to the bedroom, but even then, Mayson knew how to keep him with her. She took him by the hand and led him. Whenever he hesitated, or protested, however mildly, she simply smiled seductively and shed another piece of her delectable outfit. In effect, she did a slow striptease for him, and he had neither the heart nor the stomach to let her think she wasn't having the desired effect on him.

And so it was that he found himself in bed with Mayson, she having undressed him and tugged him down to lie beside her. Everything about the scene felt wrong, from the way he'd allowed her to seduce him to the way he was woodenly caressing her soft curves and murmuring empty words of desire in her ear.

But, he told himself, one day he really was going to love this woman. Love took time, George had said. So what if this was a little premature? Mayson clearly wanted him a lot, and as her boyfriend, wasn't he merely doing what any good boyfriend would do? He was responding willingly to his girlfriend's wishes, giving her exactly what she wanted.

She smiled up at him. She looked so happy; her eyes shining brightly with excitement because at last she was exactly where she'd wanted to be for weeks. "Love me, Clark," she murmured.

But he paused, drawing slightly away from her. Love me, she'd said. The trouble was, he didn't.

He closed his eyes in panic. Suddenly, he knew exactly what would happen. He'd make love with her — or simply have sex with her, more likely — and then the tears would come. He knew it as surely as he knew he wasn't in love with her.

Would never love her.

Lois Lane still dominated his love life.

He couldn't do this to Mayson — couldn't use her like he'd used all those other women. She deserved so much more.

"Clark?"

"I…I'm sorry," he stumbled, rolling quickly away onto his back. A pulse was beating in his head; a familiar feeling of panic fluttering in his belly. "Sorry."

"Hey," she murmured, moving over him. Crowding him. "What's wrong?"

The pulse in his head grew to a loud thumping in his chest. She was too close — too intimate. Way too intimate. It wasn't right. He scrambled off the bed and stumbled a few paces across the carpet, breathing heavily. "Sorry," he muttered again, his back to her.

He heard her move on the bed. "What did I do wrong, Clark?" she said.

"Nothing. It's me," he said.

He heard the sheets rustle again.

"Was I too fast? Should I have let you take the lead?"

"No, you were fine," he said.

She was standing a few paces behind him. He could sense it without even turning around, prayed she didn't come any closer. He couldn't bear it if she touched him.

"You don't want me, do you?" she said in a small voice. "You've never really wanted me."

He put his hands up to his face. She was so, so right, but he couldn't tell her that. "It's not your fault," he said.

"What's wrong with me?" she asked. "Are my breasts too small? Backside too big? Legs not long enough for you? Which is it, Clark?"

"You're just fine, Mayson. You're a beautiful woman."

"Once more with feeling, Clark," she said bitterly.

He could feel the tremor in his hands as he held them against his face. "Look, I'm really sorry. I wish this hadn't happened."

"So do I," she said. "It's her, isn't it? The woman you really love — the one who's always been there in the shadows, haunting our relationship."

Oh, god, she knew. He thought he'd hidden that from her, buried it away just like he'd blanked it off from himself. But she'd seen through him just as easily as clear glass.

"Yeah," he whispered. "I tried, Mayson, I really did."

He heard her get off the bed, start dressing. "I think I'll go now," she said.

He stood, frozen to the spot, while she dressed behind him and crossed to the door. "Goodbye, Clark," she said.

"Bye."

The door closed quietly, and he crumpled slowly to the carpet, cradling his pounding head in his arms. Things had been going so well, he thought miserably. He'd found a girlfriend, a woman he thought he had real feelings for, and he'd tried as hard as he could to make the relationship work. Whenever he'd had doubts, he'd pushed them aside and pressed on, determined to make a success of it.

But now everything had gone to hell again. He'd lost Mayson, and the craving was back with a vengeance. He was shaking violently, like a man with a high fever. He needed Lois, not Mayson. He needed kryptonite, not sex with Mayson.

Already, he was aware of the other Clark Kent reawakening within him. Inside the shivering, naked carcass on the carpet was another person — the person who searched and plotted devious ways to get at the red stuff.

He grasped himself around the middle, trying to quell the shakes and fight the craving.

***

"I…I n-need to see to George," he insisted. The phone handset jittered against the side of his face as he tried to hold it still in his shaking hand. "Something's happened."

"I'm sorry, George is out of town this evening," replied the clinic's receptionist. "Can I make an appointment for tomorrow morning?"

"No, I need to see him now," he said. "Please, where is he?" George was his lifeline, the only thing standing between him and total disaster.

He had no idea how long he'd remained in a naked heap on the carpet, but eventually some sense of propriety had asserted itself, and he'd stood shakily and dragged on his clothes. Then he'd sunk onto the edge of the bed, picked up the phone and dialled the only person he knew who could possibly help him survive this hell.

"I'm sorry, he didn't give us an address or contact number. Would you like to see the duty therapist?"

"No." The duty shrink would just ask standard questions and make sympathetic noises — he needed more than that. Much more. "I-if he calls, would you tell him I called?"

"Sure, who shall I say…?"

He opened his mouth to give his name, but the words stuck in his throat. The other person shut him up, the one who knew that if he gave his name, they might send someone around to his apartment. He didn't want that. The other person certainly didn't want it.

He slammed the phone down and stared at it. Now what? No George, and he needed the kryptonite. Now. Right this minute.

The clinic wouldn't be any use — they'd take too long. They'd question him, try to talk him down, tell him to take deep breaths and find the damned sea of tranquillity.

Perry didn't have any. There was none at the Planet — not any more.

There was only one other possible source, and even that was a long shot. He knew they'd done a pretty good clean-up job even there.

Nevertheless, minutes later he was standing in the pitch black of Shuster's Field.

The other person took over. The calm, scheming planner, who searched methodically and carefully for tiny fragments of red rock. Even tiny pebbles buried near the surface would be better than nothing. If he found enough, he'd get a decent hit.

But they'd been thorough. Extremely thorough. After long, long minutes searching increasingly frantically, he could only find one small fragment. He cradled it in his trembling hands, felt its weak and feeble energy touch his craving with agonising inadequacy. The effect was almost worse than finding none at all.

He fell to his knees in the middle of the darkened field. Crushing defeat enveloped him, his thoughts skittering wildly over the dreadful scene with Mayson, the dreams of Lois, his pitiful part-time job at the Planet. Everything was going to hell again, and this time he didn't even have something to take the pain away.

The weak red glow from the kryptonite fragment drew him into its depths. There was only one way out that he could see from all the misery. He tipped his hands up to his mouth and swallowed.

***

"Jesus Christ." Someone shook his shoulder. "Clark, can you hear me?"

He opened his eyes. George's face loomed before him at a really weird angle. "Hi, George," he mumbled.

"What did you take, Clark?"

Huh? Take? He hadn't taken anything. He wasn't a thief. "What d'you mean?"

"There's vomit, Clark. You've been sick."

He wrinkled his nose, registered the acrid smell for the first time. Oh, yeah, he remembered feeling a little queasy. Funny, he thought he'd made it to the bathroom in time. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"So what did you take, buddy?"

"'s only the red stuff, George. Made me happy. Happy for ever."

George's face disappeared again. Where did he go?

"510 Clinton," said George's invisible voice. "And get Frank out of bed. He treated him last time so he's the best medic for the job…no, I want him at the clinic. Met General would just send him home as soon as they'd cleaned him up."

There was a slap of hard plastic on hard plastic, and then George's face wavered back into view.

"Hi," said Clark. No sense in not being polite, even if George was behaving very strangely.

"Okay, buddy, the ambulance should be here any minute. Can you remember when you took this stuff?"

Clark frowned. Why did George want to know that? "After Mayson left me," he said. Obviously, he took it after she left — when else would he have taken it? And why did George want an ambulance? Was he ill?

"When did Mayson leave, Clark?"

He frowned again. George was getting awfully personal. "After we made love…didn't make love."

"When, Clark? What time?"

"Um…didn't have my watch on." He chuckled. "Didn't have anything on, actually."

"Oh, Jeez — we're not going to get any sense out of you, are we?"

"Sorry," he said. George seemed terribly agitated about something. "Is everything okay, George?"

George patted his shoulder. Good old George. "Everything's going to be just fine, buddy. Just fine."

Okay. George was on the case and in control. Everything was fine.

***

The first thing he became aware of was his aching throat. Then he worked out that he was lying on his side in a bed. Finally he noticed how tender his stomach felt.

But where was he?

He opened his eyes, took in the stiff cotton pillowcase and the waffle-weave light-blue blanket. Caught a whiff of antiseptic.

Somewhere medical. The clinic?

Yeah. Hazy memories began to filter back, of a hellish room somewhere with tubes and gagging and gentle, encouraging voices telling him he was doing fine, just a little more and then it would be over. 'Just a little more' had seemed to last a very long time, he remembered.

Before that, there had been a bumpy, lurching ride in the back of some kind of vehicle. George had been there, reassuring him that everything was going to be all right.

But it wasn't, was it? He'd swallowed the red kryptonite and plunged back into hell. He doubted even George could rescue him this time.

There was only one person who could save him.

***

"Would you like a flower?"

The question dragged him up from semi-consciousness. He'd been drifting through random memories of happier days — a joke he and Lois had shared, or the wonderful time they'd flown together, or that shocking, electrifying first kiss. And the kiss they nearly shared.

Would he like a flower? It seemed a strange thing to ask a guy in a hospital bed. Especially coming from such an innocent-sounding, rather high-pitched voice. He realised his eyes had closed and opened them again. An expanse of blue hospital gown filled his vision.

The blue material shifted. "I said, would you like a flower?"

"Mmmm," he mumbled. Words would probably have been more effective, but he didn't feel capable of coherent speech just yet. Besides, his throat hurt too much.

"I made them myself," said the voice, now sounding a little proud of itself. A square of paper was shoved under his cheek. "There, you can have one anyway."

This was weird enough to warrant further investigation. With a gargantuan effort, he rolled himself onto his back, his stomach protesting at the sudden movement. Looking up, he found her face.

"Lois!"

The name burst from his lips, the word tearing painfully at his tender throat. He couldn't believe it. She was standing right next to him, the woman he'd dreamt of, had longed for during the longest, bleakest year of his entire life. She looked just the same — the short, dark hair cut in a simple bob, the high cheekbones, the big, round eyes and the cute nose. She was his Lois.

His Lois.

His Lois!

"Who's Lois?" she asked

"You are," he said in wonderment.

He reached up to her with a trembling hand, but she ducked shyly away from him. "My name's not Lois," she said with a frown.

He couldn't understand it. She definitely was Lois. His Lois.

"Now, Linda," said a kindly-sounding woman's voice. "You know you're not supposed to be in here."

Lois turned just as a middle-aged woman dressed in a cardigan and skirt came up to her and placed a guiding arm around her shoulders. "Come on, honey, let's go back to your room." The woman glanced apologetically down at Clark. "I'm sorry about that. She's a bit of a free spirit."

"'s okay," he murmured, trying to protect his throat. Lois was already allowing herself to be led docilely from the room, out of his reach far too soon. "Wait," he rasped, but neither woman seemed to hear his feeble protest, and he heard the door click behind them.

Terrified that he was going to lose her again, he scrambled out of bed, ignoring the pain in his stomach and his sore throat. He lurched to the door, yanked it open and spilled out into the corridor. They'd disappeared. He looked frantically in both directions. No-one. Just blank, clinical corridor and windows overlooking the clinic's garden. No-one in the garden. He ran on rubbery legs along the corridor to his left, found empty rooms and then a dead-end. He turned and ran back in the opposite direction, past his door and down towards the other end of the corridor. More empty rooms and windows.

Where could they have gone?

He whirled around and started down the corridor yet again. His body didn't seem to be working as well as it ought, though. His legs were unsteady and his head was beginning to swim. His throat felt as if someone had shoved a red-hot poker down it. But he had to find her.

Suddenly he was stumbling into a large, solid body. "Whoa, son! Where's the fire?"

"Perry, I saw her!" he rasped, fumbling against his friend's large frame to try and regain his balance.

"Who, Clark?" Perry had his arms around Clark now, helping to hold him up.

"Lois! I saw her — she's here!"

"Awww, son, you know that's not possible," said Perry. "Come on, let's get you back to bed."

Perry began to steer him back to his room, but he struggled and managed to break free. "I'm not crazy, Perry — I really saw her," he panted, his throat really protesting at the rough treatment it was receiving. "Just a few minutes ago."

"Where is she now, then?" asked Perry.

"I don't know," he said. "She was in my room." He staggered and had to be caught by Perry.

"Clark, I would have seen her if she was just here. There's only one elevator to this floor."

He hadn't even noticed the elevator during his frantic search. What else had he missed? Had he lost her for good?

"But I saw her," he protested.

He felt Perry sigh heavily. "Clark, let's just get you back into bed. Then we'll talk about this some more, okay? Or I can call George and you can talk to him."

Clark sagged against Perry in defeat, all his frantic energy suddenly flowing away from him. "Okay," he whispered.

***

Perry really didn't believe him. Even once he was settled back in bed and trying to describe what had happened rationally and calmly, his old friend looked by turns worried and sympathetic. Not shocked or excited or elated that his long-lost reporter might actually be on the clinic's premises, just concerned that his ex-employee might be totally losing his mind.

However, he promised to find out if there was indeed a female patient called Linda at the clinic, who drew pictures of flowers on pieces of paper and had a tendency to wander.

He also filled in a little of the detail as to what had happened to Clark over the past twenty-four hours or so. Apparently George had come looking for him at home when he hadn't turned up for his appointment on Friday morning. Acting on a hunch, he'd asked the building supervisor to open Clark's front door and had found Clark lying on his side looking very much as if he'd swallowed something poisonous.

Clark himself had almost no recollection of how he'd got from Smallville to his apartment, other than a hazy memory of a rather loopy flight over some darkened fields. Presumably he'd flown home and then spent the evening there, becoming increasingly disorientated and ill.

George had rushed him to the clinic and had his stomach pumped. He'd had little idea if the treatment would be enough, or in time, but he and his medical doctor, Frank, had concurred that it was the best course of action, given Clark's condition. Their theory was that Clark's fragment of red kryptonite may have included a tiny amount of green kryptonite, although it was equally possible that red kryptonite was poisonous when ingested.

Whatever the explanation, Clark was now suffering the somewhat miserable effects of having swallowed something which disagreed quite nastily with him, plus the uncomfortable effects of the treatment used to remove the substance, whatever it was, from his body.

***

"So, buddy, this was spectacular. I'm impressed."

Clark rolled his head around on his pillows to give George a baleful look. "I didn't do it to impress you," he croaked.

He still couldn't find the best way of talking without hurting his throat, so he was switching around from one method to another every other sentence. Whispering seemed to work best, but even that got tiring after a while, so he was currently going for the croak.

"Why did you do it, Clark?"

Hadn't they been here before? He closed his eyes. "Not now, George. Give me a break."

"What happened? Things were going so well."

"Were they?" he croaked. "I hadn't noticed."

"Of course they were. You've been clean for months. So what happened, Clark?"

Mayson happened. "Go away, George," he said, rolling onto his side with his back to the therapist.

"Sorry, can't do that, buddy — it's my job to be obnoxious. So was it another of those dreams?"

Clark bit his bottom lip and remained silent. He simply wasn't in the mood to respond to George's interrogation, no matter how well-meant it was. All he wanted to know was where Lois was, and if he had the strength, he'd be out of bed and searching the entire clinic for her right this minute. As it was, he was stuck here, relying on other people who just thought he was crazy and delusional.

"Come on, Clark, give me something to write in my notes. I hear you had a visitor."

Oh, here it came. Poor Clark — now he's seeing visions as well as dreaming about her. "Yeah," he said. "You found her yet?"

"Clark, you know-"

"George, are you hassling my patients again?" Clark recognised the brisk, strident voice of Carolyn, the head nurse. At last, a ray of hope — she'd get rid of George, with any luck.

"Carolyn, you know this is important-"

"Look, he's not going anywhere, is he? You can come back later when he's feeling better," she told him. "Right now, he needs rest and recuperation, not interrogation by the therapist from hell. Besides, I need to do his vitals and you're in my way."

Clark heard George stand up. "Carolyn, you can be a real pain in the butt sometimes, you know that?"

"It's my job, dear George. Now get out before I have to kick you out."

He heard the door close and immediately felt less on edge. At times, George was like the worst guilty conscience you could ever imagine — never letting up and always there.

"I'm just going to take your temperature," said Carolyn, just before her thermometer crackled momentarily in his ear.

When she was done, he rolled onto his back. "Thanks," he croaked. "For chasing him away."

She pulled out her watch. "He really does care about you, you know," she said, picking up his wrist. "That's why he pushes so hard."

"I know."

"He's the best we've got," she added. "But sometimes he can be a bit too much to take, can't he?" She smiled sympathetically down at him.

"Yeah."

She fell silent for a few moments while she counted his pulse. He wondered if she might know anything about Lois. She only dealt with patients who needed medical attention, so Lois might not be her responsibility, but she may have heard something about a patient who tended to wander around the clinic.

"Carolyn, do you know a patient named Linda?" he whispered hoarsely. His throat had tired of the croak, so he was trying another tactic. "Short brown hair, brown eyes? Has a tendency to wander around."

Carolyn smiled. "That describes quite a few of our patients, I'm afraid. No, I haven't come across a Linda, but that doesn't mean she's not here. I don't see everyone, as you know."

He nodded. "Could you look? Check the list of patients, or something?"

She jotted some notes on a clipboard then began straightening his bedclothes and plumping up his pillows. "Patient confidentiality, Clark," she said. "I can't."

"Please," he whispered. "It's important."

She straightened, placed her hands on her hips, and gazed down at him with her head cocked to one side. "I guess I might find myself in the wrong screen when I'm updating your notes," she mused. "Everyone knows I'm useless at computers."

He smiled gratefully up at her. "Thanks, Carolyn."

"Hey, you can rescue my cat the next time he disappears up our cherry tree," she said, back to her brisk mode. "Now — what are we going to do about your throat? How about some nice soothing ice to suck?"

"Sounds good to me."

***

He began to wonder if he had dreamt the whole thing after all. Perry hadn't seen her and didn't seem to believe him, George clearly thought he'd imagined the meeting, and even Carolyn hadn't heard of a patient named Linda.

He'd been pretty woozy when she'd entered his room. The encounter seemed hazy, the memory of it hard to grasp and even a little surreal. Compared to the dream he kept having about her at night, there wasn't a lot to distinguish one from the other. The main difference was that in the dream she was in danger and alone, whereas when she'd visited him in his room, she'd been with that nurse in the skirt and cardigan and hadn't been at all under threat — so far as he was aware, at any rate.

The flower picture.

She'd shoved it under his cheek. It must still be around someplace, under his bed or amongst the sheets. He began feverishly scrambling around, shaking all his bedclothes and pillows. Nothing. He slid out of bed, got on his hands and knees and searched under the bed. Nothing. Maybe a cleaner had picked it up while he'd been dozing. He got up and found the wastepaper basket. Nothing.

So maybe the whole thing had indeed been a dream.

He glanced at his watch. Early evening. Not too late to begin a search of the clinic. Tough if he was still a little shaky, he couldn't wait any longer for Carolyn to check the patient records. He needed to know if he'd imagined Lois or not.

There was a knock at his door and then it swung open a crack. "Clark? You decent in there?"

Perry. Damn. "Uh, sure," he called, flopping down onto the side of the bed. "Come in."

The door swung open, to reveal Perry pushing a wheelchair in front of him. "Hop in, son," he said. "We're going for a ride."

Right now? Perry's timing couldn't have been worse. "A wheelchair?" he said. "Perry, is this something you and George have cooked up together? I'm really not in the mood for games."

Perry shook his head gravely. "No game, son. I'm deadly serious. Get in the wheelchair."

"Why, Perry?" he protested. "Tell me why I should get in a wheelchair."

"Because we're going to visit your Linda."

Clark's heart leapt into his throat. Perry had found her. He'd found his Lois.

***

Clark's pulse was racing as they neared the end of their journey through the clinic. Perry had refused to tell him any more about the woman they were going to meet, and Clark couldn't tell whether that was because Perry was under instructions from George, or whether he simply didn't know any of the answers to Clark's questions. His old editor was very good at keeping a tightly-buttoned secret when the situation demanded it.

Meanwhile, his earlier conviction that Linda had indeed been his Lois was leaking away with every foot that they drew closer to the open door at the end of the corridor they were travelling down.

Beyond the door, Clark could see sofas and easy chairs dotted around a largish room. It looked horribly like one of the group therapy rooms Clark had so far, thankfully, managed to avoid. George had decided early on that Clark's celebrity status wouldn't be conducive to successful group sessions, and Clark had heartily agreed.

"What is this, Perry?" he asked warily as they travelled down the corridor. "I don't do group sessions."

Perry patted his shoulder. "Don't you worry, son."

They rolled into the room. There were a few patients dotted around, mostly drawing or writing on notepads. A few were simply staring blankly into space. There also seemed to be one or two clinic staff supervising the activity, moving amongst the patients and discussing their work in soft murmurs.

Perry rolled the wheelchair across the room to the far end, where there was a table and chairs set beside a sunny window. George was there, sitting opposite a woman who had her back to them. She was bent over the table, seemingly engrossed in whatever she was writing or drawing. She wore a blue hospital gown and a thin off- white dressing gown, just like many of the other patients, and had short brown hair.

Clark gripped the armrests of the chair. This had to be Lois. It just had to be.

As they drew closer, George acknowledged them and beckoned Perry to park Clark's wheelchair at the table. Clark's gaze shot to the woman now that he could see her from the front, but her hair spilled over her face as she bent low over the piece of paper she was drawing on.

Same build as Lois, same hair colour…

"Clark," said George. "This is Linda Fielding. Linda," he said, raising his voice a little to attract the woman's attention. "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine."

Clark held his breath as she slowly raised her face. She had big brown eyes, high cheekbones and a pert little nose. Her dark brown hair was cut into a simple bob style.

But she wasn't Lois.

The blood drained from his face and his head began to swim. She wasn't Lois.

"Hi," she piped in the same little-girl voice he'd heard in his room. "Would you like a flower?"

"I…" His tongue was thick and clumsy in his mouth, his throat constricted. She wasn't Lois. "I…"

She shoved a piece of paper across the table towards him. "Here, you can have one anyway. You're nice."

His hand reached for the paper, he dropped his gaze blindly to it. Pastel colours swirled before his eyes.

She wasn't Lois.

"Perry," said George. "You're the only one of us who's met Lois before. I want you to take a good look and then tell Clark if you think Linda could be Lois Lane."

"I don't have to look any further," said Perry sadly. "There are a lot of similarities, but I'd know Lois if she was wearing a disguise and standing in the middle of a crowded room." He hunkered down beside Clark's wheelchair and placed a hand on Clark's arm. "This isn't Lois, son," he murmured. "I'm sorry."

Clark found his voice at last. "Why?" he whispered. "Couldn't you just have told me? Why did you have to bring me here?"

"Because you're an obstinate son-of-a-bitch, Clark," said George. "I knew you wouldn't believe me unless you saw it with your own eyes."

That much was true. Clark snatched another glance at Linda, who had lost interest in their conversation and was busy with her drawings again. "Thanks, George," he muttered bitterly. "Now I really know that I've lost it. What are you going to do next? Put me in a straitjacket?"

"Easy, buddy," murmured George. "I'm sorry I hit you so hard with this, but Perry couldn't get here any sooner, and I didn't actually know for certain if Linda could be Lois — I needed Perry to make the ID." He paused. "It had to be tonight, of course, otherwise you'd have torn this place apart looking for her."

Clark nodded. "I was ready to do just that when Perry arrived."

"But don't think for one minute that this means you're crazy," said George. "These things happen, Clark. The mind can be a real bastard at times — it throws all kinds of crap at you, especially when you're ill. Physically ill, I mean."

But not when you're mentally ill? Clark didn't bother voicing the obvious. George was just trying to be kind by leaving that part out.

She wasn't Lois. Wasn't his Lois. The words kept repeating in his head like a broken record. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the reality of the woman beside him, so like Lois yet so totally not Lois.

"Son, I know this must be tough for you," said Perry from somewhere close to his elbow. "Believe me, I wanted her to be Lois too.

Perry's words of sympathy floated meaninglessly over the surface of Clark's misery. He felt sick and dizzy — maybe he hadn't recovered so well from the red kryptonite poisoning as he'd thought. "Can we go now?" he said, gritting his teeth against the hollow feeling in his belly. "I'm tired."

"Sure," said George. "I'll take you-"

But suddenly Clark couldn't wait. The room was too hot, Perry was too close, George was too slow — he lurched onto his feet, stumbled clumsily past the wheelchair and Perry and sped out of the room at superspeed.

The world seemed to be shrinking. There was just a tiny black cell in which there was Clark, his abject misery, and the stark truth of his mistake. How could he have been so stupid as to confuse that woman with Lois? Was he that far gone? Didn't the dreams about her mean anything at all?

The urge to flee left him as quickly as it had seized him. He stopped, fetching up against the far wall of the outside corridor, where he stood bracing himself with one hand against the cool plasterwork.

Please make it stop, he implored. I'll do anything, but please — just make it stop.

"Hey, buddy."

He turned his head slowly, found George leaning against the opposite wall, gazing at him with concern written all over his round face. "What's happening, George?" he asked. "It's all going to hell again."

"It's that curve-ball," said George. "Just when you think everything's going fine, life chucks you a whole basket full of them. We'll fix this, though. You and me and a few boxes of tissues, huh?"

"I'm tired, George," said Clark. "I don't want to be like this any more."

"Yeah, I hear you, buddy. But we're going to sort it, okay?" said George. "Believe it or not, you're a lot closer than you think."

Clark let his gaze drop to the linoleum floor. "I have to believe you," he murmured. "Otherwise I may as well break into that medicine cabinet down the corridor and end it all now. At least I'd die happy."

George shook his head. "You and I both know you'd never do that. Come on," he said, pushing himself off the wall and placing a hand on Clark's shoulder. "Let's get you back to your room before Carolyn finds out I've kept you up. That woman is going to tan my hide for dragging you out of bed."

***

Before leaving him that night, George perched on the side of Clark's bed and fixed him with a firm, steady gaze. "I want you to stay with us for a couple of days, okay?," he said. "Not because I think you've lost your marbles. I just know that this stage is about as hard as it gets, and I don't want you distracted by anything else while we're working through this stuff."

"Stage, George?" said Clark uneasily. "Which stage is this — the falling off the wagon stage? Or the totally screwed up and no chance of a recovery stage?"

George smiled. "Actually, the former. Lots of addicts hit it, although I have to admit I'm a little pissed with myself because I'd planned to skip this stage with you."

"Sorry I messed up your plans, then."

"It happens," said George with a shrug. "So, how about it? You going to listen to me and take full advantage of this five-star accommodation for a couple of days? I mean, who could resist twenty cable channels and free meals in your room?"

Clark pulled a face. "You know how I feel about hospitals."

"And you therefore know that I wouldn't suggest this unless I thought it was important," replied George. "I'm serious, Clark. All joking apart, I think you're going to need us."

A shiver ran down Clark's spine. George seldom dropped the jovial, wise-cracking routine, but when he did, Clark knew that it was time to start paying attention.

He nodded. "Okay."

***

If Clark's first night was anything to go by, George was right. Sleep was elusive — well, totally non-existent for many long, dark hours of tossing and turning. His mind was a turmoil of disturbing images and thoughts.

At home, such thoughts might have led him into all kinds of desperate measures. Shuster's Field would probably have beckoned again. The clinic dispensary would have loomed large in his thoughts. And there must be records somewhere in the clinic of where they'd stored the red kryptonite they'd cleared from Shuster's Field. Not to mention the green kryptonite rocks that no-one had gathered up.

But here, at the clinic, there was structure and procedure. Even though he could just as easily fly away, or break into the dispensary, the mere fact that there were rules of behaviour and staff to watch over him was just enough to hold him back from the brink.

Just as well. His mind swirled around memories of Mayson's failed seduction and all the points at which he could have put a stop to it. He thought about her face smiling up at him and her hands roaming intimately over his body. He thought about his blatant dishonesty and his failure to please her. He pictured Linda and his failure to notice she wasn't Lois.

In fact, failure seemed to be a common theme running through everything he touched. Failure to please, failure to love, failure to take control of a situation, failure to spot the difference between a random woman in a clinic and Lois Lane, and champion of them all, failure to stay away from red kryptonite.

By the time sleep eventually claimed him, Clark was in tears.

***

"Rough night, huh?"

Clark shrugged. He was on the couch, as convention and good behaviour at a mental health clinic demanded, but answering George's questions seemed like more effort than he was capable of today. He'd be happy just to get through this session and back up to his room as soon as possible.

"I'm just hazarding a guess here, but I'd say it probably rated up there with the night after your parents died, yeah?" said George.

"Yeah, probably," said Clark. Actually, he couldn't remember a thing about that night, but George didn't need to know that.

"Okay. Well, we're probably going to cover a lot of what was keeping you awake last night all over again, but hopefully we'll do it in a more constructive way this time," said George. "You ready for that?"

"Yeah," said Clark.

At least his throat had stopped hurting and his stomach had settled down. Frank, the doctor who'd treated him, had examined him after breakfast and pronounced him fit but still in need of rest and a careful diet of easily-digestible foods. Personally, Clark thought that was being ridiculously over-cautious, but didn't care enough to say anything. Nothing much seemed to matter any more.

Clark didn't think he'd ever felt so wretched. Even at his worst, when he'd been mainlining on red kryptonite five or six times a day, he hadn't felt so bad. He hated himself even more than ever before, and having failed so spectacularly to keep away from his drug — even after months of being clean — he didn't see how he was ever going to climb back out of this renewed hell.

A heavy hand dropped onto his shoulder, making him jump. "Look, buddy, I know you feel like hell. Heck, this is probably the last place you want to be right now. But give it a try, okay? There's nothing to lose, and you never know, it might actually help."

He swallowed. George, as usual, had hit the nail on the head. "I'm sorry," he murmured, fighting to keep his voice steady. "I guess I'm just not my usual witty and engaging self today."

George laughed. "You'll do fine, buddy. Look, the first thing I think we need to cover is this business with Linda Fielding. You know, the woman you thought was-"

"I know, George. I was there too, remember?" said Clark.

"Oh, yeah, so you were. Okay, since you were there, tell me what happened. Why did you think she was Lois?"

Stupid question. "Because she looked like Lois, George."

"Yes, but you've met Lois's double. You know exactly what she looks like, and Linda only looks a little like her. You've also got better vision than anyone else in the whole world. So why the mistake? What were you doing when she came into your room?"

"Dozing."

"So, not quite asleep. Do you remember what you were thinking about?"

Oh, yeah, he remembered. What — or rather, who — did he always think about when he wanted to escape from the loneliness of everyday life? "Lois."

George sucked air through his teeth — one of these days, Clark was going to tell him how irritating that particular habit was. "Well, there's your answer. You were dreaming about Lois, a woman who looks like her walks in while you're still groggy from sleep and all that horrible treatment Frank inflicted on you — it's not surprising you mistook her for Lois."

"It's that simple?" said Clark disbelievingly.

"Hey, don't knock it just because it's simple," said George. "Believe me, some of the wackiest tricks the mind can play on you turn out to have a simple root cause. Anyway, what wasn't so simple was the fall-out afterwards. That was pretty cruel, wasn't it?"

"Yeah." The cruel conviction that he'd found her at last, followed by the cruel truth that she was still missing.

Still missing. God, would he ever stop wishing she'd come back?

"Tell me, Clark, how often would you say you think about Lois? Every day, every other day, weekly?"

He shrugged. "I don't know…it varies. Every day, probably."

"Once a day, twice a day…?"

"Probably once a day. It used to be a lot more frequent, but these past couple of months when I've been with Mayson, I've probably thought as much about her as I do about Lois." He closed his eyes. "I only dream about Lois, though. Never Mayson."

"And she's in danger in your dreams, isn't she?"

"Yeah, but I can never reach her. I just watch." Another failure, in fact — the failure to save Lois.

"When did you start having these dreams, Clark?"

It was a while ago, and so difficult to pin down exactly. He frowned as he tried to recall. "I think…some time after I started back as Superman, or maybe when I went back to the Planet."

"Yeah, that's what I recall, too," said George. "After you began putting your life back together again, in fact. Do you think that's really when you started thinking about her less often — even before you met Mayson, I mean?"

Clark nodded, remembering his determination to make his life work without Lois. "Yeah. I was deliberately trying not to think about her, as I recall."

"So, maybe in a sense, by not thinking about Lois, you were losing her? She'd been with you constantly before then, hadn't she?"

"Yes." God, yes. He'd thought about her all the time. The only time he hadn't was when he'd been high — or if he had, his thoughts about her had been completely frivolous and superficial. "So you're suggesting I'm scared of losing her? Maybe that's why she's in danger in the dreams — in danger of being lost?"

"Yeah, and maybe deep down, there's a little piece of you that really does know that she's unattainable. That's the bit of you that won't let you grab onto her in your dreams."

It made sense. He certainly didn't want to let her go, but he knew that he would have to if his life was ever going to get back to normal.

If.

That was a very big 'if'. To Clark, the addict who'd just, in effect, taken an overdose of red kryptonite, it still seemed like he was programmed to fail, however hard he tried.

He sighed. "I've tried, George, I really have. But I just can't seem to get her out of my head."

"Do you think you need to get her out of your head?"

Clark frowned. "I thought that was the whole point of this. To stop me obsessing about her."

"Obsessing, yes," said George. "Doesn't mean you shouldn't ever think about her. It's all about finding a balance. Remember our discussion about mourning the loss of a loved one? We agreed that the bereaved don't forget their loved ones, but they do learn to live with their loss. If you think about it, you were actually beginning to do just that these past couple of months."

He hated it when George started talking about mourning and funerals. There was no proof that Lois was dead. She was just missing.

But he couldn't say that. George would point out that she'd been missing for over two years — and not just anywhere, but in a part of the world renowned for violence and corruption. Missing people didn't return from those sorts of places after this length of time. Clark knew that, but his heart just wouldn't accept it.

"Look, maybe this is a good time to talk about what happened the other night," said George. "The last time I saw you, there were intimacy issues with Mayson. Was it anything to do with that?"

Clark's mouth twisted. "You could say."

And so George slowly extracted a faltering account of Mayson's attempts to get him into bed. By using simple, direct language, he made it easier than Clark might have expected to talk about intimacy with Mayson, but some things were still hard to discuss freely.

"She…she wanted more than I was ready to give," Clark said, stumbling at the point at which he'd realised he couldn't go through with the sham love-making.

"How much more, Clark?"

He squirmed — wasn't that obvious? "Everything," he said quickly. "But I couldn't…" He stumbled again. Was this really necessary? Couldn't they just skip to the part where he flew to Shuster's Field?

"Couldn't what, buddy? Couldn't…perform?"

Oh, boy… "No, that's never been a problem. I just couldn't…I couldn't have sex with her, okay?"

"Couldn't or wouldn't, Clark?" said George. "Was the choice all yours, or did Mayson have a say in this?"

He flashed on her face, all smiles and happy expectation. No, poor Mayson didn't have a choice at all. "No, it was all my fault. I knew what would happen, and I couldn't do that to Mayson."

He imagined the scene afterwards. Him, with tears running down his face, and Mayson, wondering if things could get much worse than a lover who regretted making love with her.

"Do what, Clark?"

"Let her see that I didn't love her," he said, unwilling to be more explicit than that. George would just have to join the dots himself. "That I was just pretending," he added.

"So you think Mayson believed you loved her?"

Did she? He'd never told her he did. And that damning comment from her about the woman who haunted their relationship said it all, really. "No," he replied. "But I think she was trying to kid herself that I did. Getting me into bed was her way of proving that."

"You don't think she just had the hots for you and wanted a no- strings-attached roll in the hay?"

Remembering the way she'd reacted to him when they'd first met… "There was probably an element of that, yeah."

"Tell me, do you think Mayson loves you?"

He'd wondered the same thing many times. "I think she cares about me," he said. "I'm not sure if it's love. Probably not."

"I see," said George. "So Mayson doesn't mind having sex with a guy she doesn't love, yet she expects the guy to love her back? Bit of a double standard there, buddy. Is she really that demanding?"

Clark sighed. George was right — Mayson wasn't Lana. She didn't operate double standards, either in her professional life or in her private life, and she certainly wouldn't expect someone who was supposed to be her equal to live by a more stringent moral code than her own. She was, however, a red-blooded woman who wouldn't be totally averse to sex with someone she'd formed a close relationship with over several months. Especially someone she'd found extremely attractive from day one. "No, she's not," he admitted.

"So who was the one who really needed to be in love here?" asked George.

"Me. But I knew that. I've always known that."

"But did you ever tell Mayson?"

Clark snorted. "That's easier said than done, George."

"Why?" said George. "You already said she knew you didn't love her. Why not be totally up-front with her and explain that you won't be able to have sex with her until you do love her?"

"Because it's not exactly going to encourage her to stay with me if I tell her that sex is totally off the agenda! Come on, George — get real."

"So it was better to wait until you were both hot and steamy under the sheets before telling her, was it?"

"No. Of course it wasn't."

"Do you think if you'd been up-front with her you would have ended up in a field with a handful of red kryptonite?"

"Maybe. Maybe not."

"Which option gives you better control of the situation?"

"Being up-front, I guess."

"So what do we conclude from all this?"

"Never have sex on a Thursday night?"

George chuckled. "Clark, I'm the one who does the wise-cracks, okay? You just stick to answering the questions."

He sighed. "Avoid creating a crisis by being up-front about my hang-ups?"

"I'd call them boundaries, but yeah, other than that, I'd say that was a good answer," said George. "You need to avoid crises, Clark, because that's when you're tempted to hit the red stuff. Get control and hold on to it." He paused. "But please don't become a control freak in the process. I can't stand those people."

"Aren't you supposed to like everyone, George?" said Clark. "I thought that was your job."

"Hell, no. I only psychoanalyse the ones I like. The wackos and control freaks see someone else."

Clark smiled. "George, did you just admit you liked me?"

"Hey, don't go getting all sentimental on me, buddy. I tolerate you, okay?"

"Sure, George."

"Sh-, next you'll be expecting me to hug you or something."

No, Clark didn't expect that. George wasn't the hugging type, but he was definitely the caring type. Not only had he rescued Clark from his apartment, but he'd just steered Clark through some really difficult questions without once causing him to lose control of his emotions. Clark wasn't entirely sure how he'd managed to do that, but he certainly appreciated it.

And, to his surprise, he did truly feel better. Not great, but better. Boundaries, George had said. Yeah, he'd certainly been pushed way beyond a boundary when Mayson had dragged him into bed, and that was why he'd turned back to red kryptonite — to take away the pain of the resulting crisis. And thinking about the past few months, he really hadn't been forced up against any other boundaries, so hadn't had any cause to fall off the wagon — hence the reason he'd been clean.

Thinking about things in those terms certainly helped him understand himself a lot better, but didn't particularly help him like himself any more. What use was he if he was always limited by these invisible boundaries?

Last night's bleak thoughts began to infect his fragile peace of mind — all those failures, his pathetic job at the Planet, everything he'd messed up on lately. Clark Kent, the farmer's son from Kansas, didn't seem able to make a success of anything for more than a few weeks at a time. One step forward, three steps backwards — that was today's Clark Kent.

He'd wept last night. Superman, the world's strongest man, had cried himself to sleep. What would people think if they knew how weak he really was?

The room seemed to have grown chilly. He crossed his arms over his chest to try and keep some warmth in. Suddenly, he felt cold and shivery.

"Clark, you okay there?"

"Yeah, fine," he answered quickly. He couldn't really be feeling cold, after all — he never felt the cold. Must be just his imagination. "Are we finished or is there more?"

He heard George move, and then he was shoving Clark's legs out of the way on the couch so that he could perch on the side. He ran a quick eye over Clark, then said, "You want to try that answer again? You're looking a little shaky, there, buddy."

"I'm okay."

George cocked his head on one side. "What were you thinking about? You kind of drifted away from me just then."

"I guess…" Clark faltered as his mind supplied a very neat but unpalatable summary of his thoughts. He hugged himself a bit tighter. It really was cold in George's office today.

"Just say it, Clark," murmured George. "Something ugly just popped into your head, didn't it?"

He shrugged, trying for nonchalance and probably failing dismally. He was good at failure these days. "I guess I don't like myself very much."

There — he'd said it. An uncontrollable tremor ran through him. Why was it so cold?

"I know you don't," said George. "But you will, okay? Trust me." He frowned. "Are you cold?"

"A little, maybe," said Clark.

"Give me one of your hands," commanded George, holding out his own hand in anticipation.

Reluctantly, Clark obeyed. "I thought you weren't the touchy- feely type," he said, as George's large hands closed around his. George felt incredibly warm against Clark's skin.

"Thought so," said George. "You're freezing. Did this just start right now?"

George always, always found him out. He grimaced. "I don't understand."

"Don't worry," said George. "It happens — probably just your body adjusting after that mega-hit of the red stuff you gave it. Do you feel shivery?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah."

"Okay, how about you go back up to your room and I'll get Frank to pay you a visit. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, but I guess we should be sure. You and I can pick this up tomorrow. I think you've got enough to think about for today, anyway."

"Okay." Well, at least he got a respite from the third-degree for a while. Maybe there was actually an up side to feeling like death warmed up.

"You want someone to go with you or can you make it on your own?"

"I'll be okay." Clark stood up slowly. "I guess this is why you wanted me to stay here for a couple of days," he said ruefully.

"Yeah, amazing, isn't it?" said George. "Sometimes I actually do know what I'm talking about."

Clark smiled weakly and made his way to the door. "George…" he said, pausing with his door on the doorknob.

"Yeah, buddy?"

"Those boundaries — how do I get rid of them?"

George grinned. "Great question, Clark. I'm glad you asked — we'll cover all that next time around."

"Gee, I can hardly wait."

George laughed. "Neither can I, buddy, neither can I."

***

Frank confirmed George's diagnosis and prescribed fluids, a few hours in bed, and some extra blankets. Nothing to worry about, he said. Invulnerability might protect Clark from external harm, but these symptoms came from within and were just a natural part of the healing process.

That was all very well for Frank to say, thought Clark glumly, but he wasn't the one lying shivering under a pile of blankets. He didn't think it was possible to feel so cold in a well-heated, draught-free room. Especially when you were super-powered and normally impervious to the cold.

At least he didn't crave another hit. No, that massive dose of red kryptonite didn't seem to have re-awakened the old craving — quite the opposite, in fact. His stomach churned just at the thought of it.

Still — plenty of hours to think about George's words of wisdom. Or rather, his questions of wisdom.

Find a balance, George had said. Yeah, that was probably a good idea — Clark had been pushing Lois totally out of his head lately, and it patently hadn't worked as a tactic. He'd dreamt about her, hallucinated about her, even, and when Mayson had forced him to confront all those suppressed thoughts, he'd crashed spectacularly. Maybe if he'd allowed himself to remember Lois more often, think about her more positively, things wouldn't have gone so wrong.

Well, that was easy to plan. Much harder to put into practice.

But he had to. As he'd said to George yesterday, he was weary of being ill. He didn't want to turn to red kryptonite every time he was faced with a difficult situation, and he sure as heck didn't want to spend any longer feeling as lousy as he did under these blankets. He wanted a normal, stable life. That wasn't so much to ask, was it?

And maybe figuring out this boundary thing would help, too. Get rid of the boundaries, get rid of the crises — everything might start to come right at last.

Perhaps he might even begin to like himself.

***

"Clark, you have a visitor."

His bedside phone had rung just after dinner, and reception had announced the news. However, when they'd told him who it was, his knee-jerk response had been to say he wasn't feeling well enough for visitors. But then he'd changed his mind. He needed to find out if he could do this, he'd decided. The shivers had passed hours ago and he was feeling much better, so he really had no excuse.

He walked into the patients' lounge and halted abruptly when he saw her standing by the magazine rack, flicking through a sports rag. She'd obviously just come from work — she was wearing a business suit under her open raincoat, and there was a smart leather briefcase propped up against the wall in front of her.

She still looked gorgeous — more so than ever, perhaps.

He swallowed, hoping his voice would sound vaguely normal. "Hi."

She looked up from her magazine, her hand freezing in mid page- turn. "Hi."

This was already harder than he'd anticipated — she was clearly as uncomfortable as he was. He looked around the room; gestured at a group of easy chairs nearby. "Shall we sit?"

"Okay." She replaced the magazine, fumbling a little to fit it back into the rack. Then she collected her brief case from the floor and crossed to one of the chairs, perching right on the edge with her back ramrod straight. The briefcase slid to the floor again.

He sat opposite her, settling uneasily into his chair and wondering how the heck this conversation was supposed to get started.

"You're looking…well," she said.

He nodded stiffly. "I'm okay."

"I…I heard you got sick. I was sorry to hear that."

He shrugged. "I'm fine now."

Her gaze dropped to her lap where she was fiddling nervously with her watch strap. "Clark…I really was worried about you, you know. I got the news from one of your neighbours — you know, the guy who works in my office? He said an ambulance came for you."

"Yeah. George called it."

"He found you? Does that mean you…?"

It was his turn to drop his gaze. "Yes. I OD'd. Not something I'm too proud of, actually." She'd know all this, of course. She'd worked with addicts often enough at the DA's office.

"It happens, Clark," she said, not unkindly. "A lot of recovering addicts-"

"I know, Mayson, okay?" he said, glancing up at her sharply. "I've been through all that stuff with George. I don't need you telling me too."

"Sorry. But you're getting better, yes? You look really good, certainly."

He shrugged. "I'm getting there."

"Because…well, here you are, in this place. I wondered…" She hooked a finger around a lock of hair and began twirling it over and over. "That night…it was my fault, wasn't it? I shouldn't have pushed you so hard."

His breath caught in his throat. He'd never imagined she might think all this was her fault. But what could he say that wouldn't hurt her? She definitely had pushed too hard, and with disastrous consequences. With anyone else but him, though what she'd done wouldn't have been so bad.

"It wasn't your fault," he said, settling for the half-truth. "This…everything that's happening to me…it's all my own doing. No-one else is to blame but me."

"But I didn't help, did I?" she insisted. "I knew how sensitive you were about…" She glanced around the room to make sure they were alone before continuing in a lower voice. "About sex, even if we never actually spoke about it. All those times I tried to get close to you…no-one could be that painfully shy. And I knew all the problems you'd had with addiction, because you'd been so honest with me about all of that. I appreciated that honesty, Clark, I really did. But I should have known better than to push you into something you didn't want."

Maybe she had a point, but she wasn't the only one who'd messed up. He shifted awkwardly on his chair. "I wasn't totally honest with you, actually."

She bit her bottom lip. "You mean her? The other woman."

The pain in her voice was clear. "Mayson…"

She deserved to know. It came to him in a flash — after the hurt he'd inflicted on her, and the news that she was actually blaming herself for what had happened, she deserved to know. And maybe George was right about coming clean regarding those boundaries. Perhaps Clark would be telling her this rather too late, but he needed to do it. For both their sakes.

She sighed heavily. "I don't understand why you bothered with me if she was the person you really wanted," she said. "Was I just a side-attraction?"

"No!" he exclaimed, appalled that she'd got it so wrong. "Look, Mayson, I know now that I should have told you all of this long ago," he began. "Maybe it's too late now, but will you listen anyway if I try to explain something to you?"

She shrugged. "I'm not in any hurry to go home to my empty apartment and the box of macaroni and cheese sitting on my kitchen counter."

"Okay." He drew in a deep breath. "I'm a little new at this, so bear with me if I stumble around a bit."

He looked up at her to judge her reaction and was rewarded with a small smile. "Go right ahead," she said. "I'll pick you up and dust you off if you stumble."

He grinned. That was a touch of their old relationship; the one where they'd actually tried to help each other now and then. "It's a deal. Okay…"

He gave her an edited version, of course. Just a story about a woman he'd met a couple of times a long time ago and had fallen head-over-heels in love with. She'd then disappeared, and he'd been devastated. He'd searched in vain for nearly a year, but when it had become clear she was nowhere to be found, he'd begun to fall apart.

"So that's when you turned to drugs?" she said. "I could never figure that out before. You seemed to have so much to live for."

He nodded, feeling too strung out to answer properly. Telling her about Lois had been hard. Very hard.

"So when I came along, you were hoping I'd help you forget her?" she said.

"Yeah. Kind of."

"But you didn't, did you? She was always there, hovering on the edges of our relationship." She shook her head sadly. "I knew I was competing with someone, but I never realised she was so insubstantial."

That was the problem — Lois wasn't insubstantial so far as he was concerned. She was a living, breathing woman with extraordinary qualities no other woman could ever match.

He closed his eyes. Balance, he reminded himself. Find a balance.

He felt her hand touch his knee and opened his eyes to find her leaning across towards him. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I didn't mean she was inconsequential. I can see how much she meant to you."

He shook himself. "It's okay…I'm okay."

"So where do we go from here, Clark?" she said. "You…you hurt me a lot, you know. It wasn't easy to come here and see you again. But you were sick, and…well, I care, Clark. I really do care about you."

Hesitantly, he reached for her hand, clasped her fingers gently. "That means a lot to me, Mayson. And I never wanted to hurt you. But as to where we go from here…I don't know. I'm a little mixed up right now."

"I know," she murmured. "But maybe…well, maybe you could call me? When you're feeling better, I mean."

"I'll think about it, Mayson. I promise."

"Okay." She stood up, and he followed. "Take care of yourself, Clark."

"You too, Mayson."

She placed her hands on his upper arms and leant in for a brief kiss on his cheek. He returned with a similar kiss, but then chaste kisses suddenly didn't seem to be enough and they were hugging each other tightly. "Please call me," she murmured into the crook of his shoulder. "I miss you."

"I'll try," he said. "I promise I'll try."

It wasn't what she wanted to hear, but it was as much as he could offer. He really didn't know what he felt about Mayson any more, other than he didn't love her. Was that enough to keep him away from her for ever, or could he have a relationship with someone he just liked a lot? Or could he learn how to love her if she gave him long enough? Would she love him?

She broke away and collected her briefcase from the floor. "Better go catch my hot date with that box of macaroni," she said awkwardly.

"Add extra cheese," he suggested. "Always works for me."

"Okay. Thanks."

When she was gone, he sank back down onto his chair. Well, he'd told her. Mayson now knew exactly why he'd pushed her away when she came too close. Had it been worth it? Had it been wise to tell her everything?

Yes.

A burden had been lifted. At last, he hoped, she understood his awkwardness — understood that he wasn't seeing anyone else, or that he had any ulterior motive other than a difficulty to let go of his feelings for a woman he'd once known. Hopefully, the knowledge would make her feel better about herself. He definitely felt better now that she knew the truth.

Damn George, he thought ruefully. Why did that guy always have to be right?

But Mayson seemed to be saying she'd be willing to try again. He ran his hand through his hair. His mind flashed back to that agonising scene in his bedroom when he'd scrambled away from her. How could she want him back after that? He'd treated her so badly.

And was he ready to try again? Was Mayson the person he'd want to try with? Say they did get back together again — would she be willing to live with his so-called boundaries?

So many questions; so few answers. And right this minute, he was totally exhausted and completely incapable of anything other than rambling thoughts and confused emotions.

He pushed himself out of the chair and made his way back up to his room.

***

To Clark's surprise and growing frustration, George opened their next session with a long series of questions about his Superman work over the last couple of months. Not just any work, though, but the rescues which had gone particularly well, or the people who'd been especially grateful for his help. Then Clark had to tell George about his work at the Planet — but only the stories which Clark thought had actually served the community in some way. Finally, Clark was taken through the last couple of months with Mayson — only the fun times, of course. What did he think Mayson had got out of the relationship? Yes, he was forced to agree, she did she enjoy his company. Mostly, at any rate.

"George, I can see the game you're playing here, but what's the point?" Clark exclaimed eventually. "Yes, the past few months haven't been a total disaster, but they sure as heck ended in disaster. One crisis, and it all goes to hell again."

"The point, my friend, is that if you did it once, you can do it again. The point is that you made a success of your life," George replied, his voice growing in volume with each sentence. "The point, Clark, is that you are not a failure."

Clark snorted.

"Yes, I know that you like to think you are. In fact, it's convenient to think that, because then you don't have to get off your butt and do anything about it," George said. "But I'm here to burst your bubble, buddy. You are not a failure. You just made a mistake, and we've already figured out how you're going to avoid making any more."

"We have?"

"Yeah. We established that you need to avoid crises in your relationships, and that a good way of doing that is to let people know what your boundaries are. You're going to find a balance between trying to forget Lois completely and allowing yourself to remember her now and then. So you've got just about everything you need to go out there and start living again."

"Gee, George, why didn't I think of that? Maybe I'll check myself out right this minute and be on my way," retorted Clark.

"Not a bad idea, Clark." George paused, then continued more softly. "Look, I just want you to realise that you've made a lot of progress since you first came here. You've done really well, and this is just a blip on the chart. A fairly big blip, I'll give you that, but it sure as hell isn't the end of the world. Okay?"

Clark sighed. "Okay."

"In fact, I want you to remember one of these good things every time you get a negative thought about yourself. Give me one now."

Clark rolled his eyes. "I fixed Mayson's leaky taps in her bathroom."

"Nah, you had better ones than that. Give me another."

"I caught the guy who's been terrorising the prostitutes around Hobbs Bay."

"There you go!" said George. "See, that wasn't so hard, now was it?"

Sometimes the guy was worse than a nagging teacher. "No, George."

"Good," said George. "So now that I've stopped you thinking like a loser, let's talk about widening those boundaries of yours a little."

"At last!" said Clark. "I thought that's what we were supposed to be talking about all along — not successes and positives and all that rubbish."

"Yeah, well, I needed to get that rubbish, as you so eloquently describe it, in somewhere. It's on the shrink's list of patented cures for addicts."

Clark laughed. "Okay, so you got it in. Now tell me what I really want to know."

"Okay, well let's take a look at the boundary which stopped you having sex with Mayson. Leaving aside that whole guilt trip thing about not wanting her to realise that you don't love her, because we now know that you already had a good idea that she knew that, why didn't you really want to have sex with her?"

Oh, boy, George really didn't beat about the bush when he'd made up his mind to investigate yet another dark corner of Clark's psyche. Clark hunched his shoulders. "Because I didn't love her."

"Whereas you loved all those other women you slept with, yeah?" said George.

Clark sighed. "No, but that was different. I was half out of my mind when I was with them. Besides, even then, I…I didn't exactly feel great afterwards." Tears rolling down his cheeks, trying to hide them from his lovers by keeping his head buried in the pillow and pretending he was more overcome by their lovemaking than he really had been.

But George already knew all that so he really didn't feel elaborating on that particular nightmare again.

"So was it because you didn't love her," asked George. "Or because you were afraid of how you'd feel afterwards?"

He frowned. "I guess…if you put it like that, then it was really the latter. Mostly. Also because I actually liked her and didn't just want to use her like all those other women."

"So would you ever be prepared to have sex with a woman you didn't love, if you knew you weren't likely to feel bad about it afterwards?"

To his surprise, Clark discovered he wasn't sure he knew the answer to that one. As a virgin, sex had been a mysterious undiscovered country — somewhere he really wanted to visit, but only if he was completely sure he wanted to go there. Now that he'd been there — been a regular visitor, in fact — it didn't hold the same mystery. There was no fear of the unknown…sex was no big deal, in fact.

Love-making was the new mystery. He was certain there was a vast difference, and one day, he wanted to experience it. Whether Mayson would be the woman he discovered it with remained to be seen.

In the meantime, was sex outside love unthinkable?

"No," he said, then realised George's question had been phrased the other way around. "Yes."

George laughed. "You sure about that, Clark?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "I guess I could."

"You guess you could?" exclaimed George. "Jesus, Clark, I wish I had your self-control."

Clark couldn't help smiling. "Mind over matter, George. And believe me, it helps if you're as messed up as I am."

George laughed again. "Okay, maybe I'll just live with my urges. One of us has to stay sane." He clapped his hands together loudly. "Right! We're starting to break down one of your boundaries quite a bit. We're on a roll. So answer me this — why do think you cried after sex?"

Oh, God. Why did George always have to do that? He'd woo Clark into a false sense of security, even get him exchanging a little banter, and then he'd hit out with the really hard stuff.

"We already discussed this," he said.

"Yeah, but I've got a terrible memory," said George. "Tell me again."

"Because…because I wanted it to be Lois," he said quietly.

"And will it ever be Lois, Clark?"

It was the impossible question. Yes, she was missing. Yes, she'd been gone for years. Yes, the chances of surviving that long in a country like the Congo was practically nil. But there was no body. No death certificate. No nothing.

He felt George's hand on his shoulder. "Tough question, huh, buddy?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"I still need an answer," said George. "Sorry, but this only works if you keep talking to me."

He closed his eyes. "I don't know, George. Until I see some definitive evidence that she's dead, I'll never know."

"But can you afford to put your life on hold until then?"

"No," he whispered. "I can't."

George patted his shoulder. "Balance, Clark. Keep working on that balance."

"Yeah."

"And remember what we said if, by some miracle, she were to return?"

Clark sighed. "She might not like me anyway."

"Exactly. So keep remembering these things, and then maybe you'll find sex and even love-making becomes easier for you." George chuckled. "It's not that I'm trying to turn you into some kind of promiscuous sex maniac, by the way. It's just that, for you, the problems you have in this area are at the crux of the wider issues you face."

"Okay." Clark forced a weak smile. "It's all right, George, I won't turn into some kind of caped Casanova."

"Phew," said George. "Okay, I think that's enough for today. Has Frank seen you yet?"

"No."

"I think he wants to do some final poking and prodding and then he'll probably sign you off. If he's satisfied, then I think we could send you home tomorrow. I take it you'd be happy with that?"

"You bet."

"Okay. Tomorrow we'll look at ways of including Lois in your thoughts at a level you're comfortable with, and we'll do some work on coping strategies. Bet you can hardly wait, huh?"

"I'm already counting the hours, George."

***

Clark unlocked the door to his apartment and swung the door open. Home sweet home. And another home-coming after illness. He walked inside and closed the door. No Scrabble board on the coffee table, this time, of course. Just his empty apartment, looking exactly as he'd left it a couple of days ago.

He wasn't sure why he expected it to look any different, really. He hadn't been gone that long, after all. Maybe it was because he felt different. He'd been through hell and back several times over the past few days, and in a weird way, now felt as if he'd been rebuilt from scratch. It was a bit of an anti-climax to discover everything else in the world had remained exactly the same.

He jogged down the stairs to his lounge, hardly glancing at the spot on the carpet where he knew George had found him. But yes, he looked long enough to see that everything was all cleaned up — Alice, probably, when she'd dropped in to pick up a few things for his stay at the clinic. He owed her so much. Perry too.

Coffee. He needed coffee. He dropped his bag on the floor and walked into the kitchen.

So, he thought as he began pulling out all the stuff he needed, the last time he'd returned home he'd been pretty unsure of himself and his ability to cope alone. He'd been jobless, had still been taking hits every other day, hadn't flown in the cape for ages, and hadn't met Mayson. Things were different this time. He was starting from a more secure base, and this time, he was going to make it work. No overdoses, no crises he couldn't manage, no obsessing. Just balance, ever-widening boundaries, and a healthy dose of positive thinking.

Yup, the new model Clark Kent wasn't going to be a dependent. He was going to make other people depend on him.

George had said it all when he'd pointed out that Clark couldn't afford to put his life on hold while he waited for Lois to turn up. Clark had learnt the hard way exactly where that attitude led, and he really didn't want to revisit that particular living hell any time soon. Even more so, he didn't want a repeat of the last few days, which had to rate as some of the worst in his entire life.

So, armed with a battery of tips and tricks from George's arsenal of addiction-zapping strategies, and a good deal of new self- knowledge, he was going to start up his life again — and this time there would be no looking back.

***

"So how's the new guy working out? Ralph, wasn't it?"

Clark held his editor's gaze across the desk and watched the guy shift awkwardly in his chair as he searched for a palatable reply. "He's okay…there's raw talent there…it just need a little shaping…"

"Oh, come on! He's a disaster and you know it," said Clark. "He should be writing a gossip column someplace, not chasing down serious stories for a quality newspaper like the Planet."

His editor frowned. "Clark, you're in no position to criticise other members of staff. At least I know when Ralph is going to turn up. He doesn't call in sick at a moment's notice."

"Oh, so you think people should plan their illnesses in advance?" said Clark. "Okay, let's get this sick thing out of the way. I was off for four days, and out of those four days, only one was actually a day when you expected me here. Even if I'd been working full-time, four days off sick isn't a big deal — someone with the flu could easily be off for that long."

"But how do I know it won't happen again in a month's time, Clark? Ralph's been here for three months and never had a day off yet."

"And how much useful work has he done in those three months?"

"He's learning," said his editor.

"And how do you know he won't fall sick with something long-term tomorrow and start taking weeks off at a time?" added Clark.

"I don't, but-"

"He's still on probation, isn't he? You haven't confirmed his appointment yet, have you?" said Clark.

His editor squirmed again. "No…"

"Okay, so here's my suggestion," said Clark, pressing home the small advantage he'd gained. "Hang on to Ralph for now, but don't confirm his appointment. Give me half his assignments and then in a month's time you can compare our work. It won't cost you much more than you're paying me now, and you can even compare our attendance records. Then you make an informed choice — keep the rookie reporter or employ me — the seasoned investigative reporter this paper really needs."

Clark couldn't quite believe he'd just said all that. He'd never sold his own talents so aggressively before, nor fought for a job so competitively. But he was determined to get back into real life again and start doing the things he knew he was good at.

Eyes were raised across the desk. "Clark, I never knew you had it in you. Although I guess anyone who wrote the kind of stuff you used to produce has to have some kind of determination. You just hide it well." He leaned back in his chair and eyed his reporter evenly for a few moments. Then he nodded briefly. "Okay, Clark, you got yourself a deal. You can start next week."

Clark grinned triumphantly. "Thanks! You won't regret this."

***

It was amazing how, after that first success, everything else began to slot into place. He picked back up on his Superman work and discovered to his relief that his four day absence from the skies hadn't been much noticed. Luckily, there hadn't been any major accidents while he'd been at the clinic, otherwise his failure to turn up might well have caused people to lose faith in their superhero. He was under no illusions that their previous forgiveness for his weaknesses would extend indefinitely.

Which was another reason why he had to make things work this time around. He wasn't going to get a third chance.

***

He stared balefully at his phone. It had been lurking there for days, daring him to pick it up. Today, he'd tried taking a shower, changing out of his work clothes, watching part of a ball game on TV, but it still sat there clamouring at him to pick up the receiver and dial. The darned thing even had her number programmed into its memory. No excuse not to phone her right this minute, really.

Mayson had been increasingly on his mind over the last few days. She'd told him at the clinic that she missed him, and now, after he'd reassembled other parts of his life fairly successfully, he realised that he also missed her. They'd had a lot of fun together — she'd been a good companion and had even been pretty supportive when he'd had bad days during his fight with addiction. He liked her zestiness and sharp wit, and she seemed to like him. Okay, so she didn't approve of Superman, but that was just a challenge for him, wasn't it? He could teach her why Superman was worthwhile and a good use of his abilities.

So maybe the least he should do was to find out what chance they had of making a new start. That was his new theme, after all — though hopefully not his new obsession, he thought ruefully.

Okay, pick up phone and dial. Now. Say, "Hi, it's Clark," and take it from there. Wing it. Hope she doesn't respond with "Who?"

Dialling tone, dial number, phone ringing. Wait, wait…don't chicken out and hang up. Wait…

"Hello?"

"Hi, it's Clark."

Well, it seemed she was cautiously happy to hear from him. Lots of superficial pleasantries, of course, but she accepted his invitation to dinner at a new seafood restaurant they'd wanted to try out, and rang off sounding pretty cheerful.

Phew. He'd chosen the restaurant because he knew it had booths where they could talk in relative privacy. He'd also picked it because he reckoned they needed to have this first date on neutral territory — dinner at either his place or hers would have been far too loaded with memories.

***

Being a minor celebrity sometimes had its advantages. The maitre d', a discreet, very smooth fellow, seated them in a quiet booth well away from the bar area and the front door. Glasses of water were brought, the table oil lamp lit, menus delivered and the usual long list of impossible-to-remember specials were reeled off. They exchanged helpless glances and settled for items from the regular menu. Wine was ordered, and at last, they were alone.

Compliments were exchanged on how good-looking, well-dressed and healthy they both looked. Mayson was wearing her hair a little differently, and Clark made appreciative — and certainly not faked — noises about the new styling. Mayson told him he'd written a good article the previous week, and he requested and received a run-down of the more interesting or just plain weird cases she'd been working on recently. They even laughed.

The food arrived, and they made complimentary remarks to the waiter and to each other on how good their chosen dishes looked. How big the plates were. How prettily arranged the vegetables were.

They began to eat. Mmm, it tasted good! He gave her a corner from his salmon, and she let him have a couple of shrimps. They sipped wine.

They were half-way through the main course when Mayson laid down her fork, dabbed her lips with her napkin and said, "Look, is this going as badly as I think it is? Or were we always this darned polite with each other?"

After his initial shock that she'd voiced his exact thoughts, he sighed with relief, glad that one of them had broken the ice at last. The very, very thick ice. "No, you usually insult me at least once before the menus arrive," he replied with a wink.

She laughed. "I do not! I say what I think, that's all."

"Exactly," he said, smiling. "But since I know you're always wrong, your insults do me no harm."

"Oh, really? I'm always wrong, am I?"

And, thankfully, they slowly found their way back to a more natural, bantering conversation with a touch of seriousness now and then if the topic demanded it. As they became more at ease with each other, the mood became more personal, until finally, over coffee, Mayson inched her hand across the table to his. The move seemed almost conciliatory, as if she were offering him an olive branch. He slid his own hand over the white linen and met her half way, clasping her small, warm hand lightly in his own.

"Clark, I'm sorry I pushed you into something you weren't comfortable with that night," she murmured.

"And I'm sorry I made you feel so horrible," he replied huskily.

"Shall we call it even? The apologies sort of cancel each other out, don't they?"

"I guess." He squeezed her hand gently. "Mayson, when you visited me at the clinic, you seemed to be saying…well, you seemed to want us to try again."

She dropped her eyes and studied her coffee cup for a moment. "I'd understand if you didn't. But I think…what I feel for you…it's more than just friendship. I'm not sure if it's love, either, but I just think I'd like a second chance to find out." Her eyes flicked up at him. "Wouldn't you?"

He met her blue-eyed gaze. "I…I think I would." When she seemed disappointed with his hesitancy, he added, "I definitely would, Mayson. But can we take things slowly? Do you think you'd be okay with that?"

She nodded. "I think so. I know I wasn't exactly patient before, but now that I understand you better, it'll be easier."

"And…" This was the hard one, but he had to say it or her expectations would be too high again. "I'm not sure…" He couldn't hold her gaze while he said it. Suddenly the table cloth seemed to contain a very interesting pattern of swirling white linen roses. Funny how he'd never noticed them before. "I don't know if I'm capable of love," he murmured to the white roses. "Are you still sure you want to try again on those terms?"

He felt her hand slip out of his, and thought he had his answer. What point, after all, was there in a relationship where there was no love? Especially for Mayson, a beautiful, attractive young woman who wouldn't have difficulty in finding plenty of men who'd be more than willing to help her search for love?

But then she took his hand in both of hers. "I don't give up that easily, Clark. In fact, I consider that a challenge. You're an extraordinary person, Clark — I don't think you realise just what a catch you are." She chuckled. "And I don't just mean that great body of yours, although I have to admit that's how you reeled me in to begin with."

He smiled. "Well, the thing that did it for me — other than that great body of yours, of course — was that your eyes only popped out on stalks after I came back dressed as me and not Superman."

"Huh? You never told me that before."

He shrugged. "I'm the real person. Superman is just an icon-"

"Oh, don't get me started on that!" she exclaimed. "Icon my foot."

He grinned. "Now, see, I'm glad you said that. I also have a challenge in mind."

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh? I'm not going flying with you — I told you that before."

"Yes, you did. But that's only a minor part of my challenge. The greater part is far more radical than that." At her sceptical look, he just smiled enigmatically. "Wait and see. If I tell you, you'll just do everything you can to block me."

"I see. Doesn't seem fair to me — I may have to haul you into my courtroom for unreasonable contractual practices." She gave him a touch of her hard law-woman's stare, then dropped her gaze and began fiddling with her coffee cup. "So…how slow is slow? Am I allowed to kiss you now and then?"

"Oh, I expect so," he said with a smile, although, in truth, he didn't know exactly where the boundaries lay. Circumstances and mood could change everything — either way. "But I can't give you absolutes, Mayson. We're just going to have to figure this out as we go along."

"So long as I don't ever get the impression you're not willing to commit as much to this as I am," she said. "I'm not here to be used, Clark."

"I don't want to use you, Mayson I want you to get as much out of this…whatever this is…as I do," he replied. "If you ever think I'm just using you, please tell me."

"Oh, I will," she said. "Like I said, I say what I think." She paused. "There's one other thing. I understand you've had huge problems letting go of this other woman…Lois, wasn't it?…and I think I understand a little of what she meant to you, but please don't keep comparing us. We're two different people, with our own strengths and weaknesses. You either take me as I am or not at all. I can't be Lois for you, Clark."

Oh, boy, that was a hard one. She was totally right, of course, but he couldn't be sure that he'd never be tempted to compare them. There was one thing he was sure of, though. "I don't want you to be Lois, Mayson. I want you to be you."

She nodded. "Okay. Then we have a deal." She looked up at him with a shy smile. "Um…would this be one of those times when a kiss might be acceptable?"

Instead of answering her, he smiled and leant over the table towards her. She did the same, but the table turned out to be too wide for them to meet in the middle. She laughed. "I can't reach you!"

"Well, luckily for you, I have certain talents," he said, floating himself upwards just enough that he lean across the table and touch her lips. "See how useful Superman can be?" he murmured before pressing his lips against hers.

***

Despite that first kiss, their relationship was rather hesitant for the next few weeks. At times, they were as comfortable with each other as they ever had been — usually when they were doing something active, like painting her living room or shopping for his new suit. Then, the banter flowed freely and the conversation was lively and topical. Things became less comfortable when the action stopped and they were watching a movie together or just sitting drinking coffee after dinner.

Mayson appeared to be taking his boundaries so seriously that she sought his permission every time she touched him or wanted to kiss him. Clark felt awkward because he didn't want to initiate anything which would have to stop before it became too intimate.

"Why would it have to stop?" asked George. He'd recently cut their sessions down to once every other week, which Clark was more than happy with, as his life was beginning to fill up and there seemed to be less time for visiting the clinic and lounging on a couch talking to his therapist.

"Because I don't think I'm ready for that yet," said Clark. "And please don't let's get into that whole sex debate again. I think I pretty much know where I stand on all of that."

George chuckled. "Sure, buddy. As it happens, I think you do, too. But does Mayson know where you stand?"

"Yes. I made that pretty clear right from the outset," said Clark. "See, I have been listening to you."

"Okay, but have you been using that sludgy grey stuff you call a brain lately? If Mayson knows you have limits, then she's clearly aware that you're not going to let things get hot and steamy," said George. "Ever thought of that?"

"Well, no, I suppose," said Clark. "But sometimes things aren't so easy to control in the heat of the moment."

"Jesus, if you're having difficulty controlling yourself, then just go with the flow!" exclaimed George. "Do I have to draw you a diagram?"

"No, I think I pretty much know how it works, George," Clark replied dryly. He sighed. "I know it sounds crazy, but…I guess I just don't want a repeat of last time."

"Buddy, I think you understand yourself a whole lot better now than you did then. You'll do the right thing, and whatever you decide to do, Mayson will respect you for it because you've been upfront with her." George paused. "At least, that's the theory."

Clark snorted. "Thanks, George. You're really filling me with confidence here."

"Well, you know I don't deal in certainties. That would be too easy, and then I'd get bored," said George. "Look, you've told Mayson you have boundaries, and from what you've told me, she's doing her utmost to respect that. Tell me, why do you think she keeps asking for your permission?"

"I guess she's not sure where these boundaries of mine are, exactly," said Clark.

"And why isn't she sure?"

"Because I haven't told her?" Clark replied. "But I can't tell her — I don't know exactly where they are myself."

"How might you find out where they are?"

Clark shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."

"What does a scientist do when he or she wants to find out something?"

"Experiment? You want me to experiment on her?"

"With her, Clark, with her. Christ, you can be obtuse sometimes, you know that?"

Clark grinned. Of course, the penny had really dropped as soon as George had mentioned scientists. "Well, you ask me all these leading questions," said Clark. "But I don't like to make it too easy for you. You'd get bored."

"Oh, playing games, were we?" said George. "Okay, I think you got the message. You have to take the initiative here, Clark. She's walking on eggshells around you because you've asked her to. If you want things to change, you need to show her how you want them to change."

"And she'll respect me for it?" asked Clark, slightly tongue-in- cheek.

"Absolutely. Now, how are you sleeping? Still having those dreams?"

Yes, he still dreamt about Lois. Not very often, and certainly less frequently than when the dreams had first started. But every once in a while, he'd awake with her name on his lips and her distress lancing through his heart. He usually took a night flight over the city to clear his head, but sometimes that didn't work and he'd end up just sitting high up somewhere until dawn came up and he could go into work. He just didn't seem to be able to shake the dreams — it was the one thing that George's famous balance wasn't fixing.

"I take from your deafening silence that that's a yes?" prompted George.

"Yeah." He sighed. "I don't know — sometimes I wonder if I'm picking up some kind of echo from the past. I know that sounds crazy, but I really don't think I'm so obsessed about her as I used to be. Sure, my life would be transformed and I'd be totally overjoyed if she turned up tomorrow, but I think I'm learning to live without her. I certainly don't think about her all the time any more. What do you think?"

"Well, I don't know about echoes from the past, but I'd agree that you seem to be finding a better balance in your life," said George. "I think the thing to focus on here is that the dreams aren't as frequent as they used to be. They don't seem to be affecting your health, and I suspect that with time, they're going to fade."

Clark nodded. "Okay."

"But if you start to feel that you can't handle them, call me, all right?" said George. "There are things we can do. Otherwise, buddy, I'll see you in two weeks' time, when I'll look forward to hearing about how you've progressed with Mayson."

***

Progress with Mayson. Yes, there was progress. In fact, all it took was for him to slide his arm around her shoulders one night and tug her close while they were sitting on her sofa watching a movie. She smiled the broadest, happiest smile he'd ever seen on her.

"Hi," she said, beaming up at him.

"I'm sorry I've been so edgy," he murmured. "Things are going to be different from now on."

And they were. They slipped fairly easily into a new familiarity with each other. It wasn't taboo to touch or cuddle any longer. Kissing became a natural part of their relationship again.

Life picked up pace as their relationship developed. Her friends became his friends, they accompanied each other to work social events, and Alice and Perry invited the two of them around for dinner.

For Clark, their companionship was a revelation after Lana and his other girlfriends. Lana had always been dominant in their relationship; looking back, he realised that a lot of their activities had been centred around Lana, with his interests squeezed in wherever he could fit them in. Intellectually, he and Lana had been equals, but other than their shared schooling and the fact that they came from the same small town, their values had been increasingly unequal. Then, his later short-term girlfriends had been frivolous flings; frothy, disposable nights out followed by lots of sex. There had never been sufficient intelligent conversation to discover whether he shared values with any of them, but somehow, he very much doubted it.

Mayson, by contrast, was his equal in so many ways. She didn't place the same pressure on him that Lana had exerted, and she enjoyed nothing better than an intellectual battle of wits. She was interested in his work, and he in hers. Not only that, but she was dating him, Clark Kent, and not Superman. Friendship with Mayson, he decided, was comfortable and life-enhancing.

The one thing they just couldn't see eye to eye on was Superman. Oh, she didn't mind him using his powers domestically, and she didn't seem at all bothered by the fact that he wasn't actually human, but so far as she was concerned, Superman was no better than an unpaid vigilante, and no amount of argument on his part could persuade her otherwise.

"I wouldn't mind if you stuck to rescuing people from burning buildings and so on, but when you start apprehending bank robbers and muggers, you've overstepped the line," she'd say.

"I don't see the difference. Whatever I do, I'm just trying to help people," he'd say.

And on and on the argument would roll. He should have joined the police force if he wanted to become a law-enforcement agent. Or joined the FBI. And couldn't he see that he was setting himself up as a one-man criminal justice system? Clark Kent, the journalist, investigated the crime and passed judgement in the Daily Planet, then Superman, the vigilante, apprehended the criminal. He was bypassing due process completely. Or perhaps he considered himself above the law?

It hurt that she didn't approve of Superman. He supposed her opposition was useful in making him reassess his work and asking himself if he did ever step over the line into vigilantism, but he always satisfied himself that what he was doing was right. He just couldn't make her agree he was right.

***

Clark was at his desk very early one morning when his phone rang. It annoyed him; he was early for a specific reason and no-one ought to have known where he was. He'd wanted…needed…peace and quiet for a couple of hours.

"Hey."

Mayson. He should have known she'd call. "Hey yourself," he said.

"How are you?" she asked. "I saw the news this morning. Looked like a tough night's work."

"Yeah."

"They said fifteen fatalities."

"Yeah, sounds about right." He hadn't dealt with all fifteen, but he'd heard one of the rescue workers quote that figure at some point.

"You didn't answer my question."

He sighed. "I'm…okay."

"I wondered…how about lunch? We could meet at the park."

"I'm going to be busy…there's a lot to write. Phone calls to make."

"Too soon, huh?" she murmured. "How about I come over tonight and cook you dinner, then?"

"I've got an appointment with George." His regular bi-weekly session, ironically. Not that he was sure he wanted to keep it now. George was sure to rake him over the coals about last night.

"That won't take all night," she pointed out. "When are you seeing him?"

"Seven. But I don't think I'll be very good company afterwards."

"That doesn't matter."

Maybe it didn't matter to her, but it did to him. Plus, she didn't exactly approve of Superman stuff, did she? "Mayson, I'd just rather not, okay? I'm not trying to push you away, I just…I just need a little space."

"Oh." He'd hurt her; he could hear it in her voice. "Well, how about tomorrow night, then?"

"Yeah," he said, trying to inject a little enthusiasm into his words. "That would be good."

"Sweet and sour chicken okay?"

"Sounds nice."

"Great. I'll see you around seven thirty, okay? Don't worry about the wine — I'll bring that, too."

"Okay. Thanks for calling."

"I was worried about you, especially when I rang your apartment and you weren't there. Clark…" She sighed heavily over the phone. "Look, take things easy, okay?"

"Yeah."

***

He kept the appointment with George — even if he didn't want to talk about what had happened, and even though he'd rather just go home and flop in front of the TV for a few hours of mind-numbing quiz shows, sitcoms and soaps, he had just enough sense to realise that he needed to see George.

Nevertheless, he wasn't exactly an enthusiastic participant in the session. Especially when George went straight for the jugular as soon as they'd exchanged the usual pleasantries.

"Okay, buddy, do you remember that conversation we had a long time ago about being emotionally strong enough to be Superman?"

Clark nodded wearily, knowing what was coming next. "Yeah…"

"So, Superman, I'd like you to tell me about last night's train crash."

Clark hunched his shoulders and crossed his arms over his middle. "There's nothing to tell, George. I pulled a few people out of the wreckage; flew them to the hospital. The usual."

"Oh, really? Just the usual, huh?" said George. "Tell me, were they all okay? Once you got them to the hospital, I mean."

So George had done his homework, it seemed. He knew, or suspected, that this had been more than just a normal rescue operation. Clark still didn't feel like playing ball, though. "I'm not sure — I didn't really get a chance to hang around much," he explained. "They needed me back at the site to help with the clear-up operation."

"You're not sure." George sucked air through his teeth. "Tell me about the woman, Clark."

"Which woman, George?" asked Clark. "I rescued quite a few women last night. You'll have to be more specific."

"Oh, you want me to get specific, Clark?" said George. "Here's specific — the woman who was dead by the time you got her to the hospital. That specific enough for you?"

Okay, so the gloves were off and they were down to the bare- knuckle jousting. Clark's mouth twisted. "What do you want me to say, George? She died. I couldn't rescue her in time. It happens."

"That simple, huh? Boy, I envy you your emotional detachment. I wish I didn't care about my patients the same way you don't care about the people you rescue."

"Shut up, George," said Clark. "I know what your game is, and I'm not interested in playing, okay? It happened, I dealt with it."

"Nope, you don't get off the hook that easily, my friend. This is the first time you've dealt with a fatality since you got back into the suit — am I right?"

"So? It's happened before," retorted Clark. "It'll happen again. I'll cope, just like I always do."

"Jesus, Clark, I'm your doctor," exclaimed George. "Don't be such an obstinate bastard. Talk to me." He drew in a deep breath. "Tell me, was she conscious when you picked her up?"

"Yes." Just barely, but enough for her to know that her life was slowly leaking away from her. She'd been scared about that — scared that she might die. He'd comforted her, told her that everything was going to be okay. They'd be at the hospital in no time, he'd said.

"What did you say to her?"

"I told her I'd get her to the hospital."

"Which you did. But she was dead by the time you got there, yeah?"

Why did George have to keep reminding him? "Yes."

"Why?" said George. "Why didn't you get there in time? You can fly faster than the speed of sound, can't you?"

Clark shook his head. "Not when I'm carrying someone so fragile. I had to fly pretty slowly, actually."

"Oh, I see. So it wasn't your fault that she died before she could receive the treatment she needed, yeah?"

Clark closed his eyes and sighed heavily. He'd been over the exact same question again and again since last night, replaying everything he'd done before he found her. The honest truth was that he had no idea whether he could have saved her if he'd done things differently, but he couldn't help wondering. If he'd perhaps been a little quicker to find her, or hadn't spent so long talking to the fire chief, or hadn't flown quite so slowly when he'd been carrying her, maybe she'd still be alive.

"Clark? You going to answer me?"

"I would if I knew the answer," he muttered.

"So it might have been your fault?"

"Yeah."

"I see. Clark, are you perfect?"

He snorted. "No."

"Fine, just checking."

Yeah, clever old George — always managed to make his arguments look stupid. "Okay, I know I can't save everyone all the time," Clark conceded. "I'm not stupid. But she died in my arms, George."

And with those few words, all his defences crumbled. The aching sadness from last night came back with a vengeance, and the band of pressure across his forehead returned. She'd been so scared… "In my arms, George," he repeated huskily.

"Yeah, that must have been tough-"

"She didn't go quickly, either," he added. "It wasn't clean and tidy like in the movies. No, she died slowly and in pain and I was with her for every agonising minute of it. She cried and I told her everything would be okay, but it wasn't. I was the last person she saw, George, not her family and friends." He drew in a shaky breath. "In my arms, George. I'm supposed to save lives, not let them leak away in my arms."

"Hey," murmured George. "Go a little easier on yourself, there, buddy. Look, what do you suppose would have happened to her if you hadn't found her?"

He remembered where she'd been — buried right underneath the overturned carriage. No-one else had suspected there was anyone alive down there, but he'd heard her raspy breaths. "I guess she would have died anyway," he said.

"And where would she have died?"

"Underneath the train." And what a horrible way to die, he thought.

"So wasn't it better for her that she died in your arms?" said George. "Someone who comforted her while she passed away? Gave her a little hope during her final few minutes?"

"I guess so."

"I know that doesn't get rid of the 'what if', but you're always going to have those, aren't you?" said George. "Like you said yourself, you can't save everyone. But the ones you do save — even those who don't survive — will be better off because of something you did."

Clark nodded. "I know. And I will get over this, I think. It was just hard, you know?" he said. "I think it might have been the hardest thing I've had to deal with since I became Superman."

"Yeah, it was a bitch, I'll give you that." George did his irritating teeth-sucking thing. "Okay, I have to ask you this, but don't take it the wrong way, all right? I'm guessing you didn't sleep much last night, right?"

Clark grimaced. "Not a wink."

"So, while you weren't sleeping, did your thoughts ever turn to a certain red substance? I mean, you were in a pretty bad place last night, so I wouldn't be surprised if they did," said George. "I just need to know either way."

Boy, George was good at making the question sound so innocent. No big deal, Clark — okay, so you fell of the wagon again. No problem, we'll just help you jump right back on. Once an addict, always an addict. Wasn't that what they said? You can't cure an addict, you can only control him or her.

Well, they were right. "Yes."

"And then what?"

"Well, I knew it wouldn't solve anything — after I came down from the hit she'd still be dead, and I still wouldn't know whether I could have saved her or not." He sighed. "So I got angry instead. Not sure if that's an improvement, really."

"Depends on what you did with the anger," said George.

Clark grimaced. "Bashed the living daylights out of a few innocent icebergs up in the Arctic. Took a long swim across the Pacific. Flew up into the stratosphere."

"Sh-," said George, clearly impressed with his antics. "What did you do next…do we still have a moon?"

"Oh, yeah. But several fewer lumps of rock circling the globe."

George laughed. "You know, scientists would probably kill to get a sample from those rocks."

Clark blinked. "Never thought of that. Maybe I should offer to collect some."

"Good idea," said George. "But seriously, this is good, Clark. You had the thought, but you realised it wasn't the solution. I have to say, thumping icebergs probably wasn't the answer either, but so long as you don't destroy the entire polar region, I guess we're okay."

"So you think it was okay to even think about the stuff?" said Clark. "I was disgusted with myself."

"You'll never forget it, Clark. You know what it can do, and what it felt like to be high. No amount of therapy is ever going to erase that," said George. "But you seized control and you held on to it. That's what we're looking for, and that's what you delivered. I think that's pretty damned good, buddy."

"Okay. Thanks. I think."

***

It was small consolation, but his editor congratulated him profusely on his front-page story. Of course, he'd been able to include a lot of detail about the crash, bringing it to life for the readers, but he'd also put a lot of work into investigating the causes of the crash. There hadn't been much information this early in the aftermath of the incident, but he'd managed to unearth one morsel of knowledge that no other newspaper had as yet unearthed, giving the Planet an edge over the competition.

He refrained from enquiring as to whether Ralph would have delivered such a good story. He knew the answer, and so did his editor.

***

He was glad he'd postponed Mayson until the following night. Two working days between the rescue and seeing her gave him the time he needed to shake off the worst of the blues. By the time she arrived with shopping bags full of chicken, wine, and vegetables, he was a little melancholic but not so blue that he couldn't give her a welcoming smile and a brief kiss when he opened the door to her.

Dinner was a quiet but friendly affair. He kept the conversation light and well away from the train crash, and she played along willingly. Things were going just fine until they were slumped next to each other on the sofa drinking coffee.

"So how are you really?" she asked. "I mean, I've just spent a very pleasant hour or so with a guy called Clark who sounds like he's got the best job in the world and lives the most idyllic life you could possibly imagine. I came here to see the real Clark, though. Where is he?"

He sighed heavily. "Right here. Look, I just needed a reprieve from that other guy for a while, okay? He's not so much fun to be around at the moment."

"No? Why's that?"

He opened his mouth to tell her, but then closed it again. "You wouldn't want to know. It's Superman stuff."

She pursed her lips. "I do want to know — when I see you looking sad, I want to help."

"Sad?" he said. "I thought I was the epitome of good cheer."

"You overplayed your part, if you really want to know. No-one gets that happy over a well-prepared sweet and sour chicken," said Mayson. "So tell me, Clark. I know that crash was bad, and I can see it's still affecting you. What happened?"

So he told her. Not the full gory picture, but the edited highlights. Perhaps, he told himself, repeating the tale was good for him, in any case. If he said it enough, maybe it wouldn't hurt so much.

Sometime during the story, her hand slid into his, and when he'd finished, she lifted his hand up to her lips and kissed his knuckles softly. "I'm sorry you had to go through that," she said.

He shrugged. "It happens. I have to deal with these things."

"Did you think of contacting the hospital?" she suggested. "In fact, why don't I contact them? I could find out about her injuries for you."

"I'm not sure — what if you find out exactly what I don't want to know?" he said. "At least this way I can tell myself she would have died anyway."

She nodded. "Okay, I won't interfere if you don't want me to. But I will do this…" She twisted slowly around to him and pressed her lips against his. "There," she murmured, drawing back just a little. "All better."

He smiled ruefully. "If only it were that easy."

She raised an eyebrow. "Maybe it is." She closed the distance between them and kissed him more fully, slipping a hand around the back of his neck, encouraging him to respond. He didn't really need the encouragement — they'd been here before and he enjoyed kissing her. She tasted nice and smelt even nicer and she was soft and gentle. It was easy to let himself be drawn into her spell.

The kiss deepened. Her tongue touched his inner lips delicately, and he responded by kissing her back with more fervour, tangling one hand in her curly, soft locks while slipping his other arm around her back.

She murmured low in her throat, a beautifully feminine sound of approval. He felt her hand fiddling with the buttons on his shirt and then a warm palm was smoothing over his chest, moving up to his shoulder. He reciprocated, slipping a hand inside her blouse. They'd been here before, too — this much was safe.

God, safe wasn't an adequate word to describe this at all, he decided, as their kiss went on and on, filling his head with clouds of thought-dampening pleasure. No, this was way, way more than just safe.

But when her hand began to burrow southwards between their bodies, a red light went on in his head. No. Too much. He found her hand and pulled it gently away, twining his fingers around hers.

She stopped kissing him and leant back a little. "Why not?" she murmured, her voice a little breathless. "I can tell that you're interested. Heck, you're getting me interested."

He sighed and leant his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be a tease. It's just that if you touch me there I know things are going to get out of control, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet."

He felt her upper body sag in defeat. "Why not give it a try? You might surprise yourself."

He shook his head. "Not tonight. Not so soon after the crash." Because he knew he was vulnerable. It would be easy to let himself surrender to the comforting oblivion of loveless sex, but he didn't want that with Mayson. If he was going to sleep with her, it would be for the right reasons, not for the wrong ones.

If he ever did sleep with her. Even after all this time in her company, and despite the physical attraction he felt for her, his mind still didn't seem able to accept the concept of lovemaking with Mayson.

She sighed. "Okay," she said, disengaging herself from him and slumping back onto the sofa cushions. "Sorry if I went over a boundary."

"Mayson…"

"I mean, this is just another reason why I hate Superman," she said. "You do these rescues, and then you get all upset by them. I just don't think he's good for you."

He'd been ready to be conciliatory with her, but that last remark made him see red. "You don't understand," he said vehemently. "You really, really, don't understand. These rescues, all my other work as Superman, they're what keep me sane. I have to help people, or I'd go crazy."

"Seems to me you go crazy because of your work as Superman," she muttered. "I hate to see you upset, Clark. Especially when it does this to you."

"Does what?"

She waved a hand vaguely between them. "This. This lack of…anything."

"That has nothing to do with Superman," he said.

"Oh, really?" she said. "You effectively just said you didn't want to sleep with me because of the train crash. Or is that just tonight's excuse?"

"That's not fair," he retorted. "The reason I don't want to sleep with you has got nothing whatsoever to do with Superman, and you know it."

"You're running out of excuses, Clark. You remember when you asked me to tell you if I ever feel I'm being used? Well, this is it — we're here at last. You're using me, Clark."

"I am not using you," he said. "I thought you understood."

"I did understand. Haven't I given you space? I've taken things slowly, always let you take the lead — when you stop, I stop. But it's been months, Clark. How long do I have to wait? A year? Two years? I can't believe you've got that much control." She fired him an angry look. "If you really wanted me, you'd have done something about it by now."

He sighed. She was right. The desire just wasn't strong enough. He could just about see them coming home late after a great night out, perhaps a little high from all the fun they'd had, and maybe lettings things happen in the heat of the moment, but otherwise he didn't think he wanted to sleep with Mayson.

"I'm right, aren't I?" she prompted.

He rolled his head around on the sofa cushions to look at her. "Remember what we also said in that restaurant? We'd give ourselves a second chance, see if we could make this work."

She'd clearly been ready to fire off another salvo of frustrated anger at him, judging by her thunderous expression when he'd turned to look at her. But at his reminder of their conversation, her face relaxed into sad resignation. She nodded. "It isn't working, is it? I think we're way past your hang-ups about Lois."

"Yeah." He reached up and cupped the side of her face. "Mayson, I care about you a lot. You've been really kind and understanding, and that's meant a lot to me over these past few months. I've tried to show you the same kindness and understanding, and tried hard not to be selfish, but I suspect even so that I've received more than I've given. And any of the guys I know would say I'm out of my mind not to want to make love with a gorgeous, sexy woman like you. But it's more than that. We can't just base this thing on sex alone, and the fact is, we don't agree on the one thing that's a huge part of what I am, and I think that would always come between us."

Her eyes fell downwards. "What you're saying is that if you have to choose between Superman and me, you'd choose Superman."

"Yes."

"Okay. I can respect that, I guess." She laughed dryly. "I don't like it, but I respect it." She raised her eyes and looked at him again. "Thanks for trying, Clark. Maybe I have given more than I've gotten in return, but I've always known that I wanted you more than you wanted me. So maybe it's right that I put a little bit more into it than you did."

She was being so magnanimous in the face of defeat, he couldn't bear it. "Oh, God, Mayson," he exclaimed, gathering her into his arms and hugging her tightly. "Thank *you!* You have done so much for me. I can't even begin to explain how much."

"I only did it because I…I care about you."

He heard the unmistakable catch in her voice, the hesitation over 'I care'. He hoped he was wrong. Hoped she hadn't found love just as they were breaking up. He certainly didn't have the guts to ask her.

But breaking up they definitely were. They exchanged a few more sentences of comfort and regret, agreed to keep in touch, and then parted. As break-ups went, Clark thought, it was as amicable as was feasible.

And he really had appreciated Mayson's friendship and companionship. He owed her a great deal, for her kindness and compassion had helped him re-enter the real world. Without Mayson, he probably would have found it considerably harder to rebuild his life and place his love for Lois in the proper perspective. He might not love Mayson in the romantic sense, but as the best and closest friend he could have wished for, he loved her dearly.

***

The faceless, invisible people were hurting her again. She was begging them, pleading with them to stop. Her pain was palpable, her fear a dark, looming presence which stalked both of them through the nightmare. He watched, unable to help. Impotent in the face of her suffering.

She screamed.

"No!"

He shot bolt upright in bed, thrown out of the dream by her scream. "Lois," he whispered into the night.

She felt so close. Her fear was still with him, her pain knifing through his heart.

He closed his eyes and bowed his head in the darkness. He'd thought he was free of the dreams — hadn't had one in weeks.

Ever since breaking up with Mayson, he'd had a pretty smooth ride through life. He'd reconciled his feelings about the woman who'd died, taking to heart George's remark that she'd been better off in his arms than trapped underneath a train carriage. And he'd signed up for a course on advanced first aid, so that he'd feel more confident dealing with crash-site injuries in the future. Work was good — he was really starting to enjoy himself — and Superman had started patrolling the night skies. He was getting some good results from the patrols; he'd heard that street crime was down by around ten per cent in the areas he visited most regularly.

So why now? Why did Lois Lane still have this power over him?

He pushed himself off the bed and walked into the bathroom. He was clammy with sweat and perhaps a cool shower would clear his head.

***

"So, hon, what happened between you and Mayson?"

Clark paused in his attempts to pierce the caramel on the top of his crme brulee without making it shoot across the table and met Alice's kindly gaze. "Nothing, really. We just didn't see eye to eye on some stuff."

"Awww," said Alice. "You made such a fine couple. She seemed just right for you. Didn't she, Perry?"

Perry looked up from his equally careful spoon-work on the brulee. "Yes. But I'm guessing this was pretty important stuff, huh, Clark?"

"Yeah. She didn't approve of Superman."

"Ah. That would do it," said Perry. He prodded the top of his desert again. "Alice, couldn't we just use forks on this? Or a pick-axe?" he added with a wink in Clark's direction.

Alice rolled her eyes. "It's simple, honey. Just a quick, sharp thrust with your spoon and you're in." She demonstrated the technique, successfully breaking the caramel shell.

Perry met Clark's eyes across the table. "A quick, sharp thrust, Alice? I think I can manage that."

Clark swallowed his laughter and bent his head to the task in hand.

Alice swatted Perry's hand. "Watch your tongue!"

Perry raised an eyebrow at Clark. "I could say something now, but I won't."

"Men!"

Perry grinned. "So how's George, Clark? I haven't seen him for a while."

"Neither have I," replied Clark. Which was true — George had suggested they cut back to monthly sessions, since Clark had been doing so well. However… "I'm seeing him tomorrow, though. I'll tell him you were asking after him."

"Okay."

"I thought your regular day was Monday," said Alice. "Tomorrow's Wednesday."

Clark sighed. Alice didn't miss a trick; sometimes he wondered if he ought to have been less open with her about the details of his private life. "Yeah. I've been having a few sleep problems lately. Nothing serious," he added quickly.

"But you thought it better to get it sorted than wait until things got worse," said Alice, nodding.

"Yes."

"Is it those dreams again?" she asked.

"Alice!" interjected Perry. "Stop interrogating him. The man deserves some privacy. It's bad enough you keep grilling him about his love life."

"I do not grill! I make conversation, don't I, Clark?"

And to Clark's relief, the discussion veered off into Alice's conversational strategies and Perry's lack of the same.

The truth was, he was indeed seeing George about his dreams. They'd been occurring more frequently lately, and he was concerned. What was he doing wrong? Was he developing some new and sinister psychiatric complaint?

Okay, that was probably a little paranoid of him, but he really was worried. His sleep was disturbed almost every other night, and whilst he didn't require as much as anyone else, he knew that if the problem continued indefinitely, and/or got any worse, he'd be in trouble.

***

"Sorry, buddy, I'll have to postpone. Something's come up."

Clark's heart sank. He'd been pinning his hopes on a good session with George to put his mind at rest. "That's okay," he said. "When can you fit me in?"

"Tomorrow's looking good," said George. "Can you make it around ten?"

"In the morning?" said Clark. Usually George gave him early evening sessions so as not to interfere with work. "You can't see me any later?"

"Nope," said George. "Ten it is."

Clark sighed. "Well, okay. I'll do my best."

"Be there, Clark," said George sharply. "It's important. Very important."

"Huh?" George was sounding unusually adamant. But if he was that concerned about Clark's disturbed sleep, wouldn't he try to squeeze in an appointment later today?

"Just be there, okay?"

"Okay."

***

Another night, another dream.

Except this one was different. In this one, she was crying out to him, begging him to help her. He tried frantically, strained to reach her and protect her.

But still she remained just out of reach.

He tried harder. He pushed against the invisible force holding them apart, used every ounce of strength he possessed to break through the barrier.

"Lois…"

Her cries wrenched at his heart until he thought it would break and spill his uncontrollable emotions all over the cosmos.

She screamed and he woke up, his nerves on a knife-edge and his pulse racing.

Something was definitely wrong. And the worst of it was, the more he dreamt about her, the more he thought about her during the day. He felt like he was being sucked relentlessly down into a vortex of renewed self-destruction — and he didn't have a clue why.

***

"Frankly, Clark, neither do I."

"George, that's not exactly helpful," said Clark. "I'm…well, I'm concerned. I don't understand what I'm doing wrong."

George chuckled. "For concerned read scared stiff," he said. "Your powers of understatement never cease to amaze me. Look, here's what we'll do. First off, we'll try a couple of sessions under hypnosis. That often winkles out useful information on root causes. Then, depending on how that goes, we'll book you in at the sleep clinic for a night or two — they observe your sleep patterns, monitor your brain activity and so on. That will probably give us some more clues, and they may also identify some techniques you can use to break the dream cycle. Okay?"

Clark nodded. Both options filled him with a degree of apprehension, but anything was better than waking up every other night in a panicky sweat. "So when do we start?"

"Not today. I'd rather run the hypnosis sessions in the evenings, when you won't be rushing back to work afterwards. Also, it may be helpful to run them nearer to your usual bedtime." He paused, and began sucking air very noisily through his teeth.

"George, have you any idea how irritating that habit is?" said Clark, his patience finally cracking with the aggravating noise.

"It's my thinking noise," said George.

"Well, think a little more quietly."

George snorted, but thankfully, shut himself up.

Until Clark heard a pen clicking against the metal of George's clip-board. "George, do you have something on your mind? Would you like to swap places with me?"

George laughed. "Hell, no! Okay, I'm done thinking." He came around to the end of the couch and lowered his ample frame on the edge, giving Clark scant warning to shift his legs out of the way. "Here's the thing. Yesterday morning we got a new patient. This new patient was sent to us because, as you know, we have a world-wide reputation for drug addiction. Turns out, though, that there's probably no addiction issue here, although there's clearly been a lot of abuse, both mental and physical. We think this person is going to need long-term care and a lot of love from the right people."

Clark frowned. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked. "Do you want me to write something in the paper? Maybe try and attract extra funds for their treatment?"

"No, that's not why, although it might be a good idea," said George. "No, I'm telling you because of where this person was sent from."

"Which is?" prompted Clark. "Smallville?"

"No, a little further away than that," said George. "She was sent to us from Brazzaville." He met Clark's gaze. "I don't think I need to tell you where that is."

The Congo.

She.

The world turned inside out. George's face hung in front of Clark, studying him intently, seemingly the only thing not twisting itself into a new shape. Faint noises from all over the clinic echoed through his head, reality shifted and re-formed itself.

"Don't forget to breathe, buddy," said George from the other end of a very long tunnel.

Clark started, his body automatically sucking in a large lungful of air. He licked his lips, tested his voice. "L…Lois?" It was a weird, wobbly sort of a voice, but it appeared to work.

"Yes. The police in Brazzaville found her during a raid on a drug-dealer's house. Apparently she was locked in a small room near the back. Been there for a very long time, they said." George grimaced. "The conditions weren't exactly pleasant, they said."

"Can…can I see her?"

"In a few minutes. Let's get you over the worst of the shock first, huh? Can't have you meeting her sounding like some kind of spaced out junkie, can we?" said George. "Hang on a sec…"

George made Clark sip a glass of water until he was a little steadier, and then led him through the clinic to the same suite of bedrooms Clark himself had previously occupied.

They stopped outside a closed door. "Okay, remember what I said about her being ill," murmured George. "She's not the Lois you met, nor the Lois in any photos you may have seen, okay?"

Clark nodded, and George knocked softly and swung the door open.

The hospital bed was empty.

For a moment, Clark thought George had brought them to the wrong room, but then his gaze was drawn to the desk and chairs in front of the window at the end of the room. She was sitting side-on to the window, staring at the wall. He had a flashback to his meeting with Linda. God, he hoped this wasn't going to be a repeat of that day.

She was wearing a hospital gown just like Linda's. Her hair was short, just like Linda's. She looked thin and frail, just like Linda.

But she wasn't Linda.

She was Lois.

As he walked towards her with George by his side, her head slowly turned and he was confronted with a beautiful but totally blank face. Dark brown eyes, empty of life but entirely compelling, looked directly at him. For the first time in his life, he fully appreciated the concept that a person's eyes were a window into their soul.

Suddenly, he was assailed by powerful images from his recurring dream. She was in torment, crying and shaking, while invisible demons assaulted her and he looked on in impotent helplessness. A sickening pressure in his head made him falter and touch his fingers to his temple.

"Clark, you okay?"

George's voice came from a long way off. He dragged his gaze back to Lois, but her expression remained blank. Perhaps there was a hint of recognition in those deep, dark eyes? Did she remember him from the nightmares?

He received another powerful jolt from the violent dream. The pressure in his head increased.

"Sit down. The chair's just behind you." George's voice again. He folded obediently into the chair, still staring at Lois.

"Okay, focus here, Clark."

Dazed, he dragged his gaze away from Lois, turned his head slowly towards George's voice. "Focus, Clark," said George, snapping his fingers a couple of times in front of Clark's face. The noise made Clark blink. "That's it, buddy, come back to me."

Clark blinked again.

"Okay, you with me?" said George. He was crouched beside Clark's chair, looking anxiously up at him.

"Yeah."

"Phew." George passed a hand over his face. "Jesus, buddy, you scared me. I knew this was going to be a shock, but I didn't think it would hit you this hard. What happened?"

Clark moved his gaze slowly back to Lois, but George stopped him with another snap of his fingers. "Here, buddy — look at me," he said sharply. "We'll meet Lois in a minute, okay? First I need you to tell me what just happened."

"She…she's the source," Clark said. "All those dreams I had…she's the source." He felt her gaze on him again, began to look around-

"Here, Clark. Look at me," commanded George.

He dragged his gaze away from her again, focused on George's thick-framed glasses and the worried eyes behind them.

"What do you mean, buddy? I'm not following you."

"I just had the same dream…vision, I guess," he said. "When she looked at me…when I looked into her eyes…I saw. What she's going through."

George frowned. "What she *went* through, you mean?"

"No, going through. Right now. It's in her head."

"Don't get me wrong, but I'm starting to hear echoes of the Twilight Zone tune here, buddy."

"I know what she's thinking," Clark said. He stood up, suddenly filled with an overpowering compulsion to meet her, talk to her. He walked slowly up to the table and sat down opposite her, noticing that she followed him with her gaze as he moved.

"Hi," he said softly.

She returned his gaze, but remained silent.

Thankfully, the visions didn't hit him this time. Maybe her thoughts were distracted by his arrival.

"My name's Clark," he said. "What's yours?"

She continued looking at him, but said nothing.

He felt George's hand on his shoulder and glanced backwards briefly. "Buddy, you won't get an answer," he murmured. "She's mute." At Clark's horrified gasp, he added, "It's nothing physical. She just doesn't seem to want to talk to anyone."

Clark turned back to Lois. "Maybe she'll talk to me."

Afterwards, he couldn't have explained how or why he knew what to do next, but the idea just came to him, and he followed it through as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

He thought the word 'Hi' at her.

There was a flicker of something across her blank features. A puzzled frown, perhaps.

He smiled and tried again. <<Hi>>

She frowned more deeply. Looked at his mouth, then up to his eyes.

<<Hi, my name's Clark. What's yours?>>

Her hand drifted up to the flimsy gold chain around her neck. He noticed it had a thin band of gold with her name engraved into it.

<<Lois.>>

He breath caught in his throat. She'd spoken to him! Actually communicated telepathically with him!

<<Nice to meet you, Lois.>>

She frowned again. <<How are you in my head?>>

<<I don't know. Do you mind?>>

<<No. You're different.>>

"Buddy, it's better if you talk to her," murmured George from behind his ear. "Even if she can't talk back-"

"She is talking to me!" whispered Clark. "Telepathically."

"Okay, now I've heard it all," muttered George. "Remind me to rewrite my PhD thesis when all this is over, will you?"

"George, it's true! She told me her name's Lois, then she said I'm different."

"Boy, she's right there," George observed dryly. "Okay, if this was anyone else but you, I really would be calling for the men in white coats, but I guess I have to keep an open mind. All right, ask her what her favourite food is. Carolyn couldn't get her to eat a thing last night."

Clark turned back to Lois <<What's your favourite->>

<<I heard. Chocolate.>>

"Chocolate," relayed Clark.

George laughed. "Well, it's not the most nutritious thing in the world, but I guess we could get her some. Any particular favourites?"

<<Double fudge crunch bars.>>

Clark blinked at the rapid reply and relayed it to George. "I didn't even have to ask," he said. "I think she feels quite strongly about this."

George raised an eyebrow. "Crunch bars it is, then."

***

And for the remainder of his life, Clark was to look back on that first meeting as the day that Clark Kent, the farmer's son from Kansas, became a complete person. He'd bounced around the world since his parents had died, a loose cog in society, always trying to find his place in life. He'd drifted into his engagement to Lana, had bumped into Mayson by chance, but nothing except his job at the Planet had seemed to have had any purpose or real meaning. Everything he'd done had been marking time until he found the missing piece in the puzzle of his life. Lois Lane was that missing piece, and had been from before he even knew she existed. It made no sense, but then neither had a lot of things in his life.

Until she came back.

It didn't matter that she was damaged. It didn't matter that she barely remembered who she was, let alone what had happened to her. It didn't even matter that she was destined to remain in care for a long, long time.

All that mattered was that she was home, and that he, Clark Kent, had been granted the chance to meet her. Even better, it looked like he would be taking a significant role in her recovery, and for that, he considered himself the luckiest man in the world.

***

EPILOGUE

"George, I need your help."

Clark was lounging on George's couch. Theoretically, he was having a session to help him deal with the stress of being Lois's sole interpreter for the past month, but mostly, they'd been discussing her progress — which wasn't insubstantial. Okay, so she still wasn't talking to anyone, but she'd remembered a lot of things about herself and was apparently sleeping a little better.

George punched the air jubilantly. "Hallelujah! He finally realised."

Clark smiled. "Very funny, George. No, I need your help to destroy something."

"Oh? What would that be — my reputation? Perry's Elvis obsession?"

"No." Clark drew in a slow, deep breath. "I need you to help me destroy all the red kryptonite."

If he'd expected George to jump for joy, he was disappointed. George merely raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that, buddy? It's a big step."

"Never been more sure about anything in my life, George."

"You know if you ever suffer withdrawal symptoms, you'll be left hanging without a safety net? There aren't any drugs that are going to help you."

Clark nodded. "I know. But it's not very likely, is it? If I can't get a hit, I'm not like to go into withdrawal."

"And I guess there's a faint chance that the stuff could actually have medicinal use in certain circumstances," George added thoughtfully. "I mean, it more or less acts like a tranquiliser."

"I'll take the risk," said Clark briskly. "I have to get rid of it, George. For one, Superman is too vulnerable while the stuff is around — thanks to the tabloids, all the criminals know exactly how to neutralise me. Just wave a chunk of red kryptonite around and I'm useless. And for two, I want to do it for Lois."

"Ah." George sucked his teeth. Unfortunately, Clark hadn't managed to cure him of the habit, despite regular nagging. "You feeling the pressure, buddy?"

Clark grimaced. "I know it's only going to get worse. If I'm the only one who can talk to her, then things are going to get really tough when she starts talking about what went on in that house in Brazzaville. I don't even want to be tempted to take the easy way out."

"Fair point." George clapped his hands together. "Okay, how do we do this?"

***

Clark hovered high over the field, watching George empty the bag of rocks onto the grass. He'd received countless reassurances that this was all the red kryptonite which had ever been found, but it still looked like a somewhat small pile from where he was. Funny how that small little pile could have brought so much havoc in his life.

While he waited for George to retreat to a safe distance, he glanced left to his boyhood home. The farmhouse looked the same from up here, but he knew that the new tenant farmers had made big changes inside. Still, he could pretend it was just as his parents had made it, a happy, warm household full of love and laughter.

His eyes drifted right to the spot where his parents had died, and where he'd run helplessly towards the wreckage, knowing he was too late to prevent the disaster. Well, he'd prevented countless similar disasters since then and had saved many children from the childhood he'd had to endure.

He looked towards the horizon, towards Metropolis. There was his future, a new, improved future now that Lois had returned. She might never be able to love him, she might never even like him, but she still completed him. His sea of tranquillity was finally becalmed.

He brought his gaze back to the Shuster's Field. George was well away from the rocks in the jeep, flashing the headlights in the signal they'd agreed upon earlier.

He focused on the red glowing rocks and switched his heat vision on. The rocks glowed an even brighter red, and then began to turn yellow as they reached melting point. Finally, he was firing a white-hot pile of molten rock, fusing it together and destroying its chemical composition. He maintained the beam for as long as he possibly could, only stopping when he felt his powers dip slightly.

Satisfied he could do no more, he flew cautiously back down to the field. George had emerged from the jeep and was walking towards the semi-molten pile.

"Don't get too close," called Clark. "It's still white-hot."

"Be careful yourself," called George.

But he had to be sure. He inched his way up to the rock, all of his senses on high alert. He felt the searing heat, smelt the sulphurous gases hissing from the core, but none of the usual sensations that accompanied a hit. He got right up to within a foot of the rock and still couldn't feel a thing.

Okay! It was the final cleansing, the last act in a long, difficult journey which had taken him down to the darkest, deepest corners of his psyche and back up again, slowly and painfully clawing his way back to the surface. In the process, he'd learned a great deal about himself, and as George had once predicted, was now more confident and better equipped to deal with whatever life could throw at him.

"Come over here," called George.

Clark ambled over to George. "It's fine. I can't feel a thing."

"Let me be the judge of that," said George. As soon as Clark was near enough, he grabbed his wrist, checked his pulse, studied his face carefully and fired off a few probing questions. Finally, he appeared to be satisfied. "Okay, you're probably even more sober than I am."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "Is there something you want to tell me, George?"

"Just that you're a pain in the butt and will you please stop looking at me as if you want to hug me."

Clark laughed. "Hell, no, George. Christ, what made you think I even like you?"

George stared at him. "You swore. Twice."

"See what you've done to me? It's going to take years of therapy to fix that."

George began walking back to the jeep. "I know the name of a good guy, if you need a shrink."

"Nah, I've already got one, thanks. He's a bit of a wacko, and his language is a little colourful, but I think I'll stick with him," said Clark. He grinned at the rotund man walking beside him. "Like glue."

"Oh, shit."

THE END