Damaged

By Yvonne Connell <Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: Oct 2004

Summary: In this sequel to the author's "Addicted," Lois makes the arduous journey from lonely victim to cherished and much loved survivor — with a little help from Clark.

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to Wendy, Pam, Lynn, and Elena for sterling BR services. Elena had to leave the party early due to circumstances beyond her control, but her contribution to the first few sections was much appreciated. Thanks also to Lynn for the inspired title, and for some truly fantastic ideas on how to make all the characters even more miserable than they already were. Finally, many thanks (I think) to the aforementioned BR mafia for insisting that my original concept for the story wouldn't work: you collectively turned a molehill into a mountain.

Warning: There are themes discussed in this story which some readers may find disturbing. There is also a certain degree of implied violence, both physical and psychological.

***

She sat, knees neatly together, back straight, hands clasped tidily in her lap. Her hair was brushed, her make-up done, and she was wearing her nicest jeans and favourite sweater.

He was late. He was never late.

Her gaze darted to the clinic's swivel doors as they began to turn and another figure, darkened against the sunlight streaming in from outside, came through.

Not him.

She looked away quickly so as not to be caught staring, snatched a glance up at the clock behind the reception desk. Nine minutes. He was nine minutes late.

The woman receptionist smiled across at her. "Not like Clark to be late," she remarked.

She shook her head in agreement.

"I expect he's stuck in traffic," the woman suggested pleasantly. Doris, wasn't it? Doris worked the early morning shift until eleven, then Anne did the afternoons. Steve took over in the evening and worked the late shift.

After two months of living in the clinic, she knew all the staff. Even the cleaners.

But Doris was wrong. Clark didn't drive; he flew. Or walked. Doris knew that, really — she was just trying to reassure. Even the ancillary staff played their part in caring for the clinic's patients.

"Nice sweater," said Doris. "Is it new?"

She nodded. Clark had bought it for her. She'd mentioned in passing that she didn't have any warm clothes, and the very next day, he'd brought her the sweater. She'd felt guilty, hadn't meant to hint that she wanted anything from him, but he'd brushed her worries aside with a smile and told her to try it on. It had fit beautifully, and instantly, it had become a firm favourite.

He was so very kind to her. She knew that now, although she hadn't really noticed in the beginning. Back at the start, she'd been completely immersed in a terrifying world of violent memories and waking nightmares, and nothing else had mattered to her except finding a way out of the terror.

Clark had been her guide. The doctors and nurses at the clinic had helped, but Clark had been the one who had held her when the pain and fear overwhelmed her, who had picked her up time and time again when she'd faltered. Set her back on the path away from the terror.

She'd liked him from the start. He was different to the others — he smiled and made jokes. He didn't treat her like a freak. Didn't talk to her like she was five years old. He understood exactly what she needed, which wasn't always compassion and sympathy — sometimes she needed a little friction, a little gentle banter from time to time. A woman could only cope with so much sweetness and kid glove handling before she felt an overwhelming urge to scream.

Of course, he'd been in her dreams from even before she'd met him, which had helped. She'd felt like she knew him already. But, even if he hadn't been in her dreams, there was just something about him which made her trust him.

She'd needed that trust, of course. Once the clinic knew that he could interpret for her, be her speaking voice while her own remained silent and unused, they'd begun including him in her therapy sessions. He became her buffer, the person through whom all her communication with the rest of the world was filtered.

She'd been embarrassed at first. Ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed. He got to know everything that was in her head, all the vile, unspeakable things she'd seen and suffered. All her fears, both irrational and real.

She'd watched his face intently, seeking out the slightest hint that he found her repulsive. She'd seen revulsion. She'd seen appalled disgust. She'd seen shock.

But she'd also sensed compassion. Pain that was almost as deep as her own. Tears, even.

So gradually, she'd relaxed. Allowed him to speak for her, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They became two halves of a team, working so well together that sometimes she didn't even finish her thoughts to him before he was relating them to her therapists.

Of course, they didn't just attend therapy sessions together. He ate dinner with her, or watched TV and played board games. She liked that about him — that he wanted to spend time with her. He told her things about himself, too — that had started when she'd seen him on TV in a funny ski-suit outfit. He'd had to explain that one pretty thoroughly. It wasn't every day, after all, that you saw a man flying.

So she knew about his two jobs — the rescue work and the journalism. She'd been a journalist once, so that work had interested her quite a lot. She'd made him tell her about his stories and had decided he was probably a half-decent writer, although not as good as she'd once been.

Clark had very quickly become a big part of her life at the clinic.

Lately, though, they'd been trying to wean her off him. She was relying on him too heavily, they said. Clark couldn't speak for her indefinitely.

She knew they were right, but her silence had become so profound that it was almost inconceivable to her that she might break it one day. It was her protection, the silence — so long as she remained behind it, she was safe. No-one could get too close, and she didn't need to get too close to them.

In fact, the prospect of breaking the silence terrified her.

Clark understood that. And while he was around, she was safe. He was her voice.

But he was late. Anxiety was rising in her chest like a fluttering moth, nervous and unpredictable. Her eyes darted to the doors again, willing him to stride through them, solid and reliable and wearing one of his bright, beaming smiles.

"Do you want me to call upstairs, see if he's left a message with the nurses?" volunteered Doris.

She shook her head jerkily. He'd be here any second, she was sure. Any second.

"You sure?"

Yes, she was sure. Any second. Any second now.

Or maybe she'd got the time wrong. Maybe he'd said quarter past, not quarter to the hour. She should have checked her diary before coming downstairs. Maybe he wasn't even coming today. He visited her most days, but maybe not today. She twisted her fingers together in her lap. That was it. She'd got the day wrong. Her memory wasn't as reliable as it used to be. Maybe-

A figure appeared behind the doors. Her heart stopped. Right height, right build. Raincoat — yes, he had one just like that. The doors turned, glinting in the sunlight. The figure emerged.

Her heart started again, hammering furiously in her chest. It was him. Everything was okay. She stood, forcing herself to move slowly and not rush like a startled rabbit into his arms. Pasted a bright, relaxed smile onto her face.

"Sorry I'm late. Have you been waiting long?"

She shook her head, ignoring her racing heart beat. <<No, just a few minutes.>>

"I woke up late…I…well, it doesn't matter what happened." He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheek briefly. "So, you still want to go out? It's a beautiful day."

They'd been taking walks together lately. The clinic was encouraging her to go out more and more these days, wanted her to exercise a little control over her life.

<<Okay. The park?>>

He nodded. "Good choice."

***

She walked beside him in the sunlight, wandering down the narrow paths of the rhododendron grove. The bushes were heavy with blooms, bright vibrant colours surrounding them on both sides of the path. She enjoyed the natural beauty, the simple, uncomplicated pleasure they gave. They were such a contrast to her previous existence in that hovel of a room in Brazzaville.

She glanced up at Clark, needing the quick fix of his beaming face to blot out the ugly memory. He caught her gaze, rewarded her with a brief, taut, smile.

She looked away again, vaguely troubled by his reaction. He'd been subdued since he'd picked her up at the clinic, hadn't spoken much. His smiles hadn't quite reached his eyes, had seemed a bit forced.

Had she done something to upset him? Or perhaps he'd grown tired of her. That was more likely. Finally, he'd had enough of her weird behaviour, her tears and her tantrums. Why, after all, should he spend all his free time with a crazy woman in a mental health clinic? He surely had normal friends he'd prefer to socialise with. Perhaps even a girlfriend — a man as attractive as Clark must have women chasing after him all the time.

She didn't want to lose him, though. She needed him.

<<These are gorgeous, aren't they?>>

She pointed at some red flowers, trying to draw him into conversation.

He nodded, glancing briefly where she was pointing. "Yeah."

He was even walking a little apart from her, holding himself stiffly upright as he moved along the path.

<<Which is your favourite colour?>>

"Yellow, I guess. Not red." Another brittle smile.

She didn't understand. If he didn't want to see her any more, why had he come today? He could have left a message. She understood that sometimes he had other commitments — now and then, he'd rush off on a rescue, for example. So he hadn't needed to come if he hadn't wanted to.

Maybe he was just bored. His two jobs must be a whole lot more exciting than just walking in a park with her. He'd come today out of a sense of duty, but now he was regretting it. That was it.

Except he seemed more than bored. He was terse. Irritated, even.

Oh, God, she didn't want to lose him.

<<Have I done something wrong?>> she blurted out clumsily, unable to keep her insecurity to herself any longer.

His head swung around and her heart sank at the frown creasing his face. "No. Why…" He paused, wrapping his arms around himself like a protective layer before continuing. "Why would you think that?"

<<You…you're a bit quiet>>

He shrugged. "Sorry." They emerged from the rhododendrons out onto grassy parkland again. "Where to now?"

His voice was taut and clipped, as if the words were being squeezed out of him with difficulty. She began to wonder whether maybe he wanted to be anywhere in the world except next to her in this park.

<<The rose garden?>>

"Okay."

He wasn't going to come back again, she supposed. After today, she'd be on her own again. Back to her world of silence and misunderstandings. She could start writing things down, she supposed. That might be okay.

No, it would be terrible. Writing was so slow, and she'd have to translate her thoughts into words, whereas Clark did all that for her. Often, he said things better than she ever could.

And they had secret conversations, just the two of them, he helping her decide what the doctors needed to know and what could remain hidden. He knew more about her, now, than any other person in the world. That might have frightened and embarrassed her, except that he was so easy to trust — he just didn't seem to have any kind of hidden agenda. The clinic staff obviously trusted him, too, and seeing his work as Superman on TV convinced her that he really was one of the few really good guys in this world.

Of course, she still wasn't entirely sure why he wanted to spend so much time with her. Try as she might, she couldn't come up with anything, sinister or otherwise, that he could possibly gain from seeing her. He'd never made a move on her, so he clearly wasn't attracted to her.

Could he be gay? Some of the nicest men she'd know had been gay.

She hoped not.

She'd walked a few paces towards the roses before she realised he wasn't beside her. She stopped and looked back. He was still at the edge of the grass, holding himself tightly around his middle. The pose looked wrong — almost as if he were in some kind of difficulty.

Trotting back to him, she asked, <<Are you okay?>>

He glanced mutely at her, then closed his eyes and hugged himself even tighter, sagging forward a little as he did so.

<<Clark?>> Hesitantly, she reached out a hand and touched his arm.

He didn't respond. Something was definitely wrong with him. Suddenly, his terse conversation and jerky smiles made sense. He probably hadn't been feeling well all morning.

Fighting down panic, she grasped his arm more firmly. <<Clark?>>

He still didn't seem to hear her, but he straightened up a bit. "Sorry," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Thought I'd be okay…" His head dropped forward again.

Frightened now, she glanced around for someone who might be able to help. She wasn't ready for this, wasn't equipped to cope with an emergency. Clark did emergencies. Doctors and nurses did them, too, but not crazy people like her. There must be someone nearby who could take over.

But they were in a quiet section of the park, chosen deliberately for its peacefulness, in fact. She appeared to be totally and utterly alone with a sick man.

Oh, God. Clark was supposed to look after her, not the other way around.

She spotted a park bench. Okay, sitting him down was probably a good idea. She needed to sit down herself.

With a guiding arm around his back, she steered him to the bench. She was forced to indicate her intentions with gesture and movement, because none of her thoughts seemed to be reaching him any more. That made her even more frightened. How could she cope if she couldn't even talk to him any more?

Once they were both sat down, she turned to him again. <<Tell me what to do>> she implored.

His eyes were closed, though, and he didn't respond. She placed her hand over his to gain his attention and was shocked to find it icy cold.

<<Please, Clark. What do I do? Should I call an ambulance?>>

Although how she was going to do that without him to help her, she had no idea. She glanced around the park again. Still no- one.

And now he was shivering and his face was grey. His eyes opened sluggishly and he glanced at her, giving her a quick shot of hope. "S…sorry," he muttered, his eyelids drooping again. Her hope faded.

<<Clark, please talk to me>>

Frantic, she shook his icy hand, but whatever had prompted him to open his eyes didn't seem to work a second time.

Maybe she could run back to the clinic and fetch help. They'd understand her — they were used to dealing with her mute gestures. She'd persuade one of the doctors to come back here with her and everything would be all right again.

Going to the clinic would mean leaving him alone, though, and he didn't look like he ought to be on his own. She looked into his taut, pale face. He really seemed to be suffering.

If only she could make him hear her. Then he'd know that she needed help deciding what to do. But she couldn't hear or feel his thoughts at all. It was as if he'd shut down that part of himself altogether. Or maybe he couldn't communicate with her because of whatever was wrong with him.

She swallowed and ran her tongue around her lips. There was one option still open to her, but it meant taking a huge step, one she hadn't planned on taking for a very long time indeed. Panic seized her and sent her pulse racing so fast she thought her heart might jump into her throat. She couldn't do it. There had to be another way.

Maybe he'd be okay in a few minutes. That was it — they'd just sit quietly for a little while until he was feeling better again. Clark never got sick, so this must be just a passing thing. He'd be okay soon.

She sat nervously for a few seconds — or it might have been minutes. She couldn't tell.

Unable to wait any longer, she touched his hand again. Still icy, still trembling. Okay, plan B. What was plan B?

Walk him back to the clinic. He'd been on his feet not so long ago, so he should be okay doing it again, shouldn't he? And it wasn't that far — only a short block away. But what if she was wrong and he collapsed on the way? She'd be in a worse situation than she was now.

Deal with that if and when it happens, she told herself. He'd probably be okay.

She got to her feet and tugged at his hand to make him rise. His eyes opened, flicked dully up at her, and closed again. She tried again, with the same result.

It was no use. He'd turned completely inward and wasn't going to respond to her.

She licked her lips again. She'd have to do it. If nothing else, it might surprise him into responding positively to her.

She swallowed again. Opened her mouth. Took a slow, shaky breath.

"Cl…ark?"

The word sounded incredibly loud and her throat felt horribly husky and dry.

"Clark?" She found it a little easier the second time, but the word still seemed too big and angular in her mouth. Her tongue felt sluggish and clumsy, too. "L…let's go back."

A whole sentence! And the earth hadn't opened up and swallowed her down into hell.

His eyes flickered open. "You…your voice…"

Thank God — he'd heard her and she'd gained his attention. She nodded. "You're sick," she said, opting for the shortest explanation she could think of. "Can you walk?"

He closed his eyes and hugged himself even tighter.

Her heart sank. If he didn't want to move, she didn't know what she was going to do next. Find help, she supposed, and hope he'd be okay on his own while she did so.

One more try. "Clark?"

Anxiously, she waited for his answer. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and nodded. "Yeah."

Relieved, she held out her hand to help him stand.

***

Once back at the clinic, she led him to the chair she'd been sitting on when she'd been waiting for him earlier, hugely relieved to have made it back inside after their difficult journey from the park. They'd walked mostly in silence, each of them with their own reasons not to speak much, and all the time, she'd been acutely aware of his miserable state.

She couldn't understand why he was ill. He'd explained all of that to her — how he never got sick because of who he was, and how nothing could hurt him because of his invulnerable aura. He'd even proved the truth of his claim to her by inviting her to prick his finger with a pin. Try as she might, she hadn't been able to make the pin penetrate his skin, and when he'd offered to give it a try, the pin had snapped.

Yet here he was, shivering and pale, holding himself protectively around his waist as if attempting to quell the shakes.

"Who should I call?" she asked him, the words coming easier each time she spoke.

He shook his head. "I'll be okay."

She frowned. He didn't seem okay. After a moment's debate, she crossed to the reception desk. "Can you call someone?" she asked Doris, whose jaw dropped immediately. Ignoring the astounded look she was receiving from the other side of the desk, she added, "Clark's sick."

To her credit, Doris rallied quickly and, after glancing over in Clark's direction, nodded. "Sure, honey. I'll page Frank."

She nodded her thanks and went back to Clark. "Frank's on his way."

He grimaced but didn't object. Sensing he wasn't up to further conversation, she settled down beside him to wait.

He seemed so miserable, she thought, eyeing him sideways. Miserable and suffering. After a moment's hesitation, she slid her arm gingerly along his shoulders. When he didn't seem to mind, she let herself relax a bit and allowed her arm to drape more heavily, hoping the contact might reassure him a little.

A few minutes later, the inner doors burst open and out shambled a familiar figure. "Well, if it ain't Romeo and Juliet," exclaimed George heartily, pulling one of the reception chairs around in front of Clark. "Hey, buddy," he said in quieter tones while settling into the chair. "Frank's with a patient, so you got me instead. What's up?"

"Hey, George," mumbled Clark. "Since when…when did you start practising medicine?"

George chuckled. "I know a whole lot more about it than you do, buddy, so pipe down." He glanced quickly over Clark's appearance, then stretched out and felt Clark's forehead. Then he produced a pencil light and flicked the beam across Clark's eyes a couple of times. Finally, he prised one of Clark's arms away from his body and checked his pulse. While he was doing that, he murmured, "So how long ago since you took the hit, Clark?"

Hit? Lois flicked her gaze between the two men, understanding the implication of George's question but shocked that it might apply to Clark.

"Last night," muttered Clark through clenched teeth. "But it's not what it looks like."

"Oh?" said George, releasing Clark's wrist. "What does it look like, exactly?"

"I d…don't have a secret stash," Clark replied. "We destroyed it, remember?"

Destroyed what? She understood quite clearly that they were talking about drugs; Clark's drugs, to be precise, but the concept was simply too unlikely to be believable. Clark was a drug addict? Never!

"I…I don't understand," she interjected.

George's head whipped around to gaze at her in surprise. She smiled shyly and nodded, just in case he had any doubt that the words had indeed come from her mouth. At that, he beamed broadly. "Hey, Lois! Welcome back to the world of sound." Then his smile split into a wide grin. "Great voice."

She returned his grin, flattered by his obvious pleasure at her new-found speaking voice. George was another one of the good guys — he wasn't her therapist, but she'd met him a couple of times at group events and she knew that Clark liked him a lot. "Thanks," she said. "I'm still a bit rusty but I'm g…getting there."

"Well, it's great to hear you at last," he said. He turned back to Clark. "You should get sick more often, I guess."

"You're all heart," said Clark.

George laughed. "So, do I tell her, buddy?"

Clark grimaced and shook his head. "It's not fair to her."

"Well, it's your call, but she's going to find out sooner or later," George said. "Seems to me she has a right to know as much about you as you know about her."

"But…" He sighed. "Okay."

"Clark here is an ex-drug addict," explained George, confirming her suspicions. "And what you're seeing here are typical withdrawal symptoms — although these are a tad more severe than Clark's usual pattern. Junkies often suffer worse if they take a hit after a long abstinence, and Clark's been clean for, oh, a few months?" He looked at Clark for confirmation, who nodded. "But what I want to know," continued George, "is where he got his fix, since he and I destroyed everything a few months ago. At least, I thought we did."

"We did," insisted Clark. "But last night…the art gallery raid…they blindsided me with it…"

Lois took a moment to understand what Clark was saying. What did an art gallery raid have to do with him, or with drugs? Someone had caught him unawares with something — the drugs? They'd forced him to take drugs? But how could anyone force Superman to do anything?

"You're kidding!" exclaimed George. "The raiders had it? Where the heck did they get it from?"

Clark shrugged.

George shook his head in disgust. "Shit, buddy. This stinks."

"Yeah."

"I…I still don't understand," interrupted Lois again, frustrated that the two men were racing ahead and she still didn't understand half of what they were saying. "How could they force him?"

She found herself being frowned at by both men. Had she asked a stupid question? She didn't think so.

"Oh!" exclaimed George after a moment. "He doesn't inject, Lois. It's a rock — he just has to get close enough to it and he gets high."

Surprised, she looked at Clark, who nodded in miserable confirmation. Poor Clark! She wondered how often this had happened to him, although judging by George's reaction, this was a first.

"So what happened?" asked George. "Did they get away from you?"

Clark grimaced. "Yes and no."

"What do you mean? They escaped but didn't take anything?"

"George…" Clark's eyes closed briefly, a clear indication of how badly he was suffering. "Can't this wait?"

"Sorry," said George immediately. "I'm just kind of blown away by this, you know? It really stinks."

"Tell me about it," said Clark.

Lois was still hardly able to take it all in. This was a side to Clark she'd never suspected before now. He'd always been so reliable and steady, always so smiling and patient. She'd built up an impression of a guy who was always there when she needed him, was good and kind, had two respectable and highly responsible jobs, and was forever happy in whatever he did.

She realised now that her impression had been pretty one- dimensional. No-one was that perfect and free of worry. In Clark's case, in fact, he appeared to have more to worry about than most.

Listening to his short, painfully clipped speech and watching his strained face, she suddenly experienced a strong surge of sympathy for him. The agony he was suffering was something she understood very well — not because she'd ever been a drug addict herself, but because his pain was clearly more than just physical. His mental torment was equally acute, and that was something she could easily identify with.

"Okay," said George, suddenly all brisk and business-like. "I think the best thing we can do is get you into bed and let you sleep this off. Then when you're feeling better you and I will have a chat. You want to come upstairs? I'm sure Carolyn will be delighted to find you a nice comfy bed somewhere."

Clark shook his head.

"Ah." George grinned at Lois. "I forgot to tell you — as well as being a junkie, he also has a hospital phobia."

Another surprise. Clark spent so much time with her at the clinic, she never would have guessed he hated it. Which meant that as well as keeping his problems tucked away out of sight and only letting her see the happy, caring Clark, he'd been suppressing his fear of hospitals from her.

She began to feel guilty. She'd taken him completely for granted, when really, he'd made a lot of sacrifices just to be with her. How selfish she'd been not to notice.

"Home," said Clark.

George shook his head. "You don't want to be alone when you're going through the screaming heebie-jeebies, buddy."

"I'll be okay."

George sucked air through his teeth. "I'd really rather you stayed here."

Clark shook his head again. "Call me a cab. I'll be fine."

George turned to her. "Lois, you tell him."

She baulked. George was asking her opinion on something? She didn't do opinions, the same as she didn't do emergencies.

Yet after just a moment's panic, she found herself calming down. Felt a new spark of self-assurance spring up within her. She looked at Clark, sitting so abject beside her yet clearly determined not to remain in the clinic for a moment longer than he absolutely had to, and then at George, who clearly wanted his patient to see sense and remain within reach of medical help.

She could do this.

"I'll go home with him," she announced.

***

The cab journey wasn't so bad. In fact, it was quite exciting. She'd been stuck inside the clinic for so long, she'd forgotten how bustling and vibrant the city was. A lot had changed since she'd last been here — new shops, new buildings, and even new roads had sprung up while she'd been away.

She wondered if their journey would take them past the Daily Planet. She'd heard it had been rebuilt after a terrorist bomb had hit it a year or so back, and she was keen to see what the new building looked like. Would the globe still take pride of place at the front?

Dragging her gaze from the cab window, she glanced quickly at Clark. Now that she understood what was wrong with him, she was less nervous that he might fall unconscious, but she was still a little anxious that he wouldn't be able to help her find his apartment. The cabbie had the address and she had the correct money to pay him, but once they were out on the street, she'd be relying on Clark for the next stage in their journey.

He sensed her looking at him and gave her a weak smile. Okay, things were going to be fine.

She looked out the window again, but this time she wasn't really looking at the passing cityscape. She was remembering a different Lois, a strong and independent woman who'd have had no trouble in escorting a sick man home to his apartment. Heck, the old Lois would have commandeered a truck, driven it through the streets of Metropolis and grabbed whoever she needed off the sidewalk to help her if she'd thought that was what it took to get Clark home.

She could hardly believe she was the same person as that Lois. Her imagination just didn't stretch that far. The Lois she knew was frail. She shied away from decisions, needed other people to tell her what to do when things got complicated. She frightened easily.

Yet she didn't want to be like this. She wanted to be that other Lois again. Being frail Lois was lonely and depressing, and she was afraid of where that might lead if she didn't snap out of it sooner or later. Would she simply wither away completely? Shrink into a tiny little dot of a personality who couldn't even look after herself properly?

So she tried. At the clinic, she never missed a therapy session and went to all her classes — even the stupid art class where you were given a blank sheet of paper and told to express yourself. She'd have preferred a music class if they really wanted her to express herself — she knew she had a halfway decent singing voice — but that would have meant breaking the silence and she'd never been brave enough to do that.

Clark helped, of course. His way of treating her like a normal human being made her feel a lot more confident about herself, and, better still, he didn't try to make all her decisions for her — even though she knew that sometimes she was terribly hesitant and could take ages to make up her mind.

So in small ways, her bravery was paying off. Hey, she was sitting here with Clark, wasn't she? In a cab, on her way to his apartment, ready to help him upstairs and sit with him until he was feeling better. Okay, so it wasn't exactly the stuff of adventure books — she'd read more exciting shopping lists — but it was a start, wasn't it?

She smiled to herself as she remembered her conversation with George at the clinic. She'd actually stood up to him. He'd questioned the wisdom of her accompanying Clark to his apartment — he'd been concerned that she wasn't ready for the great outdoors after so many months of cosseted living at the clinic. But then she, the frail, hesitant Lois, had told larger-than- life, opinionated George that she was completely ready for this, and anyway, hadn't the clinic been telling her for weeks that she should take more control of her life? Well, this was her way of doing just that, she'd told him emphatically.

He'd raised one eyebrow, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and said, "Well, as Clark knows, I'm a great believer in patients taking control of their own recovery. You're not my patient, though, so I'm going to check in with your own doctor first. If she says okay, then you go. Okay?"

She'd agreed, and after a lengthy phone call with her doctor, he'd given her the thumbs up. He'd even given her money for the taxi plus a bit extra for emergencies.

She'd won an argument. A touch of the old Lois had emerged, she reflected, allowing her smile to broaden as she gazed out of the window.

"Is this the right block?" shouted the cabbie from the front.

She looked at Clark. "Is it?"

He nodded.

She paid the cabbie and in no time at all, they were out of the sidewalk. She glanced up. Clark's apartment block was a modest building in a slightly run-down part of Metropolis. It was kind of what she'd expected — despite the power and fame of his alter- ego, Superman, the Clark Kent she knew wouldn't want to live with the ostentatious trappings of celebrity.

"I'm on the top floor," he said, dragging her attention away from the building.

He was shivering again and had his arms wrapped around his body. In the warmth of the cab, he'd seemed to get a little better, but out here on the street there was a cool breeze blowing which, despite his invulnerability, seemed to cut right through him. To her relief, however, he switched into auto-pilot now that he was nearly home, leading her inside and up in the elevator to his apartment.

They walked up to his front door. In his trembling hand, his key rattled ineffectually against the lock casing. After watching him struggle for a moment and swithering as to whether her help would be welcome or not, she couldn't bear to see him humiliated by so simple a task any longer. Without fuss, she reached across, closed her hand over his, guided the key in and turned it with him.

Together, they pulled the key out of the lock and pushed the door open. Mortified eyes met hers as they paused on the threshold, but she just smiled and said, "That's what I'm here for, isn't it? To help?"

Feeling more confident now, she ushered him inside with a light hand on his back and closed the door for him.

Nice place, she thought as she took in the apartment with a sweeping glance. She liked the bare brick walls and stripped wooden floor, the hard surfaces softened by rugs and wall hangings. A couple of comfortable-looking sofas and a low coffee table formed a welcoming living area, and there was a wonderful floor-to-ceiling window on one side of the apartment, with a small concrete balcony beyond.

Clark seemed unsure what to do now that they were inside. Heck, she was pretty unsure herself. Just what was the protocol on helping a man, who was normally a whole lot more competent than she, to settle himself down and rest until he was well? And in his own apartment, where she was a stranger?

"Why…why don't you just head off to bed?" she suggested. "I'll make myself comfortable out here."

That appeared to settle his indecision and he nodded stiffly. "Okay."

She followed him down the few steps into the living area and headed for one of the sofas, noting, without making it too obvious that she was doing so, where his bedroom was. She'd wait until she was sure he'd be settled and then, if she could screw up her courage, she'd look in on him to make sure he was okay.

A dark red phone on the coffee table caught her eye. She hadn't used one in years, whereas the old Lois would have had a receiver glued to her ear for half the working day.

Which led her to another thought. By now, Clark should have been at work. The old Lois would have done something about that. Biting her nails, she eyed the phone nervously. It was one thing talking face to face with Clark and George — and Doris, she reminded herself — but quite another to pick up the phone and address a total stranger.

Maybe he wasn't expected at work today. Maybe, just this once, he'd taken the whole day off.

Who was she kidding? He'd been wearing his work suit — of course he was expected at the Planet.

She could do this. She'd already done the hardest part of all — breaking her silence — so this should be a breeze. Besides, what use was she if she couldn't do this one, small thing for him?

Maybe the phone wasn't working. She couldn't phone if it wasn't working, now could she?

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course the phone was working. Turning decisively, moving sharply before she could chicken out, she crossed the living room and stopped near his bedroom. "Is…is there anyone you'd like me to phone?" she called out. "The Planet, maybe?"

There was silence, and for a moment, she thought maybe he was already asleep. Then he appeared from around the corner.

She gulped and tried not to stare. He was naked from the waist up, and the resulting view was…wow. All that chest…those biceps…the flat stomach…she'd never expected to feel like this about a man again. Not after everything she'd witnessed in Brazzaville.

"You sure?" he asked.

She nodded. "If you'd like me to."

"Okay." A violent shiver shook his large frame and he began hugging himself again, stooping forward slightly. "Th…thanks."

He really wasn't well, she reflected. "You'd better get to bed," she said. "Get warm."

He nodded and turned back into his bedroom.

***

She dialled the number nervously, her fingers shaking a little on each button. Her first call to Information, to get the Planet's main number, hadn't been so bad, but this second call, to the Planet itself, was proving to be a lot scarier than she'd expected. This was her first real interaction with the outside world since she'd returned from Brazzaville. The cabbie hadn't counted because she hadn't needed to tell him her name, but in a moment, she was going to be announcing who she was and asking to be put through to the editor.

And that was the even scarier part. She was going to be speaking to the editor of the Daily Planet. This was as close as she'd ever come to stepping back into the old Lois Lane's life, and the prospect was daunting. The editor, a man she'd never met, but whose predecessor had known her better than her own father, would instantly recognise her name. He'd know all about her, both past and present. There would be questions. Perhaps she'd say she was just a friend of Clark's.

"Good morning, Daily Planet," said a chirpy male voice. "How may we help you?"

"I…I'd like to s-speak to the editor," she said, the words suddenly clumsy and angular in her mouth again.

"I'll put you through to his secretary," replied the receptionist.

She listened to a few bars of a Mozart symphony, and then a woman said, "Editor's office."

"Hello-this-is-a-friend-of-Clark-Kent's-can-I-speak-to-the- editor-please?"

Okay, Minnie Mouse on speed wasn't exactly the impression she'd intended to make. She'd been rehearsing the line too much, evidently.

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"

Oh, boy. This woman didn't know just what she was asking. She took in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and tried again. "Hello. This is. A friend. Of Clark. Kent's. May I speak. To the. Editor please."

There. That was better. A triumph of clear and concise communication. Well, sort of.

"I'm afraid the editor is busy right now. Perhaps I could put you through to one of our junior writers?"

Lois could hear the condescension dripping from the woman's voice. No doubt she thought she was dealing with a crank caller.

"No, I need the editor," she insisted.

"I'm sorry, but he's unavailable," said the woman. Something in her snippy tone told Lois she was probably lying, but, on the other hand, Lois couldn't blame the woman for shielding her boss from nutters and time-wasters.

She tightened her grip on the receiver. There was one sure-fire way of convincing this scary woman to let her talk to the editor, but she'd decided not to do that, hadn't she? She'd wanted to remain anonymous.

Still…

"Look," she said. "This is Lois Lane, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your boss won't thank you one lousy cent for preventing me from talking to him," she drawled, and then sucked in a sharp breath as the aftershock hit her. Where had that come from? The old Lois Lane had just made an abrupt, hit-and-run return and left her with wobbly knees and a thumping heart.

Wow. Although no doubt the secretary would now slam the phone down with indignation.

"Lois Lane?" asked the secretary. "The reporter?"

"Yes," she answered, trying to keep her voice steady and firm. "I used to work at the Planet."

"Hold on," snapped the secretary.

She could just imagine the conversation between secretary and boss — I've got some woman on the phone, claims she's Lois Lane. Want me to get rid of her?

The line clicked. "Just putting you through," said the secretary.

Oh, God. Her heart began racing, hammering loudly in her chest.

"Hi, can I help you?" asked a deep male voice.

She froze. Her pulse raced even faster, but the words wouldn't come. Her mind went blank.

Think! Think, think, THINK!

"Hello?" said the editor.

Quick, before he cuts you off again! "I…Cla…ark asked me to call and let you know he's n…not feeling well," she said.

At last. She'd delivered the simple message she'd set out to convey roughly two lifetimes ago. "He won't be in today," she added, belatedly remembering the rest of her message.

"Oh," replied Clark's editor. "Well, thank you for letting me know. Will he be back tomorrow?"

"I expect so. It's nothing serious." She had no idea who knew he was an ex-addict, so she'd already decided that she'd keep the nature of his illness to herself.

"I see." Was it her imagination, or did his editor sound annoyed with Clark? Surely taking just one day off sick wasn't so bad? But before she could think of a polite way of saying that, he said, "Look, did you say your name was Lois Lane?"

Here it came. The questions. She gripped the receiver tightly. "Yes."

"Well, it's a pleasure to finally talk to you, Lois," he said. "I've heard a lot about you from Clark and Perry."

Of course he had. No doubt between them they'd told him everything there was to know about her. "Thank you. I think."

He laughed. "Oh, don't worry, it was all good stuff. I hear you were one of our best reporters, way back when."

"Well, I was," she said. She'd always known she was good, and the old Lois hadn't been ashamed to tell people exactly that. Old habits died hard, it seemed.

He laughed again. "Seems all that other stuff I heard about you was true as well. Look, you must drop by sometime so we can have a proper chat about the old times. Maybe bring Perry with you — the paper could run a retrospective. How about it?"

"I…I…" She clutched the receiver. "I'd like that."

Why had she said that? On the face of it, it sounded like a nightmarish scenario — walking back into the Planet, running the gauntlet of staring faces, pretending as if nothing was any different. She couldn't imagine anything much scarier.

Yet she'd accepted, and not just because it had been easier to say yes than to explain why she was saying no. A small part of her, the daring part, actually wanted to go back to the Planet and see what it was like now; get back amongst familiar things. It was, after all, a place she'd once loved to be.

"Great! Call my secretary and let her know when you're free," he replied. "In the meantime, tell Clark I hope he feels better real soon."

Again, that note of irritation in his voice. Was this another problem of Clark's — a poor relationship with his boss? She'd ask him about it when he was feeling better, perhaps. "I will. Thanks."

She bid him goodbye and returned the receiver shakily to its cradle. Wow. She'd done it. She'd spoken to the Daily Planet — the editor, no less — and accepted an invitation to visit. Was there no end to her daring?

***

She tip-toed into Clark's bedroom, feeling massively as if she was intruding on his privacy. He'd drawn the curtain, so it took her eyes a moment or two to adjust to the dim lighting. When they did, she noted with approval that the room was like the rest of the apartment — hard surfaces softened by rugs and soft furnishings. A bit like the man himself — a core of inner strength wrapped up in a kind heart and a generous nature.

He was curled up on his side under the bedclothes, his hair tousled, his face pale and looking just a little naked without his glasses. She couldn't get over the difference from the person she'd got to know over the past couple of months. Unlike the dependable, self-assured man who'd been her protector through so many gruelling therapy sessions, this Clark was vulnerable. He had flaws. He made mistakes. He had hang-ups and he got sick.

Amazingly, she had more in common with Clark Kent than she had ever imagined.

When he'd seemed so perfect and self-assured, she'd been just a little in awe of him. And then, when she'd learned that he was Superman, he'd seemed even more perfect. In fact, she'd considered herself fortunate to receive so much attention from such an important man, but his status had thrown into sharp relief even more so the differences between them: she was a floundering crazy woman, he was a confident superhero. Luckily, he was always very approachable and informal, so she never felt awkward around him, but nevertheless, she'd concluded that she could never look on him as more than a very friendly care worker.

Which had been difficult to accept, because she liked him. Liked him a lot. He'd become her friend — her only friend.

As she watched him, he huddled further into his bedclothes, hunching the coverlet higher up over his shoulders. Was he warm enough? George's brief instructions — delivered laconically with a fatherly pat on her shoulder — had been to ensure that he was rested, that he was warm, and that he took in plenty of fluids. So perhaps she should hunt around for extra blankets in case he needed them.

She tip-toed back out of his bedroom, pleased that she'd found a task with which to make herself useful.

***

Invulnerable men, it turned out, didn't keep extra blankets. She supposed he never felt the cold. In fact, following that logic, she wondered why he bothered with bedclothes at all.

Well, a bare mattress wouldn't make much of a decorating statement, would it? And he'd need blankets and stuff if any of his family came to visit. Although, come to think of it, he didn't have any family, did he? He'd mentioned that he was an orphan. Still, it was a generously-proportioned double bed…

Duh. His girlfriends would need blankets, wouldn't they?

She bit her lip — she'd heard a couple of comments on TV that implied he'd had a lot of girlfriends at one time. She hadn't liked that; had chosen not to believe it. He just didn't seem the type.

But on the other hand, he was a good-looking guy. Why shouldn't he have girlfriends? Maybe not lots of one-night stands, but steady relationships — that was the Clark she knew. Steady.

She sighed, not wanting to imagine him with other women.

Instead, and just for a moment, she allowed herself to imagine what it might feel like being made love to by Clark Kent. He'd be a sensitive, gentle lover, she thought. None of your wham, bam, thank you, ma'am from him. He'd give as well as take. Wouldn't force the pace unless he was certain his partner wanted to as well. Not that he wouldn't be passionate — she could imagine him being pretty intense and emotional when he made love. Doubly so, now that she understood a little more of his complexities.

But who was she kidding? Clark Kent would never be interested in her, not when there must be any number of non-crazy women he could date.

And, actually, the thought of any kind of intimacy with a man was difficult for her. The acts of violence she'd seen in Brazzaville might well have put her off sex for life.

For a fateful second or two, she let her guard slip and the memories came flooding back. Vile atrocities performed in the name of black magic, rituals so horrifying she'd thought she might pass out from sheer terror. Once a hardened reporter who'd thought she could handle just about anything, she'd been turned into a quivering wreck by the violence she'd witnessed. She'd seen rape performed on adults and children of all ages and sexes. Thankfully she'd never been touched herself. Nevertheless, she'd lived in daily terror that she might be next; in fact, had been aware that she was being kept 'clean' for something extra special.

It had been her abject fear of that 'something special' which had finally silenced her. At first, she'd stopped speaking because she'd been so scared of what a single misplaced word might do to her chances of survival. She'd seen how unpredictable her captors were. Then, over time, she'd discovered that the silence was comforting. It helped keep her distance from her captors and the atrocities they performed; from the constant danger she was in.

She put her face in her hands and drew in a few deep, slow breaths. The memories needed to be controlled — these days she was able to recognise the signs before she was overwhelmed. The clinic had taught her some basic relaxation techniques, and she used those now to reclaim the upper hand. Control the memories, don't let them control you — that was her motto.

A few minutes later she felt better and in need of something to do. Check on Clark, she decided. Make sure he was okay.

***

In his bedroom, she watched him turn restlessly in bed — he didn't seem able to tolerate any position for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Surely he was just going to make himself sicker with all that thrashing around? Whatever, he certainly wasn't getting the rest George had prescribed.

Perhaps a drink might settle him.

"Clark?" she whispered, and was a bit taken aback when he immediately turned towards her and opened his eyes.

"How…how are you feeling?" she asked.

He hunched up under the coverlet, pulling it tightly around his shoulders. "Don't ever get addicted to anything," he muttered. "It's the pits."

She nodded. "Can't sleep?"

"Not a wink." He grimaced. "Look, I'm sorry you're seeing me like this. Last thing you need, I imagine."

"Hey," she murmured, sinking down onto the edge of his bed. "Everyone gets sick."

"Except Superman," he said. "He's not supposed to get sick."

"I can imagine," she agreed. "Is…is that what your editor thinks?"

He grimaced again. "Let me guess — he wasn't happy when you told him I wouldn't be at work today?"

"Well, he did seem kind of unsympathetic," she said. "Why is that?"

"I messed him around pretty bad when I was at my worst. He was actually pretty patient with me, kept me on the staff for far longer than he should have, but in the end he would have fired me if I hadn't resigned first," he explained. "So I can't really blame him for his attitude now — he probably thinks I've started hitting on the kryptonite again."

"But you haven't!" she objected. "You should tell him."

"I'd just sound like I was making excuses for myself," he replied miserably.

"Well, I'll tell him," she said firmly. "The next time I speak to him."

He smiled weakly. "Hey, listen to you," he murmured. "Seems like there's no stopping you now that you've broken your silence."

"Yes, well, it turns out that wasn't such a big deal after all," she said. "I just needed the right reason."

"So George was right?" he replied. "I should get sick more often?"

"Well, I wouldn't put it quite like that," she said. "Look, can I get you a drink? Maybe it'll help settle you."

"Not unless it's laced with a certain red-coloured rock," he said. It was a poor attempt at humour, made all the worse by the half-hearted smile which looked more like a grimace. His hand tightened on the coverlet, his knuckles turning white from the effort.

She bit her bottom lip, a little embarrassed at the honesty of his admission and somewhat at a loss for a suitable reply. What did you say to an ex-addict who needed his fix but knew he couldn't have it? There, there, here's a band-aid — just plaster that over your craving and you'll be fine?

"Sorry," he murmured. "Just kidding."

But he wasn't, of course. "Is that what it's like?" she asked. "Even after all this time, you still want it?"

He shook his head. "Not really. I just know it would stop me feeling like this." He screwed his eyes shut as if in pain and she thought she heard him mutter, "Please make it stop," under his breath.

She wished she knew what to do. Clark had always seemed to know what to do for her when she was distressed. He'd give her a hug, or play some stupid game of cards with her, or sometimes just let her talk until she'd emptied out all her emotions on him.

All she had to offer was a drink and he'd rejected that.

A bolder Lois would climb right onto the bed and give him a big hug. She wouldn't worry about whether he'd welcome it or not, or whether she was overstepping some kind of intimacy threshold. She'd just get on with it. Today's Lois, though, really wanted to hug him but just didn't have the nerve.

Reluctantly, she stood up. "I'll let you get some rest," she murmured and made her way out of the room.

"Don't."

She heard his whisper just as she was stepping into the living room. For a moment, she wasn't sure if he'd been addressing her or talking to himself. She turned around. "Clark?"

"Stay with me?" he asked huskily. "Please?"

Her heart did a little flip-flop. "Of course," she replied, returning to her perch on the side of his bed. "I'm here."

Feeling a surge of protectiveness towards him, she reached out hesitantly. A hug was still out of the question, but maybe she could stroke his face and soothe away some of the tension she could see there. But no, even that was probably too intrusive, too intimate a gesture. Instead she settled for placing her hand lightly over his where he clutched his coverlet. He could always move away if he didn't welcome her touch.

At first he didn't move at all. Then she felt his hand relax its grip.

And then her heart melted as his hand clasped hers.

He needed her. Clark Kent, the man she'd thought so self- contained and confident, needed her, Lois Lane. She wasn't useless after all.

She squeezed his hand gently, reassuring him that she'd stay with him for however long he needed her to.

***

All too soon, it seemed, he was restless again. In fact, when she reached out to touch his hand, which had earlier slipped from her grasp, she discovered he was icy cold and shivering.

"You're freezing," she murmured, more to herself than to Clark.

She'd thought he must at least be dozing, but again he surprised her by responding immediately. "Can't…can't seem to get warm," he whispered, his eyes still closed. She saw him curl up into a ball under the bedclothes and hunch the blanket tight around his shoulders. "Don't think I've ever felt so cold in my entire life."

Oh, God, he was really sick. For a moment, panic set in again — she was out of her depth and she should never have taken on the responsibility of caring for him. He was going to die and it would be all her fault. She should call the clinic right now and get them to send an ambulance before it was too late.

Then he moved restlessly under the blankets and sense reasserted itself. He wasn't going to die. He was just cold and miserable. What could she do to help him? There weren't any extra blankets, so what did that leave?

Five minutes of searching around his apartment produced a winter coat, a leather jacket and assorted sweaters. She piled them all on top of him.

"Thanks," he muttered.

"Any better?" she asked.

"A little."

She suspected he was just saying that to save her worrying about him; he didn't seem that much better. "Would it help to talk a bit?" she suggested.

He grimaced. "At this point, I'll try anything."

"I wondered…what happened at the art gallery?" she asked. "I didn't really understand earlier, when you were telling George."

He nodded. "I heard the burglar alarm go off and flew over as Superman to investigate," he explained. "When I got there, they'd already stripped most of the valuable stuff off the walls and were getting ready to pack up and leave. There were three of them."

"So what did you do?"

"Gathered them up at superspeed and tied them together with those barriers made out of tape and metal stands." He paused, closing his eyes in either recollection or pain; she wasn't sure which. "But there was a fourth guy," he continued. "He must have been in an adjacent room — I didn't see him until I felt it."

"Felt what?"

He grimaced again. "The best sensation in the entire world. Everything you ever wanted to feel, all at the same time. There's nothing like it."

She understood. "Your drug?"

"Yeah," he whispered. He opened his eyes and looked directly at her, as if challenging her to make some sort of judgement on what he'd just admitted. And yes, she realised, he'd just effectively told her that he still enjoyed the effects of his drugs. That kicking his addiction hadn't meant he'd stopped liking the high it gave him.

But she had no inclination to judge him. Instead, she reached out and clasped his hand in hers. He'd have to find someone else to pass judgement; she was here to provide comfort and understanding.

He squeezed her hand, and, in a stronger voice, continued, "It had been so long since my last hit, I was high instantly. Couldn't think straight — could hardly see straight, it was so strong. I…I heard him taunting me, asking me if I liked it, did I want some more — that kind of thing."

"And did you? Want some more, I mean?"

"Of course I did. Once an addict, always an addict — that's what they say, isn't it?" He hunched the blankets closer over himself, causing her precarious pile of clothes to dislodge.

Quickly, she stood up and rearranged them on top of him, then settled back on the edge of his bed.

"I tried to fight it," he said. "Tried to ignore the cotton-wool in my head, but it was useless. If the police hadn't arrived at that moment, the thieves would have gotten away with the entire collection while I grinned inanely from the sidelines."

"But they didn't?"

"No thanks to me. And I heard a report on the radio this morning that the most valuable painting is still missing. Don't ask me how." He screwed his face up miserably. "It can't happen again, Lois. Somehow, I have to stop it from ever happening again."

"I'm sure you'll find a way," she said. It seemed a very inadequate thing to tell him, but it was the best she could offer. "Do you know what happened to the drugs the thieves had? Did the police take them?"

"I don't know," he said. "I…I don't remember much after the police arrived. That's what happens when I'm high — I pretty much blank out everything. The first thing I recall clearly is waking up this morning and realising I was late for our walk in the park."

No wonder he'd been so distracted when they'd gone out. "I'm sorry I didn't notice you were sick," she said.

He shrugged with one shoulder. "I've gotten a lot of practice at hiding it over the months. Not that I was hiding it as well as I thought I was, but still…" He sighed. "Anyway, I guess I should find out what happened to that kryptonite — the drugs," he added for explanation. "Thanks for reminding me."

She smiled, delighted that she'd been of help. "Are you feeling better? You don't seem to be shivering any more."

"Yeah, I guess I am."

"Get some rest, then. Try to sleep. George said you needed to sleep."

"He did, did he?" he said. "He's not even a qualified medical practitioner, you know."

"He knows more than you do, so pipe down," she said, remembering George's words at the clinic.

Clark chuckled softly. "Has he been coaching you? Okay, I'll do my best."

She watched him as his eyes closed and his breathing began to settle into a steadier rhythm. He seemed much more relaxed this time, and it wasn't long before she was certain he was in a deep sleep.

***

A strong sense of menace pervaded the air. Something bad was happening, and it was happening somewhere very close by. If she turned, she'd see it.

Better not to move. Better not to speak.

There was muttering, someone chanting low incantations in a language she didn't understand. A match was struck, its sudden splash of colour creating a harsh light both unnerving and threatening. The light settled down to a pallid, flickering glow — a candle had been lit. The chanting began again.

Someone groaned. A sharp slap silenced the groan and the chanting resumed, louder and faster. Another match was struck, another candle lit.

She recognised this ritual. Knew what would happen next.

Don't look.

A man cried out in pain. More voices joined the chant, drowning out the man's cry. The candlelight grew stronger as more matches were struck and more candles were lit. The man yelled again.

Don't look.

She sensed movement, vicious and stabbing. The chanters were egging on the lead protagonist, enthusiastic and excited in their incantations.

Don't look.

"Help me!"

Oh, God, the man was an American. She whirled around.

No! Not him. Please, not him. Not Clark…

Alarm bells began ringing in her head, obliterating the chanting and Clark's cries. She pressed her hands to her ears, holding her head in pain as the ringing grew louder and shriller, deafening her.

Make it stop. Please make it stop…

She gasped, recognising the words as Clark's own. Her eyes shot open of their own accord and she was jolted sharply back to the present, back to the real world. There in the corner was Clark's chest of drawers, there, his shoes, there on a chair a brightly patterned tie, and here beside her, his bed.

She was okay. Clark was okay. It had been just another dream.

But the ringing. His telephone. Her gaze darted to Clark, but he was clearly sleeping — and peacefully so, by the look of it. She should answer the phone before it woke him up.

She rushed headlong into the living room and grabbed the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Lois! Still using that great voice, I hear."

George. Thank God for George. "Yeah, there's no shutting me up now," she replied.

She glanced around the living room, trying to replace the lingering menace of the dream with the homely, comfortable scene before her. This was reality now. The other was a memory; an existence she'd left behind when she'd been rescued and brought home to Metropolis.

George laughed. "So how's Clark?"

"He's sleeping."

"Sleeping? Wow, Lois, I'm impressed," said George. "What did you do — talk him to sleep?"

She smiled. "No, and I didn't sing to him either."

"Shame. I bet he would have liked that," replied George. "Anyway, I just rang to say I'll probably drop by later — see if he's ready for that chat I mentioned."

He was coming here? "You don't usually do house calls, do you?" she said, certain that George and the other therapists always worked from their rooms at the clinic.

"No, but Clark's kind of a special case," said George. "And don't you dare tell him I ever said that, okay? The boy's got enough insecurities without thinking I treat him any different to my other patients."

"I won't," she replied, reflecting that George's rough, wise- cracking exterior really was an act hiding a much softer heart than he'd probably ever care to admit.

"Good." He cleared his throat. "Okay, I guess I should let you get back to holding his hand or whatever it is you were doing before I rang."

She felt herself blushing. How had he known that?

She bid him goodbye and replaced the receiver. As well as being a big softie, George must be a little psychic, she decided. Not only had he called at just the right time, dragging her away from her dream, but he knew that she had feelings for Clark.

George was definitely one of the good guys.

***

She had to admit, there were certain aspects to this trip home with Clark that she was really enjoying. Okay, so the phone had been a little scary at first, but she'd used it three times now and was pretty proud of herself. She'd mastered that, and the art of speech — all in a single morning.

Her latest adventure had been in Clark's kitchen, and she was now carrying the results of her work into his bedroom: one tin of soup, heated and poured into two bowls. There was even bread, butter and cheese to accompany the soup. Hunting around his kitchen for these things, and the equipment to heat and serve them, had undoubtedly been fun.

The old Lois wouldn't have considered cooking to be fun. She'd hated it and was most definitely not God's gift to the culinary arts.

So maybe this new model Lois had a few things going for her after all.

She set the tray down and carried a bowl over to her chair beside his bed. As she settled down, he stirred. A few moments later, he was opening bleary eyes and turning his head towards her.

"Hey," she murmured. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, I think," he replied. He squinted at the bowl in her lap. "Is that soup?"

"Yes," she said. "Want some?"

He pushed himself up in bed, rubbing his eyes. "Maybe," he said warily. "But first…" He swung his legs over the other side of the bed and stood up. "Back in a minute," he mumbled.

Oh, right. She found herself staring goggle-eyed at his…well, his everything, really. Hastily, she bent her head to her soup and resolved to hold her gaze down until he was back safely under the bedclothes.

She sensed him return a couple of minutes later. "Actually, I think I'll get up," he announced.

"Oh, okay," she said, studying her soup intently. "I'll just…" She stood up with her bowl and turned without a glance in his direction. "I'll see you next door," she said quickly and beat a hasty retreat. There was no way she was sitting in his bedroom eating soup while he — and his everything — got dressed.

She settled at his dining table with her soup and tried not to imagine him moving around his bedroom with nothing on. Eat your soup, Lois, eat your soup.

"Thanks for this."

She looked up to find him setting the tray down opposite her and shifting the contents onto the table. He'd changed into jeans and a grey t-shirt, but hadn't bothered donning his glasses. The look suited him, she decided.

She glanced at his bowl of soup. "Would you like me to re-heat it for you?" she asked, rising from her chair.

He shook his head. "No need." He stared intently down at the bowl until steam rose. Of course — she'd forgotten he could heat things up with his eyes.

"Handy talent," she commented.

"Yeah," he agreed, beginning to sip cautiously.

Watching him eating, she observed, "You must be feeling better if you're up and eating."

"Yes, I am," he replied, nodding. "Thanks for…you know…staying with me."

She'd noticed a slight tremor in his hands, indicating that he wasn't quite as well as he was making out. Still, he was much better than earlier. "Feels good to be helping," she said. "Makes a change."

He smiled and returned to his soup.

***

They'd been eating and exchanging small talk for a while when Clark quietly laid his spoon down, his soup still half-finished. When he didn't move or say anything, she knew he was struggling.

She continued eating, though, not wanting to fuss unless he really needed her.

She wondered what had made him turn to drugs. He seemed so stable and settled — why would he ever need to escape into a drug-induced fantasy world? Maybe it was his Superman work. She could imagine certain rescues being incredibly stressful, especially if he didn't have anyone to talk to afterwards. He hadn't ever mentioned any friends, although she was sure he must have had girlfriends at some point in his life.

There was George, of course, but she was a little hazy on the relationship between Clark and George — it had seemed more like a casual acquaintanceship than a close friendship or a patient- doctor thing. Until today.

"You must be pretty disappointed in me," he said suddenly.

Surprised, she looked up. "No, of course I'm not," she said, noticing the lines of tension distorting his face as she spoke. He looked awful — like he was just about ready to explode out of his skin. "How could I be, after everything you've done for me?"

"Your superhero isn't so super any more," he insisted.

Apparently, he was determined to be miserable — not without justification, she reflected. From his point of view, he probably thought he'd been exposed as a fraud, especially if the cause of his addiction was a failure to cope with Superman- related stress. Add to that the fact that he was clearly ashamed of his addiction, and was still feeling strung out, and you got a recipe for a pretty miserable individual.

Instinct took over. She abandoned her food and moved around to his side of the table. "Stand up," she said.

When he frowned up at her, she gestured upwards. "Stand up," she repeated, her nerve already beginning to falter. Please just do it, she prayed, not sure how much longer she could maintain the take-charge act.

He pushed back his chair and stood up slowly.

Oh, boy. Even vulnerable and sick, he seemed to loom large before her, a daunting prospect for her frail sensibilities. Physical closeness had been difficult for her in the early days, and even now, she needed good clear signals if someone was going to come into her personal space. Nevertheless, she stepped up close to him and wrapped her arms around his large frame. Immediately, she felt the tremor in his body, the result of all that pent-up tension she'd seen in his face.

"Put your arms around me," she suggested.

As he obeyed hesitantly, she hugged him tightly. "I will never be able to thank you enough for the last couple of months," she murmured. "To me, you'll always be super."

"But—"

"Shhh," she said. "Just let me hold you."

He fell quiet, and for a long time they simply stood hugging each other. They'd embraced like this before, when she'd been the one in need of comfort. Now, Clark needed her.

Eventually, she began to sense the tension leaching away from his body. His muscles relaxed and his breathing became slower and deeper. There came a point, in fact, where she stopped worrying quite so much about him and began to notice just how nice it was to be holding Clark in her arms. With just his thin t-shirt separating her hands from his bare skin, she could feel the lean, muscular contours of back. His chest rose and fell against hers, solid and comforting, and his scent was clean and fresh.

She snuggled into his shoulder.

"Lois," he murmured huskily, so close she could feel his breath fanning her neck.

Such a sweet sound, that, his voice whispering her name. She couldn't remember hearing him use that voice on her before — so tender and soft.

Something was happening. He felt different in her arms, less passive, more…interested. Like he was holding her because he enjoyed it. Surely he couldn't be interested in her, though. The flake he visited at the mental health clinic? Yet he was nuzzling his face against her neck…any moment now she felt he might even kiss her there.

Oh, please do, she thought fervently.

Because she felt different, too. More confident and alive than she'd felt for months. More like a real person. Attracted, even.

Oh, yes, definitely attracted.

She felt him move infinitesimally. Her heart began to race in anticipation, and then his lips brushed her neck with a gossamer- light touch. Her skin came alive where he'd touched it and sent a glowing tingle radiating outwards over her entire body. A low murmur of approval escaped from her.

Her reaction was a surprise. Not so long ago, she was sure she would have frozen up if a man had made anything approaching a sexual gesture towards her. She would have had to remind herself that he wasn't one of her captors, that this wasn't the start of her worst nightmare — the rape which had never, in the end, taken place.

But no, this felt natural and very, very nice.

He kissed her again, his soft lips lingering longer this time. They were so tender, his lips, pressing gently against her skin with exquisite subtlety. She didn't think it was possible to enjoy one single kiss as much as this, but that was before Clark had kissed her. There was no denying the flutter in her stomach and the trembling in her legs, or the beautiful, warm glow suffusing her entire being.

But then he pulled away and faced her. "I'm sorry," he said guiltily. "I shouldn't have done that—"

"No, it's okay—"

"No, really," he insisted, moving further away. "I shouldn't have…I got carried away—"

"I didn't mind—"

He moved to the table. "I should clear this away," he said, indicating their abandoned lunch. "Unless you're still eating…?"

"No…" Why the sudden change? One minute amorous, the next…oops, big mistake?

Oh, no. Her heart sank. Obviously he wouldn't want a damaged woman like her. Not when he could have his pick of normal, vivacious, happy young things.

"Okay. I'll make us some coffee," he said. "Then maybe we could play Scrabble?"

She shrugged. "Sure."

Okay, Lois, abandon all hope. It was exactly as she'd suspected — she'd been just another job for Superman. He'd seen a woman in need of help, and had taken her under his wing. He'd been kind and thoughtful towards her, but that was as far as any feelings he might have for her went. Lois, the flake, got Clark, the considerate superhero.

His girlfriends got to see the romantic Clark — the passionate Clark. They were lucky women, these girlfriends of his. Lois just hoped they realised exactly how lucky they were.

She flopped down onto the sofa while he disappeared into the kitchen. How could she ever have imagined he'd be interested in her? He'd just forgotten for a moment, thought she was like all the other women he'd known.

But his kiss, and her reaction to his kiss…

No. After all, what did she really know about him? How could she even be sure of her own feelings towards him — she'd only known him for a couple of months, after all. Pretty intense months, when he'd spent most of the time listening to her reveal the sordid and grotesque details of her life over the past couple of years. Horrible stuff; things she'd been ashamed to admit. There hadn't been much time left for him to tell her about himself. She'd got snippets here and there — enough to know the bare bones of his background — but not enough to really know a person intimately. For all she knew, he'd been an axe-murder in a previous life.

No. Not Clark.

But if only she hadn't enjoyed that kiss so much…

She hugged herself and tried not to cry. This was all too hard. She wasn't used to dealing with all these complications. Things were so much simpler back at the clinic. Already, today, she'd dealt with a sick man, stood up to George, spoken to people she didn't know, used a phone, and made soup. She couldn't be expected to deal with Clark kissing her as well as all that.

***

By the end of their third game of Scrabble, it was clear that Clark was feeling a lot better. The tremor had disappeared from his hands and his movements were relaxed as he tipped the Scrabble pieces into the bag and folded away the board.

She was pleased for him, of course, but she was also disappointed, because her reason for staying with him was rapidly disappearing. Any minute now he'd be offering to take her back to the clinic.

She'd rallied after a few weepy moments on the sofa earlier. Told herself not to be so pathetic. Clark was a nice guy and she was lucky he cared so much about her. Okay, so he'd accidentally kissed her — twice — but it didn't mean anything. Yes, he'd held her like a man holds a woman he's attracted to, but that was probably just instinct and hormones.

And, yes, she was attracted to him too, there was no doubt about that. She couldn't deny that tingling sensation when he'd kissed her. But it was just a physical thing, a bit like his hormones. It didn't mean she loved him or anything. You couldn't love someone you'd only known for two months.

She glanced across the table at him. If only he wasn't so darned handsome! And nice. And kind and thoughtful. And funny. And interesting. And…

…smiling at her. She returned his smile briefly before ducking her eyes back down to the table, embarrassed to be caught staring admiringly at him.

A huge yawn suddenly took her surprise. Quickly, she suppressed it, covering her mouth with her hand. Yes, she was tired. This had been a long, busy day by her standards and the unaccustomed activity was starting to catch up on her. She'd sleep well tonight — nightmares permitting, of course.

But as tired as she was, she didn't want to go back to the clinic yet.

"Tired?" asked Clark as she handed him the Scrabble piece-holder thingy.

"No," she denied. "I just need food. I know we ate lunch late, but I'm used to meals as regular as clockwork at the clinic, and right now, my body is telling me it's dinner time."

Which was a total fabrication, but sounded convincing enough to her, at any rate. Maybe over dinner she could find a way of getting him to open up about himself a bit more.

"Maybe I should take you home," he said. "Don't want you to miss dinner."

She pulled a face at the thought of a clinic-style dinner. "It's okay, I'm not that desperate for food."

"Oh? I thought the food wasn't too bad there," he said.

Of course, he'd been a patient there himself. Darn. "It's okay for a week or two, but it gets pretty bland after a couple of months," she said. Which was actually true, she realised with a touch of surprise. She'd been growing tired of their food without even noticing it.

"Yeah, I guess that would be true." He stood up. "I could make us some pasta, if you like? It won't be anything fancy — just a throw-everything-together-and-hope-it-turns-out-okay kind of a thing."

"Sounds great," she said. "Um…if you're sure. I mean, if you haven't got other plans for tonight…?"

Like dinner with a girlfriend?

"Nope," he replied cheerfully. "Just me and the TV. You'd be surprised how much time we spend together, in fact. I'm thinking of proposing, except I'm not sure the state allows marriages between men and their electronic gadgets yet."

She laughed. Interesting…he spent a lot of time alone watching TV. Which backed up the lack of friends theory. And really, she was pretty sure he didn't have a current girlfriend — he'd never mentioned one.

She just wished the telepathy thing extended to more than just conversation. It would be so useful to be able to look at him and figure out what he was thinking, or pick his brains for information about himself.

On the other hand, it wouldn't be so good if he could do the same to her. That would be a disaster.

No, better to stick to conversation only. He already knew too much about her from their sessions at the clinic; she didn't want him in her head all the time.

"Oh, I nearly forgot!" she exclaimed. "George called earlier — said he'd come by later to see how you're doing."

He looked surprised. "Well, I guess I should make enough pasta for three in case he arrives while we're eating, then."

***

Oh, boy, real food. Real pasta, fresh tomatoes, smoky bacon, peppers, and a glass of red wine. She'd almost forgotten how good food could taste.

She hadn't eaten this well for months — years, even. Back in the prison-hovel in Brazzaville, she'd been fed sporadically, the food frequently unfamiliar to her palate and often of very poor quality. Nothing had been served at the right time of day, and she'd become accustomed to grazing on whatever she could stomach at any particular time.

She'd been as thin as a rake when she'd arrived at the clinic. Eating their wholesome, four-square food had been difficult, and it hadn't been until Clark had turned up that she'd been able to tell them exactly what she could and couldn't manage. Things had looked up a lot that day, not least because she'd finally got her hands on some chocolate. Okay, so chocolate wasn't exactly nutritious, but it had helped her find a way back to more normal eating habits.

And now here she was, eating real food again.

There had been so many days when she'd thought she'd never live to see Metropolis again, let alone sit opposite a great guy, eating his home-cooked pasta and feeling so welcome and totally at home.

Her throat constricted. Suddenly it was all too much. She didn't deserve to be this lucky.

"Lois? You okay?"

She looked up, realising she'd been quiet too long. "Just thinking."

"Oh? Let me guess — Clark should stick to his day job and never open a restaurant. Am I close?"

She shook her head. "No, it's great. Really." She attempted a wobbly smile.

"But…?"

She shrugged. "Nothing," she said, sliding her gaze back down to her plate.

She began to toy with her food, her appetite lost while she tried in vain to press her unruly emotions back down where they belonged. She didn't want to cry in front of him. He was never going to see her as anything other than a pathetic basket case if all she did was sob on his shoulder all the time.

But all her efforts to gain control were undone when he reached across the table and covered her hand with his own. "It's been a long journey, hasn't it?" he murmured.

She nodded, her plate of food going blurry in front of her eyes. Clark knew better than anyone, even the clinic people, of what she'd been through to reach this point in her life. Sometimes she regretted telling him so much, but at times like this, he was a huge comfort — she didn't have to explain herself to him, because he already understood. She just wished for once that she could hold back the tears. It wasn't asking so much, was it?

"I guess sometimes it's hard to believe you've really escaped," he added.

She nodded again.

"You have, though," he said. "Look at you — you're here, out in the real world. Talking to people, making decisions, helping people. I'm so proud of you, Lois."

Tears began to slide down her cheeks. Why did he have to be so nice? He made it so easy to cry without shame.

"Hey, hey," he murmured. His thumb began to stroke her hand in a quiet, soothing motion. "It's okay. You made it back. You're safe."

She nodded. "I know," she quavered.

But still the silent tears leaked out of her eyes and down her cheeks, while Clark quietly rubbed his thumb against her hand. It was comforting, the understated gesture. Like he was showing her how confident he was in her — that she'd bring her tears under control without needing to be hugged like a small child. She was grateful for that.

But she should be the happiest she'd ever been. Like he'd just said, she'd escaped. She was safe. She shouldn't be a confused blob crying her eyes out for absolutely no reason.

Maybe she was crying because she was happy. Yes, that was it. She was happy.

"I…I think I'm happy," she said, looking up at him through blurry eyes.

He smiled softly across at her. "Maybe. Sometimes being happy can be as hard as being sad, especially when you're not used to it."

She chuckled through her tears. "And I really am not used to it."

His hand squeezed hers. "Things will get better, Lois, I promise you."

She nodded. "They already are better." She dashed her hand over her eyes to wipe the tears away. "I'm sorry — I don't suppose your girlfriends fall apart like this over your cooking."

His hand stilled. "My girlfriends?"

Oh, no. Had she really said that? "Sorry…I didn't mean…"

"I guess you've heard stuff on TV," he muttered. "I should have expected—"

"I didn't believe any of it…what they said about you," she said, realising too late that he must be well aware of the cruel things they hinted at about his sex life. No doubt he had to put up with a lot of that sort of thing. "I just meant…I assumed you must have had girlfriends. I mean, you're an attractive guy."

His hand slid away from hers and he stared down at the table. Darn. She'd obviously struck a nerve — he resented being the subject of gossip, she imagined. Well, who would? "I'm sorry, Clark. I guess you're sick of—"

"The thing is," he began, then sighed heavily and fell silent again.

When he didn't continue, she got nervous: she'd clearly hurt him badly, and all because of her own silly insecurities. She should have kept quiet — this speaking thing wasn't always a blessing, she decided.

"The thing is," he repeated stonily, "I did have a lot of girlfriends."

Huh? She stared at him, searching his face for clues, for any sense at all that he wasn't saying what she thought he was saying.

But his eyes slid quickly away from hers. "I'm not proud of who I was back then. I was in a bad place, although that doesn't excuse what I did."

"What?" she asked, bewildered by this new Clark. "What did you do?"

"I…I was searching for something I couldn't find," he said, his voice distant and low. "I was high on kryptonite most of the time, and when I was high, I did things…" He sighed. "You say I'm an attractive guy, and yeah, I'm not totally stupid. I've seen the looks some women give me…so when I was high, it was easy. I let them know I was interested. Very interested." He looked up at her, making it clear from his grim expression what 'very interested' meant: he'd slept with them.

Used them for sex.

"There were a lot of women, Lois," he said. "Mostly, they just wanted to know what Superman was like in bed. Once they found out that he was just like any other man, they lost interest. Not that that excuses what I did." He sighed. "Still think your superhero is super?"

"I…I don't know," she said. "Have…have you apologised to them?" she asked, floundering around for anything which might throw what he'd done into a better light.

"No," he whispered. "Although I guess I could. The ones I can trace."

Which sounded like he didn't even know all their names. "W…why?" she asked. "Why did you do it?"

"To escape. Sex was like another drug — when I was with a woman, I didn't have to think."

"I see."

Oh, God. Clark was a womaniser…a man who used women for sex. Just like her captors.

But he'd been so nice. She'd thought he was different from other men; he was so open and honest…at least, she'd thought so. Hadn't she been reminding herself not so long ago that she hardly knew him? Well, here was the proof.

"I…I think I'd better go home now," she said.

"Of course," he replied. "But please, Lois, I don't want you leaving here thinking I'm like that now," he added urgently. "I've changed…I know that's probably what all men in my situation would say, but with me, it's true. I'm not like that. The person who slept with those women was a different me — ask George. Ask Perry. I only did it when I was hitting on the kryptonite."

Her bottom lip was quivering again. She put her hand up to her mouth as a cover-up. "Please," she said, hearing the wobble in her voice and wishing she could stop it. "I just want to go home."

"I've really disappointed you, haven't I?" he murmured. "I'm so sorry, Lois. I…I'll fly you home—"

"No!" The word whooshed out of her mouth, propelled by a sudden and absolute dread of being held by him. He'd put his arms around her, great coiled ropes of steel imprisoning her against his body. A switch flipped in her head and panic consumed her, his confession bringing back the pictures; horrible, terrifying images of men committing heinous acts of violence against their fellow human beings.

The nausea of fear rose rapidly in her throat: he used women for sex, just like the men in Brazzaville. He probably worked for them; they'd followed her here from Brazzaville. Hunted her down to claim her; claim their clean, white woman.

She was out of her chair and backing away from him before she realised what she was doing; finished up in the middle of the room, her hands up at her face, shaking with fear and confusion and not knowing where to turn. She was trapped in his lair.

She saw his large frame rise slowly from the other side of the table and whimpered. He was coming for her. She took another step backwards.

"Lois," he said softly. "It's me. Clark. I'm not going to hurt you."

But he was. He was going to force her to have sex with him. At long last, her turn had come. She wasn't going to be kept clean any longer.

She knew what happened next. She'd seen it too many times: a young, terrified woman — no more than a girl, really — pushed to the centre of the circling ritualists. Forced down onto the bare concrete floor and pinned down by strong hands. A man sprawled on top of her, his face contorted in a snarl of carnal pleasure. Onlookers chanted, egging him on. The victim whimpered quietly, turned her face slowly towards Lois.

Her own face stared accusingly back at her.

A sob escaped from her and she backed away again; felt cold, solid wall behind her and cowered against it. Still he advanced slowly on her, mouthing words she couldn't hear above the chanting onlookers. Any moment now he'd seize her and drag her to the floor.

Her fingertips touched another wall and she shrank into the corner, making herself as small as she possibly could. How much would it hurt? Would he strike her? Should she try to resist or would that just prolong the pain?

He was close now, too close. She swivelled and buried her face into the corner. Maybe if she couldn't see him he'd go away.

A hand touched her shoulder and she screamed, darting away as fast as she could, pushing past his large, powerful body. She hit something — a chair, perhaps — and tripped, tumbling painfully to the floor.

It was over. Winded, she half-sat, half-lay, waiting for him to push her down and climb on top of her. He had her exactly where he wanted her.

<<Lois.>>

She knew that voice. It was a good, safe voice.

<<I'm not going to hurt you.>>

She whimpered, wanting to believe the voice but too frightened to let herself trust it.

<<I'm going to call a cab, okay? To take you back to the clinic.>>

The clinic. That was safe. No-one would hurt her at the clinic.

She nodded.

He hadn't come for her after all. She was still intact; still clean. Perhaps today wasn't her day after all. But then she sensed movement and cowered into a ball. Maybe he was just taunting her. She closed her eyes, hiding from him again.

Words were spoken. They drifted across to her through a dense veil of white noise which robbed them of any sense. A blanket was draped over her — she realised she was shivering and drew it around her shoulders.

The danger was fading a little; the safe voice had lessened her fear. But she was still scared and confused. The threat of violence hung in the air like an invisible shroud, paralysing her ability to think clearly.

A distant bell rang somewhere. More words were spoken.

<<The cab's here, Lois. You need to stand up.>>

Hands clasped her shoulders lightly. She flinched but understood that she was being encouraged to stand. Scrambling to her feet, she found herself face to face with him.

Clark.

She took a step back automatically, but then stopped in confusion. He represented the threat, didn't he? Yet he was just Clark.

<<It's okay, I won't come any closer.>>

She nodded thankfully.

<<But I will have to ride back with you in the cab, okay?>>

The cab driver would protect her, she thought. Clark wouldn't try anything with a witness present.

But he wouldn't try anything anyway. He was just Clark.

She nodded again.

<<All right. I know how frightened you are, Lois, but I'm going to get you home just as quickly as I can, okay?>>

Tears rolled down her cheeks. All she wanted was to be home.

***

Back in the safety of her room at the clinic, Lois huddled under her bedclothes and tried to banish the lingering sense of menace still hanging over her. She was secure here, she told herself. Brazzaville was hundreds of miles away and there was no way they could find her here. The people here were nice, caring people who just wanted to help her feel better.

Deep breaths and focus on her favourite image: a bowl of hot chocolate. Perhaps a marshmallow or two in there, plus a generous dollop of cream. Yes, that was better. Steam rose invitingly from the bowl, and she could almost smell the sweet, smooth aroma. Hey, why not be totally self-indulgent and add a large chocolate brownie on the side. She deserved it tonight.

Better.

Clark was just Clark. He wasn't a rapist or a murderer, he was just a man who'd done a bad thing.

***

The sun shone brightly through large picture windows, bringing the pale yellow walls and blonde-coloured furniture of Lois's therapist's office to warm, vibrant life. Lois liked days like this; they reminded her of happier times when she'd been a junior reporter and the possibilities for an exciting future had seemed endless. How wrong she'd been!

A day had passed since her visit with Clark and she was here for her first session since regaining her voice. A solid hour of talking loomed ahead.

Not that Lois minded her sessions with Francine. She was a kind, motherly lady who didn't seem phased by anything Lois told her. Everything was dealt with calmly and rationally; every new revelation just another obstacle to be examined, understood and put into its proper perspective.

But today, Lois was approaching her session with some dread, because Clark would be there. He always attended her sessions with Francine, because up until today Lois had needed him to speak for her. She suspected no-one would have thought to contact him and tell him not to come this time.

Would she freak out again when he walked in? She was pretty certain she'd rationalised away her fear of him, but then again, that first panic attack at his apartment had taken her as much by surprise as it had Clark. How could she know she wouldn't suddenly make all the wrong connections again as soon as she saw him?

"Lois? Is everything okay?" asked Francine. "You seem a little nervous."

"I'm fine," she replied, dragging her gaze away from the door. "Is…is Clark coming today?"

"Yes. I thought it would be useful to have him here for the next session or two. Just until you're comfortable with speaking directly to me instead of expressing yourself through him," said Francine. "If that's okay with you?"

She hesitated. Francine was right; voicing her thoughts and feelings out loud was going to be hard, she knew that. Up until today, Clark had taken her fragmented thoughts and clumsy, ill- chosen words and turned them into eloquent sentences. Doing it herself would be tough.

So long as she didn't freak out.

She nodded. "I guess."

"You sure? You don't sound too convinced."

She shook her head. "No, you're right. We need him."

"Shouldn't that be 'I need him'?" pointed out Francine. "Is there something I need to know? Has anything happened?"

"No," she said. "I'm—"

The door opened and there he was. Smart, charcoal-grey business suit, crisp white shirt, stylish tie, and looking as handsome as ever. Funny how the new Clark looked exactly like the old Clark.

"Hi," he said, stepping into the room and closing the door. "Morning, Francine. How are—"

"A moment, Clark," interrupted Francine, holding up her hand to silence him while keeping her grey-eyed, steady gaze on Lois. "Lois? You sure?"

She nodded. So far, she was fine — no panicky feelings. And after a couple of night's sleep and a day of plodding through her routine at the clinic, she really had managed to find a better perspective on Clark's numerous girlfriends. Yes, he wasn't perfect. Yes, he'd done bad things. Yes, she'd like a lot of reassurance that he wasn't likely to rush out and pick up another raft of women tomorrow or the next day, but otherwise, she was no longer horrified by what he'd done. Just…uneasy. Humiliated that she'd embarrassed herself so thoroughly in front of him.

Not that her unease had prevented her from taking as much care over her appearance as the day before yesterday. Apparently, knowing that Clark wasn't the man she'd imagined him to be hadn't taken the edge off her attraction to him. She'd fretted for ages this morning, trying to decide which top made her look the nicest.

"Okay," said Francine. "Sorry, Clark, we were just finishing up something. Take a seat."

"Thanks."

Lois watched him as he settled into the third easy chair in the room. He smiled at her and bade her good morning, but she saw immediately that his smile didn't quite seem to reach his eyes.

"So, Clark, now that Lois has found her voice again, I need you to fade into the background," said Francine. "Unless Lois gets into real difficulty, you keep quiet. Okay?"

He nodded. "I understand."

"And Lois, no sneaky thought-conversations with Clark, okay? Everything goes directly from you to me, with no side-trips to that handsome man over there in the suit." She smiled. "And the same goes for you, Clark. Button up that telepathic mug of yours. First one I catch thinking gets fined two Double Fudge Crunch bars, okay?"

Lois smiled. "Okay."

"Good. So here's what I've been itching to know since I got that phone call from George — how was the trip, Lois? How did it feel to finally get out into the real world again?"

She gulped, not having anticipated that Francine would want a retelling of her visit quite so soon into the session. "Um…pretty good," she said, trying not to catch Clark's eye.

"What was good about it?"

"Well," she said, "I got to ride in a cab — used to use them all the time when I was a reporter here, so that was a bit of a nostalgia trip. I saw the city; saw how it's changed since I was last here. And it was nice to be somewhere entirely different for a while — different surroundings, different people…you know."

"And that was okay, was it? Everything being different, I mean?"

Well, at that level, yes. Clark being different was another matter entirely. She shrugged. "Yes, it was fine. I enjoyed it, actually."

Francine smiled. "Good for you. So, no nerves at all? Nothing that made you feel uneasy?"

This time she couldn't help it. She looked at Clark. His expression was unreadable, but she thought she saw a muscle jumping along the side of his jaw.

She turned back to Francine. "Small things, I guess. Like whether I'd be able to find Clark's apartment if he couldn't help me. Or using the phone for the first time in years…speaking to people I didn't know. Heating up soup — would I get the setting wrong and ruin his kitchen." She grimaced. "Stupid stuff."

"Not at all," replied Francine. "I think you did really well, actually. How come you were using the phone?"

"I offered to call Clark's work to let them know he'd be off sick for the day," she replied.

Francine's eyebrows shot up. "You called the Planet?"

Lois nodded. "Yeah."

"Wow. Way to go, Lois!" exclaimed Francine. "So, I'm already seeing a pattern here, and I'm wondering if you're seeing it too."

Lois frowned. "You are?"

"Oh, yes," said Francine. "Let me give you some clues: who decided you were going to ride home with Clark?"

"Well, I did, although you made the final decision to let me go," she answered warily.

"True, but we'll come back to that," said Francine. "Who offered to phone the Planet?"

"I did."

"Who decided to heat up the soup?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I did."

"So…? What's the pattern?"

"I'm making decisions?" She shrugged. "Wow, big deal. Lois makes a decision to heat soup."

"Not just decisions, Lois. You're taking control. You're deciding what you want, and taking the necessary action to make sure you get it. That's a big step." Francine grinned. "Tell me, if I hadn't agreed to let you go, what would you have done?"

She frowned, trying to recollect her feelings that morning. She remembered the shot of courage she'd got from successfully helping Clark; that moment of daring when she'd declared confidently that she'd take him home and look after him. George's tacit agreement that she could do it and her burgeoning self-confidence at that point. "I'd have argued with you," she concluded.

"Exactly. So this is a bit more than heating soup, isn't it? You're asserting yourself." Francine laughed. "Something tells me you're going to be a bit of a pain in the posterior from now on. Docile Lois just left the building."

Lois grinned, pleased with the idea that she wasn't a doormat any more. "Yeah, I guess I do feel like I have more say in what happens to me."

"I thought so," said Francine. "Not only that, but you actually want to have that say, don't you?"

"Yes, definitely."

"Good, because from now on, we're going to be pushing you a lot more to make your own choices. We're going to start looking towards the future and building up a plan for your life outside the clinic," said Francine, leaning forward in her chair. "And you're going to be in the driving seat, Lois, not us," she added. "Does that sound scary to you or exciting?"

"Exciting, mostly," answered Lois. "But also scary. I'm not sure if I'm ready yet."

"Why not?"

Wasn't that obvious? She was still a crazy woman who had waking nightmares, panic attacks, and usually about as much self-esteem as an amoeba.

Feeling his gaze on her, she glanced at Clark. He knew. He'd seen her total meltdown in the middle of his living room.

But again, his stony expression gave nothing away as to his opinion on the issue.

"Because I'm not competent," she said, pulling her gaze back to Francine. "I need people to help me when I get into trouble."

"We all need people to help us from time to time," said Francine. "Doesn't mean we're not competent."

She shook her head. "You don't understand. I didn't cope. I…I totally lost it."

"Oh? What happened?"

"I…" She looked at Clark. His expression wasn't quite so unreadable any more; he looked uncomfortable.

And still not looking back at her. His gaze seemed to be firmly fixed on the opposite wall. Was he wishing he'd never come?

"Lois?" prompted Francine.

"I panicked about something," she answered.

"What?"

"Just…something," she repeated, snatching another look at Clark. If only he'd look back at her; give her some idea of whether she had permission to talk about what had happened at his apartment. "Doesn't matter what. The point is, I didn't cope as well as you seem to think I can."

"Actually, I think the cause of your panic does matter," said Francine softly, then fell quiet. Completely and utterly silent.

Lois squirmed as the silence grew longer. And longer.

Francine was good at these pauses, which were designed, Lois knew only too well, to make her feel like she needed to fill them. Well, this time she wasn't going to. How could she, with Clark in the room? She was ashamed enough of her delusions about him — that he was one of the men from Brazzaville — without having to admit them in front of him.

"It wasn't, by any chance, something to do with Clark?" prompted Francine.

To her chagrin, Lois felt herself blushing. "Sort of."

"Okay," said Francine, nodding. "Clark, could you give us a few minutes? Perhaps you could grab a coffee in the visitors' lounge. One of us will fetch you when we're ready."

"Sure," replied Clark, already on his feet. It seemed to Lois that he couldn't get out of the room fast enough. Was he angry to have been excluded? Or was it the relief of escape which was making him stride so quickly across the room?

The door closed behind him and she gnawed at her lip guiltily, feeling bad herself because, she realised, she was actually glad he'd left the room.

"Okay, Lois, tell me what happened," said Francine. "When did you start feeling panicky?"

She squirmed inwardly, still not wishing to relive her thoughts that day. She knew she'd been stupid and totally irrational, and she was more than a little apprehensive of what Francine would think of her when she explained her crazy thoughts.

It didn't help that she'd have to break Clark's confidence, either. She had no idea who knew the real truth of his relationships with all those women. Okay, so sleeping with a lot of women didn't exactly make him public enemy number one, but Clark's obvious reluctance to tell her what he'd done, and his disgust with himself, made it clear to Lois that this was something that mattered a lot to him. He wouldn't want just anyone to know about his not-so-admirable past.

"When Clark told me something," she answered obliquely. "About himself."

"I see. Was it something that scared you?"

She nodded. "It shouldn't have, though. It was a stupid thing to get scared over."

"Can you tell me what it was?"

She shook her head.

A lot of women, he'd said. How many was a lot? Three? Five? Ten?

The thing was, he just hadn't seemed the type to use women like that. Not that she was sure she could walk down the street and pick out the men which definitely were that type. How did you tell? Something in their swagger which said, "I've got a ton of sexual experience under my belt with a whole host of hot, sexy women?"

Which led her to another genuinely scary thought. A man as experienced as Clark would expect sex fairly early into a relationship. Not only that, but he'd be good at it and he'd expect the same from his partner.

Whereas, for her, the thought of any kind of intimacy at that level sent her into a cold sweat. Kissing was one thing, but sex? No way!

"Why not, Lois?" said Francine, breaking into her thoughts. "Why can't you tell me?"

"Because it's a private thing — to Clark, that is."

Francine frowned. "Okay, so he told you something which scared you. You started to panic — what were you panicking about?"

Lois squirmed again. If she told Francine she'd imagined Clark was one of her captors, the next question would be why. Except she couldn't answer that, because that came back to her explaining why she'd got scared in the first place. And so on…

"Lois? Does this come back to the private thing you can't tell me?"

She nodded. "I'm sorry."

"You do know that whatever you tell me here is held in the strictest confidence, don't you?"

"Yes. But this thing…it just doesn't seem right, telling you about Clark when he's not here to defend himself. Not that it's such a big deal, this thing…but to Clark it clearly is."

"I see." Francine fiddled with her necklace for a few moments. "We're not getting very far here, are we? I can't help you if you won't talk to me."

Lois shrugged apologetically. "I know…"

"Tell me, do you want to talk over this issue? Personally, I think you should, but you have the choice not to."

Well, yes, she probably would feel better if she could talk over everything that had happened with someone. She nodded.

"Well, normally I wouldn't suggest this, but how would you feel about talking to George? As Clark's therapist, he pretty much knows everything there is to know about the man, which probably includes whatever Clark told you," said Francine. "So you wouldn't be breaking any confidences if you spoke to him."

Lois immediately thought it was a great idea. Heck, hadn't Clark himself even told her to talk to George about whether or not he was a habitual womaniser? Well, here was her chance to get at the truth! "Yes, I'd like that," she said.

"I'd have to give George all the details of your case — you realise that? And George would still need to maintain patient confidentiality with Clark, okay?"

"I understand." Okay, so maybe she wouldn't be able to grill George on everything there was to know about Clark, but surely he could confirm a few things?

"All right, I'll see if I can set you up with an appointment." Francine smiled. "You'll like George — he's good entertainment as well as an excellent counsellor."

Lois grinned. "I know."

***

He was on his own in the lounge, a lone figure at the far window, holding a Styrofoam cup and staring out at the clinic's small garden. She approached him nervously, unsure of the reception she'd receive from him. In fact, Francine had offered to let him know on her behalf that they were finished for the day, but she'd declined to take the easy way out. After his cool attitude in Francine's office, Lois wanted to find out where she stood with him.

He didn't turn as she drew nearer. With Clark, you never knew how much of an act that was. His supersenses would surely tell him someone had entered the room; probably even who the person was if he knew them well. So was he really deep in thought as he stood staring out the window, or merely ignoring her?

She stood next to him at the window and looked out at the modest flower beds and small rockery. "Thanks for waiting," she said.

"No problem," he replied. "How did it go?"

"Fine," she replied automatically, then wondered if she should tell him she'd be seeing George soon.

No, that would just complicate an already difficult conversation.

"Um…we're finished, actually," she said. "Sorry to waste your time."

"That's okay," he said. "So, does this mean you won't be needing me any more?"

She winced at the heavy resignation in his voice. "I'm not sure. You'd better ask Francine whether she wants you at my next session."

"Okay. Well, I'd better get back to work—"

"Clark, please." She turned to him, hoping to see more than stony neutrality in his expression.

His carefully schooled features cracked into a small frown. "What?"

Was that a frown of irritation, or a frown of incomprehension? She ploughed on. "I…I'm sorry that was so awkward for you. I didn't expect Francine to ask about the other day in so much detail."

He shrugged. "It was fine. I'm glad you're making such good progress."

Such a bland, catch-all kind of a statement. "So…you're not mad at me?"

"Why would I be mad?"

"I don't know…it was just that you seemed very quiet."

"I was just doing what Francine told me to do, Lois. No big deal," he replied. "Look, I really must get going—"

"I didn't tell her, you know," she blurted out.

"Didn't tell her what?"

She looked down at the carpet, embarrassed that she might be making a big mistake — that she'd totally misread his sensitivities about the past. Maybe he didn't care who knew about his sex life. Maybe she was just being stupid Lois again. "About your girlfriends," she muttered.

He snorted, his sudden break from the unemotional startling her. "You think she doesn't already know? Everyone knows — it was all over the media for days. Thanks for trying to protect my reputation, Lois, but it was already shot to hell." He screwed up his cup and threw it in the nearest trash can. "I'm just sorry you had to know so soon."

He began striding towards the exit, his strides so long that she had to jog to catch him up. "I'm sorry, Clark—"

"There's nothing for you to be sorry about, Lois," he said. "The fault's all mine."

"No, I—"

"Tell Francine I'll call her tomorrow." He stopped abruptly, causing her to almost run into him. Turning, he faced her with a taut, false smile which seemed to strain every muscle in his face. "Take care, Lois. I hope today isn't the last time I see you."

"No! Of course it won't be," she exclaimed. "I want to see you again."

He nodded jerkily, then turned and walked away.

***

She was crying again. Oh, well, what was new?

"Here."

She looked up through tear-blurred eyes to find George looming over her with a box of tissues. Plucking out a couple, she dabbed at her wet cheeks and blew her nose noisily.

"You'll get used to this," she sniffled. "I seem to have very leaky tear-ducts."

George chuckled. "It's a bummer, isn't it? I have the same problem with my stomach — it's constantly demanding more food." He settled his ample girth back onto his chair and dumped the box of tissues on his desk. "So what happened next?"

"After he told me I'd never see him again and walked away from me?" she asked. "Pretty much this," she said, indicating her wet face and the bunch of tissues in her hand.

She hadn't meant to tell George all about her last conversation with Clark. This session was supposed to be about her meltdown in Clark's apartment, but when George had made an innocent remark about a rescue Clark had performed later that same day, the whole sorry mess had come pouring out of her. She was pretty certain she hadn't made much sense, but George had very kindly just listened and prompted her now and then with interested grunts.

"Tell me again what he said earlier," said George. "Something about blame, wasn't it?"

"He said the fault was all his," she said. "I don't understand what he meant by that. I mean, I was the one who got all these crazy ideas about him."

"Crazy ideas?"

"Yeah, I thought…" She laughed nervously. "I thought he was going to hurt me. Stupid, huh? I mean, Clark would never intentionally hurt anyone."

If she'd hoped George would confirm that, she was wrong. He merely said, "When was this?"

"At his apartment. When I took him home that day."

"Ah, is this the thing you couldn't talk to Francine about?"

She nodded. "Yes. Although considering what he said afterwards about everyone knowing, I guess that was pretty naive of me."

George sucked his teeth; something she was already learning he did a lot of when he was thinking. "Okay, something tells me we're going at this backwards and I'm in danger of misconstruing the whole thing. Let's start with you at Clark's apartment just before you had the panic attack Francine mentioned. What were you doing?"

"Um…eating dinner," she said. "Clark was feeling much better by then and had cooked us some pasta."

"Yeah, I hear he does a great Amatriciana sauce," said George. "I'm still waiting for him to give me the recipe. So what were you talking about, other than his great cooking?"

She shrugged. "Nothing much. But then I made this stupid remark about his girlfriends, and he thought I meant the gossip you hear about him on TV — you know, the stuff about Superman and his women — and that was when he told me."

"Told you what?"

"That…that it was all true. That he'd slept with lots of women when he was high on kryptonite." She snatched a glance at George to confirm that none of this was news to him. His face was implacable, just like Clark's had been, but he nodded at her to continue. Surely he must know — Clark had more or less told her so.

"He said he slept with them because he didn't have to think when he was with them," she continued. "He used them for sex, just like—"

She caught herself just in time. She'd nearly done it again — accused him of rape, or as near as, dammit.

She dabbed at her face with a trembling hand, her tissue now a shredded mess.

"Just like what, Lois?" asked George.

She shook her head violently. "I don't want to say it."

"Why not?"

"It's not fair to Clark," she said. "He's not like that."

"Lois, this is about you, not Clark. Just like what?"

"He…I…I got confused. I do that when I panic. Everything gets jumbled up. It's stupid. I'm stupid."

"No, you're not," said George. "You're a highly intelligent young woman. Shit, you may even be smarter than me, and that's saying something."

She smiled. George was okay.

"So tell this dumb old psychologist what you were thinking," he continued. "Maybe you thought he was like someone else?"

She nodded. It seemed like George had figured it out anyway, so there was little point in denying it. "I…I thought he was like the men from Brazzaville. I totally panicked, practically ran away from him. Got it into my head that he was one of them — that he was going to attack me. R…rape me." She shrugged. "I told you. Stupid."

"Will you quit telling me you're stupid?" he exclaimed. "I'm the one with the psychology degree, not you. I get to tell people when they're stupid, not you. Okay?"

She smiled weakly. "Okay, got it."

"Fine. God, why is it my patients always think they know more than I do? Clark's the same, you know," he said. "Anyway, back to you in his apartment. You think Clark's one of your captors. Why?"

"I…I don't know," she said, although she knew perfectly well why. She remembered making the connection. He used women for sex; so did they.

"Oh, I think you do. You said it yourself just a few moments ago."

"I did?"

"Yup. And let me warn you, I'm dangerously close to calling you stupid if you don't get this right."

She chuckled in spite of herself. "Okay. It was because he used women for sex, just like they had." God, she couldn't believe how easily she'd told him that.

"See, I knew you weren't stupid. But let me ask you this — what makes you think Clark used women for sex?"

She frowned. "He said so."

"Did he? What were his exact words?"

"He said he slept with a lot of women when he was high. That having sex stopped him needing to think."

"Okay, and why do you think he took drugs?"

She frowned. "He never said."

"Sure, but in general, why do people take drugs? Why do they need that high?"

"As an escape? To get away from reality?"

"Exactly. So, in Clark's own words, he had lots of sex to stop himself thinking about stuff, and we think he probably used drugs to escape from reality. Basically, for Clark, sex and drugs was all about escape. Sound reasonable?"

"Yes, I guess so."

"Okay, so if we want to accuse Clark of being a user, what would we say he was using?"

"Sex and drugs."

"Ah, ha," said George triumphantly. "Not women?"

She rolled her eyes. "That's a fine line you're drawing, George."

"Sure, but I'm building a case here. Next question — why do you think all these women were willing to sleep with him?"

She frowned. "Because he's an attractive guy, I guess."

"Yes, but word gets around, doesn't it? Most women don't want to sleep with a man who appears to be bedding anything in a skirt, do they?"

This was true. She certainly wouldn't. But a certain kind of woman might. "You're not saying he used prostitutes?"

"Not so far as I know. My guess is that they were women at work, or women he met at functions or in the course of his Superman duties," said George. "So try again. What's so special about Clark that women might want to have sex with him even though they know he's sleeping around a lot?"

She felt her eyes go wide — she'd just never considered that angle herself. "Because he's Superman? He's an alien? He's got…" She blushed. "Superpowers?"

George nodded. "All of the above. So now who do you think was doing the using?"

Oh, God. Poor Clark. All those women going after him when he was vulnerable; only wanting one thing from him.

"And, by the way, he's well aware of that," added George. "He knows they were only interested in him because of Superman. Clark Kent, in his view, would never have attracted the same interest."

She put her hand up to her mouth. "And I told him he ought to apologise to those women," she murmured. "It's really the other way around, isn't it?"

"Well, he ain't no saint, Lois," said George. "Let's not lose sight of the fact that he could have turned them down. And really, the purpose of all this isn't to make you change your opinion of Clark. What I want you to understand is the difference between Clark's behaviour and what your captors in Brazzaville got up to."

She nodded. "I get that…knew it before, really. It was just that in the heat of the moment, my head made this illogical connection between the two."

"And that's the other lesson I want you to take away from this," said George. "Understand yourself a bit better. Know that at the moment, you're so sensitive to danger that you make these weird connections. You can't just switch off the sensitivity like a light, but you can use your intelligence to temper it a little. Next time you feel under threat, ask yourself if you just made one of those weird connections that doesn't make a lot of sense. Think you can do that?"

She shrugged. "Don't know until it happens, I guess. But I'll try to remember."

George grinned. "Think of it as the Clark-is-a-monster syndrome. Any time you feel the panic setting in, ask yourself if this is a monster Clark situation."

She laughed. "I like that. Monster Clark."

"Just don't tell him I coined that for you." He clapped his hands together. "Now, is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"

"Loads, but I suspect you'd have to break patient confidentiality with Clark to answer me," she said.

George shrugged. "Try me."

"Well, I still don't understand why he said the fault was with him when he walked away from me the other day," she said. "Surely I'm the one to blame? I made the stupid remark about girlfriends, and I threw the panic attack. Not him."

George chuckled. "If there's any blame floating around, then Clark's sure to grab onto it and make it his own. The boy's got a guilt complex the size of New Troy. In this case, I'd guess that he's blaming himself all over again for sleeping with those women, because of the consequences for you."

"But that's crazy!"

"Nope, it's Clark," said George with a grin. "Anything else?"

"Well, he told me to ask you this one himself, so I guess it's okay…what he did when he was addicted…the women…that's not the real Clark, is it? He doesn't usually sleep around like that?"

George sucked his teeth. "Okay, this one's sailing a bit too close to confidentiality. I can't really disclose the sexual habits of another patient to you. Better if you reach your own conclusions on that one — sorry."

"But he said to ask you!"

"Yeah, well, I refer you to my previous remark about qualifications."

She sighed. "I guess you'll say the same if I ask you why he got addicted to red kryptonite in the first place."

"Yup. You need to talk to him yourself, Lois."

"I would, except I'm not sure he wants to talk to me," she said gloomily.

George chortled. "Okay, I'll give you this one for free, Lois — he wants to talk to you. He may not act as if he does, but believe me, that's all it is. An act." He sobered a little and leant forward. "But take a little advice from an old pro — don't let yourself get sucked into anything you're not ready for. Clark's a likeable guy and a very eligible bachelor, but you've still got some healing to do. You need to be surer about yourself before you enter into anything with Clark — or anyone else, for that matter. Make certain you're setting the pace, okay?"

She nodded. "I will."

In fact, George's advice was reassuring. She had been feeling a little out of her depth with Clark, and it was good to know that she was right to feel that way — also, that there was someone else who thought she shouldn't rush into anything. Hopefully, that would give her the confidence to deal with Clark's expectations regarding sex. If things ever developed that far, of course. Right now, despite George's reassurances, it seemed that Clark wasn't the least bit interested in any kind of relationship with her, platonic or otherwise.

***

She hatched a plan of campaign. She, Lois Lane, erstwhile investigative reporter and scourge of the criminal underworld of Metropolis, sat in her room at the mental health clinic and drafted a scheme to get Clark back.

Well, not that she'd had him in her grasp in the first place, but you were allowed a little poetic licence when you were crazy.

And she wasn't exactly sure what she was going to do with him once she got him back, but, hey, the plan was the thing, wasn't it? Or was that the game's the thing? Shakespeare had never been her strongest subject in English lessons.

Anyway, it gave her something to do, this plan, and she really did want to make Clark her friend again.

He was upset. That much she'd figured out. Not only that, but he wasn't actually upset with her — which was a big relief — but was upset with himself. George had given her the clue when he'd said Clark was probably feeling guilty all over again about his sexual relations with all those women. So not only did he still feel guilty about how he'd used them, but he now also felt guilty that, by confessing his sins to her, he'd brought on that stupid panic attack in his apartment. She had to convince him that there was nothing to feel guilty about, and that she didn't really think any less of him because of how he'd behaved in the past.

Now, that was a challenge, because crazy women weren't renowned for their ability to help other people with their personal problems. Still, she was going to give it a try.

Oh, and there was another thing. She needed to know this new Clark Kent. Find out how much she really liked him. Which meant spending more time with him.

***

Step one of the plan was to let Francine know that she definitely wanted Clark to attend her next session — maybe even the next couple. She really wasn't sure if she was ready to manage alone yet, she told Francine. Yes, she'd coped perfectly well on her own with George, but that had been a one-off, whereas Francine's sessions were part of a long-term programme and she needed the consistency that Clark's presence afforded.

Francine's eyes twinkled as she absorbed this highly logical argument. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that Clark's a darned handsome young man, would it, Lois?" she asked when Lois had finished her presentation.

Lois blinked in surprise. "I hadn't noticed. Is he?"

Francine laughed. "If I was twenty years younger, I'd probably be after him too." She sighed. "But, Lois, realistically, I'm not sure if this is a good idea. Clark's not a qualified practitioner, and while he was a great help when you weren't talking, I'm finding it hard to find a good clinical reason why he should be here now that you are."

Lois pouted. "What about the happiness of your patient? Isn't that reason enough?"

"Sure, your happiness is important to me, but I have to look at the longer term as well as the short term," answered Francine. "Frankly, I worry that any kind of relationship you might establish right now will just confuse you."

"I don't want to start a relationship with him, I just want to win him back as a friend," she objected. "It can get pretty lonely in here, Francine. I need a friend like Clark. Someone who's not a counsellor, or a nurse, or another patient…well, okay, he is, sort of, but he doesn't live here. He's my friend on the outside."

Francine raised her eyebrows. "Is that what it feels like? You're stuck in here while he's free as a bird on the outside?"

Lois nodded. "Sometimes. I feel like I'm in a cage — it's a very nice cage, with nice people and good amenities — but it's a cage, nevertheless. Clark's my contact with the outside. With reality."

"Okay," said Francine, looking thoughtful. "So if I let Clark sit in on our next session, how is that going to make him your friend again?"

"I think maybe he's feeling a bit like he's been used and then unceremoniously dumped," said Lois. "You should have heard him when he asked if we'd need him any more — he sounded really sad."

"Well, you know, it's really George's job to help him deal with that, not yours or mine," pointed out Francine. "We're here to get you well, not Clark."

Lois sat up straight, crossed her arms over her chest, and fixed her therapist with a firm, no-nonsense look. "Look at it this way, Francine. If Clark's happy, then I'm happy. If Clark remains my friend, then I'm happy. If I'm happy, then I'm well." She shrugged. "Seems to me that it's your duty as my therapist to help Clark."

Francine burst out laughing. "Oh, boy, but you're good! Okay, in the interests of a quiet life, and completely against my better judgement, I'll invite Clark to our next session."

Lois grinned. This self-assertion business was getting easier every day.

***

Step two in the plan was to accept the Daily Planet's editor's invitation to visit, with Clark acting as her guide and host. This was even scarier than step one, but hey, she'd done rescuing a sick man from a park and heating soup in a strange man's apartment — visiting her old place of work should be a breeze for an old pro like her.

Not.

It was a lot more complicated to organise, for starters. Did she pick up the phone and call Clark at work? "Hi, Clark, it's that crazy woman you visit from time to time at the clinic. I'd like to visit you for a change — at your workplace. Okay?"

Or did she phone the editor again and ask him to appoint Clark as her guide for the day. "Hi, it's that crazy woman who rang you the other day, Lois Lane. You know Clark Kent, the guy you're irritated with for his constant absences from work? Well, I'd like you to give him some more time off work to show me around the Planet."

No. She'd have to wait until Clark was next at the clinic and somehow bring the topic up then.

***

"So, Lois, now that you've had a chance to talk over that incident at Clark's apartment with George, how do you feel about things?" asked Francine. "I know George gave you a couple of suggestions for coping strategies — how well do you think they might work for you?"

A few days had passed since Lois's talk with George and she was at her regular bi-weekly session with Francine. Clark sat to one side, a silent observer under instruction to keep quiet unless required.

Remembering the title of George's coping strategy — Monster Clark — Lois tried valiantly not to catch Clark's eye before answering. "It's difficult to say until I've had a chance to put them into practice."

Francine nodded. "Fair point. Any suggestions on how you might set yourself a little test?"

Lois nearly laughed — this was almost too easy! "Well, actually, I do have an idea. Clark's editor invited me to visit the Planet when I phoned him the other day. I think that might be a good test. I'd like to see the old place, but I also know that it'll be pretty stressful going back there. If anything happens…" She shrugged. "I can give it a try."

"Good idea!" said Francine. "Yes, I think that's a good plan. Day visits are a nice half-way stage between living here full- time and moving out to your own place. Gives you a taste of real life while retaining that security of knowing you'll be back here at the end of the day."

Lois nodded. "That's what I thought. So I wondered…" She turned her gaze to Clark, who was sitting quietly studying his fingernails. "If it's not too much trouble…? Clark?"

His head bobbed up and he gave her a weak smile. "Sure. I'll take you."

She'd hoped his inclusion on this session might thaw him a little, but all the evidence so far was pointing to a pretty frosty, distancing Clark. Was he mad at her? She kept coming back to that, despite telling herself that he was upset and mad with himself and not her.

No, Monster Clark, she told herself. Just because he was out of sorts didn't mean it was her fault; didn't mean she was the target of his moodiness. She was imagining aggression towards her where none existed.

Then, recalling how, a couple of weeks ago, she'd mistaken his illness after red kryptonite exposure for a similar moodiness, she ventured silently, <<Are you all right?>>

<<I'm fine.>>

Don't dig, that reply said. Keep out of my head and don't ask questions.

Flinching from his rejection, she snatched her gaze away from him. The pattern on the carpet suddenly seemed a lot more interesting than anything else in the room.

"Lois?" questioned Francine. "Is everything okay? You seem a little upset about something."

"I'm fine," she said, not missing the irony of her reply, just moments after Clark had snapped the same thing to her. Funny how those two words seldom meant what they were supposed to mean.

Francine sighed heavily. "You know, this arrangement was made against my better judgement, and I really do wonder—"

"It's fine," interrupted Lois. "I need him here."

"Actually," said Clark. "Maybe Francine's right. I'm not contributing much here, so maybe I should just leave. I don't want to be in the way."

"No, please stay!" blurted Lois. "I want you to stay. Really, Francine, I'm fine. Let's just get on with the session."

Francine gave her a long look, under which she was pretty certain she was supposed to squirm, but she just gave Francine a long look right back: she'd made up her mind to invite Clark to this session, and he was darned well going to stay right to the end, moodiness or no moodiness.

"Okay," said Francine heavily, breaking their eye-lock and thus apparently placing her reservations to one side again. "So for the rest of this morning, I want us to talk about self-worth. Did you bring me that list I asked you to write? Five things you like about yourself?"

Lois dug into her jeans pocket. "Yeah, although you might not agree with some of them."

"Lois!" exclaimed Francine with a touch of exasperation. "It doesn't matter if I agree with them or not. It's your list." She held out her hand expectantly. "Let's see what you've got."

With a touch of reluctance, Lois handed over her crumpled scrap of paper.

"Number one," read Francine. "I have nice ankles." She looked up at Lois with a grin. "Okay, tell me all about your nice ankles."

Oh, boy. This had seemed like a clever and cunning plan when she'd written the list, but now that she was faced with the reality of telling Clark…erm, Francine…about her good points, she wasn't so sure.

"Well…" she began.

She couldn't help it. She looked at him. Found him studying the area in question with some interest.

She snatched her gaze back to Francine and held it there resolutely. "They're not too bony, for starters. They're quite slim. They…um…look nice when I'm wearing heels." She shrugged. "That's about it, I guess. What else can you say about ankles?"

Francine smiled. "Okay, let's try number two. I don't hold people's pasts against them," she read. "What does that mean?" she asked, looking up again.

Don't look at him, she instructed herself. Francine is much more interesting to look at. "If someone has done something wrong, I don't necessarily hold it against them," she explained. "Especially if they make it clear that they regret whatever it is they did. I don't believe you should pay for your past mistakes with the rest of your life."

"A person can redeem themselves, you mean?" suggested Francine.

"Kind of. I prefer to get to know them for who they are now, rather than make pre-judgements based on the past," she said. "I make my own decisions on whether they're a good or bad person."

"And why is this something you like about yourself?" asked Francine, which was kind of an awkward question, since this one had been for Clark's benefit alone, not for Francine's list. Lois hadn't really considered why this trait was supposedly a good thing.

"Um…because I think a lot of people do prejudge based on the past," she replied. "And that's not fair. We all make mistakes, but it doesn't necessarily make us bad people."

Francine raised an eyebrow. "Very true. So does the same hold true for you?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, we've talked before about how you blame yourself for getting trapped in that house," said Francine. "How you made a stupid mistake no rookie reporter would ever make. Are you able to forgive yourself now for that stupid error?"

Lois froze. Francine was playing dirty all of a sudden, moving their cosy chat into a distinctly un-cosy realm.

A chill ran through her. This was the dark side of Lois Lane. This was the woman who, in her bleakest, darkest hours in Brazzaville, had concluded that whatever happened to her was her own fault. That she deserved whatever they did to her. That she was worthless.

"Lois?"

She swallowed hard and shrugged.

"You're not sure?" suggested Francine. "The jury's still out on that one?"

She shrugged again. Shame prevented her from answering. Shame, because she knew her logic was stupid and flawed. Shame, because it was shameful to believe you were worthless. Shame, because she'd been such a pitiful, pathetic creature in that house.

And confusion, too. Memories were beginning to crowd in on her, like they always did the moment she allowed herself to think about Brazzaville. Swirling, half-remembered incidents, snatches of conversation, and barked commands from her captors.

She closed her eyes and put her hands to her temples.

"Do you want me to-" began Clark.

"Sit tight, Clark," instructed Francine firmly. "Lois is doing just fine on her own. She just needs a little time."

Lois felt Francine touch her knee lightly. "Remember to focus, Lois," she murmured. "You can do this."

She nodded. Focus. Focus, focus, focus. What was the darned question again? Oh, yes, was she still to blame for Brazzaville? No, that wasn't the question. Focus. Could she forgive herself for Brazzaville? That was the question.

She opened her eyes and raised her gaze to a kindly-looking Francine. "No, I can't. How can I forgive myself when this is the result? If I hadn't been so stupid then, I wouldn't be like this now."

"Everyone makes mistakes, Lois," said Francine. "You just said it yourself a moment ago."

She saw Clark move restlessly in his chair. "You mustn't blame yourself for what they did—"

"Clark," interjected Francine sharply, keeping her gaze on Lois, "I'll ask if I need your input. Lois, what about it? Everyone makes mistakes, including you."

His fists were clenched and his mouth was a thin, taut line. Angry that Francine had shut him up, or angry at her own answers?

She dragged her attention back to Francine. "But their mistakes are little things," she objected, "like forgetting to put the trash out or leaving the gas on. Not huge mistakes that land them in a house with rapists and murderers and child molesters—"

She bit off the rest of her sentence, knowing that if she let herself continue, all the filth and degradation would come spewing out again. She'd done that, didn't need to repeat it over and over. Focus. She was breathing heavily. Focus and bring the breathing under control.

"Seems to me that leaving the gas on could have catastrophic consequences," observed Francine mildly. "And when you were talking about past misdemeanours, I don't think you were just referring to small things, were you?"

No, she'd been talking about Clark's promiscuity. For him, and for her, that was a big thing. She shook her head. "But it's easier to forgive other people than it is to forgive myself."

"Why? Are you above them, that you have to live by these higher standards?"

"No." She wasn't better than Clark. The idea was laughable.

"Okay, so what's the reason? Why can't you forgive yourself as easily as you forgive everyone else?" asked Francine.

"I guess…because I've always held myself to high standards," she said. "That's how I got to the top of the class at school, or how I got to be the youngest woman reporter on the city desk at the Planet. Because I pushed myself — you have to if you want to succeed."

That was her father speaking, she knew. He'd never allowed her to rest, had never let her be content with merely a good result. It had always needed to be the best result. Top of the class, top of the school, first at sports — the list had been endless.

"Don't you also have to put your mistakes behind you if you want to succeed?" suggested Francine. "The person who sits and dwells on everything they ever did wrong very rarely gets to the top, do they?"

"So you want me to just put this all behind me and get on with life?" said Lois bitterly. "As easy as that?"

Her father had included that lesson, too, but somehow it had never sunk in as well as the lessons on driving yourself to the limit. That was what had stayed with her into adulthood; had driven her to push harder and harder to reach the top of her profession.

It was probably what had driven her to the Congo, she realised with a sickening lurch of her stomach.

"No, of course not," replied Francine. "But a great first step would be to let yourself off the hook a bit. Stop blaming yourself for what happened and redirect all that negativity at the real wrong-doers here — your captors."

Lois snorted. "I know they did wrong, believe me."

"Good, so hold on to that and do what the successful people do — accept that you made a mistake and deal with the consequences. Okay?"

"I'm not good at accepting failure," she muttered.

"Just give it some thought, Lois," said Francine. "I'm not going to bang on about it any more now." She smiled and looked down at Lois's piece of paper again. "So let's see what's number three on your list…"

But she wanted Francine to bang on about it some more. Remembering all that stuff about her father, realising his legacy had played a part in making her force Perry into letting her go to the Congo — she needed to talk about all that. Especially as her father had driven himself into an early grave — had she inherited the same fatalistic streak?

Absently, she answered Francine's questions, while wondering how to deal with this new self knowledge. If Francine wasn't going to probe as deeply as Lois would have liked, then who would? Would George be willing to see her again? He was a high achiever like herself; she'd sensed that affinity with him almost from the day she'd first met him. Perhaps he'd understand her better than Francine, who was a lovely lady and surprisingly worldly-wise, but lacked the edge she and George shared.

She'd ask George's secretary if he had any free time soon.

***

Meanwhile, had Clark received her not-so-subtle message about forgiveness before Francine had twisted it into something bleaker? Lois didn't have an opportunity to find out until he arrived a couple of days later to escort her to the Planet.

From the outset, the day felt like a replay of their outing to the park. She sat in the clinic foyer, turned out as smartly as she could manage within the limitations of her meagre wardrobe, waiting for Clark to arrive.

Doris, the receptionist, had smiled encouragingly at her when she'd arrived and was now deeply engrossed in her magazine.

She gnawed at a fingernail. A lot was riding on today. For one, this was her chance to make Clark her friend again. She didn't expect any more than that — she understood that she didn't fit his idea of suitable girlfriend material — but she didn't want him to simply drift out of her life completely. As she'd told Francine, she needed a good friend.

And for two, this was her chance to test herself back on her old stomping ground. Since arriving back in Metropolis, she'd been completely isolated from her old life, so this was her first time re-connecting with the places and people she'd been familiar with before she'd left for the Congo. Not that there'd be anyone at the Planet whom she'd know — she'd already checked the by-lines on the city pages and hadn't recognised any of them.

So she was nervous. Very nervous.

The swivel doors turned and deposited Clark into the foyer. Quickly, she stood up and walked towards him, nerves making her stomach churn and her mouth dry. If he was as cool towards her as he'd been lately, she wasn't sure she'd make it through the day.

But as soon as he saw her, his face lit up in a warm smile. Relief flooded through her. Everything was going to be okay.

***

"…and this is the new conference room."

Lois glanced into the long room, furnished with a good quality conference table and sturdy chairs. The far wall boasted a pull- down screen and some pretty expensive-looking multi-media equipment.

"Nice," she said admiringly.

Clark grinned. "Aren't you going to go in?"

"Oh, I didn't realise…"

She stepped into the room. There was a man sitting behind the door, a very familiar-looking man who was rising out of his chair and coming towards her wearing a broad grin and holding his arms out wide in welcome.

Her heart flipped. "Perry…"

"Aww, Lois, I can't tell you how good it is to see you," he declared warmly as he enveloped her in a huge bear-hug.

She flung her arms around him and hugged him tight, happy tears already streaming down her cheeks. She hadn't realised how much she'd missed him. He'd been like a father to her in the old days, bolstering her up whenever she needed it or taking her down a peg or two when she got too stroppy. She'd received a lot more advice on life from Perry than she ever had from her real father.

"I hear you're an important person these days," she said, referring to his move from editorship of the Planet to mayor of the city.

"I'm more of a figurehead than a real policy-maker," he replied gruffly. "You have no idea how frustrating politics is, Lois. Running a newspaper was a breeze compared to the hoops I have to jump through over at city hall."

"Hoops, huh?" she said, running her eyes up and down his ample frame. "You must be in better shape than you look."

"Hey, hey!" he exclaimed. "I get enough of that from Alice, without you chipping in as well."

Lois smiled, remembering the long-suffering Alice fondly. She was a smart lady, in more ways than one, with an effortless elegance which didn't stop her letting loose the occasional full- throated belly-laugh or using pretty colourful language to match Perry's own. Lois had enjoyed the occasional dinners she'd attended at the Whites'.

They'd been good times, back when she'd worked for Perry and the Brazzaville thing had yet to happen.

"Alice got you on that diet yet, Perry?" asked Clark.

Perry harrumphed. "Let's say we're still in negotiations."

Clark laughed and started telling Perry a story about Superman negotiating with his tailors — something about a reduction in their rate for making spandex suits.

Lois watched Clark as he told the story. Animated and enthusiastic, he told the tale with a wry wit she'd rarely seen him use, especially over the past few days. At a guess, she'd say that she was seeing the real Clark Kent as he entertained his old editor. Perhaps he, too, felt a bond with Perry which went beyond the formality of their former working relationship.

He'd been a model host today, too; pleasant and welcoming and eager to show her around. Really, she couldn't fault him.

Yet something was still missing. For all his smiles and friendly chat, the easy informality she'd grown accustomed to for the past couple of months had disappeared. He was being too polite.

Clark wrapped up his story and for a few minutes, she and Perry exchanged reminisces about the good old days. Then Perry glanced at his watch and gave her a look of regret.

"Sorry, honey, but I have to leave. Got to open the new hall at a high school over on the South Side," he said. "Look, why don't you come over for dinner sometime soon? Then we can have a real talk about the old times."

"Sure," she replied, nodding. "I'd like that." Okay, so that would be her next day trip away from the clinic, she mused. Francine would approve.

"Great! I'll get Alice to suggest some dates." Perry said. "Clark, good to see you, son."

"I'll walk you out," said Clark, and left to escort Perry to the elevators.

Lois sighed and gazed around the room idly. Meeting Perry had really lifted her spirits. He didn't come with baggage like Clark did, and he was a reminder that she had more friends on the outside than she'd imagined. What was more, he'd seemed genuinely pleased to see her. She smiled. He was good for her self-confidence.

Clark, though, was a different matter. He hadn't allowed her any time to talk properly to him. They'd walked around the building, sat at his desk and admired the new computer system, met the new editor and a few of the other staff, and taken a look at the issue currently in preparation. Conversation had been confined to his explanations and her exclamations of fascinated approval.

"So what would you like to do next?"

He was at the door, apparently eager to move on to something new. She decided enough was enough. "Can we just sit here for a while?" she asked. "All this…" she gestured around her. "It's a bit overwhelming. I need to take a few minutes to catch up."

"Oh. Sure," he said. Was it her imagination, or did he look just a little uncomfortable with her suggestion? "How about I get us some coffee?"

Anything to avoid sitting with her, no doubt. "Okay." She'd make darned sure she took a long time to drink that coffee, though.

A few moments passed, and then he was back with two steaming mugs. "Here," he said, handing her one.

"Thanks," she said, taking a small sip. He was still on his feet, one hand thrust deep into his pocket and the other holding his mug. "Aren't you going to sit?" she asked.

"Oh, okay." He pulled out one of the chairs and sat down, resting his arms on the table and giving her a tight smile.

"Thank you for arranging Perry's visit," she said. "That was a really nice surprise."

He shrugged. "Perry's been itching to see you for ages. This seemed like the ideal opportunity." He took a sip of coffee, and for a moment, she wondered idly why he did that — why did he pretend that hot liquids scalded his lips and mouth, when everyone knew they didn't? A week ago, she would have just asked him, but now, the question seemed like an intrusion into the personal life of a stranger.

"Oh," she said. Well, it was nice to know Perry had been wanting to see her. Her self-confidence went up another notch.

But not high enough to confront Clark about what was really bothering her. She picked another subject at random. "So," she said, "have you managed to find out what happened to the kryptonite the art thieves had?"

He shook his head. "No. I asked the police but they didn't seem to know anything about it. I guess I could talk to the thieves who are in custody — see if they know anything," he said. "I doubt they'll tell me much, though."

"So you just wait until it turns up again?" she asked. "Doesn't it worry you that it's out there somewhere?"

"Yes, but I don't see what else I can do," he said. "It could be anywhere."

"I guess so."

Okay, end of conversational gambit number two. What now? She took another sip of coffee. Well, maybe the direct approach was best. "Clark," she began slowly, "there's something I want to say to you, but…I'm not sure how to say it."

Okay, so that was semi-direct, but at least it was a start.

"Oh?" he said. "Sounds serious," he added, flashing her another tight smile.

"Well, it is, I guess," she replied. She sipped coffee again, reflecting that her plan to make it last a long time was unravelling pretty fast. "I don't think I thanked you for looking after me and making sure I got home the other day," she said. "Um…that's not the thing I want to say, but I do want to thank you for that."

His eyes dropped to the table. "It was the least I could do," he muttered.

He still blamed himself for what had happened? "Clark, it wasn't your fault," she exclaimed.

"No? You mean you'd have freaked out even if I hadn't told you…what I told you?" he said, flicking his gaze up to her and back down to the table. "Seems to me you were fine until I ruined everything."

"I was tired," she pointed out. "I'd had to cope with a heck of a lot already that day. Probably anything would have set me off by that point."

"Maybe," he replied. "But we'll never know, will we?"

"Exactly, so you shouldn't keep beating yourself up about it," she retorted.

His mouth twisted. "You sound like George."

She flushed. He didn't know what she'd discussed with George, and this really didn't seem like a good time to tell him.

"George speaks a lot of sense," she said carefully.

"How would you know?" His eyes bored into her until guilt forced her to bow her head. Gazing fixedly at the table, she felt her face flush under his scrutiny. "You've spoken to him, haven't you?" he said. "What did he tell you? That I have a tendency to blame myself for everything?"

She bit her lip, recalling her conversation with George where he'd pretty much said precisely that.

"Oh, Jeez, Lois!" exclaimed Clark, springing out of his chair and pacing down the room. "What else did he tell you? I thought I could trust George."

"He didn't tell me anything, Clark!" she said, watching him stalk restlessly across and back the far end of the room, both hands shoved deep into his pockets. "I went to him to talk through my freak-out at your apartment, not to ask him about you! In fact, he refused to tell me anything else about you — said it would breach patient confidentiality."

"Oh, so you did ask him about me," said Clark, pausing in his stalking to shoot her an accusing glare.

"Only because you told me to!" she exclaimed. "Besides, you've been so distant these past few days, I was desperate to talk to anyone who really knows you."

He snorted and began pacing again.

"I want my friend back, Clark," she said desperately. She felt like she was losing him, like he was slipping away from her right in front of her eyes. "I want the guy who used to laugh and joke with me — play stupid games and make fun of my spelling."

He stopped again. "He doesn't exist, Lois. I made him up, just like I made up Superman. This is the real me." He threw his arms wide, as if exhibiting himself for her benefit. "Not such an attractive prospect, am I?"

"But you are!" she said. "I don't care how many women you slept with, or how many times you took red kryptonite to escape from whatever it was that was tearing you apart. All I care about is what you are now. Don't you get that? Didn't you listen to anything I said to Francine?"

"Huh?" he said, his face screwing up into a frown. "What are you talking about?"

Oh, boy, he was more obtuse than she'd ever imagined a person could be! "I told her I didn't judge people on their past mistakes," she said. "That I prefer to make up my own mind based on what I see before me today. Didn't you realise that was all for your benefit?"

If he'd been hit by a speeding train, the effect couldn't have been more dramatic. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head before his answer popped out, short and to the point. "No."

"Well, it was," she said. "I wanted you to realise that I still respect you. That I still like you…care about you."

"Oh."

"And that I understand how hurtful that whole episode must have been for you," she added. "Those women used you, Clark. You said it yourself, but I wasn't listening properly at the time. All they wanted, you said, was to find out what Superman was like in bed," she said, shaking her head sadly. "I can't imagine anything much more degrading or humiliating."

He turned away from her. "I got over it," he muttered.

"Did you, Clark?" she said softly. "Seems to me you're still hurting."

He shrugged. "I'm fine." His shoulder muscles flexed and bunched under the thin cotton of his shirt. "Look, can we change the subject?" he said over his shoulder. "I already spend too much time talking to George about this stuff."

So he wasn't fine at all. In fact, she felt like she'd only just glimpsed a fraction of the levels of hurt which Clark lived with, day to day.

"Sure," she said, resigned to the fact that he was clearly unwilling to unburden himself on her. Yeah, well, they were almost strangers to each other these days, weren't they? "But do you believe me? Or am I going to lose you forever?"

He swivelled sharply, revealing wide, panicky eyes. "No," he murmured. "No, you won't lose me. Ever." He bowed his head and shook it slowly from side to side. "God, Lois," he said, "I'm so stupid. I keep pushing you away, when all I want is to…"

He fell silent, shaking his head again.

Wanted to what? Those were such tantalising words, especially when she let herself remember his kisses on her shoulder, or his husky voice as he'd murmured her name. Yes, she'd told herself that the kisses didn't mean anything, and that her attraction to him didn't mean anything either, but still. Hope sprang. She couldn't suppress it.

"What, Clark?" she asked, rising from her seat and walking towards him. "What do you want?"

He lifted his head to look at her. "Nothing. It doesn't matter."

Hope died. She remembered her place again, her role as the wacko-in-need-of-help. She stopped walking towards him, the faint and, frankly, totally unrealistic possibility of an affirming embrace between them fading with her dying hope. "So are we friends again?" she asked, instructing herself to settle for the attainable.

"Yes," he replied. "Yes, we're friends."

"Good."

And he'd said she wouldn't ever lose him. Wow. That was some commitment for just friends. She studied him for some clue, some hint of why he was so determined to stick by her.

As her gaze roamed his face, their eyes met, and for a moment, she thought she saw something more in those dark brown eyes, some flicker of a deeper emotion that was usually hidden from her.

Then he blinked, flashed her a wry smile, and the moment was gone. Maybe she'd been fanciful to imagine it had even happened. "So…that stuff about your ankles," he said. "That was for me?"

She nodded, feeling herself flush all over again.

"And the other things on your list?"

"All of it," she replied. "Excuse me while I die of embarrassment here."

He grinned. "I agree about the ankles. They're very nice ankles."

"Thank you. Just don't bother to comment on the other stuff," she added, "or I may have to kill you."

He laughed. "You do know that's impossible?"

***

She was perched on the side of Clark's desk, reading his latest story on the computer and helpfully pointing out how he could tighten up his writing style, when it happened.

"Lois!"

She'd barely turned around to locate who was calling her when she was enveloped by two strong arms and pressed up against a large body.

She froze.

Someone was speaking, but all she could hear was the rapid pounding of her own heart. All she could feel were the ropes of steel holding her prisoner. She was being suffocated, being forced unconscious so that they could do whatever they wanted with her. They'd violate her, use her in a sacrifice, offer her up to the numerous gods they worshipped in the name of their black magic.

And then, just as she was coming to her senses and getting ready to fight back, the ropes released her. She gasped, thankful for the reprieve.

There were voices talking, but they were still muffled by the sound of her own fear. Her assailant seemed to have disappeared, or, at least, she was no longer aware of his or her presence.

<<Lois.>>

She blinked. Discovered she was still in the Planet newsroom, surrounded by the quiet hubbub of work. She turned and found Clark hovering nearby.

"Are you okay?" he murmured.

She nodded. Just another incident in the life of a crazy woman. Her bottom lip trembled.

Dammit. Stop that, she commanded her lip.

"Here, sit down." He guided her into his chair and then hunkered down in front of her. "That was Tiffany. Said she remembered you from before — she works in IT?"

Oh, yes. An exuberant girl with more enthusiasm than hard knowledge about the computer systems she was supposed to fix. Lois had given her a hard time about some stupid bug thing, she remembered.

So, apparently there was actually someone left at the Planet who remembered her, though why Tiffany regarded her as anything other than a pain in the ass was beyond Lois.

"Want me to fetch you some water?" offered Clark.

She shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Just give me a minute, okay?" She smiled, a rather wobbly affair because of her trembling lips.

"Sure." He returned her tremulous smile with a much more reassuring one, then stood up and sat down at the next desk along.

She slid her gaze over to him. "Thanks for getting rid of her."

"No problem," he replied. He thumbed on the computer before him and began working. She was grateful for his lack of fuss, just leaving her to sit quietly for a while.

Poor Tiffany. Probably thought she was just being friendly, instead got an armful of neurotic nutcase. Lois hadn't a clear idea of what had happened, but presumably Clark had noticed her terrorised face peeking over the top of Tiffany's broad shoulders and had asked Tiffany to leave her alone.

"What did you tell her?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I just said you were a bit tired."

Nice euphemism for nuts. Well, she supposed it didn't really matter what he told Tiffany; she'd form her own opinion anyway and was no doubt already telling everyone she met all about it.

And that had been George's 'monster Clark' situation, she supposed. She hadn't exactly coped with it like he'd wanted her to. Panic had seized her, and Clark had needed to rescue her again. Of course, the whole thing had been over in a flash, so maybe if she'd had longer to think, George's instructions would have kicked in.

She grimaced. Perhaps she should ask Clark to stop rescuing her in these situations so she could find out if she could manage on her own.

Anyway, after a few minutes her pulse was back to normal and she no longer felt on the verge of tears. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and went to stand behind Clark's chair to watch him writing. "How's it going?" she asked.

"Nearly done," he said over his shoulder. "Then I guess it's time you should be heading back to the clinic."

She glanced at her watch, surprised to find that he was right. The day had passed really fast, and pretty well, notwithstanding her minor melt-down with Tiffany and the argument with Clark in the conference room. Meeting Perry had been a real highlight, but just simply being here, on her old patch, had been wonderful. Not too scary, and with a lot of familiar smells, sights and sounds that had really made her feel at home. And to cap it all, she might even have won back Clark as a friend.

Clark hit the enter key on his keyboard with a flourish and announced he was finished. Swivelling around on his chair to look up at her, he said, "I wondered if you felt up to a short flight?"

Oh, wow. "You mean…with you? Superman?"

He nodded. "If you'd like to."

Would she? He was eyeing her carefully, and she knew why — last time he'd offered to take her flying, she'd freaked out on him. Well, she didn't feel like freaking out today. Heck, she'd already had her quota of panic for the day, hadn't she? So did she want to be held aloft by Clark, hundreds of feet in the air, flying over the high-rise buildings of Metropolis?

Hell, yes.

"Yes, I would," she said. "Thank you for offering."

He grinned; a grin so broad and full of delight it lit up his whole face. "Great!"

***

It was windy up on the roof of the Planet. Not hurricane-force, but enough of a breeze to ratchet up her nerves just a little further. Did flying men suffer from turbulence? Would they be buffeted around in the breeze?

He must have noticed her nervousness, because he turned to her as they reached the roof and clasped both of her arms lightly. "Don't worry, I haven't dropped anyone yet," he said with a confident smile. "At least, not accidentally," he added with a wink.

She laughed, her voice sounding, to her ears, just a little too high-pitched to be completely natural. "Is that a recognised Planet interview technique these days?" she asked. "Standards really must be slipping."

"Nah, it's the slithery criminals who do the slipping," he said, grinning. "I just can't seem to hang on to them sometimes. But there's no way I'll let you go, Lois."

She nodded. "Okay, I think you convinced me."

"Honestly," he insisted, turning serious for a moment. "You'll be completely safe. And if you really don't like it, you just have to say and I'll land us right away. Okay?"

"Okay."

He smiled. "Then I guess I'd better get changed." He stepped back a pace and suddenly became a whirling blur of colours.

She gasped and took a step back. She'd never seen him put on such a visible, in-your-face display of his powers before. Usually, as she'd mused earlier, he kept his abilities hidden — to the point, sometimes, of complete make-believe. But this…this was awesome. Humbling.

And now Superman was standing before her — again, she'd only ever seen the superhero on TV before. Here he was in the flesh, his long, brilliant-red cape billowing out behind him, his muscular arms crossed and his legs planted like tree trunks on the concrete roof.

Then he let his arms fall to his sides and did a very Clark-like one-shouldered shrug. "It's only me, Lois," he said. "Still just Clark Kent, the farmer's son from Kansas."

Just Clark? No, she decided, Clark could never be a 'just' sort of a person. He was special. Unique.

And lifting her effortlessly into his arms. She slid an arm around his neck for balance and found herself almost face to face with him.

He smiled. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," she replied.

"Okay, here we go."

Their take-off was like nothing she'd ever experienced before. She was used to the tremendous force of an aeroplane take-off, but this was more like travelling up a very smooth elevator at a fairly slow pace — if the elevator had been open-air. Still, she clung very tightly to his neck and didn't dare look down.

"All right?" he asked.

She nodded. "Yes, fine."

After a few minutes, she felt confident enough to take a look around. "Oh, wow!" she exclaimed, gazing with awe at the city below her.

"It's great, isn't it?" he murmured.

"It's more than great, it's beautiful," she said, drinking in the sight of Metropolis, her home town, laid out before her. The sun was low in the sky, creating a warm, mellow light that made the buildings glow and the shadows hazy and long. She'd never realised how beautiful the city could look.

"Thank you," she said, gazing up at him.

He beamed back at her. "My pleasure."

Yes, it was, she thought. Up here, flying as free as a bird, he really seemed to be in his element. He smiled easily and there was no lines of tension around his eyes.

"You love this, don't you?" she said. "Flying, I mean."

"Yes," he replied. "Up here, I can separate myself from all the stuff going on down there. I can do whatever I like — be whoever I like. It's liberating."

Oh, Clark. Even now, as happy as he was, there was that undertone of pain; the need to escape from something. What exactly was that something? And had it been the cause of his addiction to red kryptonite?

His identity seemed to be a big part of it, whatever it was.

"I…I think I heard somewhere that you're an orphan," she ventured. "That must have been hard for you."

He looked down at her, clearly surprised by her remark. "It's hard for all orphans," he replied after a moment. "I was luckier than most — at least I knew my parents when I was a kid, and when they died, the foster homes I got sent to were better than many I've heard about since."

She nodded. She'd heard the same stories, back in her days as a reporter. Of course, there were many warm-hearted and very skilful foster parents around, but there were also some real ogres — even more so back in the days when Clark had been a child. "Do you miss them?" she asked. "Your parents, I mean?"

"It's been so long…I regret not knowing them when I was older, and there's a whole bunch of family memories I wish I had, but it's hard to say that I actually miss them," he said. "I mean, this is the only life I've known…"

He stared out towards the horizon, his eyes growing distant — dredging up the few family memories he did have, perhaps? "I do know I'd be a totally different person if they hadn't died," he said after a pause.

"How so?"

"I think I'd have had a clearer idea of who I really am," he replied. "I mean, I figured out a lot of stuff about myself eventually — some of it pretty recently — but I grew up feeling pretty confused. I wasn't sure where I came from and where I was supposed to fit in. That's the hardest thing for orphans."

"And harder for you, because of being different."

"Yeah."

"So…is that what made you turn to…you know…drugs?" she asked, hoping that their renewed friendship allowed her to ask such a personal question — that he'd understand that she was just trying to know him better.

"Not really. That was something else entirely," he said, his expression suddenly unreadable.

"Oh." Clearly, he did mind the question. But remembering how he'd teased similarly personal details out of her, and how, in the end, she'd been grateful for his persistence, she decided to prod just a little further. "Anything I'd understand?" she prompted.

He shook his head. "No. It's not something I really want to talk about, actually."

"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to bring up painful memories."

"You didn't," he said. "It's just kind of complicated."

"Oh," she replied. Nothing could be that complicated, surely. He was hiding something, and it hurt her just a little that he wasn't prepared to share it with her. Hadn't they just agreed they were friends again?

"Look, there's the clinic," he said, nodding in the direction of a dirty-white building near a green patch — their park.

Yes, that was the clinic, and Clark had neatly got himself off the hook of any further personal revelations. Well, she'd keep digging. She'd planned to get to know this new Clark better, and, darn it, that was exactly what she was going to do — with or without his help.

***

Unfortunately, the plan had to be put on hold for a few days after Lois's visit to the Planet. The outing had taken its toll on her still fragile constitution and she spent the next couple of days in bed with a bad cold. It didn't help that her periods, which had stopped during her incarceration in Brazzaville, decided, at the same time, to make a come-back with a vengeance. There was nothing much worse, Lois decided miserably, than spending an afternoon in bed with the stomach cramps from hell while at the same dealing with a streaming cold and a chesty cough. Men had no idea how lightly they got off.

Still, at least it gave her time to reflect on a suggestion Francine had made before the cold had struck. The clinic, apparently, had a couple of studio apartments available for patients. They were self-contained units, with a bedroom, a kitchenette/living room and a bathroom, and their purpose was to help patients to practice living independently while still having the safety-net of the clinic facilities on-site if they got into serious difficulties. Would Lois like to move into one of these?

Mostly, she decided, the idea was appealing. She'd miss the familiarity of the room she'd made her own for the past couple of months or more, but on the other hand, she'd enjoy a little more space to call her own. She'd have to shop, cook and clean for herself, but even that was a bonus; now that she was feeling more confident in herself, she was beginning to get a bit bored with the hotel-like service the clinic provided. She needed things to do.

Where would the cash come from to pay for her shopping, she enquired. Well, she'd be given a daily allowance by the clinic, although she'd be encouraged to begin seeking out ways of making money of her own.

That part was daunting. The only job she knew was journalism, and there was no way she felt up to holding down a reporting job anywhere. She flirted briefly with the idea of a weekly column in the Planet, but somehow she didn't think '"Tales From the Nuthouse" would sell many newspapers. So the job was a problem.

The rest was okay, though. Yes, she decided, she'd accept Francine's offer.

***

The plan swung back into action once the cold had abated to the occasional sneeze and a runny nose. Perry had invited her to dinner when they'd met at the Planet, and since then Alice had been in touch with a few suggested dates. Lois was now booked in for dinner at the Whites' in a couple of days' time. She intended to use the occasion to find out everything Perry and Alice knew about Clark.

In the meantime, she embarked on another project: reading back issues of the Planet. The official aim of this particular project was to find out what had been going on in the world while she'd been incarcerated in Brazzaville. This was an aim very much approved of by Francine, who was pleased to see her taking an interest in life outside the cosseted world of the clinic.

Lois wasn't so sure what Francine would have made of the unofficial aim of her project: to investigate Clark Kent and the rise of Superman. Lately, Francine had been hinting that Lois ought to spend less time thinking about Clark and more time thinking about herself. Lois reflected darkly — and silently — that she'd spent the last three months or so thinking about nothing other than herself; it was about time she got a break. Besides, Clark was her friend and she cared about him. Francine could go take a-

But no, that wasn't fair on the motherly therapist. She'd been wonderful when Lois had been like a frightened small child, and Lois would forever be in her debt for being so patient with her. It was just that Francine didn't always seem to understand what Lois needed. The Clark thing was a good case in point: Francine had only hinted at disapproval when, if she'd stated her case with conviction and a good dose of hard talking, Lois might have listened. Francine was just too darned nice.

Annoyingly, George's secretary hadn't yet given her a date to see him, but she planned to chase that up very soon. She enjoyed his rugged approach to therapy.

And in the meantime, Lois was investigating Clark and that was that.

***

"TEMPUS ARRESTED FOR ATTEMPTED BOMBING"

"A SUPERMAN IN OUR MIDST"

The two banner headlines slashed across the front page of the Daily Planet, one at the top and the other half-way down. The Planet had abandoned its usual format for the doubly sensational news, making the page jump out at Lois as she'd scrolled through the microfilm archives at the public library.

Reading both stories piled shock upon shock, until eventually she sagged back in her chair with a slack jaw and just stared at the headlines until they etched themselves on her brain.

Tempus had built his entire Mayoral campaign on the premise that Clark was the forerunner of an alien invasion. Not only that, but he'd done it in such a way — by driving the whole city into a fever pitch of paranoia and fear and encouraging people to arm themselves up to the teeth before they even knew exactly what they were supposed to be defending themselves against — that when he finally revealed that Clark was the alien they feared, people must have been ready to do just about anything to protect themselves.

My God, she thought. If Tempus had succeeded, Clark would very likely be dead by now.

As it was, he'd been forced out into the limelight under the most atrocious and stressful circumstances imaginable.

She scrolled back a few issues, looking for any previous mentions of Superman, but there were none. Why Clark had chosen that day to make his debut as Superman wasn't clear. There had been the bomb, of course, but if only he'd found a way to deal with that without revealing himself, he wouldn't have played so directly into Tempus's hand.

And it was clear to Lois that Superman had been intended as a disguise. Clark wasn't a natural celebrity; she could see that now that she knew him a little better. He'd wanted to remain anonymous, just as he'd done throughout the rest of his life.

Was this why he'd turned to drugs? To escape from the pressure of fame? Or worse still, to escape from the persecution he'd been subjected to now that people knew he was an alien?

She scrolled forward past the fateful day and found another headline:

"MAN OR SUPERMAN?"

"A profile of Clark Kent, the Daily Planet reporter who shot to fame earlier this week…"

Poor Clark. No doubt he'd hated giving the interview. Of course, being the Planet, the article was even-handed and reasonably non-intrusive, but even so, the potted biography included the fact that he was an orphan twice over and had bounced around the foster system until young adulthood. It even gave brief details of his school and university career. The writer had obviously been trying to demonstrate that Clark was as human as anyone else — further down there was mention of the various social issues Clark had tackled in his stories — but Lois thought that the personal information was still too detailed.

But the biography raised another question. Why hadn't Clark debuted as Superman when he was younger? Why had he waited until he was…she did a quick calculation…twenty-seven years of age to don tights and a cape and fly around rescuing people? The article made it clear that he'd learned to fly as a teenager, so he'd had the abilities necessary for at least ten years before making his debut. Why the delay?

***

Dinner at the Whites' was a big adventure. For the first time, she had to make her own way there and back, and she didn't even travel by taxi, but took the bus. Okay, so it was a single bus ride and the bus stop was just outside the clinic, but still. Crazy Lois was out in the big city all by herself, and if she'd wanted to, she could have gone anywhere she pleased.

This new freedom was heady stuff, and it carried her through a highly enjoyable and sometimes rumbustious evening with Perry and Alice. Reminiscing about old times at the Planet was good fun. She'd been nervous that dredging up her past might have brought on a panic attack, but her fears appeared to be unfounded as the three of them roared with laughter yet again after Perry had regaled them with yet another story about Andy, the veteran print worker who'd refused to acknowledge the advent of computerised systems.

"What about Clark?" Lois asked when they'd all caught their breath. "You must have some good stories about him, too."

Perry grinned. "Oh, one or two. I taught that boy everything he knows," he added proudly.

"You recruited him to the Planet, didn't you?"

"Oh, yeah," said Perry. "Still wet behind the ears and with about as much fight in him as a startled jack-rabbit, but I could see he had the potential to be a great reporter."

"And is he?" she asked, experiencing a small pang of jealousy that Clark should get such a glowing reference from Perry when she couldn't ever remember him saying anything so complimentary about herself. "A great reporter, I mean."

Perry's face clouded over a little. "He will be. It's taking a little longer than I expected, but he'll get there. If that boy doesn't earn himself at least one Kerth before I retire, I'll eat my hat."

"You'll have eaten most everything else by then," muttered Alice darkly.

Perry rolled his eyes heavenward. "See what I have to put up with?" he said to Lois. "She'd have me on lettuce leaves and carrot juice if I let her. Wouldn't you, honey?" He shot a sickly-sweet smile at his wife.

"I'm not that delusional," replied Alice sweetly. "I'd just be content if you'd cut back on those doughnuts you think I don't know about."

Perry groaned. "She has spies everywhere," he told Lois. "She'll probably try to recruit you, too."

Lois laughed. "Too late. We've already exchanged the secret handshake."

"Aw, heck!" exclaimed Perry. "Can't a man enjoy himself once in a while?"

"'Fraid not," said Lois. "Anyway, getting back to Clark — you say he's not progressing as well as you expected?"

Perry shrugged. "I guess it's not easy holding down two jobs."

No, that didn't ring true. His answer was too glib, and didn't fit with the concern that had flitted over his face when she'd asked if Clark was a great reporter. She was almost certain Perry must know about Clark's drug problem, but he wasn't giving much away. She tried a different approach. "You were there when he became Superman for the first time, weren't you?" she said. "What was that like?"

"Incredible," replied Perry. "He swallowed that bomb just like it was a jelly doughnut. I'd never seen anything like it."

"And how did you feel?" she prompted. "Seeing someone you thought you knew do that?"

"Surprised as heck," he said. "I could give you some cock-and- bull story about knowing he was different all along, but the truth is, I was as bowled over as everyone else."

"Did you ever wonder why he didn't do it earlier?" she asked. "Why not five, or even ten years earlier?"

Perry opened his mouth to answer, then promptly shut it again and raised an eyebrow. "That's a very perceptive question, young lady."

"And that's a very evasive answer," she replied briskly.

Alice laughed. "She's got you there, Perry. But seriously, Lois, there could be any number of reasons why Clark didn't become Superman earlier. You'd have to ask him."

Yup, she was being given the run-around. Her old reporter's instincts, rusty though they were, were screaming 'cover-up' so loud she was surprised Perry and Alice couldn't hear them. "You must have a few theories, though," she said. "You've both known him for a while, and he's a good friend, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is," said Perry. "And that's why we can't tell you, Lois." He sighed. "Yes, we do both have a pretty good idea why he did what he did. But it's personal, it's private, and it's for Clark to tell you, if he wants to, not us. Sorry, honey."

She pursed her lips, frustrated by the brick wall they kept putting up. "Now you're making me think that something pretty cataclysmic must have happened to him," she observed. "He's my friend, too, you know. I care about him — that's why I'm asking you these questions. I think he's struggling with something and I want to help. God knows, he's helped me enough over the past few weeks."

She saw husband and wife exchange meaningful looks. "It's…complicated," said Perry.

"So?" replied Lois. "You're a politician and an ex-newspaper editor. You should be good at explaining complex things."

"I guess you could tell her about Lana," said Alice to Perry. "Most people know about her anyway."

"Who's Lana?" demanded Lois immediately.

Perry grimaced. "Clark's ex-fiancee. I guess you could say she was the main reason he didn't become Superman any sooner."

Ex-fiancee? He'd been engaged? "Why? She thought it was too dangerous?"

Perry snorted. "Yes, but not in the way you're thinking."

From his derisive tone and demeanour, Lois could see that Perry hadn't liked Lana very much at all. Interesting — he didn't usually take a dislike to someone unless there was very good reason, so what had this Lana woman done to earn Perry's disapproval?

"She didn't like Clark using his abilities openly," explained Alice. "She thought that if people found out he wasn't human, they'd take him away and perform experiments on him. In her own way, I think, she really was trying to do what was best for him."

"Sure," drawled Perry heatedly, "and in the process, turned him into mashed potato! If that woman had Clark's best interests at heart, then I'm Elvis's long-lost brother from Timbuktu."

"Perry," said Alice, giving her husband a warning glance.

"Well, it's true," he insisted. "Breaking up with Lana was the best thing that could ever have happened to Clark. He'd never have become Superman if he still had her hanging like a millstone around his neck."

"Perry!" said Alice sharply. "That's enough."

"Hell, Alice, don't pretend you don't agree with me," said Perry. "You were the one who practically threw the woman out after she flayed him alive with that razor-sharp tongue of hers."

"Yes, but Lois has never met Lana," Alice pointed out. "Let her form her own impressions."

Perry harrumphed. "If you're lucky, you'll never meet the woman," he told Lois, ignoring another glare from his wife.

Lois fiddled with her napkin while processing all this new information. Clark had been engaged. Well, that wasn't so surprising, considering how attractive he was. But this Lana person sounded like she hadn't understood him, or loved him, in the least little bit, if Perry was to be believed. "So he broke up with Lana so he could become Superman?" she asked.

"Not exactly," said Alice. "But close enough."

Lois studied Alice's impassive features. "There's more, isn't there?"

"Yes." Alice reached across the table and placed her hand softly over Lois's. "Talk to him, honey. We can't tell you everything. It wouldn't be fair on Clark."

Lois sighed. "I'll try. At least I've got one thing straight in my mind — Clark really wanted to be Superman, didn't he? He didn't do it because he was forced into it."

"Absolutely not," said Alice. "He needs to help people, and being Superman is the best possible way he can do that. I will say this, though — it all happened very quickly to him. I don't think he'd been planning it for a long time—"

"Lana had his head filled with marriage plans and guest lists, that's why," interjected Perry sourly.

Alice glared at her husband before turning back to Lois. "So one day he was plain old Clark Kent, and the next day he was Superman. It was quite an adjustment to make."

Lois nodded, then realised that this was the perfect opportunity to pose the question she'd been wanting to ask all evening. "Is that…is that why he became a drug addict?"

Alice's face saddened, and another long, meaningful look went between husband and wife. "We can't answer that, honey," she said. "I know you're only trying to understand him better, but that's a confidence we just can't break."

She nodded. "I guess I'll have to wait for Clark to tell me. If he wants to."

"Give it time, honey," said Alice. "Don't push him to tell you before he's ready."

"That might be a very long time, knowing Clark," she observed.

Alice smiled. "Yes, Clark's a typical man in that respect, but have patience. Everything will work out in the end, I'm sure."

***

Trying to suppress the eager anticipation which had been bubbling up inside her ever since she'd been handed the key, Lois pushed open the front door of the studio apartment and stepped inside. She wasn't moving in today, but if she liked what she saw and the formalities slotted into place, she could be living here within the week.

Clean, drab, and a bit impersonal, she thought as she walked into the main room. There was a kitchenette adjacent to a small dining area at the far end of the room, and a slightly larger lounge where she was standing. The furniture looked cheap and a bit scuffed, and the previous occupant had been a smoker, judging by the smell.

Still, she thought as she poked her head into the bathroom, it was bigger than her room, and there was plenty you could do to make the place seem more homely. Open the windows, for a start.

And she could invite Clark to dinner. That was her dream — to play host, make him a really nice meal and have a pleasant evening together. Just like the evening the Whites had given her.

She smiled as she glanced over the tiny bedroom. From the way they'd spoken about him, it was obvious that they cared a great deal about Clark, almost to the point where they considered themselves his surrogate parents. Perry's outburst over Lana had been more like that of a concerned father than an ex-employer. Alice seemed to understand him as well as her own two sons.

For that reason, she'd felt bad about raising the issue of Clark's addiction with them, and had later apologised and tried to make it clear that she didn't think any less of him because of his problems.

Alice had nodded. "Clark's the living proof that these things can affect just about anyone. You don't have to be a poor kid from the slums. You just have to be vulnerable, and all of us are vulnerable at some point in our lives."

"And being alone, Clark doesn't have the support systems most of us have," agreed Lois.

Perry had sighed heavily. "I saw the signs. I just wish I'd acted sooner."

Alice had squeezed his hand. "You did good, honey. You got him the help he needed."

Clark was lucky to have them, Lois mused. She herself had no- one. Her father was dead and her mother was in a long-term care facility for the mentally ill.

She leant her forehead against the cool wood of the bedroom door. She hadn't visited her mother for years. Before Brazzaville, it had been indifference and laziness which had kept her away; now it was fear. Was craziness inheritable? Here she was, in a mental institution herself, with a mother who'd already lost her mind.

A dry, humourless chuckle escaped her. If her father's obsessiveness didn't get her, then her mother's lunacy would. What hope was there?

She sighed and walked back to the front door of the apartment. She'd take it, despite its drabness and tatty furniture. The future might look uncertain, and the past was a nightmare, but she wasn't ready to give up the fight yet. She still had unfinished business with Clark Kent.

***

Floating. Drifting effortlessly on a bed of air, wafting wherever the gentle breeze took them. Far below, the city hustled and bustled, the distant sounds of traffic filtering up through the clouds to create a pleasant background chatter.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" he murmured in her ear, his warm breath fanning the side of her neck.

His strong arms holding her, solid and secure, warm and reassuring, under her back and supporting her thighs. A very masculine cradle in which to keep her safe.

"Yes," she breathed. "It's wonderful."

"Lois," he whispered huskily, his face looming over her, his dark brown eyes gazing intently down at her. She clutched at the warm, smooth skin of his neck as he moved closer, so close she could feel him breathing. So close that her breasts pressed up against his chest.

His lips closed over hers, lips she remembered so well from when they'd brushed, gossamer light, over the sensitive skin of her shoulder. Softly kissing, caressing her lips, endlessly kissing her until she couldn't breathe, suffocating her, his mouth pressing aggressively down until her head tipped back, his weight on her chest forcing the air out of her lungs-

She gasped and coughed herself awake, hands flailing frantically at the empty air above her. The weight on her chest was unbearable — she tore at the bedclothes and hurled them away with all her strength.

Free at last. Her senses still on full alert, she lay panting in the darkness. She was okay. Safe. It hadn't been real.

And the man hadn't been Clark. Not at the end. The man who'd been suffocating her had been from Brazzaville.

Hadn't he?

She tried to recall his face, but all she could remember were his slobbering lips and his crushing weight.

Miserably, she curled up on her side and ignored the cold seeping into her bones now that the bedclothes were on the floor somewhere.

Just a dream, she told herself. Just another stupid dream.

***

"I'm telling you, buddy, that day in the park was your wake-up call."

Lois froze as George's strident voice drifted through the open door she was passing on her way to the clinic's gym.

"I don't see why. In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't take the hit willingly — unless you think I planned the whole thing as an elaborate method of taking the stuff without making you suspicious."

Clark. Oh, boy. She'd stumbled on one of his therapy sessions with George. She should just continue walking and not listen to another word.

George chuckled. "No, I don't think you're that desperate. No, I'm talking about how badly it affected you afterwards. You looked like hell that morning, as bad as I've ever seen you."

"Well, you said it yourself — junkies often suffer worse after a long abstinence."

Clark sounded strained and defensive, as if George had been giving him a hard time. Walk away, Lois, walk away. This is none of your business.

"Yeah, that was the bullshit I gave Lois," replied George. "Heck, it's even true sometimes. But you and I both know the real reason you were so strung out."

"We do?"

"Shit, Clark, did anyone ever tell you you're the most obtuse guy on this entire planet?"

"Yes, George," said Clark. "You do. All the time."

George sighed. "Okay, then, because I love the sound of my own voice so much, I'll give it to you one more time," he said heavily. "As I've been trying to get through your thick skull for weeks, you're riding yourself too hard, buddy. You cannot sustain this double act with Lois without it taking a toll. That day in the park was your payback day."

Double act? What double act? She glanced up and down the corridor, but no-one was in sight, so she eased down onto the green plastic chair stationed outside the consulting room and pretended to tie her shoe laces.

"That's ridiculous!" objected Clark. "I was fine until those idiots forced the red kryptonite on me. No craving, no physical symptoms, no nothing."

George snorted. "You were as stressed as hell, and you know it, buddy."

There was a long silence from behind the door, during which she finished tying her laces and twice nearly stood up and continued down the corridor. She was just about to give in and abandon her chair when she heard Clark mutter, "I was handling it."

"Handling it, my ass," retorted George. "Did you know that Francine was thinking of pulling you off Lois's sessions, even before she got her voice back? She thought you were in danger of becoming a hindrance to the therapeutic process because you were so screwed up. She said it nicer than that — something about being too personally involved — but the meaning was the same."

She really shouldn't be listening to this, a private conversation between a shrink and his patient. She should stand up right now and head to the gym.

But then she wouldn't find out about the mysterious double act. And what was this about being too personally involved? By her reckoning, Clark viewed her as the equivalent of a bird with a broken wing: he cared about her and wanted her to get better, but there was no deeper personal involvement. Or so she'd thought.

There was another long silence. "No, I didn't know that." Clark sounded defeated now, his voice quiet and withdrawn.

"Okay, so now you do," said George. "And my spies tell me you're as moody as hell at work. Heck, you're moody with everyone — even Lois. The cracks are beginning to s how,buddy.

"Well, what am I supposed to do? She needs me."

"Not any more, she doesn't," pointed out George. "Not now that she's talking again."

"But she's gotten used to having me there," insisted Clark. "Isn't consistency important in a person's therapy?"

"Sure it is. But so is communication, and you, my friend, are in danger of becoming one huge barrier to that whole process," said George. "You need to butt out and let the professionals take over."

"I can't just walk away from her," said Clark. "You know that."

"Nobody's asking you to do that — just to step back a little," said George. "Look, Lois isn't my patient so her treatment schedule is really none of my business. You, however, are very much my patient, Clark, and I got to tell you, buddy, you and I are going to be spending a heck of a lot more couch time together if you don't get your act together soon."

"Oh, come off it, George!" exclaimed Clark. "I'm fine."

No, he wasn't fine, Lois thought. Even she could tell that.

"Oh, so that's why you've been cancelling on me, is it?" drawled George, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Because you're fine."

"Well, yes. And I've been busy."

"Nothing to do with avoiding me because you know I'll tell you it like it really is?" retorted George. "Hell, Clark, it's been four weeks since you freaked out in the park. You needed to see me the next day, not four weeks down the line after you've sold yourself God knows what crap about how well you're coping. You're not coping, buddy, you're procrastinating."

She heard Clark snort dismissively.

"Oh, you don't believe me?" said George. "Okay, let me tell you a story. There was this guy — a pretty lonely guy — who developed an obsession for a woman he'd never met. He was so obsessed that he believed that if he ever found this woman, he'd fall in love with her. He began to search for her, and the more he searched and didn't find her, the more obsessed about her he became. Eventually, his obsession overwhelmed him and he began to fall apart. He turned to drugs and finally got so screwed up that he ended up in a mental institution. His obsession nearly destroyed him, buddy, and God knows where he would have finished up if an amazingly gifted psychiatrist hadn't stepped in and saved the day."

"Very funny, George," said Clark. "But this is ancient history. What's your point?"

"Ever hear that phrase about history repeating itself?" retorted George. "Let me tell you another story. There was another guy — also, oddly enough, pretty lonely — who found the woman of his dreams. The woman was ill, though, and, understandably, the guy wanted to make her better. He wanted it so much that he visited her constantly. He took time off work to visit her during the day. His work even began to suffer — holding down two demanding jobs isn't easy, as you know. He worried about her all the time; often didn't sleep well and frequently had nightmares about her—"

"Not so frequently these days," interjected Clark. "I'm much better—"

"Hey, I'm not talking about you," said George. "I'm telling you about this guy. Now, his friends warned him that he was becoming obsessed — heck, even his shrink told him he was obsessed — but he didn't listen. He continued visiting the woman and losing sleep over her, until one day his obsession began to overwhelm him. He, too, wanted to turn to drugs, but the first guy had used them all up, so in his desperation he searched and found an even more powerful drug. Don't ask me what the drug was; that's not the point of my story. But whatever it was, this drug was so powerful that this time even the amazingly gifted psychiatrist couldn't help this guy and so he ended up as a gibbering, drooling vegetable in a mental home. His obsession, my friend, finally succeeded in destroying him. The End."

Oh, God. Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God! She'd had no idea. Absolutely no idea.

He'd searched for her. Had wanted to make her his own…no, still wanted to make her his own. That was why he was so interested in her, why he kept visiting her at the clinic. He wanted her back to normal again so that he could claim her.

But why her? Why not one of those women he'd slept with — they'd be easier prey, surely? Willing and able.

But of course! He worked at the Daily Planet — he must have seen her picture in old editions and decided he liked what he saw. Decided he liked it so much that he'd set off on a one-man crusade to find her.

"You think I'm obsessed?" said Clark. "That's ridiculous."

"Oh, for crying out loud, Clark, give me some credit here!" said George. "I'm a pro — I get paid abhorrently large sums of money for knowing what the hell I'm talking about. You, buddy, are heading down the same path to Hades that you took a year ago. If you can't see that then God help you."

Despite her horror, she winced at George's outburst. He really was giving poor Clark a hard time over this.

But 'poor' Clark had chased her. Set out to trap her. He was no better than the Brazzaville men.

Oh, God. Her hand drifted up to her mouth, suppressing the sob of fear threatening to give her position away.

"You're serious about this, aren't you?" Clark again.

"Yes, I am," replied George firmly. "Back off, Clark, before it's too late."

Monster Clark, she told herself frantically, not missing the irony of George's newly-coined term. This was a monster Clark situation. It had to be — Clark was a good person.

So nothing was as it seemed. There was good reason why he'd searched for her. Maybe he'd been on the rebound after splitting up with his fianc‚e. He'd been so lonely that he'd become fixed on this woman he'd seen in back issues of the Planet and then everything had gone downhill after that. The pressure of suddenly being Superman had just made things worse.

Okay, that was a working hypothesis. Much better than evil, ensnaring Clark with an appetite for vulnerable women.

So this was what Perry and Alice couldn't tell her. Of course they couldn't — how could they have explained that Lois herself was the cause of Clark's problems?

Oh, God.

And now she understood what Francine had meant by 'too personally involved.' He could never have been simply an objective observer, nor even a concerned friend. His entire being had been invested in the outcome of those sessions. George's double act thing even made sense, too. Clark had been pretending all along.

"George, did anyone ever tell you you're scary as hell when you're angry?"

She blinked. Clark never swore.

"Why do you think I'm still single?" said George. "And watch your language, Superman."

"I told you before, you're a bad influence on me."

"Yeah, yeah…so have I penetrated through that incredibly dense skull of yours yet?"

"Yes," said Clark. "I'll cut back. Maybe only visit her every other day."

"Clark…"

"George, I love her," said Clark softly. "I have to know she's okay."

"You think you love her. You can't know for certain — you haven't met the real Lois yet."

He loved her? Oh, God. This just got more and more confusing. How could he love her? She was the bird with the broken wing. A man like Clark didn't date women like her.

"Granted," replied Clark, "but I know this Lois pretty well and I think I've learnt enough to know what she'll be like once she's really got herself together. I think I'll still love her then — probably even more so."

"You know squat, Clark," said George. "And even more importantly, you don't know how she'll feel about you." He sighed. "We've been through all this, buddy. Okay, she needed you when she wasn't able to speak for herself, but that's all changed now. Now's the time when you need to step back and let her find her own way. Give her the space to figure herself out, get back on her feet and start living her own life the way she wants to live it. Then, if you're really, really lucky, she might still want to know you. But up until that point, she needs you to fade into the background for a while."

"I'm just not sure if I can do that." There was tenderness coupled with a desolate, perhaps even a desperate, quality in Clark's voice.

"Yeah, I know. But that's what you've got me for…and quit looking at me like that, buddy. I'm a strictly women-only kind of a guy, okay?"

Clark chuckled. "Me, too, George. Anyway, you're not my type. Too…chunky."

"It's okay, you can say it — I'm fat. Hours and hours of therapy have enabled me to admit that, I'm proud to say," declared George. "But seriously, whether you like it or not, you're still a recovering drug addict, and that means you need to manage your stress levels a whole lot better than you have been lately. We've been over that, too, haven't we?"

"Yes. Ad nauseam."

"And we'll keep going over it until you start listening, so quit being such a smart ass," said George. "Tell me, Clark, do you want to give up your stressful job at the Planet?"

"No, George."

"And do you want to give up your incredibly stressful job as Superman?"

"No, George."

"So what does that leave that you can give up?"

"Talking to you?"

"Ha. Very funny. Try again."

Clark sighed. "Hiding my real feelings from Lois?"

"Bingo! What else?"

"Blaming myself for things that are outside my control?"

"Bingo again! But specifically…?"

"Blaming myself when she gets upset or has a panic attack?"

"See, you do know all this stuff," said George. "You just act like you don't. So tell me, do you think she's ready to know the truth about you? Because that would be another way to quit the play-acting."

"No, I couldn't tell her yet," said Clark. "I wish I could, but it wouldn't be fair when she's got enough of her own problems to deal with."

"Okay, so for her sake and your sake, it's best if you back off a bit," said George. "Is that our considered opinion?"

Clark sighed. "I guess so."

"Hey, cheer up!" said George. "Things are looking up — Lois is getting better. What's not to be cheerful about?"

"You're right," said Clark. "So long as I know she's happy and healthy, that's the most important thing. Everything else is secondary."

"Well, I wouldn't say that," replied George. "I didn't glue you back together again so that I could watch you drift along playing second fiddle to Lois's happiness. I want you up and out there, Clark. I want you snagging the big stories and performing the daring rescues. I want you wowing the world with your abilities. I want you to take risks — big ones. In short, I want you living up to that ridiculous name you gave yourself."

"Wow, George, you really know how to make a guy feel proud, you know that?"

"Oh, shove it where the sun don't shine, buddy," growled George. "I'm just protecting my reputation. I'm the man who fixed Superman, after all. Doesn't look good for me if Superman turns into Wimpyman. I'll lose all my patients — and all those nice big fat cheques they send me."

Lois stood up as she heard Clark laugh. She'd heard enough. More than enough. She needed to go somewhere private and figure out how she felt about all this.

***

There was a soft knock on her door. "Lois? Are you okay?"

Francine. She'd known it would only be a matter of time before someone came looking for her.

She hunched the blankets further up over her shoulder. "I'm fine," she called.

A pause; perhaps Francine had given up and gone away. Then, "I'm coming in, okay?"

Lois didn't really care either way. Francine wasn't going to be able to fix this.

The door opened; feet padded across the carpet. The edge of the bed dipped.

"Hey." Spoken softly and with compassion. Francine was good at that. "What's up, Lois?"

"Nothing."

"You missed a couple of classes."

"Didn't feel like going."

"No-one saw you at dinner, either."

"Wasn't hungry."

"You feeling sick?" suggested Francine. "I could get Caroline to come up and take a look at you."

Because even though Caroline was only the head nurse, she was female and therefore non-threatening. "I'm fine."

Francine's hand settled on her blanket-covered shoulder. "Something's upset you, huh?"

"A bit, maybe," she conceded.

"Want to talk about it?"

"Not yet."

"Okay. Just don't wait too long, all right?"

She nodded miserably.

"I'm off duty in an hour," said Francine. "But I'll be here from eight tomorrow. Any time, okay, Lois? I can reschedule my other appointments."

She nodded again.

"All right. And don't be afraid to ask for help from the night staff. That's what they're here for." Francine gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. The bed rocked again as she stood and made her way to the door. "Sleep well."

"Francine?"

"Yes?"

"Could you get me an appointment with George?" she asked. "Soon?"

Because she didn't know where else to turn. The terrible power of Clark's obsession was so frightening that it was either talk to George or remain cowering under her blankets for ever.

"George?" Francine frowned. "Why do you need to speak with him? Is this to do with Clark again?"

Lois bit on her bottom lip, remembering Francine's tacit disapproval of her involvement with him.

"Oh, Lois," sighed Francine. "Well, I'll see what I can do, but you and I need to talk about Clark's role here. I'm not convinced he's helping."

Neither was she, but neither was she convinced she wanted to lose him. Which was why she needed to see George.

***

The door to George's consulting room seemed very solid and uncompromising as Lois approached it. Perhaps it was the formidable personality lurking behind the door which lent it its stern presence, or the painful and very scary talking she knew lay ahead of her once she stepped over its threshold.

She'd have to make a confession: eavesdropping on a conversation she wasn't meant to have heard. She'd have to describe the paralysing fear which gripped her every time she remembered Clark's obsession for her. She'd have to ask George to break his patient confidentiality with Clark in order to explain why that fear was groundless.

Her trembling, sweaty finger slipped off the entry buzzer, producing a pathetic hiccup of a beep. No-one would hear that. She'd have to buzz again, or maybe she should just turn around and leave right now-

The door swung open. Too late for escape, then.

George's shambling bulk and round, smiling face filled the doorway. "Hey, Lois," he welcomed warmly, ushering her inside. "Come on in." He crossed to a small table against the wall where a coffee machine was spluttering its way to the end of its cycle. "I was just making a fresh brew — want some?" he asked, twisting around and waving a mug in his podgy fist.

She nodded. "Yes, thanks."

"Take a seat," he invited, indicating three armchairs arranged around a low coffee table.

Not the psychiatrist's couch at the end of the room, she noted. Was that reserved for his own patients? And where did Clark sit, she wondered. She perched on the edge of the nearest chair and watched him pour the coffee and bring it over to her.

"Thanks," she said, accepting the mug from him and cradling it in both hands.

He settled into a chair opposite her. "So, how's it going?"

"It's…been better," she replied.

"Yeah? What's not going so well?"

She sipped her coffee. Balanced the mug on her knee with one hand but discovered she had the shakes so badly that she had to return to the double-handed grip. "I overheard something I shouldn't have," she confessed.

"Ah," said George. "Always a risky business, that, listening to other people's conversations. I'm guessing this was something you wish you hadn't heard?"

She nodded.

"Why?" he asked. "Why do you wish you hadn't overheard it?"

"Because." She raised the mug to her lips again, taking great care not to spill any. The hot liquid slid down her throat and settled in her stomach, creating a hot little centre around which the rest of her body seemed to tremble. This was crazy, she thought. However did she think she was going to do this? "I'm sorry," she said, leaning forward and placing the mug on the table. "This was a mistake. I'm sorry to have wasted your time."

She lurched to her feet and hurried to the door.

"It's about Clark, isn't it?" said George.

She halted. Freedom was just a few paces away, yet George's question had reminded her of why she was here: George held the answers. George could banish her fear.

She nodded.

"This thing you overheard. How did it make you feel?"

"Scared."

"Well, you came to the right place, then," George said heartily. "Fear's my speciality."

She wrapped her arms around herself and eyed the door. Step through it and she'd avoid all of this. Remain and she'd have to go through hell.

So why was she still standing here?

"Come on, Lois," said George. "We'll take this thing out together, have a good look at it from all angles, and batter it down to size. Heck, we'll even batter Clark down to size if it helps. I'm good at that."

Yes, he was. She'd heard him.

"And your coffee's getting cold," he added.

A corner of her mouth curled upwards. Mustn't let the coffee go cold. Nothing more important than that.

Suddenly all the blood seemed to rush to her head and she whirled around in a wild burst of energy. "I heard you talking to him," she gabbled, letting it all out, all the fear, shock, and horror. "I know everything. I know he searched for me. I know he's obsessed about me. I know he loves me, or at least he thinks he does. I think he fixated on me after breaking up with Lana, not sure about that, but I know for certain that he turned to drugs because of me. I know he was forced to tell everyone who he really was when all he probably really wanted was a quiet life, and that's really sad, but then again, I know he's obsessed with me and that absolutely scares the living daylights out of me because I can't take on the responsibility of being someone's dream come true and anyway he'll probably want things from me I just can't give him."

Her breath ran out abruptly and she was forced to suck in a lungful of air that turned into a half-sob. Tears threatened, but instead she let out an angry yell and crossed her arms in front of her. "I am not going to cry over this," she gritted defiantly. "I am damned well not going to cry!"

She dropped her gaze to the carpet and bit back another sob.

"Hell," muttered George from his chair. "Lois, I'm sorry you overheard all that. The clinic has very stringent procedures to make sure consultations are kept strictly confidential, but clearly I screwed up like a rookie amateur that day. How did you overhear us?"

"The door was open," she said, keeping her eyes on the carpet. "You were upstairs in one of the shared treatment rooms."

He nodded. "Oh, yeah, this place was being cleaned. One of my patients…well, you don't need to know. No excuse, though. I still should have followed protocol."

"Yeah, well, I should have followed good manners and walked away, but I didn't," she answered miserably.

George sighed. "I guess we'd better see if we can fix this mess. You want to come back here and we'll see what we can do?"

She nodded and trudged back to her chair.

George's face was unusually sombre when she finally found the courage to look at him. "Okay," he said, "I think I can remember most of that session with Clark, but just to remind me, what were we talking about when you first heard us?"

"You were saying something about payback day," she said. "You were trying to convince him he wouldn't have felt so bad that day in the park if he hadn't been under so much stress lately."

"Oh, yes. Finally got it through his thick skull, although I had to do more yelling than usual. So…" He sucked air noisily through his teeth and tapped a finger against the arm of his chair. "Let's deal with the reasons you're scared first. You said you can't take on the responsibility of being someone's dream come true. What do you think Clark's dream is?"

"Well…I think he's quite lonely, so he wants a companion. Someone to come home to at the end of the day and share his troubles with," she replied. "And he nearly got married once, so I assume he wants a wife."

"So which part of that is the scary part?"

She frowned. "None of it, really. But he must have this whole perfect picture built up in his head — that's the scary part. He must have expectations of how I'll behave, of how I'll react to him. Maybe even what I'll look like and what clothes I'll wear. What food I'll eat," she added. "I don't want to fit someone else's template of how I should behave. I want to be me."

George nodded. "Of course you do."

"And I'm scared that he'd try to force me into his idea of the perfect me." There. She'd said it. Most of it. She gripped the edge of her chair as a familiar fluttering sensation started up in her stomach. "I'm scared he'd want to control me."

The fluttering grew worse. A memory was trying to squeeze back into her head, an ugly picture of ropes and-

"Do you think Clark's the controlling type?"

"No, but how can I be sure?" Ropes and a chair and a filthy gag in her mouth, the taste bitter and dusty. Hands on her legs, sliding lasciviously up her thighs-

"Well, I guess you can't until you know him better," conceded George. "But, as his shrink, I know him better than anyone else on this planet, so I can be sure. Clark couldn't control you, Lois. It's just not in his psyche."

"How do you know?" She brushed the hands away. They were going to teach her a lesson, punish her for looking at something the wrong way, so far as she could figure it. The hands came back again and she pushed them away again.

"Well, for one, he has too much respect for the principle of free will," he replied. "He'd only intervene if he thought someone was in danger. If you want proof, look at what he does every day of his life. He responds to emergencies. He doesn't go—"

The stench of stale male sweat. A glinting knife blade lifting up the hem of her tattered t-shirt. Hands on her thighs…she pushed them away.

"…dangerous activities, and he doesn't anticipate the danger by pulling them away from whatever they're doing before the emergency has even occurred."

"For two, he's been the victim of controlling behaviour himself. If you know he split up with Lana, then you probably also know that she insisted he never use his special abilities in public. What you might not know is that extended to their private life together. She effectively kept him in a tightly controlled box from the day they met as kids to the day they split up…Lois, are you okay?"

She stilled, her hands poised half-way down her thighs, ready to push the threat away yet again. "I'm fine. You were saying…" She tried to remember his last couple of sentences, pieced together what she thought she'd heard. "Clark used to control Lana?"

George frowned. "No, I said Lana used to control Clark." He got up and came to crouch beside her chair. "What's happening, Lois?" he asked softly. "Are you having a panic attack?"

The knife glinted again. She pressed herself back into the chair, shrinking away from the cold steel blade.

"Lois?"

She nodded. "Please…please don't come any closer." She snatched a pleading glance at him. Big, friendly George with the owlish glasses and round, open face. Not a threat. Definitely not a threat.

"I won't," he reassured. "But you know how to do this, Lois. You don't need my help. Just remember what we've taught you…"

And she did. Eventually. With George coaching her. Managed to put the panic back where it belonged, squashed the memory back into its box. It wasn't a new memory. Just one of many she carried around with her in little boxes. Very leaky little boxes.

"Better?" asked George, still crouching beside her.

She managed a shaky smile. "Yeah. Sorry."

"No problem. You okay to continue, or do you want to take five?"

"I'm okay."

"All right." He went back to his own chair. "Where were we? Oh, yes…"

He repeated his assurances about Clark's non-controlling nature, and this time she managed to listen properly and understand what he was telling her. It made sense. Especially the part about Lana.

"By the way, what I just told you about Clark's relationship with Lana is confidential, okay?" he added. "I'm only telling you because, in my professional judgement, you need to understand where Clark's coming from."

She nodded. "But he still scares me. I mean, intellectually, I can see that Clark's not a threat — he wouldn't try to force me to do whatever he wants. And you obviously know him really well and I think I can trust you to tell me the truth about him. But…his obsession was so strong he turned to drugs, George! That terrifies me."

"Why?"

Her lip curled. "How did I know you were going to ask me that?"

"Hey, it's what I do," said George. "I throw out randomly inane questions and wait for a reaction. But okay, since you insist, I'll give you a prompt. You said his obsession was 'so strong.'" He drew finger-quotes around the words in the air. "Is that what scares you?"

She nodded. "Yes. The sheer power. The strength of emotion that must drive him. I don't know if I can handle that."

George nodded. "He and I have done a lot of work on it. His problem, you see, is that he internalises everything. Goes back to when he was a kid in the foster care system — he learned that life was easier if he just kept quiet and didn't draw attention to himself. He bottles it all up inside." He chuckled. "When I first met him, trying to get him to open up was like drawing blood from a stone."

"And now?"

"Now I just yell at him a lot," said George with a grin. "Sometimes he even yells back, which is when I know I've done a good job." He shrugged. "I'm his safety valve. Stuff builds up; I help him get rid of it. Believe it or not, he's actually a lot better than he used to be."

Remembering how hard she'd found it to make him tell her anything important about himself, she did find that difficult to believe. What's more… "I heard you warning him that he was heading for disaster again," she pointed out.

"Well, I may have exaggerated slightly." George winked. "But don't tell him I said so."

"So you don't really think he's likely to end up back on drugs again?"

"I doubt it, but it doesn't hurt to keep him vigilant," said George. "And my job isn't just to keep him off drugs. I also have to coach him on how to maintain his emotional health in the longer term."

Well, that was good to know, she supposed. "But he still has these strong feelings for me, doesn't he?" she said. "He said he loves me."

"Yes, that's what he thinks, which is why I told him to back off. He needs to get a better perspective on his feelings, and he won't do that by wallowing in them day after day. He's putting himself under shit-loads of stress, and it's not helpful to you, either." George slurped some coffee; grimaced when he presumably discovered it was cold. "Where's Superman when you need him?" he muttered.

She smiled. "I think he's got more important things to do than heat up your coffee, George."

"You think? I think it's the least he can do after all I've done for him." He dumped his mug on the table. "Okay, how are we doing? Have we knocked that fear of yours back down to size yet?"

She pondered that. "I don't know. I guess it's good to know you're making sure he doesn't let this overwhelm either one of us, but it's still daunting. Maybe I'll feel better when everything you've told me today has really gone in…here." She pointed at her head. Settling back in her chair, she added, "There's one thing I still don't really understand, though."

"What's that?"

"Why me, George?" she asked. "Why did he fixate on me, a person he'd never even met? I had this theory that he saw my picture in back issues of the Planet, but then I realised I've only appeared once, maybe twice at most, so the chances of him seeing my picture were pretty slim."

"Ah," said George. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a few moments, sucking his teeth noisily at the same time. For her part, she gritted her teeth against the irritating sound. Did he do it deliberately? Frazzle the nerves of his patients until they broke down and told him their innermost demons?

"Well, that's complicated," he replied eventually. "More complicated than you could ever imagine."

"And?" she prompted.

"And I can't tell you." He held up his hands in self-defence when she began to protest. "I'm sorry, but there's a limit to how fast and loose I'm prepared to play with patient confidentiality."

"George! I need to know, otherwise I'll dream up all sorts of horror scenarios." She crossed her arms and glared at him. "I thought that, in your professional opinion, I needed to know this stuff."

"The parts I've told you, yeah," he said. "This…well, I've got to balance your needs against Clark's, and this time he wins. You'll have to go to the source."

"That's easier said than done," she scoffed. "How can I ask him without explaining how I already know so much?"

George shrugged. "It's not easy, I'll grant you that. Look, the best advice I can give you is to sit down with him somewhere quiet and tell him everything you know and why you know it. Then you can ask him what you just asked me. Believe me, once the initial shock has worn off, he'll be relieved that you know everything and that he doesn't have to maintain his pretence any longer."

"You really think so?" she asked. "I think it'll just create a new set of problems between us."

"Yeah, well, wouldn't life be boring if everything ran smoothly?" said George. "But seriously, I don't want you to carry this knowledge around with you for too long before you tell Clark. Not for his sake, but for yours. Letting things fester is just not an option for you right now, okay, Lois? We need for you to keep dumping the bad stuff and replacing it with the good stuff." His eyes crinkled. "Hope that's not too technical for you."

"I think I just about followed the gist of it," she replied, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling.

"Hey, I like to keep things simple, okay?" he exclaimed "I can hit you with the psycho-babble version if you'd prefer."

"No, I'll stick with the idiot's version, thank you."

"Good choice. So, do you promise me you'll talk to Clark soon?"

"I'll try."

"Hmm. I'll give you a week." He hauled himself out of his chair and shambled across to his desk. Leaning over to the other side of it, he swivelled around his desk diary and flipped it forward a page. "I'd like to arrange a follow-up to this, if that's okay with you? Next…Tuesday?"

"Okay. There's other stuff I'd like to discuss with you anyway," she said, thinking of her earlier plan to talk over the stuff about her father with him.

"Oh?" George twisted around in the midst of scribbling in his diary. "More stuff you can't talk to Francine about?"

She bit her bottom lip. "Sort of." Because she knew she could raise it with Francine fairly easily if she put her mind to it. George was just…preferable.

"You do know that she and I share each other's notes? Anything I know, she knows."

"Yes, but…" She shrugged. "You're easier to talk to about certain things."

"Well, okay," he said. "I will tell Francine, as a courtesy, of course."

She nodded. "I understand."

So she had a week to pluck up her courage and talk to Clark. Well, so far as she knew, he was still due at her next session with Francine, although she wouldn't be that surprised if Francine told him not to come. Even Lois had to admit that he wasn't really needed any more, and Francine clearly didn't think he had a role to play. If he was there, though, she could talk to him afterwards.

Except how did she do that? "Hey, Clark, I know you're totally obsessed with me. I also know that you love me. Well, you think you love me. No worries, though, because I talked it over with George and he says you've got it all under control."

No. She'd no idea how she was going to handle it, but whatever, she'd have to be more subtle than that. For now, she couldn't imagine even broaching the subject — she was still shrivelling up inside every time she thought about what she'd overheard between George and Clark. George had helped today, but the things he'd said had yet to shift from being just a collection of facts in her head to being something she actually believed in.

So she'd wait a while before approaching Clark.

***

Moving-in day. Bit of an anti-climax, really. Her worldly possessions consisted of one medium-sized hold-all for clothes, a handful of CDs, a few books, and a radio-cum-CD player which Clark had lent her.

Not nearly enough to make an impact on the empty and impersonal living room she now stood in. The furniture in the studio apartment looked even tattier than she remembered, the walls more pock-marked and stained. There were cigarette burns on the carpet which she hadn't even noticed before.

Was she making a big mistake? Leaving her nice fresh single room, with its friendly, familiar smell for this musty old dump?

The doorbell rang. Hey, she had a doorbell! That was progress, wasn't it?

She opened the door, expecting Francine or George.

"Hi." His smile was uncertain, his eyes serious. "I hope I'm not too early. I heard you were moving in today, but maybe you're still settling in…?"

Oh, boy. Here he was on her doorstop, half of George's time limit of a week was already up and she still hadn't found the courage to tell Clark about what she knew.

She wasn't ready for this.

She shook her head. "No, I did that already. Took all of five minutes to decide where to put my toothbrush," she said. "Come on in."

She stood aside to let him pass. Instead, though, he bent down and gathered up a pile of packages she hadn't so far noticed. "I hope you don't mind," he said, squeezing past her and striding into the living room. "I figured you wouldn't have much stuff for an apartment, so I brought a few things."

Intrigued, she followed him in, eying with interest the parcels he dumped onto the carpet. "Clark, you shouldn't have," she protested. "I won't be able to repay you."

His lip curled. "Wait 'til you see what I've brought before you start worrying about paying me back. You might hate it all."

She doubted that. If his own apartment was any sort of a guide, then his taste in home decoration was pretty acceptable.

As she began opening the packages, she realised this was the first time they'd met since he'd visited her briefly when she'd been sick. He'd missed her last Francine session; called in to say he had a work commitment he couldn't break. He'd never done that before.

Anyway, she'd sort of forgotten that overhearing him with George didn't count as a proper meeting. A lot had happened since she'd been ill — she now knew much more about him than he'd ever told her himself. How on earth was she managing to continue this act of opening the packages and exclaiming enthusiastically about the contents, when every time their eyes met she felt like she was lying to him?

His purchases were perfect, though. There was a collection of posters depicting stylish, vintage commercials — they dated from the 1920s and 30s, she guessed, and advertised everything from soap to the Metropolis subway. There were a couple of thin but serviceable rugs in a mixture of warm russet and neutral shades, a beige linen tablecloth to cover the cheap and nasty Formica dining table, some pottery vases in earthy colours, and best of all, a huge ethnic-style throw which followed the same colour scheme as everything else and was perfect for covering up the shabby sofa.

She even had a pot plant — a luxurious ficus, some three feet tall and just right for the corner where the carpet was completely threadbare.

"It's wonderful, Clark," she exclaimed, standing in the middle of the room admiring the transformation. "The place feels more like a home already."

He smiled. "I'm glad you like it. It's kind of my way of saying sorry for being such a lunkhead lately. I think for a while there I forgot what really matters more than anything else."

"Which is?" she asked warily.

"Your happiness. That's all I've wanted from the day we first met, Lois."

She gulped, recognising the words as a repeat of what he'd told George just a few days ago. Her conscience pricked at her again, but at the same time her chest tightened under the crushing weight of his feelings for her. Fearing her expression would give her away, she turned from him. "Clark, that's so sweet of you," she said, needlessly straightening the edge of the tablecloth. "But you didn't have to go to all this trouble to say sorry. A bunch of flowers would have done the trick just as well."

"I thought this would be more practical."

"It is…it's great," she said. "It's just that you've given me so much, and I haven't given you a thing in return."

"Seeing you getting well is all the reward I need," he said.

George had reprimanded him about this stuff, insisting he take care of his own needs as well as hers. Well, that message clearly hadn't sunk in yet. She pasted a smile on her face and turned to face him again. "Sometimes I wonder what I've done to deserve all this kindness," she commented casually. She shrugged and smiled a bit wider. "Or maybe you're just as nice to all the crazy women you meet."

His own smile wavered. A look of something…panic?…flashed across his face. "I just care about you," he said. "That's okay, isn't it?"

Now! Her conscience yelled. This is when you tell him what you know.

I'm not ready, yelled back her brain. I need time to figure out what to say.

She broadened her smile. If she wasn't careful, she'd split her own face in two. "I guess that's what you do, isn't it?" she said, forcing a lightness into her voice which she really wasn't feeling. "Care about people."

The relief on his face was palpable. "Yes, that's what I do. And…I'm really pleased for you, Lois. It won't be long before you're ready to leave the clinic at this rate."

"Maybe," she replied. "I'm just taking each day as it comes. You know…manana and all that."

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Talking of leaving…" His gaze dropped down to the carpet. "I won't be around so much after today. Work's getting really crazy, and Superman's busier than ever…and you don't really need me at Francine's sessions any more." He shrugged while still staring at the floor. "I'll still come and visit you, of course, if you'll let me, but…just not so often."

And this was it. Apparently he had been listening to George after all. Of course, she should have been expecting this, but…so soon? "Clark—"

He swivelled on the balls of his feet and strode towards the door. "I'm sorry if this seems sudden," he said huskily. "It's just…like I say — work is busy and it's getting harder to juggle my commitments."

Those last few words sounded as though he'd had to force them out. He was making himself do this, of course, faithfully following his shrink's advice to put some distance between them. And doing it so terribly clumsily. Painfully.

She should tell him she understood, that he didn't have to do this because she already knew how he felt about her. It was all right, everything would be fine. They could carry on as before.

But the words wouldn't come. She hadn't been prepared for this, hadn't rehearsed her lines. "That's okay," she heard herself say. "I understand how busy you must be."

He smiled wanly. "I'll see you around." He pushed the door open.

He was leaving and she wasn't even stopping him. Panic fluttered in her stomach — this wasn't how it was supposed to happen. It wasn't right.

"You can visit me any time," she blurted out before she lost him completely. "Any time you like."

"Thanks."

She hurried across the carpet to join him at the door. "I mean it. Just drop in…whenever. As a friend. A really good friend."

Wrong thing to say, she thought, as pain clouded his eyes. He wanted love, not friendship, didn't he? "Lois." He clasped her upper arms lightly, leant forward and gently kissed her forehead. "Take care of yourself," he murmured.

"I will."

Somehow. On her own, without him. As he closed the door behind him, a tear rolled down her cheek. Why so sudden? Why did he have to make it seem so final? He was still going to visit her, wasn't he? And she could visit him, for that matter. It wasn't like she was trapped in this place — she didn't need anybody's permission to go out.

She dashed the tear away angrily. How dare he pull this stunt on her, before she was ready with her speech. How dare he bring gifts one moment, and then walk out on her the next. He should have more courtesy. More sensitivity.

Well, she'd show him. Show him just how well she could manage on her own. She strode over to the table, snatching up a scrap of wrapping paper from the floor on the way, sat down and began to make a shopping list. Cleaning materials, toiletries, food — she'd get this place organised in no time.

***

He was sitting too close to her, hemming her in. She'd tried to inch away from him, make herself as small as possible against the window of the bus, but he was a large man and he sat with his legs spread wide apart. She'd had to angle her legs away from him in order to avoid his knee touching hers, but his hard shoulder still pressed up against her.

The bus had been half empty when he'd got on, yet he'd chosen to sit right next to her. She'd been looking out the window at the time, just like she was now, and had flinched when she'd felt him thump down heavily beside her. She hadn't dared look at him, but she knew this for a certainty: he hadn't needed to sit beside her.

Which was why she knew he was after her.

She stared blindly out of the window, rigid with fear and totally at a loss as to what to do. The bus reached her stop but she was too scared to get up and push past him. She didn't want him to know where she was going. He'd follow her. Walk into the clinic behind her and then find a way to hide until she was alone.

The bus moved on again and tears filled her eyes as the familiar and friendly sanctuary of the clinic slid past and out of sight. All she'd wanted was to buy a few groceries for the apartment. Only her second shopping trip out of the clinic, and this was what happened.

Monster Clark, she reminded herself. George's instructions from a couple of weeks ago filtered back to her in snatches: use your intelligence to combat the panic. Reason it out. Was this a real danger or just a figment of her imagination?

Well, she'd done that. He could have sat on an empty seat, but he'd chosen to sit beside her. Why else would he do that unless he was after her?

What to do? Again and again, the bus stopped but he didn't get off. Most likely he was waiting for the terminus, when they'd be thrown off by the driver and he'd have her at his mercy. Perhaps she should get off at the next stop and take her chances when he followed her.

But it was too late for that. The bus had reached a rough, industrial part of the city — an area she didn't know. There was no-one on the streets to run to; no houses or shops in which to seek help.

She was as good as dead.

He moved. Some of the pressure on her shoulder eased. She tensed — maybe this was it. They were reaching the terminus and he was getting ready to get off.

He stood up as the bus slowed and stopped. She heard the doors hiss open; waited for the driver to yell at her to get off.

Nothing.

The doors slammed shut again and the bus moved off. A large man sweeping a white cane before him walked past the window.

It took her a moment, but then the penny dropped and she realised with a sickening jolt that the blind man was none other than her theoretical assailant.

Relief flooded over her. How stupid she'd been. Of course he'd sat next to her; it was the seat closest to the door, and she even remembered now that there was a little sticker on the side of the bus indicating the seat was designated for the disabled and elderly.

But relief quickly turned to panic again as she realised that she had no idea where she was. Hastily, she stood up and got off at the next stop.

Then realised, as the bus drove away and left her standing in the middle of an industrial wasteland, that she'd made another mistake. She should have asked the bus driver for help.

She swung around in a circle, desperately searching for anything familiar or useful. Warehouses, boarded-up shops, wire fences and empty building plots surrounded her on all sides. She scanned the other side of the road for the bus stop which would take her back into town, but there was nothing. Presumably the bus ran on a circular route.

Okay, follow the bus stops back into town, she told herself. She could do this. She'd show everyone just how well she could cope. Uneasily, she set off back down the sidewalk. This didn't feel like the kind of neighbourhood you wanted to go for a stroll in unless you had a death-wish or were heavily armed.

Two minutes later, she reached a corner and had no idea which way to turn. She hadn't been paying any attention to the twists and turns of the bus route earlier, and there was no sign of the next bus stop down any of the streets.

"Help," she said, her lone voice sounding awfully forlorn in the desolate landscape.

How ridiculous, she scolded herself. No-one could hear her, and anyone who did happen to be within earshot was probably not the sort of person she'd want to meet in any case.

Although…

No, she wouldn't call Superman. She could do this. She'd got herself into his mess; she'd get herself out of it again. Besides, it wouldn't be fair to call him when he was trying to obey George and put some distance between them.

She picked a street and set off purposefully down it. If the bus stop wasn't down this street, she'd retrace her steps and try the next one. Easy.

Except she had no idea how far apart the bus stops should be. After walking for ages and feeling the beginnings of a blister developing on the back of her heel, she stopped. Still no bus stop, and the neighbourhood wasn't improving. If anything, it was getting worse. There were spent needles and broken bottles amongst the trash littering the street, and she'd just passed a drunk in a filthy raincoat, huddled in a corner and swigging from something in a brown paper bag.

She began to retrace her steps. She could do this, she really could.

"Got any spare change?" slurred the drunk.

She shook her head and hurried past.

"And sod you, too," he yelled after her.

She picked up speed. The corner seemed miles away, and she began to wonder if she'd even recognise it when she got there. Everywhere looked the same.

A burly man passed by on the other side of the street, dressed in black leathers from head to foot and bristling with metal studs and chains. Tattoos crawled up both arms. Somewhere distant an angry-sounding dog barked.

She broke into a jog, ignoring the pain in her heel. The corner must be coming up soon, she told herself. Any minute now.

Yes, this was it. She turned and slowed back down to a fast walk. The bus stop would be down this street, she was sure. Her luck couldn't be that bad. Lois Lane was rescuing herself, just like she always did. Like she should have done in the Congo. But this time she was going to get it right. She was going to get herself out of the mess.

She should never have allowed herself to get caught in the Congo. She'd known the dangers, known how to avoid them. The only reason she'd been captured was her own carelessness. She'd wanted the story too badly-

She froze. Off to her left, down a darkened street, a man was attacking a woman. He shoved her roughly against the wall, hauled her to her feet when she stumbled, and then pressed himself up against her. A hand clamped over her mouth and the other hand…

Lois ran. She'd be next, she was sure of it. She ran and ran, as fast as she could, until she was gasping and wheezing for breath. Still she ran, on and on, heedless of where she went so long as it was away from the terrible scene behind her.

Eventually, black spots began to swim in front of her eyes and she was forced to stop, her chest heaving and her throat hoarse from panting so heavily. She looked wildly around herself but nothing looked familiar.

The buildings crowded in on her. Every darkened doorway, every dim corner seemed to hold menace. She backed up against the nearest wall. "Help," she whispered. "Help, Superman." She hadn't intended to call him, but the words just leaked out of their own accord.

Anyway, she'd been too quiet. He'd never hear her.

Moments later, she heard a whoosh. Saw a familiar blue and red figure jogging towards her. "Lois? What are you doing here?"

He looked so solid and reassuring, standing before her in his suit: he was Superman, all confidence, power and strength, not drug-addict Clark.

She remembered the scene she'd fled from. "He's attacking her," she said quickly.

"Where?" He glanced up and down the street.

She gestured in the direction she thought she'd run from. "In a side street."

He nodded. "Stay right there," he commanded firmly, then became a blur heading the way she'd indicated.

Ten seconds later he was back. "I couldn't see anything," he said. "Are you sure it was up there?"

She eyed the street and shook her head sadly. "No. But it was somewhere close by."

"Okay." He whooshed away. Came back again moments later. "Still nothing. You're positive you saw something?"

She recalled the image she'd run from. It had been dark; the man had been in deep shadow. He'd been large and muscular, just like one of her captors. He'd pushed the woman against the wall, just like one of her captors. He'd gagged her with his hand, just like one of her captors. His other hand had pawed at the woman's clothing.

Just like one of her captors.

"I…I'm not sure," she said, faltering as she realised she could have misinterpreted what she'd seen. Especially in a district like this. "It was dark."

"Well, there's definitely nothing going on now," he said. "I even scanned inside some of the buildings in case they'd taken the fight indoors." He shrugged. "Nothing. Most people are just watching the ball game."

He thought she'd imagined it. She bit her lip: he was probably right. Either she'd seen nothing at all, or the couple had been engaged in perfectly consensual sex. Lois Lane, the flake, had uprooted a violent memory from Brazzaville and placed it in the middle of industrial Metropolis.

"Look, I'll check just one more time, okay?" he offered.

She nodded and waited while he disappeared a third time. They both knew it was pointless, that he was doing it for appearances' sake only, but she was grateful for his indulgence.

"Nothing," he reported a few moments later.

She nodded. "Thanks for checking." For pretending she hadn't totally lost her sense of reality. She raised a hand to her face to hide her wobbling chin; pretended to cough and clear her throat.

"Why are you here, of all places, anyway?" he asked.

"I…I got lost…" she said.

"I'll take you home," he replied immediately, coming forward to lift her into his arms.

She backed away from him. "No, I'm going to rescue myself," she said. "I'm doing it right this time."

His brow furrowed. "But you called me."

"I know, but it was a mistake," she insisted. "I'm okay."

"You don't look okay," he replied. "Why don't you let me take you—"

"No, you don't understand," she said. "I have to do this myself," she insisted, pressing herself back against the wall in case he tried to pick her up.

"Lois, you're not making any sense," he said. "What do you have to do yourself?"

"Find my way home," she said, ducking away from him and starting to walk down the street. She darted her gaze around at the buildings as she went, keeping alert against the dangers hiding in the shadows. She could do this.

"Lois, where are you going?" he called from behind her.

"Home," she said.

"The clinic's this way," he said.

She stopped.

"Lois, please let me help you," he said softly.

"I want to do it myself," she insisted.

"But you're not even walking in the right direction," he pointed out.

A tear ran down her cheek but she ignored it. She would not cry, dammit! She swivelled on the balls of her feet and set off again, avoiding his gaze as she walked towards him.

When she was level with him, he murmured, "Lois."

She stopped. "What?"

"I think you should let me take you back to the clinic," he said. "It'll take you hours to walk back."

"So?" she said. "The exercise will do me good."

"You're limping."

She nodded. "I've got a blister."

"All the more reason for me to take you, then," he said.

She felt her bottom lip quiver. She'd failed again. Lois Lane wasn't even capable of rescuing herself in her own home town. "Okay," she said, all her resistance suddenly draining from her. "Since you're here anyway."

As he lifted her into his arms, another tear rolled down her cheek. She dashed it away. "I'm not crying," she told him defiantly.

"Of course you're not," he murmured.

She buried her face in his shoulder and clung to his neck. "I'm still not crying," she sniffed.

A few minutes later she lifted her head. "You won't tell Francine about this, will you? Please?"

He frowned down at her. "Not if you don't want me to."

"I just made a mistake," she said. "Anyone can make a mistake."

"Sure they can."

"I don't want her to think I'm not managing on my own, because I am," she added. "She might say I can't have the apartment any more if she finds out about this."

"I won't say a word, Lois," he said.

"Thanks."

So much for being independent. So much for not needing him. How dare he come and rescue her and prove to her how much she needed him? She tightened her grip around his neck and pressed herself closer to his reassuringly solid bulk.

***

At her request, he set her down a block away from the clinic. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asked.

She nodded. "I'll be fine." The streets here were familiar so she had no fear of getting lost or encountering any kind of danger.

"I could change and walk you back—"

"I'm fine," she insisted, forcing a smile. "Thanks for…well, everything." She couldn't bring herself to say 'rescuing me.' Her failure still smarted too much for that.

"Well, then, I guess I should be going." He gave her a final worried glance and then turned away.

After a couple of paces he stopped and turned back to her, his cape blowing gently behind him in the breeze. "Don't ever hesitate to call me, okay? Any time, day or night. I'll be there for you."

Just like he was for everyone. "Sure," she replied. "I'll do that."

"I mean it, Lois," he said, taking a step forwards again. "What I said the other day, about being busy and not seeing you so often…I didn't mean we should never see each other. You're important to me — I…I don't want to lose…lose touch with you."

His features were suddenly taut, his anxiety to get his message across palpable. "Well, like I said," she said, striving for lightness in the face of his intensity, "you can visit me whenever you want."

"I'd like that." He smiled, a strained effort which did nothing to hide the worry behind his eyes. "Perhaps next week some time? Wednesday, maybe?"

She nodded. "It's a date. I'll start practicing recipes."

His smile relaxed a little. "Great! But don't go to any trouble for me. We can always get take away."

"And deny me my first proper chance to prove my self-sufficiency skills? No way! It's eat in or nothing."

He smiled broadly; a full-on, eyes twinkling, ear-splitting grin. "I'll look forward to it."

As he glided effortless into the sky and scudded through the clouds, she reflected that perhaps Clark needed her just as much as she needed him. The change in his mood from worrying that he'd sent her the wrong signals the other day, that she might think he didn't want to see her any more, to when he'd accepted her invitation, was like the difference between night and day.

She held such sway over his emotions. If he couldn't see her, he was unhappy; if he could see her, he was happy. Perhaps she'd been wrong to be awed by the power of his feelings for her. Perhaps she should instead be awed by the power she herself wielded over his emotions.

***

George's consulting room door loomed before her again. This time, it prodded accusingly at her guilty conscience. Why haven't you told him, it demanded. You've had two chances to tell him since you last saw George and you've ducked away from the issue both times.

George would not be pleased.

"I'm disappointed, Lois," George said ten minutes later, after she'd confessed her failure to comply with his instructions. "I thought we had an understanding."

"We did, George," she replied. "But unfortunately my head and my heart aren't exactly working together as a team at the moment. My head wants to do the right thing, but my heart doesn't want to co-operate."

George laughed. "Well, maybe today we can figure out a way to knock the two of them back together again. Have you seen Clark at all in the past week?"

She nodded. "A couple of times, but the timing just wasn't right. I…I guess I wasn't in control of the situation enough. Hadn't prepared my speech…that kind of thing."

"Okay, so let's set you up so that you are in control," said George. "How do you think we can do that?"

"Well, he's coming over for dinner next Wednesday," she said. "I guess that puts me in better control. I can decide what to say to him before he even arrives."

"Exactly. You can even figure out how you're going to broach the subject," George said, who then went on to help her plan the entire evening, from the moment Clark arrived to the end of dinner.

"And once you've done all that, you can go on to ask him what you asked me last week," George finished up. "It should flow nicely on from the other stuff."

"You mean, why did he pick on me as the object of his obsession?" she queried.

"Yeah." George's eyes twinkled. "Just don't hold me responsible for his answer. I can coach you to say and ask the right things, but after that you're on your own."

She nodded.

"I will tell you this — believe what he tells you, even when it seems a little…out there. He's not crazy, despite occasional appearances to the contrary." George grinned.

She frowned. "You know, I get the feeling that you, Alice and Perry know far more about this than you're letting on. Not only that, but you know things that I have just as much right — probably more — to know than any of you. I seem to be at the centre of this…whatever it is…yet I'm the one who's kept in the dark."

George nodded. "You're absolutely right, of course. I'm sorry if it looks like we're engaging in some kind of conspiracy against you, but trust me — everything will make sense when you talk to Clark."

She grimaced. "I hope so. None of this would have happened if I hadn't gone to the Congo, so the least I can do now is try and fix the whole darned mess."

"Oh?" said George, peering at her over his glasses. "Care to run that by me again?"

She squirmed a bit under his scrutiny. He had very piercing eyes at times, and she was suddenly regretting what had been meant as a throwaway remark. She shrugged. "I just mean I should have been more careful. Not got caught."

"Really." He pulled his glasses off and leant forward, studying her intently. "Seems to me there was a whole lot more than just regret at getting caught in what you just said. None of this would have happened, you said." He waved his glasses at her. "Define 'this'."

"George…I don't know," she said. "It was just a throwaway remark. It didn't mean anything."

"Oh, I think it did," he insisted. "What wouldn't have happened, Lois? Take me through it step by step. You persuaded Perry to let you go to the Congo, right?"

"Yes." She rolled her eyes. "You know all this." How she'd been pursuing the big story, how she'd dreamt of journalism awards, how Perry hadn't wanted her to go, not least because an American journalist had disappeared under similar circumstances the previous year.

"But you got caught."

"Yes." She didn't elaborate on that either. Everything that could be said on the subject had already been gone over in painful, painstaking detail. She didn't feel like repeating any of it.

"Which wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gone to the Congo."

"Yes."

"What else wouldn't have happened?"

"I wouldn't be here, talking to you."

George smiled. "You'd be out chasing down hot leads."

"Exactly," she replied. "I'd be…normal."

He chuckled. "No such thing. Just various shades of abnormality — I can do you an hour-long lecture on the subject if you're interested. Two hours if you ask nicely."

She shook her head. "No thanks, George."

"No? I've got slides…visual aids…? No? Okay, tell me some more things that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gone to the Congo, then."

"Well…I'd have been working at the Planet when Clark arrived," she replied. "So there wouldn't have been any need for him to search for me, because I'd already have been there. In fact, I doubt he'd have fixated on me at all."

He raised an eyebrow. "How do you know that?"

"People tend to fixate on the unattainable, don't they? Not the familiar. Not what's right in front of their noses," she said. "I'd have been too…ordinary."

"I see. So Clark wouldn't have fallen in love with you because you were too boring."

Why did her own words sound so stupid when George repeated them back to her? She glared at him defiantly. "Exactly."

"Okay, and I'm guessing that because he wouldn't have fixated on you, he wouldn't have turned to drugs either when he couldn't find you?" asked George.

She glared some more. "Yes."

George nodded sagely. "Wow. Stunning logic, Lois. I'm impressed." He slipped his glasses back on and settled back in his chair. "Let me see if I've got this right. You forced Perry to let you go to the Congo, on the trail of a big story that you were sure would earn you a Kerth, maybe even a Pulitzer. You made a rookie mistake and got kidnapped. Am I right so far?"

"Yes."

"And because of all that—"

The door suddenly burst open, spilling a loose-limbed and slightly unkempt Clark into the room. He was grinning from ear to ear, but what really caught Lois's attention were his bright red Superman boots, which were totally at odds with the sober work suit he was wearing.

"Hey, George!" he exclaimed loudly. "How are you, man?"

He was high, she realised with shock. Drugged up to the eyeballs and apparently without a care in the world. Stumbling slightly as he made his way towards them, he chuckled at his own clumsiness as if it were the best joke he'd ever heard. This was a Clark she'd never expected — never wanted — to meet.

"Shit!" muttered George underneath his breath. "Sorry," he murmured sideways to Lois, before raising his voice to address Clark.

"What are you doing, Clark?" he said. "You know you can't come in here when I'm with another patient."

Behind Clark, Lois saw George's secretary, an anxious, harried fifty-something woman hovering at the door. "I'm sorry, George, I couldn't stop him—"

"Don't worry, Ivy," said George. "I'll deal with this."

Ivy nodded and retreated quickly, while George raised his ample bulk from his chair and intercepted Clark on his weaving path across George's carpet. Shabby, rotund psychologist faced off lean, fit superhero, and appeared by far the stronger contender despite the mismatch in physical appearance.

"Hey, Lois," called Clark, peering around George's vast bulk. "Nice sweater."

George gripped Clark's arm firmly and direct him towards a small sofa near the door. "Sit."

"Sure!" Clark plonked himself down on the sofa. "You know, you really shouldn't use the 's' word to Lois," he said earnestly. "It's rude."

"Yeah, well it's not every day I see you as high as a kite, buddy," replied George heavily. "Are you going to sit there quietly while I talk to Lois?"

"Okay," said Clark. "So long as you're nice to her."

George nodded and crossed back to Lois. "I'm sorry, Lois, but you can see the state he's in. We'll have to finish this another time."

"Okay," she murmured, glancing over at Clark. "Is he going to be okay? Will it be like last time when it wears off?"

George looked down at her grimly. "Probably. I'm going to see if I can persuade him to stay here. Something tells me he's going to need us."

"I always need you, George," called Clark heartily from his sofa. "That's why I came to see you — knew you'd know what to do."

George grimaced. "As you'll have noticed, he has a tendency to eavesdrop when his inhibitions are loosened by the red stuff." He twisted around to gaze back at Clark. "Don't you, buddy?"

Clark grinned shamelessly. "Yup. So what's the plan, George? See, I brought it with me because I knew you'd know what to do with it." He dug a hand into his jacket pocket and brought out a bright red, glowing lump of rock.

"Oh, hell!" exclaimed George. "No wonder…" He shot across to Clark, surprising Lois with his athletic burst of speed. "Hand it over, buddy," he said, holding out an open hand.

"'kay," replied Clark, placing it into George's palm.

No sooner had George begun wrapping his fingers around the rock, than Clark snatched it away from him again. "You didn't say the magic word," he reprimanded.

"Which is?" asked George.

Clark gazed impishly up at George. "Wouldn't be magic if I told you."

George sighed. "Please?"

"See, now, that wasn't so hard, was it?" replied Clark, placing the rock in George's open hand again. "You have to learn to be polite when there are women present."

"Oh, give me a break!" drawled George. He glanced at Lois. "Look after him while I get rid of this, okay?"

She gulped and nodded.

***

Alone with Clark and in charge again. Boy, anyone would think she was a nurse in this place, not one of the patients.

And as soon as George had left, Clark had started wandering around the room, peering at George's bookshelves and studying the prints on his wall with great fascination. She watched him uneasily, not at all confident of her ability to cope with his volatile behaviour.

"What do you think?" he said suddenly, pointing to a copy of Monet's Water Lilies.

She eyed the picture, wondering what he might expect her to think. "Um…nice flowers?"

He shook his head. "Beautiful flowers. Just like you."

She smiled wanly. "Thank you."

He prowled around the room a bit more, picked up a magazine, flicked over a few pages and discarded it. Grabbed a cushion from an armchair, plumped it up and tossed it back. "Did I tell you I love you?" he asked abruptly. "Don't think I did. Lois Lane, I love you." He grinned broadly at her, clearly pleased with his declaration.

Little did he know that this wasn't news to her. She bit her lip, feeling guilty all over again for her eavesdropping, for not telling him what she knew. "I like you too, Clark," she answered. Guilt, too, that he was like this because of her. If only she hadn't gone to the Congo-

"Like? Only like?" he pouted. "You must love me just a little bit." He leant backwards and upwards into a mid-air backwards somersault taken at a very leisurely pace, landing somewhat clumsily on the other side of the room. Straightening up, he spread his arms wide like a circus performer and grinned again. "I'm very lovable."

"Yes, you are, Clark." Boy, she just wished he'd drop this particular conversation.

"Good, so you do love me." He floated upwards again, hit the ceiling with his head and came crashing back down to the floor with a thump. "Oops."

"I…don't you think you should sit down? George said you should sit." He was making her nervous with his antics, and besides, he didn't look all that steady on his feet. Or in the air.

He grinned. "Good old George. Okay, I'll sit."

To her chagrin, he came and sat right next to her on George's couch, making her flinch as he invaded her personal space without warning. Carefully, she edged a couple of inches away from him, feeling a kernel of panic fluttering in her belly.

"What happened, Clark?" she ventured. "Where did you get the kryptonite?"

He frowned. "Those nice art thieves sent it to me in the mail." He dug into his pocket again. "See?"

He thrust a crumpled piece of paper at her. Gingerly, she took it from him and studied it.

*'Dear Superman,

Thank you for the painting. Here's a small token of our appreciation. Enjoy.

Love,

An Art Lover.

PS — There's more where this came from.'*

Lois felt tears prick her eyes, her growing panic forgotten. "Oh, Clark," she sighed. He already felt bad that they'd got away with one of the paintings. This was just going to rub salt into an already very painful wound.

When he sobered up, of course.

"I didn't know what else to do, so I came here," he said, his voice suddenly sounding terribly forlorn. His expression, when she looked up at him, was raw and vulnerable; totally lacking in the false jollity he'd brought into the room.

"Good plan," she replied, the words catching in her throat. For a moment, it seemed that the real Clark was sitting beside her, a man who'd been deeply hurt and humiliated by this latest turn of events. She wanted to comfort him, to show him that there were people who'd stick by him through this new ordeal, who respected him and knew that he was stronger than the criminals.

But then, as quickly as he'd changed, he changed again, faster than quicksilver.

"George is coming back," he said, his face splitting into a wide grin again. The moment was gone.

***

Lois sat up in bed and flicked her bedside light on. It was no use. Memories of how wretched and miserable Clark had felt last time he'd come down from a kryptonite high kept replaying in her head. She worried that he was lying alone somewhere in the clinic, suffering hot and cold chills and unable to ask for the help he needed. She remembered how he'd wanted her to sit with him last time, and worried that none of the clinic staff would have the time or patience to do that for him.

She hadn't seen him since morning. When George had returned from disposing of the red kryptonite, he'd brought Caroline, the head nurse with him. Clark had given her a chirpy welcome and promptly floated up to the ceiling.

George had eyed his patient balefully for a moment before muttering, "He gives a whole new meaning to the word 'high', doesn't he?"

Caroline and Lois had shared a weak smile, and then Caroline and George together had spent the next ten minutes talking Clark back down again. Once he was back on terra firma, Caroline had placed a guiding hand on his back and led him smartly from the room, using a surprisingly brusque tone that seemed to work wonders on him.

Lois had been impressed with how easily the slight woman had handled her powerful charge. He'd seemed so erratic and unmanageable.

George had shrugged. "He's usually pretty amiable when he's high, and he knows and trusts Caroline."

And that had been the last time she'd seen Clark. George had assured her that they'd take good care of him and that she'd be best advised to keep her distance until he was fully recovered. "Let him keep his dignity," he'd said.

She understood. She'd seen that moment of humiliation in George's office. So she'd kept away all day, but now the lack of information was driving her nuts. Not to mention the guilt.

Seeing him so distorted by his drug, so totally unlike himself, had made her want to cry for him. The effects were so cruel and degrading, and it wasn't as if he were even blissfully unaware of what he was like when he was high. He knew. He hated it. Hated himself.

She glanced at her clock. Two twenty-three. He'd be at his absolute worst round about now, if last time was any indication.

Pushing back the bedclothes, she clambered out of bed, shouldered on her dressing gown and shuffled into her bed slippers.

The bright neon lights outside in the corridor made her wince after the dim light of her studio apartment. Screwing her eyes up, she made her way to the nurses station at the end of the corridor.

"Hey, Lois," murmured Anne, the duty nurse, as she approached. "Can't sleep?" She flipped open a chart on her desk and glanced at it. "I can give you—"

"I don't want anything," Lois interrupted. "I just wondered if you know whether Clark's okay."

Anne shook her head. "Sorry. He's not on this floor."

"Where is he?" she asked.

Anne hesitated, her brow furrowing as she considered Lois's question. "I'm not sure I should—"

"Please, Anne," said Lois. "I just need to know if he's all right."

"Well…I guess it can't do any harm," replied Anne. "I think he's upstairs."

Lois smiled. "Thanks."

As she turned to make her way to the stairs, Anne said, "I doubt they'll let you see him, you know."

She shrugged. "May as well try. Even if they can only tell me how he is, it's better than tossing and turning in bed."

She trudged up the echoing, institutional-grey staircase and turned into another corridor which was an exact replica of the one she'd just left. The nurses station was at the end, just as on her floor, but as she passed a darkened dispensary on her way to the station, a small movement caught her eye.

Someone was in there.

Her heart leapt in fright. She peered down the corridor to the distant nurses station, where a male nurse appeared to be completely engrossed in whatever he was reading. She could alert him, perhaps get him to check it out — but then again, maybe this was nothing. Perhaps this was a monster Clark situation, she thought, remembering George's advice. She was looking for danger where none existed.

Still, it wouldn't do any harm to check for herself. Cautiously, she made her way back to the open door of the dispensary and peered in. Yes, she'd imagined it-

Oh, God, no she hadn't! There was definitely a shadowy figure moving amongst the dispensing trolleys, heading for a large cabinet at the end of the room.

She turned to run down to the nurses station — but suddenly the carriage and build of the figure she'd glimpsed seemed very familiar, and she knew, without a doubt, who the person in the dispensary was.

Clark.

What was he doing, skulking around the dispensary? Nothing in there would work on him, she was pretty sure. And anyway, if he wanted drugs — something to help him sleep, maybe — he'd surely ask one of the nurses.

But not if the drug he wanted was red kryptonite.

Oh, no…

She turned back into the room, hovering just inside the door. He was standing in front of the large cabinet now, a still, dark figure silently brooding on the choice which lay before him.

Please, Clark, don't do it. Perhaps she should stop him. Walk up to him and plead with him, drag him away, or shame him, even, into leaving and going back to bed. She could put herself between him and the cabinet; force him to push her aside. Anything to stop him destroying himself.

But would he care; would he listen to her? She had little idea of his state of mind when he was this desperate. Perhaps he was so single-minded by this point that he'd ignore her.

On the other hand, he'd probably still respond to the clinic staff. She could fetch the nurse.

Instinctively, though, she knew that the decision to take a hit or not had to be Clark's. If he was interrupted before he made the choice himself, he'd have to live with the uncertainty that he might have given in to his craving if left alone. The self- doubt would eat away at him terribly, she was sure. So really it was better that she remain in the shadows and hope he made the right choice himself.

An intense, narrow beam of light hit the side of the cabinet, making her jump. Then she saw that Clark was the source, which meant that he was using his laser vision to break the lock. Her heart sank.

Moments later he was reaching into the cabinet and drawing out a small box. He placed the box on a nearby desk and sat down in front of it.

Her hand went up to her mouth and tears pricked the backs of her eyes as she watched him prepare to take his hit. He must be hurting so badly, she thought, if he was this desperate. She'd stop him, she decided. If he actually opened the box, she would go right in there and take it away from him. No matter what he said or did, she'd get that box away from him and carry it as far away as she could go with it. There was no way she could stand by and watch him do this to himself.

He seemed to sit contemplating the box for ages. At one point, he laid his arms flat on the desk and rested his forehead on them. He was so still, she thought he might be dozing, but then his shoulders began to shake, and the heart-wrenching truth dawned on her that he was actually crying.

Tears ran down her own cheeks as she watched him struggle. He was fighting so hard, so bravely against himself. A weaker man would have given in by now, but not Clark. She wanted to rush in and comfort him; tell him how incredibly brave and strong he was.

But this was his struggle. He needed to finish it on his own.

He sat up again. His hand reached out to the lid of the box.

NO! she screamed silently.

His hand paused on the lid and for one awful second she thought he'd heard her telepathically. Frantically, she began to think up answers to the questions he'd ask her — what was she doing here, how long had she been watching him, what right did she have?

There were no right answers.

But then just as she thought he would turn around and confront her, his hand moved abruptly away from the box and closed around a nearby glass paperweight. It crumbled into dust in his grip.

Then he was on his feet, grabbing the box, rushing to the darkened window and flinging it wide open. His arm reached backwards and then hurled the box up into the night.

<<You did it.>>

His face whipped round and she realised with horror that she'd whispered her thoughts aloud. Wild, half-crazed eyes bored into her across the darkened room, his tear-streaked cheeks glistening in the indirect light from the corridor. He looked ill; like a man who'd stepped through the gates of hell.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, shrinking back against the door jam.

He uttered a strangled cry of pain and launched himself straight through the open window and out into the night.

She rushed to the window to call after him, but he was gone.

***

"You don't understand!" she cried for the umpteenth time. "He's sick. You have to find him."

Why wouldn't they listen to her? She'd raised the alarm immediately; rushed to the nurses station and told the duty nurse what had happened, but that had been ages ago and still they hadn't done anything. Now Francine was there, arguing with her, telling her she was over-wrought and needing to calm down, when what she really needed was for someone — anyone — to go after Clark and make sure he was all right.

"He'll be fine, Lois," soothed Francine. "He's quite capable of looking after himself. He just needs to cool off a little — like you do."

"I don't need to cool off!" she snapped. "I need for you to call George — he'll know where Clark is."

"It's the middle of the night," protested Francine. "I can't just call George and ask him where his patient is. Besides, Clark's free to go wherever he pleases. It's not up to us to chase him down if he leaves the clinic premises."

"Maybe not, but I can," said Lois. She stood up and began making her way to the stairs. She'd use the pay phone in the foyer to call Information, and then once she'd got his number, she'd phone George.

"Lois, please," said Francine, hurrying after her. "All you're doing is upsetting yourself. The chances of finding Clark are almost nil, you know that. Especially with his abilities."

"But I have to try," she sobbed. "I made this happen, so I have to fix it."

"It's not your fault," said Francine.

"Yes it is!" she cried. "That's what you don't understand — what you've never understood! Everything is my fault."

"Lois, that's not true! Please stop this."

She felt Francine's hand on her shoulder as she ran down the stairs, shrugged it off and continued her headlong rush down to the foyer. Spilling into the brightly lit entrance, she glanced wildly around, searching frantically for the pay phone. Spotted it near the doors, rushed over and lifted the receiver. Delved in her pocket for money-

No! She was still in her dressing gown — no money. Slamming the receiver back down, she rushed out into the night.

Where are you, Clark?

She swung around, her gaze darting in all directions, up to the sky, over the rooftops, into the distance in both directions, across the street, where the park loomed dark and dangerous in the dead of night. Where would he go?

His agonised face flashed across her memory. Streaked with half- dried tears, his eyes red and puffy, his features creased in pain and anguish. She'd caused that. Her stupid drive for fame and glory, her stupid mistakes, her stupid breakdown.

She looked towards the park again. So dark it could swallow you up. So dark you could hide who you really were. Hide from yourself.

She drew in a deep breath and crossed the street.

***

The small stones on the shingle paths between the flower beds cut painfully through the thin soles of her slippers. Already, she'd stepped in something squishy and slippery, could smell the stench of dog dirt drifting up from her foot. At least, she thought grimly, the smell might keep muggers at bay.

The park was almost pitch black, the only light coming from the buildings surrounding it. She could make out the path and the shapes of the bushes surrounding her, but otherwise all was blackness. She hugged herself and walked as quickly as was possible in her soft slippers, keeping her gaze rigidly forwards at all times lest she spy something frightening in the shadows surrounding her.

The park bench seemed miles away. Logically, she knew it was only five or ten minutes from the entrance to the park, but every step which took her deeper into the black wilderness was a step too far. She must be crazy, wandering through a city centre park in the middle of the night.

Wait a minute, she *was* crazy! Well, that was all right, then. She was only doing what crazy people did all the time-

There he was. A hunched-up, black shape at one end of the bench.

At least, she hoped it was him. God help her if it was anyone else.

She approached cautiously, studying the shape and size of the figure to confirm her hopes. Yes, it was definitely Clark.

Silently, she sat gingerly down at the other end of the bench. He was huddled in on himself, staring off to one side. She didn't think he'd noticed her arrival, but she waited in any case, not exactly sure what to do now that she'd found him.

Just knowing that he was here, alive and unharmed, was a relief, in fact. His anguish had been so acute, she'd been scared he might go and do something really stupid. But he was okay. Relatively okay.

"Clark?"

His head whipped around. She tensed, feeling the intensity of his stare even though his face was in darkness.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

His face turned away from her. "You shouldn't be here," he said huskily.

"Neither should you," she answered.

"Go back," he said. "It's not safe. I can't protect you." He moved, huddling further in on himself. "Not…when I'm like this."

"You need help," she said simply. "I came to help you."

His snorted derisively. "I'm way past anything you could do for me."

She flinched, hurt by his blunt dismissal. "Oh." And suddenly, she felt quite stupid and inadequate. However had she thought she could be of any use? Lois, the flake, helping someone in trouble? Who was she kidding?

"But George," she began. "He—"

"Not even George can fix this," he said. "Go back, Lois. You don't want to waste your time on a junkie."

"But I do," she insisted. "And anyway, you're not a junkie. George says he doesn't think you'd ever take a hit willingly. Not nowadays."

"Oh, he does, does he? Good old George."

"Yes, good old George," she retorted, her temper flaring in defence of the therapist. "You should listen to him more often instead of feeling sorry for yourself."

Her outburst provoked complete silence. Had she touched a nerve? Or did he think she had no right to tell him what to do?

"You don't understand," he muttered.

"Only because you never tell me anything," she replied.

Silence again. Same questions — was she getting through to him, or didn't he want to hear her? Her temper flared again. She knew she was right, dammit! He did need to listen to George, and it was about time he started sharing more of himself with her. She'd had it up to here with being the only one in this…friendship?…who spilled their guts out in the open.

"Go back, Lois" he repeated.

"No." She crossed her arms defiantly and hugged them tightly against herself, trying to quell the shivers running though her. Even her teeth were chattering. She clamped them together to shut them up.

"Is…is that your teeth?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied grumpily. "In case you hadn't noticed, it's freezing out here."

He shifted on the seat, pulled something over his head. "Here." A garment dangled from his outstretched hand.

She accepted the sweatshirt and tugged it on over her dressing gown. "Thanks." The sweatshirt still contained his warmth and, temporarily at least, her shivers were quelled.

"Better?"

"A bit."

He sighed heavily. "Come over here."

She scooted along the bench and ducked under his arm. His body felt reassuringly warm as she huddled into him.

"Better now?" he asked, wrapping his other arm around her as well.

She nodded, secure and happier in the cocoon of his embrace. "Much."

He shook his head. "This is crazy."

"Then that's okay, because we're crazy too," she said. "We both attend a clinic for crazy people, after all."

He chuckled softly. "True."

She seized the lighter moment to plunge back into their earlier conversation. "Clark, I'm sorry about tonight," she said. "I shouldn't have intruded on your privacy like that."

She felt him tense up. He didn't respond, but through the thin layers of clothing between them, she could feel the tremors of withdrawal still running through his body. Almost, just almost, she wished she could give him what he needed. Perhaps a tiny sliver would be just enough to calm his shakes, to take away the agony of a thousand nerve-endings all jangling simultaneously.

But no. That way lay the path to destruction. The only route was total abstinence, and she'd do anything in her power to help him stick to that route. It was the least she could do after everything he'd done for her. After she'd messed up so badly in the first place.

"Please talk to me," she begged. "I know how much you're hurting — I saw it with my own eyes. Maybe I can't help, but I can listen."

She waited, feeling his chest heave with shaky breaths, sensing his inward struggle.

"Sometimes all you need is someone to listen," she prompted. "Like last time, remember? You told me what had happened, how you were feeling—"

"I've lost it, Lois," he whispered, his voice cracking. "I thought…I thought I had it all under control, but after today… I've lost everything, including you."

"No, you haven't," she said. "I'm still here — I'm not going anywhere." She took a deep breath. "Clark, I know. I know how you feel about me."

"No, you don't. Not really—"

"I do," she insisted. "I overheard you and George one day last week. I was on my way to the gym when I heard your voice through an open door. I realised almost immediately that you were in therapy, and of course, I should have carried on, but I didn't. I heard everything, Clark. I know about your search for me. I know you turned to drugs when you couldn't find me. I know…I know you told George that you love me."

"Oh, God…"

"It's okay, Clark," she said. "I admit, I was scared at first. Really scared. But then I realised there was no reason to be scared. You're not going to try and seize control of me. You're not going to try and make me into someone I'm not. You've always let me be my own person and there's no reason for me to suspect you'd ever change that. You've shown nothing but respect for me."

He made a strangled sound in his throat. "I wanted to show you so much more than that."

"You have. And you will. If you let me in. Tell me what you're feeling, what you're thinking."

He sighed. "I want to…there's so much I've wanted to share with you, but I didn't want to scare you. Put pressure on you. You have your own problems to deal with."

She nodded. "And George told you to back off. It was good advice at the time — I can't deny it would have been better if I didn't know all this stuff yet. But we're here now, Clark. I do know how you feel about me, but I haven't run screaming into the hills. I'm still here." She slid an arm across his chest and hugged him. "I can't love you back yet, but I do want to be with you."

"But tonight…"

"Tonight I saw an incredibly brave man fight a battle that he never even chose to enter. Not only that, but he won," she said. "You have no idea how proud I was of you, Clark."

"You don't understand," he insisted. "Earlier, when I realised what was in that package they sent me…I should have thrown it away there and then." He drew in a slow, shuddering breath. "Before…before I let myself get totally out of my mind."

"You're being too hard on yourself," she told him. "It took you by surprise, just like at the art gallery. You weren't ready to resist the temptation."

"Maybe. I thought I was stronger than that, though," he said. "I thought I'd finally kicked this thing."

"And you have," she said. "George believes you have. He's the expert, Clark — he's dealt with hundreds of cases like yours, so he should know, shouldn't he?" She straightened up to face him, to see if her words were making any sort of impact. "But this is different," she continued. "You can't be expected to avoid it if the stuff is right under your nose. Don't forget, I've seen what drugs do to people. I lived in a drug dealer's house, remember? The addicts there would submit themselves to just about anything if they could see their reward waiting for them somewhere in the room."

His mouth formed into a taut line at her mention of the atrocities in Brazzaville. "I still hate that you went through all that."

She nodded. "But at least I can talk about it openly now. That's because of you, of course," she reminded him. "We wouldn't be having this conversation at all if you hadn't helped me so much."

He sighed. "You know, it's ironic," he said. "Right after I first met you, I went out to Smallville with George and destroyed all the red kryptonite." His mouth twisted. "Well, at least, I thought I did. Anyway, I wanted to make sure I was totally free of the stuff, that I'd never be tempted to get high ever again. I…I did it for you, Lois. I wanted to be strong for you. I didn't want you to see me like this, or like I was yesterday afternoon. And yet…"

"I know," she murmured. "But you've seen me at my absolute worst, too. Believe me, sometimes I wish you hadn't." When he began to apologise for that, she interrupted him. "The point is that we've both seen each other at our very best and worst — well, in my case, maybe not my absolute best, but one of these days you will."

He raised an eyebrow at that, and she allowed herself quarter of a smile. "Yeah, I don't plan on being like this for ever. Anyway, as I was about to say, at least I feel like I now know the real Clark Kent." She reached out to cup his face in her hand. "Before, I only knew half of him."

He closed his eyes, laid his warm hand over her chilly one at his cheek. "Now you know the half that would take a piece of red kryptonite from you right this minute if you offered it to him."

Her heart ached for him. Would he? "I don't think you would," she said. "The man I saw tonight in the dispensary wouldn't."

He shook his head and fell into a deep, brooding silence.

She waited. Stroked his cheek gently with her thumb. Let him disappear inside himself. Sensed his emotions dip and sway in and out of his control.

And when he was ready, when he needed it, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tight. "Hey," she murmured. "It's okay."

"I don't deserve you, Lois Lane," he whispered over her shoulder.

"And I don't deserve you, Clark Kent," she replied. "Look, why don't we go back to my apartment and talk some more there? I'm freezing my butt off here."

He shook with a half-laugh, half-sob. "Okay."

***

To their joint surprise, the clinic was in uproar when they returned. There was a police squad car parked outside the entrance with its blue lights flashing, and indoors, they discovered a huddle of people in the middle of the foyer, including both Francine and George and a fresh-faced cop barely out of high school.

When George spotted Lois and Clark, the air became blue with expletives. He appeared to be furious and relieved in equal parts, although Lois wasn't too clear on who exactly was the target of his emotions, as he seemed to be yelling at everyone. Eventually, it took the boy-policeman to calm things down, suggesting to George that since the young couple were clearly exhausted and still pretty shaken, perhaps everyone ought to go to bed and leave the reprisals for tomorrow.

George snorted at the youngster, who couldn't have been more than twenty himself, calling Lois and Clark 'the young couple', but grumpily agreed that he was probably right.

Lois and Clark made a hasty exit before George got his second wind.

In her apartment, Lois let Clark make coffee while she disposed of her ruined and smelly slippers and swapped his sweatshirt for a woolly sweater of her own. No doubt she looked totally unattractive in the resultant ensemble, but she was past caring.

When she returned to the living area, there were two steaming mugs of coffee on the floor beside the sofa and Clark was sitting at one end.

"Here," she said, handing him his sweatshirt.

"Thanks," he replied, pulling it on.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, taking a seat beside him.

He gave her a wan smile. "I'll live."

"Do you want to rest?" she suggested, because even in normal indoor lighting, he looked pale. "I said we'd talk, but maybe you should lie down—"

"I'd rather talk."

"Okay." She sipped some coffee. Smiled nervously. "Funny how you can't think of what to say when you've finally got the chance to say anything you like."

He nodded. "Yeah."

They both sipped coffee. Of course, she knew what she wanted to ask, but when he was feeling lousy and so deeply depressed, she felt bad pressurising him with questions she knew he'd rather not answer.

On the other hand, there was the band-aid principle — get all the painful bits over quickly so they could begin to move onto happier things. And there was a good chance he'd open up to her right now, when his guard was already down.

"There is one thing, I guess…" she began tentatively.

"What's that?" He glanced at her innocently, quite unaware of the storm she was about to unleash on him.

Oh, boy… Band-aid, she reminded herself. Rip it off quickly. "Why me, Clark?" she blurted out. "Why did you pick on me to obsess…to search for, when you'd never even met me? I thought maybe you'd seen my picture in the Planet, but then I realised I've only appeared a couple of times. So unless you read the entire archive, it's not likely you'd have found me. So why? What's so special about me?"

His shoulders sagged and he bowed his head to pinch the bridge of his nose wearily between thumb and forefinger. Immediately, she wanted to hug him and apologise for adding to his distress, but then, to her surprise, he straightened up and smiled tightly at her. "Everything about you is special, Lois."

She gulped, not sure how to deal with such glowing flattery. "Th…thank you. But you didn't answer my question."

"No," he replied. "The thing is, you probably won't believe me when I tell you why."

"Try me," she said immediately. "Everyone's already warned me it might be a little difficult to believe, so I'm ready to keep an open mind."

"Everyone?"

She bit her lip. "Perry and Alice…George. I needed to know, Clark," she defended herself. "Part of what scared me was not knowing why you'd picked me, so I asked anyone who might have a clue. They refused to say, said it was your story to tell."

"Oh."

"Actually, George said to keep in mind that you're not crazy, so I'm pretty much prepared for anything," she added.

He rolled his eyes. "Gee, thanks, George," he said. "Okay, then I guess I'm backed into a corner here. He's right, of course — it is a crazy story, but it's all true…"

***

Lois bent over the bathroom sink and waited for her head to stop spinning.

Alternate universes. Time travel. Another Lois. Another Clark. Lana.

Around and around they went in her head, tumbling over each other, making no sense, just disjointed words and phrases, tumbling and jumbling together…

She ran the cold tap and splashed some more water on her face. Yep, that was real. Real water, real stinging coldness as the water hit her hot cheeks. Real taps, real sink.

Real towel, dabbing her face.

A soft knock on the door. "Are you okay, Lois?"

She'd been in here too long. Time to exit and face…what? Reality?

She opened the door on his anxious face. "I'm fine," she announced as her knees gave way under her and he caught her in his arms. Then he was scooping her up off the floor and she was clinging to his solid shoulders as he carried her into her bedroom and lowered her onto her bed.

He stepped back and, embarrassed by her weakness, she quickly pushed herself up to sit leaning against the headboard. Made sure her nightie and dressing gown were appropriately arranged for maximum decorum.

"Shall I call someone?" he asked, looking worriedly down at her. "Carolyn, perhaps, or Frank—"

"I'm fine," she insisted. "I'm just not used to staying up so late, I guess."

"I should go," he said immediately. "I should never have stayed—"

"Don't go," she said. "We need to finish this."

"But you nearly fainted—"

"I'm fine," she repeated. "I won't sleep anyway until we've talked this out."

"Well…maybe you should at least get under the covers," he suggested.

She smiled. "Yes, mother." Snuggling up under her blankets suddenly seemed like a very attractive prospect, though, so she did as he suggested.

Once she was settled and actually feeling very snug and comfortable, he perched on the side of her bed, his arms sliding around himself in a familiar gesture. He could do with a bed himself, she reflected.

"So…you haven't asked me anything about what I told you," he observed. "Do you believe it?"

She shrugged. "Well, I have to, don't I?" she replied. "Unless I think that you, Perry, Alice and George are all in some vast conspiracy against me — and even I'm not that paranoid — then it has to be true. Incredible, but true."

"And…?"

She drew her knees up under the bedclothes and hugged them. He'd explained how he'd met and worked with this other Lois a couple of times. How he'd come to realise, through her, just how much was missing in his life. He'd become Superman because of her, split up with Lana, indirectly because of her.

This woman must be some force to be reckoned with.

"This other me," she said. "What was she like?"

He nodded as if he'd been expecting that question. "Well, physically, she was a lot like you. Same build, same skin tone, same colour hair — although hers was shorter than yours- same features. Personality-wise, it's harder to compare. I mean, she was pretty headstrong, knew her own mind, generally got what she wanted one way or another. You…well, you haven't really been in a position to be all those things. Although I've seen flashes," he added with a smile.

Yes, sometimes she surprised herself. Like making George let her go home with Clark that day, or ensuring that Francine invited Clark to her therapy sessions.

But this other Lois sounded far more feisty than she could ever be. "She sounds like she was pretty smart, too," she said.

"She was. It was great working with her." He sighed. "But it was also hard, because she was really missing her husband. It felt like she wanted me to be him, and I couldn't be." He chuckled. "She even assumed I'd like all the same things as him — she produced this huge plate of sickly, sweet cakes and expected me to eat them all, I think. I can't stand those things."

Lois nodded, recognising very well his feelings. "I…I can't be her, either," she said timidly. "I'm not even that good at being me, yet."

"Oh, Lois," he exclaimed softly. "I don't want you to be her. I want you to be you. That's what's been so wonderful about these past few months — being able to get to know you, find out what makes you so special."

She bowed her head. "I don't know why you think I'm so special."

She felt him move, then his finger was under her chin, gently persuading her to lift her head up to face him. He was very close, his face mere inches away from hers. Deep brown, solemn eyes gazed at her. "Because you are. Remember the day you took me home and looked after me? That took a lot of selfless courage, Lois. I know how hard it must have been for you, yet you got me through one of the worst days I've had to face since I've been an addict. It would have been hell without you, believe me."

"It was the least I could do after everything you've done for me," she murmured, dropping her gaze from those intense brown eyes. It embarrassed her that he was so grateful for so little.

"I guess…we're pretty good at helping each other," he ventured.

She looked up again. "Yes."

He was so close, he made her heart race. Not from fear, but from excitement…anticipation? Gravity seemed to be pulling them together, his head tipping slightly to one side. She could feel his breath on her lips…

And then he was gone.

"Wha…?" she said, blinking.

He was back at the end of the bed, gripping himself tightly around his chest and panting lightly. "I'm sorry," he said huskily. "I shouldn't have…it's too soon…not fair on you."

She drew in a couple of deep breaths herself. Waited for her heart to stop thumping quite so loudly in her chest.

"Actually," she said after a few moments, "I was okay…I'd have quite liked…whatever we were about to do. This…this is worse."

"Yeah?" His face creased with regret. "I'm sorry…I just thought…"

She sighed, her breathing back to normal again. Their relationship…back to normal again. "It's okay. Maybe it's time we both got some sleep anyway."

"Yeah," he agreed, although he didn't immediately move from his perch on the side of her bed. In fact, as she studied his huddled posture and noticed the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, she realised he must still be feeling pretty lousy.

"Are you going to stay here at the clinic tonight?" she asked. "What's left of it, anyway."

He nodded jerkily. "I've got an appointment with George tomorrow at ten thirty anyway."

"And have the medical staff seen you?"

"Frank looked in a couple of times earlier," he said. "Not that he can do much other than make sure I'm not about to drop dead." He smiled grimly.

"How about work?" she pressed on. "Do they know you'll be late tomorrow?"

He grimaced. "Not yet. I'm not looking forward to that phone call."

His editor. The one who lacked sympathy for his employee's illness. "Things aren't any better at work, then?"

"Not really." He shrugged. "I'm tolerated. And I'm a good marketing asset."

She baulked. "I'm sure you're much more than that to them. I've seen some of your work — it's good."

If a little woolly at times, and he didn't always go for the jugular like she would have, but he didn't need to know that right now. And she'd meant what she'd said. He was definitely in the top bracket of journalists. Probably somewhere near the bottom of the league, she conceded, but still in the first division.

"Thanks."

And talking of not going to for the jugular… "You know, I don't understand why you haven't gone after these people with the red kryptonite. Why not chase them instead of letting them chase you?"

He shrugged. "I didn't think there was much of a trail to follow, I guess."

"There's always a trail," she admonished. "You just haven't looked hard enough."

"Maybe," he said, playing idly with a snagged thread in the coverlet.

He was understandably listless, but the more she thought about it, the more she could see that this was an investigation worth pursuing. "I think," she announced, "that you and I should do this. I could use the practice and you need to get these people off your back."

He looked up. "You'd work with me?"

Ah, ha. Definite signs of interests. "Yes." She'd show him that she was every bit as good to work with as that other Lois. "We'll meet tomorrow at breakfast and discuss tactics, okay?" And this would be her way of helping him. She'd fix the mess she'd made of everything.

"Okay." He unbent from his huddle and stood up. "Sleep well, Lois. I'm sorry this turned into such a late night for you."

She shrugged. "No problem. Just…next time, or any time you're feeling bad, just come over for a chat. Tea and biscuits. I can listen, even if I can't do much to help."

"You've helped a lot — more than you could imagine," he replied, moving to the door. "'Night."

"Um…don't I get a goodnight kiss?" she asked shyly.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise, but then smiled. "Sure." He came back to the bed and leant down, clearly intending to drop a chaste kiss on her forehead.

In a sudden surge of boldness, she tipped her face up to him, offering her lips to his.

He hesitated, his breath fanning her face again. "Are you sure?" he whispered.

She put her hands on either side of his face and pulled him to her, felt him move willingly with her, and then at last his lips were pressing against hers, ever so gently, ever so softly. She tasted him; he tasted sweet and warm and meltingly tender. She pressed a little more boldly; so did he. More of their lips came into contact, more of his gentle sweetness opened up to her, tinged with just a hint of gentle passion. Nothing threatening, nothing she couldn't handle. Just enough to make her heart soar with new emotions, new feelings that she couldn't name but made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

All too soon, his lips were lifting away from hers. She strained towards him, not ready to break the moment. He pressed his lips against hers once more and then slowly drew away from her and straightened up.

He looked as dazed as she felt. "I'll see you tomorrow," he murmured.

She reached for his hand. "Sleep well."

He lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles. "I'll try."

And then he was gone.

After a moment of dazed stupefaction, she lifted her hand slowly and grazed her knuckles over her lips, revisiting the areas he'd touched so softly with his own lips. Then she pressed her fingertips lightly to her lips, remembering…reliving…his kiss.

She'd been kissed before, of course. Casual kisses. Lovers kisses. But none had come close to Clark's kiss. That, she realised, had been a proper kiss. A kiss that meant something.

She slid down under the bedclothes and curled up on her side. After such a busy and eventful night, she'd expected sleep to be elusive, or at the very least, broken and disturbed. Now, though, she felt cosy, content, and totally at peace with herself. Sleep welcomed her like a warm blanket.

***

Floating. Drifting effortlessly on a bed of air, wafting wherever the gentle breeze took them. Far below, the city hustled and bustled, the distant sounds of traffic filtering up through the clouds to create a pleasant background chatter.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" he murmured in her ear, his warm breath fanning the side of her neck.

His strong arms holding her, solid and secure, warm and reassuring, under her back and supporting her thighs. A very masculine cradle in which to keep her safe.

"Yes," she breathed. "It's wonderful."

"Lois," he whispered huskily, his face looming over her, his dark brown eyes gazing intently down at her. She clutched at the warm, smooth skin of his neck as he moved closer, so close she could feel him breathing. So close that her breasts pressed up against his chest.

His lips closed over hers, lips she remembered so well from their goodnight kiss. Softly kissing, caressing her lips, endlessly kissing her until she was dizzy with pleasure.

"I love you, Lois," he murmured.

"And I love you, Clark," she replied.

***

Except that she didn't. Dreams were nice, she reflected when she awoke the next morning, but the reality was that she couldn't love Clark. Wasn't capable of love. There were just too many things expected of a person in love which she couldn't offer. Intimacy, for one. Emotional support, for two — she was good at taking support, but not so good at giving it. Sex, for three. A man with Clark's vast experience would expect sex. Oh, he'd be gentle and understanding about it; wouldn't pressurise her into anything she didn't want to do. But sooner or later, he'd want, quite understandably and legitimately, to make love with her.

She flashed on a typical scene from Brazzaville — the casual rape of a young girl. Quick and dirty, over almost before she'd realised what was happening, but no less violent and depraved because of its speed.

No, it would be a very long time before she could face lying with a man…

She rolled over onto her side and curled up into a ball. No, she shuddered. Not for a long time.

When her pulse had calmed down, she thought back to the previous night's revelations. Curiously, the knowledge that Clark's obsession for her was sparked by his feelings for her exact double from another universe was actually comforting. After all the horrors she'd imagined, this was a walk in the park.

He'd made it clear that he wanted her and not the other Lois, who, in any case, was married and living in another universe, so she'd didn't feel like she was in competition with another woman. Also, she felt reassured that he hadn't just picked her from her picture in the paper, or because of her reputation at the Planet — those were such shallow things on which to base his feelings. No, he'd met a flesh and blood facsimile of her, and had liked that person enough to go searching for his universe's version. Hey, at least that gave her a head start, didn't it?

On the other hand, he'd experienced feelings for the other Lois; he'd been very honest about that. He'd been convinced they were displaced feelings for her, and she'd tried to buy into that theory, but she was still left with doubts about his expectations. How similar to the other Lois would he want her to be? How much did he yearn for a 'normal' Lois, and not the flawed person he'd actually met?

But why should she worry? This would never be more than a close friendship. In fact, she shouldn't have kissed him last night. It wasn't fair to raise his hopes like that. Her concern should be helping him find the criminals with the red kryptonite, and making sure he was totally free from the addiction she'd helped cause.

***

"Hey."

He looked up as she set her breakfast tray on the table opposite him and sat down. "Hey," he replied with a smile.

"You look better," she observed.

He popped a piece of doughnut in his mouth. "And you look great," he said enthusiastically.

"Thank you!" She beamed, unable to resist feeling flattered by his compliment. He'd mentioned before that he liked this top with these pants…not that she'd put them on for his benefit, of course. Still, it was nice that he noticed. She eyed his tray and shook her head in disgust. "Two doughnuts? Do you have to be so blatant about it?"

He gave her an amused smile. "About what?"

"About not having to worry about calories, of course," she replied. "Or cholesterol, or rotting teeth. It's just not fair on us mere mortals."

His smile wavered a bit. "Hey, I did healthy, too," he protested weakly, indicating the banana on his tray.

"I guess you did." She ducked her gaze down to her food, thinking about that wobbly smile. She'd touched a nerve, she thought as she buttered her toast. He hadn't enjoyed being set apart as a non-mortal.

She looked up to apologise, but he was busily cutting bad bits off his rather over-ripe banana. He didn't want her apology, she realised. He'd just prefer if she didn't do it again. No fuss. No big deal.

Okay, she could do that. "So, what leads do you have on these people with the red kryptonite?"

He shrugged, looked up from his banana. "They're art thieves. They have a stash of red kryptonite."

"Great!" she exclaimed, ignoring his lukewarm mood. "There's lots to work with there. I remember you said they worked really quickly — knew exactly what they wanted. Which means they must be pros, and there can't be that many pro art thieves around. Who's your researcher at the Planet? Could you get him or her to dig up a list of art theft gangs?"

"I usually do my own research," he replied, mashing up the hapless banana with a fork. "But there is someone I could ask, I guess."

"Who?"

"She works at the DA's office." Now he was swirling the mashed banana around on his plate. "They'd be sure to have a list."

"And she'd be okay giving it to you?" she asked, a little surprised that the DA's office would co-operate so willingly with a journalist.

He piled the banana mess up into a heap at the side of his plate. "If I tell her why I need it, yeah."

She frowned. Something wasn't quite right here. "And you'd be okay asking her for it?"

He expelled noisily and dropped his fork onto the plate. "No, but it's the fastest way for us to get what we need."

"Well…okay," she said. "If you're sure. Um…just out of curiosity…who is she?"

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Just a friend."

No name. Not even a job title. And further questions were clearly not welcomed from the other side of the table.

Well, fine. If he had a source he wanted to protect, then she respected that. "Now, do you still have the packaging for that lump of kryptonite they sent you?"

"Probably, but I don't see what use that will be. They could have sent it from anywhere," he pointed out.

"Maybe, but it's worth checking out," she said. "How about we go around to your apartment after your appointment with George and take a look?"

"Well, okay. I guess I can tell work that I'm working on a story." His mouth twisted. "My own story."

"Exactly!" she said. "And while we're there, you can call that friend of yours at the DA's office."

Not that she would eavesdrop, of course.

***

Francine wanted to know one thing, and only one thing, that morning: why did Lois feel that she was to blame for everything?

Lois leant forward and buried her face in her hands. "I went through all this with George yesterday," she muttered.

"I know," replied Francine calmly. "But George didn't get a chance to explore why you feel like this, did he? Clark interrupted the session, and then things went a little crazy for a while."

Lois snorted. "For a while? We are in the funny farm for crazies, aren't we?"

Francine sighed. "If you keep labelling yourself as crazy, Lois, we really aren't going to get very far, are we?"

She bit her lip, recognising that she was being admonished for something Francine had been nagging her about for weeks. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Okay," replied Francine. "So, I'm concerned, Lois. We've spoken before about your difficulty in forgiving yourself for what happened in the Congo, but this is the first time I've heard you take on the blame for Clark's problems, too."

She looked up sharply, took in Francine's benign, patient expression, her tweed skirt and sensible shoes, the twin set and pearls, and was suddenly sick of the entire therapeutic process. Talk, talk, talk — that was all she ever seemed to do. That, plus stupid classes in subjects she wasn't remotely interested in, like art and improvised drama.

"Well, that would be because I never told you before," she snapped. "I don't tell you everything, you know."

"Of course you don't," said Francine patiently. So patiently, Lois wanted to scream. "But now that this is out in the open, let's take it apart a little, shall we?"

"I tell you what," she retorted, jumping up from her chair. "Let's not, shall we?" she said, pantomiming a sing-song imitation of Francine's words. "Let's forget I ever said it, shall we?"

She strode to the door, paused with her hand on the handle. "I'm just so sick of all this, you know? I feel like all I do here is defend myself or get told off for thinking the wrong things. I'd much rather be doing something constructive, like helping Clark."

"There are plenty of people here to do that—"

"See, there you go again," she said. "Telling me I'm wrong. Well, newsflash, Francine — there aren't plenty of people around to help Clark. In fact, you could count them on the fingers of one hand."

"Maybe so, but—"

"He needs me, Francine." She opened the door. "And I need him. Take that apart, if you like." She stepped into the corridor. "But do it without me." She slammed the door and strode smartly up the corridor towards the waiting room outside George's consulting rooms.

***

Clark needed her.

It was so obvious to her now, she didn't know why she hadn't realised it days ago. Weeks ago.

Of course, whether she was capable of providing for his needs was still open to question.

She looked up from her magazine as the door to George's rooms opened. She smiled and rose from her seat when Clark emerged. "I finished early with Francine so I thought I'd wait for you here," she explained.

"Oh." He gave her a pallid smile. "Great."

Funny, she thought he'd be more pleased to see her than that.

She was studying him, trying to figure out what was wrong, when she heard George's voice from behind Clark. "Is that Lois I hear out there?"

"Yes," she called. "Hi, George."

The therapist's rotund figure appeared behind Clark. "Hey, Lois. Can I borrow you for a minute?"

She looked questioningly at Clark.

"Sure. I'll wait here," he said, settling onto the chair she'd just vacated and picking up her magazine.

Puzzled, she followed George inside.

"I hear you're both going over to Clark's apartment to check out the packaging on that parcel he received yesterday," George said once he'd closed the door behind her.

She frowned. "Yes. Is there a problem?"

"Nope, no problem," replied George. "Just the opposite, in fact. I want you to keep an eye on him for me."

"Huh?"

He shrugged. "I played a dirty trick on him and he's still a little shell-shocked."

Dirty trick?? Her mind boggled at the sorts of dirty tricks George might cook up. "What did you do?" she asked apprehensively.

George grinned widely. "Offered him some red K."

"George!" she exclaimed. Yep, she'd been right to be worried. "That's…that's…"

"Inspired?" he suggested, his eyes twinkling. "I wanted to show him that he's not as weak-willed as he thinks he is."

"And…?"

"Worked a treat. He practically threw me and the box out the window," said George triumphantly. "You know, I think maybe I should claim danger money," he mused. "This is risky work."

"Only the way you play it," she said.

"Yeah, well, I don't always do things by the rule book," he admitted. "Anyway, he's been on a bit of a roller coaster ride, emotionally speaking, so he's a little spaced out right now. It would probably be a good idea if he didn't do any Superman jobs for the next few hours."

"You expect me to stop him if something happens?" she asked incredulously. "Me?"

He nodded. "He'll listen to you."

Oh, boy. "Well, I'll do my best," she said.

"Good." He ushered her towards the door. "I like what you're doing with this investigation, by the way. Should be good for both of you."

"That's exactly what I thought," she replied, then paused with her hand on the door handle. "George, can I ask you something?" He nodded, so she continued. "Before, you seemed to want us apart. You told Clark to leave me alone."

"And now I'm pushing you together? Yeah, well, I figure if there was any damage to be done by letting you two get together sooner than you were both ready for it, it's already too late. My indiscretion the other day put paid to all that," he said with a grimace. "So I may as well just go with the flow and do what I can to make sure you're both dealing with your own problems as well as with each other's."

Which all sounded very reasonable and enlightened, except Lois still had the distinct impression that Francine didn't think Clark ought to be playing such a big part in her life. "Does Francine agree with you on this?" she asked.

He raised his eyebrows. "What makes you think she doesn't?"

She shrugged. "Just a few things she's said. Maybe you and she should talk."

"I see," he replied evenly. "Well, I'll look into it."

She searched his face for any clue that he might agree or disagree with Francine, but he'd slipped on his inscrutable therapist's expression. Well, she wasn't sure she cared, anyway. She nodded. "Thanks, George."

***

Lois wrinkled her nose as she walked into Clark's apartment. Something which was way overdue for the trashcan was making its presence felt. Very strongly.

Almost immediately, she spotted the source sitting on the edge of Clark's coffee table — half-empty Chinese take-away cartons. Not only that, but the TV was chattering to itself in one corner and a pair of shoes were strewn across the floor together with unmatched socks and a crumpled t-shirt.

Of course. He'd been high when he'd left here the day before yesterday. This was a glimpse of how the other Clark lived — the Clark she'd met in George's office.

"Sorry," he muttered, hurrying past her. "I'll clean up."

And suddenly, he became a blur and things began to magically disappear off the floor and the table. The windows were flung open and a gentle breeze wafted the smell of rotting food away. The chattering TV died.

"Here's the packaging."

She blinked. He was standing in front of her again, casually offering her a brown padded envelope as if whirlwinds like the one she'd just witnessed took place routinely in people's living rooms.

She was about to express her amazement when she caught his expression — the same look she'd seen in the clinic cafeteria. Don't tell me I just did something weird and amazing, was the unspoken message. Don't mention the mess you saw when you came in. And don't, whatever you do, offer any sympathy.

He'd been the same during their flight here — not cold or unfriendly, just…brooding. After George's words of warning, she'd wanted to ask Clark about his session, but each time she'd glanced at his face and seen the faint frown lines across his forehead and the glazed look in his eyes, she'd thought the better of it.

Well, maybe a diversion from his churning thoughts was what he needed, so that was what she'd provide.

She took the envelope from him. "Okay, what have we got?" Turning it over in her hands, she found the postmark. "Barton, New Troy," she read. "Posted…" She strained to see the time and date. "Nope. Can you read it?" she asked, handing it back to him.

He slid his glasses down his nose and peered over the top of them at the envelope. "Day before yesterday at 5pm," he announced, sliding his glasses back into place. "So what's in Barton?"

She shrugged. Barton was a smallish town a couple of hours' drive from Metropolis, with, so far as she knew, absolutely nothing to mark it out as special. "No idea. Do you have a map?"

"Yeah."

He fetched a road atlas from his bookshelves, found the correct page and spread it out on the coffee table. Together, they sank down onto his sofa to pore over the map.

"There!" she exclaimed after a moment's search. "Barton." She pointed with her finger.

Silence fell as they both scanned the surrounding area for anything significant.

"Okay," said Clark after a few minutes. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm looking for, but, other than the fact it has a population of 3,453, has nothing of historical interest, and doesn't even have a rest stop along I-95, what I can tell you is this — Barton is probably the least interesting town I've ever investigated."

Lois chuckled. "Me too. Maybe that's exactly why they chose it."

"Could be. Looks to me as though the most exciting thing Bartonians get to do is go watch the traffic on I-95."

She laughed. "Yes, I guess the Interstate is pretty close. That's probably a whole weekend's entertainment — watching the trucks go by on their way to Philadelphia."

"So what now? Visit this place? See if we can scare up something more interesting than road traffic analysis?"

"Why don't you contact your friend at the DA's office first?" she suggested. "We should get her started on that list as soon as possible."

He grimaced. "Sure," he said, eyeing the phone on the table as if it were some kind of poisonous snake.

She grabbed the receiver and handed it to him. "Here."

He accepted it reluctantly with a deep sigh. "Look, would you mind if I did this alone? She's kind of…shy."

"Doesn't want to be found out," Lois said, nodding. "I understand. No problem." She stood up. "I'll be on the balcony, okay?"

He smiled tightly up at her. "Thanks."

***

Lois paced up and down the small balcony, sneaking glances through the window to Clark whenever she dared. This was more than just a source who didn't want to be exposed. He was huddled over the phone, pressing it tightly to his ear. His face was in profile, but even so, she could see a muscle jumping along his jaw whenever he stopped talking and listened to his contact. This was someone with whom he had a personal involvement.

An ex-girlfriend, perhaps? One of his conquests when he'd been jumping from woman to woman?

That would explain the smashed banana at breakfast and his reluctance just now to phone her.

She snatched another glance. He'd replaced the receiver and was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, staring off into the middle distance. Definitely more than just a shy source.

Well, much as she'd like to know who this mystery woman was, there was no way she'd be able to ask him in his current mood. Instead, she crossed to the far side of the balcony and gazed idly across the city, waiting for him to call her in.

***

"Lois, can we talk?"

She blinked, surprised by Clark's sudden interjection into the silence which had fallen between them. Amused, she wondered how he expected her to refuse, given that they were currently a few thousand feet above the ground, flying towards Barton. Clark was the only thing between her and a long plummet to earth.

"Sure," she replied. "In-flight entertainment, huh?"

He smiled wanly. "Last night, you said something," he began hesitantly. "I…I need to know if you meant it."

She frowned up at him. "What did I say?"

"You said you wanted to be with me," he said. "I could understand if it was just something you said in the heat of the moment to make me feel better about myself, so it's really no big deal if you didn't mean it, but I…I'd just like to know."

Oh, God, how did she answer that? Yes, she wanted him in her life, but hadn't she also concluded it would be unfair to let him believe she could give him a romantic relationship?

"Of course," he continued when she didn't answer him immediately, "maybe you're not sure whether you do or not — that would be understandable, given everything that's happened… but if you are sure, either way…I'd just like to know where I stand, Lois."

And how was she supposed to think clearly when he was cradling her in his arms and those inviting lips of his were so close to hers? She'd been reliving last night's kiss all morning, remembering his tenderness, his gentle hint of passion, and the melting sensation in her heart when he'd kissed her knuckles afterwards. She'd kiss him again in the blink of an eye.

But she had to be strong. For both their sakes, she had to resist her instincts and keep this relationship strictly platonic.

Glancing up at him, she found him waiting anxiously for her answer. If she said 'no', she'd very likely break his heart.

"Yes," she said finally. "I meant it. I'm not exactly sure what being with you means in practical terms, but I do know that I want you in my life. Somehow or other."

He squeezed her closer to his body and closed his eyes briefly. "You've no idea how happy that makes me," he whispered. And suddenly, to her alarm, he was trembling with emotion.

"Hey," she murmured, gripping his shoulder a little tighter. "You're not going to drop me, are you?" She tried to make a joke of it by laughing a little.

"God, no, Lois," he breathed.

Already she felt like a complete heel. He was interpreting her words as if she'd just told him she was prepared to become his girlfriend, and that wasn't what she'd meant at all. What now?

"So, how did your session with George go?" she asked. Stuff leaving him alone with his thoughts — she needed a change of subject and this was the obvious choice.

Clark grimaced and related George's experiment with the red kryptonite. "But he doesn't understand that it's different when I'm with him," he said. "Of course I won't take a hit when he's there. It's when I'm on my own that the problems start."

"But you didn't take any last night when you were on your own," she pointed out.

"That's what George said," he replied, his voice rising in frustration. "But that was pre-meditated — I decided to go to the dispensary and take a hit, and then when I got there, I decided not to take a hit after all. I was in control. Don't you or George get that? I need to be in control, and when I'm not in control, or there's no-one around to control me, anything can happen."

His voice had risen so much that a passing seagull swerved away from them. "Hey," she murmured, daring to let go with one hand so she could cup the side of his face.

In response, he tightened his hold on her. Allowed several small settlements to pass below them. Didn't comment on a distant plane skimming through the clouds.

"Sorry," he muttered finally. "I didn't mean to yell at you."

"This really bothers you, doesn't it?" she asked.

He sighed. "Yeah."

"Well, see, this is why we're on this investigation," she said, trying to cheer him up. "So you don't have to worry any more about unexpected encounters with red kryptonite." She peered down to the ground. "Hey, look," she said, indicating a tightly- knit group of buildings below. "Do you think that might be Barton?"

***

Barton yielded nothing of interest, as expected. It was nothing more than a commuter town for Metropolis, its high speed rail link depositing residents into the centre of the city in less than an hour.

Back at Clark's apartment, they threw a few hypotheses around, but there really wasn't much to play with. They needed that list of art thieves.

"Where's she sending it?" asked Lois. "And when?"

"To my email address at the Planet," he replied. "She said it could take a couple of hours." He smiled. "So, what would you like to do for the next two hours?" He caught her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles. "I have a few ideas," he said, his eyes twinkling.

She froze. This was her payback for not correcting him on the girlfriend thing. Two hours alone with him, and his opening move was a kiss. Where would that lead to? She tried to calm her rising panic by breathing through her nose. Concentrated hard on preventing the hand he was holding from tightening up into a tense claw.

His smile faded. "I'm sorry," he said, letting go of her hand. "Too much too soon, huh?"

She nodded jerkily. "Yeah."

She found she'd taken an unconscious step backwards from him.

"Lois…" he murmured in a voice so tender it brought a lump to her throat. "I..I didn't mean we should do anything you're not comfortable with."

"I know." Except his definition of what she wasn't comfortable with as compared to hers might not exactly match.

His hand went up to worry agitatedly with the hair at the back of his neck. "Look, why don't we head over to the Planet right now? I can do some work while we're waiting and you can familiarise yourself with the new computer systems."

"Okay." Relief washed over her.

Besides, it was a good idea, especially as the clinic was starting to put subtle pressure on her to find work. The deal with the studio apartment, which she'd now lived in for a week, was that she could only continue to live there if she paid rent. It didn't have to be a lot, but the money, however little, had to come from her own pocket. She respected the arrangement — she understood that it was a good way of de-institutionalising long- term patients and encouraging them to run their own affairs — but it meant that she needed a job pretty soon.

Her best hope was a part-time appointment at the Planet. The editor seemed to have some respect for her past reputation as a good reporter, so he might just be willing to give her a chance.

***

Over two weeks had passed since her last visit to the Planet. Lois had to remind herself of that fact several times during her first half hour there: just because she'd freaked out then didn't mean she was going to do so again. Still, she kept a watchful eye open for over-enthusiastic co-workers eager to demonstrate their delight at her return.

"So, Lois, it's good to see you here again," said Clark's boss. "How are you?"

She tucked a strand of errant hair behind her ear and made herself meet his gaze across his desk with a confident smile. "I'm good. In fact, I've recently moved into a small apartment." He didn't need to know that the apartment was attached to the clinic.

"Really? That's great! Congratulations," he exclaimed warmly. "I knew it wouldn't be long before the famous Lois Lane bounced back into action."

Famous, huh? "Well, funny you should mention 'bouncing back'," she replied, "because that's exactly what I'd like to talk to you about."

His smile slipped a bit. "I'm sorry?"

"Coming back to work," she elaborated. "I'm sure you could use some extra help around here…I mean, not that I don't think you're running things very efficiently, because I'm sure you are, but what newsroom couldn't use another reporter?"

"Well, we do have a full complement of staff right now," he began. "It might be difficult—"

"I'll do anything you like," she added hastily. "Doesn't have to be the big stuff. I mean, I know you'll want to see for yourself if I'm any good before you trust me with anything really important."

"The thing is, I just don't have any spare budget to hire new staff," he said. "These things have to be planned in advance, you know. I can't just decide to add head count on a whim."

"You wouldn't have to pay me much," she said, trying not to sound too desperate. "Use me like you use the freelance staff. In fact, why don't you just hire me as a freelance?"

He sighed. "But don't you think it's a little soon for you to be considering work again?"

"I told you, I'm fine," she insisted. "In fact, it's the clinic who are encouraging me to find work."

"So you're still in contact with them?" he asked.

She bit her lip. "Of course. But they wouldn't be telling me to get a job if they didn't think I could handle it."

He shook his head. "This is the same clinic that Clark attends, isn't it?"

"Yes," she said. "What's your point?"

He shrugged. "I already have one employee I can't rely on, Lois. I can't afford two."

She felt blood rush to her face. "Why, you…you…" She jumped up from her chair. "That's discrimination!"

"It's business," he replied. "We're not a charity here, Lois. I can't give you a job just because your doctor says you need one. I need people who can give one hundred and ten percent of themselves, all day, every day."

"Well, that's ten percent too much, if you ask me," she retorted. "Those are people out there, not slaves!"

He threw his hands up. "Hey, if I could get even a hundred percent out of certain people, I'd be thrilled."

"Certain people, as you put it, give more to this newspaper than you could ever possibly comprehend," she said, marching to the door and yanking it open.

"He sells newspapers," he said. "I'll give you that."

She slammed the door in his face.

Two door-slammings in one day, she thought as she stormed back to Clark's desk. Was that her own personal best?

***

Clark was hovering by the side of his desk as she approached. He looked as mad as she felt — of course, she realised, he must have listened in with his enhanced hearing. "I'm sorry, Lois," he said. "If I'd known he was going to act like such a jerk towards you—"

"Oh, don't worry about me," she fumed. "I'll figure something out. But what he said about you — that was outrageous!"

Clark shrugged. "I'm used to it. But you…what will the clinic do if you can't get a job?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "I'm assuming that so long as they know I'm actively looking for a job, they'll let me stay. They can't just throw me out on the street."

"I guess not." He pursed his lips. "But this is where you belong, Lois! I can't imagine you working any place else."

She grimaced. "Me either. Maybe if I talk to one of the department heads I can persuade them to take me on. Finance and Business, perhaps, or International News. Arts and Media, even — we're investigating an art theft, after all."

He raised his eyebrows. "Good idea. They might have some useful contacts."

"Who should I speak to over there?" she asked.

He gave her the name of the Arts editor, and she headed straight over, knowing that if she waited, she'd lose her nerve. Screwing up her courage to ask the Chief editor for a job had been bad enough; doing it again was going to be twice as hard.

But she had to keep trying, even if the consequences were exhaustion and frayed nerves by the end of the day.

***

Two hours later, she was sitting opposite Clark, learning how to use the computer system to conduct searches on the internet. The Arts editor — a tubby, unkempt man with long, shoulder-length hair and a huge, fuzzy beard — had told her he couldn't give her a permanent position, but would put her on his list of freelancers. In the meantime, if she could come up with an original Arts story, that would help her chances of further work in the department.

It wasn't much of an offer, but on the other hand, if she and Clark could break the art theft story, that would be her ticket back to work. Crucially, too, she now had limited, but legitimate, access to the Planet's facilities.

She glanced over to Clark and raised her eyebrows questioningly. He shook his head: still no sign of the email.

She sighed and went back to her internet search again. Art thievery wasn't big on the net yet, it appeared. Maybe galleries were nervous of admitting their losses on such a public forum.

"Lois?"

She looked up to see Clark beckoning her over. She leapt up and stood behind his chair to watch as he opened the newly arrived email. Quickly, she scanned the ten names listed, but none of them meant a thing to her. But then, why should they-

"Oh, God."

Clark had gone very still beside her and was staring fixedly at the screen.

"What?" she asked. "Do you recognise one of the names?"

"This can't be right," he muttered, his hand shooting out to grab his phone. He jabbed the keys frantically, then waited impatiently for an answer, one finger tapping rapidly against the desk. "Come on, come on…"

"What is it?" she asked, scanning the names again to find what he'd clearly spotted. "Who—"

"Mayson," he said urgently. "It's me. This list of names you just sent — are you sure it's correct?"

Lois heard a faint, but distinctly indignant, squawk from his contact.

"Did you look at it?" he demanded. "Well, look at it now. Third from the top."

Lois read the name. Steve Pirelli. So?

"It can't be right," he told his contact. "I know him…well, know of him. He's a businessman, not an art thief."

More faint squawking from the receiver.

"Okay, okay," he replied. "I know all that, but I also know this guy. He's the dullest, most unimaginative person in the entire city. There's no way he'd have the flair needed to rob an art gallery."

His finger was beating a rapid tattoo against the desk again. Lois thought it was quite possible he'd end up drilling a substantial hole there.

"Can you get it checked?" he asked and then pursed his lips at the answer he received. "Well, I'm telling you, it's wrong…no, I'm not being belligerent, I'm being thorough!"

"Hey," murmured Lois, laying her hand over his in an effort to calm him down.

He snatched his hand away and swivelled away from her. "Mayson, do you even know who this guy is?" he muttered through gritted teeth. "Well, find out and then you'll see what I mean!"

He slammed the phone down and remained with his back to her, breathing heavily.

Tentatively, she laid a hand on his back. "Clark, what's wrong?"

"Everything," he muttered, then shot out of his chair towards the elevators.

She hurried after him. "Where are you going?"

"To the men's room."

Where he'd brood for goodness knows how long, completely out of her reach. She ran around in front of him, blocking his way. "Oh, no, you don't. I never got to run away when I was upset, so neither do you."

He tried to push past her, but she dodged in front of him again. "Conference room," she ordered. "Now."

"Lois, I don't have time for this," he said wearily.

"Neither do I," she replied crisply, crossing her arms in front of her. "Either you join me in the conference room right now or I go over to the DA's office and ask to speak to this Mayson person myself. I'll soon find out what's upsetting you."

He sighed. "I'll bet you would, too. Okay, if you insist."

Triumphant, she led the way back to the conference room.

***

"So, who is he, this Steve Pirelli?" she asked once they were safely ensconced behind closed doors and shuttered windows.

Clark flopped down onto one of the chairs. "Lana's husband."

Lana? As in… "Your ex-fiancee's husband?" she exclaimed.

"Yes."

"Oh, my God."

"Exactly," he said.

"Do you think she knows?" she asked fearfully.

"I have no idea," he replied. "But I doubt it. Lana thinks she married Mr Perfect. At least," he added bitterly, "that's what she took great delight in telling me."

"So you think he really is an art thief?"

"No. Yes." He leapt up from his chair and began pacing. "God, I don't know. What a mess."

He did believe it. She was pretty sure of that. He just didn't want to believe it.

And suddenly, some pieces of the red kryptonite puzzle began to come together. Lana was from Smallville. She'd grown up with Clark. If anyone knew where to find red kryptonite, it would be her. In fact, didn't she even have a motive for wanting to hurt him? He'd dumped her, hadn't he?

"Clark, are you sure Lana doesn't know about her husband?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Because…well…she knows you, and—"

He whirled around. "You think she told him, don't you?" he demanded. "Told him where to find the stuff, told him what it does to me?"

She nodded slowly, hating the anguish she could see etched on his face but unable to deny her train of thought. It all seemed so horribly logical.

"Well, you're wrong," he said flatly, then laughed mirthlessly. "God, she even came to visit me when I was sick just to tell me how perfectly normal he was."

Which sounded exactly like the actions of a spiteful woman who'd tell her thieving husband how to hurt the man who'd dumped her.

And Clark knew it.

"Hell," he muttered, turning swiftly away from her again.

What could she do? There was nothing she could say or do which was going to make this right for him. "Maybe you're right," she offered. "Maybe he coaxed the information out of her. Pretended he was lending her a sympathetic ear."

He shrugged. "Maybe. Or maybe she hates me so much she's packaging up another sample of the damned stuff right now."

"Clark…"

"I have to go and see her," he said. "Find out what she knows."

Not a good idea. He'd blow the whole investigation out of the water if he went blundering in there in the state he was in now.

"But what if you're right, and he's not an art thief?" she said.

He snorted dismissively.

"You didn't believe it yourself a moment ago," she insisted. "I think we should investigate him first. If it turns out he is who we think he is, then you can talk to her."

"Okay, and how do we do that?" he demanded. "How do you investigate the most boring man in Metropolis?"

"Easy," she replied. "We break into his office."

***

Breaking and entering used to be second nature to Lois. She knew all the tricks — how to use a set of lock picks, how to sneak past most security camera systems, how to dodge security guards on the prowl, and the best time of day or night to enter most types of building.

However, in her long and illustrious career as an information thief, she had never, ever, approached a building from the air.

This was definitely an advantage, she reflected, as Clark flew them silently through the dead of night towards the roof of Steve Pirelli's office. For once, she wouldn't have to worry about dodging security cameras — Clark having already confirmed his theory that there were none on the roof or in the stairwell leading downwards. Who, after all, would expect a break-in from the roof?

Their choice of approach, of course, was all down to Clark's extreme caution — or paranoia might be more appropriate.

"Superman can't afford to be seen breaking into a building," he'd said during the planning stage of their operation, "so if we're doing this at all, we're doing it my way."

"Fine," she'd replied. "But once we're inside, we do it my way."

He'd sighed. "I really wish you'd let me do this alone. It could be dangerous."

She'd scoffed. "He's an insurance salesman — the most boring man in the entire city, I think you called him. Besides, we already agreed all this yesterday. I'm not having this argument again."

Yesterday, the day after Clark had made his devastating discovery about Lana's husband, he'd spent some time finding out where Steve Pirelli worked. He'd also scanned the building to establish exactly which office he occupied. Fortunately, and not altogether surprisingly, he had a whole office to himself, unlike the majority of salesmen working there.

"We did," Clark had conceded. "But why," he continued a little plaintively, "is it I feel like it was nine-tenths your decision and one tenth mine?"

She'd grinned. "It'll be fine, you'll see."

So now here they were, heading for the roof, from where Clark would do the necessary with his special abilities to get them inside.

She was nervous. So nervous that, despite the coolness of the night, her hands were sweaty and slippery as she gripped Clark's neck. Many years had passed since she'd last done anything like this, and back in those days, she'd had far more self-confidence that she possessed these days. Half of her wondered what the heck Lois Lane the flake thought she was doing breaking into buildings when, less than two months previously, she'd been a mute mental wreck.

Still, she was doing her best to brazen things out. Clark, she could tell, was nervous enough for both of them, and given how upset he still was about Lana's involvement, she really wanted to get to the bottom of Steve Pirelli, insurance salesman-cum-art thief.

Clark touched down softly, and together they jogged quickly to the staircase entrance.

***

"Forms, forms, sales brochures, and more forms," she muttered as she rummaged through Steve Pirelli's desk. "Who would have thought selling insurance was so exciting?"

"Shhh," hushed Clark from the filing cabinets he was rifling.

She looked up to give him a glare. "No-one knows we're here," she said.

"And I'd like to keep it that way," he whispered. "In fact…"

<<Why are we talking at all?>> he asked.

<<Smart-ass>> she replied immediately, although she had to admit he had a point.

<<Can you stand back?>> he asked. <<I want to scan the desk for hidden compartments.>>

She stepped aside. <<Be my guest>>

He tipped his glasses down his nose and stared intently at the desk for a couple of seconds. A slow, satisfied smile spread across his face. <<I spy with my little eye…>>

<<Something beginning with 'S',shecontinuedforhim.

<<Huh?>> He stretched right across the desk and slid the entire top section forward to reveal a channel for computer cables at the back. Then he reached inside the far right-hand desk leg and pulled out a thick rolled-up wad of papers. <<Not unless they've changed the spelling of 'inventory'>> he replied, removing an elastic band and letting the papers unroll onto the desk.

<<I meant 'S' for secret compartment, stupid…oh, boy.>> She'd picked up a few of the sheets he'd found. Each seemed to relate to a separate storage location, and contained a list of works of art, together with some kind of status code for each piece of art, and in most cases, an intended final recipient of the piece. It appeared that Steve Pirelli stole to order, and did it on a grand international scale.

<<I guess Mayson's roster of suspected art thieves was correct after all,>> he commented.

She looked up from her list to find him staring bleakly at the large stack of paper. <<I'm sorry, Clark.>>

<<I just can't believe Lana knows about all this. I mean, she's bitter, but she's not a criminal.>>

<<People change,>> she observed.

<<Not this much.>>

Perhaps not. However, this really wasn't the place or the time for long soul-searching conversations about ex-fiancees.

She closed the distance between them and gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. <<Look, what are we going to do with this stuff? Personally, I think we should take the whole lot with us — there's a good chance we'll find the red kryptonite at one of these locations.>>

<<But then he'll know someone broke in here.>> objected Clark.

<<Only if he needs these lists before we return them, and since today is Friday, chances are he won't be back until Monday.>>

He stared at her. <<Return them? Are you serious?>>

<<It'll be a piece of cake the second time around. You'll breeze it.>>

<<I'll…? You mean you're not planning on coming with me?>> he asked.

<<Of course not. It's dangerous. You said so yourself.>>

<<Lois… Did anyone ever tell you you're the most exasperating person a guy could ever work with?>>

She grinned. <<No, but then I always used to work alone.>>

<<I can see why.>>

She swiped his arm playfully, but the fact was, she was really enjoying their joint escapade. Her nerves had disappeared as soon as they'd begun searching Pirelli's office for clues, and now that they were successful in their search, she was on a triumphant high.

Perhaps the old Lois wasn't so deeply buried after all.

***

Although, back at Clark's apartment, sitting next to him on his sofa and poring over the documents they'd found, the new model Lois Lane was uneasy. Perhaps it was the intimacy of the late hour, or the fact that he was sitting closer to her than usual, or maybe it was the hand which had lingered a little longer than usual over hers when he'd set her down. She wasn't sure.

Things needed to be said. Lines drawn, before it was too late. It wasn't fair to let him believe there was more to this relationship than close friendship.

"Clark?"

He was engrossed in one of the papers they'd found. "Mmmm?" he said, absently laying a hand on her back. "What?"

At his touch, she closed her eyes and bit her lip. Why was it her skin tingled whenever he touched her like that? She was fine when he was cradling her in his arms during flight, or even if he hugged her, but a single, simple hand on her back was all it took to make her feel as if electricity was passing between them. It made no sense.

"Can we talk?"

"Sure," he said, looking up. "What have you found?"

And why, oh why, did he have to look so darned handsome when she was trying to be sensible? "Um…I was thinking…we should…see if we can link any of these warehouse locations with Barton."

Okay, so this wasn't a good time to tell him. Not when they were in the thick of their investigation. Later. Later was good.

He raised his eyebrows. "Good point. Hold on…" He darted over to his bookcase and came back with a road map. "Okay," he said, find the double-page spread for Metropolis and spreading it out on the table before them. "You read out the locations and I'll mark them on here. See if we can spot any pattern or links with Barton."

She nodded, and ten minutes later, they had a scattering of small red circles dotted around the map.

"Here's Barton," he said, marking it with a red cross.

She peered at the map. Half-closed her eyes and tried to spot some kind of pattern. Studied the main roads and railway lines.

Smiled triumphantly. "There," she pointed.

He looked. "Oh, you mean that warehouse that's half-way to Philadelphia and on the same Interstate as Barton?" he said, his eyes twinkling.

"That would be the one," she agreed. "If you were a lazy minion, told to collect some red kryptonite from warehouse stores and mail it from another town, and say you lived in Metropolis, wouldn't your easiest option be to drop off at Barton on your way home from the warehouse?"

"After all, it is the closest town to the Interstate," he said. "Wouldn't take you more than ten minutes to find a mailbox and then get back on the road towards home."

"You know, black's always a good choice of colour for a warehouse break-in," she observed.

"Not red and blue?"

"Last year's colours," she said. "The well-dressed burglar is wearing black this season."

"Black it is, then."

She nodded. "You'll pick me up tomorrow night?"

He frowned. "Lois…"

"I need to be there," she insisted. "If we're right, and there's red kryptonite, you might…"

As his expression darkened, she dropped her gaze, ashamed that she wasn't showing him the trust he deserved. Chances were he'd be strong enough to resist temptation. She believed that, didn't she? She'd seen him reject the stuff. And George had proved the point. He'd be fine.

But if he wasn't…

She looked up to see how Clark was taking her lack of trust. The taut expression was back. The one tinged with self-hatred.

"You'll be fine," she gabbled. "You'll be expecting it, so you'll be in control. Just like in the dispensary or with George. So you won't need me, but I'm still coming along, because it's what I do. I investigate. Look into things." She shrugged. "And I need the practice."

He pushed up from the sofa and moved over to the black expanse of window. Stared out into the night.

"What will you do when you find it?" she asked, just to keep the conversation going. "Destroy it, or keep some for evidence?"

"Destroy it," he told the window, then turned to face her. "I'm going alone," he said, his expression set and determined. "This is my problem, not yours."

His problem??? How…how dare he?

"Oh, no, you don't," she said, shooting off the sofa and heading straight for him like a surface-to-air missile. "Don't you dare try and make this into your own personal crusade against yourself. This is my problem as much as it's yours."

"Your problem?" he repeated. "Since when did my addiction to red kryptonite become your problem?"

"Since I went into the Congo and got caught!" she snapped.

"Huh?"

Damn. She hadn't meant to admit that. She turned away from him so he couldn't see her face. "If I hadn't forced Perry to let me go to the Congo, if I hadn't been so stupid and careless as to get captured, if I'd found a way to escape…none of this would have happened," she mumbled. "We'd have met just like that other Lois and Clark you told me about. Things would have been…normal. You wouldn't have been driven to drugs."

Funny how it had made more sense inside her head than it did when she said it aloud.

"Is that really what you believe?" he asked.

"It's not just what I believe, it's fact," she said. "I'm sorry I screwed everything up for you."

"Lois…" She sensed him move behind her, felt his hands clasp her shoulders lightly. "How can you possibly know what might or might not have happened?"

The warmth from his hands was so, so…she closed her eyes. Electrifying. Exciting.

But she couldn't afford to indulge herself. Couldn't bear to know what she'd have to manage without. She ducked away from him. "Because you told me," she said. "That other Clark wasn't an addict, was he?"

"No, but he and I…we're two completely different people," he said. "Just like you're very different to his Lois. We have different backgrounds and different life experiences. The two universes aren't exact duplicates of each other, you know."

"I know, but the reason they're different is because of the choices we make. If I hadn't chosen to go the Congo…" She shrugged.

"And what if I'd chosen to stay with Lana and not become Superman? I think I'd have been pretty unhappy — what if I'd found the red kryptonite then? Or what if I'd found it right after my parents were killed? Or while I was bouncing around the foster system?" he said.

"You're suggesting you'd have become an addict for a different reason?" she replied.

"Maybe," he said. "Who knows?"

She had to concede he had a point. An orphaned youngster growing up in the foster care system, especially one as isolated by his developing powers as Clark had been, might well seek solace in something that could dull his emotions.

However, the fact was, he hadn't turned to drugs, or any other artificial prop, until he'd been faced with a lonely future without the person he was convinced he belonged with.

She shook her head.

"Okay. If you don't believe me," he said. "Maybe you'll believe an expert."

Before she could protest, he'd gathered her into his arms and was lifting up into the air.

"What are you doing?" she exclaimed, clutching at his shoulder.

"Taking you to see an expert," he replied. "Hold on tight. We're going to be moving fast."

"Clark!"

Her protest was snatched away by the wind whistling past as the world became a brief blur of swirling colours. She just about managed to sense movement and a feeling of immense speed, and then they were touching down in a darkened street somewhere in suburban Metropolis.

Her knees nearly gave way as he set her down and she grabbed at him to steady herself. What the hell did he think he was doing?

<Hey, you enjoyed it!> said her subconscious. <That was the best rollercoaster ride on the entire planet!>

Shut up, she instructed her subconscious.

"Don't," she told him, resting her head briefly on his chest, "ever do that again. Okay?"

"Sorry," he said, not sounding very repentant. "But I'm really concerned that you believe you're in any way responsible for my problems." He took her hand and began leading her along the sidewalk. "Come on."

"Where are we going?" she asked, totally bewildered.

"To see an expert," he repeated.

"But it's the middle of the night!"

"He won't mind."

***

"For Christ's sake, Clark, what the frigging hell do you think you're doing here at two am in the morning?"

Several hundred pounds' worth of belligerent therapist filled the doorway, his hair sticking out in all directions and his voluminous dressing gown hardly meeting in the middle of his vast girth.

"It's nearly three am, actually," replied Clark helpfully. "I need you to tell Lois something."

"You what?!" boomed George. "Can't you just tell her yourself?"

Clark shook his head. "She won't listen to me."

George turned to Lois. "Is he high?" he demanded. "Did someone send him another of those red K packages?"

"No," she said. "Just…determined. Actually, I've never seen him like this before."

"Oh, I have," drawled George. "Just not at three am in the morning." He gave her a pained look. "Can't you just pretend to believe whatever he's trying to tell you?"

"I don't think so," she replied doubtfully.

"Shit." He sighed heavily. "Okay, you'd better come in." He ushered them inside. "I must be crazy," he muttered as he closed the door and directed them into his living room. "Either that, or I need a raise."

***

Lois stood uncertainly in the middle of George's small living room. What were they doing here in the middle of the night? Someone, as George had said, was crazy.

"Okay, let's have it," said George to Clark. "Tell me what I need to tell Lois before I remember that it's nearly three o'clock in the morning and I should be asleep in bed."

"I need you to convince her that I have a propensity for addiction," said Clark. "That I'm obsessive and have a tendency to internalise my problems until they overwhelm me. That I'm so good at disassociating myself from reality that I can take drugs even though I've got a strong moral code that tells me that drug- taking is wrong."

George stared at Clark for a long moment. "Shit, Clark. You want a job at the clinic?" Then he turned to Lois. "What he said, really. Just pretend I said it instead of Super-Freud here. Okay, can we go to bed now?"

"George!" protested Clark.

"Well, what do you want me to say?" said George with a shrug. "You pretty much covered all the bases."

"I want you to convince Lois that my…problem…isn't her fault," said Clark.

"Ahhhh," said George. "That thing. Okay." He drew up a breath. "Clark here is what we call in the trade a total basket case—"

"George!" exclaimed Clark. "Can't you take this seriously?"

"Buddy, at three o'clock in the morning, believe me, I'm serious," said George. "Now, as I was saying, Lois, Clark is a total basket case. As a kid, he saw his parents die in a car wreck. Even now, he hasn't completely let go of the survivor guilt he developed after that. Then he grew up in various foster homes, some good and some bad. He was abnormally strong and had a whole bunch of other strange powers that none of the other kids possessed — do you have any idea how much kids hate to be different from their peers? It's hell for them, particularly if they don't have strong guidance from a parental figure. Clark had no-one. He didn't know what or who he was and there was no- one around to explain it to him or help him deal with it.

"All this made him very insecure — first indicator for addictive tendencies." George began to use the fingers of his left hand to illustrate his list. "His experiences at a couple of bad foster homes taught him how to survive violent treatment by going someplace else inside his head. Disassociation behaviour — indicator number two. He lacked any kind of support system — no- one to talk to when things got bad. Loneliness and isolation — indicator number three.

"Clark's incredible powers have made him obsessive about control, and this control extends deep into his emotional life. He feels safest when his emotions are dampened down, particularly any negative emotions that might make him exercise his powers inappropriately." He ticked off his last finger. "A desire for emotional numbness — indicator number four.

"Finally," he said, folding down his thumb, "Clark's obsessive nature, together with his habit of internalising everything, makes him prone to depression. Indicator number five.

George shrugged. "I could go on, Lois, but it would take all night to list all this man's problems and I'm still clinging to the vain hope that I might get some sleep tonight. Basically, in my highly qualified and expert opinion, the only thing stopping Clark from becoming an addict any earlier than he did was sheer bloody luck. Okay?"

Lois stared numbly at George, her head reeling from his rapid- fire tour around Clark's psyche. His words were jumbling together, the only part coming through clearly being his summing up at the end.

She turned, found the nearest chair she could and flopped down into it with her head in her hands.

"Lois…"

Clark's voice, sounding anxious.

"Shut up," she snapped. "No-one say anything, okay?"

As best she could, she ran through George's list again. He'd been very convincing, that was for sure. George knew Clark better than anyone, and certainly didn't pull his punches when it came to describing Clark's turbulent background. Of course, she also knew that George wasn't averse to talking up the facts in order to produce the result he wanted…

"A kid like you, rubbing up against some pretty rough people…you must have been offered drugs a few times," she said, looking up at Clark. "Why didn't you get hooked then?"

He shrugged. "They don't affect me."

"How do you know?"

His gaze dropped to the carpet. "How do you think?"

Her jaw sagged open. "You didn't!"

"It was only marijuana," he said, "but when the other kids were laughing and generally being silly, and I wasn't, I knew." He shrugged. "It was just another way I was different to everyone else."

"I see."

She put her head in her hands again. Okay, so she hadn't been expecting that at all. He was so law-abiding and well-behaved, she'd have never imagined he'd experiment with pot. It wasn't exactly heroin, but once he'd discovered that drugs didn't affect him, she supposed there wouldn't have been any point in trying anything stronger.

So. Maybe she'd got this all wrong. She still shouldn't have screwed up in the Congo, because of the consequences for herself, and also her blundering had prevented her from meeting Clark when she should have, but perhaps she couldn't accept all the blame for his problems.

"Okay," she announced. "George, you can go to bed. Clark, you can take me home."

George threw up his hands. "Hallelujah and goodnight."

"Hold on," said Clark, placing a staying hand on George's shoulder as he made for the door. "Does this mean," he asked Lois, "that you believe him?"

"Yes," she said. "However…"

Clark grimaced. "There's a however?"

"I'm still coming with you tomorrow night," she said.

George threw his head back and laughed. "I have no idea what she's talking about, buddy, but it sounds to me like you just lost your argument."

"But it'll be dangerous!" protested Clark.

"Oh, really?" replied Lois. "Perhaps you shouldn't go either, in that case."

"She's got a dangerous glint in her eye, buddy," said George. "I'd back down if I were you."

"Just whose side are you on?" demanded Clark.

"Oh, I don't take sides," said George. "I keep a professional detachment. And right now, I'm going to detach myself all the way up to my bedroom. Feel free to stay here and argue some more, only keep your voices down, okay? I don't want you scaring Ella."

"Who's Ella?" asked Lois.

"My cat." George turned and made for the door again.

George had a cat? Lois exchanged an amazed look with Clark. "Thanks for the offer, but I think we'll be heading back now," she told George, following him out into the hall.

"Whatever," said George, beginning to shamb leupstairs.Justrememberto close the door on your way out." He yawned loudly. "Tomorrow I'm definitely demanding a raise," he muttered.

"Night, George," said Clark.

"Night, Ella," added Lois, just in case the cat was listening.

***

The following morning, or more accurately, later that same morning, she was extremely late for her art class. It didn't really seem to matter, since she'd never believed they were worthwhile anyway. Catching up on a lost night's sleep seemed more important than slapping paint randomly on a canvas and pretending the result expressed her feelings in any shape or form.

She went food-shopping over lunch, and this time, remembering her horrible experience a week ago, she forced herself to look at anyone who sat beside her on the bus. They were just ordinary people, she told herself. Even the man who was so fat he practically squashed her when he sat down. He must have noticed her flinch — she still did that when strangers came too close — because he apologised immediately. She bit back a suggestion about dieting and merely smiled her acceptance.

Really, she thought as she worked the rowing machine in the clinic's gym later that afternoon, she didn't belong at the clinic any more. Okay, she was still shaky at times, but she was getting better every day. If only she had a proper place to live, she could leave. In fact, the Planet's medical insurance for staff, which had paid for her care so far, wouldn't last for ever. It was only a matter of time before she'd be forced out anyway.

<Maybe you could live with Clark temporarily.>

What?!

She jerked to a halt on the rowing machine and nearly dropped the 'oars'. What was she thinking? Of course she couldn't live with Clark! Not while he was expecting some kind of romantic entanglement with her. It would be a disaster.

Slowly, she resumed rowing again. No, she'd have to come up with a different solution. One that involved very little expenditure until she had a proper job. A women's hostel, perhaps?

She sighed. A hostel would be even worse than the clinic's tiny studio apartment she was currently living in.

<Clark's apartment is big enough for two.>

She frowned and told her subconscious to shut up. Living with Clark would just further complicate a tricky situation. It wouldn't be fair on him, when she had no intention of becoming any more than a good friend.

Just a friend.

She rowed a bit faster, ignoring the pang of regret which accompanied that thought.

At least she no longer felt like she'd played such a big role in his struggles with addiction, she thought, settling into her normal brisk rowing speed. George's talk last night still made sense to her today. When you looked at Clark's troubled past, it was remarkable that he hadn't fallen from the straight and narrow much sooner. He must have had incredible strength of character to have grown into such a morally strong individual.

Which made his work as Superman all the more remarkable. He deserved all the adulation he received from the people he saved, she decided. It was just a shame his editor didn't seem to understand what a special person he was.

She pulled harder on the oars. That stupid man. Prejudging her before he'd even had a shred of evidence that she'd make a poor employee. Labelling Clark as no more than a marketing asset. He didn't deserve his job as editor of the oldest and best newspaper in the land.

What he needed was a demonstration of what real investigative journalism was all about. Tomorrow night's warehouse visit would be a good start. With any luck, they wouldn't just find the art thieves' supply of red kryptonite. They'd find evidence to convict them and so achieve what the police had so far failed to do.

***

"Now remember, as soon as you sense any red kryptonite nearby, you're to tell me. Okay?"

Clark glared at her. "You know, if you're going to keep nagging me like that, I could just drop you right here."

She peered downwards. Onto a sewage works on the outskirts of Barton in the middle of the night? "You wouldn't dare," she said, clutching his shoulders a little tighter.

"Oh?" he said, with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Now might be a good time to ask yourself how well you really know me."

Suddenly, they dipped alarmingly. "Clark!" she yelled, grabbing onto him frantically.

Even in the dark, she could see him grinning. "Still so sure I wouldn't dump you?"

"You…you…" She gave his shoulder a shove, but, of course, he didn't budge a millimetre. "That was so unfair. You know I can't get back at you, especially when we're up here."

"Being super-strong does have its advantages, that's for sure," he replied a little too happily for her liking.

"I'll find a way to repay that stunt," she said darkly. "Don't you—"

"Shhh," he interrupted. "We're nearly there."

She glared at him, but he was already staring intently down at the warehouse, searching for the best way in. "There's just one guard, " he muttered. "And no CCTV, so far as I can see. Talk about blase."

"Yeah," she agreed. "Can you see anywhere that looks like it could be a store for red kryptonite?"

"Not really," he replied. "It could be anywhere — if it's here at all."

"Well, maybe they'd keep it away from the art in case it gave off any damaging rays or whatever," she suggested, following his gaze downwards even though all she could see was an extremely distant rooftop.

"Okay, on that basis, we should head for the office," he said. "It's conveniently placed at the rear of the building…oh, and there's a back entrance nearby. How thoughtful of them."

She snickered. "And perhaps we can find some useful evidence for the police at the same time," she said. "Where's the guard?"

"Nowhere near the offices," he replied. "He's playing solitaire at the other end of the warehouse."

"Okay, take us in, then," she said, giving him a pat on the shoulder a bit like a rider might spur on his steed.

Instead of swooping downwards, he gazed at her with a stern expression. "You know," he said, "we're going to have to discuss your attitude after we're done here."

"Oh?" she said, trying to suppress an amused smile. "There's a problem?"

"Let's just say we need to agree that I'm a little more than just a convenient form of transport and leave it at that for now, okay?"

"Oh, you are," she replied. "You're a portable x-ray machine as well."

He snorted. "I'm going to ignore that comment for now," he said. "We have a warehouse to break into."

***

So here she was again, in a darkened office, rifling through filing cabinets while Clark rummaged through the contents of a small desk. This was almost like the old days, she reflected, when she'd done this sort of thing on a regular basis. Of course, she'd been alone then, whereas now she had a partner.

It was pretty cool, having a partner, she decided. Especially one who could read masses of documents in a matter of minutes.

And clearly there was no red kryptonite here. Clark had told her so, and he certainly didn't seem to be acting like he was under the influence of drugs.

<<Anything?>> she asked.

<<Lots, but nothing with people's names on it. We need names if we're going to take anything to the police.>>

<<I know. Why don't we swap? You can read the stuff in these drawers much faster than I can.>>

<<Okay>>

He took her place at the filing cabinet and began lifting up handfuls of files and rifling through them at superspeed. In less than ten seconds, he'd covered the same number of files she'd taken ten minutes to read. After a rueful shake of her head, she left him to it to wander around the rest of the office.

In one corner, there was a door. She wouldn't have been that interested if it hadn't been for the scuff marks on the floor suggesting it was well-used. Glancing back at Clark, she saw that he was still intent on his task with the files.

She pushed open the door and stepped through.

***

Hmm. Interesting — she was in a long corridor which in turn led to a pair of swing doors. They looked pretty thick and heavy, and were made of some kind of metal. Pushing through them, she found herself in a small, stuffy room stocked to the brim with large paintings in protective wrappings and sculptures of all shapes and sizes, all of them swathed in canvas.

Peeking under a few of the canvases, she discovered various body parts, some more tasteful than others. One figure was so tall that when she pulled back the canvas, she found herself staring at…well…not something she usually examined at such close quarters. Looking hastily upwards, the rest of him seemed awfully familiar.

"Um…David?" she whispered. Michelangelo's David, to be precise. Surely not. Wasn't he safely ensconced somewhere in Florence? Lois wasn't an art expert, but surely she'd have heard if a sculpture as famous as him had gone missing? Must be a copy, or just something that looked similar.

She tried a couple of the paintings. One looked awfully like something by Monet, and the other…well, it just couldn't be. Surely the Mona Lisa had some kind of landscape behind her, instead of that blank space? The painting looked sort of unfinished without…

Oh, boy. Forgeries?

But there was no profit in copying famous works of art. Everyone would know the copy was a fake. And why would an art thief like Pirelli make forgeries? Surely, he just stole the art and passed it on to his clients. Unless…

No, she was reaching. The museums would know if the paintings and sculptures in their galleries were fakes, wouldn't they? Besides, the thieves had definitely taken one of the pictures at the theft Clark had witnessed. They hadn't just done a swap between original and fake.

But perhaps she and Clark ought to find out more about that painting which was stolen…

A scruffy cardboard box in one corner caught her eye. Curious, she crossed to take a look. All it seemed to contain was an assortment of rocks, but when she shone her flashlight on them, a few seemed to glow a dull red.

She'd found it. The supply of red kryptonite. Time to find Clark and-

"Freeze."

She froze.

"Turn around."

She turned around. Found herself facing a burly guard with a gun in his fist.

<<Clark, there's red K. Stay away.>>

Because she was positive Clark would have heard the guard and was probably already on his way to rescue her.

"So, what do we have here?" drawled the guard. "An art-lover, maybe?"

<<I can handle it.>> Clark's reply was clipped and edgy with determination.

She shrugged at the guard. "You seem to have enough of it around here." <<So can I. Stay away.>>

"Yeah, but none of it as tasty as you," the guard said, running his gaze up and down her body. "How about you tell me what you're doing here?"

A leaden, cold feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. The room seemed to tilt.

"How…how about you tell me why there's a half-complete copy of the Mona Lisa over there?" she replied, fighting past the fluttery panic growing inside her. She had to retain control of this situation!

The guard glanced over where she'd indicated. "Maybe whoever was making the copy got distracted," he said, his sly grin back in her direction making it clear exactly what sort of distraction he meant. He waved the barrel of his gun around in slow circles. "So where would you like the first shot? Your shoulder, maybe, or your arm?" His eyes widened. "I know — your foot, so you can't run away from me."

The double doors behind her burst open. "You lay so much as a finger on…on…her…" She heard Clark gasp sharply, and, whirling around, ignoring the authority of the guard's gun, she saw her partner falter. Stagger and hold a hand to his temple. Struggle again to straighten up, his face screwed up in pain. "Leave her alone," he commanded, throwing himself towards the guard. "Leave her…" He stumbled and fell to the floor.

"Clark!" She fell to her knees at his side. "What's wrong?" He was clearly in excruciating pain, but surely red kryptonite shouldn't affect him like this?

"Kryptonite," he gasped. "Green." He got a hand underneath himself and tried to push up.

Oh, god. It must have been mixed in with the red in that box. Mentally, she kicked herself for not noticing it — she could have warned him! She caught his shoulders and tried to help him, but he was too heavy.

"Leave him," barked the guard.

She twisted around, her hands still holding Clark, to find the guard aiming his gun directly at both of them. "He's sick," she protested.

"So?" snapped the guard. "Do I look like a doctor? Back off." He gestured to one side with the gun.

Taking a gamble that the guard was unlikely to use his gun, she turned back to Clark. Sweat was glistening on his forehead and his complexion was the colour of putty, but he was still trying to push himself up off the floor.

<<What can I do to help you?>> she asked him urgently.

<<Just…get away from here if you can.>>

She heard the guard cock his gun. "You want me to shoot both of you?" he grated. "Back off."

<<Do as he says, Lois. Don't antagonise him.>>

She wanted to stay at his side, but his pleading eyes, so full of agony, persuaded her to do as he asked. Giving his cheek a brief stroke with the backs of her fingers, she reluctantly moved away. <<I won't leave you.>>

"That's better," said the guard approvingly, apparently pleased that he'd regained full control of the situation. "Now we're going to have a little talk. Who are you and what are you doing in this warehouse?"

"We're art lovers," she retorted. "Just like you said."

<<Lois, don't!>>

The guard suddenly shifted his gun to one side and fired off a shot into the concrete floor. The retort was deafening, and in the aftershocks of the explosion, Lois felt her entire body begin t otremble.

"Don't mess with me, lady," the guard snapped. "Answer the question."

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she answered automatically before she realised that she wasn't really entitled to claim the Planet as her employer. "And he's Cl—"

"I know what that pile of shit is," interrupted the guard. "Super-frigging-man." He snorted. "Not so super right now, is he?" Suddenly, he took a couple of running paces and landed a vicious kick in Clark's stomach.

"No!" Her cry of protest mingled with Clark's shout of pain. Instinctively, she rushed towards him, only to be forced back by the guard who was now pointing his gun at Clark's head.

"So what's a journalist and Supershit doing here?" said the guard.

She glanced at Clark, who was curled up in agony around his stomach. <<Clark, can you hear me?>> When he didn't immediately reply, she turned back to the guard. "Why do you care, if you're just going to shoot us anyway?"

"The boss'll want to know who broke into his warehouse, so you scratch my back and I get a raise." He grinned nastily. "And who says I'm going to shoot you? There are other ways I can get my kicks." He ran his gaze up and down her body again.

Bile rose in her throat. This was Brazzaville all over again. He was taunting her, playing with her, wearing her down until there was nothing left of the person she once was. The room tilted again…coiled arms of steel gripping her chest, hands running up her thighs, his hot, stinking breath on the back of her neck. "Soon." The lascivious, hissing voice. "Very soon, white lady whore."

A whimper escaped from her.

"Oh, you'd like that, would you?" the guard responded immediately.

<<Lo…Lois. Don't…listen…to him.>>

Clark. She grabbed onto his voice, dragged herself back to the present. Swallowed down the sour tasting bile, the burning sensation helping her to focus. "Mr Pirelli…" There was something important she could say about him, if she could just remember… "Mr Pirelli…he won't be pleased that you messed up guarding his warehouse," she said at last, watching the guard's eyes for any reaction.

Bingo. Just a slight hesitation before he began to move towards her. "Pirelli? Never heard of the guy. Sounds like an ice cream salesman."

"Oh, come on," she said, taking a step backwards from him. "We're both adults, so let's not play games. I know all about Steve Pirelli and his forgeries."

Bingo again. "In that case," the guard said, "You may also know that he gives his employees a certain…freedom…in how they deal with things." He swiftly closed the distance between them, coming to a standstill just a couple of feet away from her. "Particularly if said employee holds a grudge against the pile of shit that put his brother in jail," he spat.

A shudder of pure revulsion ran through her as he pointed the gun straight at her and used his other hand to run suggestively up and down his leg.

"So how about it, sweetheart?" he taunted softly. "You look like you're just right for a guy bored out of his head on guard duty."

She couldn't move. She wanted to send back another smart retort, but her power of speech had left her. So this was it. This was where it was finally going to happen. Raped by a brutish guard, in a dingy warehouse on the outskirts of Metropolis in the middle of the night. In a way, she was relieved that the wait was over at last. It had been so long, those months and months spent in that hovel in Brazzaville, watching and waiting for her turn on the floor with one of her captors. Wasting away on a subsistence diet while her identity slowly leaked away from her. Lois Lane, the woman who never gave up, had finally crumbled to dust in that place and become a quivering mass of terror and submission.

<<Lois…>>

Clark. He'd have to watch. The bastards would make him watch, just like they'd made her watch so many times…

No.

No…

"NO!" she screamed, the protest exploding from the very depths of her soul. Furiously, she high-kicked the gun away, then fell on him, fists and feet flying. He staggered backwards and tripped; there was a sickening crack of bone on something hard, but she didn't care. A red mist descended, making her blind as she kicked and punched at the man before her, landing vicious blow after vicious blow on him. All of her hatred towards her captors in Brazzaville came out, all her anger at herself, all her fury at everything that had happened to her in the Congo. He was her punch-bag, a repulsive, sickening thing to be destroyed with all her might. Again and again, she pummelled him, beat him down, yelled her aggression at him as she drove him to the ground in a broken heap.

<<Lois, stop.>>

She screamed from within the red mist and kicked again.

<<Don't, Lois.>>

But she wasn't finished yet.

<<You'll kill him if you don't stop.>>

Why should she care? They'd all but killed her, hadn't they? Broken her in pieces. She drew back her foot again-

<<No!>>

She stumbled as his voice cut through her head like steel. Staggering backwards, she hit the wall and collapsed against it, her chest heaving. Looked down at the body on the floor and saw, really saw, what she'd done for the first time and suddenly her stomach was clenching and she was retching, violently losing the contents of her stomach onto the stone floor.

Then she was shaking, trembling so badly she could hardly stand, her head swimming as the stench of her own vomit drifted up to her.

<<Lois…>>

Clark again. She held onto his name, grasped onto his presence. Pulled herself upright using his strength. Slowly turned and snatched a glance at the guard again. Saw Clark beyond, on his hands and knees and crawling painfully slowly across the floor towards her.

"Lois…are you okay?"

Of course she wasn't okay. She'd just killed someone. But Clark was even less okay than she was. She rushed to his side, crouching down beside him with a hand on his back. "We have to get you out of here."

He shook his head. "Just…get the kryptonite away from me."

Of course. She was being stupid. Hurrying over to the box, she hefted it. Heavy. Too heavy. Frantically, she sorted through the rocks, hunting for anything green-tinged. Soon she had an armful of the stuff, which she then carried as fast as she could out of the room, down the long corridor and into the office they'd been in earlier.

Arriving back in the storeroom, she found Clark crouched over the guard, checking his pulse. "He's okay, I think," he reported. "Just knocked out."

Relief flooded over her, turning her legs wobbly. She hadn't killed him after all. With a sigh, she sank down beside Clark. "What about you?"

"Better," he said. "Is there still red kryptonite here?"

She nodded.

"Thought so," he said. "I think it's taking the edge off." He settled back on his haunches, wincing a little at the change of position. "Now what?"

"We get out of here and get you to a doctor," she said.

He shook his head. "I'll be fine. I meant what do we do about him?" He nodded at the guard.

"Well, if you're sure he's going to be okay, I guess we just leave him here," she said. "If we're lucky, he won't tell his boss what happened because he'll know he'll get in trouble for failing to keep us out."

"Yeah, but if he does tell his boss, all this evidence will be gone by tomorrow," he pointed out.

She shrugged. "Most important thing is to do what we came here for. The rest is secondary. But how do we destroy the kryptonite if you don't have your powers?"

He grimaced. "We don't. But actually, that might not matter. I found some stuff in the office…documents. If you could get them, then we might have enough to take to the police." He winced again and wrapped an arm around his middle. "Maybe even incriminate Pirelli."

"Okay." She checked the guard, who was still out cold. "I'll get them — where do I look?"

Clark gave her brief instructions, and she rushed down to the office to collect the precious evidence together. He was right. It looked like there was at least enough to enable the police to get search warrants for Pirelli's office and home, which presumably they hadn't been able to do so far. She stuffed all the paperwork under her sweater and behind the waistband of her pants and hurried back to the Clark.

He was sitting on the floor with his eyes closed and a curiously slack expression on his face. She bent down and shook his shoulder gently. "We can go now. Can you stand up?"

"Hmmm?" He opened his eyes and looked up at her dopily. "Are we going?"

Her heart sank a little. He was letting the red kryptonite take hold — understandable in the circumstances, especially if it was dulling his pain, but not conducive to a fast exit from a dangerous place.

She crouched in front of him and gripped his upper arms. "Focus, Clark," she said firmly. "I need you to fight it."

A small frown gathered between his eyebrows. "Yeah. Focus."

"Come on, Clark," she urged, shaking him a little. "You can do this."

He blinked. Began to draw in a deep breath and immediately winced in pain. Her hands tightened automatically on his arms, in sympathy with his discomfort, and he nodded slightly. Pulled one leg out from under himself and planted it on the floor, then slowly levered himself up to a standing position with her help.

"Good," she said, still clinging onto him because he seemed so wobbly. "Is there another way out of here?"

Because she'd left the green kryptonite in the office, right between where they were now and the door they'd used to break into the warehouse.

He shook his head. "No."

Damn. Time was running out — the guard might wake up at any time and for all they knew he'd raised the alert before coming to find them anyway. Reinforcements could already be on the way to the warehouse, all of which meant she didn't think there was time to remove all the rocks far enough away from Clark. "The green kryptonite is back there," she told him. "Do you think you could make it past if we move fast enough?"

He nodded. "Yeah. Let's do it."

"Okay." She wrapped one arm around his waist and pulled his arm over her shoulders. "Ready for the one hundred metres kryptonite freestyle?"

He chuckled. "It's my best event."

She smiled. "Prove it to me."

And thus began their tortuous, awkward dash — actually more of a hobble than a dash — down the corridor, into the office, where Clark nearly collapsed against her, and out the other door, and then, eventually, out of the warehouse and into the cool night air.

***

The first weak rays of early dawn light were beginning to hit Metropolis's pavements by the time Lois and Clark stepped wearily through his front door and into his apartment. The journey back from Barton had been long, painful, arduous and nightmarish, and neither uttered a word as they made their way down into his living room. Clark had already shaken off the effects of the low dose of red kryptonite he'd received, but was still clutching his middle, a sure sign of some kind of injury from the vicious kick he'd taken from the guard.

So far, he'd resisted all of Lois's efforts to persuade him to seek medical help. Belatedly, it now occurred to her than she should have insisted he take her home to the clinic, where she could have enlisted the help of the medical staff there. However, she was too tired to fight with him any longer, and at least here at his apartment she could keep any eye on him in case he got any sicker.

Although that wasn't the only reason she was here. She needed him nearby — the thought of going home to her empty, lonely studio apartment was unbearable.

"I'll take the sofa," she announced, already heading towards it.

"No, you have the bed," he replied. "I'll be fine out here."

She sank down onto the sofa. "I'm not having this argument, okay? You're hurt and you need a comfortable bed." She kicked off her shoes and stretched out, still fully clothed. Undressing was a nicety she couldn't face. "'Night."

Even with her eyes closed, she could sense him still standing before her. Heard the extra effort it cost him to kneel on the carpet beside her, then felt his fingers gently stroking her hair. "You were great tonight, Lois," he murmured.

"So were you," she mumbled. "Go to bed."

He kissed her cheek lightly. "I love you, Lois Lane."

"Love you too," she muttered drowsily.

It wasn't until she heard his little gasp of surprise that she realised just what she'd said. Darn. She didn't mean it, of course. Just one of those automatic responses people gave, but she was too tired to correct herself or to enter into a long discussion with him about her feelings. She'd sort it out later.

***

Barely five minutes later, it seemed, she was jerking awake, her heart pounding in the wake of a vivid and extremely violent nightmare. She'd been fighting the guard again, except this time there had been no Clark to stop her before she beat the man to a bloody pulp, because Clark had already been killed. He'd been kicked to death by the guard.

Trembling, she sat up and glanced around, but the benign, soft shapes of Clark's living room did little to dispel the vivid emotions of her dream, still so sharply in focus.

Her gaze settled on his bedroom. Was he okay? She'd suspected a cracked or even broken rib earlier, when he'd been clutching his middle and wincing whenever he took a deep breath. What if a broken bone was sticking into a vital bit of his innards? She couldn't even hear him breathing from here. Swinging her legs down, she stood slowly and padded across the apartment.

He was lying on his back, the bedclothes just skimming the top of his chest. His head was turned away from her, but as she watched, she saw the slow rise and fall of his breathing. There was a sheen of sweat on his skin, but he'd told her before that mild fever was a normal consequence of green kryptonite exposure. Otherwise, he seemed to be all right.

She relaxed a little. The terrors of her nightmare didn't seem so bad when she was this near to him, and she found herself standing there for a long time just watching him breathe. He looked different in repose — more youthful and less troubled by the demons he carried with him by day. He was just a single individual, a young man with a rich life full of adventures and new experiences stretching ahead of him.

After a while, her legs grew weary and she ached for sleep, but still she couldn't bring herself to leave him. A spell descended upon her, a product of the stillness in the room and Clark's peaceful sleep. Better to watch and listen than to break the spell. Better to stay close to Clark than risk a return of the nightmare.

He stirred, turning his head towards her. "Lois?" he mumbled, his eyes still closed.

She started out of her semi-trance and turned to leave, not wishing to be discovered watching him sleep.

"Lois?"

His voice was strong this time; he was clearly awake. Reluctantly, she turned back to him and found him looking directly at her with concern in his eyes.

"Sorry," she said. "I just came to make sure you were okay."

"I'm fine," he replied, pushing himself up on one arm. A small grimace as he moved, however, told her that his chest was still bothering him. "How long have you been standing there?"

She shrugged. "Not long."

He frowned. "I could have sworn…must have been a dream, I guess. Are you okay?"

"Yeah." She slid her gaze away from his, afraid that he might read the real truth in her eyes. "I'll head back to bed now I know you're all right." She turned and made for the living room.

"Lois."

His soft murmur made her pause, but she didn't turn back immediately. Somewhere deep within her, she recognised the emotions behind that single, softly spoken word, but she wasn't ready to acknowledge those feelings yet. Facing away from him, she heard him move in bed, the bedclothes rustling quietly in the still of the room. He didn't say a word, but she knew that he was waiting for her answer to his unspoken question.

Her pulse quickening a little, she swivelled around to find that he'd pulled aside the quilt and shifted back to leave a space in the bed. Lifting her gaze from the bed to his eyes, she saw the clear invitation.

Normally, she would have bolted from the room. Common sense, at least, dictated she should return to the safety of the sofa.

But tonight wasn't normal and common sense had deserted her. Instinct drew her to him. Instinct moved her silently and surely across the carpet, sat her on the edge of the bed and swung her legs up, sank her head into the soft pillow and allowed him to cover her with the quilt.

The bed was all warm and cosy from his body heat and the mattress felt soft and welcoming beneath her. It felt right to turn onto her side and face him. Inch a hand out towards him, feel his warm hand close over hers.

For a while, that was enough. To let her eyelids droop, to know that he was right beside her, to snuggle under the bedclothes with him and hold his hand — this was all she needed to keep the night terrors at bay.

Then she opened her eyes and found him still watching her, and she was ready for more. "I had a dream," she confessed.

"A nightmare."

She nodded. "You were dead."

"I'm very much alive," he said, squeezing her fingers as if to prove his point.

"I know that now." She shifted a little closer to him. "But are you sure you're okay, because I could see how badly you were hurting earlier."

"I'm fine, Lois, but I'm not so sure you are. You went through hell tonight," he murmured.

Yes, she had, which was why she was here now, wasn't it? She wasn't really in his bed to ensure that he was okay, but to seek his comfort. Only now that he was offering it, she didn't want to grab at it too greedily or desperately: her fragile control would break if she exposed it too readily.

"I nearly killed him." The confession blurted from her mouth, completely against her will. Mortified, she felt her chin begin to wobble.

"Hey," he whispered. "I don't believe you would have."

"When he threatened me…all I wanted to do was kill," she insisted, needing to make this clear him. "There's so much poison inside me."

"You saved our lives," he said.

"All that hatred," she quavered. "It scared me."

"Hey." His hand came up to stroke her hair. "Shhh…"

A tear spilled from her eye and ran down her cheek. "I'm still scared."

"Come here, then." He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her into his embrace, hugging her tight against his body. "You don't need to be scared when I've got you, okay?" he murmured.

She nodded against his shoulder, the tears spilling freely down her cheeks. "Don't let me go."

"I won't, Lois," he murmured, hugging her even tighter. "I won't."

***

Sunlight was streaming through the windows when she next awoke. After a few moments of disorientation — the bed felt too big and comfortable to be her bed at the clinic — she remembered exactly where she was. Clark's bed. With Clark still in it.

Or…not. Cracking open an eyelid revealed an empty, if rather crumpled, space where Clark should have been. She wasn't sure what she felt about that. Disappointment? Relief?

She sat up and grimaced when she realised she was still fully clothed except for her shoes. Everything felt heavy, scratchy and wrinkled. What she wouldn't give for a shower and a change of clothes.

Her nose twitched. Cooking smells were wafting into the room. Curious, she rose and shuffled into the kitchen.

Clark was standing at the cooker, clad only in a t-shirt and boxer shorts and apparently making pancakes.

"Smells good," she remarked.

He turned and smiled. "You're up."

"Yeah, at last," she said with a yawn. "What time is it?"

"Around twelve thirty." He indicated the pan with his spatula. "Want some?"

"After I've had a wash, yes."

"Okay. There's a clean towel in the bathroom for you, and I left out a pair of my smallest sweats in the bedroom. I figured you'd want a change of clothes, even if nothing fits."

She smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

***

Fifteen minutes later she was taking her seat at his table, feeling relatively clean and fresh. Pity she'd had to wear the same underwear as yesterday, but at least his sweats were clean if far too big for her.

Clark placed a mug of coffee and a plate of pancakes in front of her and sat down opposite her. His colour was much better this morning, she noted, although he still winced when he bent forward and didn't quite manage to conceal his relief when he took the weight off his feet.

He really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble with breakfast, she thought. He'd have been better spending a little longer in bed and letting her find her own food.

Still, the pancakes looked appetising and there was no denying that she was hungry. "This looks great!" she exclaimed.

He beamed. "I hope you like them."

"Let's see…" She took a bite. "Mmmm," she mumbled around the mouthful. "Not bad. But aren't you having any?" He had only a solitary cup of coffee in front of him, which he was cradling between both hands.

"I already had mine," he explained.

"Oh." She glanced towards the sink, but didn't see any dirty plate. Maybe he'd already cleaned up. "How are you, anyway?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he answered quickly, brushing away her concern. "How about you?"

Well, that was strange, because, by rights, she ought to feel terrible after last night's events. She'd been held at gunpoint, threatened with rape and she'd nearly killed a man. She'd had a dreadful nightmare and then she'd cried herself to sleep in Clark's arms.

So why did she feel so serene? Why did she feel like a huge weight had lifted off her? Absently, she cut off another piece of pancake and munched reflectively.

"Lois?" He looked worried.

She shrugged. "I'm okay, too."

"No ill effects from last night at all?" he asked. "I mean, what that guard said to you…it must have brought back memories…"

"Yes, it did." Terrible, violent memories — but she carefully side-stepped around those for now, and chewed on some more pancake. "But…it felt different. You were there, for a start." She flashed him a smile. "And…I fought back. That was the thing in the Congo, you see," she said. "I stopped fighting. One day I woke up and realised I'd given up; lost everything that was Lois Lane. That scared me — more than anything else they'd done to me, because I knew then that they had total power over me."

She paused to draw in a deep breath, because that had been the day she'd stopped talking altogether. Silence had been the only defence, however tiny, left open to her, and she remembered that final retreat within herself as if it were yesterday.

"We don't have to talk about this now," he offered quietly. "I didn't mean to upset—"

"No, I'm fine," she said, carefully filing away those memories also. They went into the box marked "Brazzaville miscellaneous" — rather a crowded box, and one she had to lug around with her wherever she went, but these days, was learning better how to keep from dragging her down back into hell. "I need to figure this out," she continued. "So, like I said, last night, I think I finally got to reverse all that. Beat that guy almost to death as a result, but this morning, I think…does it sound terrible if I say I'm glad I did it? Not that I nearly killed him, but that I fought back?"

He shook his head. "No, it sounds totally understandable, and I, for one, am grateful that you beat him up and got us out of there. By the way, do you still have those papers I found in the office?"

She smiled ruefully. "Would you believe I still had them stuffed under my sweater when I went for my shower this morning? I totally forgot they were there last night."

He laughed. "Just goes to show how tired you were." A flicker of discomfort diluted his grin momentarily but was quickly replaced by a smile. "I hope they're not too crumpled."

"They're still readable, which is the most important thing." She studied him across the table. "Are you sure you're okay? You seem a little less…bouncy than usual."

He raised an eyebrow. "Bouncy?"

"Okay, so maybe you're not exactly Tigger personified," she defended, "but you're usually a bit livelier than you are this morning. Care to explain that?" She forked up her last piece of pancake and popped it into her mouth.

"I'm just a little tired, that's all." He shrugged. "It takes a while for the effects of the green kryptonite to work its way out of my system. Give me a few more hours and I'll be just as bouncy as you like."

She pointed her fork at him sternly. "I'll hold you to that."

He grinned and pushed up from the table, but he'd barely straightened when his grin was wiped off his face by another wince.

Enough was enough. "Let me see," she ordered, moving swiftly in front of him and lifting up his t-shirt. Underneath, she found a mottled mass of purple and yellowish bruising. "Clark," she breathed. "This looks terrible."

"It looks worse than it is," he said, tugging his t-shirt back down. "Bruising always does."

"I don't understand why you won't go to a doctor and at least get yourself checked out," she said, reaching up to touch her fingertips to his forehead. She was no expert, but she thought he still felt a little warm.

"Because in a few hours, I'll be fine," he replied, ducking away from her. "I told you this last night."

"That was before I saw that," she said, pointing at his stomach. "And you can tell me I'm reaching here, but I'm guessing you didn't really eat any of those pancakes this morning. Do you feel sick?"

He shrugged. "It's one of the side effects of exposure."

"Clark!" she exclaimed. "It could also be one of the side effects of internal bleeding."

"Then, " he said, gathering up her dirty plate and cutlery, "I promise you'll be the first to know if I'm about to bleed to death."

His flippancy was beginning to annoy he r.Excusemeforcaring,shesnapped.

That earned her a placatory touch on her arm from him. "Lois, I love it that you care," he replied. "But really, I'll be fine."

She whirled angrily away towards the kitchen counter. "You really don't get it, do you?" she threw over her shoulder at him.

"Get what?"

"You're so intent on this macho, there's-nothing-wrong-with-me routine, you forget what effect it has on me," she told him. "I don't just care, Clark, I hurt. When you're in pain, so am I."

She blinked, almost as surprised with her confession as she imagined he would be. The words had just tumbled out of their own accord. Did she actually mean them?

Examining her feelings about him more closely, she discovered that she did: she'd felt his winces of pain almost as keenly as he had. What did that mean?

That she cared about him, of course!

"Lois, I'm sorry," he said, at last sounding more penitent. "I never realised."

"Well, now you do," she shot back. "So if you could take the trouble to take better care of yourself, I'd appreciate it, okay?"

She sensed him come behind her, felt his hands on her shoulders. "I will, I promise," he murmured. "I'll do anything to avoid hurting you."

"Good," she replied huffily. "So you'll see a doctor?"

"No," he said quietly.

"Clark!" She whirled around, ready to lay into him again. "I thought you just said—"

"I did, but in return, I need you to trust me," he said. "I know that this isn't serious, Lois, it's just some uncomfortable bruising that's going to fade in a few hours when I get my powers back."

"You can't possibly know that for certain."

"You forget that I've got experience with this kind of thing. I've dealt with enough muggings and beatings up to know the difference between a few bruises and a serious injury," he insisted. "Besides, where should I go for treatment? I don't have a regular doctor, so I'd have to go to the ER — which would take hours and hours, by which time I'd be fine anyway."

"What about Frank at the clinic?" she pointed out. "He's treated you before."

"Yes, he has, but I just don't think it's fair to use him like my regular doctor," he said. "He's already got a clinic full of patients." He sighed. "Can't we just drop this? You're probably going to be with me most of today, so you'll be able to raise the alarm if I look like I'm getting sick."

"I'd rather not wait for that to happen." She glared up at him, remembering something George telling her weeks ago. "This is your hospital phobia, isn't it? What are you so scared of?"

His mouth twisted. "I don't have a phobia. That's just George being George."

"Oh? Well, tell me what he thinks you're scared of, then."

He turned and sank back down onto the kitchen chair with a big sigh. "We should be looking at those documents or going to the police or something. Not this. However…" He closed his eyes and bowed his head forward onto his hands, seeming to need a few moments to gather himself together.

"Mom and Dad," he began in a low voice, "never told anyone how they found me. They were scared someone would take me away from them if anyone found out I wasn't really theirs. Not being able to have kids of their own sharpened their fear of losing me, so that as soon I learned to speak, they made sure I understood how important it was not to tell anyone. How did they do that? How do you persuade a little boy to keep the family secret?" He looked up at her, his eyes boring straight into hers. "You tell him that if anyone finds out, bad people will come and take him away from his Mommy and Daddy. You tell him that the bad people would strap him to a table and cut him open to find out how he works."

She gasped. "My God, Clark—"

"They didn't mean to frighten me." He shrugged. "It was a real fear of theirs, and they thought it was important that I understand the dangers."

"But a little kid…you must have been terrified."

"A bit." He gave a lop-sided smile. "But then I developed all these amazing powers and I realised that no-one could ever cut me up. So George is wrong about the phobia thing."

No, she thought. George was spot-on about Clark's phobia, which would kick in whenever Clark felt vulnerable. Like right now. She sank down opposite him, realising that she'd have to accept that, for now, there was no way she was going to drag him to a doctor. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. You are going to take it easy. That means no rushing around and lots of sitting down. I, meanwhile, will watch you like a hawk. If you look like you're getting even the smallest bit worse than you are right now, then we head straight to the hospital, no arguments. Deal?"

He sighed. "Deal, I guess. But I will get better, you'll see."

She harrumphed. "I hope so."

"So, can we now discuss what we're going to do about what we found last night?" he asked plaintively. "I think there's enough in those papers to give the police grounds to search Pirelli's office."

"I agree, so it's just as well you replaced those inventory lists in his desk," said Lois. Clark had copied the lists and snuck back into Pirelli's office to replace the originals while she'd been working out at the clinic's gym the day before yesterday.

"So that the police can find them?" asked Clark, his eyes twinkling.

"Exactly," she said. "And I think we need to get moving on that pretty soon, because if that guard reports our break-in to Pirelli, then Pirelli's going to know someone's investigating him."

"And he'll start covering his tracks more carefully," said Clark.

"Yep." She paused. Met Clark's eyes across the table. "The police will want to search Pirelli's house."

His gaze dropped. "I know."

"And you also know that if Lana is in on her husband's art thefts," she added gently, "you can't afford to give her any kind of advance warning that the police are on their way."

"I don't believe she knows," he muttered. "Lana's not a criminal."

"But what if she didn't know until she married him?" said Lois. "Do you think she'd have the strength to leave him in that situation?"

Clark nodded slowly. "Yes, I think she would. But she's still with him, so far as I know, which means she doesn't know what he does."

"What if he threatened her?" she pressed. "Told her if she left him he'd kill her?"

He lifted his gaze to her again. "You weren't there when she boasted to me about him. She was totally convinced she was married to the perfect man. I could see it in her eyes."

"Clark…" She shook her head sadly. "You want to believe that, but you can't know for certain."

"Trust me, I know," he said bitterly. "She relished every moment she spent telling me how pathetic I was in comparison to perfect Steve. Ask Alice — she was there."

"But if Lana hates you so much, and she's so vindictive, what's to say she isn't also a liar?" said Lois.

"She's not!" he said, anger flashing in his eyes. "I've known Lana since we were kids together at school, and I'm telling you, she is neither a liar nor a criminal, okay?"

Lois flinched at his raised voice. "Don't yell at me just because you're upset about your ex's involvement in all of this," she threw back at him. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you still have feelings for her, the way you're defending her."

His lips pursed into a thin line and his eyes grew even darker. "Of course I have feelings for her," he fumed. "I nearly married her, dammit. You don't just switch off emotions like that."

She felt her face turn ashen. "You…you still have feelings for her?"

"Oh, I don't love her," he said. "I stopped loving her years ago. But I care about her, the same way as you'd care about a friend you'd known for years." He shot out of his chair, immediately cursing at the sudden pain the movement caused him. He folded forward, supporting himself with one hand on the table. Instinctively, she reached out a protective hand towards him, but he batted her away. "I'm okay," he muttered, slowly straightening up again. "I'm going to see her."

She hurried after him as he strode towards his bedroom to get dressed. "Wait, Clark," she urged. "Or at least take me with you."

"It's better if I do this alone," he snapped, grabbing his jeans off a nearby chair. His face screwed up in pain as he pulled them on, and he then expended considerable effort reaching behind his head to yank his t-shirt off.

Do this alone? Who was he kidding?

She waited, her arms crossed in front of her, while he cringingly pulled on a fresh t-shirt. Watched as he located a clean pair of socks and suddenly came to a halt when he realised how far he'd have to bend over to put them on.

"Need some help?" she asked.

He glared at her and eased down on the edge of his bed, sock in hand. Leant forward, paused, and straightened again.

"Sure you wouldn't like some help?" she said.

Silently, and with very little grace, he held the socks out to her. She took them and knelt in front of him. After his socks came his shoes; she, of course, tied his laces for him.

When she was done, she straightened and placed her hands on his knees. "Clark, you can't do this alone," she told him quietly. "I think we just proved that."

He sighed and took her hands in his. "I guess you're right. Not because I need help dressing, but because I need your cool headedness. Lana…she has a habit of bringing out the worst in me." He grimaced. "As you just witnessed. I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"Well, don't do it again," she said. "We mental health patients get mighty cranky when people yell at us."

He smiled wanly. "I forget about that, you know. You've been so strong these past few days, it's hard to remember you're still a patient at the clinic."

She nodded. "I've been thinking about that."

"Oh?"

"I'm not sure I belong there any longer," she said. "I think it may be time to leave."

His face split into a delighted grin. "Lois, that's wonderful! Have you told Francine?"

She winced. "I walked out on my last session with Francine. Slammed the door in her face."

"Ouch. But I guess that's sort of a good thing, in a way," he said. "Shows you're taking charge of your life again."

"Yes." She got to her feet. "Anyway, I'm just thinking about it for now. Maybe I'll talk it over with George before I see Francine."

He stood with her. "You've really taken to him, haven't you?"

"Yeah. Do you mind?" Because it occurred to her that Clark might think she was poaching his pet therapist.

"Nah," replied Clark. "He's a big guy — there's plenty of him to share around."

She laughed. "This is true."

She was heading for the door when he put a light hand on her arm and turned her gently to face him. "Lois, you do realise that this is dangerous, don't you? I mean, Pirelli may already know that you're on to him, and after we've visited Lana, it'll be even more likely."

She looked up into his anxious face. "I know," she said lightly. "But we have to stop this guy before he makes your life a complete misery."

"I hate to think you're putting yourself in danger on my account," he said. "Actually, I hate to think of you putting yourself in danger, period."

"I'm in no more danger than you are," she pointed out. "Especially now we know they've got green as well as red kryptonite." She shrugged. "I'll be fine. You watch my back and I'll watch yours, okay?"

He grimaced. "The only problem with that is I can't watch you twenty four hours a day."

"No, and you're just going to have to get used to that," she said. "This is a dangerous business we're in, and sometimes you're just going to have to trust me to take care of myself. Come on, let's go see your ex-fiancee before I change my mind."

He sighed. "Something tells me we're going to have a lot of conversations like this one. Okay, let's go."

***

Lana lived in a large, modern house in one of the newer suburbs of Metropolis. On the surface, the house had all the trappings of wealth and success — generous front yard, a triple garage, a portico complete with shiny white stone pillars, and no doubt a large swimming pool at the back — but it lacked any kind of character or individuality. It looked, indeed, incredibly similar to all the other houses in the development.

A mixture of intense curiosity and nervousness filled Lois's thoughts as she waited with Clark on the stoop. She'd heard so much about Lana, from Perry and Alice as well as Clark himself, that she was dying to discover if the impressions she'd formed matched the real person. On the other hand, this was Clark's first love she was about to meet; someone who'd known him since he was a kid. Would she feel like an outsider at this reunion?

The door swung open to reveal a neat blonde woman with well- defined, pretty features and a trim figure. Her bland expression of polite disinterest quickly turned into a hostile frown when she saw who was on her stoop.

"Hi, Lana," said Clark. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," she replied. "What are you doing here? And who is this?" She turned to Lois and smiled the sickliest, most insincere smile Lois had ever seen on another woman.

"This is my friend and colleague, Lois," replied Clark smoothly. "May we come in? We need to talk to you."

"No, I don't think you may," she said, losing the sickly smile and turning a cold eye back on Clark. "I don't invite total strangers into my house."

Lois sensed Clark bristle. "I'm not a stranger, Lana," he replied pleasantly. "And Lois here—"

"Oh, my God!" exclaimed Lana, staring with horrified surprise straight at Lois. "You're her. The woman who turned him against me. How can you even dare to show your face — is this some kind of sick joke?" she demanded of Clark. "One of your pathetic attempts to get back at me for leaving you?"

"Funny — I thought I left you," retorted Clark. "And you're wrong. This isn't the woman you think she is."

"People do that all the time," interjected Lois. "Mistake me for her. It's weird. I guess I must look more like her than I realise." She dimpled shyly and fiddled nervously with her hair. "It's kind of embarrassing, actually."

Lana narrowed her eyes. "You have the same name as her."

"Yes, isn't that amazing?" exclaimed Lois, adding a girlish giggle. "It's so weird. But Clarkie here says I'm a lot prettier than her, don't you, honey?" she gushed, sliding her arm around his and gazing adoringly up into his eyes.

To her delight, Clark played along immediately, smiling fondly down at her. "She couldn't hold a candle to you, sweetheart," he said. "I never knew true love until I found you."

"Oh, Clarkie," sighed Lois. "You say the nicest things."

"I see," said Lana dryly. "So what is it you want to talk to me about?"

Clark made a big show of dragging his gaze away from Lois and back to Lana. "Invite us in and we'll tell you," he said. "Unless you really want to be seen talking to a couple of nosey reporters on your doorstep."

This time it was Lana's turn to bristle. "That's harassment."

"No, just the nation's free press doing its job," replied Clark. "You do support a free press, don't you, Lana?"

At that, Lana's expression became thunderous, but she nevertheless stepped jerkily to one side and muttered, "Come in."

***

Lois perched on the edge of a hard, designer-inspired sofa, just one of several pieces which looked more like entries in a modern art competition than real furniture. The entire room was the same — minimalist and, in her personal opinion, totally soulless.

And so far, except for her undeniably attractive figure and pretty face, Lana was living up to all of Lois's expectations. She hadn't offered either of them so much as a glass of water and was now sitting with her arms crossed defensively under her chest waiting silently for Clark to make the next move.

"So…how's Steve these days?" asked Clark.

"Fine," answered Lana primly.

"He's still with that insurance company, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"Remind me again…what exactly is his job there?"

"Senior insurance salesman."

"I imagine that's quite a responsible position," said Clark. "I bet he puts in a lot of overtime, huh?"

"Yes, he does," said Lana, a hint of pride creeping into her voice. "He's a hard worker."

Clark nodded. "Guess that means you don't see as much of him as you'd like to."

Lana lifted her chin. "We spend quality time together at the weekends."

"Quality time, huh?" said Clark. "Sounds…very organised."

"Not a concept you'd understand, I guess," replied Lana snippily.

Lois decided it was time to jump in before Clark let the conversation descend into a slanging match. "You have a lovely home, Lana," she said. "I wish I could afford furniture as nice as this. Is it from a catalogue?"

"No, it's imported from Italy," said Lana haughtily.

"Really? Wow," gushed Lois. "Clarkie needs some new furniture. Maybe you could give him the name of the shop or whatever."

Lana smiled indulgently at her and smoothed a possessive hand along the arm of the chair she was occupying. "I don't think…Clarkie…could afford furniture like this. Not on a reporter's salary."

"Oh, is it expensive? Wow," said Lois. "How much was this sofa, for example?"

"Lois," said Clark. "I don't think Lana wants to let on as to how much she and Steve earn. I'm sorry," he told Lana, "she's still a little new at this."

"That's all right," said Lana. "I don't mind at all, Lois. That sofa you're sitting on was around ten thousand dollars, I believe."

"Wow," said Lois. "Ten thousand bucks. Maybe we should become insurance salesmen, too, Clarkie."

"Perhaps we should," said Clark. "It certainly seems to pay well. This room alone would cost more than I earn in a year."

"And you have such nice pictures, too," said Lois, squinting at a blue boxy thing on one wall. "Are they originals?"

Lana laughed depreciatingly. "Oh, no. Even we couldn't afford an original Picasso. We just enjoy good art, Steve especially."

"Really?" said Clark. "I didn't know he was interested in art."

"He's quite an expert, actually," said Lana. "He's taught me a lot."

"I bet he has," muttered Clark.

<<Clark!>>

<<Sorry, but she's just so incredibly irritating.>>

Lana was already looking daggers at Clark, so Lois bobbed up quickly from the angular sofa. "Could you show me where your bathroom is?" she asked Lana, ducking her head coyly. "Clarkie bought me this huge, huge Coke at lunchtime and I'm afraid it's already gone right through me."

Lana wrinkled her nose with distaste. "This way."

<<Behave while I'm gone,>> Lois instructed.

Having seen how volatile Clark was in Lana's company, Lois was as quick as possible in the bathroom. Nevertheless, as she made her way back down the hall to the lounge, she could hear their low, angry voices sniping viciously at each other.

"So she's the best you can manage these days, is she, *Clarkie*?"

"It's really none of your business, Lana."

"If only you could see yourself," Lana scoffed. "Walking around with some dumb bimbo hanging on your arm. It's pathetic."

"I'm not doing this, Lana. You can call her all the names you like, but I'm not rising to your bait."

"Is she a drug addict too, Clark? That would explain her addled brain. Do you shoot up together in some nasty back street ally?"

"Shut up, Lana," said Clark. "Just shut up, okay?"

My God, thought Lois, she really is a first class bitch. Breezing back into the room, she found the two of them facing off like two prize fighters. Clark's fists were clenched as he sat up ramrod straight in his chair, while Lana was leaning forward with her chin jutting arrogantly out towards him.

Lois made straight for Clark and plonked herself down in his lap. "They even have art in the bathroom, Clarkie. Isn't that cool?"

"Yeah," he muttered absently.

"Maybe your hubbie could teach me about art," she said, turning to Lana. "I learn real quick."

"I don't think so," said Lana. "Clark, I'm running out of patience here. Are you going to get to the point or shall I just show you to the door right now?"

"That's okay, Lana," replied Clark, easing Lois off his lap and rising stiffly from his chair. "We'll show ourselves out."

<<What are you doing?!>>

<<I came here to help her and all she can do is throw insults around. Why am I bothering?>>

Lois placed a hand on Clark's chest as he made for the door. "Aww, Clarkie, we can't go yet," she said. "You haven't told Lana about her husband yet."

He stared at her. "Lois, what are you doing?"

"The right thing," she replied. "Lana, how much do you really know about Steve?"

Lana threw her chin out. "Everything that matters."

"But do you know his background? How he spends his time when he's not here with you?" she pressed on. "Have you ever called him at the office when he's been working late and not got an answer?"

"So?" replied Lana. "He could have been in a meeting, or visiting with clients."

"What about all this?" she asked, sweeping her arm around the room. "Do you really think an insurance salesman could afford all this designer furniture — even a senior salesman?"

"He earns commission," said Lana defensively. "And he saves a lot."

Clark snorted. "He can't earn that much more than me and it would take me a lifetime to save enough for all this."

"What are you implying?" Lana demanded. "Because whatever it is, it's not true."

"Oh, so you've already asked yourself the same questions, have you?" said Clark. "Do tell me how you rationalised away that Hockney over there, or the Jackson Pollock in the hallway."

"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "No-one could afford art as famous as that. They're only copies."

"Are you sure?" asked Clark. "How can you tell?"

"It's common sense," she said. "Something you seem to lack. I suppose the drugs do that to you."

"Lana, can't you stop throwing insults at Clark for just one minute and listen to what he's telling you?" said Lois, her patience snapping.

"He hasn't told me a thing," Lana said. "All he's done is throw loose accusations around."

"Okay," said Clark, breathing heavily. "You want something more concrete? The other day I asked Mayson Drake over at the DA's office for a list of suspected art thieves. Guess whose name was at the top of the list?"

Lana blanched. "It's not true. This is just another of your spiteful attempts to make me feel bad about my marriage. Well, it won't work, Clark. Your life may have fallen apart since we broke up, but I've never been happier." She stormed to the front door and opened it. "Now get out my house and take your drug addict bimbo with you."

"Fine," seethed Clark. "I tried to help you, but as usual, all you can do is throw insults at me. Come on, Lois, we're wasting our time here."

He placed an arm around her back and guided her swiftly to the door.

"Clark, wait," said Lois, forcing him to pause by swivelling around to face Lana. "You don't realise this," she told Lana, "because you're too busy being spiteful, but he still cares about you. That's why he came here today — not to taunt you or get into a shouting matching with you, but to warn you that you may be caught up in something pretty unpleasant. Dangerous, even.

"So when we've gone and you're all alone in that big, empty house, think about what you and Clark once had together and ask yourself this: would Clark, the man you almost married, lie about something as serious as this?" She slid an around his waist. "I didn't want him to come here today because I knew what it would cost him, but he came anyway. Think about that."

She turned them around, leaving a shocked Lana standing in her hallway, all of a sudden looking like a rather lonely and pathetic figure.

***

Once they'd walked a few yards down the street, Lois stopped. "You okay?" she asked, placing a hand on his back and studying his tired features.

"Yeah," he said heavily. "I can't believe she still hates me so much."

"I can't believe you ever considered marrying her," she replied.

He sighed. "She wasn't always like that. We used to get along really well together."

"Well, she seems pretty unlovable to me," she said. "You must have had the patience of a saint."

"No, just the innocence of youth and lots of optimism," he replied wryly.

She chuckled. "How's the stomach?"

He grimaced. "Ask me when I haven't just gone ten rounds with my ex-girlfriend."

"That bad, huh? Want me to take a look?" She tweaked playfully at a corner of his t-shirt.

"Lois!" He grabbed her hand and pushed the shirt back down. "I'm fine. Come on, let's go see the police."

***

The shadows on Metropolis's sidewalks were lengthening and a chilly breeze was whipping up the leaves into swirling green and brown eddies when Lois and Clark emerged from the police station. The worsening weather matched Lois's mood perfectly as she stormed down the street, ignoring the throbbing headache which had started up half-way through their meeting with the most inept police detective she'd ever had the displeasure to deal with.

"He does have a point," said Clark as he hurried along beside her. "Whatever they do has to stand up in court—"

"And it would have done," snapped Lois. "He just wasn't interested. No headline-grabbing murders in it, I suppose."

"Maybe there's a specialist team to deal with this kind of crime," suggested Clark. "Maybe we should have asked to speak to them."

Damn. She halted suddenly, realising what they should have done instead of wasting time with the police. "No," she replied. "What we are going to do is take this to the people who gave us the list of suspects in the first place — the DA's office. We'll talk to your friend. Mayson Duck, was it?"

"Drake," corrected Clark.

"Drake, then," she continued, heading briskly along the sidewalk. "What's her job there? Is she senior enough to get the search warrant organised, or will she need to speak to someone else?"

He didn't answer immediately, so she swivelled her head to prompt him again, only to discover he was no longer beside her. Confused, she stopped and turned to look for him.

He was standing a few paces back with a pensive expression on his face. "Is there a problem?" she asked.

"You want us to go to the DA's office," he stated.

"Yes," she replied, wondering why he suddenly felt the need to state the blindingly obvious. "Come on, we need to get there before they close."

"They won't close for a few hours yet," he said. "Lois…"

"What?" she asked impatiently.

"Before we head there, you should probably know something," he said.

"What?" She glanced at her watch — time was frittering away, and every minute they wasted here was a minute longer for Pirelli to run to ground.

"Mayson isn't just a friend," he said. "She's my ex-girlfriend."

"Another one?" she exclaimed. "How many do you have?"

At his pained expression, she bit her lip. Of course! When he'd been mainlining on red kryptonite on a daily basis, he'd worked his way through a string of one-night stands — and now regretted it bitterly. "Sorry," she said. "But will it really be that awkward? I mean, if it was just a…a brief…encounter…no feelings attached…"

He walked the few paces to her side. "She was…a lot more than just a one-night stand, Lois," he said quietly. "It's all over now, but at the time, she and I were pretty close."

"Oh." She filed that piece of information away for later. "Does this mean you don't want to go to the DA's office?"

"No, I'll go, but I just thought you should know," he said. "In case there's any…awkwardness."

"Fine!" she said, briskly. "Let's go, then."

She began hurrying down the street again, and after a few moments, he jogged up alongside her and together they headed to Mayson Drake's office.

***

Another blonde. Lois eyed Mayson — all long slender legs and masses of curly blonde hair, wrapped up in a package which included a sharp business suit and high heels — and concluded that Clark must have made a terrible mistake when he'd decided the woman he really wanted was Lois Lane. Or maybe he was secretly hoping she'd dye her hair blonde and grow it long.

The atmosphere was definitely frosty in Mayson's office. Not nearly as hostile as at Lana's place, but Clark and Mayson were certainly tip-toeing around each other: instead of insults flying through the air, here there was excruciating politeness.

She and Clark were currently sitting on two visitors' chairs while Mayson sat at her desk and examined the documentation they'd brought. Clark was tapping a finger on the arm of his chair and a tell-tale muscle was jumping along his jaw. On impulse, Lois reached out a hand and laid it over his. When he responded with a glance across at her, she gave him a reassuring smile. He relaxed a bit and smiled weakly back.

Mayson looked up from the paperwork, her eyes fixing momentarily on Lois and Clark's hands. Lois shifted her hand to clasp Clark's firmly. Mayson's gaze moved away to Clark's face. "Remind me again how you acquired these documents?"

Clark shrugged. "Does that matter?"

"Of course it matters," she exclaimed. "You know that as well as I do."

"Oh, come on, Mayson," said Clark. "Do you want to nail Pirelli or not?"

"Of course I want to nail him," she retorted. "Which is why I need any case I build against him to be watertight. I don't want him wriggling out on a technicality."

"This can't be the first time you've acted on information obtained…creatively," pointed out Lois. "If it makes you feel any better, you could always prosecute us for breaking and entering."

"Lois!"

"It's okay, Clark," Lois soothed. "She won't do anything like that, will you, Mayson?"

Mayson frowned at Lois and then pursed her lips. "Okay, I'll see what I can do. Where can I contact you if I need to?"

"The Planet," replied Lois. "Or Clark's apartment. I…ah…guess you have his number there?"

"I probably have it in my files somewhere," said Mayson, shrugging just a little too casually. "Unless you've moved?" she asked Clark.

He shook his head. "No, still in the same place." He stood up, and Lois followed suit. "Thanks, Mayson."

"No problem," she replied, also rising. "And…are you keeping well?"

"I'm fine," he said, leading them to the door. "You?"

"I'm fine, too." She opened the door and seemed to hesitate. Her hand came forward as if to shake Clark's and then withdrew. Clark leant jerkily towards her then paused and straightened up. The two of them stood like statues for a moment, and then Mayson said stiffly, "I'll be in touch."

"Thanks," interjected Lois into the general awkwardness.

Mayson nodded briefly at her and then suddenly turned to Clark, reached up her arms to him and kissed him on the cheek. "Take care of yourself," she murmured, releasing him again. "You seem a little tired."

Lois slid her arm around Clark's waist and squeezed herself to him. "I'm making sure he looks after himself," she declared possessively. "Thanks again for your help."

"I'll call you when I have news."

Lois nodded and led them both out of Mayson's office.

***

The Planet's newsroom was quieter now that the working day was almost over. Only a few journalists still pecked diligently away at their keyboards, the administrative and research staff having mostly left for home. The noise-levels, thankfully, were therefore fairly headache-friendly.

Nevertheless, Lois was having a hard time concentrating on the draft piece she'd started for the Arts editor. This was supposed to be her ticket to a permanent job back at the Planet, but despite the importance of her work, she found it hard to look at the screen for too long and even harder to string logical sentences together.

Instead, she found her thoughts drifting to Clark and his ex- girlfriends. Lana had been much as she'd been led to expect by Perry, but still, to witness such hostility and selfishness in the flesh had been quite a shock. She had no doubt that Clark would have been utterly miserable if he'd married Lana, and she still had difficulty understanding what he'd ever seen in her. All she could conclude was that he'd been a different person in those days; less sure of his abilities, perhaps.

And then Mayson. Her very existence confused the heck out of Lois. Her understanding was that Clark had turned to drugs and one-night stands after he'd been unable to locate the woman he believed he really loved. George had weaned him off the drugs and fast women, but he'd never entirely lost his yearning for his dream love, ie Lois herself. So if he'd only ever wanted a romantic relationship with Lois Lane, where did Mayson Drake fit in?

Lois glanced over to Clark, trying to read the answers from the hunched figure before her. He was intent on his screen, his hands flying over his keyboard as he worked to produce copy for the editor who believed he didn't pull his weight in the newsroom. After they'd left Mayson's office, he'd been subdued, only managing to rouse himself to brief answers and wan smiles whenever Lois had prompted him into conversation.

At first she'd been worried that his stomach was bothering him again, but a swift tug upwards of his t-shirt when he was least expecting it had revealed gradually fading bruises. It had also provoked an indignant yelp of protest, his most lively response to anything she'd said or done since leaving the DA's office. Her conclusion, therefore, was that he was brooding on his meeting with his ex-girlfriend.

Had Mayson Drake been an experiment? A test to see if he could fall in love with someone other than Lois herself? Or was his fixation not as strong as he claimed it was, and he'd still be in a relationship with Mayson even now if she hadn't dumped him?

No, the second theory didn't seem right. Clearly, the assistant DA still harboured feelings for Clark. Lois had noticed that and hadn't much liked it, making sure that Mayson got clear signals that Clark was already spoken for. So it didn't seem likely that Mayson had dumped Clark; rather the other way around — which supported the first theory. He'd tried to love someone other than Lois and failed.

Wow.

Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. Wow?

Lois examined that word, that gut reaction to the realisation that Clark was incapable of loving anyone else but her. She ought to be scared. Not so long ago she had been scared. Terrified, even. But as she swirled the word around in her head and prodded at the feelings which coursed through her, all she could detect was excitement. Flattery, even, that a guy as attractive and wonderful as Clark Kent should want her.

She snatched another look at the man who loved her and realised something else: she was falling in love with him.

***

"And is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Lois turned away from watching rain drops cascade down Francine's window. She'd only come here out of a sense of duty today, the day after their visits with Lana and Mayson, but somehow had ended up talking a lot more than she'd planned. Francine still possessed an uncanny knack for drawing her out of herself — and it probably helped that the door-slamming event she'd felt a bit guilty about had been quickly forgiven.

"I'm not sure," she confessed.

"Lois, are you even sure this is love?" asked Francine. "Clark's been like your personal superhero these past few months — are you sure that what you're feeling towards him isn't just simple gratitude?"

"No, it's not," she answered immediately. "I mean, at first, it was. I looked up to him, practically idolised him, in fact. I was so grateful that someone as important and famous as Superman was willing to take the time to help little old me." She crossed the carpet and sank down into her chair again. "But all of that's changed now. I know the real Clark Kent now. I know he's just an ordinary man performing extraordinary work, and I know he has fears and problems just like the rest of us."

She regarded Francine ruefully. "So why do I know I'm falling in love with him? Easy. Because most of my waking thoughts are filled with him. Because I hurt when he hurts. Because I get jealous when his ex kisses him. Because I want to defend him against the people who want to destroy him. Because I care about him so much I have nightmares about it. Because…"

She dropped her gaze, drawing back from admitting something she'd only just realised. Something very private and personal, that really didn't make sense after everything she'd been through.

There was no denying the feelings she was experiencing, though, and Francine, despite her sensible tweed and brown lace-up shoes, was at least a woman — someone who might just understand how she felt.

She drew in a deep breath and spoke softly. "Because I'm attracted to him."

There. She'd said it. She glanced up at Francine, anxious for…what? Approval? Permission to experience these feelings?

Francine merely nodded placidly. "Physically?" she asked.

Lois nodded.

"Do you think you're ready for that kind of relationship?"

"No!" exclaimed Lois. "That's the problem — I don't think I'm ready for any kind of relationship, least of all a physically intimate one."

"Why not?"

"Isn't it obvious?" said Lois. "I'm a flake — a mental health freak. Who'd want me?"

Francine raised an eyebrow. "Clark Kent, apparently."

"Argh!" moaned Lois in frustration. "I know that, but how can I give him the kind of relationship he wants?"

"Have you asked him what he wants?"

"No, of course I haven't."

"Maybe you should."

"But that would give him all the wrong signals," protested Lois. "He'd think I was interested in a relationship if I actually asked him."

Francine laughed. "Lois, I think you have to decide what you want here and then just go for it. Sure, you're scared — after the type of abuse you've suffered, that's understandable. But Clark's a good man and he understands very well what you've been through. If you're going to enter into any kind of romantic relationship, then you couldn't do better than to choose him."

Lois regarded Francine suspiciously. "I thought you disapproved of him."

"I was concerned for a while that he was beginning to hinder rather than help your healing process," admitted Francine. "I was particularly concerned when you seemed to be assuming responsibility for Clark's problems as well as your own. I gather, however, that George straightened you out on that one," she observed with a touch of acerbity.

Lois winced. "Sorry. I know I'm supposed to consult with you on everything, but Clark got really upset when he found out I was blaming myself and kind of took things into his own hands."

Francine shrugged. "It's okay. I don't mind how you get well, even if it is a little…unorthodox."

"George likes to break the rules from time to time," agreed Lois.

"He certainly does," said Francine. "Anyway, Lois, what are you going to do? Find out what Clark expects from a relationship and measure yourself against that, or continue as you are? Or put it another way — could you bear not to enter into a relationship with him knowing that you love him?"

"Well, when you put it like that…I guess I have some research to do," said Lois. "Although how I find out without actually coming right out and asking him, I have no idea."

Francine chuckled. "You'll figure it out. Now, I need to discuss with you your status here at the clinic. You've been in the studio apartment for, what, a couple of weeks?"

Lois nodded. "I'm guessing you're going to tell me I have to move out soon."

"Well, we don't generally allow patients to remain there for more than a couple of months," said Francine. "It's a very popular facility and there's a long waiting list…"

Francine went on to explain that, in hers and George's opinion, Lois was now well able to live independently of the clinic's support. A report would soon have to be made to the Planet's health insurance company, at which point they would most likely withdraw funding for Lois's treatment. Francine said she'd hold off sending the report as long as she could, but realistically, Lois needed to start looking for an alternative means of support — and accommodation — as soon as possible.

***

Straight after her session with Francine, Lois hurried to the nearest phone and called Clark at the Planet. "Any news?" she demanded as soon as he answered.

The wait was killing her. She'd imagined things would move fairly quickly after they'd left the DA's office, but that was yesterday evening and it was now ten thirty the following morning and nothing had apparently happened. How long did it take to get a search warrant, for heaven's sake?

"Yes," he responded, to her great surprise. "The police are raiding Pirelli's house as we speak."

"Yes!" she cried jubilantly. "I knew we were right! That's great news — did she say whether they'll take him into custody?"

"No, but I imagine they will, if he's there," he replied. "For questioning, at the very least."

"What a result!" she exclaimed. "And this is going to make a great story. We'll show that idiot editor of yours what real journalism is all about, won't we?"

"Yeah."

She frowned. "You don't sound exactly overjoyed," she said. "Don't you want to nail this story?"

"Yes, I do, it's just…" He sighed. "They're raiding her house, Lois," he said softly. "Can you imagine what that's like?"

"Oh, Clark," she said. "You knew this was likely to happen. And you did try to warn her."

"It's going to kill her," he said, his anguish palpable. "Lana hates scandals and publicity, and now she's going to be right at the heart of the biggest news story since…well, since I became Superman."

Lois increased her grip on the receiver as if it were a part of him; as if somehow she could comfort him through the medium of unyielding plastic. "There's nothing you can do," she insisted quietly. "You've already done everything you could for her."

"I keep thinking maybe I should go over there…maybe just fly overhead and make sure she's okay…"

"No, don't," she urged. "You can't help her and you'll only make yourself feel worse. Stay right there and get writing."

"I'm not sure if I should," he murmured. "If I can."

Lois swallowed hard. "You have to, Clark. It's far better for her if you write the story than if you let some hack tear her to pieces on the front page." In fact, the journalist in her had just realised that they'd get a better story if they did actually bag an eye-witness account of the house-raid. "Look, I've changed my mind," she said quickly. "Pick me up here and we'll fly to the house together, okay?"

"Why the sudden change of heart?"

"Because I think it'll help the story," she confessed.

"Lois—"

"Clark, you're a journalist," she told him. "This is what we do, remember?"

He sighed. "Okay, go to the front of the clinic and I'll pick you up in one minute."

***

Lois clutched tightly onto Clark's shoulders as they hovered high in the sky above Lana's house. Peering downwards, she tried to see at least part of what Clark was seeing, but the clouds below them were too thick. What she wouldn't give for a temporary loan of Clark's incredible visual talents…

"What's happening?" she demanded.

"The police are taking down all the pictures and packing them into a van," he reported. "Someone's going through a desk in the study."

"Where's Lana?" she asked. "What's she doing?"

He sighed heavily. "She's in the living room with a policewoman."

"Is she saying anything?"

"No. She's trying to look indignant, but she's not really pulling it off. I think she's frightened."

"So her husband's not there?"

"No, but I think they've picked him up at the insurance company's offices," he said. "I heard one of the detectives talking on his radio."

"What else can you hear?"

"Mostly they're just talking about what to confiscate," he reported, then grimaced. "Plus a few… personal comments about Lana."

"Can she hear those?"

"I don't think so. I hope not, anyway." He paused. "It looks like she and Pirelli have separate bedrooms."

"Oh."

Clark shook his head. "That's so ironic, you know? She took so much pleasure in telling me how much she was looking forward to starting a family, and how that was yet another way in which I failed to match up to perfect Steve."

"Um…sorry? I don't understand," she said.

He sighed. "I'm an alien, Lois. It's doubtful whether I'll be able to father children."

"Oh." She pulled her gaze away from the clouds to study his face as he continued to watch the proceedings below them. "I never even thought about that…does it bother you?"

"Mostly I just don't think about it," he said, keeping his gaze on the house below.

"But if you found the right woman?" she pressed. "Wouldn't you want kids?"

She felt his shoulders tense up. "Not now, okay?" he said. "Let's just concentrate on what's happening to Lana."

So it did bother him. On impulse, she reached up and kissed his cheek.

His gaze shot around to meet hers. "What was that for?"

She shrugged. "You just seemed to need a kiss, so I gave you one."

His surprise softened into a smile. "Why, thank you. They're taking Lana outside, by the way."

"Well, keep watching!" she exclaimed. "Boy, you are so easily distracted, you know that?"

He grinned and returned his attention to the house. Suddenly, he sucked in a sharp breath. "She's crying. I'm going down."

"Clark, no!" protested Lois, but she was powerless to stop him. Less than a minute later, she was hurrying to catch up with him as he strode up to the house and the small gaggle of police vehicles and onlookers gathered outside.

Lana was being escorted to a waiting police car. Her head was held high and her face was defiant, but silent tears still ran down her cheeks. She seemed strangely diminished from the bitchy, spiteful woman they'd met only yesterday.

Lois tried to pull Clark back as he pushed to the front of the crowd of nosey neighbours, but she might as well have been trying to stop a herd of stampeding cattle. He even flashed his press pass at the policemen shielding the proceedings from the crowd and got right up to the car Lana was being led towards.

"Lana, I'm sorry," he called to her. "If there's anything I can do…"

Lana spotted him and pulled away from the policewoman holding her elbow. Marched right up to him and turned her tearful face up to his. "Come to gloat, have you?"

"No," he said. "I want to help…"

"Done enough already, haven't you?" she spat. "This is all your doing, isn't it? You and your drug addict friend."

"Lana—"

"Bastard!" Her hand swung up to slap his face, but Clark's reactions were too quick. He caught her wrist, her palm mere millimetres from his cheek.

"You'd only have hurt yourself," he murmured apologetically.

She snatched her wrist out of his grasp. "Let me go, you filthy alien!"

There was a collective gasp from the small crowd, and Clark himself suddenly seemed to turn to stone. The policewoman pulled a tearful Lana away to the car, leaving Clark on his own, his back to the crowd.

Lois pushed past the few people in front of her and hurried to his side. Slipping an arm around his back, she murmured, "Come on, let's get out of here."

His stricken face stared straight ahead, watching as Lana was bundled into the police car. Lois tried to tug him away, but he continued to watch as the driver got behind the wheel, all the doors were closed, and eventually, the car sped off down the street.

"Come on," she murmured again. "It's all over now."

He turned stony eyes on her. "Do you think that's how she always felt about me?"

She shook her head. "I think she was just lashing out any way she could. Don't read anything into it."

"No-one's ever come right out and said it to my face before," he muttered, staring blindly ahead again. "Just sideways looks and innuendo. Trust Lana to—"

"Don't listen to her, Mr Kent."

The voice came from behind them, a woman's voice. Lois turned, to find that more than half the onlookers had melted away, leaving a small knot of men and women still watching the police pack up. One woman, a forty-something type with red curly hair, stepped forward. "Tell him that's not how I and my family think of him," she said. "He's just a man doing his best to make a difference."

Lois smiled. "Yes, he is. And thank you."

The woman nodded and walked away down the street. The remaining onlookers dispersed slowly, some retreating back behind their front doors; some continuing their journey along the sidewalk.

Lois turned back to Clark. "See? No-one else thinks like Lana. Let's head back to the Planet and write this up."

He shook his head woodenly. "We should interview the detective in charge, if he's still here."

He had a point. They needed to find out what had happened to Pirelli, and what the police planned to do next. "Okay. Are you going to be all right?"

He let out a long, windy sigh. "Yeah, it was just a shock, I guess." He switched on a weak smile. "Come on, let's go bag a headline."

She grinned. "Now you're talking!"

***

Pirelli, they later learned, had been taken into police custody. Also, the police had found the art inventories at his office and had already begun to send investigators to the various warehouses listed, including the one at Barton. Clark got twitchy at that point, and Lois couldn't figure out why, until she suddenly remembered the boxes of red and green kryptonite.

<<Do you want to tell them to search for the kryptonite?>> she asked him quickly.

<<The fewer people know that stuff is around, the better,>> he'd answered. <But I guess I'd rather the police got hold of it than anyone else.>>

So he proceeded to inform the detective-in-charge that he had strong reason to suspect there were kryptonite stashes at the Barton warehouse, and got an undertaking that the police would keep a look-out and place it under lock and key if they found any.

The detective admitted, when Lois asked him, that this had all the hallmarks of becoming a major investigation. Clark, in return, showed his mettle by dangling information about Lois's forgery discoveries in front of the detective as a bargaining chip to secure first call for the Planet on any new case developments.

But really, they already had plenty of material to write the first set of stories. As a courtesy to her temporary boss, Lois showed some of their work to the Arts editor, but he immediately told her that this was front-page stuff and instructed them to submit everything directly to Clark's boss, the Editor-in-Chief. In the meantime, the Arts editor told his staff to put together background material on the story for the arts pages.

Some time later they were both summoned into the Editor-in- Chief's office. He waved them to sit while he finished reading his computer screen.

After making them wait longer than Lois thought was necessary, he swivelled around. "Nice work," he commented evenly.

"Thank you," replied Clark.

He nodded. "I take it we're first with this?"

"Yes, Clark and I broke the story together," said Lois. "Using some good old-fashioned investigative skills," she drawled. "It's how we used to do things around here."

The editor raised one eyebrow. "I see." He looked at Clark. "I also take it that we'll be first in line if and when the police have any hot information?"

"Of course," said Clark.

"When we do a job, we do it properly," added Lois.

"Really?" He leant back in his chair. "Well, other than the fact that you didn't bother to inform me that you were both working on this, I guess it's a job well done," he said.

Lois's hackles rose. "Is that all you can say — a job well done?" she exclaimed heatedly. "Have you any idea what's involved in getting an exclusive like this? Do you have even the slightest clue what it cost Clark to get this story for you? Don't you realise we've just delivered one of the biggest stories of the year right into your lap, and you didn't even have to raise your little finger?"

It was only when she ran out of steam that she discovered she'd risen out of her chair and was leaning angrily over the editor's desk with her face mere inches from his.

He pushed his chair backwards and stood up. "Thank you, Lois. I am aware of all that. I know you're used to a more demonstrative approach from the likes of Perry White, but I'm afraid that's not my style. Clark, I notice your ex is involved with this. Any problem with that?"

Lois subsided back down into her chair and glanced at Clark. She was pretty certain he'd resent his editor bringing up the subject of Lana, and she was right — he pursed his lips and uttered a curt, "No."

The editor nodded curtly. "Good man. So keep me posted, okay, when you're doing the follow-ups. I'd rather not be the last one to know what my paper's getting involved in."

"Sure," replied Clark. "Was there anything else?"

He appeared to consider for a few moments. "Is there a Superman angle here?"

Clark's hands tightened on his chair arms with an audible creak. "Not really."

"Come on, Clark, I'm sure you must have used some of your unique abilities to break the story," he said, switching on a coaxing tone. "The readers love reading about that sort of stuff."

"So does the criminal world," retorted Lois, barely managing to contain her anger. "Do you really think it's a good idea for Superman to reveal how he catches the bad guys?"

"True." The editor shrugged. "Pity, though. That stuff really makes the copies fly off the newsstands…no pun intended," he added with a smirk in Clark's direction.

Clark stood, his movements tense and stiff. "If there's nothing else, we'll be leaving," he said. "It's been a long day."

"Fine." The editor waved them away, but as Clark opened the door to leave, he added, "Oh, and Clark?"

"Yes?"

"This is a great start, and I'm genuinely pleased that you've bagged us this scoop, but it is only a start. You've still got a way to go before I'm ready to believe you're able to pull your full weight on this team. Okay?"

That was enough! Lois made to storm back into the room and give the editor another piece of her mind, but Clark placed a hand on her arm to hold her back. "Actually," he replied, his voice suddenly much harder, "it's not okay."

Lois closed her mouth and stared with surprise at a grim-faced Clark. The suppressed anger came off him in waves as he stood eying his editor.

"I'm sorry?" responded the editor, clearly surprised by the lack of subservient acquiescence from his reporter.

"I don't mind you criticising me for not bringing in enough hard news stories," Clark said, "although I think you'll find I actually produce just as much as any other reporter on the staff. I don't mind when you barely acknowledge the work I do — I know when I've written a good piece of journalism, even if you don't. I don't even mind you criticising the amount of time I take off work, although, again, I think you'll find that's less to do with sick leave and more to do with my Superman duties."

He planted his feet firmly apart, crossed his arms over his chest, and used all of his height to stare forebodingly down at his editor. "Which brings me to what I do object to," he said. "Superman is not here so that you can sell more newspapers. He is not some marketing gimmick. He is not a brand name. He has a serious job to do, and believe me, if it ever comes to a choice between chasing down a story for this newspaper and saving lives, he will always choose the latter. If you can't accept that, then you'll have my resignation first thing tomorrow morning. Okay?"

The editor walked slowly around his desk and came to stand right in front of Clark. "There's no need to challenge my moral standards, Clark," he murmured, his face mere inches from Clark's. "Frankly, I'd sack you on the spot if I ever thought you'd compromised lives to get a story — just as I would any other reporter who did a similar thing.

"Now," he continued, moving back to perch on the edge of his desk, "somewhere in that somewhat hysterical outburst, I guess you were trying to make a point." He shrugged. "Yes, I concede that I use Superman to sell newspapers — I'd be a fool not to. You'd like me to stop — no, I'm afraid I won't. Keeping you on the staff makes sound business sense, and actually, contrary to what you might think, I believe you're a good reporter. You're not a great reporter, but one of these days, you might very well become one if you can ever find the right balance between your rescue work and the Planet."

"And what if he doesn't?" demanded Lois. "Balancing two full- time jobs like his is almost impossible. Will you continue to belittle his work and make snide comments about his absences?"

The editor turned long-suffering eyes on Lois. "If you'd been here when he consistently rolled in after eleven, still drugged up to the eyeballs and barely able to string two sentences together, you'd understand why my patience with him isn't what it used to be."

"And when did he last do anything like that?" she demanded. "When are you going to stop making him pay for past mistakes?"

He shrugged. "When I have evidence that he'll never do it again."

"Don't you realise that your negative attitude towards him is making that less likely?" she seethed. "If you treated him like a success rather than a failure, you might just get that great reporter you think he has the potential to become."

She was just winding up for another salvo, when she sensed movement behind her. "She has a point, son," interjected a familiar, Southern-sounding voice. "I'd listen if I were you."

Lois whirled around to find Perry standing in the doorway. "What…?"

"Am I doing here?" he finished for her with a grin. "Well, you are now looking…" He held out his arms as if to exhibit himself to the small group in the editor's office. "At the ex- mayor of Metropolis," he finished proudly.

"What?" exclaimed Clark, beating Lois to the same response by a whisker. "What happened?"

Perry grinned broadly. "I resigned."

"Why?" This time, the word was a chorus from all three of them.

"Because I was no good at it," he said. "Heck, I never really wanted to stand for mayor in the first place. If Mr Olsen hadn't talked me into it, I never would have run." He chuckled. "It's taken me too long to realise it, but this is where I really belong. Always have, always will."

Lois stared along with Clark at their ex-editor, while a small voice from behind them said, "Huh?"

Perry moved past Lois and Clark into the centre of the room. Glanced around with interest at his old stomping ground. "Sorry to do this to you, son," he told the editor, "but the suits upstairs have decided you're not shaping up the way they'd hoped." He shrugged. "The official letter and everything will be along soon, I'm sure, but in the meantime, I couldn't resist a quick visit to check things out."

He took another lingering glance around the room, then turned back to address Clark. "Now, I may be an old sentimental softie, but I won't tolerate any monkey business around here," he said sternly. "I expect you to be here on time, sober, and ready for work whenever your Superman duties permit, you hear?"

Clark blinked like a startled rabbit. "Uh, yes. Sure."

Lois got a puzzled look from Clark, and in turn, she eyed Perry warily. "Does this mean…" she began tentatively.

"…what I think it means?" finished Clark.

Perry grinned. "Just call me Chief."

***

Later that day they were sitting on high stools at Lois's favourite sandwich bar eating a late lunch. The entire newsroom had been on a high ever since Perry's announcement, and Lois thought she'd never seen Clark look so happy at work. Now he was biting enthusiastically into a huge hamburger and relating an old story involving Perry and some hapless advertising executive.

"So the guy scuttled away and was never seen of again," he finished. "That's how Perry deals with the pencil-pushers, as he calls them. What's-his-name would never have had the guts to do anything like that."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Clark, you don't need to tell me how wonderful Perry is as an editor," she reminded him. "I knew him as editor-in-chief long before you did."

He grinned. "Sorry, I keep forgetting. I'm just so happy that he's back."

"I noticed. And so am I." She took a nibble from her tuna salad roll and regarded him thoughtfully. "That was quite a show you put on earlier, when you stood up to old what's-his-name."

"Yeah, well," he said with a shrug, "I'd had enough of being pushed around. I don't know why I didn't do it sooner, actually."

"You had a lot on your mind, I guess," she said.

"Maybe." He drank some Pepsi and took another huge bite out of his hamburger. "Actually, I know why I didn't do it sooner."

"Oh?"

He put down his food and turned to her. "You weren't there."

"Huh?"

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "I don't know…I just seem able to do better when you're around. I mean, look at what happened at the warehouse. I was beginning to get high on the red k until you came along and told me to fight it." He smiled. "Then today, you started defending my corner in the editor's office, so I did, too. You're my one-woman coach."

She laughed. "Well, it works both ways, you know."

"It does?"

"At the warehouse…" She remembered the menacing guard's threats and what had nearly happened to her that night and wasn't able to smile any longer. "You prevented me from beating that guy almost to death," she murmured. "And I'm not sure I would have gotten past that point if you hadn't been there. I needed your strength to pull me through."

"But I wasn't much use, surely?" he protested. "I wasn't able to do a thing."

"You were there, and that was enough," she said. "And you told me to fight his taunts, so I did." She took another bite from her roll. "I guess we helped each other."

"Yes, we did."

Their eyes met, and, just for a moment, the sounds of the bustling caf‚ faded away and there was complete stillness between them. Holding his gaze steadfastly, she didn't feel awkward, just…connected. As if they shared an understanding that ran far deeper than mere words.

"So," he said, breaking the stillness with a jerky smile, "I was thinking I should phone the police and ask whether they found the kryptonite in Barton."

"Yeah." And yes, they couldn't sit staring into each other's eyes all afternoon! There was work to do.

And, when they did return to the Planet and Clark made his call, there was more good news awaiting them. The police had indeed found the boxes of kryptonite and had removed them to a secure lock-up.

"Clark, that's wonderful!" Lois exclaimed. Not that she trusted the Metropolis Police Department to hold the stuff safe forever: she had little doubt that, if it was ever deemed necessary to control Superman, they wouldn't hesitate to deploy it or hand it over to another government agency. Still, better the MPD had it than a bunch of criminals. For now.

He beamed up at her from his desk. "Yes. No more worries about being caught unawares by the red stuff."

Impetuously, she leaned over his desk, planted her hands on his shoulders and kissed him. "I'm so pleased for you," she declared.

He looked a little shell-shocked when she eased back a couple of inches. "So am I," he replied, a slow, but very broad grin, spreading over his face.

***

Lois stirred her wooden spoon despondently around the pale yellow glop in her saucepan. This had seemed like a great idea when she'd first dreamed it up. A simple, but effective and rather sophisticated meal for two, courtesy of the Swiss. Fondue: what could be easier than a bowl of melted cheese and some chunks of crusty French bread, all washed down with a nice crisp white wine?

She groaned and tried a swift beating action to try and make the gloopy mass coagulate into the smooth texture she remembered from whenever she'd eaten fondue in a restaurant. Nope, not a hope.

"Everything okay?" called Clark from the dining table.

"Yes, fine," she said, darting over to grab a fork. If only the darned lumps would break up…

"Shall I pour the wine?" he called.

Yeah, whatever. He could do a dance on the ceiling for all she cared. Just let the stupid gloop turn smooth and silky! "Sure, it's coming right up," she replied.

"You've added the flour?" he said.

Her shoulders sagged. "Flour?"

"Yes, flour." And then he was beside her at the stove, a light hand on the small of her back. "Let's see…"

She stopped stirring. "I've ruined it, haven't I?" she said, dropping the spoon into the yellow, lumpy gunk. "I thought you just melted cheese and poured in lots of wine."

"Okay, I admit it looks bad," he said, gazing down with her at her sad attempt at cooking, "but we can fix it…"

Ten minutes later they were sitting down at her small table, the candles lit, the fondue pot bubbling nicely, and the wine poured.

Clark lifted a glass. "Cheers," he said with a brilliant smile. "Here's to the newly formed reporting team of Lane and Kent."

She smiled, putting her culinary disaster behind her now that everything was redeemed. "Cheers," she replied, lifting her own glass.

At last. This was the dinner she'd planned nearly three weeks ago, shortly after she'd moved into the studio apartment. So much had happened since then, she hadn't had time to organise it until now. In a way, that was nice, because now they really did have something to celebrate — the successful conclusion of the art theft case, Perry's return to the Planet, and, if Perry's recent hints were to be believed, her imminent reinstatement onto the full time staff. At the very least, she and Clark had, on the strength of the last few days writing together, formed a strong working partnership which Perry had endorsed.

And at her last session with Francine, she'd finally talked about what had happened at the Barton warehouse; how she'd emptied out all of her anger onto the guard, and how she'd awoken the next day to feel oddly calm. Francine had told her this was actually a very healthy sign of progress, particularly when Lois had informed her that her ensuing nightmare had been focused mostly on Clark's fate, rather than the guard's threat of sexual violence towards her. In fact, Lois had difficulty remembering when she'd last experienced a full-blown panic attack.

"Hey."

She blinked out of her reverie to find Clark smiling across at her. "Sorry," she said. "Just thinking how much has happened lately."

"Yeah," he said softly, sliding a hand across the table to hers. In the candlelight, his eyes seemed extra bright and twinkly as he gazed at her. "Maybe too much, huh?"

She shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I've had so many distractions lately, I've hardly noticed that I'm supposed to be crazy."

He smiled. "You're not crazy, Lois. You're the sanest woman I know."

She chuckled. "Then you need to keep better company."

He laughed with her. "But seriously, how are you?"

"I'm okay."

There was just this small matter of Clark himself, and how close she wanted to be to him.

As an experiment, and feeling terribly daring, she swivelled her hand around under his and clasped his hand. Palm to palm and fingers entwined — in the soft glow of candlelight and with their rather romantic dinner laid out around them, the simple contact felt intimate. As usual, sparks of electricity danced between them where skin met skin.

The feeling was nice, she decided, but also a little scary. She cleared her throat nervously. "So okay, in fact, that I'm moving out of this place very soon."

His eyes widened. "Really? You agreed it with Francine?"

"Yes," she said. "So all I have to do now is find someplace to live."

Clark's hand tightened a little on hers. "I…I know somewhere you could live," he said huskily.

He did? Why hadn't he mentioned it before, then, when she'd told him the clinic was putting pressure on her to leave…oh. She'd caught on to his anxious, hopeful look. "Clark…that's really sweet of you, but I couldn't possibly," she protested. "You've already done so much for me, I couldn't let you do this, too."

<<He's only offering what you wanted yourself the other day.>>

So why did his offer make her feel uneasy?

"It's no trouble," he said. "You'd have your own room, of course. I've got space upstairs that would easily convert into a bedroom."

She shook her head. "You'd hate sharing your apartment with me," she said. "I'm horrible to live with. Grumpy in the mornings, always untidy, useless at cooking…"

<<But in need of a place to stay.>>

She squashed the stray thought, the feeling of unease growing.

"I can cook," he replied. "And superspeed is great for doing the housework." He smiled hopefully. "So how about it?"

The room was beginning to crowd in o nher.Clarkwastooclose.Therewere too many shadows — she needed more light. She withdrew her hand from his, forcing herself to move slowly and calmly. Stood up as casually as she could manage. Walked to the light switch, her heart thumping in her chest, and ever so casually flicked it on, bathing the room in sudden harsh, bright light.

Better.

Shakily, she moved to the sink and filled a tumbler with cold water. Drank some, savouring the cold liquid as it slid down her throat and settled in her stomach.

Better still.

And she'd managed to make the whole thing look like all she wanted was a glass of water. No big deal.

"Lois?"

Painting a fresh smile on her face, she swivelled to face him. "I really appreciate the offer, but I don't think it's a good idea. Not yet, anyway."

He nodded. "Too much too soon, huh?" he asked.

Okay, so he'd read her like a book after all. Her smile faded and she nodded jerkily.

"Lois, I'm sorry," he said. "I did it again, didn't I? I should know better than to push you into something you're not ready for."

She walked slowly back to the table. "No, it was a kind offer. It's just me." She gave him a weak smile. "See, I am still just a little crazy."

"No, I really should have known better." He speared a chunk of bread on his fondue fork and swirled it around the pot thoughtfully. "See…the same thing sort of happened to me."

"Oh?" She sat down and took a sip of her wine, studying him over the rim. He was staring down at the fondue pot, stirring it slowly. "What happened?"

His gaze darted up to her and back down to the pot. "When Mayson and I were dating, she was always pushing for more. I was always holding back. I'd only just pulled myself together when I first met her, you see — I wasn't really ready for a serious relationship." He grimaced, his gaze still on the fondue. "Unfortunately, Mayson was. Everything came to a head one night when she tried to get me into bed. I…couldn't."

She winced. "I imagine she must have been pretty mad." Not that she was entirely sure what precisely he meant he couldn't do, but there was no way she was going to press him for that level of detail.

He nodded. "It was awful. Worse than you could possibly imagine." He pulled out the lump of cheese-covered bread and nibbled on it, his eyes cast downwards to the table. "After she left, I fell apart. Took an overdose and might even have…well, if George hadn't found me the next morning, I'm not sure what would have happened to me. So, you see, I should know better, because I've been there myself."

"You took an overdose?" she exclaimed, wincing inwardly at the obvious shock in her voice.

"Yes." His eyes flicked up to her face briefly. "Not something I'm too proud of."

She'd seen the devastating effects of an overdose in Brazzaville. The results had been ugly and distressing, and of course, being where it was, the person concerned had received very little help. At least Clark had been lucky enough to have George to find and rescue him. If only she hadn't gone to the Congo, none of this would have happened to him-

No. She was forgetting the late-night talk with George: Clark's troubles weren't of her making. She still needed to remind herself of that from time to time. Still, she was a little unnerved to discover Clark had once been so unstable.

"You…you don't think you'd do that again, though?" she asked softly.

"God, no!" he said harshly. "Once was enough," he muttered. "Anyway, once I'd recovered, Mayson and I tried again, believe it or not — dating, I mean, not…sex." He speared another piece of bread and began turning it around in the cheese mixture. "She treated me with kid gloves the second time around, which was just as bad. I always knew she wanted so much more, you see, but was constantly holding back on my behalf. Drove me crazy."

He looked up. "Actually, I never realised until now how much alike the relationships between me and Mayson and you and I are."

She nodded slowly. "One person wanting a lot more than the other. But if that's the case…"

"Why do I think it'll work this time, when it didn't between me and Mayson?" he finished for her. "Would you accept unstintingly blind optimism?" he asked with a lopsided smile.

She smiled and shrugged while forking up a piece of bread and dunking it into the fondue. "It's a start."

"There are other reasons…we broke up over Superman, for example," he said. "Mayson never wholly approved of him, you see. As an Assistant DA, she believed in using the proper authorities and official organisations to fight crime. She viewed Superman as little more than an unpaid vigilante."

Whereas Superman was in Clark's lifeblood: to prevent him from rescuing people was tantamount to stifling him to death. In fact, it occurred to her that he'd broken up with the two most important women in his life because they hadn't supported Superman.

Which left her…where? She believed in Superman, there was no doubt about that. She supported what he did and what he stood for. Whether she was strong enough to bring him into her daily life was another matter. Could she stand the media attention? Would she mind when he suddenly disappeared in the middle of a date, or when he came back home reeking of smoke and in a foul mood because things had gone awry?

Oh, boy. Already she was planning how to cope living with him when they hadn't even agreed to date!

"Whereas I get the sense," he continued, "that you're okay with Superman. Am I right?"

"I am," she confirmed, hoisting out her cheese-soaked bread and nibbling cautiously. "I can't pretend I'm not a little daunted by all the publicity that surrounds him, though."

He shrugged. "Me, too. I never get used to it. All I can do is try and turn it into something positive — if you think about it, I get a free ticket to promote everything Superman stands for whenever the press shove a microphone in my face or chase me around with telephoto lenses."

She smiled. Trust Clark to find something positive to say about the lowest form of journalism — the paparazzi, scourge of the rich and famous. "So we agree on Superman," she said. "What else do we have going for us that you and Mayson didn't?"

"Well," he began. "We have a lot more in common. We're both journalists, for a start." He ticked the items off on his fingers. "We work for the same newspaper. We share the same boss. We're…" He looked stumped for a moment, then brightened. "We've both been mental health patients — and attended the same clinic, no less." He grinned in triumph. "Heck, we almost share the same therapist! Is there no end to the similarities?" he exclaimed, throwing his hands up theatrically.

She laughed. "That's it? That's your compatibility list? We both know George, so we must be made for each other?"

"Yup, that's it." He grinned broadly. "So how about it? You prepared to see if we can make this work?"

Her heart did a little flip-flop. "I'm not exactly sure what 'this' is," she replied carefully. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

His grin faded: the moment of silliness had passed. He leant forward, the dancing candlelight softening the angular lines of his solemn features. Slowly, he reached a hand up to his glasses and pulled them off.

A different Clark was revealed. An open and honest Clark, willingly baring himself to her close scrutiny. The real Clark Kent, maybe, neither Superman nor ordinary man, but a unique and complex blend of strength and vulnerability. "A beginning," hemurmured.That'sallIask. Nothing complicated or intense, just a beginn ing.

How quickly a conversation could turn from light banter to serious matters which could change lives. He asked, on the face of it, for so little, yet wanted so much. Truly, he'd been one hundred percent correct when drawing the parallel with his uneven relationship with Mayson Drake. Could she trust him to hold back, let her catch up to his level? Would there always be a tension between them because of their mismatched feelings?

His glasses sat on the tablecloth, glinting in the flickering light. She picked them up and turned them around in her hands. They were heavier than she'd expected, perhaps because of the lead glass lenses. One of these days she'd have to ask him where he got them made.

Had he removed them for Mayson? For Lana? How many people got to see the real Clark Kent?

And he'd never slept with Mayson. Or probably not, from what he'd told her. So despite all those one-night stands, all that sexual experience he'd accumulated, when it had come down to a long-term relationship, he hadn't immediately jumped into bed with his girlfriend. Why?

"Clark, can I ask you a really personal question?" she asked, keeping her gaze resolutely glued to his glasses. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to."

"Sure, go ahead."

"Why didn't you sleep with Mayson?"

She tensed, waiting for a sharp rebuke for asking such an intimate question. It didn't come, but then neither did an answer. She'd gone too far, clearly. They didn't know each other well enough to delve into such personal matters. An apology was probably in order. "I'm sorry—"

He let out a long sigh. "You're still concerned about all those one-night stands I had, aren't you? I told you, that wasn't me, that was the kryptonite—"

"I know that," she said quietly. "I just thought…you had all that experience and she's an attractive woman…why wouldn't you sleep with her?"

Another long silence. God, what was she doing, asking him all these impertinent questions? He'd never asked about her sex life, so why did she think she had a right to ask about his? This was a bad idea-

"Because I didn't want to," he answered. "That's the short answer. I never felt that way about her. It was the one thing I learned from all those women I took to bed — heartless sex without any kind of emotional meaning just isn't for me."

Just as she'd expected, really, and she supposed that on the whole, it was good news: Clark wasn't the type of man to jump into bed with a woman unless he loved her. Which would be absolutely fine if the woman he currently thought he loved wasn't scared rigid by the prospect of sex. "Oh," she replied in a small voice.

"Oh, Lois," he exclaimed softly. "Surely you know me well enough by now to know that I would never pressure you into anything like that? I know what a difficult issue it is for you."

She nodded. He was right — she did know him pretty well, and she should trust her instincts. She raised her eyes and gave him a weak smile. "Who knows, maybe I'll be pressuring you before long," she said, feeling her cheeks burn red. Now where had that comment come from? Sometimes she could swear that someone else was driving the parts of her brain that made words come out of her mouth.

He smiled. "We'll take each day as it comes, okay?"

"Okay." Better head back to safer territory. "So…I have an idea for a place to stay."

"Oh?"

"Well, I remember you telling me that you lived with Perry and Alice for a while when you were a day patient at the clinic," she said. "Do you think they'd be prepared to put up with another crazy lodger?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "I'm sure they would! You know that Perry practically thinks of you as his daughter."

She laughed. "If I'm his daughter, then you're his son."

"You think so?"

"It's obvious, Clark!" she told him. "You've told me how much he helped you when you were fighting the red kryptonite. Do you think that was easy when he was trying to hold down the mayor's job at the same time? He must have moved heaven and earth to be with you when it mattered."

He fiddled with the fondue burner, trying to reduce the flame a little as the smaller quantity of cheese mix left in the pot was now bubbling too fiercely. "You know, I never really thought of that before. I guess you're right." He gave up with the burner and closed it off completely, making the flame die. "He'll never replace my Dad, but he's a pretty good substitute," he added quietly.

"Yeah, and he's a thousand times better than my Dad," she agreed. "So I guess that makes us pretty lucky."

He nodded. "And we have another thing in common…except…" A slight smile spread across his face. "If you're his daughter and I'm his son, does that make us siblings? In which case…um…" He gave her a mildly quizzical look. "Just how strongly do you feel about incest?"

She almost choked on her wine as she burst out laughing. "Clark! That's…that's…"

"I mean, I'm not sure whether it's actually taboo on Krypton, so if you like, I could make you an honorary Kryptonian," he continued. "Or we could ask Perry to disinherit one of us, if that would help."

"I don't think he's got any savings for us to inherit, so that's no good," she spluttered. "I guess you'll have to make me an honorary Kryptonian. What does that involve?"

"Oh, it's a simple ceremony," he said, pushing back his chair to get up. "We don't believe in elaborate arrangements," he continued, moving around the table to stand before her. With his hands, he encouraged her to also rise.

Hesitantly, she put down her wine glass and stood to face him. "Now what?" Although she knew really, and her racing heart was the proof that she knew.

Dark brown pools gazed intently down at her, unfettered by the usual barrier of his glasses. His lips were slightly parted and she fancied that in the flickering candlelight his cheeks were a little flushed.

"Now this," he murmured, reaching out a hand to slip behind her head and draw her to him.

She went willingly, touching her lips softly and delicately against his, feeling him press gently back, feeling his arm slide around her shoulders, letting her lips open just a little more, slanting her head to one side to allow the kiss to deepen, wrapping her arms around him to hold him tight against her…

All too soon, they parted to draw breath.

Still cradled in his arms, she found that she'd made up her mind. "I think I may have an answer for you."

"An answer?"

"About the beginning thing.

"Oh, that." He kissed the top of her head. "What's the verdict?"

She glanced over at his glasses. Looked up at their owner, who gazed back down at her without any sort of barrier, either physical or emotional. He'd answered every one of her questions, no matter how personal or intimate. He'd nurtured and supported her through the most harrowing experience of her life. He'd told her he loved her, and that no longer frightened her. In fact, she was pretty certain she was falling in love with him.

And time and again, they'd discovered how keenly they needed each other.

She met his gaze steadily. "Yes," she told him. "I'm ready for a new beginn ing.

His eyes, already so clear and bright, grew a little brighter and his breath caught at the back of his throat. "Hey," she murmured, reaching up a hand to caress the side of his face. "It's okay."

Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms around her and drew her into a tight hug. "More than okay," he murmured huskily over her shoulder. "This is probably the best day of my entire life."

His emotion was infectious. "Me, too," she replied, her voice wavering as she returned his hug with an even fiercer one of her own. Her legs began to wobble and then her eyes went all blurry when an incredibly powerful sense of coming home at last overwhelmed her. She clung to him and let the tears come, sensing that he was equally tearful as he held her tight.

"Look at us," she said, chuckling through her tears when they drew apart. "What a pair we make."

"Yeah," he breathed.

"If George could see us now, he'd haul us straight back into intensive therapy."

He chuckled with her. "Somehow, I doubt it," he said. "I think he's been rooting for us to get together from the start."

She nodded. "You're probably right." She snuck a playful glance up at his face. "So…am I an honorary Kryptonian now?"

He smiled. "Absolutely," he replied. "How does it feel?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "When does the flying start?"

He threw his head back and laughed. "Any time you like, Lois," he said. "Any time you like."

THE END