24 Hours

By Wendy Richards <wendy@lcfanfic.com>

Submitted: December 2005

Rated: PG-13

Summary: Lois Lane has been poisoned and she and Clark are running out of time to find the antidote. Will Lois live long enough to write her own obituary? The author has cranked up the angst-o-meter to 11 for our intrepid reporters.

Author's Note:

First, a warning that this is a WHAMmy story. For anyone who would like some information about the nature of the WHAM and an indication of what happens to the 'toys', go here: http://www.lcficmbs.com/cgi-bin/boards/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=1&t=003596#000002

Now that's out of the way, I have many sincere thanks to record here. First, to all the wonderful readers on the Fanfic Message Boards (www.lcficmbs.com) who posted such fantastic, ego-boosting and encouraging comments while this story was being posted. I can't remember ever getting such amazing feedback before and I am so very humbled and grateful. To all of you — you know who you are — you have my deepest gratitude and appreciation.

Huge thanks also to my fellow IRC word-count duellers. Finishing- WIPs Month turned out to be a great success, and I know that I'd have had a lot more trouble finishing this story as quickly as I wanted to had you not been on IRC night after night swapping word-counts with me. Any time I was tempted to go off and play a game, the mere thought that Pam might overtake me on words written kept me going. ;) Pam and Sara are also owed an enormous debt of gratitude for allowing me to paste sections from the latter parts of the story whenever I wanted an instant reaction to be sure that it was at least passable. I couldn't have done without you guys.

To my wonderful beta-readers, who were much put-upon when I finally decided to finish this story and I started inundating you with sections at very swift intervals: Kaethel, Yvonne, David, you have been so very helpful, encouraging and invaluable. From errors you caught to ideas you suggested and lines you pointed out as working: I couldn't have done this without you, and I couldn't ask for better BRs.

My thanks also to Sherry, my Archive GE, for her consistently friendly and thorough editing, as well as my amazed admiration for how fast she managed to work her way through this monster!

And finally, but far from least, I could never have written this story without the help of one person: FoLCdom's very own Dr Klein. Jill, you've been extremely generous with your time and advice, answering idiotic questions from me time and again, reading drafts of the story to tell me whether the medical details were at least partially plausible, and helping me to come up with alternatives where I needed to change things. Thank you so very much indeed. Naturally, all errors and inconsistencies remain mine!

All rights to the characters belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement of copyright is intended by their use in this work of fiction, from which no profit is or will be obtained.

***

There was someone in her apartment.

Lois sat up in bed, her heart thumping. The digital clock by her bedside said 3:15 — far too early for any neighbours to be up and about. Rolling onto her side, she groped in her nightstand drawer for the baseball bat she'd kept there ever since the fake Mr Trezewski had tried to kill her. Gripping it in one hand, she fumbled for the phone with the other.

In her haste, she was clumsy and it fell off the top of the nightstand with a clatter.

She held her breath. If the intruder had heard… But she didn't hear any footsteps. Had she just imagined that there was someone? Maybe she'd just dreamed it…

No. There'd been the distinct sound of a door closing. And then a thud which she was sure was someone knocking against furniture. And had there been something else? A muffled curse, maybe?

No, she hadn't imagined it. All of her instincts were telling her that she was right. And then, as if she needed confirmation, she heard a footfall outside her door.

There'd been a series of rapes in this part of the city in the last few months. In the dead of night, the rapist had broken into the homes of women living alone and overpowered them. The attacker was vicious — he'd left every one of his victims battered and bleeding, some with broken bones and internal injuries. And, so far, no-one had got a good enough look at him to be able to identify him.

"Oh, god. Oh god," she muttered under her breath. "Okay. I can handle this."

She climbed out of bed and started to pull on her robe. If the intruder came into her bedroom, she could hide behind the door and catch him unawares. All she needed was to get in one good blow with the bat and he'd be out of commission. Serve him right for thinking he could take on Lois Lane!

The door opened. Lois swung the bat over her shoulder, preparing to launch the strike. And then something made her cough. The smell, the vapour, was everywhere. She couldn't get away from it. It was up her nostrils, in her mouth, making her cough, making her choke… She couldn't breathe.

Gas. Some sort of poison gas. Lois tried to hold her breath, but the damp mist was too overpowering. She slumped to the floor, eyes blurry, unable to move. Coughs racked her body. Her chest felt as if someone had stamped on it and fire burned her throat.

A figure loomed menacingly over her. Terrified, she tried to shrink away. She was going to be raped!

She needed… to…

…fight…

…attack…

Focus!

Her limbs had turned to jelly. She was seeing double — the blurry face morphed and swam into a cartoon image.

And then he spoke. His voice came from a long way away, echoing down a tunnel. Slow, distorted.

"You've been a menace to society long enough, Lois Lane. No more. You're going to die. But I'm not going to kill you yet."

Hands were groping her arm, but she couldn't move, couldn't resist. Her sluggish limbs refused to obey any commands. Was he… going to rape her?

A faint pinprick grazed her arm.

"No, you're going to spend the next day knowing that you've got only twenty-four hours to live. Better make up your mind quick how you want to spend your last day, reporter bitch — this time tomorrow it'll be too late."

A cartoonish laugh sounded. The face, far too fuzzy to see properly, swam before her. And then it was gone. In the distance, a sound echoed… a door slamming?

"Wha-? Huh?"

Groggy and stiff, Lois tried to roll over but another coughing fit hit her. Her muscles screamed in painful protest, but she forced herself to stop coughing. Think!

Had it really happened? Or just a nightmare? But… hard surface below her. On the floor. Aching all over. Throat burning. Someone *was* here! Help. The phone. Had to… get… to the phone.

Dragging herself onto elbows and knees, she crawled drunkenly across the room and groped on the floor for the telephone. Instinct rather than deliberation found the number she needed. It rang.

"'lo?"

"'lar… Help… need hel…"

"Lois? Is that you?"

"-elp me…"

The phone slipped from her hand and everything went black.

***

"Lois? *Lois!*"

His heart beating at about six times its normal pace, Clark leapt out of bed, dropping the receiver as he reached for his clothes. The brief exchange kept replaying in his head. Her indistinct voice had asked him for help, and then there'd been a muffled thud, followed by silence.

Lois was in danger. She needed him.

Clark or Superman?

The distinction didn't matter tonight. He was going by the fastest route possible. Clark flew to the balcony and up into the night sky.

The journey took seconds, yet there was time for dozens of horrifying images to pass through his mind. Was Lois being attacked? Had she just managed to grab for the phone, but been caught by the intruder? Had he hurt her? Killed her? That rapist had never been caught. And hadn't Lois mentioned just the other day that she'd got another threatening letter? How many criminals had she put away who wanted to have her killed?

He had to get there in time. Lois couldn't die…

Her window was locked. He scanned the apartment, and his heart skipped several beats as he located her lying sprawled on the floor of her bedroom, a baseball bat close to one hand and the telephone receiver clutched in the other.

Was she…? No! She couldn't be… He couldn't bear it if…

The painful pressure on his chest only began to ease once he focused and heard her breathing. It was shallow and uneven, but she was definitely alive. He breathed again, but it came out as a choke.

<Calm down!>

He took a split second to look quickly around. The front door of her apartment was shut, but some furniture in the living-room looked out of place. Unless she'd been wandering around herself in the night and knocked it over, someone had definitely been in there.

He crashed through the glass and in less than a second was crouched on the floor beside his partner. "Lois? Lois, can you hear me?"

She moaned and her eyelids flickered, but she didn't answer.

He caught at her hand and was about to speak again, but he became aware of an intrusive smell in the room. Straightening, he sniffed. It was a gas of some kind, he was sure of it. Had whoever had been here used it on her? For what purpose?

A sick feeling churning in his stomach, he made himself skim his gaze over Lois's body. The nightdress she was wearing was bunched around her hips and her robe lay dishevelled around her shoulders. His gut clenched sickeningly. Had she…? Oh, god — that sick bastard still hadn't been caught…

Relief slammed into him as he noticed her underwear still in place. Rape seemed unlikely. But still, what had happened to her? What had the intruder, whoever he was, done?

He bent closer to her again, squeezing her hand. She didn't respond.

"Lois? It's Clark. Can you wake up and talk to me? What happened?"

"…lar…" she mumbled. He sighed again in relief. She wasn't completely unconscious. Whatever the gas was, it had mostly knocked her out, but it wasn't as if she was sinking into a coma or dying or anything. Was it? But then, he wasn't a doctor. He didn't know that!

He had to get her to the emergency room. They'd be there in seconds — all he had to do was pick her up and fly straight out of the window. She needed to be examined. Even though he could see that she wasn't badly hurt, her breathing was irregular and he just knew that vapour had to have had harmed her in some way. At the very least, she was doped. At worst, it could be poisoning her…

He sniffed again, this time making himself calm down enough to concentrate. After all, he wasn't an idiot when it came to chemistry, and it would help if he could tell the ER doctor what he thought was in the vapour.

No, on reflection there didn't seem to be anything poisonous. It smelt vaguely sweet… He'd smelt it before. In a medical environment, maybe…

Ether! It was ether, he was sure of it. Ether. It would knock her out, but it had no lasting effects. It wasn't poisonous. Relief hit him once again.

In the act of scooping Lois into his arms, he paused. If the vapour wasn't harmful, then getting Lois to hospital wasn't as urgent. And this was a crime scene. A couple of police officers had recently told Superman pointedly that things had to be done properly at crime scenes, otherwise evidence was lost or destroyed. He didn't just want Lois safe and well. He wanted her attacker arrested and convicted.

Forcing himself to remain composed despite the cold fear running through him, Clark disentangled the phone from Lois's limp fingers and, resetting the connection, dialled 911. Very soon, he'd been reassured that an ambulance and the police were on their way. All he had to do was wait.

Wait. With Lois unconscious, maybe hurt. How was he supposed to do that?

That vapour still smelt pretty strong. Obviously, as long as she was in the room with it, she'd stay unconscious. Instinctively, he inhaled deeply, sucking it all into his lungs; at Super-speed, he moved to the broken window and exhaled. There. Gone. It couldn't do her any more harm. And there was still a trace of the odour in the air, so the police would be able to detect it. He'd just tell them that he did as much as he could to ventilate the room because the smell was cloying.

And then he dropped down beside Lois to wait for the ambulance.

Waiting wasn't something Clark was used to. Not with his abilities — with super-speed and the power of flight. And certainly never when it was someone he cared about who needed help. Someone he *loved*. Someone who was sick and in pain and who whimpered whenever he spoke to her.

Waiting was crazy. He could have her at the hospital in seconds. All he had to do was scoop her up…

…and potentially destroy the crime scene, wrecking any chance of having the bastard who'd done this to her caught and proved guilty.

It was the act of moments to scan her body for injuries. No broken bones. Not even any sign of trauma to the skin. She was just barely conscious — probably the effect of the gas. Well, at least that was gone now.

He stroked her face gently, brushing her hair aside as he caressed her. She moaned once more, and a knife cut through him at the sound. Lois was hurting and all he was doing was sitting beside her. So much for Superman — he was useless!

Where was the ambulance? Torn between running down to the street to look for it and staying by Lois, he gazed at her again. She looked so fragile lying there, her face pale, her eyes shut. Still, unmoving, ghostly white… almost as if she were dead.

No! She wasn't dead. He couldn't start imagining things like that. She was going to be fine. As soon as the ambulance came and they got her to the hospital, she'd have that nasty stuff washed out of her system and she'd be fine. She'd wake up and tell him what had happened to scare her — who had been in her apartment — and they'd find whoever it was and what he'd wanted. And until then Superman would keep watch over her. Or she could stay with him until they were sure that she was safe. Everything would be all right again.

At last! The whine of sirens penetrated his misery. Help was here. Lois would be in good hands very soon. And everything was going to be all right.

***

The minute hand on the wall clock jumped forward another notch. That made 99 since he'd taken up vigil in this hard moulded- plastic chair. It now declared the time to be 5:37. One more minute for the round century.

What was going on in there? Lois had been in the ER for over an hour and a half now, and he didn't have a clue how she was or what was happening. No-one had come to talk to him. Maybe they'd even forgotten that he was there. Though twice he'd gone to ask the duty nurse on the desk for news, and he'd been instructed to wait until someone sent for him.

He had no idea how Lois was. She could be sick. She could be unconscious. She could be in a coma. She could even be dead, for all he knew. He slid his glasses down his nose again and looked through the wall, trying to find her cubicle. But once more it was useless. There was too much blocking his view, including pieces of lead belonging to X-ray apparatus. She was somewhere in there, but no matter how hard he looked he couldn't make out which cubicle was hers.

His super-hearing was no good either. There was just too much going on. He'd tried several times to focus on Lois's name, but he hadn't heard 'Lois' or 'Ms Lane' mentioned once. None of the conversations he'd eavesdropped on sounded like they concerned her, either. All he could do was wait. Again.

Wait.

Did the staff have even the faintest idea how agonising it was just to be told to wait for news? Did they know what sort of things were going through his mind as he watched the clock ticking away the minutes? Did they know that every tick represented a minute of Lois's life which could be ebbing away even as he sat here, useless? Did they know the images flashing before his eyes, of Lois on a trolley, not breathing, being worked over with a defibrillator? Lois, barely conscious, fighting for her life, calling his name, needing him with her and thinking that he didn't care because he wasn't there? Because he was stuck outside on this *damned* uncomfortable chair, watching a clock slowly count the minutes and the hours while he was just told to *wait*?

She'd looked so pitiful. So sick. She'd been unconscious again when the paramedics had got to her, and they'd put a mask over her face, hooking her up to breathing apparatus. In the ambulance, he'd held her hand and talked to her through the fifteen-minute journey to the ER, but she hadn't responded. Hadn't even gripped his hand. She hadn't known he was there.

He should have flown her to the hospital himself. Stupid to be so concerned about preserving a crime scene when Lois could be dying! The ambulance had arrived before the police anyway, so she'd been wheeled out before any evidence-taking could be done. Typically, the boys in blue had arrived just as Clark was about to climb into the ambulance. Faced with a choice between staying with Lois and taking the cops up to her apartment, he'd just told them briefly what he'd found and where they should go, and then left them to it.

For all the good it had done him. After he'd given her details to the receptionist, he'd been left here to endure this living nightmare alone. And to blame himself for what he hadn't done.

<Oh, Lois, please be all right…>

***

"Mr Kent?"

Finally! Clark was on his feet instantly and facing the grey- haired, white-coated man heading towards him. "Yes. How is Lois?"

His impatient question was ignored. "I'm Dr Sutton. Do you know how to contact Ms Lane's family, Mr Kent?"

He had to think about that for a moment. He'd never met Lois's mother, though he had a vague idea that she was a nurse… or maybe she'd been a nurse years ago. He couldn't remember. But he had met Sam Lane, of course. The man wouldn't be working for the same research unit any more, but a sports scientist of his fame couldn't be hard to find. Anyway, Perry would surely know.

"I should be able to do that. But…" His heart skipped yet another beat as the probable reason for the question struck him. "Is Lois going to be all right?" He almost shouted the question.

"Well, we can't really say that with any certainty right now."

No!

He stared at the doctor, almost staggering with the shock. This had to be a bad dream. He had to wake up. It wasn't just that the man had suggested Lois might be very sick. It was the calm, collected way in which he'd said it. As if he was telling Clark where the coffee-machine was.

"But it would be as well if her close friends could be ready to contact her next-of-kin. It's not the kind of phone call that Ms Lane herself should have to make."

The nightmare was getting more horrifying by the second. Feeling as if any ability he had to take control of the situation had slipped way beyond his reach, Clark said, "Dr Sutton, will you *please* tell me what's wrong with Lois?"

"Yes, of course." As if he hadn't been keeping Clark on tenterhooks through the entire conversation, the doctor continued. "Ms Lane asked me to tell you for her. She tells us that you're her closest friend, is that right?"

Clark nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"When she was brought in, she was very close to unconsciousness. It took some time for her to regain consciousness and to be well enough to talk to us. In the meantime, of course, we did all we could, including taking X-rays and blood samples. I believe that you thought she might have inhaled ether?"

"That, or something like it."

"Yes, it was. At any rate, it made her woozy initially — which was undoubtedly its purpose — and then, as she remained in the room where it had been, the progressive inhalation of the vapour rendered her unconscious. We initially treated that, and it was some time before Ms Lane was able to tell us exactly what happened."

Another nail in his coffin. Clark tried to force back the lump in his throat. It was all his fault. He should have gone with the initial instinct to have Superman fly her here. Of *course* leaving her in the room where the gas was had been bad for her! Though he'd done his best to alleviate that. He'd got rid of it very quickly after arriving. She'd been breathing cleaner air almost as quickly as if he had flown her here himself.

<Stop beating yourself up! It's not helping anyone. Least of all Lois!>

The doctor was still speaking; Clark tried to push aside his self-castigation and listen.

"When she was able, she told us what had happened. It seems that an intruder got into her apartment and released the vapour, but — as she's now told the police — his purpose was apparently not to steal anything. Once the ether made her too helpless to resist, he injected her with something. As yet we have no idea what it is, but there is no doubt that something has entered her bloodstream. It's entirely possible that it's some sort of poison, as Ms Lane claims."

"Wait a minute… *injected* her?"

None of this made sense. Why would someone inject Lois with anything? If someone wanted to harm her, why not just kill her? Unless… unless they wanted her to suffer before she died. Clark swallowed as dozens of possibilities swam in his brain. AIDS. Anthrax. Cancerous blood-cells. Smallpox. Any number of incurable, debilitating, painful viruses. Any number of illness which could kill her.

"Yes. Apparently the man told her that she was going to die. I've asked for a number of tests to be conducted on samples of Ms Lane's blood, but without having any idea of what was in the hypodermic we haven't a clue what we're looking at. All we have to go on is what Ms Lane told us her attacker said. The timing's highly unlikely to be that accurate if it's true, but according to Ms Lane he told her that she has twenty-four hours to live."

***

After all the bustle around her, the questions and the endless probing and examination, it was a relief to be left alone for a few minutes. Blessed solitude.

Cursed solitude.

Now that she was alone, it was all sinking in. She was going to die.

In fact, she was probably already dying. The doctors had confirmed that there seemed to be something affecting her reactions. Something they couldn't yet identify. Something eating away at her. Killing her.

She'd thought it was all a bad dream. When she'd come to, she'd been shocked to find herself in the emergency room, surrounded by machines and people in uniform. Even then, she'd told herself that the intruder, the injection, the cartoon-villainish laugh and the dire threat had all been a nightmare. Not real. Not actually happening to her.

Then the doctor had asked her what she remembered. And the looks on the faces of the staff around her bed had revealed the truth even before anyone had said it. The work they'd done while she'd been unconscious had pointed to the presence of something faint, as yet unidentifiable, something which shouldn't be there — and they'd found an injection site. It was inflamed and sore now, painful physical proof, if she needed it, that it was all real.

Yet it still felt like a dream, including the fact that she'd called Clark. She must have phoned him; a nurse had told her that the ambulance had been called by a Mr Kent, who was also waiting outside for her. Clark had travelled to the hospital with her in the ambulance; had been visibly distressed by what had happened to her, a paramedic had told the nurse.

Clark. Lois choked back a sob. At least she wasn't alone here. Someone was nearby; someone who cared about her. Someone who'd be upset if she died — at least, she thought so. Or would Clark, like everyone else, just get on with his life as if she'd never existed?

<Don't wallow!>

She didn't want to die! Even though she'd been in more risky situations than she could remember, had so many close shaves that the Planet's insurance company had revised its premium for her life-insurance at least four times in the past year, dying wasn't in her plans for quite some time yet. She had so much to live for — so much she wanted to achieve in her life. And she was only 27! That was far too young to die. There were many more headlines to get, more Kerths to win, a Pulitzer to win. And… and twenty- four hours was far too little time to come to terms with dying.

A tear splashed onto the hospital gown she was wearing. Angry, fighting against bitterness, Lois snatched a Kleenex from a nearby box and scrubbed her eyes. She wasn't going to cry. She wouldn't give her unknown assailant the satisfaction. And anyway, she was unlikely to be left alone for much longer, and she didn't want anyone to see Lois Lane in tears.

No. She had to get past this pointless wallowing and focus on what needed to be done. She didn't want to die; ergo, she had to find a way to live.

Clark would help her. It was fortunate that he was here — that way they could get started immediately. They had lots of resources at their disposal, didn't they? All the records of the Planet, plus she had contacts in the police department. And powerful friends. Even Superman would help. Of course he would. Wouldn't he?

They'd beat this. There was no way that she was giving up yet. She wasn't going to concede defeat until the very last second of the twenty-four hours had ticked away.

A clock on the wall told her that it was after 6am. Three precious hours of this last day of her life had already gone. Wasted, frittered away; first, while she was unconscious and then later while doctors and the police delayed endlessly over questions and tests.

She needed Clark. He should be here any minute. She'd asked the doctor to tell him what was going on. The thought of telling him herself was just too horrible… She couldn't face it.

He'd be shocked. He'd be upset for her, and angry, and probably distressed — that was Clark all over. He cared about people, and he thought of her as a friend. As she thought of him, too.

She'd been unfair to him, wondering if he'd forget her and get on with his life. Clark *did* care about her. The way he behaved with her on a daily basis showed her that. Protective. Even affectionate, when she let him. He'd saved her life a couple of times, too, and each time he'd seemed upset by what had almost happened. This was going to affect him deeply. Which was why she couldn't tell him herself. She had to remain composed and rational about this whole situation. If she allowed herself to get emotional, then she might as well resign herself to dying here and now.

No emotions. No wallowing in the horror of it all — not with anyone. She had to treat this as just another investigation.

***

"She's *what*?"

No. He wasn't hearing this. It wasn't happening. This was just a nightmare. Any moment now he'd wake up and he'd laugh at himself for being so scared. Lois wasn't dying.

"Mr Kent, I'm sorry to have to give you this bad news. If what her attacker claims is true, Ms Lane could be dying. As I said, she has been injected with some sort of poison or compound which we can already see is having a destructive effect —"

"But poisons have antidotes!" Clark thrust out his hand in protest, pain as agonising as if it were physical stabbing through his gut. "You must be able to do something!"

What was the guy talking about? Why weren't they working on a cure? What use was centuries of medical science if someone could break into Lois's apartment and give her a poison which took as long as *24 hours* to act, and these doctors didn't have a clue what to do about it?

He wanted to see Lois. Needed to be with her. He had to see her, to reassure himself that she was still alive, at least for now. He had to talk to her, to see if they could find some way through this scene from a horror movie. They were a team. They always got through the bad stuff together. He'd find out as much as he could here, and then demand to see her.

"To find an antidote, we would need to know exactly what she was injected with. We don't know yet what the agent is, whether it's chemical or biological or a combination of several different things. And without that information it may not be possible to find an antidote. If an antidote actually exists."

Not possible? It *had* to be possible! Clark ran his hands through already-rumpled hair, his brain working furiously. There had to be a cure. There had to be a way of finding the composition of the poison.

"You said it's already having an effect on her." He heard the ragged, choked sound of his own voice and took a deep breath, trying to pull himself together.

"Yes. We've been running tests every fifteen minutes or so — vision, hearing, the operation of other motor functions. Sensation. Reaction to stimulation. Already, we're noticing a very faint change."

"Change?" Clark jumped on the statement. "What sort of change?"

"Nothing that would be noticeable if we hadn't been running repeated tests. A little slowness in response. Ms Lane blinks, as if she has to focus her vision. The neural activity may be experiencing a slight impediment —"

"But what does that *mean*? What's happening to her?"

"Whatever this agent is, it seems to be affecting her central nervous system. Do you know what the nervous system does, Mr Kent?"

He should. Normally, he would. Today, everything seemed to be filtering through some sort of fuzzy cloud. Nothing was clear. He couldn't remember…

"Uh… vaguely…"

"It controls virtually everything the body does. Sight. Hearing. Balance. Speech. Respiration. The ability to feel things. Other motor functions — use of the limbs, for example. Brain functions. Memory, the processing of information."

Clark swallowed. "So if this is affecting her nervous system…"

"She could progressively lose the use of these functions. She could become blind, for example. Or paralysed. Or —"

Respiration. The word the doctor had used jumped out at him. "She could stop breathing?"

"Yes, potentially, depending on what was used. And, if we assume that this person knows what he's doing, that may well be what we're looking at."

*Damn!*

His fists clenched at his sides. "You have to figure out what this stuff is!"

"Believe me, we're trying. I've already ordered a battery of tests and the lab should be working on them as we speak. The problem is, Mr Kent, as I already explained, that without knowing what general class of agent this is we're working in the dark."

Incompetents. They were incompetents. They hadn't a clue what they were doing. And Lois's life was in the hands of these people?

God.

<Pull yourself together…>

He straightened, fixing Dr Sutton with a hard stare. "Who's the best poisons person in the world?"

Sutton hesitated. "I'm not sure…"

"But you could find out."

"Even if I did, it wouldn't make any difference. He'd need hours to work on this! Unless he was within a couple of hundred miles from here, there wouldn't be enough time, even assuming he'd be able to find a solution anyway."

"Distance isn't a problem." Clark spoke abruptly. "I — Lois and I know Superman. He could have the poisons expert here in minutes."

The doctor looked taken aback. "Well, I suppose we could… But the problem is, Mr Kent, that there just isn't enough to go on at the moment. We've taken blood samples, of course, but we have to try to isolate the compound and figure out what it is. That takes time. And then we have to run tests to see whether our guess is correct. And the labs are busy as it is… If we could have got a sample from the injection site within the first minute or two after she'd been given the shot, we might have had a better chance because we could have analysed the substance, but as it is…" He shrugged, a fatalistic expression on his face. "It's going to take a lot longer to get a fix on what it is. There's no guarantee we can do it in time, assuming whatever she's been given is indeed fatal. Her best chance is if the police can find whoever did it and get him to tell us what he used."

Clark felt as if he'd been turned to stone. It was his fault. Lois was going to die, and he could have saved her. He could have got her to the ER within seconds of finding her. But he'd waited for the ambulance. He'd as good as killed her.

<Oh god…>

"Anyway, Ms Lane wants to see you now."

"Huh?" Clark stared at the doctor.

"Ms Lane asked to see you. She asked me to tell you what's going on, and then she wanted me to send you in." Sutton sounded as if he were struggling to be patient.

He couldn't do it. How could he possibly face Lois knowing that his action — his *in*action — was responsible for killing her?

But how could he not? She was dying. She'd asked to see him. She wanted him. Of course he had to go to her, even if the guilt was already eating him up inside, screaming at him, telling him that he didn't deserve to have a friend like Lois. He didn't deserve to get to spend one more minute with her.

He pulled himself up short. Guilt wasn't an emotion he could afford to indulge in. Not now. Not when Lois needed him — and not when they had such a limited time to save her life. Because he was *not* going to let her die. Not if it was the last thing he did…

Woodenly, like an automaton, he turned towards the door. His feet moved forward, but it seemed as if it were someone else, not he, who was walking into the ER. Someone else was searching the busy room anxiously, looking for Lois. Someone else was being steered towards a cubicle over to the side, pushing back a curtain…

And there she was, sitting on a gurney, dressed only in a hospital gown. Her hair was still rumpled and her face was pale, but she was as beautiful as ever. And a lump in Clark's throat almost prevented him from speaking.

"Hi, Clark." Her tone was amazingly matter-of-fact for a woman who'd just been given a death sentence.

"Lois…" That was someone else's voice, surely? He never sounded that hoarse, as if he were crying…

"Clark, for god's sake, pull yourself together!" she snapped. "Don't you know that's the last thing I need right now?"

"Sorry." He should have known, of course. The last thing Lois ever wanted was sympathy — there was no reason to expect that, even facing a death sentence, she'd change in any way. "How are you feeling? Is there anything I can do for you?"

"You're doing it again!" She gave him an impatient glare. "Fussing. Treating me like an invalid! Look," she added, her tone less irritated, "I'm not dead yet. And I don't intend to be. So the question is: are you going to help me or not?"

"Do you have to ask?" He stared at her in disbelief. "Lois, you know I'd do anything to help you. What do you need?"

"We treat this like any other story." She slid down from the examination table and stood facing him. "Get the facts, investigate, get the evidence, deduce, find the solution."

And write the story, Clark finished automatically, silently; only this time the story was far from being important. Lois was treating her own soon-to-be murder as just another case. The thought made him recoil; and yet, knowing his partner, it made sense. She was trying to detach herself, to remain dispassionate. And she was right: it was the only way to think clearly.

Though thinking clearly had never seemed less possible. After all, if they didn't find the antidote he'd be writing the story alone. Without his partner. Without Lois.

But that was precisely the sort of thinking that would stop them doing what needed to be done. Lois was right. He needed to stay calm. Stop thinking about the consequences if they didn't find the antidote. Focus on solving the crime and putting things right. That, after all, was what Lois was doing.

Yet surely this one time she could leave the detachment and the investigation to others? The police, the doctors, *him* — and Superman?

"Lois, I'll do all of that — as much as I can. You know that. But you… you have to stay here, surely?"

"Not a chance." She spoke flatly. "I've already spoken to Dr Sutton. Looks to me like there's absolutely nothing they have to do that they need me here for. They've taken all the samples we need. I don't have to be here."

"But… the poison, the — whatever it is — it's attacking your central nervous system. It's making you sick and you won't be able to function." Useless to protest, and yet he had to.

"Right now I feel fine. And as long as I stay that way *no-one's* going to stop me from doing anything I want to do." She glared at him, but then her expression changed and Clark almost thought he saw a tear forming. She blinked and it was gone.

"Clark, this could be the last day of my life! You think I'm not going to go down fighting? Oh, sure, the doctors say they'll *try* to come up with something. But I didn't see an awful lot of assurance on anyone's face. They think I'm a goner. And I don't see anyone else rushing in with a miracle cure. The only person who's going to get me out of this alive is *me*. So, are you going to help me or not?"

"Lois, you know you don't have to ask. I'm all yours. Just tell me where you want to start."

"Get me out of here. Take me home. Where are my clothes?"

"Uh…"

As he hesitated, she stared at him. "My clothes, Clark! It's not that hard a question, surely?"

"Ah. Well… I don't think you have any here. Other than what you were wearing."

"You mean you didn't -? Clark! What am I supposed to wear out of this place?"

"Sorry." He hadn't thought about that — hadn't thought of anything except getting Lois into the hands of doctors as soon as he could. Well, not as soon as he could. As soon as an ambulance had arrived. God, why hadn't he just flown her here?

"Look, I'll call a cab," he offered. "And -" He stripped off the sweater he'd pulled on so hurriedly earlier. "Put this on." At least it would cover the open-backed hospital gown.

"I guess it's better than the alternative," Lois muttered, taking it from him.

The curtain was pushed aside suddenly. "Ms Lane! What are you doing?"

"Leaving," she announced bluntly.

"But we haven't finished… there are tests…"

Lois slid to her feet, the belligerent expression on her face one Clark was familiar with. "Is there or is there not anything you can do for me right now that'll save my life?"

"Well… no."

"And do you have all the blood samples you need?"

"For now, yes." The doctor looked distinctly uncomfortable, shuffling his feet and adjusting his black-framed spectacles.

"Then you don't need me. For now." Lois looked at her watch. "I have about 21 hours, right? Then I'll come back here in 20 hours' time, unless I've found the antidote sooner."

"Found the antidote -? What are you talking about? You're not medically qualified!"

"No, but my partner and I are investigative reporters," Lois said, clearly losing her patience. "You do your stuff with the samples. We'll do our job by trying to find out who did this to me and getting them to give us the antidote. And one way or another I'll be back. But the last thing I'm doing is spending what could be the last day of my life twiddling my thumbs in a hospital bed!"

The doctor looked even more discomfited than he'd been when he'd been talking to Clark. "I can understand that, Ms Lane. But you should know that you don't necessarily have 21 hours."

"I don't?" Lois stared at him. "But you said you thought the bastard who attacked me was right?"

"Yes, that whatever he injected you with seems to have a progressive rather than an immediate effect. But, as we explained, this compound — whatever it is — seems to be attacking the central nervous system. You're going to start noticing some more severe symptoms within a few hours — sweatiness, dizzy spells, some loss of motor function…"

At Lois's puzzled look, he explained. "If my guess is right, you'll find that your limbs don't do what you ask them to do. You'll try to pick something up and you'll drop it. Your legs might suddenly be unsteady. Your vision will blur. Your memory might start to be erratic. Brain functioning won't be as rapid or accurate as it should be. You could have any combination of these symptoms, depending on what you've been injected with. And they'll get worse over time — as will the pain. And there'll come a point where the damage to your central nervous system will be irreversible, even if we do identify the poison and give you the appropriate antidote. Because all that will do is prevent the damage getting even worse."

By the time Sutton had finished his explanation, Lois was pale, shaking. Clark moved to her side, supporting her with an arm around her waist. She leaned into him, clearly needing his presence.

He asked the question he suspected that she wanted to. "What sort of irreversible damage?"

The doctor shrugged. "Permanent loss of limb function, possibly paralysis, loss of one or more senses, serious brain damage. The later the antidote is administered, the worse the prognosis."

"I could end up a vegetable, you mean." Lois's tone was bitter, and Clark couldn't blame her.

"I wouldn't use that term…" The doctor was clearly hedging.

"But that's what it amounts to." Lois pulled away from Clark, her face still ghostly pale. "Get that taxi. Standing around here isn't going to help."

"Wait." The doctor held up his hand. "There are a few more things you need to understand, if you're insisting on leaving here. I will reiterate that the 24-hour timetable is, at best, a guess — the person who put this together couldn't possibly know how it would react with your metabolism, blood flow and so on. Even if he adjusted for your height and weight, these are only two variables among many."

"So what are you saying?" Clark asked as renewed panic started to hit him. "That it could be more than 24 hours? Or less? How much less?"

"We just don't know. And this is why we would have preferred to have Ms Lane stay with us. That way we could monitor her progress. That could give us further clues as to exactly what this agent is, and therefore what we need to test for. We will also need to take further blood samples for testing, especially if the initial run of tests fail to identify the substance used. And additionally, it's possible that activity on her part could accelerate the rate of absorption and thereby damage."

God, could this get any worse? The more the doctor opened his mouth, the more appalling the prognosis got.

Lois was *dying*.

Dying. And this time there was nothing — *nothing* — he could do about it. Oh, there'd been close shaves by the dozen in the months he'd known her. In all of those cases he'd had seconds to react, but he'd got there in time. Seconds to be aware that her life was in danger — but then he'd rescued her and all had been well. This was different. She was facing a threat completely unlike any he'd dispatched for her, and he had no idea whether, this time, he could snatch her from the jaws of death.

For all of his powers, all of the abilities he'd been gifted with, he was helpless in the face of this threat. And it was obvious just by looking at her that he was helpless to prevent her ignoring the doctor's advice.

"That's a chance I'll just have to take. If I stay, then I might as well just give up now," Lois spat bitterly. "I'm leaving here so I can save my own life!"

"But these symptoms I've mentioned are important," Dr Sutton said, emphasising his words. "They're a sign that the drug is doing what it was designed to do. And some of them are more dangerous — for example, you could stop breathing. If that happens, then it won't be a question of waiting for the time to be up."

***

By the time she slid into the back of the taxi, Lois was shaking. She was grateful when, after a glance at her, Clark gave the driver her address. He didn't look at her but, after a few moments, reached across and took her hand in his.

"We'll find the antidote, Lois," he murmured. "You know we will."

Did she?

In the hospital, especially in front of that over-pessimistic Dr Sutton, it had been easy to be assertive. To insist that she wasn't going to give in to whatever poison she had inside her. That she had every intention of living out the rest of her life to its fullest.

Now, though, reality was biting, and it hurt.

She'd been murdered. The only difference was that she was still walking around. A living corpse.

There probably weren't many corpses who got the chance to investigate their own murders, all the same. If nothing else, *that* was high on the agenda for today.

Who could it have been? Everything about that morning was fuzzy. The man's voice wasn't clear in her mind at all. She *thought* it was a man, but even that could be wrong. Had he been tall? Short? Stocky? Thin? Young? Old?

All she could remember was a Daffy Duck-like voice and a threat.

<…you're going to die…>

And the warning — or was it a promise?

<… you've got only twenty-four hours to live…>

"Twenty-four hours," she echoed. Her throat closed up and her stomach roiled.

Clark's fingers tightened around hers. "Don't, Lois."

"Less," she added. The doctor had made all the scenarios painfully clear. "If we don't find the antidote soon enough, the poison will be irreversible before my time's up, Clark!"

"Lois." He was trying to be calming, but she heard the panic in his own voice. "Lois, I *won't* let that happen. I swear it!"

"How are you going to stop it, Clark?" Her voice was growing wilder. She heard it and wanted to calm herself, but felt overpowered by looming dread.

"*We*, Lois. *We're* going to stop it. You and me together."

<How?>

She wanted to ask him again, but she was fighting a losing battle with control.

Mere hours to find the antidote. Or the exact composition of the poison so that an antidote could be created. If not, she died. If they found the antidote, but not soon enough, she could be permanently paralysed. Or blind. Or deaf. Or a vegetable.

Dying would be preferable.

Dying.

She didn't want to die. Not now. Not yet. She had so much that she wanted to achieve! So many things she'd never experienced.

Kerths to win. Pulitzers. World-shattering events to see, to analyse, to write about. Places she wanted to visit — Paris, Tahiti, the Alps, the Great Barrier Reef.

Things she wanted to do — go deep-sea diving, learn how to parachute, get better at skiing, fly across the Grand Canyon, drive through Death Valley, see Old Faithful erupt, sip retsina in a real Greek taverna. Kiss a lover in a tropical twilight.

A lover. A man who would love her and cherish her and want to be with her. A man she could marry and live the rest of her life with. Someone to belong to.

That was never going to happen. Not now.

A sob escaped her.

And then gentle, strong arms enfolded her, tugged her back against a solid wall of muscle and bone and cradled her. She turned her head, buried her face against Clark's shoulder and clung to him. To the tiny, faint shred of hope that, together, the two of them might yet manage to find a solution.

That maybe, just maybe, this might not be the last day of her life.

***

Clark gazed at the woman huddled in his arms, his heart aching for her. Lois never cried. She hardly ever revealed anything even close to fear — in fact, few people who knew her would know that she ever felt it.

He knew different.

Twice before today, he'd seen her scared. Afraid for her life. In fact, that seemed to be the only time she did show terror. And it was ironic, given the risks she took with her life practically every working day. On his first outing as Superman, he'd found her holding a ticking bomb. In his first week in the role, he'd saved her life at least three times.

The difference was, probably, that most of the time her adrenalin level was running too high for her even to be aware of the risk. It was different at a time like this, when the threat was hanging over her like a ticking bomb. Like the time they'd been chained together in the EPRAD warehouse by Antoinette Baines, actually. That time, she'd been so scared that she'd actually confided in him about stuff he'd realised very quickly that she never talked about.

Then there'd been the time she'd witnessed a murder and the killer was after her. She'd arrived on his doorstep, out of the blue, visibly upset. He'd known the effort it cost her to ask for his protection, especially after she'd denied time and again that she needed it. Even after he'd already saved her life three times. She'd been on the verge of tears then too.

His heart felt as if it was being ripped in two. It was torture, seeing Lois in such pain and knowing that he couldn't take it away for her.

He was Superman, and he was helpless.

Not completely. He refused to think that way. There were still things they could do. Still ways his powers could be useful. Speed-reading, for one. Plus searching her apartment for clues the police might not find. And super-speed — sorting through documents, getting around, bringing people and things to places they might need to be.

And anyway, he had other useful skills. Invaluable skills. He was an investigative reporter. A darned good one, too. Together, he and Lois were pretty damn brilliant. Just a couple of days ago, they'd heard that they'd been nominated in the Meriwether Awards for Journalistic Excellence. If anyone could figure out who was behind this, Lane and Kent could. And, after all, they had an added incentive. Catch the guy who'd done this to Lois, and they'd get the antidote too — or at least find out what was in the hypodermic.

Yeah. Lane and Kent would solve this. That was what they were good at.

She stirred and pulled away from him. He released her and watched as she stared through the cab windows. It was rush-hour in Metropolis and they'd only covered a couple of miles since leaving the hospital. Her impatience was almost tangible.

"What is *taking* so long?" She glared at the driver, who continued to stare straight ahead.

Clark touched her arm gently. "Rush-hour, Lois. He'll get us there as soon as he can."

It wasn't surprising that she was frustrated. He was, too. Maybe he should have just flown them back.

To distract her, he said, "You know, maybe you should call your parents, Lois."

Her head whipped around. "I said no, Clark!"

He grimaced. "I know, but… well, don't you think it'd be kinder at least to let them know what's going on? I mean, just in case we don't manage — " He hesitated, not wanting to spell out the fact that they could fail. That she could die. "If they only find out at the last minute…"

She paled again, then looked away. "Giving up already, Clark? If you're not willing to help me out on this, just say so. I can do it on my own."

"Forget that!" He caught her hand again, holding it firmly. "Lois, you don't need me to tell you that I'd do *anything* to fix this. You have my undivided attention for as long as it takes." Not even Superman would take him away from her today. It didn't matter what the problem was; others would just have to handle it without his help.

She sighed, and her hand relaxed in his after a moment. "You're right. They do need to know. But… I'm not ready to cope with them yet. You've met my father. I've told you about my mother. She's… high-maintenance, Clark. I just *can't* cope with her right now!"

So that was where Lois got it from. He almost smiled at the thought. But he also understood what she was really telling him. Telling her parents was an admission that she could very well die, and she wasn't yet ready to accept that.

"Okay." He squeezed her hand lightly. But had she thought…? "Your dad's a doctor, though…"

"Sports medicine." Her reply was brief, almost detached. "Mostly orthopaedics. He hasn't done any neurology in years. And I don't think he knows anything about poisons — the only drugs he's interested in are steroids, performance-enhancers and other illegal substances." At his surprised look, she added, "Checking for them. Not prescribing them!"

Despite the situation, he couldn't stifle a laugh. The sudden humour seemed to lighten the mood for both of them.

Familiar scenery caught his attention then. They'd just turned into Carter Avenue. "We're here."

"At last!"

He began to fumble in his pocket for his wallet, then stopped. Of course. He'd grabbed whatever was close to hand — jeans and a T- shirt — and flown to the rescue within a second or two of her phone call. His wallet, together with keys, Press ID and the other paraphernalia he usually carried with him, were still on his dresser. There was probably about five bucks in loose change in his pocket. Nowhere enough for the cab fare.

He could ask the driver to wait while they went upstairs. Lois would have cash in her purse. No. Better not to bother her with something this trivial.

As she climbed out of the cab, he said to the driver, "Charge this to the Daily Planet account, please. Tell them it's Clark Kent, and Perry White authorised it." The Planet had an account with Metro Cabs; he'd sort it out with Perry later.

The driver was frowning. Clark dug out the mixture of coins and crumpled bills from his pocket and handed it over. The tip seemed to convince him. "Okay. Kent, you said?"

"Yeah." He'd found a small piece of cardboard in his pocket too. His luck was in — it was one of his Planet business cards. "Here. Clark Kent. City desk. Any trouble, you can call me."

The driver took it, barely glancing at it before stashing it in his cup-holder, and Clark hurried to exit the cab and join Lois.

***

The police were still in her apartment. God. All she wanted was to take a shower and get dressed and get on with saving her life.

Though, of course, if they weren't there she wouldn't have been able to get into her own apartment. She had no keys with her, after all. And, seeing as Clark hadn't even had the sense to take some clothes for her, there was no chance that he'd have thought to grab her keys.

Though that wasn't fair. He had come when she'd called him, after all. She'd woken him up — he had to have been tired and not thinking straight. Plus he'd stayed all those hours at the hospital waiting for her.

"Ms Lane?" A uniformed officer had noticed her arrival.

"Yes." She stepped inside and glanced around the apartment. Everything looked exactly as normal. If it weren't for the grey smears of fingerprint powder on doors and surfaces, she could have once again wondered if she hadn't imagined everything.

And then she saw the shattered window, and the shards of glass on the floor.

"Yes." The officer obviously saw her looking. "We're pretty sure that's where your intruder got in. And the good news is that we got a few high-quality prints from the frame. If he's got a record, we'll find him."

"Ah…" From behind her, Clark was making awkward noises. "Actually, that's how I came in. I broke the window. So if you found prints there, they're probably mine."

The officer looked him up and down. "And you are…?"

"Clark Kent. I called the police. You must have arrived after we left in the ambulance."

"And you broke the window because…?"

"Because, when Ms Lane called me and I rushed over here, I couldn't get an answer at the door. So I climbed up the fire- escape and smashed the window."

The cop sighed. Turning, he said to his partner, "Forget those prints. They're not our man." Then, returning to Lois, he added, "When you have a chance to look around, let us know if there's anything missing. What doctor treated you at the hospital? We'll need a copy of his report."

Lois nodded. "Dr Sutton. Now, if you'll excuse me…"

But the cop was already moving away, heading into her bedroom with his partner. Lois gritted her teeth. Didn't they know she needed to get dressed? That she had things to do?

Clark brushed past her suddenly, his jaw taut. Then, before she could protest, she heard his voice, cold and angry. "Just where do you guys get off? You think that because she doesn't *look* hurt that he didn't do anything to her? Don't they teach you anything about jumping to conclusions at the police academy?"

What had he heard them saying? She'd heard nothing. Clearly, they'd been discussing her. Lois shook her head; it wasn't the first time Clark had heard something from a long way away. He obviously had darned good hearing.

It was sweet of him to come to her defence like that. And so typically Clark. What would she have done without him today? Probably decked that patronising doctor and then collapsed in floods of tears. He'd helped to keep her sane — at least, so far.

Now, if he'd only get those *morons* out of her apartment!

A moment later, the two cops walked past her, on their way to the door. "We're finished for now, Ms Lane," the one she hadn't seen yet said. "Someone from the precinct will be in touch with you later to get a statement from you."

Okay. So the police were taking this with the seriousness it deserved, were they? Lois rolled her eyes. She wasn't planning to rely on the Keystone Cops anyway. And she'd already told the police who'd turned up at the ER what had happened. Always assuming that cops actually talked to each other…

A hand lightly pressed against her upper back. Clark. "Go on," he said, his tone gentle. "Take a shower. Get dressed. I'll make some calls."

Startled that she'd actually needed the reminder that they had things to do, Lois glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. Almost eight o'clock.

Time was ticking away. Already nearly five hours had passed. Time she couldn't afford to waste.

Phone calls. Yes. She nodded. And realised that it didn't even cross her mind to ask Clark who he was calling, or give him instructions. She could trust him to do exactly what needed to be done.

Despite what she'd said to him earlier, she had no idea how she would get through the rest of today without Clark. And, if she could have a choice of anyone to have in her corner in this situation, she couldn't think of anyone she'd prefer.

***

Perry was already in his office, of course. He answered the phone on the second ring, sounding distracted. "White."

"It's Kent here, Chief. Lois was attacked last night in her apartment…"

When he'd managed to interrupt the editor's flow of outraged concern, Clark filled him in on the details, then added, "We need your help, Chief."

"Anything. Just name it and consider it done."

"Okay. We need a list of any and all threats against Lois since she started at the paper. If someone could prioritise them — seriousness of the threat, why whoever it is has reason to hate her, whether they're in prison or on the street — that'd be even better."

"I'll get Jimmy onto that right away. And I can pull some researchers off other projects to help him. Next?"

"Ask anyone who has any contacts on the street to get in touch with them. Pull in whatever favours they can. Find out if anyone's heard anything. Anyone boasting about getting rid of a reporter. Or a mysterious drug or poison. Anything even vaguely relevant."

"Done. Anything else?"

"Not right now. We'll be heading into the Planet soon — Lois will probably have some ideas too."

Correction — Lois would *definitely* have ideas of her own. Once she pulled herself together, as she would, she'd be a human dynamo.

Explaining that he had more calls to make, Clark ended the conversation, then dialled another number from memory.

"Henderson."

"It's Clark Kent of the Planet, Inspector. I don't know if you heard that Lois had an intruder in her apartment last night?"

"No." He could tell that he had the inspector's full attention. "The rapist? What happened? Is she okay?" Then, before Clark could answer, he continued dryly, "Perhaps I should ask if the perp is okay."

"It wasn't the rapist." As succinctly as he could, Clark explained.

"And this is credible?"

"Yes. The doctor in the ER confirmed that she'd been injected with something, and they were already noticing some effect on her."

A low whistle. "God. Twenty-four hours, you said?"

"Give or take. And less than that before there's permanent damage."

There was a pause. Then, businesslike as ever, the inspector said, "What do you need?"

"There were a couple of cops here when we got back. To be honest, Inspector… I don't think they're going to do much. They didn't even ask Lois what had actually happened. They took the name of the ER doctor, but I don't think following it up was a priority." Clark's jaw tightened. What he'd overheard the cops discussing in Lois's bedroom had made him furious. Glory hounds, looking for a good lead on the rapist, and losing interest in the break-in at Lois's place once they decided this wasn't it.

"Who were they?"

He'd memorised their names. "Halloran and Menendez."

A brief pause. "Beat cops. Not even on the vice squad. Someone breaks into a woman's apartment at night and *that's* what Dispatch sends?" There was a sound something like a snort. "Okay, Clark, from what you say I think this counts as attempted homicide. I can pull strings and get assigned the case. Tell Lois I'll be giving her a call at the Planet a little later. She'd better be ready to let me have access to all her current and recent case-notes. Plus I want everything you've got on all threats made against her."

"Lois isn't going to like that." Clark felt he had to point that out.

"Depends if she likes being dead more." He heard the sound of a pen scratching paper. "Now. Who did she see at the ER?"

"Dr Sutton," Clark said. "He'll be able to confirm what I've told you. And she was interviewed by some cops there too, she said."

"Right. I'll get someone over there to interview him. And I'll find out who she talked to. I'll get a forensic team over to Lois's apartment as soon as possible, too. *Try* to make sure she doesn't touch anything, okay?"

"Well…" Too late for that. She was already using the shower. No — his ears heard movement — she was in the bedroom. "She had to shower and dress."

"Well, tell her to touch as little as possible." The tone was resigned; Clark could visualise the inspector rolling his eyes.

That was something else he should have thought of. He could have examined the apartment while he was waiting for the ambulance. If there were any clues beyond the obvious signs of disturbance — clues which could help the police identify the jerk who'd done this to Lois — he might have found them. And then the cops could already be working on finding the guy.

Seeing Lois lying motionless on the floor seemed to have snuffed every ounce of sense out of him. He really hadn't handled this very well so far. Definitely time to do better — a *lot* better.

Henderson was speaking again. "One more thing. What's the chances of an antidote being found to this?"

A lead weight was settling on his stomach again. "As of when we left the hospital, not good. Dr Sutton said her best chance was finding the guy who did it and getting the substance, whatever it is, from him."

He thought he heard a muffled curse at the other end of the line. But then Henderson's voice came again, as deadpan as ever. "Okay. Well, you better tell Lois she needs to co-operate with us, then."

He nodded. Of course, Henderson couldn't see that. "I'll do that."

"Later, then." There was a click, and the call was disconnected.

Almost automatically, Clark glanced at his watch. 8.20. Already five hours had gone by. Just nineteen until her twenty-four hours ran out. And, realistically, only fifteen or so before any damage was irreversible.

It wasn't enough. And yet, for Lois's sake, it had to be.

***

She trembled in the shower. Fumbled with her buttons and fastenings. Her hands shook as she tried to apply her make-up. She was a mess. A quivering wreck.

And that wouldn't do. It wasn't going to do. She was going to pull herself together, starting *now*. No-one was going to see Lois Lane scared. Well, no-one other than Clark, and he didn't count.

Plus, if that bastard was watching her, which he probably was given the sort of twisted mind he'd need to have to have to come up with this kind of plot — why kill her slowly if he couldn't get pleasure out of watching her suffer — then there was no way on earth that she was going to allow him to see her showing any kind of fear.

A tap sounded on her door. "Lois?"

"I'm almost ready, Clark!" Involuntarily, she glanced at her watch. Already after twenty past eight. He was right; they needed to hurry. Time was ticking away.

"That's not what I came to say. I've just talked to Henderson — he's sending a forensic team over in a while to check this place out. He says touch as little as possible."

He'd talked to Henderson? Well, that was sensible. Obviously Clark's opinion of the other two cops had been about as low as hers. But then, she'd heard him castigate them.

She ran a brush through her hair once more. "I don't think they'll find anything," she called, walking to the door. "I'm pretty sure the guy was wearing gloves."

The instant she opened the door, she saw him. He looked terrible. His hair was dishevelled and he had a day's growth of stubble. The dark T-shirt he wore looked as if he'd slept in it. But then, of course, she'd woken him up in the middle of the night and he'd been waiting for her at the hospital for hours. He hadn't taken the opportunity to go home for a shower and fresh clothes while she'd been in the ER, and his first thought once at her place was to get to work helping *her*.

How many other people in her life could she rely on to that extent?

"How do you know that?"

His question made her blink. How did she know what? She hadn't spoken aloud…

"That he was wearing gloves."

"Oh." She frowned, trying to remember. "I'm not sure. But I think… He held my arm. I don't think I felt skin. More like… latex, I think. But it's all very vague." And it *shouldn't* be. She should have stayed awake, tried to focus. Paid attention!

"Well, it would make sense." Clark gestured for her to precede him to the door. She grabbed her purse and jacket on the way. "The police didn't find any prints. And he must have either got in or left through the front door — maybe both. There was stuff knocked over on a pretty direct path to the door."

"So either he had keys, or he picked my locks." Seriously scary, the thought that someone could get into her apartment that easily.

"I guess." He waited while she locked the door. Four locks. All deadbolt. With key control so only she could have copies made. Yet someone had got into her apartment through those four locks. She shivered.

"If someone really wants to get into someplace, no locks are going to keep him out," Clark said, his voice wryly sympathetic. "You know that, Lois."

She did. Didn't make her feel any better. "The Jeep's parked about half a block away. I couldn't get a space out front last night."

"Okay." He fell into step beside her. "Want me to drive?"

"No." It would give her something to concentrate on. "Fill me in on your phone calls on the way, okay?"

Clark nodded and held the entrance door for her. "Can you drop me off at my place on your way to the Planet? I have to shower and change. If you don't want to take the time, I'll walk from here." He grimaced. "I wouldn't waste the time, but I don't even have my Press pass with me. Or my wallet."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "I was planning to go to your apartment. I'll just make some calls of my own while you're getting ready."

Had he thought she wouldn't care about the state he was in? Okay, there was no time to waste, but he was her partner. And her friend. And she needed him today. *With* her. She didn't want to go to the Planet without him.

Even though it was hard not to grudge him the fifteen minutes or so he needed to get ready when the rest of her life was measurable in minutes and hours.

***

Clark was instinctively patting his pockets as he led the way to his front door — then stopped as he remembered. No wallet or Press ID — and no keys. Just as well he'd never let Lois talk him out of the country habit of keeping a spare key under the mat!

Inside, he directed Lois to make herself at home before heading for the shower, shedding his clothes on the bedroom floor on the way. <Hurry. Don't waste a second. Time's ticking away…>

Alone with his own thoughts at last, in the solitude of his shower, he leaned against the tiled wall, feeling his body sag, his strength leeching away. For the last hour or more, he'd been struggling to keep up a steady stream of reassurance, through words, gestures, his very presence. Now that Lois wasn't here to need it, the assurance he'd been preaching all that time, that everything would be okay, vanished. As if it had never been there.

Lois was *dying*. By this time tomorrow, she could be cold and still, laid out on some mortuary slab. Or on a pathologist's table, being sliced open bit by bit so that medical science could discover what had killed her.

Lois was dying.

They had less than a day to find out what was killing her. Just a few hours more than a normal working day. And if they failed…

The consequences were too bleak to think about.

*If he failed, he would lose Lois.*

His eyes closed. Hot tears forced their way out past his lids and mingled with the jets of near-scalding water from the shower.

And then he took a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to stand upright. He needed to be strong. *Had* to be strong. Lois was right. What she'd said at the hospital… Giving way to emotion wasn't going to help them do what they needed to do. They needed to focus. They needed every bit of concentration, of thinking-power, logic and reasoning they had at their disposal. Plus help from anyone and everyone they could think of. And even then they needed a hell of a lot of luck.

As it was, Lois wasn't going to be at her best. She was the one facing the death sentence — and more. He slumped against the wall again. Symptoms, the doctor had said. His heart skipped a beat. She was already pale, though that could just be down to shock and missing a night's sleep. But was it his imagination, or had she been unsteady on her feet coming down the steps inside his apartment? That little cough just before he'd left her — coincidence, or shortness of breath?

<God…>

For the second time, he gave himself a mental kick. Wallowing and worrying would *not* help. Lois needed practical help and support, not a babysitter. They had work to do.

He stepped out of the shower, reaching for a towel as he did so, and dried himself at super-speed. No time to waste. He shaved faster than normal, too, collecting a couple of heat-burns as a consequence. And then, pulling a clean suit and shirt from the closet, he paused.

If this was going to be his last day with Lois — if they didn't find a cure for the poison that bastard had injected her with — how was he going to make it count? He'd always miss her. Always love her. Always hate that he hadn't been able to save her. The guilt would haunt him for the rest of his life.

But what else would haunt him? What other regrets?

It was like those truth or dare games he'd played with friends in college. <If you had just twenty-four hours to live, what would you do?>

Several of the guys had focused on dare-devil things. Excitement. Thrill-seeking. One or two had mentioned sex. The women had tended to focus on emotions — telling people they cared about that they loved them, resolving old wounds, revealing hidden feelings. Maybe experiencing intimacy for the first time with the person they loved.

There was so much that he wanted to tell Lois. How he felt about her. How much she meant to him. How he'd miss her for the rest of his life. All the secrets he'd been keeping from her.

But what if she didn't want to hear them? She'd told him once before not to fall for him. Maybe she still felt the same way. Maybe telling her would only embarrass them both — and if they did manage to save her, the repercussions would be difficult to deal with. Humiliating, perhaps.

Plus their first priority had to be saving Lois's life. There wasn't time for emotions.

On the other hand… would he regret not telling her?

He glanced in the mirror and straightened his tie. And made himself a promise. If, by the time Dr Sutton confirmed that it was too late to save Lois, they hadn't found the cure, he'd tell her everything. At least then that would be one regret he wouldn't have.

***

"Make yourself at home," Clark had said before disappearing. "You know where the coffee is."

Coffee. As if she could think about coffee at a time like this!

She pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat, only to jump to her feet seconds later and start pacing. Moments later, she noticed that she was alternately twisting her hands together and tugging at the neckline of her blouse. Fidgeting. She hated fidgets!

And yet she couldn't keep still. There was too much to think about. Too much to do.

Who? Who could it be?

Kyle Griffin — one person who was just crazy enough to choose this way of getting back at her — was safely in a maximum- security prison. So was that crooked politician she'd exposed early in her career — Bertoli, right? What about Crazy Joe Murphy? She'd put an end to his lucrative weapons-fencing career. Then there was that hitman — what was his name again?

She'd be able to check the files at the Planet, of course — once they got there. What was keeping Clark? She glanced at her watch once more, and sighed when it told her that it hadn't been much more than five minutes since they'd got here.

She needed to be at the Planet. Checking files, chasing down leads, talking to sources…

Sources! Whirling on her heel, Lois reached for Clark's phone and punched in a number from memory.

"Bobby? Lois Lane. I need your help."

A few minutes later, she hung up, frustrated. Bobby had heard nothing. Whoever this guy was, he wasn't talking. No-one knew of a new death threat against Lois Lane — if there were any rumours at all, Bobby would have heard them.

Damn.

Something touched her shoulder, and she jumped. "Sorry," Clark said, sounding rueful, and she spun on her heel to find him standing behind her, fully dressed and clearly ready to leave, his hand pulling back from her. "I thought you heard me come out."

"No." And it wasn't often that someone could sneak up on Lois Lane. That just showed how distracted she was — and that was not good. Today, she needed every one of her faculties.

He gave her a crooked smile. "We should get going."

Lois nodded, but then she hesitated. And, in an impulse she didn't understand, she reached for Clark's hand. He curled his fingers around hers and squeezed gently. Well, even if she didn't understand, it seemed he did.

"Clark?"

"Yeah?" He didn't release her hand, and she didn't pull back either.

"Don't leave me alone today?"

His expression softened, and she saw deep sympathy in his eyes. Sympathy she'd reject from anyone else — but from Clark, somehow, it was what she wanted. Needed. Just as she'd needed him when Barbara Trevino had tried to kill her. She'd protested then, of course, that she could look after herself… but she'd craved Clark's protection all the same.

"Of course I won't, Lois."

"No running off? No sudden impulse to pick up a candy bar or talk to some source I know nothing about?"

His gaze held hers as securely as his hand did. "I promise."

And, walking out to her car, her hand stayed in his.

***

She was quiet during the journey downtown. In unspoken agreement now, Clark was driving, and Lois seemed to be a million miles away. A couple of times, he attempted to begin conversation, only to receive a distracted response, so he left her to it. Once he cut the engine in the parking garage, however, he reached over and touched her shoulder, a gesture of reassurance and solidarity.

Her gaze flew to him, and she caught his hand as he was pulling back. "Thanks, Clark. Sorry I was quiet. I was thinking… working out what to do…" Her head dipped.

She hadn't been planning what to do. He knew that as well as he knew how scared she was. If she'd been strategising, she'd have done it aloud. They'd have done it together.

"Come on." He squeezed her fingers again. "Let's get inside and get started."

She nodded, then took a big, gulping breath. "I *have* to pull myself together! I…" She bit her lip. "I wasn't thinking about what to do. I was… I was wallowing."

Compassion and anguish warred inside him. On impulse, he leaned towards her. "C'mere." It only took a light tug for her to be pressed against him, despite the gap between their seats. Even though he was careful to keep the hug brief, she was pulling away from him even before he released her.

"Thanks. I needed that." Without looking at him, she opened her door and climbed out. The message was clear. No more shows of vulnerability.

That, of course, he could well understand. They had a job to do. She needed to focus, and to do that her emotions had to be frozen out. Time was slipping away, far too quickly for his comfort.

***

She resisted the urge to cling to Clark as the elevator ascended. He'd been wonderful so far, but she had to pull herself together now. And, even though she had no idea what anyone in the newsroom had been told, she had no intention of letting *anyone* else see how this was affecting her.

It wasn't just that she didn't want to be fussed over. Didn't want lots of pointless sympathy.

It was also that, if this was to be the last day of her life, so be it. But no-one was going to be able to say that Lois Lane went out cowering and whimpering like a coward.

Ding. The doors opened. And she took a deep breath, pulling her shoulders back and standing up straight and proud before stepping out into the busy, bustling newsroom. Nobody noticed her. People rushed past carrying papers or notepads; others sat at their desks busily typing or talking into telephones. Everything looked completely normal.

She tugged at Clark's arm, dragging him in the direction of Perry's office. The door was, unusually, fully closed and the blinds were drawn. Just as she raised her hand to knock, something changed in the newsroom atmosphere.

She paused, all senses on alert. And then the change became apparent. It had gone quiet.

People were looking at her. And, she'd swear, whispering among themselves.

"Ignore them, Lois." Clark was at her shoulder, murmuring quietly. He reached past her and rapped on Perry's door, then opened it immediately in response to the reply.

Perry was there, looking greyer than she could ever remember seeing him. He got to his feet and came over to her. "Lois… aw, darlin', I just can't believe this is happening!"

<Oh, no…>

A lump had appeared out of nowhere and settled itself in her throat. Again. And her eyes were stinging. Again.

She *wasn't* going to cry!

If she spoke, she wouldn't be able to control her voice. Instead, she tried a smile, knowing that it was coming out shaky. The concern on Perry's face grew.

Then there was a hand on her arm, and Clark was gently pushing her into a chair. "Hi, Chief. We just came in for an update. And I guess you know we won't be working on any of our assigned stories today. Also, I think it'd be best if we worked in one of the conference rooms." Speaking in normal tones, as if this was just any other day when there was a big story to write, Clark somehow managed to bring down the emotional level in the room from its heightened state.

Grateful, she smiled at him.

"Whatever you kids want, you can have," Perry was saying. "I've already set half a dozen people looking up the information you asked for. And every reporter in the newsroom is chasing down their snitches."

"We probably won't get anywhere with that." Her voice sounded completely normal, much to her relief. "I called Bobby Bigmouth — he hasn't heard a thing. Not even a whisper of a rumour that anyone wanted me — or any reporter — dead. And that's really unusual."

"It's still worth a try," Clark said.

A sharp tap sounded at the door. Perry was just opening his mouth to speak when it opened to reveal Inspector Henderson. "Thought I'd find you two here," he said, his gaze flicking between her and Clark.

For probably the first time since she'd met him, no flippant remark came to Lois's lips.

There was something about the dour, play-it-by-the-book cop which normally seemed to bring out the worst in her. It wasn't that Bill Henderson was a bad cop. He wasn't lazy or stupid. He was probably the least corrupt cop she knew, too. His clear-up rate was higher than average, though not as high as some of his flashier, attention-grabbing colleagues who were rarely off the evening news bulletins. His problem was that he hated reporters crawling all over his cases, and made it very clear that he begrudged sharing information.

Right now, though, there wasn't another cop in the city she'd prefer to have on her side.

"I hope you don't object to the intrusion, Perry, but I knew better than to expect Lois to do the sensible thing and come down to the precinct." Henderson's normal dry tone offered no concession to the circumstances, and Lois was grateful.

"In case you hadn't noticed, I don't have a lot of spare time today," she said, a sardonic tone creeping into her voice.

A hand touched her shoulder, squeezing gently. She didn't need to glance back to know that it was Clark.

"I'm aware of that, Lois." Henderson's tone was gentler. "And I don't intend to waste any of it."

She shouldn't be taking out her frustration on him. He was here to help. "Okay. Where do we start?"

He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. "I need to know exactly what happened this morning — both from you and Clark. If there's somewhere we can talk, in a minute or two?" He looked enquiringly at Perry.

Perry waved a hand. "Use one of the conference rooms."

"Thanks. Okay — " Henderson began ticking points off on his fingers. "I've got a couple of officers at the hospital talking to Dr Sutton. Half a dozen more are searching computer files at the precinct for possible suspects. Two more are interviewing people in your apartment block and on your street, Lois, and there's a forensic team going over your apartment right now. If we're lucky, the bastard might have let some of the poison leak onto the floor. Or we might get really lucky — he might have dumped the hypodermic somewhere we can find it."

Her eyes widened. When Henderson got serious, he really pulled out all the stops! But why hadn't it occurred to her that some of the poison could have spilled? Though, knowing her luck, the chances that they'd be that fortunate were probably pretty slim. Still, it was worth a try.

"You've got your own people checking here too, I guess." Henderson looked at Perry.

"Yeah, Jimmy Olsen and a bunch of researchers have been going through all Lois's old stories and looking up correspondence in the files."

Henderson nodded. "I'll get a couple of officers over here — they'll need access to all of that material."

"Now hold on a minute here!" Perry frowned. "These are confidential Planet files…"

Henderson rolled his eyes. "Let me put it this way. Either we work together or we just waste time getting in each other's way. This isn't a competition. We all want the same thing here." He leaned against the wall in a deceptively lazy pose. "The police databases are better than anything your people have access to — legitimately or otherwise — and it's going to be quicker for my people to check if any possibles are in jail or on the streets or in another state."

"I wouldn't rule out anyone in jail." Clark spoke for the first time since Henderson had arrived. "After all, the guy who broke into Lois's apartment could just be the messenger."

"Except no-one's going to have access to a chemistry set in prison," Lois pointed out dryly.

"No, but they could have given someone the formula."

That was true, and Lois sighed. "Great. Make it even more of a needle in a haystack."

"Welcome to police work, Lois." Henderson's tone was back to being dry. Then he straightened and moved away from the wall, turning his attention to Perry again. "I want to put a tap on Lois's phone."

Lois was on her feet immediately. "No *way*!"

Perry was frowning. "Now, you know I can't agree to that, Inspector."

Henderson sighed. "I know, I know. First amendment. Freedom of the press. I've heard it all before — more times than I care to remember. But this is different."

"You can't tap my phone."

Henderson ignored her. "Perry, you have to see that this is important. I'm trying to prevent a murder here. This isn't just about protecting some low-life snitch or two."

"He's got a point, Chief." That was Clark, leaning against the wall on the other side of the room with his arms folded, his brow furrowed. He couldn't possibly be considering…

"Clark!"

"I know he has." Perry again. "And, believe me, I'd like nothing more than to say yes. But how can I run a newspaper specialising in *investigative* journalism if it ever gets out that I allowed the MPD to tap our phone-lines? This isn't just some whim. We're not being stubborn. Journalists go to prison to protect their sources. Hell, reporters have *died* rather than give up a source."

"Lois could die if you don't help me out here." The words, the tone were deliberately brutal, she was sure. Designed to scare them into agreeing.

But she couldn't. Of course she didn't want to die. But there were still some lines she refused to cross.

"No, Perry." Ignoring Henderson, ignoring Clark, she focused on the person whose decision it would be.

"Look, I know the kind of guy we're dealing with here." Henderson raked a hand through his hair, his expression irritated. As if she was wasting his time. Didn't he understand that she was the one whose time was limited?

"This guy could have killed you outright, Lois. He got into your apartment. Got you helpless. It would've taken him seconds to break your neck, shoot you, stab you… but instead he injected you with this stuff. He wants you to *know* that you're dying — to go through this entire day with a death sentence hanging over your head. He wants you to suffer."

Right. How about telling her something she didn't already know?

"So a guy like that isn't content to believe that you're suffering. He wants to *know* it. That means he's probably watching you."

True. That much she'd already figured out. She nodded. In her peripheral vision, she noticed Perry and Clark nodding slowly.

"And he'll want you to know that he knows. So at some point today he's going to call you. That's the way a guy like this works. And I want to tap your phone so that when he does call we'll have at least a chance of tracing the call and *finding* the bastard." With exaggerated patience, Henderson made his key point.

"Chief, I know all the reasons why we shouldn't, but I think Henderson's right." Clark again. "We have to get this guy. It could be Lois's only hope."

Now Perry looked torn. And Lois wasn't sure of her own feelings.

"I can't do anything that would jeopardise the safety of reporters or their sources. Or the Planet's reputation. I'm sorry, Inspector —"

"We can isolate Lois's phone. Have it set up on a totally separate line not part of the Planet's network. The phone company can do it in seconds. Any calls for her — either on her direct number or through the switchboard — will be redirected to this line. It'll be totally undetectable to callers. That way the Planet's network isn't compromised."

It was splitting hairs. Lois knew it, and she could see that Perry did too. A reporter's phone would still be tapped. Regardless of whether it was still on the Planet's phone network or not, the police would be able to listen in on any of her calls. And potentially trace and identify anyone who called her.

"We're not interested in any calls other than from this guy. I don't want to waste police man-hours listening to lunatics calling Lane up with crack-induced tips. I can give Lois a beeper. If the guy calls, she hits the beeper and we'll have an officer on the line immediately." Henderson turned back to the editor. "Perry, you have my personal guarantee that any tapes will be destroyed once all this is over. And the fact that the tap happened won't get out — I trust my officers. They don't talk."

Perry hesitated. Then he nodded. "Okay. Do it."

She still didn't like it. But, contrarily, relief washed over her.

"Right. If you two are ready, I'd like to talk to you now." Henderson got to his feet and headed for the door. "Lois, the forensic team should be ready to leave your apartment any minute. If they find anything, I'll let you know. I've also had officers interviewing your neighbours to find out if they saw or heard anything. I'm putting as much resources into this as I can."

Yes, she'd already noticed that. She met his gaze, the usual hardened, cynical expression softened into something almost close to sympathy. "Thanks, Bill. I appreciate it."

"There's just one thing I'm curious about." Now there was a half- smile on his lips.

"What's that?"

"Why did you call Kent? Why not yell for Superman?"

"Oh!" Lois frowned. Why hadn't she? "I don't know," she said slowly. "I guess… Well, I was barely conscious. I think I just acted on instinct."

And that said a lot. That she would think of Clark first, not Superman, when she was operating on auto-pilot?

***

By the time Henderson left, Clark could see that Lois was getting antsy. It wasn't surprising; after all, the minutes and hours were ticking away. It was now almost ten. Nearly seven hours of the twenty-four gone already, and they were no further forward. No nearer to finding the antidote.

Listening to her explain what had happened to Henderson had been harrowing. He hadn't actually heard the full story from her until that moment, and guilt and anger had torn at him. Why hadn't he been there for her? Why hadn't he known that something was wrong? Why had she had to *call* him to help her? He loved her so much… surely he should have *known* that she needed him?

Henderson's earlier question puzzled him, too. Why had she picked up the phone to call Clark? Why hadn't she yelled for Superman? She'd been dopey and confused, drugged by the ether. Surely it would have been far easier to yell?

Did it, just possibly, say something about how she felt about him? About *Clark*?

But that wasn't important now. Saving Lois's life was what mattered.

One good thing had come out of the interview. Lois had remembered something new. She was sure now, she said, that her attacker was left-handed. It was something to do with the way he'd held her down, or the way he'd used the syringe, she thought. Henderson had been sceptical, but had agreed to take it into account.

But they were still no further forward.

"What next, Lois?" She wanted to call the shots. It made her feel that she was at least in control of *something*. For now, anyway, he was going along with it — it wasn't as if he had any better ideas, anyway. Short of flying around the city searching for some guy in a Donald Duck outfit carrying an empty syringe, he was out of ideas.

She inhaled sharply. "We need to start going through the possibles Jimmy and the others are coming up with. But first I need to call the hospital. Find out what they're doing with the lab tests."

He nodded. "I'll go and get the files they're finished with." He wanted to stay and hear what was happening with the lab results, but they didn't have time for him to stand around doing nothing.

And anyway, a few minutes' breathing space, where he didn't have to pretend an optimism that he didn't feel, would help.

Jimmy looked up, an anxious expression on his face, as Clark approached. "How's Lois?"

"She's — " Fine, he was about to say. That was what she'd have said, to anyone but himself. But how could he utter the lie? Sighing, he amended his words. "She's not so good. Which is why we need this information."

"Yeah." Jimmy's expression was bleak, and he rubbed his forehead. "We're getting through the files as fast as we can — and now Henderson's guys are here too it'll be quicker. Problem is, with so little to go on it's tough to narrow it down."

"I know." Clark nodded, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets. "And I don't even think you can confine it to anyone who's not in jail — the way I see it, this could be co-ordinated from prison by anyone with the right contacts."

"Yeah, I wondered about that." Jimmy nodded towards one towering stack of manila files. "Here's everything we've pulled out so far. Kostas over there — " He waved his hand in the direction of a stranger, a wiry, thirtysomething guy wearing a crumpled suit. One of Henderson's men, Clark presumed. " — is running the names through the MPD database."

"Okay, thanks." Clark picked up the files, remembering just in time to act as if the oversized bundle was heavy. "I'll take these into the conference room."

"CK." The tension in Jimmy's voice made him pause, and he glanced back at the younger man.

"Yeah?"

"Take care of Lois, okay? She… We might not always show it, but she means a lot to us here."

"I know." And he had to struggle to keep his voice even.

As he turned to go back to the conference room, one of Henderson's men beckoned him over. He changed course, feeling guilty relief that he didn't have to rejoin Lois just yet.

***

"*Yes*, I'm still holding!"

Blinking back tears yet again, Lois held the receiver away from her ear as the aggravating elevator music recommenced. Didn't the hospital understand that this was an emergency? A genuine life and death situation? What was wrong with the lab that she had to be kept on hold for almost ten minutes?

She'd already been given the runaround. Dr Sutton, she'd been told, was "with a patient." Sure, she had to accept that his other patients were important, but surely he would have left instructions that she was to be put straight through if she called?

Apparently not. The best the ER receptionist had been able to offer was to get a message to Sutton "whenever it was possible." Which could be any time in the next few hours. So she'd asked to be put through to the lab. That wasn't possible either, apparently. Infuriated, she'd called again and pretended to be a drug company representative and was now waiting for a human being to pick up the phone.

"Lab."

At last! "Yes. I'm calling about test results for Lois Lane."

"Who is this?" The voice on the other end of the line turned faintly suspicious.

"I'm Lois Lane." She almost snapped the words out.

"Wait a minute… you're a *patient*?"

"Do you have the results yet?" Lois demanded.

She heard a sigh. "We do not disclose test results to anyone but the attending physician or a member of nursing staff assigned to the case. I don't know how you got this number, but we don't speak directly to patients."

"You don't understand!" Lois exclaimed. "This is an emergency! I… I've been poisoned and time's running out. I need to know if anyone's actually *doing* anything to save my life!"

"You should talk to the attending physician, Ms Lane." The professionally calm tone on the other end of the line did nothing to reassure Lois.

"You think I didn't try? He's busy with patients." She had to take a deep breath to steady her voice. "Every minute that goes by means I've got less chance of surviving beyond today. I need to know what's happening!"

She heard shuffling noises, as if paper was being shifted around. "As I said, we don't deal directly with patients. But I can tell you that the lab's been backed up for a couple of days now. We're still working through the backlog of tests from the water contamination over on the east side — every hospital lab's got the same problem. Plus we've got a couple of our staff off sick — they drank contaminated water. So we're going to be slower than usual getting through blood work."

Disbelieving, Lois said, "But Dr Sutton must have marked my test as urgent…"

"So has half the medical staff. You really need to speak to Dr Sutton."

Thinking quickly, Lois said, "Don't you use private labs for overflow work?"

"Sometimes. But — and I really shouldn't be telling you this — the contract's expired and management's in the process of renegotiating it, so we won't be sending anything to an outside lab for the time being."

This was unbelievable! Her life depended on the result of this blood test, and the hospital was making it impossible for her blood to be analysed! At the rate this was going, by the time Dr Sutton had her test results she'd be six feet under.

She ran a shaky hand through her hair. "What if I pay to have my test done somewhere else?"

"I'm afraid you can't do that, Ms Lane. Laboratories don't deal directly with the public. Look," the woman added, as Lois let out a despairing sigh, "here's what I can do. I'll speak to Dr Sutton. If he confirms what you've told me, I'll do my best to make sure that your test gets priority. Okay? Now I really have to get back to work."

There was a click, and the call was disconnected.

Was that it? Was that really all that could be done?

Her life was depending on a backed-up, understaffed lab where no- one seemed to understand the concept of a life-and-death situation. God. Could it get any worse?

The door opened, and Clark entered carrying a couple of armfuls of files. "Sorry I took so long. One of Henderson's guys wanted to ask me about Barbara Trevino."

Trevino. One of the many people who'd tried to kill her… And Trevino was a scientist. But she shook her head after a moment. "Too tall to be Trevino."

Clark shrugged very faintly. "Trevino's still in prison. But that doesn't mean she couldn't be behind it."

"I guess." Even to herself, her tone sounded defeated.

Clark's brows narrowed. "What is it, Lois? You're not giving up already?"

"Clark, you won't believe it! The lab hasn't even started on my blood test yet!" Frustration poured out of her as, near to tears, she told Clark about the phone call. "And I can't even get it done at another lab because they don't…"

She trailed off and her eyes widened. Why hadn't she thought of that before? "Lex!" she exclaimed, as Clark stared at her.

"Huh?"

"Lex Luthor. He owns LexLabs! He could pull strings…"

She could tell from Clark's expression that he didn't like it. Clark and his irrational dislike of Lex Luthor! Well, he'd better not even start. Not when this could be the key to saving her life.

But he nodded, obviously pushing his own feelings aside. "Yes, that could work. You going to call him?"

She already had the phone in her hand. Now, all she had to hope for was that Lex wasn't out of town or unreachable somehow. After giving her name to a series of flunkies at LexCorp, she was transferred to Lex himself.

"Lois! What a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?"

"I need your help, Lex. It's urgent."

"Oh?" She could hear the surprise in his voice. "What's the problem?"

As briefly as she could, she explained what had happened.

"Lois, my dear, that's appalling!" He sounded utterly shocked, which was… nice. Reassuring. Even if she needed action from him rather than sympathy. "How are you feeling? What can I do? Do you need money? Medical treatment in Switzerland? Private detectives to track down the bastard who did this?"

"A blood test. You own LexLabs…"

"But of course; my facilities are entirely at your disposal." His agreement was immediate. "But isn't the hospital taking care of that?"

Again, she explained. "I don't even know whether they'll get around to my test today. Even if they do, it could already be too late."

"Consider it done." Lex's calm, decisive tone was immensely reassuring. "I'll contact the hospital to get your sample released, and LexLabs will be on standby. I assume that it's best to go with the original sample?"

Lois nodded then, remembering that he couldn't see her, said, "Yes. Dr Sutton took it from the injection site."

"You can leave it in my hands. The director of the lab will be in touch with you as soon as the results are available, and they'll be faxed through to your physician as well. And, if I may, I'll find out who's the best poisons expert in the country and I'll have him sent the results too."

"Thanks, Lex." Lois closed her eyes briefly. "I knew I could count on you."

"Any time, Lois. We *will* find a cure."

***

Lex Luthor.

The last person Clark wanted involved in any way. And yet Lois was right. The blood work was essential, and if Luthor could speed the process up it would be crazy not to ask for his help.

And Luthor was coming through for Lois. Listening to the conversation, Clark could almost believe that the older man was everything he seemed: genuinely concerned for the well-being of a friend, wanting to do everything he could to help.

Yeah. Even Al Capone loved his mother.

As Lois replaced the receiver, Clark said, "All taken care of?"

"Yeah. He's going to have the sample picked up and taken to LexLabs." She tilted her head from side to side, as if relieving a stiff neck. He stepped towards her and began to massage the muscles gently. "Oh, that's good," she murmured.

"Of course, the hospital and LexLabs are on opposite sides of the city," she continued. "It's going to take about an hour to get the sample over there." She turned her head and looked up at Clark. "I wish I knew how to contact Superman. He could have it there in seconds."

Superman.

He stood, frozen, his hand resting unmoving against Lois's neck.

Superman. Why hadn't it occurred to him before?

There was so much he could do to help her using his powers. Of course, he already had been, but doing it surreptitiously meant he couldn't do as much as if he were in the costume.

Besides…

He'd never told her before. Had never seen any reason to. There'd been the small matter of her crush on the Spandex, apart from anything else. But this was different. This really was a matter of life and death. And, even if he couldn't save her life this time, he wanted her to know before… Before.

"Lois." His mind made up, he moved to stand in front of her.

She looked up at him. "What is it? Can you contact Superman for me?" Hope resonated in her voice.

"I can do better than that." He reached for her hand; she wrapped her fingers around his. "Lois, I'm Superman. And I'll do whatever you want me to, starting with taking that sample to LexLabs for you."

Her eyes widened, and then she frowned. "What did you say?"

Clark hunkered down so that his face was level with hers, and with his free hand he pulled off his glasses. "I'm Superman."

***

It was happening already.

Her body — her nervous system — was already giving up on her.

It had to be. Otherwise she'd just have heard Clark tell her that he was Superman. And that couldn't be true. Right?

Right. It just couldn't.

Superman was… well, Superman! And Clark was… Clark. Different guys. Different names. Different… well, just different. Totally different!

But those eyes…

She'd never seen Clark without his glasses before. He looked so… altered. Without the shield, his eyes seemed warmer, deeper, more intense than before. And it wasn't just his eyes. The whole shape of his face was different.

In fact, if it wasn't for the hair, and the light grey suit, she could swear…

God, she was going crazy. Now she couldn't even see straight. She was looking at Clark and seeing Superman. There were two faces in front of her. One, good old familiar Clark, a look of deep concern in his gaze. The other, the calm, capable expression of Superman. As she stared, they seemed to merge into one another and then separate again. Moving, blending, shifting, splitting, right before her eyes. Drifting out of focus…

She blinked. Nope, everything was still hazy. And she was still seeing double.

God. It wasn't just her ears. Now her eyes were giving up on her. It was already happening.

"Lois?"

She let out a low moan.

"Lois? Lois! Are you okay?"

She was being shaken, at first gently and then more roughly. An insistent voice — Clark's? Superman's? — was calling her name.

Again, she blinked, and suddenly everything was clear again. Focused. Except that Superman still crouched in front of her in Clark's clothes.

"Lois." His voice was gentler now, but underlaid with worry.

"I… I spaced out for a minute."

"I noticed." And she could still hear the worry she knew he was desperately trying to hide.

"I'm going crazy." She raked fingers through her hair, realising as she lifted her hand to do it that Clark still held her other hand. "For a moment there… I thought you were Superman."

"I am." And now his voice was calm. In control. And full of that *aura* that Superman had about him. The way he seemed to radiate confidence, assurance, *hope*, just by being there.

Clark was Superman.

Well, at least her ears weren't letting her down after all. Yet.

Clark was Superman.

"Why didn't you *tell* me?" she exclaimed, wrenching her hand away from his.

"I thought I just did."

"Don't be cute!" She pushed at his chest. "You know what I mean."

He remained exactly where he was, crouched in front of her. "Lois, I didn't tell *anyone*! You're the smartest woman — smartest *person* — I know. You of all people have to be able to figure out why I don't tell people about this." Abruptly, he straightened, moving back from her as he did so. Instantly, she felt the loss of his presence — the loss of his *comfort*.

Clark and Superman were the same person. It was way too much to take in. And if she let herself think about all the times… Everything she'd said… and done… with each of them… He'd saved her life countless times. *Clark* had saved her life.

She swallowed suddenly. Was Superman going to be able to save her life this time?

"Lois." Clark's tone commanded her attention. "Look, I know it's been a shock. I know you're working up to be mad, too. You can yell at me all you like — *later*. Right now we have more important things to do, remember?"

Yeah. Like figuring out a way to save her life. "Okay." And she nodded.

"Okay. I need you to call Luthor back and tell him to let the hospital lab know that I — that Superman's on his way to pick up the sample. All right?"

Nodding again, Lois reached for the phone. Her head was spinning. Her brain was rebelling against the instructions she was trying to give it. Clark was *Superman*! All this time, and he'd never told her. No, she'd never guessed! Not an inkling. It had never even occurred to her that there might be more to the 'hack from Smallville', as she'd unfairly dubbed him, than appeared at face value.

How could he possibly be Superman and she have no clue at all? Not even a *suspicion* that there was something different about him?

"Lois."

She looked up at the note of impatience in Clark's voice, and saw him frowning at her. He was wearing his glasses again and, as he gave her a 'get on with it' wave of his hand, he seemed so familiar again. Her partner. The guy she worked with eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours a day. The person she thought she'd known better than anyone.

The man she hadn't known at all.

"Okay. Lex." And she dialled.

***

He really should have told her sooner. Okay, he had the best of reasons for keeping his identity a secret, but these were exceptional circumstances. Lois was *dying*. She could be *dead* by the early morning. He didn't want her to die without knowing the truth.

No. Thinking like that was a bad idea.

She wasn't going to die. He was going to do everything in his power to ensure that didn't happen.

Now that she knew the truth, too, it would be easier. Why hadn't that occurred to him sooner? All those files they had to go through — he could search them in seconds. He could have a list of who, what, where, when, how, all written down in less than the time it'd take Lois to read one file. How could he do that if she didn't know? And how could he possibly have sat there next to her, reading files at the snail's pace of human capacity, knowing how important every second was?

Stupid. Of course he should have told her. Just like he should have flown her to the hospital. And back from the hospital.

Too late for recriminations now. She knew, and that was the important thing.

He smiled suddenly, remembering the immediate aftermath of his revelation. Once he'd told her, she'd just stared at him for what seemed like minutes. That was a novelty: he'd actually rendered Lois Lane speechless!

The hospital lay below, and he dipped down; seconds later, he was standing in the path lab, being greeted by the chief pathology officer. He cut the pleasantries short; while he didn't want to be rude to the woman, time was of the essence.

Back in the air again, and now to LexLabs. He was supposed to ask for a Dr Fabian Leek; he'd waited until after Lois had made her second call to Luthor since there'd been no point in him being at the hospital before Luthor had had a chance to alert them to the fact that it would be Superman collecting the sample. Luthor had told Lois to pass on Leek's name to Superman.

LexLabs looked more like a brand-new, expensive financial complex than a laboratory. But then, that had a lot to do with its owner. Nothing belonging to Lex Luthor could possibly look shabby, or even just mundane. Heaven forbid.

The security guard at the door saluted, then stood back to let him pass. "Straight down the hall, Superman, and you'll see Dr Leek's door right ahead of you. He's waiting for you."

"Thanks." He inclined his head, but didn't pause. Mere seconds later, he was handing over the sterile-wrapped vial to the sandy- haired man in oversized glasses. Leek didn't exactly do much to inspire his confidence, but it was hardly likely that Luthor would employ somebody incompetent to run his trailblazer lab, was it? After all, LexLabs had won several awards and had, only two years ago, come up with a revolutionary drug to ease the pain of arthritis.

"I'll get onto this right away, Superman," Leek said, his unctuous tone irritating. Clark did his best to shrug his reaction aside. He wasn't interested in the man for his social skills.

"Thank you."

Leek hurried to the door, and Clark was about to follow him. But a voice he hadn't expected to hear stopped him.

"Superman."

He turned, as Lex Luthor stepped through a door on the other side of the room. Clark stiffened.

Yet the billionaire looked less urbane, less arrogantly in control of his universe, than usual. He actually looked… concerned. And it wasn't a fake concern. Clark had seen that expression on Luthor's face before; he'd heard the man murmur slick words of practised condolence, or false sympathy for someone's predicament.

No, Luthor was really worried.

"Yes?" Still, he wasn't about to be friendly. Not with this man — this murdering gangster masquerading as a philanthropist businessman.

"How is Lois? You've seen her?" Yes, there was definite anxiety there.

Clark schooled his features. "She's coping. As you'd expect from a strong, determined woman like Lois Lane. She's not letting this get her down."

"I'm not surprised. Lois is… extraordinary." Luthor sighed. "I want to help, Superman. I'll do anything I can. All my resources — my entire fortune is at her disposal. Please tell her that."

The man actually meant it. This was a person who could callously, brutally end the life of a former lover, just because she'd outlived her usefulness to him. Oh, he had no proof that Luthor had killed Antoinette Baines, but he'd bet anything on it. And yet Luthor was willing to use everything he owned to save Lois's life.

Clark shook his head. He'd never understand Lex Luthor. "It's not a matter of money. We have to find the antidote to the poison. And there are only two ways of doing that: identify the precise compound that was used in order to devise the appropriate antidote or treatment, or find whoever's behind this and get the formula from them."

"I see." Luthor's expression turned thoughtful. "Well, at least I can help there. I will ensure that my staff have the test results available as soon as possible, and I already have Nigel — my assistant — working on contacting the best poisons experts in the country. We can have the test results faxed to them too. I assume the police are involved?"

"Yes. Inspector Henderson's in charge of the case."

Luthor nodded. "He's one of the best. Still…" He hesitated. Then he met Clark's gaze head-on, his expression direct. "Superman, let us be frank. We don't like each other, you and I, but that's irrelevant here. What matters is saving Lois's life."

"That's true," Clark agreed. What was going on here?

He stilled for a moment. Was this all part of some elaborate bluff? Was *Luthor* himself behind it?

He had the resources, beyond any doubt. It would be a piece of cake for Luthor to get one of his scientists — perhaps even Dr Fabian Leek himself — to come up with a lethal poison to get an interfering journalist out of his way permanently. And no-one would ever suspect him.

And yet… Lois had never investigated Luthor. She bought the man's act, hook, line and sinker. She'd been on a couple of dates with him. And Luthor was attracted to Lois. That was obvious, and whenever Clark had caught the other man so much as looking at Lois it'd made his blood boil.

True, Luthor hadn't hesitated to kill another woman he'd been romantically involved with. But Lois? What motive could he have had? It would be more plausible had Clark been his target.

No. As much as he didn't want to believe it, Luthor was being sincere. For once in his life.

"Superman." Luthor had obviously noticed his abstraction; his tone was impatient. "Let's try to focus here."

"I have to get back. Time's of the essence." His tone, in response, was sharp.

"Exactly. So let's get this said and over with. I have… connections, a fact which won't surprise you. You may wonder why I'm acknowledging it, but if you'll think about it you'll realise that there's nothing you can do with that information. I simply want you to know that I intend to use those connections to see if I can find out anything about who is behind this."

Clark pulled his jaw back into place. Luthor admitting to having criminal contacts? Yet, of course, Luthor was right. He hadn't actually admitted anything, really. He had connections? Sure. So did everybody. He hadn't spelt out what sort of connections, even though both of them knew exactly what he meant.

Focus on what really mattered. "Lois — and Henderson — have already been working on their contacts on the street. Nobody's talking."

"With respect, Superman, the kind of people who might know about this won't talk to the police. Or a reporter. Let's just say that I have… leverage… Lois and Henderson don't."

Oh, he'd just bet. "I hope you're successful." And that was honest, even if it was the first time he'd ever wanted Luthor to succeed at something. "Am I to inform Lois of this?"

"You'll understand, I'm sure, if I say I'd prefer that you don't." Luthor's smile was cynical. "Superman, believe me when I say that nothing is more important to me than saving Lois's life."

At least they were united in that. Though the thought that he and Luthor shared any kind of common aim at all made acid roil in his chest. Yet, much as he hated it, for the moment they were allies of a kind. He inclined his head. "Nor to me. Good luck, then."

"Thank you. You know where to find me if there is anything else I can help with."

"Yes." Clark swung around on his heel; his cape swished behind him as he did. Not a chance he would be seeking Luthor out for anything else; not if he could help it. Accepting Luthor's help in any form felt like getting into bed with the devil. The worst of it was he couldn't refuse.

Anything that had a chance of saving Lois's life was worth doing. Even joining forces with Luthor.

***

After the fifth attempt at reading the file in front of her, Lois gave up, slamming it closed and losing a couple of pages in the process. Her frustration mounting, she shoved back her chair and bent down to grab the missing paper. It crumpled in her hands. She didn't care.

Clark was Superman.

He'd never told her. She'd never even guessed.

And to find out *now*, of all times…

Her partner, the guy she'd complained about having foisted on her, the naďve country boy with the irritating sense of humour and the maddening habit of editing her copy, was *Superman*!

It was barely believable. Yet it was true. Once she'd looked at him, *really* looked at him, without his glasses she'd known it was true.

She couldn't think about this now. There wasn't time. It was already nearly eleven. Almost half of her final day gone already, and she was no closer to saving her life. She had no idea who'd done this to her, her doctor had no ideas whatsoever as to how to treat her and her blood sample hadn't even been analysed.

Great.

And she'd had a concrete reminder that time really was running out. The episode of hazy double vision hadn't just been a consequence of learning the truth about Clark.

All the more reason to get back to work.

Reaching across to the towering pile Clark had brought in with him, she grabbed another file. Oh, this was someone she remembered. Marcus Kemp. Serial killer who enjoyed torturing his victims before ending their lives. She'd hunted him down, going undercover to pose as one of his preferred targets, and got enough evidence to enable the DA to get a conviction. She'd won a Kerth for it, too.

He'd been spitting fire after the guilty verdict. He'd leaned over the edge of the dock and his gaze had bored right into hers as he'd sworn to make her pay. She'd regret it, he'd promised her. He'd make sure that she lived just long enough to regret what she'd done to him.

Kemp. Definitely a possibility. She stared at the passport-sized photo clipped to the front of the file. Close-cropped hair. Thin, weasely face. Too thin to be the face behind the mask? Hard to tell. Besides, wasn't he still in prison? She made a note to have Jimmy, or Henderson's men, check on that.

Or she could just ask Clark to fly over the prison. A semi- hysterical giggle escaped her.

Clark was Superman.

Why hadn't he told her?

All the times she'd seen him as Superman, the things he'd said to her… Telling her that she was special. Making her fall in *love* with him!

The things she'd said to him as Clark…

<What we've got here is an example of human evolution: before and after. Clark is the before. Superman is the after. Make that way, *way* after>

No wonder he hadn't told her.

He'd said she could yell at him later. By rights, he should be the one yelling at her.

This was getting her nowhere. Back to Marcus Kemp. She studied the photo again. Of course, the only problem with Kemp was that he'd killed his victims with a butcher's knife. And he'd never even completed high school, much less studied advanced chemistry. Not that that ruled Kemp out, all the same… She made a note to have Jimmy check out his cellmates and known associates in prison.

The door opened then and Clark came in. As she looked up, he said, "All done."

He'd been gone — she checked her watch — not much more than fifteen minutes. And in that time he'd been all the way across the city and back, and presumably had conversations along the way. Wow. She'd known Superman was fast, but it felt different somehow knowing that it was Clark doing all this stuff.

"Thanks." She watched him as he pushed the door shut. He looked just like… Clark. Exactly the same man who'd waited for her at the hospital that morning, who'd held her and comforted her in the taxi, who'd reamed off those cops at her apartment. She'd had Superman with her the whole time, and she'd never known.

"How are you getting on with those?" Clark gestured to the files. "Anything?"

"Actually, there's one possibility — I was just going to take it out to Jimmy…" Grabbing the Kemp file, Lois pushed back her chair and stood.

Immediately, the room spun around her. Her legs felt wobbly and her head woozy. Everything went out of focus. She flung her arms out, but had no idea where to reach for. She could feel herself swaying, losing all sense of balance, falling, the floor rising up to meet her…

And then she was safe, lying in strong, reassuring arms with Clark's voice resounding in her head.

***

Oh god. It was happening already. What Dr Sutton had warned about — Lois was really starting to feel the effects of the poison. Her stumble in his apartment might have been coincidence. This, though, was real.

At least super-speed had enabled him to catch her before she hurt herself. He cradled her against his chest, feeling her trembling against him, her rapid heartbeat thumping against his body.

"Lois? Are you okay?"

"Clark?" Her voice was thick. She was still halfway out of it. He buried his head in her shoulder. This couldn't happen! He couldn't lose her!

But, unless they started to make some very real progress soon, it was going to happen.

She stirred in his arms. "I'm okay, Clark. You can put me down now."

He lifted his head and looked at her. Her gaze was clear and she'd stopped shaking. "Okay." He lowered her into the chair she'd vacated. "What just happened? Dizzy spell?"

"Yeah." She grimaced. "Dr Sutton did warn me."

"Yeah. I didn't think it'd happen so soon."

She seemed to hesitate, then said, "Actually, I had an… episode… earlier, too. Blurry double vision."

A lead weight seemed to settle in his chest. "We've got to get working. What's that file you want Jimmy to look at?"

She explained why she'd chosen Kemp, and Clark nodded. "Makes sense. I'll take it out, and then we can get to work on the rest."

He leaned down and scooped the file from the floor, then headed towards the door.

<Help! Superman, help!>

The cry made him stop abruptly. Habit had him beginning to formulate an excuse, but then he remembered. Superman was unavoidably absent from duty today.

"Clark? What is it?" Lois was watching him, looking puzzled.

"Oh." He'd just been standing there, his hand on the door, not moving. "Someone calling for Superman."

"You have to go, then, don't you?" She sounded alarmed.

He shook his head instantly. "Not today. I promised you I wouldn't leave you, and I meant it." But he could hear the sound of shouts, and frightened protests. Someone was being attacked.

"But that was before I knew… Clark, you have to go!" Now there was guilt in her voice.

"No." He said it firmly, insistently. "Nothing today is as important as saving your life, Lois!" If there were other calls for help, as there surely would be, he'd have to school his reaction more carefully so that Lois didn't see. Hearing some other sounds then, he relaxed. Sirens. Running feet. The police were on the job and the victim was safe. "It's okay," he told her. "Emergency over."

"You can tell *that*?"

"I heard sirens and voices," he explained. "Anyway, don't worry about it, Lois. The world will just have to manage without Superman today." He gave a faint shrug. "It's not as if he always gets to everyone who needs him, anyway."

"I guess not… but still…" He could tell that she was amazed that he'd do that for her. Didn't she know how much he cared for her? That he'd give his own life if it would cure her?

Telling her that would only get both of them emotional, and that was something they couldn't afford. Not with the minutes inexorably ticking by, and no sign of any progress. So he said nothing and simply left the room.

This time, he didn't get into conversation with Jimmy. Time was too precious. He took the new bundle of files the researcher had ready for him and returned to Lois. Once back in the conference room, he sat and pulled the files over in front of him and then, making himself ignore Lois, went through them at super-speed. Time slowed to a crawl around him as he flicked through each page of every file, studying each line in detail.

When he'd finished, the conference-room clock told him that less than five minutes had elapsed. To his right, about a hundred discarded files were stacked. On his left were two bundles, one containing what he felt were slim possibilities requiring further checking; there were about fifty of those. And the final bundle, with forty files, contained strong possibilities, all criminals who had made threats of some sort against Lois or who had a scientific background of some sort.

Now, he needed Lois's help to try to narrow down the suspects — with only a small number of exceptions, including Barbara Trevino, Sebastian Finn and Miranda, the perfumier whose last name he'd never actually discovered, they all related to investigations from before he'd joined the Planet. He looked over to Lois, intending to explain his system to her, and found her staring, wide-eyed and disbelieving, at him.

"My god! If I hadn't seen that with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it."

He shrugged. "That's super-speed for you. Anyway, let's get to work…"

***

The large clock on the conference-room wall had just ticked past 12:45. Already half the day had gone and they were no further forward. Well, a little further, if she counted the fact that ten minutes earlier a fax had arrived from LexLabs with the results of the blood test.

Not that the medical jargon had told her anything much. It had simply listed what she assumed were traces of elements found in her blood. Since they were all listed by some sort of symbol or abbreviation — some were chemical symbols which she just about recognised, others just an illegible scrawl — nothing really made sense to her. Or to Clark, who did actually know something about chemistry.

Henderson had sent one of his lackeys in a while ago to update them on the search of her apartment and the neighbourhood. Nothing. The forensic team had found nothing at all, not even the minutest piece of fabric or speck of fluid. And none of her neighbours had seen anything. It was as if the guy had never even been there.

And yet she had tangible, painful evidence that he had.

Clark was pestering her to eat something, but she really didn't feel hungry. He insisted that she needed to keep her strength up. Her stomach recoiled at the thought of food. Nausea bubbled up inside her, along with an achy feeling in the pit of her abdomen.

She'd never felt so useless, either. They were supposed to be working — going through files, looking for clues, ranking possibles in order of likelihood — and she was doing none of it. Of course, she couldn't compete with Clark's ability to speed- read files in less than a second and recall every word of the contents. Nobody could.

He was Superman, and he had powers to dwarf any human's abilities. That was… well, it was intimidating. Okay, it was pretty darned useful, too, but it couldn't help but make her feel inadequate.

Yet that wasn't why she was feeling useless. Who cared about competition when her life was at stake?

The real problem was that she was falling apart. She was Lois Lane — winner of three Kerths, possessor of the sharpest mind in the business. And right now she couldn't even have written a fluff piece on the mayor's new haircut.

Her hands shook when she tried to pick up a file. At times, she had to read words several times to take them in — and as for stringing them together to make a sentence, that was hit and miss. Her head was throbbing — and she didn't even dare take a Tylenol in case it reacted badly with whatever poison was inside her.

So much for her determination to save her own life. Right now she couldn't even keep herself upright. She *was* useless. And Clark had to think so, too — of course, he was far too kind to say so, but he wasn't stupid.

The phone rang, shattering the near-silence in the conference room. Clark answered it, speaking briefly before holding the receiver out to her. He didn't look happy.

"Lois Lane."

"Lois, my dear! How are you feeling?"

"Lex!" She shot a glance at Clark; what was his problem? But then, he'd always seemed disgruntled around Lex, hadn't he? "I guess I'm as well as you'd expect in the circumstances. But thank you for your help with the blood tests."

"My pleasure, Lois. But I was calling to tell you that I've spoken to Dr Leek. In case the report he faxed to you was as incomprehensible to you as it was to me, let me tell you that he explained that your sample tested negative for all the agents your physician asked that it be tested for."

Oh. So that was what it meant. They really were no further forward. "I see."

"We've been consulting with a poisons expert from Johns Hopkins. He's recommended a few more substances which should be tested for, and that's Fabian's next step. I hope that he'll have more to report in an hour or so. Look at it this way, Lois: at least we're eliminating possibilities."

"I guess." He was right; the more they could narrow down the list of possible things she could have been injected with, the better. But it still sounded like a huge amount of guesswork. She hadn't quite realised, at the hospital, that it wasn't a simple matter of having some lab geek look at her blood to see what was in it. They had to work out what might be there and then test for it. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"Are you making any progress on who might be behind it?"

Lois shrugged, glancing at the remaining files scattered over the table. "Eliminating possibilities on that too. Seems a lot of people want me dead."

Lex made a sound which she assumed was dismay. "Well, as I said, Lois, if there is anything else I can do to help — I did tell Superman that all my resources are at your disposal. You only have to ask."

He had? Clark hadn't mentioned it. But then, she couldn't think of anything else Lex could help with. "I appreciate that very much, Lex. But I think we're doing all we can."

As he ended the call, she turned to Clark. "You didn't tell me Lex had offered to help."

To her surprise, he looked awkward. "He did. Actually, he seemed pretty sincere too."

"Why wouldn't he be?"

He sighed. "It's a long story, Lois, but I don't trust him. I never have. You may as well know — he was behind the tests on Superman not long after I came to Metropolis."

"What?" She remembered that. Superman had actually disappeared for a couple of days… and, now that she thought about it, Clark had seemed quite down at the time too. Tests… Yes, there'd been some weird incidents — attempted suicides, but the victims had seemed perfectly okay afterwards. And a bomb with no apparent motive.

That had been *Lex*?

That was certainly food for thought. She rubbed her eyes; she really was too tired to think about all this right now. "If we didn't have so much else to do, I'd want you to tell me more about that, Clark."

"Later," he said. "When you're better, I promise, okay? And I'll tell you anything you want to know about me too."

When she was better. Yeah, right. But he'd even managed to sound as if he meant it, too. Where would she be without Clark today?

***

He'd even sounded as if he meant that. He was better than he thought at this false cheer business.

Lois was dying right in front of him and he couldn't do a damn thing about it.

The blurred vision and the dizzy spell had been bad enough. But he could see that she'd been struggling to concentrate for the past hour. She'd been rubbing her forehead and moving her neck around, suggesting that she had a headache. And now she wouldn't eat.

The feeling of sick dread that had been lodged in his stomach all morning intensified yet again.

He'd been hoping the blood tests would give them some clue as to what she'd been given. At least then the doctors could start treating her. But Luthor's phone call had dashed that hope.

God! He wanted to march over and punch a hole straight through the wall of the building. But that would achieve nothing.

The phone rang again. He reached for it automatically, welcoming the distraction. "Conference room. Clark Kent speaking."

"Ah, yes, Mr Kent. Is Ms Lane with you?"

The voice was familiar. "Dr Sutton?"

Lois's head shot up. He passed the phone over to her, then listened while the doctor, clearly frustrated, apologised profusely for the problems with the lab. "I marked the lab request form 'extremely urgent'. For all the good it did! It wasn't until I called down to find out why I hadn't had the results yet that I realised what was going on. One of the tests I'd asked for does take close to two hours, so I'd expected some delay."

"Well, I managed to get something sorted out." Lois's tone was waspish. "I couldn't get hold of you to let you know."

"Yes, I'm afraid I've been tied up with patients all morning. Anyway, yes, I've been discussing the results with Dr Leek, and with Professor Jorgensen, who is an expert on poisons at Johns Hopkins. So far everything's come up negative. Professor Jorgensen's suggested a couple more substances to test for, so I need some more samples, and I also want to run some tests to see how you're doing. So I'd like you to come in, as soon as possible."

Clark caught Lois's eye and deliberately drew an S over his chest. She looked puzzled for a moment, and then her eyes widened and she nodded. "Okay. We'll be there in a few minutes." Not waiting for a reply, she replaced the receiver.

"We'll fly?"

"You bet. No more wasting time in traffic." He grimaced. "I should have told you this morning — I can't believe I let us take a cab from the hospital."

An arrested look came over Lois's face; clearly, she hadn't thought of that before. "Why didn't you?"

He shrugged, his mouth turning down at the corners. "Habit." Standing then, he added, "Come on. Let's get out of here."

Outside, in the newsroom, his attention was immediately caught by a tall, lean figure leaning over one of the desks assigned to the police team.

"Henderson." Lois called to him before Clark could speak. "Any progress?"

The detective strolled over to join them. "We've managed to eliminate a number of suspects. Kemp's been in maximum security since he was convicted, and he was sent to solitary about a month ago. All his mail is opened and he's had no visitors or phone calls."

"Guess that rules him out." Looking exhausted, Lois moved to lean against the edge of the nearest desk. Clark watched her, the sickening feeling of dread spreading through him. She was weakening right before his eyes.

"Yeah. Can't be Finn either — he turned State's evidence before his trial and he's busy putting away people I never thought we'd get our hands on. Trevino's in maximum-security awaiting trial and the staff swear she's had no opportunity to be involved in anything like this. As for that perfumes woman, she went crazy after she inhaled her own 100% solution. She's in a psychiatric hospital — probably in a padded cell. And I'm thinking we'll end up ruling out most of the other possibles you gave us, too."

Lois was slow to react. It took several seconds before she nodded. "Okay. I guess we keep looking."

Her face was pale, and the shadows under her eyes seemed more pronounced out in the bright lights of the newsroom. Why couldn't he do something to make her better? All the powers he had, and he could do *nothing*.

They were getting nowhere, and Lois was dying.

He wanted to yell at Henderson, at the other cops, at Jimmy and the Planet staff. Wanted to tell them to keep looking, to look harder, to get out there on the streets and hunt this person down. They weren't doing enough. No-one was doing enough. *He* wasn't doing enough. What the hell were they doing standing around in the newsroom? Lois needed to be in the hospital getting tests done. The doctors needed to stop playing around and figure out what she'd been given. They needed to make her better!

He was about to reach for her, to draw her towards the elevator, but Perry was beside her, speaking to her quietly. And then Henderson was standing behind him, nudging him.

"Incidentally, Kent…" Speaking in a low voice, Henderson moved out of earshot of the others.

"Yes?" Impatient to be out of there, Clark followed. Henderson had better make this quick.

"Those bozos who were at Lois's place this morning ran your prints through the computer after all. Seems like they decided they had to be thorough — though why they should start then is beyond me." The inspector's scorn was as apparent in his facial expression as in his voice.

"And…?" Surely that wouldn't be a problem? His prints weren't on the police computer.

"The computer found a match." As Clark stared, Henderson continued, his tone casually off-hand. "It's often surprising who you find in the system. People get pulled in for something minor — a traffic offence, maybe, or violating an injunction — and they forget that means their prints are on record. Permanently."

Violating an injunction. His stomach lurched. Superman's fingerprints were on the police computer. Oh g-

"As it happens," Henderson continued, his tone still casual, "I was standing right by the computer when the match came up. Did I ever mention that I'm useless with computers?"

"Uh…" Clark floundered. What was he supposed to say?

"I was leaning over, trying to see the screen better — my eyesight's not what it used to be — and I must have hit a couple of keys. I have no idea what I did, but seems the other file disappeared. No matter what I tried, I couldn't find another match for your prints anywhere in the system." Henderson shrugged. "I guess the department will just have to send me on another computer course."

Relief flooded through him. The tension disappeared, leaving him feeling almost light-headed. His secret was safe. Well, okay, one more person knew but, if Clark hadn't already known that Henderson was the most trustworthy member of the MPD, he did now.

"I guess," he said slowly.

"Anyway, I told Halloran and Menendez that I'd vouch for you and that they have no grounds to keep your prints in the system. There're enough criminals on the streets without tagging innocent citizens."

Doubly saved. "Thanks, Bill." The words were heartfelt.

"Just save Lane's life. If you ever repeat it I'll deny it, but I'd miss her." And, abruptly, Henderson turned on his heel and strode off to talk to his officers.

***

"Clark? What is it? You were talking to Henderson and you looked like you'd got some sort of a shock."

They were on the Planet roof, Clark having mostly carried her up the stairs after she'd eyed them doubtfully. She was beginning to understand what Sutton had meant when he'd warned her about her body giving up on her. Her legs didn't seem to want to obey many of her brain's commands any more.

He met her gaze, and she could see the worry in his eyes. Worry for her. He was afraid that it was hopeless. That she was going to die.

God. If even Superman thought she couldn't be saved…

Lois swallowed. She was *not* going to get maudlin again. There was still time, and while she was alive there was hope.

"Clark?"

"Oh, sorry." He shook his head. "It's not important."

"Clark…"

"No, really. We have to get you to the hospital. I don't want to waste any more time."

"It's *my* time — don't you think it's my choice whether this is wasting it or not?"

The stunned look on his face told her that she'd spoken a lot sharply than she'd intended. He made a kind of helpless, apologetic gesture. "Really, it's not that important, and you know the doctor wants you there as soon as possible…"

"Yeah." This time, she'd give in gracefully. *This* time. "Let's go."

He was right. They didn't have time to waste. But all the same… He kept promising 'later'. They'd talk later. He'd explain later. This wasn't important now. That could wait.

But what if she didn't have a 'later'? If tomorrow never came…

No! Getting defeatist wouldn't help. She *was* going to get through this. They were going to find a cure. And then she'd darn well make sure Clark Kent lived up to all his promises of 'later'!

He stepped back from her. He'd said he'd fly her to the hospital. As Superman, presumably. So what did he do? How did he become Superman? Did he just snap his fingers to make the Suit appear?

Then she had to blink rapidly because her eyes couldn't keep up with the blur of colours and movement in front of her. Her head was swimming and she was swaying… tilting… losing her balance… Breathing heavily, she put out her arms to steady herself.

"I've got you." She opened her eyes to see Superman in front of her, his arms around her. "Let's go."

And then they were in the air and she was cradled tightly, but with immense gentleness, against his chest.

Clark really was Superman. She'd known it, but seeing him actually *become* the Man of Steel was something else again.

He was, quite literally, awe-inspiring.

What also awed her was what he was doing for her. That time, earlier, when he'd told her he wasn't answering a call for help hadn't been the only time Superman had been needed. She'd noticed him faintly tilting his head, an intent expression on his face, at least twice more — and now she knew, finally, just what that look of his meant. Each time, he'd simply got back to what he was doing within a couple of seconds.

Superman was taking the day off, just for her.

She should feel guilty about it. After all, even if he was her best friend, why should she have primary claim on his time? Why was helping her more important than saving someone's life? Yet he'd insisted that she was his priority today… which gave her a warm, cherished feeling inside, even if any hope that she'd come out of this alive was fast dissipating.

She was going to die. And they still had absolutely no idea who had done this to her.

"I was so sure it'd be someone like Trevino. Or Kemp," she said, speaking close to Clark's ear.

He turned to look at her, his expression sombre. "Yeah, I thought Trevino was a good bet too. Or Finn."

"You sure Henderson's right to rule them out?"

Clark seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering. "I think so. I mean, it doesn't sound as if they've had any opportunity to talk to anyone on the outside — not unsupervised. It'd be incredible if one of them had managed to mastermind something like this in those circumstances."

"Yeah." Lois laid her head down on Clark's shoulder again. Then, as a thought struck her, she leaned up to speak in his ear once more. "There's still Kyle Griffin. I *know* he hates me."

"He was before my time but, you know, the cartoon mask does sound kind of in character." Clark spoke slowly, at the same time reducing their altitude. Looking down, she realised they were above the hospital. "Didn't he use practical jokes to cover up his thefts?"

"Yeah." She'd pretty much ruled Griffin out in her mind, even though his had been among the files passed to Henderson's team for detailed checking. After all, he was in a maximum-security prison too. And she didn't think he knew too much about chemistry. But then, he seemed to be the sort who could always find out what he needed to know. And he did have grounds for wanting revenge against her, or so he would think. She'd single- handedly put him away for five years for illegal arms dealing.

When they got back, she'd have to look into Griffin properly. Maybe Clark could fly to the prison and see what the guy was doing — what conditions he was being held under. Listen in to his conversations or something. Right now, Kyle Griffin seemed to be the most likely candidate, though Henderson's team still had to check out Bertoli and a couple of others.

Clark landed behind some dumpsters at the back of the hospital and let her slide to the ground. By the time she'd straightened, he was wearing his business suit and glasses once more. He offered her his arm and they hurried around to the ER entrance.

Dr Sutton, hair badly rumpled, presumably evidence of his busy morning, wasted no time once he had Lois on an examination table, Clark standing beside her holding her hand. Her blood pressure and pulse were taken, she was attached to a heart monitor and other tests she was barely aware of were done and the results noted on a chart by an attentive nurse. She was given a plastic cup and sent to the bathroom. Then, when she came back, she had to face a barrage of questions about any symptoms she'd been experiencing since leaving the hospital. She tried to answer as fully as possible, listing the dizziness, confusion, blurred vision, double vision, shakiness, lassitude and weak limbs.

Once all that was done, Lois gritted her teeth as four vials of blood were taken from her by the same nurse. Why did the medical profession always have to claim up front that this kind of stuff wouldn't hurt? Didn't they realise that patients would know in a matter of seconds that they were being lied to?

Speaking as he was labelling the vials, Sutton said, "I'm having two of these taken straight down to our lab here — a senior technician is waiting for them and he'll get right on it. Two more are being sent to LexLabs — Dr Leek is ready and waiting."

Clark's head shot up. "Do you need Superman to take them over there?"

"Is that possible?"

"I can call him." He released Lois's hand. "I'll be back soon, okay?" And he hurried out of the cubicle.

She nodded. Much as she missed his comforting presence, what he was doing was helping her far more. In seconds, he was back, this time in the red and blue Spandex. He greeted Dr Sutton; even lying flat on an examination gurney and feeling a bit light- headed, Lois could detect a difference in his manner with the doctor as Superman.

"Dr Leek knows what to do with these," Sutton said. "I'll be standing by as soon as he has any results. This time we should be able to compare with the results from the lab here, too, Ms Lane, which will be useful."

With a gust of wind, Clark — Superman — was gone. And then the doctor announced that he wanted to perform one more procedure. A spinal tap.

"Just in case," he said. "It's a long shot, but this is another possibility that Dr Jorgensen suggested."

A spinal tap, he explained, was also known as a lumbar puncture. And, as she discovered, it was darned uncomfortable.

It took about fifteen minutes for the fluid to be extracted, and a further ten minutes of lying on her back, her clothes back in place, before she was allowed to move. Lois forced her concentration back on track and, turning her head to the side, caught Sutton's gaze. "Okay, Doctor, tell me the truth. What's going on? What are the chances of my being cured?"

Sutton perched on the edge of a small table. "I wish I could give you a straight answer, Ms Lane. It really isn't that simple. We need to find out what you've been given before we can work on administering an antidote —"

"Yes, so you've said." It took considerable effort not to snap at him.

"The first round of tests came up negative, which was disappointing. I was hoping it would turn out to be something like lithium or organophosphates. But I was wrong, and that lost us time we can't really afford."

"That's what you tested for?"

"That, and a couple of other chemicals and drugs."

The curtains parted then, and Clark reappeared. "Superman tells me it's safely delivered," he said as he crossed to stand beside Lois again. She caught his hand, and his fingers closed around hers.

"So what are you testing for this time?" she asked the doctor.

"Professor Jorgensen recommends that we test for biological agents. He's suggested a couple of antibodies which would have the kind of symptoms you're experiencing. I hadn't tested for those because we would normally expect it to be a few days before symptoms start to show, and you were exhibiting some loss of functions within a couple of hours of being injected. Plus, if your attacker is serious in his estimate of the time-period, it doesn't seem very likely that he'd have used a biologic agent. At this stage, though, it doesn't seem sensible to leave anything out."

"So what kind of things are you testing for now?" Clark asked.

"Ricin is one possibility. Some of the symptoms of ricin poisoning certainly fit with what Ms Lane is experiencing — breathing difficulties and tightness in the chest, for example."

Ricin? The stuff terrorists used? "Why didn't you test for that to begin with?" Lois demanded.

Sutton sighed. "Because, typically, ricin takes between 36 and 72 hours to lead to death. It's simply not as fast-acting as your attacker claims whatever he injected you with is. Still, Professor Jorgensen's right: we shouldn't rule it out."

"What about anthrax?" Clark's voice sounded taut.

Anthrax. God. This was beginning to feel like some god-awful Cold War spy movie.

"No, that's one we certainly can rule out." Sutton sounded quite confident — this time, at least. "Where anthrax is absorbed through the skin or bloodstream, it shows up on the skin itself, as a raised lesion. It would feel itchy. Then, after a couple of days, it becomes a vesicle, and you would also feel swelling in the lymph nodes. As you can see, the symptoms are quite different. At that point, the ulcer is readily identifiable as being caused by anthrax, and it's very treatable. Survival rates are in the region of 80%. And, of course, the time-span is considerably longer than Ms Lane's attacker predicts."

"That's good." She was straining not to sound weak, frightened.

"So, anyway, this latest round of tests will include biologic agents, as I describe. We're also testing for phenytoin and a few other substances."

"And how long will the results take this time?" Her tone was waspish, but Lois didn't care.

"Probably a couple of hours. And, given some of the tests being run, that's fast. Some tests do take a few hours to run and there's nothing that can be done to speed them up."

She nodded. It was about as bad as she'd expected. By the time the results came back, it would be mid-afternoon and she'd be lucky if she could see straight. "Come on, Clark, we've got work to do." She slid off the gurney, glad again of her partner's steadying arm.

"You really should stay here, Ms —"

"What, and lie around waiting for you to tell me that the next batch of results are a big fat zero too? Wait for you to keep guessing and coming up with the wrong answers? Not a chance. My partner and I are going to find the guy who did this and *make* him tell us what it is and how to fix it."

Adrenalin, and a bravado she didn't feel, carried her through the curtains, Clark right behind her. But, as she took his arm to walk to the ER exit, the sliver of doubt that had been getting progressively more insistent all morning reared its head again.

<But what if you can't find him? What if it can't be fixed?>

***

Lois was so right. What the hell *point* was there to all these doctors and scientists with their years of training if they couldn't pinpoint what Lois had been poisoned with?

Come to that, what the hell point was there to him? What use was Superman?

There was absolutely nothing he could do to help Lois. He'd never felt more impotent.

Why wasn't she yelling at him too? Telling him that he was useless, that he should be doing *something* — anything — to save her?

At least one of the nightmare scenarios was ruled out now. Anthrax. For all the good it did them. Something was still killing Lois.

And it could be ricin. He'd seen someone dying from ricin inhalation once, in Afghanistan. The guy's face had been blue and his eyes had bulged as he'd fought for breath. His entire body had contorted, arms and legs wheeling crazily, spine arched upwards, vivid signs of the dying man's vain struggle for life.

To think that could happen to Lois…

And that was exactly what could happen to her. If it was ricin and they didn't find out until it was too late…

How could he bear it? Standing there, beside her, watching her struggle for every tiny breath? Dying in agony. With nothing anybody could do for her. Nothing *he* could do for her. Except beg for someone to end her misery before she literally choked to death…

<Stop it!>

Imagining the worst wasn't helping.

Why hadn't that *moron* Sutton thought of running the ricin test earlier? Why had he needed to be told what to do by the poisons expert Clark had suggested bringing in *hours* ago? His inaction could cost Lois her life.

Outside, back behind the dumpsters, he spun into the Spandex again and reached for Lois. At least his powers were good for something. He'd have her back at the Planet in seconds.

Big deal.

Unless…

He hesitated. It was an idea. Probably a stupid one, but an idea nonetheless. And one he hadn't heard Sutton, or anyone else, discuss.

"Lois, stay here for a few minutes, okay? I won't be long."

She gave him a puzzled look. "What are you doing? We need to get back!"

"Five minutes," he promised. "That's all it'll take. And then I'll have you back in the newsroom in seconds, okay?"

She shrugged. "I guess it must be important… Does someone need rescuing?"

"No." He shook his head. Actually, he'd ignored another call for help just ten minutes earlier, while holding Lois's hand in the examination room. "I just want to talk to Dr Sutton for a minute. Wait here, okay?"

She shrugged, and he turned and headed back into the hospital. Heads turned once again as he walked past in the Suit, cape swishing behind him, but he ignored them. Sutton was in the ER, speaking to a young woman in a short white coat — medical student or intern, probably. The doctor's thinning grey strands were now neatly combed over his bald patch.

Uncaring of good manners, Clark went up and tapped Sutton on the shoulder.

"Wha- Superman? Is there something I can do for you?"

"Yes. I want to talk to you for a minute."

Looking surprised, the doctor glanced around. "In here." He indicated a cubicle Clark could see was empty. "So, you wanted to talk…?"

"Yes. This poison, whatever it is, was injected into Lois's bloodstream, right?"

"Correct."

"And it's infected her blood."

"Yes, as well as having an impact on her central nervous system — and, for all we know, it could be beginning to affect her vital organs. We're running urine tests as well as the blood tests to try to establish that."

"Yes, I understand that. What I was thinking was that, if her blood is infected, couldn't she have a transfusion?"

Sutton blinked, and his eyes widened behind the large lenses of his glasses. "Superman, it's not as simple as that. We would be mixing clean blood with infected blood. Imagine putting good apples in a bag with rotten ones — the good ones would decay too. It wouldn't solve anything. It isn't as if we could simply drain Ms Lane of blood entirely and give her a fresh supply. Transfusions — the human body — simply do not work like that."

So any new blood would quickly become infected. "I see." He took a deep breath. "Then what if we used my blood? I mean, if it's compatible with hers. I'm invulnerable, so…" It could work. Surely it could work!

Sutton looked as if his eyes were about to pop out. "Superman, you really don't understand medical science. Apart from anything else, even if your blood were compatible with Ms Lane's, it wouldn't help unless it had some sort of miraculous healing properties. Otherwise the poison would still be in her system. And anyway, giving someone a transfusion of blood which doesn't match their type could kill them. Well, unless it's O-negative, which is the universal type. But that's beside the point. Have you ever had your blood tested? Do you even know if it's compatible with human blood?"

No. He hadn't. He didn't.

God, he felt so stupid. He should have known that. He hadn't thought. Of *course* the poison would still be in Lois's system even with a transfusion! And anyway, hadn't Sutton intimated that the poison had spread beyond her bloodstream by now?

He was an idiot. And he'd wasted vital minutes.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, turning on his heel and pushing the curtain aside.

"I understand, Superman," Sutton said from behind him. "You want to help Ms Lane. But you're already doing everything you can."

He couldn't be. If he was doing everything he could, Lois would be cured. Or on the way to being cured. She wouldn't be dying right in front of him…

There had to be something he could do. There had to -

"Lois!" He'd almost crashed into her. She was standing just outside the cubicle. "What are you doing here? I asked you to wait outside!"

She raised an eyebrow at him. Keeping her voice very low, she said, "And since when did I start doing what you told me to?"

He couldn't help it. Despite everything, he rolled his eyes. She'd got used to treating Superman as Clark pretty darned quickly. "I don't know why I ever expected you to."

"I don't either." She hooked her arm through his. "Come on, spaceman, take me back to the Planet."

"Spaceman?" He raised an eyebrow at her, leading her through the ER exit and around the side of the hospital building.

"Can't exactly call you Farmboy any more, can I?" She gave him a grin and stuck out her tongue.

He glanced around cautiously. But no-one was around. And Lois had spoken quietly, too. Okay, so he was being over-careful.

"Guess not," he agreed, reaching to pick her up.

She held up a hand, forestalling him. "That was quite an amazing thing you just did." Her voice was soft, her expression… awed. Not the kind of awe she'd shown Superman on so many occasions, but something different. A kind of emotional wonder.

"What?" He shook his head, puzzled.

"Going to Sutton, offering your blood to save me." She ducked her head.

He scooped her up and took off; they could have this conversation in the air just as easily. "It was stupid. If you heard what I said, you heard his answer. I should have known it wouldn't work."

"It was… very touching." He could hear the lump in her throat. "Thank you, Clark. It means a lot to me that you were willing to do that."

He almost stopped flying, the shock was so great. Did she really have no idea how much he cared about her? That he loved her and that knowing she was dying and that there was nothing at all he could do to save her was tearing him apart?

"Lois." He had to halt. His voice was thick and threatening to crack. "Lois, don't you know that I'd give *anything* to make you well? All my powers, everything I own…"

He felt as well as heard her gasp. It was several moments before she spoke. "Clark… I don't think anyone's ever cared about me that much…" There was moisture against his neck, where she'd buried her head.

He tightened his arms around her. "I don't know why it's a surprise to you. I wasn't exaggerating when I said you were special to me. You are, Lois. You have been from the moment we met. If you die…" He took a shuddering breath. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

She sniffled. "I… that's so… I can't tell you how that makes me feel… I've never…" Breaking off, she hugged him.

And then she stiffened, and there was a catch in her voice when she spoke again. "You said… You don't think I'm going to make it, do you?"

Oh god… What was he supposed to say? How could he tell her about the despair eating him up inside? That gut-wrenching conviction that he was going to lose her — that even now he could see her slipping away, inch by inch, from life? From him?

He glanced up. Puffy clouds drifted just above them, and he brought them upwards, through the clouds and into the blue sky above. Floating then, he shifted Lois so that she was 'standing' in front of him. She raised her head to look at him. Tears shimmered brightly in her eyes.

"Lois." He couldn't disguise the huskiness in his voice. "Lois, I swear to you that I will do everything I possibly can to stop that happening. If I lost you, it'd be like losing a part of myself. You think I wouldn't do *anything* to prevent that?"

Tears snaked a slow path down her cheeks. His heart lurched and his stomach twisted.

Impulse made him lower his head to bring his lips to hers. Just a soft, gentle kiss — of reassurance, testament that he meant what he'd said, or something like that. That was the intention, anyway.

With a choked cry, Lois pressed herself against him, parting her lips and returning his kiss. She clung to him, her tears falling onto his face and mingling with his own. And he kissed her, held her, poured his soul out to her, as if he had to take and share a lifetime's worth of kisses in just these few minutes.

After all, maybe he had.

***

How had he known how much she'd needed that kiss? She hadn't known herself, but it felt so right. So necessary.

She felt comforted. Cherished…

Alive.

And, if she let herself get carried away, she could even begin to believe that she was loved. That in that intense kiss had been unspoken words of love.

But, even in this state, she was too sensible not to know the truth. After all, how could Clark possibly love her? After the way she'd treated him ever since their first meeting? No. Of course he wasn't in love with her. But he did care about her, a lot, and the kiss had been all about showing her that. Comforting her.

That was Clark all over. Always there for her when she needed a friend. Something she'd never before shown any appreciation for, of course.

"Clark." As he raised his head, she stared up at him. "I… thank you."

Shaking his head slowly, he said, "For what?"

"For… I don't know. Everything. Being here for me." The words came out jerkily, but she didn't care. Nor did he, it seemed; he waited, silent, simply holding her, watching her with concerned brown eyes, as she continued awkwardly. "Caring about me. Making me feel that at least someone would miss me if I don't… And for dropping everything to help cure me."

His hand slid to the back of her head, pressing her face against his neck again. "How could I do anything else?" His voice was close to breaking-point, which brought a lump to her throat. He really did care about her. Clark — Superman, the most powerful man in the world — the guy she'd trampled on from the moment of his arrival at the Planet, cared about her. "Lois, it's as much for me as for you — I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."

"Oh, Clark!" She tried to laugh, but it came out as a choke as she blinked away tears again. "You'll do just fine without me. You don't need me, anyway — you never did! You're Superman!"

One hand found hers, and his fingers twined around hers. The comfort of his touch warmed her and, after a moment, she was able to take a deep breath and chase away the tears. Crying wasn't going to help.

"Don't underestimate yourself, Lois. I've learned a *lot* from you as a partner — and Superman owes you far more than I could ever repay." After a moment, he added, "But it's more than just that. Much more. You're my best friend, Lois. And now that you know about Superman, you're even more — you're someone I can really talk to about all sorts of stuff I could never tell anyone before."

She was? That made sense. After all, if no-one knew… well, other than his parents, probably. Then, yes, it would make a difference to have someone who would understand.

"Yeah, I can see that. I wish you'd been able to tell me before, but I guess I can see why you couldn't."

"Yeah. But I wanted to." He paused again, and then took a breath, as if he was about to say something else. But he didn't; she heard him close his mouth again. And, a few moments later, he said, "We should get back."

He was right. There was so much to do. And, dammit, he was right about the rest, too. She *wasn't* going to give up. Not when she had so much to live for!

***

He'd almost told her that he loved her. But, thankfully, he'd stopped himself in time.

Oh, it clearly meant a lot to her that he cared. That didn't make sense — that Lois would be surprised that she'd be missed. That she mattered so much to someone that he'd be lost without her in his life.

But love? Was she ready to hear that? Or would it just scare her out of her wits? Or maybe even just remind her of everything she stood to lose, everything she'd never get to experience.

Or, worse still, if she didn't feel the same way, if the very idea appalled her, it would make it so very difficult for them to work together. Today, more than any other time, he just couldn't take that risk. This needed both of them, working together, if they were to have any hope of saving her.

Besides, the conversation had been emotional enough as it was. If he'd confessed his love, he'd never have been able to hold it together sufficiently to get them back on track — back to finding a way to save her life. He'd been close enough to tears as it was. There was far too much at stake for him to get emotional, especially as he could see that Lois was relying on him to keep her together.

Time to get back to the Planet. There had to be something they'd overlooked, some name that should have stood out from the pile. There was Griffin, of course. Maybe it was him.

It *had* to be him.

"Sorry, Lois," Henderson said when they asked him. "Griffin's out of the frame. He's been in court in Miami for the past two weeks — the DA down there sub-poenaed him to testify in a case against yet more loyal citizens caught selling weapons to terrorists."

"Yeah, doesn't the pledge mean anything to anyone any more?" a youthful officer standing nearby commented.

"If they don't value human life, it's not too likely patriotism's going to be big on their agenda." Lois's tone was sardonic. "So Griffin's out? There's no way at all he could have masterminded this?"

Henderson shook his head, hands stuffed in his pockets, his expression regretful. "Doesn't seem like it. He's been under strict observation for the past couple of months in preparation for the trial. All his mail's been read, phone calls taped, visits observed. Though it seems the only person he has regular contact with is his father."

"Yeah. Guy's a toy-shop owner, apparently," the young officer elaborated. "Small businessman, nice guy, makes a decent living. Makes you wonder what happened to the son."

Clark shrugged. Although Lois claimed that he had — to her — an irritating tendency to want to see good in everyone, he'd had more than enough exposure to the seamier side of human nature to know that there was just no explaining some people's commitment to a dishonest way of life. Some people just didn't have redeeming features. Take Lex Luthor, for instance.

Although Luthor did appear genuine in wanting to help save Lois…

That wasn't important. "Okay, so Griffin's out. What next?" There had to be more options. They couldn't just have reached a dead end…

"Lois, phone call!" It was Jimmy.

Lois swung around, and immediately lost her balance. Clark shot out his hand and caught her before she fell. She leaned heavily against him, obviously needing his support. When she met his gaze, her face was white, and beads of sweat showed on her brow. "Thanks… felt dizzy…"

"I've got you." Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he guided her towards the conference room.

"What about the phone call?" Jimmy asked. "Guy says it's important."

"Who is it?" Clark asked.

At the same time, Lois said, "I'll take it in the conference room."

"Wouldn't give a name," Jimmy said. "Just that he heard you were looking for information about a hit."

Over Lois's head, Clark met Henderson's gaze. The brief nod the inspector gave him told him that he was on the alert. It could be nothing, of course. Just one of Lois's sources with scant information which wouldn't pan out. On the other hand, it could be just the break they needed…

In the conference room, Clark guided Lois to a chair. She slumped into it, took a couple of breaths, then reached for the phone. At first, she fumbled, seeming unable to grip it properly. He curled his hand around hers, steadying her; after a few moments, she recovered and held the receiver to her ear. He pulled a chair up and sat next to her.

"Lois Lane."

There was a pause, and then she said, suspicion and alarm lacing her voice, "Who is this?"

Instantly, Clark focused. The voice on the other end of the line was male… maybe. It was muffled, out of focus.

"Who do you think it is, Lois?"

He signalled to her; she looked at him, her eyes wide, and gestured to the phone. He nodded, then tugged at his ear. With luck, she'd understand that he was listening in. After a moment of puzzlement, he saw enlightenment dawn and she nodded. Motioning with his fingers, he urged her to talk. They needed to keep this guy on the line.

"Oh, I don't know…" she said, drawling her words. "Someone wasting my time by refusing to give me their name?"

"Oh, you don't need my name, Lois. You already have something to remember me by… don't you?"

She was white again, and shaking. Clark reached across and caught her free hand, holding it in his. Her fingers entwined with his felt cold and clammy.

But she caught his gaze. There was determination in her eyes. She wasn't giving up yet. That was his Lois.

"I do? You're going to have to refresh my memory."

"I asked how you're feeling, Lois," the muffled voice continued. Muffled with what? Some kind of electronic device? Or something as simple as a Kleenex? "On top of the world? Or maybe just a little under the weather? A few dizzy spells, perhaps? Sweating a lot? Having difficulty seeing?"

The conference-room door opened quietly, and Clark glanced around to see Henderson in the doorway. He nudged Lois gently; she looked up. Henderson moved one hand around in circles and Lois nodded, indicating that she understood. Henderson wanted her to keep the guy talking. With any luck, the cops might be able to trace the call.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Clark turned his attention back to Lois. Her face was pale and he could see that she was having difficulty gripping the phone. She was slumped back against the chair, and he could tell by the grasp of her hand in his that she was very weakened. And yet she could lie to her assassin; she could find enough strength from somewhere — god only knew where — to keep her voice steady and even in order to pretend that she was fine.

God, how he loved her!

She was the most courageous person he'd ever known. Anyone else, surely, would be ranting and raving at the bastard, cursing him, demanding to know what he'd done to her, pleading with him to tell her what he'd injected her with so she could live. But not Lois. She'd die rather than let her murderer have the satisfaction of knowing he'd hurt her.

"Oh, Lois, you lie so prettily," the caller said. "Almost as beautiful as you looked as you were being carried into the ambulance. Pale skin makes some women look washed out, but on you…"

Clark saw her flinch, and squeezed her hand. They'd known the guy was probably watching them. All the same, getting confirmation of it was…

Chilling.

The bastard'd been watching them as Lois was loaded into the ambulance! Why hadn't he seen? Where had his brains been? Why hadn't he been looking around, watching for strangers, curiosity- seekers, anyone suspicious? He should have noticed!

And had the guy been following them all day? Was he camped outside the Planet, watching for comings and goings? Or was he lurking around the hospital, talking to staff, getting his kicks from watching what was happening? Maybe he was even disguised as a member of hospital staff.

Maybe he'd been right under their noses all the time and they'd missed him.

Anger on her face, Lois opened her mouth to speak, but then she halted. Took a deep breath. Then, in a voice as saccharine as artificial honey, she said, "It really is very kind of you to take such an interest in my health — whoever you are — but it's not necessary. As you can tell, I'm fine. Now, if you don't mind, I have a job to do…"

Henderson moved suddenly, shifting into their line of vision. His expression urgent, he motioned again for Lois to keep the conversation going. She shrugged faintly, as if to say that she'd do what she could.

"Oh, yes, the great Lois Lane, award-winning investigative reporter. So how are you doing today? Half of your twenty-four hours gone already, and you're no further forward, are you?"

Half… Clark's gaze shot to his watch. It was precisely 3:15pm. This guy was even sicker than he'd thought.

And he was still talking. "This is the investigation of your life, Ms Reporter Woman. The only problem is, if you don't get the story this time it doesn't just mean you lose out on a headline. Screw up on this story and… you die."

Lois swallowed and said nothing. The sound of cruel laughter echoed down the phone, and then there was a click. The dial tone buzzed mockingly in his ears.

Slowly, gently, Clark eased the receiver from Lois's hand and replaced it on the cradle, then pulled Lois, now shaking uncontrollably, into his arms.

***

She should have expected it. She *had* expected it! She'd even told Clark, back at her apartment, that she'd bet the bastard would be watching her.

So how could one phone call shake her up so much?

She was a quivering wreck. If it wasn't for Clark, she'd be a useless lump of cowering jelly on the floor. As it was, she was a useless lump of cowering jelly in his arms.

He was watching her. The sick jerk had been outside her apartment when she'd been getting into the ambulance. Who knew where else he'd been? At the hospital? In the newsroom, even?

What if he was one of the men with Henderson's team?

No. She had to pull herself together. Henderson knew his people. He wouldn't be stupid enough to have someone on a case like this that he didn't trust. Everything about the way he operated as a cop told her that.

Pull herself together. Concentrate on the important stuff. Fall apart *later* — either when they'd found the antidote or… or when it was too late.

She drew back and Clark loosened his hold on her. "Are you okay?"

She took a deep, shuddering breath before answering. "As okay as I'm going to be." Smiling wryly at him, she added, "Thanks for being here."

He shrugged and squeezed her hand once more.

Henderson was still there, standing close to her and watching her with what even seemed like concern. Wonders would never cease. What was he…? Oh, yeah. Tracing the call. "Did I keep him on the line long enough?"

"I'm just going to find out. As soon as we realised it was him the guys got onto it."

"Thanks."

"You recognise him at all?"

She shook her head. "Not that I know. He'd disguised his voice…"

"Keep thinking about it, okay? Something might come to you."

"Sure." This, of course, was exactly the reason Henderson had insisted on tapping her line. And she'd been against it. Had vigorously opposed it. Well, he'd been right and she'd been wrong. Screw the first amendment — if tapping her phone could catch this bastard then she was all for it. If they were able to trace the call…

Then she'd have a chance to live.

"I'm sorry I messed up near the end. I forgot I was supposed to be keeping him talking."

His hand landed on her shoulder, pressing for a moment or two before moving away. "You did good, Lois." Then he strode from the room.

Henderson was getting soft in his old age. Anyone would think that he actually liked her. Shaking her head at this unimaginable notion, Lois turned her attention back to Clark.

"So, did you recognise his voice? Anything about him?"

She had to pause and think. For a moment, it seemed, trying to search through her memory, as if she was wading through sludge. Nothing shifted. Thoughts were always just out of reach, evading capture as she tried to grasp them.

Was there *anything*…?

Eventually, resigned, she shook her head. "No. It's hard to think… I mean, his voice was disguised… but, no. Nothing sounded familiar. Not even anything he said, or his speech patterns…" Frustrating. So incredibly frustrating! The first real lead they'd had, and she couldn't fix on a single thing that would help.

She *was* useless.

"Take your time." Clark's voice was gentle, encouraging. "Do you think you might know him? Have talked to him?"

Again, she frowned, racking her brain, but had to shake her head. "I can't say for certain that I've never spoken to him before, but I don't remember him and I don't know if I should."

Clark's hand tightened around hers once more. "It's okay. We'll find him."

"How?" Panic seized her, and she stared at Clark, wide-eyed. "I've just spent more than five minutes on the phone with him and I haven't a clue who he is! We've got twelve hours left, if his timetable is genuine. Less than that before any damage is irreversible. We're never going to find him!"

"We'll find him," Clark repeated, his tone firm and calm. Yet, as she searched his eyes, she saw her own panic mirrored there. A lead weight sank even lower in her stomach. He was nowhere near as confident as he pretended.

Clark thought she was going to die, too.

"I'm not giving up," she told him, speaking quietly. "But I'm not going to fool myself, either. He was right. This is my last big story, and I'm not going to be around to see it in print." The lump in her throat she thought she'd got rid of was back. "Maybe I should start writing it — at least then I'll get a byline on it."

"Lois, don't!" The pain in Clark's voice was a wake-up call. She wasn't the only one suffering here. And, while he was trying to be strong for her, he needed someone to be strong for him, too.

And that was her job. Had always been her job. She was his best friend, after all.

"Okay." She breathed deeply; once, twice. Her chest was tight. But not so tight that she couldn't breathe, and that was all that mattered. Wasn't it? Calmer, she met his gaze. "You're right. We've got work to do. The cops can do their thing trying to trace the call. You and me: we're doing what we should have been doing earlier. We're getting out on the streets."

"Oh? What for?"

"He's watching us. You heard him say that, right?" Of course he had; he'd heard the entire conversation. Super-hearing. *How* useful would that have been on the job, if she'd known…? Though, of course, he'd probably been using it all along and just made sure she'd never realised.

He simply nodded, tapping his ear lightly as if thinking she needed the reminder.

"Okay, so he's probably out there somehow right now. So let's make it easy for him to watch us. I should touch base with some of our sources anyway, and while I do that you can keep an eye out for our man. So let's go, all right?"

Clark was going to argue, of course. He knew that she was getting progressively weaker. He probably knew that if she stood up right now she'd fall over. Hell, he'd seen her barely able to hold the phone at first — her hand had been shaking so badly she must've looked as if she had delirium tremens.

But, after a few seconds, he let out a breath and said, "Okay. On one condition."

"What's that?"

"You have to eat something first."

She grimaced, but he was right. She really didn't feel much like food, but she hadn't eaten anything all day. Not even one of the usual morning doughnuts. All she'd had were a couple of cups of coffee. "All right. But nothing much, okay? I couldn't face it."

"Leave it to me. I'll be back in a minute with something."

***

She'd almost fallen apart again but, a tribute to the amazing courage she had, she'd got her fight back. For that, he'd agree to anything she wanted — and he had to admit that she had a point. It was entirely possible that the guy was watching them, something he should have thought of himself.

He let himself out of the conference room. A high-energy chocolate bar and some orange juice should do it for now. Maybe some fruit for extra vitamins.

"Clark, can I have a quick word?"

Henderson had detached himself from the group of officers crowded around some machinery.

"Sure, Bill, but I'm just on my way out to get Lois some -"

"We have the tape of the call. I've listened to it — this is one sick bastard." The inspector's expression was coldly furious. "Foley's already made a copy to courier over to the tech boys for analysis, but it occurred to me… It'll take at least a couple of hours for the tech people to get any results. You want to listen to it?"

But he'd already heard it… Suddenly, the penny dropped. Henderson wanted him to *super*-listen — to see if he could detect any background noises, anything that might give them clues as to where the guy was located. Quickly, he nodded. "Yeah. I should have thought of that. Where…?"

"I can get the equipment set up in a room for you — it'll take about five minutes. Just say where."

"Conference room's fine."

Henderson's eyebrow went up. "Yeah? What about Lois?"

Clark smiled. "She knows. It's okay."

A nod of understanding. "Don't know why I ever thought otherwise. Okay, five minutes."

"Just a second, Bill." Clark detained him with a hand on his arm. "Did you get a trace on the call or not?"

Henderson blew out a breath. "No. They were almost there — another few seconds would've done it."

"Damn." The word came out softly. "Don't tell Lois — she's feeling bad enough as it is."

"I won't. Anyway, my guess is this guy knew we'd be trying to trace it and he wouldn't have kept talking long enough anyway."

"I guess. Okay. Thanks." And he headed for the elevator.

Damn, damn. If only they could've traced that call…

Though even that might not have helped. After all, would the guy be so stupid as to call from his home address? Or wherever he worked? So far, he'd proven himself to be pretty smart. Chances were he'd been using a payphone. All the same, if they'd been able to get a fix on *where* then they might have been able to get a description from someone who'd seen him.

One super-fast flight to Smallville later, he was strolling back into the newsroom, a couple of his mom's home-made fruit and chocolate granola cakes and some fresh orange juice in his hand.

Somehow, he'd managed to avoid telling his mom what was going on. She'd smiled at him and asked what he was doing there in the middle of the day, and he'd known that she hadn't bought his story about having a sudden hankering for more of the snacks she'd made at the weekend. She'd given him one of her patient looks, letting him know that he was getting away with it for now but that she'd expect a full explanation when he was ready to talk.

She'd hear all about it soon enough — both of his parents would, especially if his fears were realised. He'd need every ounce of their support.

Think positive. Being defeatist was as good as giving up. They *would* find a cure. Either one of Dr Sutton's tests would come up positive, or they'd find the assassin and make him tell them what he'd injected Lois with. He had to keep telling himself that. For Lois's sake, he had to believe it.

He pushed open the conference-room door, and heard the assassin telling Lois that he'd watched her being put into the ambulance. Lois and Henderson were sitting at the table listening to the tape. The detective was making notes, while Lois, her expression starkly pale, was leaning back in her seat, her eyes closed.

Something attracted his gaze. Her hand. It was resting on top of the desk, shaking. She couldn't be that frightened by the tape, surely? No. Stupid. It was another symptom of the poison. God. She was getting worse in front of his eyes.

Was shaking a symptom of ricin? Why hadn't he read up on this stuff?

He waited until the tape had finished, then laid the food and drink in front of Lois. She gave him a half-hearted smile of thanks.

"Anything?" Henderson, pen still in hand, looked up.

Lois shook her head. "I… I'm still drawing a c… complete blank. I really don't think h… he's anyone I ever met."

Her whole body was shaking. Ice-cold chills ran through him. He stood behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. She leaned back against him, and after a few moments the tremors stopped.

"Okay," Henderson was saying. "Not that that makes it any easier, but we'll do what we can. I'm going to get some more officers over to your street — see if any of the neighbours saw someone watching." He turned to Clark. "You ready to take a listen?"

"Sure." He sat and waited while Henderson passed him headphones. Sensible; they'd cut out any extraneous noise. Lois didn't seem surprised; Henderson must have told her what they were going to do. He'd have to find out later whether Henderson had told her that he knew about Superman. Somehow, given that the detective had avoided actually saying the words, he guessed probably not.

The tape played. He listened, trying to set aside his anger and concentrate on the sounds.

Background noises. Odd clicks — just part of the electronic transmission of sound, or something else? Voices. Some sort of swishing sound. Echoing effects… yes, this was indoors. Not a house, though. Wherever it was indoors, the place was large. Not like a stadium — somewhere with plenty of space, but plenty of walls to absorb sound. There was distant music — the latest chart hit, maybe? It sounded like it. More voices. Running feet. And more music, this time an easy-listening classic. But… He frowned.

"Can I rewind this thing?"

"Sure." Henderson clicked some switches, and then the tape was playing the last few seconds over again. Strange. As he'd thought, there were actually two different pop songs playing, one closer, one appearing more distant. Maybe even a third. So where…?

"A shopping mall!" He pulled the headphones off. "He's in a shopping mall. All the sounds fit — indoors, dividing walls and open space, people walking around, carrying bags and bumping into each other, talking, laughing, music playing in the shops. That's what I couldn't figure out — why I was hearing at least two different song tracks."

"A mall." Henderson's mouth turned down at the corners. "Figures. Lots of people, but all too busy doing their own thing to notice one guy making a phone call. Lots of noise to cover his side of the conversation. Plus, have you any idea how many shopping malls there are in Metropolis?"

"Assuming he's even in Metropolis," Clark said. Despondency was setting in again. They were never going to find him.

"He has to be in Metropolis," Lois, chewing listlessly on a granola cake, said. "He was in the city this morning. Outside my apartment. Okay, he could've got on the freeway or taken a plane, but my guess is he's sick enough to want to see what he's done to me. He's in Metropolis."

She was probably right — but finding him was going to be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

"Is there anything else? Anything that might narrow it down a bit?" Henderson wasn't looking optimistic. "Course, the guys in the lab might be able to hone in on something."

Clark picked up the headphones again. There had to be something. The city wasn't that homogenous — downtown was different from the suburbs, and of course there were the river, the freeways, the arterial road system, underpasses, the airport — all of those would cause distinct background noises. If he could identify any of those, surely it would be possible to pinpoint the mall?

If he could do that, then there could be witnesses who might have seen the guy making the phone call — or, even better, security cameras.

He ran the tape again from the beginning, screening out all the sounds he'd already identified and didn't want to listen to again. And, about halfway through, there it was. He'd missed it the first time because it was so faint. Yet it was unmistakeable.

The sound of a ship's horn.

"It's near the harbour." Ripping off the headphones, he met first Lois's gaze, then Henderson's. "Not right next to it, but within half a mile or so. I heard a ship's horn go — you know the sound they make when they're in harbour limits and getting ready to dock? It's a medium-sized cargo ship, I think."

"Okay." Henderson was on his feet. "A mall somewhere within half a mile of the docks. Thanks, Clark — that's a big help." And he hurried from the room.

"Yeah, thanks," Lois said, sounding faint. He shot a worried glance at her. "It blows my mind how you can do that." The smile she gave him was decidedly weak, and as she got to her feet she had to grip the table for support. He began to move, to go to her, but she shook her head. "I'm okay. I just have to go…" Waving her hand vaguely, presumably in the direction of the bathroom, she walked unsteadily towards the door.

Reluctantly, he stayed where he was. He couldn't coddle her. Much as he wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and make sure she couldn't do anything to hurt or over-exert herself, this was Lois. She wouldn't appreciate it.

Sure, anyone else would be tucked up in a hospital bed, letting the medical staff try everything they could to save her. Not Lois. And, even though part of him might wish that she'd stayed in the hospital, the rest of him admired her for the way she was handling this. Brave. Determined. Heroic.

If she was going to go down, she'd go down fighting.

***

Lois slumped against the partition in the tiny cubicle, breathing shallowly and trying to avoid swallowing. After a moment, she leaned down and pushed the handle to flush the toilet.

She really shouldn't have had anything to eat. She should have stuck with her instincts. But Clark had been so insistent, and he was being so caring… How was he to know that food would make her throw up?

There was no need to tell him about this. He'd only worry, and he'd obsess about having forced her to eat. He'd think it was his fault.

She left the cubicle and stumbled over to the sinks to run some water. By the time she'd rinsed out her mouth, she felt a little bit better. Still shaky, and her stomach still hurt, but at least she wasn't nauseous any more. Just as well — she wouldn't be any use at all out pounding the streets if she was having to stop to throw up every few yards.

God, when she got her hands on the bastard who'd done this to her…

She ached all over. Her hands were shaking. She could barely walk straight. Her vision was blurry. Her energy levels were almost at zero. And now the tips of her toes were tingling. Plus now for some reason she seemed to have no sensation at the top of her left thumb.

Was this what ricin poisoning felt like? Though there was no guarantee that it was ricin.

Standing around speculating would do no good. Time to paste a bright smile on her face and go off to find her partner.

Clark was in the bullpen, talking to Perry. Taking slow, careful steps, Lois went over to join them. Perry looked up, his expression concerned, as she approached. "Lois, honey. How are you feeling?"

She gave him a wry smile. "I've been better. But I'm coping, so don't worry, okay?"

The direct look he gave her told her that he didn't believe her for a second. "Clark here's been telling me that the medics are still none the wiser about what it was. Jeez, with all the advances in medical science these days, you'd think working out stuff like that would be better than hit and miss."

"Yeah." She shrugged, and immediately wished she hadn't as dizziness overwhelmed her again. She would have stumbled if Clark hadn't slid his hand across her back. Nope, he wasn't fooled for an instant by her bright smile and careful footing.

"I was just about to tell Clark that the Planet's offering a twenty-five thousand dollar reward for information leading to identification of this poison — and another ten thousand for the capture of the guy who attacked you."

"Really? How'd you swing that, Chief?" That was impressive. The Planet didn't normally offer rewards. In fact, they almost never paid sources either, unlike the Star.

"Lois, honey, you *are* our top reporter. Three Kerths in the last three years. Of course the big boys upstairs think you're valuable." His lip curled sardonically. "At least, that's the type of argument they listen to. Anyway, feel free to spread that around. I'm telling everyone to get back onto their sources and get that message out. If there's anyone out there who knows anything, we'll flush them out."

She reached out and squeezed his arm — or tried to; for some reason, she couldn't get her fingers to obey her brain's command very effectively. "Thanks, Perry." Before she embarrassed herself again, she turned to Clark. "Ready to go, partner?"

"Sure." He flashed her a smile and extended his arm. "Come on, then. You want to take the Jeep?" He began to steer her across to the elevator.

"Yeah. You better drive, though."

"I guess." He patted his pocket. "Okay, I still have the keys from this morning." As the doors closed on them, he said softly, "So how are you, really?"

She leaned back against the wall. "I really have been better."

"Yeah." His worried gaze felt as if he could see more than she was letting on. "Lois, I…"

The doors opened and, eager to avoid another emotional conversation, she hurried forward. And then her legs went one way and her body another.

She cried out as Clark caught her, scooping her up against him before she could hit the hard concrete.

"Lois! Are you okay?"

She couldn't answer. For several moments, she just rested against him. Her heart was thumping, beating so loudly and so quickly she couldn't hear anything else.

He held her, not speaking, just rubbing one hand gently up and down her back. After what seemed like ages, she raised her head to look at him, to thank him. His face was so close to hers she could feel his breath against her lips.

She opened her mouth, but her vocal chords refused to work. So instead she reached up and touched her lips to his.

He started slightly, but then his lips moved under hers, kissing her back, a gently sweet kiss that ended almost as soon as it had begun. Wistful regret filled her as he drew back to gaze down at her.

"*Are* you okay, Lois?" His voice shook.

Slowly, she nodded. "I'll survive. For now. Thanks for catching me."

"Are you sure?" He didn't sound remotely convinced. "Cause I can do this on my own, you know. You could wait upstairs…"

"No!" She grabbed at his arm. The thought of having to go through this without Clark, even for half an hour or so, was terrifying. "You promised you wouldn't leave me alone."

If this next twelve hours was all she had, she needed Clark to be with her.

"Yeah, I did." His voice was softer. "Okay. Come on, let's get you to the car."

All the time she'd wasted… all those months when she'd treated him as if he was beneath her notice. Or a convenient lapdog. Except he'd never been a lapdog; not really. He'd always let her know when he wasn't happy with her. It was just that most of the time he'd gone along with what she wanted.

He'd crept under her guard and, before she'd known it, he'd become a friend. A close friend. The best friend she'd ever had.

And now, when it was too late, the truth was finally clear. He — as Clark, not as Superman — was the most important person in her life. He meant more to her than anyone else ever had. Ever.

She let him lead her to the Jeep and help her into the passenger seat. As he slid into the driver's seat, she said, "I want you to have my rolodex."

"Huh?" In the act of sliding the key into the ignition, he fumbled and she saw the keyring fall to the floor. He reached down to pick it up, then turned to her. "Lois, what are you — ?"

"Clark, let's be realistic here." He shook his head, as if to deny her words, as he backed the car out of its space. "I'm probably not going to make it. You know that as well as I do. And we should talk about that."

"Not yet." She could hear the tautness in his voice. "Lois, we're going to find this guy. I swear it. You're not going to die."

Was she being defeatist by wanting to talk about the very real possibility that she might die? She was being *realistic*! They had to face facts. More than half their time had gone already, and they had *nothing*.

"But I might."

"Yeah." He pulled out onto the street. "And that's a… slim possibility that we'll face when we have to. Later. If we have to."

She slid her gaze sideways to look at him. His teeth were clenched and a tiny muscle in his jaw was twitching. Yes, he was upset. This was hurting him too much.

Another reminder of how much he cared about her. And maybe even a hint of what she could have had. What there might have been between them, if she hadn't been so dumb where he was concerned.

But he had to face it too, whether he liked it or not. If he couldn't begin to come to terms with the fact that she would probably die, it'd be harder for him when it happened. Especially since he was Superman. He was probably already blaming himself for not finding a way to save her.

Maybe she shouldn't push it right now. He was hurting enough as it was.

"Okay," she conceded. "But I still want you to have my rolodex."

He gave a half-smile. "Thanks. Y'know, Lois… don't you think you should call your parents?"

No! No, that was just too much to face on top of everything. Her mother fussing neurotically. Her father arguing with the doctors, the lab techs, her mother and everyone else in sight. Both of them demanding that she do things she didn't want to.

Oh, she'd have to tell them soon, if they couldn't find the guy who did it or Sutton didn't manage to identify the poison. But the longer that moment could be delayed…

They'd simply take over. Clark would be pushed aside and her mother would drown everyone else out.

"If we haven't got anywhere by…" She hesitated. What was a realistic deadline? Bearing in mind that Sutton had made it clear that she could be incapable of functioning long before the twenty-four-hour deadline. Maybe she'd be unconscious, or in a state of semi-paralysis, or whatever, by midnight. Maybe even earlier. "Okay, by eight tonight, I'll tell them."

That gave them five hours to do *something*.

For a moment, Clark looked as if he was going to argue, but then he nodded. "They're your parents. It's your decision."

"Just promise me something."

"Anything." He brought the car to a halt at traffic lights, then turned to look at her.

"You'll stay with me till the end, won't you? Don't let my parents or the doctors make you leave. Promise?"

He muttered something she couldn't catch. Then he reached across to squeeze her hand. "I promise, Lois. Nothing could drag me away from you. If… If it comes to that, I'll be right there beside you. I swear." His voice sounded almost hoarse.

As she clutched his hand, the lump was back in her throat again.

***

Why was she giving up all of a sudden?

What had changed? Was there something she wasn't telling him? Yes, she was getting weaker — he could see that, even without that collapse she'd pulled on him getting out of the elevator — but she was still Lois Lane. She was still a fighter.

Wasn't she?

If she couldn't be, then he'd have to be one for her.

Starting right now. He gently pulled his hand from her grasp, returning it to the steering-wheel as he moved the car forward. He could do calm. He could do *normal*. Even if it killed him.

No. Doing 'normal' wasn't what would kill him. He'd just promised to watch her die. To stay beside her as she — in god knew what pain — lost her fight to hang on to life. Being with her through that. Trying not to fall apart completely for her sake. *That* would kill him.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. It didn't calm him much, but he could fake it. Probably.

He looked at her again. She was leaning back against the headrest, her eyes closed, hands clenched together. He *had* to try to get her thinking proactively again.

"Okay, partner, so where are we headed?"

Lois seemed to wake up suddenly. She shifted in her seat and looked around, out the car windows. "Oh! Yeah… what were we doing?"

"Lois?" He frowned. "Are you okay?"

"Uh…" She shook her head, her hair swishing as she did so. "I… uh… I don't know what happened there. I… think I kind of spaced out or something."

Yet more evidence of what that… there wasn't even a word in the English language fit to describe him… had done to her. It was bad enough seeing her in pain. Worse seeing her distress and fear at the thought of dying. But seeing his smart, intuitive, vibrant, *brilliant* partner gradually fading away mentally as well as physically… it was just unbearable.

How was he possibly going to hold it together enough to carry on being there for her?

But he didn't have a choice. She needed him. So he just had to push aside everything he was feeling and be what she needed him to be. "Don't worry about it. So, where are we going?"

She seemed to think for a few moments. "Oh yeah. I thought we should start at the Early Bite diner."

Right. Where a couple of Lois's regular sources tended to hang out. It was as good a start as any. He signalled right and headed out towards the Slum. "So we're going to ask around, see if anyone knows anything?"

"Yeah." She sounded stronger now, more animated, more… *ferocious*. "Someone's *got* to know something. And anyway, we know he's watching. If we're lucky, he'll get careless."

That was true. "He doesn't even need to get careless. He doesn't know who he's dealing with, after all."

And he'd been so busy worrying about Lois that he'd forgotten who he was dealing with. From the instant they left the parking garage, he should have been looking around in every direction, checking for someone watching them. Someone who looked out of place, or was trying to blend into the background.

He could make up for it now. Sure, they'd gone around the corner from the Planet, but that wasn't a problem. "Give me a second, Lois." He pulled in to the kerb and put the car into idle, ignoring the hoots of other drivers stuck behind. Just this once, he didn't care about their inconvenience. He pulled down his glasses and let the buildings around them simply melt away.

Outside the Planet, the street was as bustling as usual. Commuters hurried in and out of the subway entrance, barely glancing around them as they continued on their afternoon journeys. Dave at the newsstand had a couple of customers. Both were women, which seemed to rule them out… unless, of course, the guy had people working for him…

That was a distinct possibility. That made it even more difficult.

When they returned, he'd have to talk to Dave. See if the older man had noticed anything out of the ordinary today. If anyone had been asking questions about Lois, or about the Planet. Something else he should have thought of before.

When they returned… god, how much more of their precious time would have elapsed by then? It was already past the halfway point, as she'd been so cruelly reminded by her would-be assassin. Time was slipping away, trickling through their fingers like fine grains of sand, impossible to hold onto.

She was getting sicker all the time. Of course, she was doing her best to hold herself together and keep going — she wouldn't be Lois Lane if she wasn't — but she was fading away right before his eyes. Her strength was visibly dissipating, her co-ordination was far from perfect and the moments of lost concentration were increasing. This was a shadow of the Lois Lane he knew.

There was so little time left, but so little to go on.

She was right. They weren't going to be able to save her…

<No!> As long as there was time, there was hope. And there was certainly *no* time to waste on pointless speculation. Back to surveying the scene. Dave. The newspaper guy.

Someone else approached Dave. Someone who — even though he could only see the guy's profile — looked vaguely familiar. "Wha-?"

"Clark? What is it?" Lois caught at his arm.

"Oh!" The man had turned, and now he could see him properly. "It's one of Henderson's men." He looked around and refocused on Lois. "I was taking a look outside the Planet — checking to see if anyone was watching the place."

"Oh." She studied his face, and then her hand moved, slowly, shaking a little, towards him. He waited, barely breathing, and then her fingertips grazed his eyebrow, circled his eye and finished up resting on his cheekbone. "You look so… different without your glasses."

Before she could pull her hand back, he brought his up to cover it, holding her fingers against his face.

If he only had a few more hours to spend with Lois, then he needed good memories. Memories of the best thing that had ever happened to him — and of what could have been. Like the kiss in the parking garage, and now the way she'd just touched him.

These kinds of moments would have to last him the rest of his life.

***

Clark seemed strangely reluctant to let her hand go. But she didn't mind. It was… nice.

So, when he finally sighed and said that they'd better get going, she curled her fingers around his and held on. After all, he could steer just as easily with her hand in his.

He was amazing. Whatever had come over her back in the parking garage, when she'd just felt like giving up and resigning herself to her fate, he'd been patient and caring and reassuring — and then he'd just reminded her, without actually saying it, that they weren't giving in. That they were still Lane and Kent, still the best investigators in town, still the ones no-one could beat.

And he'd done it. She was back on the case, with renewed determination.

What would she have done without Clark today?

Right from that morning, when she'd instinctively punched out the speed-dial for his number on her phone, he'd been there for her. He'd been solidly supportive, caring, angry on her behalf, determined, proactive… everything she could have wanted. Her own personal Superman.

And he'd promised to be there right until the end.

But they weren't going to let it come to that. No way.

He parked the car outside the Early Bite. She threw open her door and began to step down… and her head swam. The world spun crazily, dizzily, on its axis around her again. Her stomach roiled again.

"Easy." Clark had her arm. "I've got you." He almost lifted her out of the Jeep and onto the ground. "Look, are you sure you shouldn't wait in the car?"

"No…" She coughed. "No way." Grabbing hold of his arm, she added, "I'm coming with you. I want to look these guys in the eye and see if they can tell me they know nothing."

But, for all her most effective gimlet stares, it was a waste of time. Nobody knew anything.

It wasn't a case of knowing but refusing to answer. Lois knew these guys better than that. She'd cracked the toughest nut over a game of pool or an arm-wrestling contest. These guys — bums, drug users, even dealers, petty thieves and other dregs of society — knew and respected her. They supplied her, willingly or unwillingly, with information when they had it. This time, they simply didn't have it.

Nobody had heard of any hit on a reporter. Nobody had heard any new threats against her life. Nobody had even heard recently about anyone with a grudge against Lois Lane. And nobody knew of anyone playing around with poisons that could kill somebody slowly.

She moved from source to source, questioning, persuading, bullying, arguing, the whole time leaning heavily into Clark, his arm around her waist for support. He was the only thing preventing her from sliding to the floor — her legs just didn't seem to want to do the job any more.

He half-carried her back to the car when she finally decided it was time to move on and seek more fruitful territory. He said nothing, but the whiteness around his lips and the over-active tic in his jaw told her more than words could. He was hating this. Hating what it was doing to her. Hating that nothing they were doing was helping.

Hating that he couldn't save her.

The world was starting to lose definition again.

"'s not your fault…" she said as he lifted her into the passenger seat.

The blurry thing above her which might have been a face swam almost into focus. Glasses. Brown eyes. A frowning mouth. "What, Lois?"

"Not y'r fault… 'm going to die…"

Hands seized her shoulders, almost painfully. Shook her.

As if from a distance, a voice was calling her name.

"Lea' me alone… tired… wan' sleep…"

Sounds were fading in and out. "Lois! Come back… me, Lois… can't… up now…"

Familiar voice. But sounding… different, somehow. "'lark…?"

"Lois! God, Lois, don't do this to me! Come back!"

It was so hard… such a struggle even to open her eyes. But she had to. For him. Because he needed her.

Moisture touched her cheek. Or did it? Eyes finally dragged themselves open and the world regained clarity. He was leaning over her, his expression tortured. He'd aged twenty years in… how long? Ten minutes? It hurt to look at his face. The way he was staring at her, agony in his eyes, tore her apart.

Her gaze flicked down to her shoulders. His hands were there, gripping her, the knuckles white. Yet, for all his strength, not hurting her.

"Clark?" The word emerged as a whisper.

He groaned something inarticulate, and his grasp softened. Then his hands slid down her back, tugging her to him, and she was in his arms. Safe.

Home.

"Thank god. Thank god. I thought… I thought I'd lost you just then. I thought… god, I thought that was some *sick* joke, that he'd said twenty-four hours and meant twelve!"

He buried his face in her hair. And in that instant she realised that he was shaking.

***

Was this how it would be? Lois getting weaker and weaker before his eyes, fading away in front of him, but still *Lois* — and then, suddenly, without giving him any chance to prepare for it, not there any more? Gone?

He'd thought that was it, right there. She'd gone limp in his arms. Her eyes had drifted closed and her heartbeat turned faint. The indistinct mumble he hadn't been able to make out had felt as if she was saying goodbye.

Goodbye. Right before his eyes. Just like that. Without warning. With nothing that he could do to save her. And without even time to tell her that he loved her.

But she'd only spaced out on him again. Lost consciousness for what had probably been just a matter of seconds — but enough for him to imagine the worst.

What was he doing? What the hell were they doing? Why wasn't he doing more to save her life? They'd wasted far too much time just sitting around talking. And, okay, time with her was precious. If she did… die… he'd need those memories — but right now he had a choice.

Accept that he couldn't save her, and just make the most of the few hours they had left, and live the rest of his life *knowing* that he'd given up on her — or do everything within his power, and beyond, to make her better, even if he lost her in the end anyway, and even if he had regrets later that he hadn't used some of their remaining hours to… To tell her that he loved her. To show her that she was wrong: that she was cherished, and that he would miss her every single day for the rest of his life.

It wasn't a choice. If there was even just a slim chance that he could find a way to save her…

He withdrew his arms from around her. The warmth seemed to leave him instantly.

"Clark?" There was confusion and hurt in her eyes.

"We have things to do." His tone was curter than he'd intended, but it was probably for the best. They both needed to remember what was important here. "The investigation, remember?"

He closed her door before she could answer then, while she couldn't see him, scrubbed his eyes. While walking around to the driver's side, took out the cellphone Perry had given him when he'd told the editor they were going out. Lois gave him a questioning look as he got in with the phone pressed to his ear, but he refused to acknowledge it.

He couldn't look at her. Not now. If he did that, if he saw the vulnerability in her eyes and the pallor of her skin and the way she was probably barely holding herself together, he'd fall apart. Correction: fall apart more than he already had.

"Perry? It's Clark. Just checking in to see if there's any news."

The rumbling voice of his editor held more worry than Clark had ever heard the man express before. "Not here. Henderson says his guys have been up and down Lois's street, but nobody remembers seeing anything this morning. Course, more than half the street's at work, and he says he'll send people back again after six. They've got the security tapes from that shopping mall, though, so maybe they'll get something from there."

Maybe. It was a slim hope… but it was hope. "Okay. Thanks, Perry."

"How are things going there? Guess you haven't got anything to report, huh?"

"Nothing. I just don't get this. Nobody seems to know *anything*! Whoever this guy is, he's either a complete stranger or he's more closed-mouthed than a confessor."

He could hear Perry's disappointment. "Darn. I suppose it was worth trying, though. You two comin' back now?"

"No — there are a couple of other places we can try. More sources to talk to."

"Okay. How's Lois holding up?"

Instinctively, he glanced across at his partner. She was leaning back, her head against the headrest, breathing shallowly and looking exhausted. "About as well as you'd expect."

"That bad?" He heard a loud thump; something in Perry's office had taken the brunt of his frustration. "If I could get my hands on the bastard…"

"You'll have to get behind me." The coldness in his voice even surprised him.

He hit the END button and laid the phone in the dashboard shelf, then started the engine. "Okay, partner, let's go."

***

More endless questions. More useless answers. And, once again, a complete lack of information.

Oh, her sources were sympathetic. Some of them had already heard that there'd been an attempt on her life, though they didn't know the details. Word had spread from her conversation with Bobby earlier. Word of the Planet reward had also spread, and people were eager to help; thirty-five grand was a lot of money. But they couldn't supply information they didn't have.

They were searching for a needle in a haystack. And wasting the few precious hours she had left.

There were other things she could be doing with the time. Things which wouldn't necessarily save her life, but which would at least make her feel she wasn't wasting the remaining time she had.

Leaning heavily against Clark for support, since her legs felt like jelly — tingly jelly, though — she glanced up at him. His expression was still grimly taut, as it had been ever since she'd spaced out in the Jeep and he'd thought he was losing her.

He'd been almost coldly distant ever since. Businesslike, matter- of-fact, offering all the support she needed but none of the deep concern and… well, and almost *love* he'd shown before. If she hadn't known what was causing it — if his state of mind hadn't become obvious to her during his phone call with Perry — she'd have been hurt. But she knew what was behind it.

He was terrified. He didn't need to tell her that — it was written all over his eyes and the way he was avoiding talking about anything personal. He was driving himself ragged trying to find the answers they were looking for. In the couple of hours they'd been out, he'd taken them all over the city, asking the same questions again and again to different people. In between, he'd been making phone calls — sometimes to the Planet, other times to the hospital or LexLabs, and at one point to the Planet's science editor, demanding that he look up the symptoms Lois was having and match those with poisons which took roughly a day to kill.

And he'd never stopped looking around or listening. He'd played with his glasses so often in the last couple of hours that it looked like a nervous habit. The way he kept glancing around and clearly taking his attention off whoever they were talking to made him look like he suffered from attention deficit. There were times, too, when she felt strongly that he was itching to change clothes and rip the city apart in his superhero guise.

But he wouldn't do that. He'd promised not to leave her, so Superman was stowed away for the day, apart from quick flights to do things for her.

He was still ignoring cries for help, too. He thought she hadn't noticed, of course, but even in her falling-apart state she couldn't *not* see the way he'd go perfectly still suddenly, his whole body tense, before shaking himself slightly and refocusing on what they were doing.

This was torture for Clark. If she had any decency, she'd release him from his promise. Tell him to go be Superman, to do what he had to do. Wish him well with his life and tell him how special he was to her, how much of a difference he'd made in her life… and say goodbye. Set him free.

But she was too selfish for that.

They should just give up this fruitless traipsing around, asking questions, getting nowhere. Right now, Clark's apartment was where she wanted to be. Sitting on his comfortable sofa, next to him, with his arms around her. Safe in his embrace.

And kissing him. More kisses like the one in the air and in the parking garage. And maybe like the way he'd kissed her before — in Trask's plane and at the airport. Maybe more than kissing, though her body probably wasn't capable of that. She had too much tingling in all the wrong places. Her fingers hadn't stopped twitching since they'd left the Early Bite.

Yes, it was time to stop *wasting* time. All she had to do was persuade Clark to give up on this pointless, endless search for something they weren't going to find.

It was time to give up. To accept that she was dying.

Of course, this morning she'd never have done that. But then, it had been easy, back in the hospital, when she still wasn't feeling too bad apart from the shock, to insist that she wouldn't leave a single stone unturned in the search for a cure or for her would-be killer. But that had been then.

This was now, and she was tired. So very tired.

Ready to accept the inevitable, so at least they could make the most of what little time they had left. And she wanted to spend that little time alone with her partner. Her best friend. The man she…

Yes. The man she loved.

"Clark —"

The cellphone rang. He gave her a brief smile of apology as he drew it out of his pocket. "Kent."

As he listened, she saw his expression change, from the awful grimness she hated to a look she'd thought she'd never see again. Lightness. Joy. Relief. He muttered something before ending the call.

"Clark? What is it?"

"Get in the Jeep. We're going back to the hospital." Suppressed excitement laced his voice.

"What's happened?" She allowed him to hustle her out to the car — well, actually, she didn't have a lot of choice. Her feet weren't even touching the ground.

"Dr Sutton called the Planet. The latest lab tests have just come back. They've got a positive ID on the poison!"

***

She was going to be okay. After all his doubts about Sutton's competence, the man had come through. Or maybe it was Professor Leek who'd come through. Or Jorgensen, the poisons expert.

What did it matter? They'd found the poison. Now they could administer an antidote.

Lois was going to be okay.

There was no time to waste. He glanced around. There was no-one in the vicinity. He ducked behind the Jeep and changed his clothes then, winking at Lois through the window, picked up the car and flew it, with its precious passenger, to the hospital.

Seconds after getting the phone call from Perry, he set the car down in an alley a couple of blocks from the hospital. One quick switch back to his normal clothes later, and then he was climbing into the driver's seat. Within a few minutes, he was parking in the ER area.

"Wow!" Lois's eyes were wide as he helped her out of the car. "You don't mess around."

"At a time like this? No way."

"This is really happening?" She slid her arm around his waist, and he did the same, holding her against him as they walked. "He really knows what it is?"

"So Perry said." She was really going to be fine. She was going to live.

Of course, they still didn't know who had done this to her, but that didn't matter for now. Now, they had all the time in the world to catch him. He'd probably try again, but that wouldn't matter because he wasn't going to let Lois out of his sight until the guy was caught and in police custody.

"I'm really not going to die." She sounded lost in wonder.

"No, you're not." He hugged her as they walked.

"Clark."

Something in her voice made him pause. "What is it?"

"Now's not the time — I know I'm not at my best and I'm still feeling woozy and dizzy and confused — but I want you to know that I really appreciate everything you've done for me today."

"Hey, you're welcome."

It was so tempting just to dip his head and drop a kiss on her forehead. Or, better still, to brush his lips across hers. But something was making him hesitate. What if she didn't want it? Okay, they'd kissed a couple of times today, but those had been in moments of heightened emotion. Now that she knew she wasn't going to die after all, she'd revert to seeing him as just good old Clark.

Though, of course, with the added extra that she knew he was Superman. Oddly, though, her Superman crush seemed to have disappeared. He should feel glad about that. He really should…

She was speaking again. "Later, when all this is over… let's talk, okay?"

"Talk? Sure." And there was a lot of talking to do. A lot he wanted to do, anyway. Even if he never told her that he loved her.

He went straight up to the ER desk and asked the receptionist for Dr Sutton. As soon as he gave Lois's name, they were told to go straight through.

A nurse directed them to a cubicle, and he had no sooner helped Lois onto the gurney than the curtains were hastily parted and Dr Sutton came in, followed by a nurse. "Ms Lane. Mr Kent."

"What's happening, Doctor?" Lois asked immediately.

"Well, as I told the person I spoke to at the Daily Planet, we've had a positive result on one of the tests I had run — the spinal tap, in fact. That's why I needed to see you as soon as possible."

<Yes!> He just managed to restrain himself from saying it aloud. He grasped Lois's hand. "Is it ricin?"

Sutton shook his head. "No. Actually, it's something I wouldn't have thought to test for. It was Jorgensen who recommended running the Guillain-Barré test."

"Ghee-what?" Lois just managed to say it first.

"Guillain-Barré syndrome. It is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. To be specific, it attacks the myelin around the nerve cells — both motor and sensory — and it leads to progressive paralysis and loss of sensation. Initial symptoms would be weakness in the limbs, and subsequently tingling. If undetected, it will progress to paralysis and inability to breathe, which is, of course, fatal."

"I've been getting tingling for the last couple of hours…" Lois pointed out. "Actually, maybe even since before I was last here."

"That certainly fits," Sutton said. "Of course, the probably is that you don't actually have Guillain-Barré, as such, Ms Lane. It's highly unlikely that your attacker could have injected you with something to cause it. More likely that this is something which mimics the symptoms — in fact, since it's having exactly the same effect, that's clearly what he's done. So, because the symptoms are the same and the test result shows the precise kind of effect, we're going to behave as if it's GB."

"So what's the antidote?" Clark asked, barely restraining his impatience. "Do you have it here?"

Sutton turned to him. "There's no cure for Guillain-Barré, as such, Mr Kent."

"What?" Fear gripped him again. "Are you saying you can't do anything?"

Lois's fingers tightened around his. She was ghostly pale again.

"No, I'm not. Let me explain. We treat the symptoms and slow down the progress of the… well, we don't call it a disease, as such. Therapy can assist recovery, so I'll be sending Ms Lane for physical therapy over the next couple of weeks to help her regain full sensation in her limbs. We've caught this early, so the damage is not yet severe. Guillain-Barré doesn't progress to dangerous stages until paralysis and respiratory failure set in."

"How long does that take?" No cure… assist recovery… slow down progress… Was Lois actually going to make it through this? Was she still going to die anyway?

"Normally, it takes about two to three weeks for the worst of the symptoms to manifest themselves. So, as I said, we've caught this at an extremely early stage. As I mentioned, I wouldn't even have thought to test for this, given that it's far from the kind of disorder which can cause death within a 24-hour period."

Two to three weeks… So what was all that about twenty-four hours? Some sick joke?

"Medical science doesn't even know what causes Guillain-Barré," Sutton continued. "It can occur spontaneously in people who have had respiratory or gastro-intestinal infections. So Dr Leek and I believe that the person who did this to Ms Lane must have somehow produced an antibody to target the myelin in the nervous system — so we're obviously looking at someone with advanced chemistry training or very good contacts with a medical or laboratory facility."

The doctor stopped, looking very pleased with himself. Though he had just given them some very useful profiling information, even if it did just confirm what they'd already suspected about the would-be killer.

"What can you actually do?" Lois asked. "You said you can slow down the progress…"

"You can actually recover, provided it's caught early. If this was diagnosed later, you could still recover, but you might have some lingering symptoms for a while — for some years, even. Now, what we're going to do is to administer some human immunoglobulin. So I'll want you to change into this gown…"

He picked up a hospital gown and handed it to her. "And then I'll come back and set up the IV. We'll need to admit you and keep you at least overnight to observe your progress. But I think you're going to be fine."

Breath whooshed out of him. Lois really was going to be fine.

She squeezed his fingers again and, as he looked at her, she smiled at him. She met his gaze, her eyes shining, hope radiating from her expression.

Though she couldn't feel any happier than he did right now.

He was barely aware of Sutton leaving. Wasn't aware of anything except Lois until she raised an eyebrow and coughed lightly.

"What?"

"I need to get changed…" She looked meaningfully at him, and then at the gown in her lap.

Oh. Of course! "Uh… sorry." He felt himself blushing. "I'll see you later, okay? I'll just… uh, I'll call Perry and give him the good news."

"Yeah." She smiled again, her whole expression lighting up. "You do that. But don't forget to come back, right?"

"I won't." He refused to look away from her as he backed towards the curtains, only turning around once he was outside the cubicle.

She was going to be all right. They knew what it was. He wasn't going to lose her.

Suddenly, his glasses were misty and an unfamiliar lump resided in his throat. But it was all good. Lois was safe.

***

Her head felt so light all of a sudden… she was swaying…

A strong arm — not the right one, though — was around her shoulders. A gentle voice — not the right one — was saying, "Take it easy. It's just shock, that's all. Let's help you into that gown and then you can lie down."

She blinked, trying to clear her head, and refocused on the nurse standing next to her. "I just… felt dizzy…"

"That's understandable. It must be such a relief." The nurse patted her shoulder. "I'm Abby, by the way."

"Lois."

"Okay, Lois. Can you undress yourself, or do you need help?"

She allowed the nurse to unfasten buttons and undo zips. It wasn't as if she had the energy to do it for herself, or if her fingers would have obeyed her instructions, in any case.

It was a relief when she could just lie flat on the gurney and let them transport her up to a ward. As they wheeled her, she looked around, but couldn't see Clark anywhere. Somehow, even though she knew that she was going to live after all, it all felt much more scary without him to hold her hand.

Clark…

It wasn't too late after all. She had all the time in the world to work out what he meant to her. What they could have together. There was no hurry… on the other hand, there was no reason to wait. After all, if today had taught her anything, it was that there wasn't always a tomorrow. Putting things off sometimes meant you never got to do them at all.

The next half-hour or so was a complete blur. She was installed in a bed in a private room, drips and tubes were set up and she was attached to monitors. Medical staff bustled in and out, checking equipment, taking readings, jabbing and pulling her about.

She still ached. Her stomach still hurt. Her fingers and toes still tingled.

None of that mattered. She was going to be all right. She was going to *live*.

She'd get to go to the Meriwether Awards ceremony with Clark. And they would *win*. She still had a chance at that Pulitzer. She'd catch the bastard who'd tried to kill her, and she'd look him in the eye and make him tell her *why*.

And she'd have a chance to find out what there could be between her and Clark.

Those thoughts she'd had in the taxi on the way back to her apartment earlier -the regrets for things she hadn't done… She'd learned something very important today.

If she wanted things out of life, she had to fight for them. Not dream and sigh and hope that some day they would come along. If she wanted to explore the world's most beautiful places, she had to get off her butt and do it.

If she wanted a special man to share her life with… she had to stop ignoring the best thing that had ever happened to her. She had to take a leap of faith and grasp what — or rather, who — was right under her nose and had been all along.

It shouldn't have taken a near-death experience to make her be honest with herself. But it wasn't surprising either. She had a problem trusting men. Superman had been easy — he wasn't exactly a normal man in any way. He was superhuman, so it made sense that he wouldn't play games or betray her the way normal men would.

But it hadn't just been finding out that Clark was Superman which had changed her opinion of him, allowed her to let down her guard and trust him. It was *him*. Clark. The way he'd dropped everything to be there for her. The way his quiet strength supported her, the way it had on countless times before. The way he'd held her and told her that he wasn't going to let her die.

With a death sentence hanging over her, the scales had fallen and she'd admitted it. Clark wasn't just any other guy. He wasn't just her friend.

And now they had time to do something about that. To explore what the possibilities were. If he was interested, of course. Some of the things he'd said to her today suggested that he might be.

She had been given a second chance — something that wasn't granted to everyone. She was incredibly lucky. And this time she wasn't going to waste her opportunity.

Later. She'd talk to Clark later… when she wasn't so tired…

***

Clark paced outside the door to Lois's room, waiting for the nurse to return and let him know if he had permission to go in. She was sleeping, Nurse Lacey had told him. That was hardly surprising. She had to be exhausted. Even apart from what she'd been through today, she'd had very little sleep last night.

He glanced at his watch. Just after six-thirty. After everything they'd feared, the medics had identified the poison with a little under nine hours to go. A very comfortable margin of error. He owed Sutton an apology for doubting his competence.

He'd been away from Lois for almost an hour. And he was hoping that she was still okay. That she was recovering well and that nothing else had happened. At least she was in the hospital, and being taken good care of.

Had she missed him? Had she noticed his absence? He'd had things to do, and Sutton had made it clear that he wouldn't be able to be with Lois for a while. So he'd gone back to the Planet and updated Perry and Henderson on developments, filling Henderson in on what Sutton had said about the would-be assassin's scientific competence.

Henderson'd had some news too. They'd checked out the mall close to the harbour; one of the payphones there had been used for a call to the Planet. His officers had got hold of the security tapes but hadn't so far managed to see anyone actually using the phone. But they were going to keep looking, and keep interviewing mall employees to see if anyone had seen anything.

Before Clark had left, the detective had actually asked him to tell Lois that he was happy she was going to live.

He'd also said something else. He'd warned Clark to keep a close eye on Lois, that having failed once someone as determined as that would try again.

In that second, he'd felt as if he'd stepped into a shower of iced water. He'd thought it was all over, that Lois was going to be fine. But of course the bastard would try again!

And then he'd heard the emergency broadcast.

He'd ignored every other call for Superman's assistance today. He'd been lucky — it had been a fairly ordinary day. The only calls he'd heard hadn't been especially serious: a mugging victim here, a bank robbery there, a car crash with victims trapped. Nothing the police couldn't handle. Nothing life-threatening and no major disasters.

But this had been different. Three kids trapped in a condemned building which was unstable and could collapse if emergency personnel went inside. He'd had to go — with Lois in the hospital, surrounded by medical personnel and the poison identified, he couldn't ignore this one.

It was just as well that he hadn't had to make that choice earlier. Would he have gone if this had happened while they'd been in the Slum asking questions?

He couldn't have left Lois. But he couldn't have ignored those trapped kids, either.

He'd probably have ended up bringing her with him.

Unless, of course, she was in a situation where she just couldn't leave. Then… what?

Actually, when it came down to it, the choice was simple. There was a saying he'd heard during his travels.

<To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.>

And that was it. Whatever way he looked at it, Lois was his world. And if it came down to a choice between saving the rest of the world or saving Lois… There was no choice.

Before leaving to help, he'd drawn Henderson aside and explained what he needed to do, and asked the detective to alert security staff at the hospital and any police officers in the area to make sure that no-one unauthorised had access to Lois.

Rescuing the kids had taken almost half an hour; he'd had to move very carefully, assessing the building's structure to determine the most unstable parts before shifting anything out of the way. The children had somehow got into a section with enormous slabs and pieces of debris all around them, and one of them was trapped underneath a massive girder. He'd got them out safe and sound, of course, but it had all taken longer than he'd wanted.

Still, now he was back and he was going to see Lois.

She wouldn't be better, of course. Not immediately. Dr Sutton had said the treatment she was getting would prevent the symptoms from developing any further. They would recede over time, especially with physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles in her limbs.

She would recover. This nightmare of a day was over.

Not that everything had been bad… In fact, there were parts of the day he couldn't bring himself to regret, however treasonous a thought that might be. He and Lois were closer than they'd ever been. And, as long as he could stop her retreating behind her protective shield again, that would continue.

Those kisses they'd shared…

Okay, they'd come out of desperation. Each of them needing to be close, to be held, to be reassured when no reassurance was available. But the kisses had still happened. And they showed that Lois was by no means indifferent to him.

There was definitely hope for a chance to make their relationship closer still. Proceeding carefully was the key. Telling her he loved her straight out would be a mistake, but that wasn't the only option available. One thing they had now was time. So he'd begin by asking her out; not immediately, but in a few days. Maybe a week.

The other change, of course, was Lois knowing about Superman. No regrets there. Her reaction had been better than he'd ever dared hope. Okay, the circumstances meant that she'd hardly throw a fit and refuse to speak to him, or fawn all over him because suddenly he was the hero she'd had a crush on from the moment she'd laid eyes on him.

She seemed to see him as Clark first and foremost, with the powers very definitely coming second. She hadn't once called him Superman since finding out, other than when they were with others. Even in the Suit, he was Clark. That was an incredibly positive sign.

And there were all sorts of advantages to her knowing the secret, not least of which was that the cape would no longer come between them. He could be fully himself with her.

"Mr Kent?" Nurse Lacey was back, interrupting his thoughts. "You can go in now."

At first, all he could see was equipment. Tubes. Drips. Monitors. And then there was Lois, lying motionless in the bed, her silky hair disordered on the pillow. She was asleep, as he'd been told. He pulled up a chair and sat beside her; after a moment's hesitation, he reached for her hand, which lay on top of the sheet.

As his fingers folded around hers, she stirred and blinked. The dark eyes he knew so well focused on him. "Clark? You came back…"

"Of course I came back." A goofy smile that he just couldn't help spread over his face. "You couldn't keep me away if you tried."

"Missed you…"

She still sounded as if she was having trouble concentrating. Or perhaps it was just that she wasn't properly awake yet. That didn't matter. The important thing was that she was going to get better.

"I missed you too." Sudden impulse took over, and he leaned across and brushed his lips across her cheek. "I had to go and tell Perry and Henderson what's going on. And Superman had to help someone. But I'm not going anywhere now."

"Good…" And her eyes drifted shut again.

Cradling her hand in both of his, Clark sat, happy just to watch her sleep. They had all the time in the world for other things.

***

Lois forced her eyes open and struggled to sit. Her stomach was roiling. She was going to be sick…

"Lois?" He sounded alarmed.

"Basin… anything… going to be s —"

"Here." A strong hand held the back of her head, and in the same moment she felt something being shoved underneath her chin. And then she was retching, coughing, painfully vomiting foul-tasting stuff.

Gasping and spitting, she finally pushed against Clark's hand and raised her head. He was watching her, concern and sympathy in his dark gaze. How could he not be revolted? It was amazing that he was still here, that he'd stayed rather than run to get a nurse.

He took the dish — which she now saw was a cardboard tray which had probably held instruments — away, putting it somewhere with movements too fast for her to follow, before coming back to her. A cool cloth bathed her face. Gentle fingers combed her hair back from her forehead. And then a glass was held to her lips.

"Have some of this. You need to rinse your mouth. Just spit it back into the glass."

She did as she was told. God, her mouth tasted disgusting. She hated being sick!

"How are you feeling?" he asked moments later, having removed the glass too.

She grimaced. "Horrible. My stomach hurts. I wouldn't be surprised if I was sick again later."

"Oh, Lois." He really sounded worried again. "Just lie down, okay? Maybe you just need some more rest."

"Yeah." Rest was good. "I'm just so tired, Clark… My head hurts, and it hurts worse when I open my eyes."

"Then keep your eyes shut."

She could do that. She was too tired to do anything else, anyway. But… "Don't go, will you?"

"Don't worry. I'm going to be right here." And his hand curled around hers again.

***

Taking the makeshift bowl and glass with him, Clark went in search of a nurse. Once he'd explained that Lois had been sick and could be again, he was given a proper basin, paper towels and a glass. Obviously, the fact that she'd been sick wasn't considered serious enough to deserve actual attention.

Over the next hour, she was sick another three times. Each time, he was there for her, soothing her afterwards, holding her hand and telling her that it didn't matter. Not that his reassurance helped. She was still upset, miserable that she was feeling so ill and — she insisted — behaving so unattractively.

It was hard to believe that she really was getting better, though, when he was seeing her like this.

Nurses came in and out, taking temperature and other readings, but they had no real news. Dr Sutton, apparently, was busy with other patients. Now that the substance injected into Lois had been identified, clearly she wasn't a priority any more.

"I thought they said I'd start feeling better soon." She echoed his thoughts after the fourth episode.

"You will." He found a soothing tone from somewhere. If he was lucky, she wouldn't see through it.

"It's not that I want to complain or anything. I mean, anything's better than knowing I'm going to die." Her voice was still weak, though that was hardly surprising after losing the contents of her stomach time after time. "But I still hurt! I ache all over. My head hurts. And I feel as if I'd fall over if I tried to stand up."

There wasn't much he could say. Holding her hand felt so inadequate, but it was really the only option available.

Lois's eyes fluttered closed again and her hand in his went limp. He leaned forward and stroked her hair, willing her to rest and feel better soon.

But a horrible suspicion was beginning to dawn. Of course, he didn't know anything about medicine, but Lois should have been starting to show signs of recovery by now. Shouldn't she? He got to his feet and pushed the call button.

It was a few minutes before a nurse arrived, and he'd spent the time pacing. The middle-aged African-American woman, whose name- tag proclaimed her to be Nurse Amelia Morea, looked at Lois and clucked sympathetically. "Was she sick again?"

"Yes, but that's not why I called you. Can you page Dr Sutton, please?"

Nurse Morea frowned. "He's busy with patients in the ER. But he did say he'd come back up in a couple of hours to see how Lois is doing."

"She's not doing well." Clark dragged a hand through his hair. "I'm worried about her."

"Well, she has been very sick, you know. We can't expect to see an instant recovery, even though we've started treatment."

Her soothing voice did nothing to calm him. "She's getting *worse*! I want Dr Sutton up here now! Please," he added quietly; being worried was no excuse for rudeness, as his mom would tell him.

The nurse moved to the bed and checked the indicators on the monitor, then examined the drips before laying her hand against Lois's forehead. "Hmm. I don't know if there's anything to worry about, but I don't like the fact that she's been sick so much. I'll page Dr Sutton."

"Thank you." His heart heavy, he resumed his seat beside the bed and reached for Lois's hand again.

After a moment, she opened her eyes and looked at him, blinking a bit. "What… where am I?"

Was this something else that was wrong with her now? Or was she just disoriented from waking up suddenly? "You're in the hospital, remember?"

"Oh… yeah, I guess so…" Confusion showed in her expression. Then her face cleared. "Oh, right. Yeah, they identified it, didn't they?"

"Yeah." Or at least so he'd thought. Now, he wasn't so sure…

"You don't need to stay, you know." But — or so he thought — her eyes said something different.

"I told you I would." He smiled at her. She grimaced slightly. "What? You think I have something better to do?"

"Well… yeah. I mean… don't you have people to save?"

"Not today. Remember, I promised?"

"I know." She tried to sit up, but ended up slipping back to the bed. He released her hand and raised her gently so he could move the pillows to make her more comfortable. "Thanks. Anyway, I meant that — well, now we know what poisoned me, you don't need to ignore calls for help any more."

He had no intention of going anywhere. Whether his suspicions were right or not. "There isn't anywhere else I need to be."

Time ticked slowly by. Lois fell into a restless sleep again. And then, finally, the doctor came in.

"Is there a problem?"

Clark stood. "Yes. Lois isn't getting better."

"I did say that it would take time…"

"You said the symptoms would stop getting worse. That she'd start to show signs of recovery. She's getting worse."

"Worse?" Sutton looked perturbed. "What's been happening?"

He took a deep breath. "She's been sick four times. She complains of achiness all over. Her abdomen and head hurt. And the last time she woke up she was disorientated."

The doctor frowned and ran a hand through his already-rumpled hair. "Has she been having these symptoms for long?"

Had she? He thought for a moment. "I don't know about being sick, though she wasn't really interested in eating. But she did tell you about headaches and achiness when we were in the ER earlier."

"Yes, I remember. But she also talked about tingling in her arms and legs and feeling weak — that corresponds with Guillain-Barré. Those others… the headache, pain, sickness… they don't fit."

"Which means…?" Clark prompted.

He shrugged. "I did say that whatever she'd been injected with mimicked the symptoms of Guillain-Barré. It's entirely possible that it's not completely compatible with that syndrome."

Clark took an agitated breath. "Isn't it equally possible that there could be something else? That the guy could have used two poisons?"

Sutton sighed. "Yes, of course that's possible. But the only way we have of knowing for sure, apart from getting a positive result on a blood test, is if the hypodermic is found — or the perpetrator tells us. I don't suppose there's been any good news on that front?"

Clark shook his head. "None at all." The panicky feeling was growing. Lois wasn't getting better after all. There was another poison, and it was making her worse by the minute. All this time they'd wasted, believing she was getting well — and all the time she'd been getting sicker.

"Well, based on what you say we'll have to work on the assumption that there is another substance." The doctor examined the monitor and then Lois's chart. "I'll need to do another blood test. And I'll make sure that the vomit is analysed too." He fell silent, frown-lines creasing his face. Then, clearly musing aloud, he murmured, "Vomiting, disorientation, headaches, abdominal pain, aches and pains… Any other symptoms?"

"She mentioned vision problems earlier." He shouldn't have to remind the doctor of this stuff, surely? It was the man's job!

"She did. I was so relieved to get a positive ID that I disregarded the other symptoms, or at least assumed that they must all be related." Sutton chewed his lip. "One thing that occurs to me is mercury poisoning. The sickness, loss of appetite, headaches, vision problems and pain all fit."

Mercury? "How serious would it be? If it was that?"

"It'd have to be organic mercury. And, yes, it would be very serious. The symptoms I've mentioned so far aren't hugely serious, but it can also cause kidney failure and acute respiratory distress. So, yes, it could kill her. If that's what it is."

"So… what? You have to run more tests?" Why weren't they actually *doing* something for her? Why this endless wait for test results?

"We must have test results. If we treat for something without knowing that it's indeed the cause of the problem, we risk doing even further damage. At best, it could mask other symptoms that could help us identify the real cause, and at worst it could cause side-effects which might be extremely harmful."

"Oh." It made sense. Of course it did. It was just that there had to be *something* that could be done to help Lois! All this just waiting around… it was beginning to feel as if they were just waiting for her to die.

"If you'd like to wait outside, Mr Kent, I'll call a nurse in to help collect the samples we need."

"Okay." He headed to the door, but then hesitated. Was this it? Was Lois going to have to stay in the hospital now?

It was about ten minutes to eight. Time was fast running out, if the twenty-four hours was in any way an accurate estimate. Within a few hours, according to what Sutton had said that morning, there could be irreversible damage.

He wasn't giving up on finding the cure. But — just in case — had he lost his final chance to talk to Lois? To spend time with her? To tell her what she meant to him, how important and special she'd become to him in such a short time? How much he needed her? How much he *loved* her?

His gaze fell on Lois; she seemed to be sleeping still, not having awakened once during the conversation. She wouldn't want to be confined to bed, if she was in any position to know what was happening. She'd want to be out, doing things, searching for her killer, searching for a cure, until the very last minute.

For Lois's sake, he had to fight for what she'd want.

"She's not been too good for a while," he told Sutton. "Is she going to be able to get up? Is there anything you can give her so she can she leave here?"

Sutton's expression told him that the doctor thought he was crazy. But he answered the question. "I can write her up for an anti-nausea drug. That should help. And some Tylenol for the pain. As to her leaving here… I really don't advise that, Mr Kent. She has an IVIG, remember."

IVIG? His puzzlement must have shown, for the doctor explained. "An intravenous drip containing human immunoglobin. That's the treatment for the Guillain-Barré, and she'll need to be on that drip for at least six hours. She can't leave here."

Six hours? She had not much more than seven of her final day left anyway. There was no way that Lois was going to agree to spend her last hours hooked up to an IV. And no way that he was going to let it happen.

The drip wouldn't save her now. Only finding out what else she was poisoned with would do that, and it was clear that medical science was failing in that task.

"Does she have to have all the… immunoglobin, you said… at once?"

Sutton shrugged, his attitude suggesting impatience to end the conversation. "Not necessarily. But I fail to see…"

"Good." And, turning on his heel, he left the room. He'd get Lois out of there when he came back.

***

"Mr Kent!"

He halted. That was a voice he hadn't expected to hear — certainly not here. But he hadn't misheard. The billionaire was there, all right, in his expensively-tailored suit and the silk tie that would probably keep a Hobb's Bay family in food for a month.

"Luthor."

The patronising concern on Luthor's face irritated Clark intensely. "I've only just heard from Dr Leek that the poison was identified. I came straight here and was told that Lois had been admitted. How is she?"

Resentment filled him at the thought of giving Luthor any information whatsoever. But he had helped Lois. And he did seem concerned about her. "Actually, not good. We think there's more than one poison, and only one's been identified."

The other man's expression changed. Sincere worry replaced the concern. "What are they doing for her?"

"About the same as before." Clark's frustration leached out; he couldn't help it. "More tests. They're just working in the dark!"

"Ah." Luthor looked thoughtful; then he said, "I assume that you're able to contact Superman?"

His senses on alert, Clark looked back at Luthor. Was this related to what Luthor had promised that morning? Had he information that could help them? "Yes, I can. Why do you need him?"

"That's between him and me. Just tell him to meet me as soon as possible."

"Where?" He could meet Luthor here and now, of course. But, even if he disappeared and reappeared in the Suit within a few seconds, he'd lay odds that Luthor wouldn't want to conduct a conversation in a hospital corridor.

"How quickly can you get him?" Luthor said.

Clark shrugged. "He said he'd be on standby for anything he could do to help Lois. So I imagine I could get hold of him pretty fast."

Luthor inclined his head. "Fine. I'll be in my limousine — it's in the executive parking lot." At Clark's eyebrow-raise, he added, "I am on the board of directors, after all."

"You'd better go and wait, then." Giving Luthor orders was very satisfying, even in the circumstances. Before giving the other man a chance to reply, he turned on his heel and walked off.

***

He gave Luthor three minutes, then flew down to the car park. Luthor's enormous limo was parked as close to the entrance as could be managed, occupying at least three spaces in the process, and the man himself was comfortably seated in the back.

As he landed, the rear door opened and Luthor emerged. Clark approached him, deliberately hovering a couple of inches off the ground to hold onto his height advantage. "You wanted to see me?"

"Yes. Shall we?" With a smooth gesture, Luthor indicated the interior of the car.

Well, it made sense that Luthor wouldn't want to have this conversation out in the open. No doubt the limo was soundproofed. Bulletproof too, naturally.

"So," he said once they were inside and he'd refused the offer of a glass of what was no doubt the very finest of champagnes. "You have something you wanted to discuss with me?"

Luthor inclined his head. "You remember our… conversation this morning, of course."

"Naturally."

"I have some… information. It may or may not be of use. But, given that Lois is still critically ill and her doctors seem incapable of working out what's wrong with her, it may be the only lead we have."

Information? How long had the man had this? Why hadn't he contacted them sooner? "What have you found out?"

"Just a name. A… source got back to me a short time ago. Does the name Griffin mean anything to you? Or perhaps it would mean more to Lois…"

Griffin? But they'd eliminated Kyle Griffin. "I know the name." He spoke slowly, careful not to give too much away. "But I understood that the police had eliminated him from their enquiries. Apparently, he's been out of state for the past couple of weeks."

Luthor shrugged. "All I know is what was reported to me. But, given the reliability of the source, I'd urge you to encourage the police — and Lois, or that partner of hers, if she's not capable of doing it herself — to check again."

Well, it wouldn't hurt. They had precious little else to go on. All the same, though, Henderson had been pretty definite… "How can you be so sure this is reliable information?"

Luthor gave him a condescending look. "Nobody lies to me."

Yeah, he'd just bet. Anyone who did would probably end up in a concrete coffin. "Okay, we'll check it out. But I have one question."

"Yes?" Luthor plucked an imaginary speck of dirt from his trouser cuff.

"Let me get this straight… Am I right in thinking that, if Lois had been getting better, you wouldn't have told me this?"

The other man shrugged. "There would have been no need."

His arrogance was staggering! "Surely you realise that the perpetrator has to be brought to justice! Apart from anything else, he could try again!"

"I would assume that you are capable of protecting her. Of course, if you are not, I can see that Lois is supplied with adequate protection…"

"The best way to protect her is to ensure that whoever wanted her dead is safely locked up in police custody." Clark's voice was tight. "Now, if you'll excuse me, apparently I have information to pass on."

He pushed the door open and exited from the limo, glad to inhale fresh air in his lungs again. Though it wasn't just the stale cigar-smoke that was objectionable about the inside of Luthor's car.

Okay. Once he'd checked on what was happening with Lois, he'd talk to Henderson and make triply sure that Kyle Griffin couldn't have had anything to do with this.

***

God. If she survived this, she never wanted to *see* another doctor again as long as she lived! And as for nurses with needles and tubes and receptacles and things to poke inside her with…

Her next big expose was going to be something on doctors' salaries. Or their expense accounts.

And where had Clark got to? He'd said he'd stay with her. But he was gone when she'd woken up to find herself being treated as a human pin-cushion once more. Sutton, when asked, had grunted that he thought Clark was 'waiting outside somewhere'.

She was still dying.

They hadn't told her that immediately, of course. It was only after she'd summoned the strength to demand an explanation for all the new samples being taken from her and the drugs she was being given that someone had got Sutton to speak to her.

She wasn't getting better. They hadn't found everything that miserable bastard had injected her with. And it had taken them all this time to work that out?

One of the nurses started rearranging her pillows. "Let's get you nice and comfortable again, Lois, so you can rest."

Rest? "Are you kidding? I have to get out of here. I've got things to —"

"Now, come on, Lois, you know that you're better off here where we can keep an eye on you."

"Look, Nurse…" She searched for the woman's name-tag. "Nurse Morea. I've just been told that if I don't find the guy who poisoned me within the next four hours or so I'm not going to live to see tomorrow. And since the staff of this hospital aren't doing a terrific job of finding out what I've been poisoned with, and I'd kind of like to stay alive, I am getting out of here."

The effect of her words was spoilt, however, by the fact that she finished out of breath and had to collapse back against the pillows to recover.

"You see?" the nurse pointed out — unnecessarily. "You're just not strong enough to go anywhere. You've been sick too many times, apart from anything else. It's really taken it out of you. And you need the IVIG — it's not like you can take that with you!"

"I'm not staying," she insisted again. Then a figure just beyond the doorway caught her attention. "Clark! Clark, come here and tell…" She coughed. "Tell these people that I have to get out of here."

"It's okay, Lois." He came in, side-stepping to get out of the way of a technician leaving the room. "I've already told Dr Sutton that I'm taking you back to the Planet with me."

"My *strong* advice is that you stay here, Ms Lane," Sutton cautioned from behind Clark. "The IVIG still has several hours to run, and we need to be able to monitor you as well."

"Yeah, like that's gonna help." They'd had the last couple of hours to monitor her, and what good had that done?

"You said it didn't make any difference whether she had all the immunoglobin now or later." That was Clark again. "We'll find the other poison. Then you can treat her for that and continue the drip. Okay?"

"I fail to see how taking a seriously sick woman out of here when she needs medication and observation is going to do *any* good at all," Sutton said, his tone impatient. "If you expect me to help you, the least you could do in return is follow my advice."

Clark took a couple of steps closer to the bed — to her. "We appreciate everything you're doing to help, Doctor. We appreciate it very much. But *you* should appreciate that time is running out — and I want my partner alive."

Lois's heart twisted at that faint crack in his voice on the last word. Another reminder of how much he cared for her.

He was fighting for her, too — not for what he wanted, but what she wanted. Clark thought she should stay where she was. He'd thought that earlier, that morning, and she knew him well enough to be sure he still felt that way. But he was forcing the issue for her to be able to leave.

Her gaze holding his, she sent him a silent message of thanks before sitting up again. "I'm leaving. Where are my clothes? You can just call me when the mercury test is back."

"If you insist." The long-suffering tone in Sutton's voice made his views clear.

Ten minutes later, she was dressed, feeling far less nauseous than before, and was being wheeled along to the elevator by Clark. "Hospital policy," he said, in answer to her objection. "Don't worry — once we're out of here I'll get you back as quickly as possible. We have work to do."

Like that morning? More of the same?

Getting out of the hospital still seemed like the right thing to do. But, much as the doctors seemed to be running out of options on possible poisonous substances, they were running out of options on the investigation. They had no leads. Their list of suspects had been whittled down to zero. And she was out of ideas.

Where did they go from here?

***

By a little after eight-twenty, they were back at the Planet. Clark had flown the Jeep from the hospital to an alley just behind the entrance to the parking lot, and then driven it in from there. It saved some precious time.

Lois was looking a little better than she had a short while ago. The anti-nausea drugs and painkillers seemed to be helping. Her mood was despondent, though. Not that he could be at all surprised. From having thought that she was cured, she'd gone back to having a death sentence hanging over her head again.

If he was feeling devastated by it, god only knew what she was feeling.

"Come on." He touched her arm before opening his door. "Let's get upstairs."

She nodded. "Do they know we're back to square one?"

"I called Perry while I was waiting for you to get dressed. Henderson's team was still busy working so it's not as if anyone had to be called back."

"I don't understand." She gave him a puzzled look. "Why would they have stayed? When we thought I was going to be okay?"

He crossed to her side and slid his arm around her waist for support. "Because, even if you were going to be okay, someone still tried to kill you. And might try again."

"Oh. Right." She leaned against him as they walked. She was even weaker than she had been earlier. Maybe he should have tried to persuade her to stay at the hospital after all.

No. He needed her brainpower. One thing he'd learned over the last six months or so of working with Lois was that the two of them together were far better than either of them could ever be working alone.

Even if her brain was operating on considerably less than full power right now. Even if having to watch her in this state, able to do nothing at all for her, was tearing him apart.

"I've got some information," he told her as they got into the elevator. "I'll tell you everything once we have Perry and Henderson together."

"Information?"

"A possible lead. I don't know how useful it is," he cautioned on seeing her expression brighten. "It may be nothing. But it's worth checking out."

"It's a start," she said. "Anything's better than the nothing we have right now."

Well, except that they had already ruled out Kyle Griffin. However adamant Luthor was that his source was reliable, if Griffin had been out of state and in close police custody for the past two weeks, near enough, how could he possibly have been involved in this?

He brought Lois straight into Perry's office, ignoring the curious eyes of everyone still in the newsroom — and, for almost half-past eight, a lot of people were still around. As he'd hoped, Henderson followed them in.

"Lois, honey, I can't believe it! I really thought they'd found it!"

"Yeah, me too, Chief." She subsided into a chair. "Anyway, they haven't, so we've got work to do."

"My guys have been through all the files you pulled out, Lois," Henderson commented. "Everyone's checked out so far. Unfortunately, we don't even have a suspect."

"Well, maybe we do." Clark closed the door. "A… source contacted me while I was at the hospital. He insisted that his information was reliable. The name he had was Griffin."

"But we've already checked Kyle Griffin. He's in Miami." That was Henderson.

"Who is this source?" Not surprisingly, that was Lois.

Explaining about Luthor's role in the affair would take too long — assuming he wanted to explain it at all. Especially with a police inspector around. Not that he had any interest in protecting Luthor. The guy deserved to be in jail. But there were more urgent things right now than proving Luthor's criminality.

Catching Lois's gaze, he jerked his head slightly in Henderson's direction. "I'll tell you later." Unless she was still half out of it, she'd understand.

"Well, if you're sure that this source is reliable…" Henderson said. "Though I think it's a waste of time."

"Maybe, but it's all we've got!" Lois's tone was sharp. "Unless you have any other bright ideas? You've been here for hours while I was having needles and tubes poked into me in the hospital. And you don't have *anything* to show for it?"

Henderson raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. Lois's accusation was a little unfair, but Clark could understand it. After all, she was the one whose time was ticking away, minute by minute…

"Yeah, it's not like we've got anything else." Perry sounded almost despairing. "If Clark's source thinks Griffin's involved, then it's the best lead we've got."

"Okay, I'll get on to the guys in Miami again. And at the State Pen." Henderson sighed and headed to the door. "Oh, just for the record, Lois," he said before exiting, "my guys have checked out over a thousand names today. They're all on unpaid overtime right now. There isn't anyone in this building who doesn't want to see the bastard caught and the antidote found for you."

She sighed and grimaced, her temper clearly gone. Clark hated the hopeless expression which replaced it. "I know. I guess it's all just getting to me."

Moving to stand beside her, Clark laid his hand on her shoulder. With a faint choke which tugged at his heartstrings, she covered it with hers.

As he turned his hand over and their fingers intertwined, his breath hitched slightly. Which of them needed the comfort of their touch more?

***

"So, who's this source?"

Leaning against the conference table as Clark closed the door, Lois demanded the information she'd been itching to have from the moment Clark mentioned an unnamed source.

He looked a little uneasy. Surely he wasn't going to refuse to tell her?

"Well, he's Superman's source, really."

And that made a difference? She continued to look at him, silently insisting on an answer.

"Lex Luthor." His response was almost immediate, suggesting that he hadn't really intended to hold out on her.

Lex?

Lex was his unnamed source? Lex knew who might have tried to kill her?

"How on earth would he know?"

Clark sighed. She knew that sound. And that expression. It was the way he behaved when he thought she was wrong about something. Not that that happened very often. "Lois, Luthor's… He's not what you think he is. It's a long story and we don't have time to get into it now, but just believe me when I say that I think he's behind a lot of the crime in Metropolis — including murders."

She was dizzy again. Spacing out. That had to explain it. Otherwise… Well, there was just no way that Clark could have said…

"Lois, I know even with what I told you earlier the idea's never even occurred to you and it's difficult to take in. Later, if we have time —"

He halted abruptly. She knew why.

Time. It was the one thing they didn't have.

Ignoring the lump which had appeared in her throat again, she said impatiently, "Look, just get on with it. What did he tell you?"

He released a harsh breath. "Okay. It started this morning — you know I took the sample to LexLabs?"

"Yeah. You said you talked to Lex."

"He told me that he has… connections."

She listened in silence as Clark explained the rest. Lex offering to use his unspecified connections to obtain information. Lex passing on the information he'd acquired — and the fact that he wouldn't have told them what he knew had she actually been cured.

"So he's actually admitting that what you know about him is true?"

"Not exactly." Clark came to sit beside her at the table. "Well, yes, in a way, but he knows I can't do anything with it. He even said so. And even if I told Henderson where Griffin's name came from it'd mean nothing. Luthor could easily explain it — I don't know, paying someone to dig for information. A lawyer who's done criminal defence work, maybe."

"Yeah." Lex Luthor, some sort of criminal mastermind… It was as if her entire world was shifting on its axis. Only for the umpteenth time today.

"We'll have to investigate him." The statement of intent was automatic. Only when she'd said it did the implication hit her…

The chances of her being around to do it were slim to nothing. And, given the way Clark was so carefully avoiding looking at her, he knew it too.

She reached for his hand. "I'm sorry. I wish it was going to happen."

He turned to face her, agony in his eyes. But when he spoke, she could hear the determination in his voice. "I haven't given up yet, Lois. And you better not give up on me, either."

Give up? No. Accept the inevitable truth? That was different. But not a conversation for now.

Just as long as there was enough time, at the end, to say all she wanted to say…

"Okay, so Lex thinks it's Griffin. And Henderson's off checking with his contacts. And we're…" Back to business. It was safer. For now, anyway.

"We're what?" He blinked, as if he were having difficulty coping with the shift in conversation.

Precisely. "What *are* we doing?" She stood abruptly, regretting it immediately as she swayed again. Clark caught her hand and steadied her. "Clark, time's ticking away and we're doing *nothing*! There's got to be something we can do!"

He gave her a steady look, but his eyes looked haunted. "Do you want me to fly down to Miami and talk to Griffin personally?"

She had to stifle a giggle as an image of Superman holding Kyle Griffin aloft by his collar came to mind. "It's tempting."

"I'll do it if you want me to." He was completely serious. But it wouldn't work. Kyle Griffin had faced down FBI agents with semi- automatic weapons and still refused to provide information or give himself up, once she'd blown his cover and sent the police after him. He'd behaved as if he were willing to die rather than be arrested — and he nearly had been.

Regretfully, she shook her head. "Threatening Kyle Griffin doesn't get anyone anywhere. If he is behind it, we need to find who he was working with. Because we know one thing for sure: he wasn't the guy in my apartment this morning."

Who he was working with…

"Before… One of his associates was the one who finally talked to me," she said, excitement beginning to flow through her. "I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier… I should have but it's like I'm seeing everything through molasses… He's out of jail! I need to —"

Breaking off, she whirled to head for the door. And lost her balance again, tumbling down…

… to be caught by Clark. He spoke gently, reassuringly, but again she could hear the note of fear in his voice. He knew, as well as she did, that time was running out… that hope was ebbing away just as surely as darkness was falling outside. "Easy. Here. Sit. And tell me what you want — I'll get it."

"My rolodex." Breathing heavily, she subsided into the chair.

Her rolodex. Their earlier conversation came back to her with a rush, almost stealing her breath away. She hadn't even thought about making a will.

Of course, her stuff would go to her parents… but that wasn't necessarily what she wanted. There were things… personal possessions, special things… she wanted Clark to have. Mementoes.

Before she could think better of it, she grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and began to scribble. Even if she didn't get it witnessed, it would still count as an expression of her wishes.

"What are you doing?" The horror in Clark's voice made her fumble with the pen.

"Just… just making some notes."

"I wish you wouldn't." He wasn't fooled, of course, and she was hurting him again. Okay, he wasn't giving up on finding a solution, but she wasn't either. She was just… preparing for contingencies. Couldn't he see that?

She didn't say that, instead just shrugging and looking away.

His mouth compressed. "Here's your rolodex." Putting it down on the desk, he retreated to the wall, leaning against it, hands in his pockets, not looking at her.

"Thanks." She flicked through the index cards, looking for Benny Costello. Finding the contact information, she reached across for the phone. But her fingers refused to grip it, and then the card fell from her grasp. "Oh, sh — " She squeezed her eyes shut and stifled a sob.

"Here." A gentle hand lay on her shoulder, and the phone was moved to within her reach. And she hadn't even heard him move.

"So," he said as she was about to pick up the phone. "You think Griffin might have worked with this guy? Costello? Or that he might have told him what he was doing?"

"It's possible. I don't think he ever found out that Costello turned snitch. That's one thing about Kyle — he tends to think that everyone's as committed to what he's doing as he is. I think Benny said once that it's a family trait —"

"What did you say?" The urgency in his voice, as he interrupted her, made her stare at him.

"That he thinks everyone's —"

"After that!"

"Well, Costello thought that it runs in Griffin's family —"

"That's what I thought." He drew in a deep breath. "We need Henderson."

"Why?"

"I'll explain in a minute. Wait there."

As if she could go anywhere! She shifted her hand from the phone and sat back, closing her eyes as the world began to rotate again around her, slowly but still dizzyingly.

"What's this about, Clark?" Henderson's voice recalled her to the present, and she opened her eyes. Carefully. The world stayed still this time.

"We've been assuming that Griffin means Kyle Griffin," Clark said, leaning against the desk. His hand reached for hers, and she folded her fingers around it. He hadn't even looked at her. Had he even been aware that he'd done it?

"Yeah?" An arrested look came over Henderson's face. "Someone else?"

"Maybe. After all, you said it couldn't be Kyle. But what if it was —"

And, in that precise moment, she saw the answer too. "His father!"

"The toy guy?" Henderson looked faintly sceptical, but then he nodded. "I'll check him out. See if it fits."

"Kyle's father." The words came out softly. "For revenge?"

Clark shrugged. "I don't know. I don't even know the guy, remember. But it's worth checking."

It was. It was as least as good as any other idea they'd had that day.

***

How long was Henderson going to be? Hell, he should have offered to check the guy out himself. They'd spent far too much time today simply waiting…

And waiting gave them far too much time to think.

About what might be. And what might never be. And all the things left unsaid.

Dammit, Lois had even started writing some idiotic will-type document!

She was right, though.

With his free hand, he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. She was right. There was every chance that she wouldn't survive. And she had to plan for that.

*They* had to plan for that. Prepare for what was going to happen. He had to try to come to terms, somehow, with the fact that he was going to lose her.

How did anyone come to terms with something like that? How did people whose loved ones were terminally ill resign themselves to the knowledge that they would *die*? That one day, soon, they would no longer be there? Gone, just… absent, not there any more, as if they'd never existed?

How long would it take for him to forget what her voice sounded like? Or how it had felt to hold her in his arms? The way her hair swished around her when she turned her head?

<Oh god…>

Planning. Coming to terms with losing her. He had to…

If he was going to tell her everything that he wanted to tell her, before… then he needed to do it pretty damned soon.

Maybe, in fact, during one of these waiting times…

His hand tightened around hers, and she looked at him questioningly.

"Lois?"

The door opened abruptly. "I think you're right, Clark."

Henderson. And just when he actually *wanted* the waiting time. "It's him?"

"It's a distinct possibility. He doesn't have a record or anything. But the guy I had checking him out found that for a few months earlier this year he shared his business premises with a chemistry researcher. Who was doing a thesis on the effect of drugs on the nervous system. And his warehouse is less than half a mile from that mall Lois got the phone call from earlier." He indicated a sheet of computer printout in his hand.

"Bingo," Clark said softly. He felt Lois's fingers tighten around his, and heard her sharp intake of breath.

"That was quick — your guy must be even better than Jimmy," she said, a touch of admiration in her voice.

Henderson grinned. "I told you we have sources you can't access." Indicating a sheet of computer printout in his hand, he added, "Okay, so I'm going to get a search warrant and then I'll get a team together to get over there —"

That would take far too long. "We don't need a team. Or a search warrant." Clark stood, releasing Lois's hand. "Come on."

"What are you talking about?"

"Come," he repeated, more urgently this time. Then he hesitated. "I imagine it's pointless asking you to wait here, Lois?"

"You bet anything you like it is!" she exclaimed. "I don't care if all I can do is lean against a wall — I'm not missing this!"

"Look, I don't know — " Henderson began, but Clark caught hold of his arm.

"Don't argue. Just come with me."

Pausing only to catch Lois by the hand, he hurried the two of them out of the conference room and over to the stairwell. Once inside, he scooped Lois into his arms and dashed up the stairs, hearing Henderson running up behind them. On the roof, he lowered Lois to the ground and set himself in motion. When he stopped again, he noticed Henderson's expression. It was the first time he'd ever seen that man look stupefied.

Good. At least it meant there'd be no more arguments. He caught Lois up in his arms again, holding her against him with one arm, and then, with his free hand, caught Bill Henderson around the waist. They were airborne before the detective could protest.

***

It was dark when Clark set them down in an alley behind a small warehouse building. In the light shed by a nearby street-lamp, Bill Henderson was looking slightly green. Lois stifled a giggle.

"What?" Clark looked at her, frowning.

"I guess Henderson's never been flying with you before."

"Shut up, Lane," the inspector muttered, turning away.

"Sorry, Bill." Clark gripped the other man by his arm. "We really did need to get here quickly."

"Well, now that we're here, what do you propose?" The sardonic drawl was back. Obviously Super-flight-sickness didn't last very long.

"We get inside. See what we can find." Clark got in before she could, and even sounded impatient. The answer was obvious.

Henderson rolled his eyes. "Do you two know the first thing about the law? Or proper police procedure? I can't go in there without a search warrant."

"Fine. We'll just go in on our own." Why had Clark bothered to bring him, anyway?

"And what good will that do?" Henderson seemed angry. Not that it mattered This was a pointless argument. Why were they even wasting time on it?

She took a step towards the warehouse, Clark behind her.

"You're wasting your time," Henderson said. "Anything you find won't be admissible in court because you haven't got a *warrant*."

Clark whirled, his cape swinging behind him. "You think I care about a trial right now? You think that's why I brought you? Lois has *six hours*, Inspector. We're here because it's the only real lead we've had all day and there's just a chance we might be able to find out what he poisoned her with. Now, you can stay out here and worry about warrants all you like — but I'm going inside."

"Me too." Tossing her head, she took another step… and the dizziness was back. There was buzzing in her head. Everything was blurry… she was hot, so hot…

"Easy, Lois." Hands were on her shoulders, steadying her. "Take it easy. Deep breaths." The voice wasn't Clark's. The hands weren't, either.

And then Clark was in front of her, one arm around her waist, holding her to him, his other hand cupping her face. The pain in his voice cut through her. "Lois? I shouldn't have brought you… I'll find somewhere for you to sit down…"

She blinked, and her head cleared. The deep breaths she'd taken helped the dizziness. "I'm fine now."

The hands on her shoulders lifted. It had been Henderson who'd caught her. She turned to look at him. "Thanks, Bill." She wasn't able to keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Couldn't have you falling at my feet — it wouldn't do either of our reputations any good." He spoke in the sardonic drawl which was so familiar to her, but the concern in his eyes took her aback.

"Lois." It was Clark, his voice tender but with an edge of frantic worry that almost made her want to weep. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. These spells come and go." More frequently now, of course, but she wasn't telling him that. He was anxious enough as it was. Though he'd probably already noticed it for himself. "At least the drugs are helping."

"If we're breaking in, then, let's get on with it," Henderson said, striding ahead and towards the warehouse entrance. She shook her head; he was one man she'd probably never completely figure out. And yet unpredictable seemed to work for him.

The warehouse was locked. And yet the door opened easily under Clark's hand. Clark's *Super* hand, of course. He hadn't changed from the Suit. That was a bit strange — Superman breaking and entering? Maybe he'd forgotten. Should she remind him?

But then they were inside and, once Clark had snapped on the lights, looking around. It seemed to be a toymaker's factory, all right, with unfinished games, models and figurines lying around, and tools and parts everywhere, some stacked neatly on shelves and benches, and others scattered on tables. There were filing cabinets. Good. That was always her first choice for snooping.

Only right now she wasn't so sure she could make it over there.

"Bingo!"

Clark, who'd moved quickly around the interior, searching for things only he could see, had stopped and was staring at something. She began to move, to go to him, but her first step was wobbly.

A hand gripped her arm. "Lean on me."

"You're getting soft in your old age, Bill." She did need his support, though. Feeling this weak all the time was soul- destroying. Why had Clark even brought her? She was useless.

Henderson ignored her comment. "What've you got, Superman?"

Superman. Okay. Yes. Clark had to be called Superman when he was in the Suit, didn't he? Even if there was no-one else around.

SuperClark. Clarkman. She giggled.

"Lois, are you sure you're okay?"

No, he was definitely Clark. Even in that red and blue thing he was wearing. Only Clark looked at her with that half-worried, half-impatient expression.

"'m fine. What've -ou found?" Oh, great. Now she was slurring her words on top of everything else.

He looked at her again, apparently torn. She made an impatient gesture with her free hand.

"Photos." He indicated with his hand. "See what you think."

She and Henderson came close, and miraculously the haze in her brain cleared again. There were lots of photographs — five by sevens, and all of scenes she recognised.

Outside her apartment. The ER — outside and in. The Daily Planet. Even Suicide Slum.

And she was in every one of them.

On a gurney, being wheeled down the steps of her apartment building. Being put into the ambulance, Clark standing to the side, looking frantic. Clark sitting in the ER, head in his hands, his hair standing on end. Dr Sutton talking to Clark. The two of them getting out of a taxi outside her apartment. And many more.

She shivered. "I feel dirty."

Clark's gaze rested on her. "Yeah. Me too." He looked away then, but not before she caught sight of something in his eyes. There was obviously something he wasn't saying.

"What is it, Clark?"

His fists clenched. She reached out and touched his arm. The Spandex under her fingers felt so different from the fabric of his work suit.

"I should have seen him." Raw anger in his voice, and all directed at himself. "This bastard's been following us around *all day*. I should have seen him!"

"Telephoto lens." Henderson was bending over the photos. "He could have been hidden a couple of hundred feet away."

"I still should have seen him! Heard the shutter closing… something!"

"You were focused on me." It wasn't his fault. He couldn't do everything, and he'd had to give so much concentration to looking after her. "Anyway, what matters is that we've found him."

"Yeah." Henderson already had his cellphone out. "I'll get some backup over here, and see what the boys in the precinct can do about getting a warrant. Better at least try to get the paperwork straight."

They'd found him.

She leaned back against the table, seeking support from its solidity.

Edwin Griffin. Kyle Griffin's father. Indulging in revenge for what she'd done to his son? It had to be that; she'd never had any dealings with Griffin Senior. Strange that he'd waited so long to come after her, but after her five years in the news reporting business she'd learned not to question the vagaries of human nature. People were just strange. It was that simple.

"We just need to find some clue as to what he used on you," Clark was saying. "There has to be *something*…"

"Well, well. If it isn't Ms Lane and friends."

She hadn't heard the door opening. Whirling around, she saw a man standing there, illuminated by the street light behind. A man of at least sixty, with a shock of white hair, receding at the front, and a bushy white moustache, and wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an old cardigan. He looked like somebody's grandfather.

*This* was the cunning, diabolical fiend who had plotted the most macabre attempt on her life ever? This old man?

"Edwin Griffin, I presume." Clark's voice was cold, harsher than she'd ever heard him speak before, as Clark or as Superman.

Not that she could blame him. If she were capable of speech right now, instead of near-silenced by shock and beginning to shake again…

But this was good. Not only did she know for a fact *who* had done this to her — and been able to look him in the eye — but now they'd finally find out what he'd given her.

As long as it wasn't too late for the effects to be reversed… as long as it was still soon enough to save her life…

"You're an even better investigator than I thought, Ms Lane." Griffin strolled into the warehouse. "How did you figure it out? I didn't think I'd left any clues. Though I suppose it was Superman, not you."

"Teamwork, Mr Griffin." Suddenly, Clark was standing behind the toymaker, holding his arms securely.

Henderson walked over, holding out his badge. "You're under arrest. For attempted murder, to start with. You'll have your rights read as soon as my other officers get here. For now, just start talking and *maybe* the charge won't be first-degree murder."

Griffin laughed aloud. "You think it's going to be that easy? That I'll just tell you what she's got inside her?"

"You'd better, if you know what's good for you." By the way Griffin's body jerked, it was obvious that Clark had tightened his grip on the man as he spoke.

"Like I said," Henderson drawled, "if you tell us and Ms Lane lives, the charge is just attempted murder, you get to plead good behaviour in court and you get a few years. If you don't co- operate and Ms Lane dies, it's a murder rap and you're facing the electric chair."

"At my age?" Griffin seemed only amused. "What's a few years either way? Nah. I'd rather die knowing that reporter-bitch is safely six feet under."

Chill was seeping through Lois. She felt herself trembling and had to grip the work-bench behind her for support.

Griffin wasn't going to tell them.

All day, she'd been pinning her hopes on being able to find out who her attacker was, so they could make him tell them what the poison was. They'd found the attacker… and he was refusing to talk.

Clark was holding him suspended off the floor now, arms pinned behind his back. Henderson was reminding him again of the difference in penalties between murder and attempted murder. It didn't seem to be making any difference.

They'd found the man who wanted her dead… and she was still going to die.

It was just not fair. It was *so* unfair!

"What was it?" she shouted. "You bastard, what did you give me?"

Anger wouldn't work. Even as she said it, she was kicking herself for giving away how she was feeling. And the self-satisfied grin on Griffin's face showed her, as if she needed to have it rubbed in, just how stupid yelling at him had been.

But there might be another way…

She gripped the bench more tightly. The last thing right now she wanted was to crumple in an undignified heap to the floor.

"You've had your fun. You've baffled doctors and scientists across Metropolis. You've won. I'm dying." Maybe, if she bluffed a little, it might work… though, god knew, it wasn't really a bluff. "It's already too late. You should know that. There's less than six hours left. You have to know that it's already irreversible. Even if we know what it is, it's too late for an antidote to do its job. You've won. So why not show us how clever you are?"

Griffin laughed again. And then a gunshot rang out.

***

The sound reverberated inside the small warehouse. Even before the first echo had started, Clark was swinging around, searching for the gunman.

What was *wrong* with him today? Someone had made it to the door and he hadn't heard a thing?

The man was there. Standing in the doorway, his weapon jerking backwards slightly from the recoil.

Speed. Drop Griffin — Henderson would make sure he didn't get away. Run — fly -to the door. Grab the gunman. Find out what he was doing here.

The man didn't even have time to lower his gun before he was held captive. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"Superman." Henderson's grim tone made him look across, back to where he'd let Griffin fall. The inspector was kneeling beside the toymaker — Lois's would-be murderer. And he could see a tiny red mark on the man's forehead. "He's dead."

Dead.

Without telling them what he'd given Lois.

Relief — the relief that had been swelling inside him ever since Henderson had agreed with him that Edwin Griffin could be their man — died a cold, instant death. And in its place he was left with the same tearing despair he'd lived with ever since Dr Sutton had told him about the injection. The poison.

Despair which was eating away at him, gnawing at his insides. They had less than six hours. They'd *finally* got the one clue that could lead them to a cure. And now…

And now they had nothing. Again. And she only had six hours.

They'd been so close to finding out what she'd been given. Griffin would have told them. One way or another, he'd have revealed it — either because of Lois's challenge or because he'd have terrified the man into talking. Now he never would. His secret had died with him.

Just as Lois would die, within hours.

He turned back to Griffin's murderer and with one hand raised the man several feet off the ground, holding him aloft, staring up at him with narrowed eyes. Rage boiled inside him, a fiery, burning fury which threatened to burn out of control. Kill him, instinct screamed. Break his neck — it would take less than a second, one tiny snap, and he would be lying lifeless on the floor. Or burn him. One dart of heat vision would suffice. It was what he deserved — all he deserved. After all, in that single moment, the second it had taken to fire a bullet, this complete stranger had killed all hope of saving Lois's life.

Lois was dead, as good as if the gunman had killed her himself.

"No, Superman!" Lois's voice, faint, shaky, filtered through the red mist of rage. He blinked. Why was she…? This guy, whoever he was, had destroyed any chance…

"Let him go, Superman."

Henderson was beside him. He glanced at the cop; despite the man's calm tone, the inspector was coldly angry. Henderson understood. He knew what the intruder had done. He had to understand why…

He closed his eyes. Killing this piece of dirt wasn't the answer.

Slowly, he lowered his arm, letting the man drop to the ground. Henderson grabbed the gun as he did so — somehow, the man didn't seem to struggle to hold onto it — and then snapped handcuffs on.

"ID?" The word was barked out.

The man said nothing. Clark shook him. "Answer the question."

"Got none on me." It was said sulkily.

"Never mind. We'll just identify him down at the precinct." Henderson gave Griffin's murderer a disgusted glare and began to walk away. Then, as if it were an afterthought, he looked back and added, "Why'd you kill him?"

Again, no answer. And again, Clark tightened his grip on the man's collar and shook him. Still nothing. "You know, I can hold you higher," Clark said, deliberately keeping his voice light. "Say, right up at the ceiling. I've often wondered what happens to humans when they fall from that sort of height."

"Look, I…" The man wriggled, trying to free himself, though he was wasting his time. Clark raised his arm a few inches, and suddenly his captive was dancing on air again. "I was paid, okay?" he shouted, terror in every syllable.

"Who by?" Henderson approached again, his expression harsh.

"I… it was through a friend of a friend, right? I don't even know who put up the money. Doesn't matter to me as long as I get paid."

"Not good enough," Clark said, and he floated upwards a few feet. "Try harder."

"I'm telling you the truth! All I know is someone wanted this guy out of the picture. Look, I think it was revenge or something. Seems this guy messed with a friend of… of the guy who wanted him seen to. That's all I know!"

Someone had hired him… someone who wanted revenge for something done to a friend… It couldn't be, surely?

But this scum wasn't important right now. Lois was. Clark let his captive fall to the ground, uncaring that the man tumbled into a heap.

She was still leaning against the bench where he'd left her. Her face was so pale, and her eyes…

The bleakness in them told her that she knew as well as he did that there was no hope. Griffin had been their last chance, and he was dead.

"Lois." His voice broke on the word, and he gathered her into his arms.

"It's hopeless." The words were choked against his shoulder. "Clark, it's all over…"

No. *No*!

It wasn't over. It couldn't be. Not while she was still alive… Not while there was breath in her body, they weren't giving up.

If he had to turn this place — and Griffin's home — upside down, he would do it. There had to be something. A clue. Some tiny, insignificant piece of information that would tell them what she'd been poisoned with. And he was going to find it. *Had* to find it.

He'd let her down too many times today already — and that was stopping right now.

He couldn't lose her. Couldn't… it'd be like losing a piece of himself.

So. Deep breath. They'd lost Griffin. But he still had places to search.

First, though, Lois needed him. She was still clinging to him, still sobbing.

"Lois." He released her and cupped her face between his hands. "We're not giving up yet. Okay?"

She took a shuddering breath and looked at him. She was pale. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. She trembled beneath his palms. But the strength, the determination, were returning. And, with it, his own. "Okay."

About to release her, he hesitated for a moment, then brushed his lips lightly across hers. "That's my Lois. Okay, let's see what I can find."

***

Once again, she'd just given up. Once again, he'd had to remind her that Lois Lane *never* just gave up.

Okay, so Griffin was dead — and why had that happened, anyway? Who would have wanted him dead? It didn't seem to make sense. Or maybe Griffin wasn't the person behind it all after all. Maybe he was just part of the plot, and he'd been killed to prevent him revealing it all?

Whatever. Okay, he was dead, so he couldn't help them. What about the guy who'd killed him?

Leaning against the counter, she made her way to where Henderson was busy searching the gunman. "Who is he?"

"No idea. He said he hasn't any ID, and he was telling the truth." Henderson glanced up at her. "I don't think he's going to be any use to us. Someone paid him to kill Griffin and he's claiming he doesn't know who."

"To stop Griffin telling us who he was working for?"

Henderson frowned. "Now there's a thought that hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure, though. Guess we can't assume he was working alone."

So there still could be someone who knew what she'd been poisoned with. There was still hope.

Clark was turning the warehouse upside down. All she could see was a blur, but the blur was moving things, shoving them aside, piling them up on the floor, going through drawers and cabinets. If there was anything here to find, he'd find it.

She moved, and her foot kicked against something. She looked down. A trash can. Which seemed to have ash in it. She bent — slowly — to get a better look.

"Something's been burnt in here."

Henderson came to her side. "I'll get Forensic to look at that."

"Smells like plastic to me." That was Clark. Only a second earlier, he'd been at the other side of the room. "It's too far burned for me to recognise anything else, though. Either by sight or smell."

"What's this?" There was something behind the bin. She'd moved back to rest against the counter and it had caught her eye.

"Don't touch!" Clark was blocking the area with his body. "Got an evidence bag or something like that, Bill?"

"In my car. But since you didn't give me time to get it…" The inspector shrugged.

Clark reached inside his cape, producing a handkerchief. Lois blinked. Just where did he keep things like that? Then he bent to pick up whatever it was she'd seen.

"What is it?" Impatient, she couldn't wait until he showed her.

"A vial." He raised his head and turned to look at her. Excitement glowed from his face. "This could be it, Lois! Why else would a toymaker have a vial? It had to have had the poison in it."

"Makes sense." Henderson straightened, a smile lightening his dour features. "Good job, Lois."

She stared at the tiny glass container Clark was holding so carefully, the handkerchief wrapped around it. Could this really be it? The big breakthrough?

Her heart almost stopped beating, and she couldn't take her eyes off it. Did she dare to hope? She'd already had hopes dashed so many times before. Could she afford to be optimistic one more time?

"I'm taking this straight to the hospital." Clark was already walking towards the door, his cape swishing behind him. "Lois, I'll be back for you in a few minutes. Bill…"

"I'll take care of her. And that sounds like my back-up team coming now, anyway." Siren were definitely audible in the distance, along with the sonic boom of Clark's take-off.

Lois glared at Henderson. "I don't need taking care of."

"Yeah, right, Lois." He gave her a smile before turning away to meet the swarm of cops entering the warehouse. For once, though, the smile had been completely without mockery or sarcasm.

She shook her head. Henderson was definitely going soft in his old age.

***

The vial delivered, Clark flew back to the warehouse. Lois would be waiting for him.

Lois, who was going to live after all, now that they'd found Griffin's vial. The break they'd been waiting, praying for.

She'd be as excited as he was. He'd grab her, spin her around, hug her tightly and tell her how glad he was that she was going to be okay. How happy, how relieved he felt that he wasn't going to lose her after all.

Well, maybe he wouldn't spin her around. She was still having dizzy spells, after all. And it wasn't that long since she'd been sick.

She was going to *live*.

After the crushing despair of seeing Griffin killed before he could tell her what he'd used — assuming he actually would have told them — now there was new hope. Concrete hope, at last.

Tomorrow, or in a couple of days' time, once the effects of the poison had worn off and she was well again, everything would be back to normal. *She'd* be back to normal.

Though maybe not everything would be as it was before. After all, some things had changed. Lois knew who he was, for starters. And they'd got closer today — much closer. Even if she did try to retreat again, she couldn't deny everything they'd been to each other today. She couldn't pretend that she hadn't leaned on him the way she had, or that they hadn't both revealed that they cared.

Today, they'd been much more than partners. Much more than friends.

And he'd discovered just how far he'd be prepared to go for the woman he loved. Just what he'd be prepared to do to anyone who hurt the woman he loved…

Wait a second…

<Revenge… this guy messed with a friend of his…>

Could it *possibly* be…?

That was something for later. The warehouse was below now, surrounded by police cruisers, their lights flashing, and an ambulance. He dropped to the ground and hurried inside.

Griffin was gone, a white chalk outline remaining where his body had been. And his murderer, the gunman, was also missing. They weren't important. Lois was.

It took only a second to pinpoint her heartbeat. And there she was, sitting on a chair near the rear of the warehouse. Looking tired, still, but for the first time since they'd figured out that there was a second poison he could see hope in her eyes.

"Lois." In an instant, he was by her side.

"C — Superman!" She smiled up at him. Good. She remembered that he needed to be Superman in the Suit.

"The vial's with Dr Sutton. He said he'd rush it to the lab. So, can I take you back to the Planet?"

She stood up; he held out his hand to help her — and just to hold her, really. "Is Clark coming back too?" Her gaze held his.

"Very soon. We just have something to do first." He glanced around, looking for Henderson. The detective was outside, apparently giving instructions to his colleagues. It didn't look like he was going anywhere soon. So there was time to take Lois back first.

"Come on." He bent and scooped her up. "Though I'm not sure I shouldn't be taking you home. Let you get some rest."

She snuggled against him, winding her arms around his neck. "I'd rather be in the newsroom. I want to wait for Clark, anyway."

They were in the air now, away from anyone in hearing distance. "I won't be long. I just need to talk to Henderson again."

Under normal circumstances, there was no way that Lois would have let him get away with excluding her. Or not explaining exactly what it was he wanted to discuss with Henderson — though he'd tell her anyway later. That she did neither was yet another sign — as if it was needed — of how sick she was feeling.

He wrapped his arms more tightly around her, and dipped his head to drop a kiss on her forehead. "When you're feeling better, how about we ask Perry for a couple of days off? I'll take you anywhere in the world you'd like to go for a vacation," he promised.

She shifted a little, tilting her face towards his. "That sounds… great." She sighed slightly, then brushed her lips against his chin. "You're such a wonderful friend, Clark…"

So was she. And she was exhausted, far too weary and sick to be up and about, working. But she didn't want to go to her apartment and it was more than his life was worth to suggest that she go back to the hospital until Sutton called with the good news.

"Here we are." Landing on the roof of the Planet, he lowered her to the ground, but kept his arm firmly around her waist. "Come on — I'll walk you down to the newsroom."

She leaned in to him, sliding her arm around him underneath his cape. "If I had the energy, I'd tell you just to go and do what you have to do. But…" She trailed off with a half-cough, then continued, "I don't think I can make it down on my own."

"That's okay." He hugged her against him. "Come on, partner."

Down in the still-busy newsroom, Perry hurried over, looking anxious. "Superman! Is Lois all right?"

"She's just tired." Clark allowed his boss to take Lois from him. It was a good reminder that he had to keep up the act. Two people finding out his secret was more than enough for one day. "Clark will be back soon. Lois, if there's anything else I can do, you know how to get hold of me."

Leaning against Perry and breathing shallowly, Lois nodded faintly. "Thanks, Superman."

The vial. Just keep thinking about the vial. She'd be cured soon. And then he wouldn't have to see her like this ever again. He wouldn't torture himself with the knowledge that he could do nothing to help her.

He had things to do. The sooner he got back to the warehouse, the sooner he'd be able to go back to Lois.

Henderson was still there, looking tired now but still missing nothing as he directed officers, barked out orders and seemed to keep every inch of the area, now marked as a crime scene, under his surveillance. A faint twitch of one eyebrow was the only sign he gave that he noticed Clark's return, though several nearby cops did double-takes or gave him respectful glances.

"Inspector? Do you have a minute?"

Henderson strode away from his officers and came over. Clark turned so that they were facing away from everyone else on the scene.

"I didn't expect to see you back here," the inspector murmured. "Thought you'd be… busy… elsewhere."

"She's at the Planet — Perry's looking after her. There's nothing we can do until the hospital calls again." He sighed, and pushed aside the image of Lois's tired, sick face. She was going to be fine. Once the residue in that vial got analysed and they knew what else she'd been poisoned with…

"One of my guys found a set of keys — Yale and mortice locks. We'll have them checked out, but my guess is they're for Lois's apartment."

"So that's how he got in." Anger gripped him again. And how had Griffin managed to get hold of Lois's keys to copy them?

"Looks like it. Though how he got the keys is another question. I'll have people talk to Lois's building super — see whether he could have got copies that way. Course, Lois could just have left her purse unattended somewhere, like at work or in a restaurant — that happens. Women seem to think that as long as it's under their chair or on the seat next to them it's perfectly safe." The detective rolled his eyes.

Possibly — though Lois usually was very careful with her belongings. "Did the guy who killed Griffin say anything useful?"

Henderson shook his head. "Not yet. He's insisting he doesn't know who hired him. We'll interrogate him down at the precinct, but if he's telling the truth…" He raised one shoulder in a faint shrug.

"I think I might know who hired him."

"Oh? There something you've not been telling me?"

Yes, but how did he start to explain it now? "It's probably easier if… Come with me. Unless there's anything urgent you have to finish up here?"

"Nah, it's under control." The detective's expression was wary. "Do I *have* to fly with you again?"

"It'll be better this time," Clark promised with a grin. "Last time I had two of you, and I had to be careful of Lois…"

"So I didn't matter. I get it." Henderson's eyebrows crawled up to his hairline.

"Did I say that?" Superman did not roll his eyes. Clark stopped himself just in time. "Come on." In one smooth movement, he'd scooped the detective up, holding him securely as he began to drift upwards.

"Mind telling me where we're going this time?"

"You mean you don't like surprises, Inspector? Where's your sense of adventure?"

"They train it out of us at police academy." Henderson's tone was so dry Clark had to glance at him to work out how serious he was.

"I think I know who set up the hit, but it's not going to be easy to get proof. I need to try an experiment, and it'd help if you were around in case it works."

Henderson didn't question him any more, which was surprising. Though maybe not; he probably would have insisted on knowing what Clark Kent had in mind, but the detective had generally trusted Superman. In fact, he'd been one of the few police officers in Metropolis who hadn't turned against Superman during the heatwave incident. He hadn't seen much of Henderson during that time. Someone had told him afterwards that the detective had been a vociferous opponent of the injunction against Superman, and had actually refused a direct order to be part of the arrest squad.

"We're here," he said a few moments later.

Henderson did a double-take. "Lex Towers?"

"Yes. I'm going to leave you out on the penthouse balcony, okay? Sorry, I know it's going to be cold out here, but I need you within earshot."

"This isn't cold. Cold is when you're called out to a street killing in the Slum at three am in February when it's twenty below freezing."

"Right." A grin tugged at his lips. It was probably the first time he'd felt like laughing today. Under cover of darkness, Clark set the Inspector down at the edge of the balcony. "Okay, just listen. And knock a couple of times if you want me to bring you in."

He strode to the glass door and rapped hard on it. Luthor was inside, alone in the large office; he'd already seen that as they'd approached. A second or two later, the man himself appeared in front of the window. He stared at his visitor for a moment, then reached for the control. The window slid open.

"Superman. You have news?"

"The tip you gave me."

"Yes? You found him? The man who tried to kill her?" Luthor's expression changed suddenly, from bland concern to barely- suppressed excitement.

"I think you did." Without even trying, his tone had become icy. Steely. "I think you decided to deal with him yourself."

Luthor frowned. "I'm not sure that I know what you're talking about, Superman."

He kept his gaze fixed on Luthor. "I think you do. You sent a hitman after him."

Luthor laughed. "What strange ideas you get. I merely passed on some information to you that might help to identify the person who tried to kill Lois. Now you think I — what? Worked out who this Griffin person was and sent a hitman after him? Why would I want the man dead if he's the only person who knows what Lois was poisoned with?"

"Too late. He is dead."

"What?" Luthor paled. He even took a step backwards. "That can't be. He wasn't supposed to…"

"Who?" Clark pounced. "Not supposed to do what? Kill Griffin?"

Luthor ran a hand through his immaculately-groomed hair, dishevelling it. "I just wanted him found. Lois clearly wasn't up to the job, and I didn't have a lot of faith in Kent or in the competence of the police. So I set someone onto the task of finding the man. He was supposed to bring him to me."

"Bring him to you? Not take the information to the police? So that we could find out what Lois was poisoned with and cure her?"

"Well, of course that was my aim! I was going to get LexLabs to come up with an antidote once the old man told me what he used."

So that Luthor himself would get the credit for saving Lois's life. Typical. "You hired a hitman. What did you think he was going to do?"

"The speciality I hired was the ability to piece together clues and come up with a name. An individual. And then to find that individual and bring him to me."

"And so you caused his death. And probably made sure of Lois's." Clark looked at Luthor again, a hard stare of utter contempt, before turning towards the balcony in response to the sound he'd just heard. "Heard enough, Inspector?"

The lean figure of Inspector Henderson strolled in from the balcony. "Yes, I have. Lex Luthor, I'm arresting you for procuring a murder and attempting to conceal a crime."

***

Clark was taking a long time. He'd said he wouldn't be long. Had he told her what he was doing? Lois frowned. Maybe… she couldn't seem to remember it, though.

"Here you go, Lois."

She raised her head from where she'd been resting it on her desk. Just resting. After all, there wasn't anything else for her to do right now. Except wait — wait for Clark, wait for Dr Sutton.

Wait for someone to save her from dying.

'S funny. Usually, she'd be saving herself. Didn't need anyone else to save her.

Well, except Superman.

That was what she usually did. Wasn't it? "Help, Superman."

"What? Lois, are you…? Should I call someone for you?"

That wasn't Superman. Or Clark. SuperClark. She blinked and tried to focus through bleary eyes. "Perry. Sorry. Did I… I must have dozed off."

His weathered face was full of concern. "Are you sure you're okay? Well, I mean as okay as you can be in the circumstances… is there anything I can do?"

"No." She shook her head slightly and regretted it immediately. Dizziness was not fun. "I'm okay. I just… god, I just want it all to be over! You know?"

"I know." His hand pressed on her shoulder for a moment. "Here. I sent someone out for camomile tea — didn't think coffee would be all that good for you right now…"

Oh, that was sweet. And he was right — despite the anti-nausea drugs, even the mention of coffee made her stomach roil. "Thanks, Perry."

It was even in a takeout container with a sippy-cup top. Probably just as well. If he'd given her a standard mug she'd probably have slopped it all over the place.

As she reached for the drink, her phone rang. "Oh." Diverting her hand from its original task took some thought. But she made it to the receiver and even managed to grip the phone, only to drop it before bringing it to her ear.

"Let me." Perry had picked up the phone. "Perry White, Daily Planet." A pause. "She's not able to come to the phone right now. Can I take a… Oh, I see." He halted abruptly and looked at her. "Lois, it's Dr Sutton."

Everything around her seemed to go still. This was it. He was calling to tell her that he knew what was wrong with her. That they finally knew what was inside her, killing her. That all she had to do was come in to the hospital and they could cure her.

Finally.

Clark. Where was Clark? She needed Clark. He should be here…

"Clark…"

She didn't realise that she'd murmured his name until Perry patted her shoulder again. "He'll be back soon. Superman said so, didn't he?" He squeezed her arm gently, then said, "You up to talking to Sutton?"

"Yes." Of course she was.

"Here, then." Perry was holding the receiver for her.

"Lois Lane. Dr Sutton, you've got news?"

"I do." The by-now familiar voice of the ER doctor came on the line. "I'm sorry, Ms Lane. It's not the news you were hoping for."

What? But… It had to be. Her life was depending on it… "Dr Sutton, the vial…"

"I'm sorry, Ms Lane, but I'm afraid the vial revealed no more than we already knew. Mr Griffin seems to have developed — or had someone else develop — an antibody designed to attack the myelin in the nervous system and thus mimic the symptoms of Guillain- Barré syndrome. I have to say that our pathologists are fascinated —"

"Can you get to the point, please, Doctor?" She could feel herself shaking once more. Trembling. They'd failed. Again. The vial hadn't given them any answers at all.

"We're no further forward. There were no traces of any other substance in that vial, so we don't know what else was used. We're no closer to identifying what you were poisoned with."

"Damn!" The expletive slipped out. She just didn't seem to have any control over her emotions at all. Either she was flying into rages, or she was weeping uncontrollably. Or falling asleep, of course.

She felt Perry's hand on hers. Trying to give her any comfort he could. Glancing in his direction, she saw his worried expression.

"Please try to remember, Ms Lane. Are you sure that there was only one injection?"

She took a couple of steadying breaths before answering. "I only remember one jab. I… I don't think I was so far out of it that I'd have missed a second."

"All right." Sutton apparently did have a bedside manner after all. His tone was calm, soothing. "Is there any possibility that something could have been administered orally?"

"Huh?" She should have been able to follow what he'd said, but the words just seemed to flow above her head as if they were in a foreign language. What the hell was happening to her brain?

"Is it possible that he could have made you swallow something?"

"No." Now, that she was sure of. Closing her eyes for a moment, she tried to focus.

"Okay. So at least we know we're not leaving lines of enquiry unaddressed." She heard Sutton draw breath heavily. "Well, all we can do for now is wait for the mercury test to come back and hope that that's positive."

"And if it's not…?" Cold dread filled her at the thought of the answer she'd get.

"If it's not…" He paused for a moment. "Then we think again. But I have to be honest with you, Ms Lane… it won't be looking good at that stage."

Okay, so much for the bedside manner. But it was only what she'd expected to hear, after all. "Then we'd better hope that it is mercury."

Hope. That was all she had. Yet something in her gut was already telling her that this wasn't going to be the answer either.

"Yes. It's just a pity the police haven't been able to find the hypodermic he used. That would answer all our questions."

The hypodermic. Yeah. Hadn't Henderson said they'd been looking for it? Why couldn't she remember…

"Anyway, I just wanted to update you. I'll get in touch again as soon as we know about the mercury test. Goodbye for now."

And she was left with the dial tone buzzing in her ear.

"No… no…" All that hope — dashed once more. She was still dying.

Something made a clattering sound, and she looked down. It was the phone. It must have slipped from her hand.

"Lois?" A warm hand squeezed her shoulder. "Sorry I was so long."

Clark. Back. And now she had to tell him…

Slowly, she turned. He was smiling at her, a warm, caring, *loving* smile. "You'll enjoy this. Henderson just arrested…" He trailed off. "What's wrong?"

"She just had a call from the doc." Perry was still there. She hadn't realised… "Wasn't good news, Clark."

"What?" His face paled again. He came to perch on the edge of her desk and took her shoulders gently in his. "What happened, Lois?"

"I'll leave you two to it. Call me if you need me." Perry moved away.

In a voice as dead as she was feeling inside, Lois repeated as much as she could remember of the phone conversation. He seemed unable to shift his gaze from her. And when she'd finished, he was silent.

For a long moment, he just sat and looked at her. And then, with an inarticulate sound, he gathered her up and held her cradled against him, her head pressed to his chest. She subsided into his warm, welcoming embrace, and he buried his face in her hair, his arms tightly around her.

Safe. Protected. Cherished.

Yet even Clark's embrace couldn't keep the harsh truth away. She was still dying, with even less hope of survival than before. Not much more than five hours to go, and hope was so thin on the ground.

Someone was shaking. Her? Or him?

He drew back, and there was damp on her cheeks and against her hair. Her tears… and his. Silvery streaks were visible on his face.

With a shaky hand, she reached out to brush them away. He caught her fingers and brought them to his lips, kissing them before wrapping his own fingers around them.

"Lois… god, Lois, I really thought we'd found it!"

"Me too." Her voice trembled, and she stopped to take a steadying breath. "He said… if only the police had found the hypodermic…"

"The hypodermic — " He broke off, an arrested look on his face. "I didn't look… once we found the vial, I thought…" He took his arms from around her. Suddenly, it was very cold.

"Look." He stood. "I'm going to go back to the warehouse. I know Henderson's men are going over it with a fine-toothed comb. But still, I might be able to find something… if not the hypodermic, then *some* clue. Okay?"

It was a good idea. But at the same time…

"You said you wouldn't leave me…"

He caught her hands, holding them between his. "I know, Lois. But if there's a chance that I could find something… It won't take me long. And then I'll be back." He hesitated, then added, "I'd take you, but I don't think you're well enough to hang around there. It's cold and you'd only be sitting waiting for me to finish."

He was right. That didn't make it any better.

It wasn't even as if Clark could do anything by being with her, except *be* with her. And he was right. With all his powers, he might be able to find something at the warehouse. It made perfect sense for him to go.

But time was ticking away. Faster and faster all the time. She had so little time left, and she wanted to spend it with him. Even if all she could do was curl up in his arms and let him hold her.

Lie in his arms until she slipped away. That sounded so tempting… If she had no choice but to die, that was how she wanted to go.

She freed her hands from his and gave him a little wave. "Go. Come back soon."

"I will." He hesitated, then leaned forward and brushed his lips across hers. Then, as he began to walk away, he turned back and added, "I seem to be doing that a lot today."

She touched her fingers to her lips. "I don't mind." And she didn't. Not at all. Quite the opposite.

She craved it — his touch, his embrace, his kiss. Needed it — all of it. Clark, all the ways he touched her, was the only thing holding her together today.

And the kissing… Too late to discover how he could make her feel, how much she wanted to explore him, all of him, learn how much more exciting his kisses could be. Far too late.

"I'll be back soon." And he was gone.

And she was alone again with the reality of impending death. Everything she was going to lose, far sooner than she was ready. And her own impotence in the face of it.

How useless was she? What was the point of her being around at all? Clark couldn't take her with him because he'd have to concentrate on making sure she was all right instead of doing the searching he needed to do. At the hospital, lab testers were busy trying to find out whether she'd been poisoned with mercury. Henderson had forensic people searching the warehouse for clues. All those people, working hard, long after their normal workday should have ended, trying to help her.

Meanwhile, she could do nothing to help herself.

Mercury. The last chance. Obviously Dr Sutton thought her symptoms, or some of them anyway, matched mercury poisoning. She pulled her keyboard over and called up an internet window on her computer.

Effects of mercury poisoning. Amazing how easy it was to find that sort of information online. And she was always so impressed when Jimmy came up with stuff? If only she'd known.

Well, that looked familiar. Nausea. Abdominal pain. But those other symptoms — burning pain, things she didn't really want to think about — weren't.

The more she read, the less likely it looked.

But, if it wasn't mercury, then what was it? And was there any hope at all of finding out before time ran out?

***

He wasn't even managing to hold it together in front of Lois any more.

Strange to be grateful for a task which took him away from her, especially at this late stage, when the time they had left was so short and when he didn't want to lose one precious moment with her. But if he'd stayed one second longer he'd have been weeping like a baby.

There'd be plenty of time to cry… after.

For now, there was work to do. And then Lois to comfort.

The warehouse. The hypodermic. Why hadn't he searched it more thoroughly earlier? They'd found the vial and, foolishly, he'd assumed that was it. That they'd found the missing clue. The vital piece of evidence as to what Lois had been given.

He'd felt so proud of himself, too. So proud of *them*. And proud, too, of what he'd achieved with Luthor.

So much for hubris.

Henderson had been delighted with the Luthor coup. Turned out the detective had been quietly working away on associating Lex Luthor with numerous crimes for quite some time. He had enough for an indictment on various counts of money laundering, conspiracy, illegal arms dealing and so on, but this one, complicity in murder and actually admitted to by the man himself, had been too good to resist.

Luthor was now in a police cell, awaiting full charges and a lawyer, neither of which would be delivered until the morning. That, at least, felt good.

One minor success in a day full of failures.

Luthor in jail; Lois dying. Put that way… No, it didn't feel so good.

The forensic team paid little attention to him as he returned. They had a job to do and he'd been there earlier anyway. So he was able to walk around, pause, scan, move, scan again uninterrupted. The trash can that had been next to where they'd found the vial was gone; one officer confirmed that it had been taken to the lab for analysis. That made sense. In fact, on thinking about it, it was very likely that Griffin had been burning the evidence there. The hypodermic. His gloves. That would explain the plastic smell.

Another dead end.

He nodded to one of the team. "I think he disposed of what he used in the trash can that was here. We found a vial next to it."

The man nodded. "Okay. We can dust down the countertop here in case anything got spilt."

Spilt… Clark focused on the countertop, and then the floor. Nothing on the top. No smells, no spilt liquid, no indication that anything had been mopped up. Just one or two flakes of something metallic. On the floor, more of the flakes. No doubt shavings from one of the models lying around the place.

Nothing that would help Lois. Yet another dead end.

With a heavy heart, he returned to the Planet.

***

Lois ran her fingertips over the surface of her desk and tried to ignore the shaking. Her desk. The same desk she'd worked at for the past five years.

In the beginning, it had been in a cluster of desks, where the interns and gofers sat. Then, as she'd graduated to more serious work and even her own byline, the other desks had moved further away until, after her second Kerth, she was left in her own little private island. The nameplate had appeared after the first Kerth.

Now, of course, she was more of a peninsula of sorts; since Clark had been partnered up with her, they'd brought his desk closer. It wasn't quite touching hers, but if she left a folder overlapping the edge of her desk the gap would be bridged.

Slowly, carefully, she nudged a manila folder backwards, away from her, until it was part-off her desk.

Who would sit at this desk in the future? Where would they put her nameplate? Or would it go in a box, along with the other accumulated detritus of five years of reporting, and get passed along to her parents one of these days? Would Clark go through it first, taking out anything he might think was special?

Would she be missed?

Who would write her obituary? Perry? Or would he assign it to one of the regular staff writers?

At least now they'd be able to name her killer.

If she had the energy, she'd do that herself. She had tried, once she'd shut down the mercury website. She'd got as far as typing the first sentence.

*Ewdin Grifin, scientst and fahter of gunrunner Kyle Griffin, was last night named as the killr of Lois Lane, award-winning invstigatve journaliat at the Dailp Plwnet.*

Even the most experienced of sub-editors would consider that a nightmare to edit. And it had taken her almost ten minutes to type it. Someone else would have to write the final story of her life. It would be nice if it were Clark, but she suspected it probably wouldn't be. He'd find it too hard to write. Just as she would if it were him… yet she'd want to do it anyway.

It was dark outside — when had it got dark? Her watch told her that it was just after ten. Barely more than five hours left. Where was Clark? Whether he'd found anything or not, she wanted him back. There was so little time now, and all she wanted was to be with him. He'd promised to be there, with her, right up until the end.

So that was it, then. The end of the road.

And then he was there, slipping through the door from the stairwell, striding across the newsroom towards her.

"Take me away from here, Clark."

He crouched beside her chair and caught her hands. "Where do you want to go?"

"Anywhere. Just… away from here. And not the hospital."

"Okay." A muscle ticked in his jaw as he spoke. That, and the fact that he didn't argue that there were other things they could try, other avenues to pursue, told her louder than words that he knew it was hopeless, too. They'd done all they could, and it was time to accept the inevitable.

He stood, tugging her up with him, and immediately slid his arm around her waist. "I'll take you home, okay?"

Her apartment was still a crime scene. "No. Your place."

If she'd said she wanted to go to the moon, he'd have found a way to take her there. Right now, of that she had no doubt.

He took her to the stairwell, scooping her into his arms once the door closed behind them and they were alone. Silently, she bade farewell to the newsroom. Maybe she should have said goodbye to Perry, too. And Jimmy. They were both still around, and they'd seen Clark lead her away. They probably both knew they wouldn't see her again.

No. Goodbyes were just too… final.

"You should call your parents." Up on the roof, Clark broke the silence. His voice was barely recognisable, and in the glow of the city lights his face looked thin. Lined. And grey.

He was right. She'd promised — in fact, it was more than an hour beyond the time she'd set as a cut-off. Yet still she hesitated.

Her parents. They'd come rushing in, all concern and fuss and wounded anger that she hadn't told them sooner. And they'd take over.

She wouldn't get these last hours with Clark. There'd be no chance to snuggle together with him on his couch, talking about all the things they'd done together, all their successes, the narrow escapes. No chance to ask him all the things she'd wondered about since he'd confessed to being Superman. No chance to lose herself in his kisses.

And there'd be worse. Oh yes, far worse.

Her parents weren't like his. Clark's experience of family life was Jonathan and Martha Kent. Of course he'd imagine their reactions. How they would feel. What they would want. The comfort they would offer.

He barely knew Sam Lane. Had never met Ellen Lane.

"Clark."

He lowered his head to her. "Yes, Lois?"

"I… need you to promise me something."

He swallowed. "Anything." His voice broke on the word, and the lump was back in her throat.

"My parents… they'll take over." Now she had to swallow. "When they know… At the hospital. They'll want… Promise me you won't let them do anything… I don't want to be a vegetable, Clark!" Tears were flowing freely now, but she made no attempt to stop them. "No machines. No tubes. No ven… ventilator. Just… let me go cleanly, okay? Please!"

"God, Lois!" His arms tightened around her, and he buried his face in her hair again. And he was shaking. She clung to him, dampening his shirt with her tears just as he soaked her with his.

Finally, he raised his head. He was all fuzzy… but then, she was looking through blurry, stinging eyes. "Lois, I… I'll do what I can, but…" He broke off and took a shuddering breath. "But if you're not capable of making decisions then it's your parents who have the right as… as your next of kin."

Of course. He was right. Her next of kin… and yet she'd just been assuming that Clark would be able to do whatever she wanted on her behalf. That was just plain *wrong*. Clark *should* have that right. He knew her best, had been with her all today, knew what she wanted…

There had to be a way to make sure that…

Yes! Of course there was!

"Can you fly me to Vegas?"

He blinked. "Las Vegas?" His grip on her almost slacked. "Lois, I know I said… but it's not a way of getting out of talking to your parents, is it?"

"No!" She caught his gaze, those dark brown eyes which were almost liquid as they stared at her. "No, it's… how I want to deal with them. Clark… will you marry me?"

***

*Marry* her?

Marry Lois?

Him standing at the front of a church, family and friends seated behind him, an organ playing in the background… Lois, in ivory silk and organza, clutching a bouquet of spring flowers, gliding up the aisle on her father's arm towards him… the minister, standing in front of them, leading them through their vows…

<Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife… to have and to hold… to love, honour and cherish… in sickness and health… till death us do part…>

Till death.

"Lois…" He was still holding her cradled to his chest. It suddenly seemed kind of an awkward position for this conversation, and he gently slid her to the ground, still with his arms wrapped around her. "There's nothing I'd… But… *Marry* you? Now?"

"Yes." Her eyes, glazed with tears, stared back at him. His own were stinging, and his glasses were spotted with moisture. "Because that way… then *you're* my next of kin. Please, Clark? Will you do it?"

That was what she wanted? For him to be able to take the place of her parents — make the decisions for her, be the one who acted when she couldn't? That was why she wanted him to marry her? Not because she actually wanted him as her husband?

But then, why would she? It wasn't as if she was in love with him, after all. Sure, they'd become closer today than ever before — but most of that was circumstances. If it wasn't for what had happened, she'd still be keeping her distance, treating him as a friend but on her own terms.

Definitely fewer touches, much less closeness, far fewer hugs — and no kisses.

And now she wanted him to marry her.

A quickie marriage, in a tacky chapel somewhere in Las Vegas. Far from the kind of wedding he'd dreamed of.

And yet…

Her reasoning made sense. And, more than that, it was appealing. Because she was right. Once her parents got involved — as they had to — he'd be pushed aside. Out of the way. Without even any right to be with her. Chances were he wouldn't even get to keep his promise that he'd stay with her till the end.

Besides, Lois was asking him to do it. For her. And it was probably the very last request she was ever going to make of him.

How could he possibly say no?

"Clark?"

"Yes." Why didn't his voice sound like him? He cleared his throat. "Yes, Lois — if that's what you want, then I'd be… be honoured to marry you."

"Go… good." Her voice cracked on the word. "So, can we… get going?"

About to scoop her up and fly off, he stilled. There was just one snag… "Lois, what if… well, what if you do get well? What then?"

"Oh." She blinked. "Come on, Clark, we both know that's not going to happen."

She really had given up, hadn't she? But then, he'd come to the same conclusion himself. There was nothing that could be done for her, nothing to hope for. The cure had died with Edwin Griffin.

He had to know, though, all the same. "But still, what if?"

An impatient look crossed her face. "Well, then we just go back to Vegas and get a quickie divorce. Or an annulment. Whichever's easiest."

Yeah. Of course. Why had he even bothered to ask?

"Don't worry," she continued. "You won't have to stay married to me, if that's what you're worried about."

Hell. She was hours from death, and they were fighting. He closed his eyes, tried to push away the hurt. "I was thinking of you, Lois. Of what you'd want."

"What I *want*, Clark, is for you to take me to Vegas. While I'm still able to talk."

"Lois." Her name came out as a sigh. "I'm sorry." He enfolded her against him again. "I didn't want to fight… I just… I want you to be sure that this is what you want, that's all."

"I want it." The words were muffled against his chest.

"Okay." He caught her shoulders and gently put her from him. "Just give me a minute." And he whirled, coming to a halt seconds later in the Spandex. "Then let's go."

His first visit to Las Vegas, and he was looking for a wedding chapel.

A quickie marriage, even if it was to the woman he'd always dreamed of having as his wife — and, instead of a honeymoon, he had widowhood to look forward to.

Congratulations.

"Where to? Is there somewhere in particular you want to go?" he asked her as the neon signs and dazzling lights appeared up ahead, shimmering over the desert night.

"It's a while since I've been in Vegas. Anywhere will do — anywhere we don't have to wait." Her voice was so soft, so faint now.

"Okay. I guess I'll just take a look from above and then bring us down."

"Wait…" She caught at his arm. "I feel all… I mean, I'm sure I look like I've been crying and my make-up's smudged — can you take me somewhere I can freshen up first?"

That wouldn't be a problem — any of the dozens of hotels within the ten square mile area that made up the Strip would do. Somewhere decent, though. There was no reason why she should have to make do with one of the shabby, tacky hotels in the older part of town.

He chose a hotel — nothing too glitzy, but not run-down either, and brought them down in a shadowed area to the side. One quick spin later, and he was Clark Kent again. "Come on. There's an entrance this way."

He wrapped his arm around her waist and led her inside. With a quick thanks, she disappeared into the restroom, and he was left to wait. To listen to the distant clinking and jangling of slot machines. To contemplate what they were just about to do.

Get married.

He was willingly entering into what would be one of the shortest marriages on record. Marrying the woman he loved more than his own life, though she didn't know it.

And he didn't even have a ring to give her.

Though that would surely be easily remedied in a place like Las Vegas. Sure enough, something on the other side of the lobby caught his eye. A jewellery concession.

Two minutes later, he was signing a credit card payment slip for the largest amount he'd ever paid out in his life. More, even, than the first and last month's rent and deposit on his apartment. But the matching his and hers wedding rings were worth it. Whether his marriage to Lois was going to last mere hours or not, he was still marrying the woman he loved. And she deserved the best he could give her.

Even if the best was only a chunk of 18-carat gold, and not the one thing he most wanted to give her.

So, armed with shiny new wedding rings and information, he crossed the lobby again to wait for his bride-to-be.

***

She was about to get married, and she looked a wreck. Even after splashing water on her face, doing emergency repairs to her make- up and dragging a brush through her hair, she looked as if she'd just got up out of a sick-bed. Pale. Shadows and bags under her eyes. Pinched cheeks and thin lips.

Just as well they hadn't booked a photographer.

In just a few minutes, she'd be a married woman. Marriage was something she'd always imagined she'd do one day, but… not like this. Not a sudden decision, out of desperation, in the last few hours of her life. Not a runaway marriage in a seedy Las Vegas wedding chapel, with nobody she knew there to see it happen. Just her reluctant groom and herself.

Clark was reluctant. That was obvious from the length of time it'd taken him to say yes, and the way he'd worried about what would happen if she survived. Some chance of that.

Well, she wasn't who he'd choose as his wife, and this certainly wasn't how he'd choose to be married, either. It didn't take much knowledge of Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha — though adopted son, of course — to know that he'd want a traditional wedding, in every way. Well, in ideal circumstances she would too. The circumstances she was in didn't give her the choice.

Clark was waiting when she went out, standing in the lobby, his hair rumpled and his expression sober. Somehow, he seemed to have aged about ten years in the course of the day.

"Hey." She looked up at him. Maybe he wouldn't notice that her smile was shaky. "Let me fix your hair…"

He stood still while she finger-combed it into better shape, then smiled in return. "Ready to go? I asked — there's a nice, discreet little chapel just a block across from here. Nothing tacky, nothing over the top. And they even have an arrangement where we can get our licence there instead of having to go to the courthouse."

"Sounds good." It was just as well, in fact. Was the courthouse even open at this time of night? She hadn't even thought of that. Without the licence, they couldn't be married.

He extended his hand to her, and she slid hers in it. Just another couple going to their wedding.

"It's this way." Outside, he headed around the corner and to an intersection. The streets were thronged with people, but then of course Las Vegas came alive at night. This same intersection, in the middle of the afternoon, would probably be empty. It didn't even seem dark, but that was the effect of all the neon and illumination.

"Lois?" Something in his voice made her look up at him. He was going to be serious again. Well, they didn't have a lot of time left for serious conversations…

"Yeah?"

"Are you… disappointed in me? Do you think I've let you down?"

She stumbled, and he caught her, held her steady. What was he talking about? Let her down? How?

"Because you didn't want to marry me?" That was the only thing she could think of.

"No!" He stopped dead in the middle of the street and turned to look at her. "No, Lois. I… Of course I want to marry you. I… hesitated… well, like I said. Because I wanted to be sure that we'd thought of what we'd do if… if you do survive. That's all."

Okay. That did make some sort of sense. Even if it'd felt as if he was reluctant to agree in case he ended up saddled with her. "So why would I think you'd let me down?"

His voice was low, but she could hear the pain nonetheless. "Because I couldn't save you. Because every other time when you've been in danger I've been there for you — arrived in the nick of time and kept you safe. But this time… I can't. I'm Superman, and there's *nothing* I can do to save you."

But that was crazy!

Oh, sure, Superman had saved her life countless times since he'd first appeared. And, true, she'd come to rely on it. To take risks she might not have taken if he hadn't been around, because somehow he always did seem to come when she yelled for him. This…

This was different.

This wasn't held-at-gunpoint-in-a-dark-alley kind of life- threatening. It wasn't falling-out-of-a-plane danger, either. And it wasn't tied-up-waiting-for-a-bomb-to-go-off. It was a completely different kind of threat to her life, with a secretive enemy revealed far too late and a formula even top scientists couldn't figure out. How could she possibly expect Superman to save her from this?

She didn't. Hadn't. But clearly Clark had.

And that was the real reason for his question. *He* believed he'd let her down.

She gripped his hand as tightly as she could — not easy when the muscles in her arm and wrist protested. "Clark, no! You can't think that — I don't think that!"

"Why wouldn't you?" His mouth was twisted, his tone bitter.

"Because I could never have got through today without you!" The words were almost shouted and, out of breath, she had to stop. He tried to speak again, but she shook her head, demanding he wait. "I needed you, Clark. You. Yeah, I needed Superman too…" She paused for breath again. "…but when I needed him he was there for me too. What you have to understand is… most of all today… I needed… my friend. Clark. You."

Slowly, his stance relaxed, his expression softened. And then he reached out and caught her other hand in his, and lowered his head until his forehead touched hers. "Oh, Lois." He sighed. "I still wish…" He pulled away from her in a sudden movement, an agonised expression on his face. "There had to be *something* I could have done!"

She tugged on the hand he'd still left in hers. "Don't torture yourself, Clark. You did all you could — we all did all we could. Don't you know that I… couldn't have got through today without you! You — you've been my strength." She gazed at him, willing him to believe her. "Now… now we just have to… make sure the rest is as easy as we can — " She broke off, coughing, and eventually managed to finish. " — make it."

"Yeah." And he came back to her. Hugged her again, his body warm and solid and comforting against hers. "Come on, then," he said after too short a time. "Let's get to that chapel."

A couple of minutes of silent, companionable walking later, they were outside a small clapboard house which had a discreet sign outside proclaiming that weddings could be performed there from 12 noon until midnight. "This is it, then."

"Yeah." She studied the house for a moment. It certainly didn't look like any kind of building she'd ever imagined getting married in. Yet right now it was perfect. "Come on."

Inside, the paperwork was handled quickly and efficiently. They showed their drivers' licences. Clark handed over bills before she even had a chance to open her purse. Shakily, she signed where she was told. And that was it; the clerk told them to have a seat, that they'd be called into the chapel in a few minutes, once the officiant was ready for them.

Clark was still silent. Though he held her hand tightly in his, he wasn't looking at her. And, despite everything, even though this was the only way to stop her parents taking over, agreeing to things she didn't want, doubts set in. Was this the right thing to do? Was she being fair to Clark? After all, by tomorrow morning he was going to be a widower, not just a bereaved friend. She was dumping him with the whole mess of sorting out her estate, tidying up her life, dealing with everything she was leaving behind.

What kind of way was that to treat a friend?

Should she give him a chance to back out?

"I… if you want to… to change your mind…" Her teeth were chattering and she had to break off.

"Lois." Suddenly, he was looking at her. He reached for her other hand, holding both tightly as he gazed at her. His expression was intent, his eyes blazing with… something she couldn't quite recognise.

Speech just seemed to burst out of him. "Lois, I… I have to tell you this. Before we go in there. It… it just doesn't seem right that we do this without you knowing."

Knowing? Knowing what?

He didn't give her a chance to ask the question. The words tumbled out, like water over rapids. "Lois, I love you. I've loved you since the moment I met you. Marrying you… if this was under any other circumstances it'd be a dream come true. I… today's been a nightmare, not just because I hate to see you suffering like this, but because I can't bear the thought of losing you. You… it's breaking my heart. If… when you die, it *will* break my heart. I love you, Lois. So much that… oh, just so much." His last words were barely whispered, and he looked away, as if afraid of her response.

He loved her? Clark *loved* her?

Liked, yes. Cared for, too. Considered her a very close friend, someone he was fond of… yes, all that. But love?

She'd discounted that. Considered it impossible. He couldn't love her, not after the way she'd treated him, the way she'd diminished Clark in favour of Superman, overlooked the very real, special qualities of the man while gazing star-struck at the hero.

But he did.

"Mr Kent? Ms Lane? We're ready for you now."

The clerk couldn't have chosen a less opportune moment to call them. Looking both awkward and as if he were relieved that they'd been interrupted, Clark got to his feet, tugging lightly on her hands as he did so. "Ready, Lois?"

No! How could she possibly be ready when…

When Clark had just poured his heart out to her, said words she'd never expected, that actually, even in these circumstances, made her want to cry tears of pure *joy*… No, she wasn't ready.

"Would you… give us a minute, please?" She didn't turn to the clerk. Getting to her feet, she looked up at Clark, waiting for him to look back at her.

After a moment, he frowned and met her gaze. "What is it?"

"Do you know, out of… everything you did for me today… that — what you just said — probably touched me most of all." She raised her hand and, even as it shook, managed to bring it to his face so that she could touch him with her fingertips. "And… I asked her to wait in case I don't get time to tell you this later. I… I love you too. I think… I have for ages. Just too… too stupid and stubborn and blind to see it."

Her voice gave way on the final word. It didn't matter, though. She'd said what she needed to. What she'd promised herself she would tell him before it was too late.

With an inarticulate murmur, Clark wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly against him. His chin rested on her head briefly, before he began dropping tiny kisses against her hair, her cheek, her neck.

Then, with a sigh, he said, "We should go in." Releasing her, he took a step back and held out his hand to her. "Ready to marry me, my love… my —"

He broke off suddenly and looked away, and her breath caught as she heard him finish, under his breath, "- life."

***

The 'chapel' was really just a room with a table at the front and some chairs arranged on either side, leaving the centre to form an aisle. There were no religious symbols and, even better, no tributes to 'true love'. No hearts, balloons, banners or pink and red roses. A spray of fresh flowers stood on the altar, in co- ordinating shades of cream and yellow.

The jeweller really had steered him right. The circumstances of this marriage were bad enough without making either of them undertake it in some sickly over-the-top Valentine frenzy.

Lois clung to his hand as if it were her anchor. And it probably was. She was so weak she could barely stand straight — it had to be an act of almost superhuman endurance for her even to be here. And she'd said that he'd been what had kept her going today. Her strength.

Lois loved him. Loved *him*.

The knowledge just made him want to weep. She loved him. He loved her back. They were getting married. This should be the happiest moment of his life. But how could it be, when in a few short hours she'd be ripped from him?

He barely heard the woman officiating take them through the words of the marriage service. When it was his turn to speak, it seemed as if someone else were uttering the responses. Not him. Not Clark Kent, holding on to Lois Lane's hand as if she were his only fragile hold on sanity.

It couldn't be any other way. If he allowed himself to concentrate on what he was doing, then saying the vows, promising to love her until death parted them, would finally tear his heart into tiny pieces.

"I do."

Lois's voice, so weak and thready before, suddenly stronger as she said the words accepting him as her husband. She put him to shame. Why couldn't he have said it more as if he meant it?

But here was a chance to make up for it. He handed over the rings, noting Lois's look of surprise, heard her whisper, "I never thought of a ring." And he held her hand in his, slid her ring on her finger, held her gaze with his as he repeated words he'd never meant more in his life.

"With this ring I thee wed…"

She fumbled as she tried to put his ring on, and he helped her. And, finally, the officiant said the words signalling the end of the short ceremony.

"I now pronounce you husband and wife." She paused to smile at them. "Why don't you kiss the bride, Mr Kent?"

Lois turned to him, lifting her face towards him. Her eyes shimmered with tears again. His own had to be in the same state — after all, she seemed kind of fuzzy again. He let go of her hand and brought his palms up to cradle her face, then paused. He needed to look at her. Needed a minute just to look at his wife.

His wife.

He needed to imprint her features on his brain. To remember forever how she'd looked right at this moment — weak, pale, trembling and far from the vibrant, energetic human dynamo that was Lois Lane — but never more beautiful.

His wife.

Slowly, almost reverently, he lowered his head and captured her lips with his own. She trembled beneath his hold, but slid her arms around him, parting her lips and inviting him to kiss her properly.

Closing his eyes, he leaned into her, tasting her, feeling her, learning her. Memorising her.

Engraving the essence of her on his soul.

If only this was like the fairy-tale, where the kiss from the handsome prince would awaken the beautiful princess and make her well again.

If only.

He was Superman, and he hadn't been able to do a damn *thing* to save her.

All he could do now was show her, with his lips, with his hands, with everything he was, how much he loved her.

A cough, followed by a soft laugh, brought him back to the present. Tearing himself away from Lois, he turned to look at the officiant. She was smiling indulgently at them. "Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Kent. I hope the two of you will be very happy together."

He felt Lois flinch against him. Bitterness filled him, bile rising up in his throat, and the urge to scream at her almost burst out of him. Happy together? Sure. For the next couple of hours. Congratulations? Yeah, if impending death was something to be joyful about.

But the celebrant didn't know that. And it was none of her business.

"Thank you." He dredged up a smile from somewhere, then turned back to Lois, sliding his arm around her again. "Let's go, sweetheart."

She nodded and fell into step beside him. His wife.

And his cheekbones were moist again.

***

They were married. She was — if she hadn't sworn never to lose her own identity by taking a man's surname — Mrs Clark Kent.

The unfamiliar ring felt heavy on her finger. It was still hard to take in that Clark had actually gone and bought rings — and expensive ones, too, she'd bet. There was only one place he could have got them, after all — that jewellery boutique at the hotel.

Well, at least now he'd inherit everything of hers anyway, so he wouldn't be out of pocket for a ring he'd only wear for a few hours.

Her head was really pounding. And her stomach hurt. The Tylenol must have worn off.

"Are you okay?" Trust Clark to be alert to every little thing.

"Do you have those painkillers they gave me at the hospital?"

He patted his pocket. "Right here." He glanced around. "There's a fast-food place up ahead — let's get you a drink."

Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps. Every convenience always close at hand, even at after eleven at night. At least three hotels and one restaurant per block, and every hotel had at least one restaurant of its own…

Hotel…

"Clark." Abruptly, she stopped walking — if she could call what she'd been doing walking, considering he had his arm around her and was almost carrying her — and tugged on his free arm. He halted and looked at her.

"Do we have to go back to Metropolis?"

"Well…" He frowned. "You really should talk to your parents. And I'd feel a lot happier if you'd let me take you to the hospital." His eyes were so sad. If only there was a way she could take that away for him… but there was nothing she could do.

"I don't want to go to the hospital." He looked unhappy at her blunt statement, but that was how she felt. "There's nothing they can do for me, Clark. We've accepted that. I already know it's not mercury. So what's the point? Just so they can hook me up to more drips and machines and have doctors and nurses poking at me and examining me like some specimen, while they all know there's nothing they can do to stop me dying?"

She broke off, gasping for breath, while he stared at her, looking stricken.

"I'm sorry, Clark. I know you don't… don't want to think about it, but we both know that's the way it is. We tried. But this time we lost. And I'm dying. And the last thing I want is to spend the… the few hours I've got left to live in a hospital bed, with no privacy and my parents fighting with each other and… and yelling at me for getting married without telling them."

He let out a slow breath. "So what do you want to do?" The gentleness in his tone told her that he'd do it. For her.

"Let's get a hotel room."

"What?" The shocked expression on his face almost made her laugh. Her hero really was a country farmboy. The idea of getting a hotel-room together seemed to have left him stunned. Yet they were *married*. Even if this wasn't a normal marriage, for normal reasons, they were husband and wife.

"A hotel room. Come on, Clark, stop wasting time! There's so little… left…" She had to break off and cough. He drew her away from the street, into a gap between two buildings where they were in semi-darkness, and held her, head cradled against his shoulder, while her body was wracked with choking coughs and she struggled to breathe. Her stomach still hurt and her head throbbed.

"Oh, Lois." He brushed his lips against her cheek. "I… you don't know how much I've dreamed of us being together like that… But you're sick. You're in pain and you're weak and… and it wouldn't be right…"

He was right, in one way. Part of her yearned to be with Clark, to find out just this one time, before it was too late, what it would be like to be loved by him. Really loved. Clark would cherish any woman he made love to. That was obvious in so many ways, but mostly the way he'd behaved with her today. His gentleness, the way he touched her, held her hand, kissed her… And the way he'd kissed her before, both as himself and as Superman.

Making love with Clark would be exciting. Thrilling. And a lesson in being truly loved for the first time in her life.

But the chances of her body being able to co-operate were… pretty much zero.

That, though, wasn't the only reason a hotel room was more appealing than going back to Metropolis. "It's not just that, Clark. I told you, I don't want to be in that hospital. And I know I… promised to tell my parents, but… you don't know what they'll be like…"

"Lois, no matter what, you can't *not* tell them!" he exclaimed. "How do you think they'd feel just finding out… after? Getting a phone call from the hospital — or more likely me! — telling them their daughter's dead? And realising that we'd known all today that it was probably going to happen?"

He was right. As her husband, he'd have to be the one to call her parents. How could she do that to him? On top of everything else he was being dumped with!

"I'm sorry, Clark." The words emerged as little more than a whisper. "This… marriage idea of mine… it's going to leave you with a whole lot of hassle."

He jerked back from her, but gripped her hands tightly, staring down at her with sudden anger blazing from his eyes. "You think I *care* about that, Lois? Sure, being your… widower is going to mean I get to do all sorts of fun stuff. Stuff that's going to tear me apart little by little, more painfully than Kryptonite can. But do you think that for one *second* I *mind* doing anything for you? That there's *anything* I *wouldn't* do for you?"

She could only stare at him. Sure, he'd told her that he loved her. His declaration in the chapel had been the most passionate, the most intense avowal she'd ever heard or read. But this…

To be loved that much…

He was going to be devastated.

"Oh, Clark…" Freeing one hand, she reached up to caress his face. "I don't deserve you. But, since I've got you, I don't want to let you go."

"I don't want to let you go either." He gazed soberly down at her. And, slowly, lowered his lips to brush over hers once more. "But I don't have a choice. And I need to take you back so we can call your parents."

He was right. Here, in Las Vegas, a shiny new wedding ring on her finger, it was so easy to let herself ignore the reality. Oh, not that she was dying. That wasn't exactly possible to ignore. Not with emotions running so high with her and Clark, not with the pain and weakness and her body giving up on her.

But she was ignoring other things about her situation.

The fact that she had less than four hours left, assuming that Griffin's timetable had some logical basis to it. That very soon, according to Sutton's guess, she'd cease to be able to function anyway. She'd be useless. Practically paralysed and in too much pain to focus.

Pain. How much pain?

They still had *no* idea what else Griffin had given her. Okay, it wasn't ricin, so she didn't have that horrific death to look forward to. It didn't seem to be mercury. But it had to be something nasty, given it was going to be fatal. What would it do to her? Would she be in so much agony by the end that she'd be begging anyone who'd listen to put her out of her misery?

"Lois?"

Blinking, she refocused on Clark. He was watching her, deep furrows of worry on his brow.

"Sorry… I was just… thinking…"

"About?" He stroked a hand up and down her back. "Anything you want to talk about?"

"Oh, Clark…" How much should she tell him?

He loved her. He'd done so much for her — and would do so much more if he could. There was no reason not to tell him all the scary things on her mind. How could she shut him out now?

"I'm scared." In the end, that was all she could find the words for, and they emerged as a whisper.

"I know." He continued to rub her back. "I'm scared too."

"I don't want to die."

"I don't want you to." He swallowed; she could see the movement in his throat. "Lois… if there was any way… anything I could do…" He took a harsh, shuddering breath. "If I could swap places with you, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

The breath whooshed out of her. All she could do was stare at him. He loved her *that* much?

But he did. It was obvious in everything — the way he was looking at her now, the way he'd poured out his impassioned declaration of love in the chapel, the way he'd put everything else aside, even Super rescues, for her. The way he had touched her, comforted her, cared for her, kept her spirits up throughout the day, even when hope seemed lost.

"You… you make me feel ashamed."

"Why?" He sounded genuinely puzzled.

"Because all I can think about is… how scared I am and how painful it's going to be and if I'm going to be fighting for breath and you… you'd do that for me…"

"You're entitled to be scared." A gentle tug and she was held in his embrace again. "Even the courageous Lois Lane is human."

Courageous? Far from it. She was petrified. Cowering in fear and… and wimpish, squeamish avoidance. If Clark knew what she hadn't told him about… the crazy, cowardly but so *tempting* thing that she'd considered asking him to do for her…

Fear of pain. Fear of not being able to breathe. Fear of being helpless, dependent, begging for aid… The way to avoid that had seemed so obvious, so easy. Clark. Clark was Superman. He had amazing abilities… and all it would take was one dart of heat vision, or a tiny press of his thumb against her throat, or even the power of his freezing breath.

She'd almost asked him.

Only what he'd said about changing places with her had stopped her. He'd do that for her — *die* for her — and she was trying to find ways to make it easy on herself? Ways which would be nothing short of torture for Clark.

He'd said there was nothing he wouldn't do for her. So he'd do that, wouldn't he?

Whether he would or whether he wouldn't, she wasn't going to ask him. It was far too much of a burden to put on him. He was devastated enough as it was — and something told her that even being asked the question would tear him apart. Knowing that she was scared enough to want to ask that of him. That she would believe that he'd even consider it.

And he wouldn't, anyway. That wasn't Clark's way. Superman saved lives; he didn't end them. Clark, too, had ethical standards far above just about anyone else she knew.

It would tear him apart — both being asked and having to deny her request.

She stretched up and kissed him. Whatever was going to happen would happen. The important thing was that he would be with her regardless. Her husband. The man who loved her more than she'd ever dared to dream she could be loved.

***

The cellphone rang.

He pulled away from Lois and fumbled for it. The tiny screen showed the Daily Planet's number. It could only be Perry or Jimmy. "Yeah?"

"Clark? The hospital just called. They want Lois there as soon as possible." It was Perry.

"Did they say why?"

"No. Just that they need to see her."

"Okay, we're on our way."

It was just as well there was no way for Perry to know where they were — explaining how they'd ended up in Las Vegas in the first place, let alone how they'd get back in the few minutes he intended it to take them, wouldn't exactly be easy. Though, of course, when the bill came in it would show a long-distance call…

That was a problem for another day. Now, he had to take Lois back to Metropolis General.

"We need to go. Sutton wants to see you," he told her, slipping the phone back into his pocket.

"Well, we were just leaving anyway." She pulled a face. "I know what he's going to say. Not mercury. And he hasn't a clue what else it could be. Right?"

"We don't know that." Though at this stage it was very hard to hold out hope. Lois's research on mercury poisoning seemed pretty conclusive.

He drew her further into the shadows, then stepped away from her for the second or two that it took to spin into the Suit. Then, gathering her into his arms as he did so, he floated upwards.

His final journey with Lois. He'd take her to the hospital now and they'd call her parents — and that would be it. From here on, there was nothing else they could do but wait.

At least now, though, no-one would dispute his right to be with her, by her side, right up to the end and beyond. Her parents might be resentful or even angry about his sudden appearance in her life as her husband, but that was what Lois had wanted. They'd just have to accept it.

"Clark?"

He bent his head to her. "Yes?"

"Do something for me. Make sure you get a decent partner. Don't let Perry fob you off with someone who's not good enough for you."

What?

He almost dropped her.

How could she…? How could he even *think* about working with anyone other than her? As if she were as replaceable as a… a pair of socks!

And yet, something about the way she'd said it… He glanced down at her. She was fighting back tears again. She actually thought that he would work with someone else. And she wanted him to know that she was okay with it. Wanted him to know that he deserved the best.

He'd had the best. There could never be anyone else.

"I don't want another partner. If I can't have you, then Perry will just have to understand that I'll work alone from now on. Or I'll quit."

"Quit?" She sounded stunned. "Leave the Planet?"

Actually, that was sounding like a better idea all the time. How could he possibly carry on working there without Lois? When every day he walked into the place he'd be reminded of her? Her desk, empty. Or, worse, occupied by someone else.

Seeing his sole byline appearing where it would have been the two of them. No-one to brainstorm with. Only getting one cup of coffee on his trips to the machine, instead of two. No-one to catch his eye in the morning editorial meeting, grimacing at Perry's latest mini-tantrum.

A fresh start somewhere else would be for the best. But Lois didn't need to know that.

"Well, if it'll stop Perry assigning me a partner I don't want…" Let her think it was a bluff.

"Oh, right."

They were almost there. Ironically, that was a relief — it gave him a reason to end a conversation which, like almost every other today, was too painful to continue. "We'll be at the hospital in a minute."

"Oh." Her voice was faint. He looked down at her again, alarmed. Was she weakening again? She was pretty much lying limply against his chest. But the bleak look in her eyes told him the truth. Like him, she saw their destination as the end of the road.

She was silent as he glided slowly to the ground in the darkened grounds of the hospital. Once on the ground, he spun back into himself and held out his hand to her. She folded her fingers around his as if he were her lifeline.

"Can you walk? Or do you need me to carry you?"

"I want to walk." But her first steps were stumbling and she was almost a dead weight on his arm.

"C'mere." He let go of her hand and slid his arm around her waist instead. "Lean on me."

With her arm around him and her head leaning against his shoulder, they walked slowly, not speaking, towards the ER entrance. Words tumbled around inside his head. There was so much he wanted to say, so many things he wanted to tell her, but the solid lump wedged inside his throat just made it impossible to speak.

Instead, as they came to the door, he reached out for her left hand and raised her ring finger to his lips. She looked up at him as he kissed the spot where his ring rested. All the love he felt for her was reflected back to him in her eyes.

He swallowed again and guided her inside. Inside, where they'd no longer be alone, just the two of them for the precious time they had left. Where medical science would take over, would take Lois from him, leaving him standing aside, looking on, helpless, a spectator to his wife's final…

The lump in his throat was incredibly painful.

At least they couldn't make him leave her. Not now.

"Lois Lane for Dr Sutton," he told the clerk, who was instantly alert.

"Oh, he's waiting for you. I'll get someone to take you straight through."

Lois clung tightly to him as they were shown into a cubicle. They were joined immediately by Dr Sutton, who looked grave. "We have the results of the last batch of tests. I'm afraid it's not good news."

"Not mercury," Lois said. Calmly, almost casual, not at all as if she were about to receive confirmation of a death sentence.

"No, I'm afraid not. Professor Jorgensen, Dr Leek and some other colleagues are analysing what we've been able to tell them of your symptoms — which, of course, were complicated by the Guillain-Barre — to see if they can come up with any other ideas. However, time may be running out."

"May b- ?" The unnatural calmness was gone. Lois's voice gave way on the angry words and she was overcome by a coughing fit. He held her until she could finally breathe evenly again.

Then, even as she sagged against him and he knew she'd never be able to stand unaided, she turned back to Sutton. "Twenty-four hours, he said. That's… less than three and… a half hours away now. And you… say *may* be… running out?"

So typical Lois. Even desperately sick, in pain and knowing that she was dying, she refused to be patronised. Or told anything less than the truth.

"Don't forget that I said it's not possible to predict that accurately what effect a substance will have on any individual's metabolism. And that there isn't a poison or substance in existence — or even a combination — whose effect could be predicted as specifically as your attacker claimed." Sutton paused, rubbing his nose. "Also, remember, we did start treating the Guillain-Barre. That may have bought us a little more time. On the other hand, you have been active today, instead of remaining as an in-patient, which was probably detrimental —"

This was just too much waffling! "Doctor, can you please get to the point?" Clark interrupted. "What happens now?"

"Now, we want to admit Ms Lane and run more tests to assess the rate of advancement of her symptoms, as well as the variety of symptoms. I have to admit that it's looking less and less likely that we'll be able to find out what else she was given, but all we can do is try."

At least Sutton wasn't giving up. That was something.

Although false hope was worse than no hope at all. If Sutton and his colleagues really did think that Lois was past medical help, why didn't he just say so?

"If you haven't figured it out so far, I don't rate your chances very highly now." Lois's tone was waspish again. If he didn't know she was in a lot of pain and barely able to stand, he'd never be able to guess from the way she was standing up to the doctor.

"To be fair, Ms Lane, we haven't had a lot to go on," Sutton said, sounding irritated. "If the police had been able to find the hypodermic, or if that vial had had more than just the Guillain-Barre antibody in it… We've been working in the dark."

The hypodermic… He'd looked. Had searched the warehouse, all but torn it asunder, but to no avail. It just wasn't there. The police had searched all around Lois's apartment as well, looking for it, and he'd taken a side-trip there himself on the way back from the warehouse. There'd been absolutely no sign of it.

"He probably… burned it," Lois said. "Remember the… trash can, Clark?"

Of course. The one something had been burned inside. And he'd smelled plastic. That was probably exactly what had happened.

"Anyway, Ms Lane, we need to get you back upstairs now. Nurse Manders will take you, and I'll be up to start the tests once you're settled." He turned to Clark. "I really do think that Ms Lane's next-of-kin should be here now. There may come a point when the issue of consent may become relevant…"

Lois flinched. Clark hugged her gently and dropped a kiss against her hair. Sutton really could use some lessons in tact.

"Actually, though we're about to contact Lois's parents, I'm her next-of-kin."

He took great pleasure in pointing that out. He was not going to let them push him out of the way. He'd promised Lois that he'd stay with her, and that was exactly what he was going to do. For his own sake, as much as hers.

Sutton blinked. "You are?"

"Yes. Lois and I were married a short while ago."

"I see. Well, that changes things, in that case. I assume you'd like to go upstairs with… ah, Mrs Kent?"

Yes. He would.

There was *no way* they were going to separate him from Lois now. "I can take her."

Mrs Kent. That sounded… well, it just sounded perfect. Even though Lois would probably prefer to remain Lois Lane. Names, though, hardly mattered now. If letting her be called Mrs Kent would reinforce his position, his right to be by her side, then that was all that counted.

"Nurse Manders is getting a wheelchair."

"I can walk." But Lois's insistence was spoilt by the fact that her legs just suddenly seemed to give way.

She began to crumple, but he caught her and held her steady. "I've got you."

He swung her up into his arms. "Same room as before?" he asked the doctor.

"Uh… Yes."

"Okay. You can tell Nurse Manders we're on our way up." Lois moaned softly against his shoulder, and he felt it like a kick to the gut. He'd never given her that Tylenol, after all. "And she needs some pain relief."

It felt good to stride out of the cubicle with her.

Not that Sutton and his staff weren't doing everything they could to help. It was just that… It felt too much like Lois was a specimen they were examining, rather than a critically-ill patient whose life was hanging by a thread.

She'd been pushing herself hard for hours now despite feeling increasingly worse. Adrenalin had kept her going. Now that they were at the hospital, now that she'd accepted that the two of them couldn't save her life, it was as if her body was just giving up on her.

"Thanks, Clark… feel… awful… can't… see properly…" Her head lolled back against his shoulder. He swallowed, and headed for the elevator.

Upstairs, he carried her into the room she'd been in before and laid her gently on the bed. Now, she was moaning faintly, obviously in pain. A nurse he recognised from earlier hurried in; Sutton must have called ahead to say they were on their way.

"Let's get you undressed and comfortable," the middle-aged woman said, her tone soothing.

Undressed… ah, he should leave. He began to back out of the room, but Lois whimpered and stretched out her hand towards him.

"I'll be back, I promise. I'm just… getting out of the way while you get into bed."

The nurse turned to smile at him. "I understand you're her husband, Mr Kent. You didn't tell us that earlier."

He hesitated, but then explained, "I wasn't, earlier."

"Ah." The word was full of understanding. "We'll only be a couple of minutes, then you can come back in."

Out in the corridor, the door to Lois's room closed firmly against him, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. But nothing could chase away the sight of Lois, pale, shaking, in pain and terrified, pleading inarticulately with him not to leave her.

But she was the one who was going to leave him.

When? In an hour? Two hours? Four hours? How long did they have? How long before she wouldn't be able to talk to him any more? How long before she didn't even know that he was there?

She was fading fast.

It was too soon. He wasn't ready…

When were you ever ready to lose the one you loved?

If she left him now, in a day's time, in a year, in a lifetime, it would still be too soon.

Panic clawed at him. What was he doing out here? Why hadn't he just stayed with her while the nurse undressed her? She probably wouldn't have minded. He could have turned his back.

Several sets of footsteps in the corridor made him snap open his eyes. Dr Sutton, with acolytes — medical students, possibly, judging by the short coats. And another man in a longer white coat, but not wearing a stethoscope — maybe a lab tech?

They were clearly heading for Lois's room. Well, in that case he wasn't staying outside any longer. In three strides he was opening the door and walking back in.

Lois was in bed, looking frail and ghostly against the white sheets. A bowl on the nightstand told him that she'd been sick again. The nurse was holding her hand. "We'll have to take your wedding ring off, Lois. It's regulations, I'm afraid."

She looked as stricken as he felt. He'd only slid that ring on her finger less than an hour ago, speaking vows he'd meant with every fibre of his being. Now a complete stranger was removing it. Taking away the outward sign of her marriage to him.

Stupid to feel as if his connection to her, his right to be with her, was dependent on a tiny piece of gold jewellery. Yet it felt like such an important symbol. So significant, speaking for so much of what he felt for her.

"We'll keep it safe for you, don't worry."

Clark stepped forward. "I'll hold onto that for my wife." He extended his hand, palm upwards.

He'd just closed his fingers around the ring, still warm from Lois's hand, when Sutton spoke. "Ah, good, you're ready for us. This may be a little uncomfortable, Mrs Kent…"

Clark had to step aside to let the medical team pass. But another whimper from Lois had him pushing past them to get to her side. He was *damned* if they were going to keep him away from her, no matter what they needed to do. He stayed there, holding her hand, stroking her face and her hair, while they worked around him, setting up IVs, drawing blood, taking various readings, firing questions at her.

"Cl… Cla…" She could barely articulate his name, though her gaze never left him even as she grunted and mumbled in an attempt to answer the interminable questions.

"Lois, I'm here, it's okay," he murmured. He glared at the doctor who'd just inserted an IV as Lois moaned and jerked in pain. "Be careful," he hissed at the staff member in question.

"Mr Kent, your wife is a very sick woman. You have to let us work," Sutton said sharply. "If you have a problem with what we need to do, then perhaps you should wait outside."

"You don't have to hurt her!"

"Unfortunately, we do," Sutton replied. "We need to know where she's experiencing pain, and how much."

Helpless, he could only watch and try to comfort Lois as she was poked and prodded and examined by at least four different people. They were hurting her. They hadn't yet given her the pain relief he'd asked for. She was scared and she was dying and he couldn't even stop them from hurting her.

"Just get it over with quickly." He glared at Sutton before turning back to Lois. She was still watching him, but her eyes were glassy. Was she even seeing him any more?

"Lois? Lois, I'm here. I'm right beside you." He crouched down beside the bed, so that his face was level with hers. "Can you see me? Can you hear me?"

Her hand in his jerked just a little. Enough to tell him that she was still aware of him.

It was too soon. He wasn't ready to let her go. Wasn't ready to say goodbye.

"Mr Kent?"

He didn't look at Sutton. "Yes?"

"We still have some questions, and Mrs Kent doesn't seem to be able to answer us right now. How have her symptoms changed in the last hour?"

Without taking his gaze from Lois, he described what he'd noticed and what she'd told him. "Headaches — pretty bad. She was very weak — could barely walk without my help. She lost her balance a few times. She kept seeing blurred or double. I don't think she started feeling sick again until a short while ago, but she said her stomach hurt."

He stroked her face again. She didn't react, and her hand was limp in his. Was she unconscious? Had she spoken to him for the last time? "What's happening to her now? She's got so much worse all of a sudden!"

"As I told you, she is very sick. And right now she's in a tremendous amount of pain. We've just set up the IGIV again — that's the drip for the immunoglobin — but that will take some time to have any real effect, and without knowing what's causing the rest of her symptoms all we can do is offer palliatives. I can write her up for some morphine, for instance, but she's just going to keep getting worse because we can't treat the cause —"

Sutton broke off abruptly as Lois began to thrash around.

Voices turned into a blur of sound in the background. Clark screened all of them out. He moved onto the edge of the bed beside Lois and took her into his arms, trying to calm her.

"Lois… sweetheart, I'm here, I won't leave you… talk to me, tell me you can hear me…"

She wasn't responding. Couldn't hear him. Wasn't seeing him. Wasn't aware of anything. Doctors prodding her, poking instruments near her, talking about her as if she wasn't even there.

"God, *Lois*!" Desperation seized him. He covered her lips with his, tasted salt and realised that he was crying.

Not now. Not yet. Please, not yet…

There was so much he hadn't told her. So many things to talk about. So much to show her. It couldn't be over, not now, not yet…

A few more minutes. That was all. Please, just a few more minutes, an hour, so he could talk to her and she could listen and she could talk back to him… Not yet. It was too soon… it would always be too soon…

Guilt stabbing… he hadn't even called her parents yet… unforgivable, so wrong of him… how could he deny them the right to be with her too…

Not yet, please, not yet… she couldn't be, not yet…

<Lois, don't leave me, please don't leave me, please come back to me, please don't go…>

"…only we had more clues… symptoms match several things… tested for most likely… got to be something unusual…"

The medics were talking. At least, Sutton and the lab tech person.

"Yes, unusual… maybe not even liquid… only found the antibody… unless there was a second vial…"

Lois had stopped thrashing around and was now lying still. She didn't seem conscious, though he held tightly to her and kept stroking her hair just in case. Could there have been a second vial? Had he — had they — missed it?

He closed his eyes and tried to visualise the warehouse.

Tables in the middle, full of unfinished toys and games. Work- benches around the side. The trash-can. The vial that had been beside it. The tiny shavings of metal on the bench and the floor near the trash-can…

Metal shavings…

"Dr Sutton!" Clark jerked his head up and stared at the ER doctor. It was a long shot — a very long shot — but maybe… just maybe?

"Yes?"

"Is it possible… could Lois have been injected with some sort of metal? Is it possible to inject metal?"

"Metal?" Sutton was frowning.

"Yes. There were shavings in the warehouse, not far from where we found the vial. It was… it was…" He concentrated again. What sort of metal?

Not steel. Not iron. It'd had a distinctive scent…

"Lead! It was lead."

"Lead!" That was the laboratory person. "Lead can cause dizziness, tremors, headaches, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting… hmm, confusion, mood swings, seizures… that's pretty much everything on the list, isn't it?"

Sutton nodded, actually looking excited. "Well, that and the tingling and numbness, but we put that down to the Guillain- Barre. Hmm… It's rare for lead poisoning to occur intravenously. Normally, sufferers swallow it accidentally, but it's not impossible. Especially if you're talking shavings, not chunks. It could have been mixed with the liquid antibody." He nodded sharply. "Mr Kent, you might just have stumbled on it!"

Excitement was making him light-headed. "So what can you do? It's not too late to help her, is it? Do you have to test for it?"

"Normally I'd want to, but…" Sutton frowned and looked at the chart in his hand. "If we're right, I really wouldn't want to wait much longer to administer the antidote. As it is, Ms Lane — ah, Mrs Kent will have some lingering after-effects. If we're wrong… well, administering an antidote she doesn't need won't really make any difference."

Because she would be dead anyway. Clark swallowed.

He had to be right. It had to be lead. Had to be. Because being wrong was going to cost him everything in the world that mattered to him.

***

Things moved so swiftly for a while he could barely keep up.

Within a few minutes, Lois was given an antidote — an injection of something called dimercaprol. That would reverse the effect of the poisoning. Or, at least, it would begin to. Apparently, she would need several doses over a period of a few hours, and she'd need to be monitored closely for side-effects.

That was okay. He wasn't going anywhere.

He was going to sit right there, holding her hand, stroking her hair, for as long as it took. No matter how long it took.

Nothing could drag him from her side. Not a natural disaster. Not even the world ending. This was where he needed to be. Wanted to be. *Had* to be.

She was going to be okay. Well, that wasn't certain. Not yet. It had been almost twenty-one hours between the injection containing lead and the antidote, after all, and dimercaprol was most effective if administered within a couple of hours, before the effects of lead poisoning got too intense.

But there was a chance.

She was unconscious. That was probably a good thing, given the number of tubes and wires connected to her and the frequency with which nursing staff came in, checked her pulse and respiration, took her temperature and other things.

But she was still breathing. Still inhaling and exhaling, blood still flowing around her veins and pumping through her heart.

And every minute that continued to happen gave him more hope that they'd done it. They'd saved her.

It was lead. They knew that for sure now.

Sutton had come in earlier, looking exhausted and rumpled but actually happy. He'd told Clark that the lab had just called with the result of the final blood test: a positive finding. His guesswork, and Sutton's willingness to take a chance based on it, had been justified.

And then, though it was no longer necessary, Henderson had called.

He'd chivvied the forensic lab to rush through the analysis of the trash can. "Just in case," he'd told Clark. "On the off- chance it might be important." And they'd found traces of plastic and steel — the hypodermic — and the antibody. And lead.

"Thanks, Bill," he'd said, meaning it. "We figured it out about half an hour ago and she's being treated for it now. But it's good to have the confirmation." Plus, if he hadn't remembered the slivers of lead in the workshop, it meant that they'd have known anyway. There'd been a failsafe.

"All this work, just so she can go back to telling me how crap I am."

There'd been no sarcasm at all in the Inspector's words, just humour and clear relief. No, Bill Henderson's relationship with Lois would never change, but their mutual underlying respect and even affection was clear to see.

Bill had also had some other news: confirmation that Edwin Griffin had been working alone, without his son's knowledge. Kyle Griffin had been interviewed at length by FBI officers in Miami, including undergoing a polygraph test. The officers were completely satisfied that he'd had no idea that his father was out for revenge against the reporter who'd put his son in jail — and that he'd have told Edwin Griffin to stay out of it if he had known.

It was now almost two in the morning. A little over an hour to go based on Lois's original death-sentence timetable. Two hours since the final ingredient had been identified. And things were changing. Her colour seemed to be looking better already — the ghostly white had muted to a pale ivory. Her breathing was steadier, less thready, less fitful. She still didn't seem to know he was there, but that was okay. What mattered was what he could see and hear and sense.

The remedy was working.

It would take time, Sutton had told him when he'd last checked in. But the doctor, still working after what had to have been at least twenty-three hours — dedication neither he nor Lois had given him any credit for — had seemed hopeful. Positive.

She was going to get better.

***

"Clark?"

The voice close to his ear made him stir. He was in an uncomfortable position and his neck was stiff. Blinking, he found himself slumped over in the hard plastic chair, with his head lying on the edge of a hospital bed.

And the voice… a weak, dry-mouthed whisper, but a voice all the same. Calling his name.

He shifted, raising his head and turning to look at her. "Lois?"

Her eyes were open. Her hand still lay in his, and her fingers were moving. She was gazing at him, something like wonder in her expression. Her hair was tousled and there were creases on her face from the pillow.

She'd never looked more beautiful.

Most of the equipment that had been attached to her had been removed. She still had one drip running into her free hand, but the monitors had gone.

"How… what time 's…"

Her throat sounded so dry. "Here." Quickly, he reached for the glass and jug on the cabinet next to the bed, water a nurse had left for him at some point during the night. He poured her some water, then gently helped her to sit up against the pillows and held the glass to her lips. "Drink some of this."

She sipped, but never took her eyes off him. When she'd had enough, he replaced the glass on the table and turned back to gaze at her.

Lois. Alive. Not well, not by a long way, but alive and getting better and awake and looking at him and speaking his name and…

Alive.

"What happened?" She sounded a little more herself now; less croaky thanks to the water.

"Well, how much do you remember?" He took her hand in his again. She responded by curling her fingers around his.

"You mean apart from expecting to die? I guess the last thing is… coming back to the hospital with you and pretty much falling at your feet because I couldn't stand."

"Yeah, that was before I carried you back up here and they hooked you up to all kinds of monitors and things."

Her thumb brushed against the back of his hand. "So… what happened? I mean, why am I still here? And why don't I feel so… so lousy any more?"

He couldn't help it. A huge grin spread across his face, from ear to ear. "You're not dying, Lois. We found it. The poison. You've had an antidote and you're going to live!"

"Really?" Shock, incredulity and joy chased each other across her face and through her voice.

"Really. It was lead. Sutton said none of them even thought of it — it's not something that'd normally be injected, so it didn't occur to anyone to test for it."

"Lead." Her tone was wondering. "Like old pipes. Or paint."

"Yeah. As simple as that — but complicated because no-one would expect it."

"I'm really getting better?" Now, doubt crept into her tone, as if she didn't quite dare to believe it. She blinked a few times before meeting his gaze again.

"You are." He smiled broadly. Couldn't stop smiling. Would probably never stop smiling again. "I swear, you are. Last time the duty doctor came to check on you — " Not Dr Sutton that time. The ER doctor had gone off-duty at last, satisfied that his patient was well on the way to recovery. Not before Clark had said a heartfelt thanks for everything the man had done. " — your vital signs were getting close to normal. They'll want to keep you in for a couple of days for observation, but you're going to be okay."

She was silent for a while, seeming content just to hold his hand, let her eyes drift shut and take in the good news.

Amazing news. The best he'd ever heard in his life.

After all the horror, the sick dread and the frantic hunt for clues yesterday, the torment of seeing her weaken visibly in front of him, the joy and relief of knowing that she was going to live were… Indescribable.

"You're going to be okay," he whispered, needing to repeat the words.

"Yeah." She spoke in a whisper too.

For long moments, neither of them spoke. Clark couldn't have found the words, anyway; all he could do was look at her. Take in the fact that, contrary to what he'd believed, *lived*, for the past day, she was alive. And was going to stay that way — well, barring bad guys and kidnappings and plots to blow up the world.

They were interrupted then by a nurse bustling in. Time for more tests and observations. She seemed pleased that Lois was awake and, after asking some questions and getting answers, left again, pausing in the doorway to warn Clark not to tire Lois out.

He had no intention of doing that. He'd willingly just sit there, beside her, holding her hand in complete silence for hours if necessary, just to be with her.

"Clark?"

"Yeah?" Her eyes were open again.

"Thank you."

He squeezed her fingers. "For what?"

She gave a faint shrug. "Everything. You know."

"I didn't do anything."

"Yeah, right." She shook her head. "You were there for me. Every step of the way. I've never been able to depend on *anyone* like that before. Every time I needed something — anything — even if it was just a hug. I didn't even have to ask. You just knew."

He gave her a crooked smile. "Lois, I'd do anything for you. You have to know that."

"Yeah." A pause. "I do."

She fell silent then and dropped her gaze from his face. After a moment, he noticed that she was looking at his hand. Specifically, at the shiny new gold band on his third finger.

Oh. Right.

Regrets, now that their hasty marriage was something she had to face in the cold light of day?

Well, it didn't have to be a problem. She had said, after all, that they could just get a quick annulment or divorce, whichever was easier. Now that she no longer had any need for him as a husband, she could rid herself of him simply enough.

He didn't want a divorce. That was just being unrealistic, though. Sure, he'd told her that he loved her yesterday, and she'd even said she loved him back. But he couldn't hold her to a deathbed declaration.

So softly he barely heard her, she said, "So where's my ring, then?"

That was probably one of the last things he'd expected her to say… "I have it. The nurse had to take it off when you were admitted last night. I… didn't want it shut away in some safe, so I took it."

She withdrew her hand from his. Instantly, he felt the chill of its loss.

And then she was holding it towards him, palm downwards and fingers splayed. "Can I have it back, please?"

***

Clark's hand actually shook as he slid the ring back onto her finger. And, even though she'd only worn it for a few short hours yesterday, it felt as if it belonged.

This was all just so… unreal.

Her eyes were blurry again as she looked down at the gold band on her finger, then turned her gaze to the man who'd put it there for the second time.

Right now, she should be dead. She'd resigned herself to dying. After spending concentrated hours working, thinking, pounding the pavement, investigating harder than she ever had in her life before, only for it all to crumble to dust with the shooting of Edwin Griffin, she'd… well, not given up, but accepted the inevitable.

As had Clark. That had been obvious when he'd taken her away from the Planet, and even more so when he'd agreed to marry her. She'd seen the desperation, the *acceptance* in his eyes. The knowledge that he was going to lose her and the pain that just cut through him.

And now she was alive after all. And… married. To Clark.

He expected her to ask him to arrange a divorce. He really could be so transparent sometimes. When he'd seen her staring at his ring, it had been written all over her face. She would have said anything to take away the hurt she could swear she'd seen in his eyes.

Did she want to be married to Clark?

Did she want to be married at all?

He loved her. That was beyond question. Looking back, she shouldn't even have needed his impassioned declaration to tell her that. He'd shown it through the whole day, in more ways than she could even begin to count. In the way he'd looked out for her, supporting her and keeping her spirits up; the way he'd been completely attuned to her needs and done everything he could to meet them. The way he'd told her what losing her would do to him.

He'd shown it, too, in the way he'd set aside his responsibilities as Superman for her. That couldn't have been easy. In fact, it must have been near-impossible at times. She knew him — as Superman and as Clark — well enough to understand that. It tore Clark apart when he couldn't help someone who needed it. Yet he'd done that for her. Had anyone ever loved her that much?

And she loved him too.

But… marriage?

Most people at least tried dating first. And even perhaps living together.

Maybe it wasn't fair to let him think that she was accepting their marriage as a fait accompli. Maybe she should have broached the subject of divorce — or annulment — tactfully.

On the other hand… something within her screamed in protest at the idea.

Later. There'd be plenty of time to think about all that later. After all, now she actually *had* a later…

For now… she linked her fingers through his.

"Lois… I can't tell you how good it feels to know you're okay." His voice was husky as he raised her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "Knowing I was going to lose you… was tearing me apart…"

Yeah, she'd seen that. And knowing how much he cared about her had done so much to help her get through yesterday. Tears pricked again at blurry eyes.

"I'm feeling pretty happy about it myself," she admitted, and he met her gaze and laughed. Suddenly, the heightened emotion dissipated and she was able to smile.

He grinned back at her, and her own smile grew wider. "Welcome back, partner."

"It's great to be back."

"By the way — " He flashed her an amused smile, his eyes dancing with merriment. "- I think Henderson wanted me to tell you that he's glad you're okay."

"Oh? What did he say?"

"Something about wondering why he'd gone to all this trouble just so you could stick around to carry on telling him how useless he is." Clark's droll tone showed her just how Henderson would have said it, too.

"Figures." But Bill Henderson had been a very good friend to her yesterday, too. And to Clark. Maybe she'd give him a break for a while. A very long while.

So Clark had been spreading the news of her survival. He would have enjoyed doing that. "Did you talk to my parents? Or Perry?" Come to think of it, she'd never got around to calling her parents, had she? Had that been another uncomfortable duty Clark had had to do on her behalf?

"Not yet." He grimaced. "Actually, I never managed to call your folks last night. You came up here and got really sick pretty quickly and I… well, I just never thought of it."

Because he'd been too distraught. The unspoken explanation was written clearly in the bleak look that crossed his face for a moment.

"And then we realised it was lead and they gave you the antidote and… I just figured there was no point getting them worried for nothing. It was clear within about an hour that you were getting better. So I didn't call. As for Perry, I'd planned to talk to him once Sutton gave you the all-clear, but I guess I fell asleep."

"We can call him later." She grinned suddenly as an irresistible idea struck her. "Or wait until they let me out of here and you can just walk into the newsroom with me."

Clark blinked, then grinned in return. "I think the shock might be too much even for Perry! He'd probably come up with one of his stories about how Elvis is alive and well and pumping gas in Oklahoma."

He sobered then, lifting their joined hands once more so that their rings were in view. "This… Lois, I'm not going to hold you to anything. What we did yesterday… well, the circumstances have changed. I'm more glad than I can tell you about that. But if that means you want out, that's okay."

She stared at him. His face was kind of fuzzy around the edges still. But she could see the tic in his jaw which revealed his anxiety and the fact that this was hurting him.

Typical Clark. Always concerned about how she would feel. Making it easier for her to end their marriage if she wanted. Freeing her from the guilt of speaking the words first.

But still, she wasn't ready to make that decision. For him… or for her. Carefully, she asked, "Can we… not talk about that yet?"

He smiled warmly; her friend was back. "Take all the time you want." Unspoken between them was the reminder that time was something she had plenty of now.

"I just think… maybe we should… I don't know, take some time to… well, date or something? Before making a decision?"

"Really?" That clearly shocked him. "I thought… well, that now you're going to be okay you wouldn't want to be tied… I mean, you'd never have married me otherwise…"

Wouldn't she? Even leaving aside the Clark-Kent-is-Superman thing, which now didn't seem quite so astonishing as it had yesterday — amazing how quickly it was possible to get used to even the strangest of things — Clark had become special to her over the past months in a way that no-one else ever had. Ever. Even if he hadn't been Superman, he'd been her hero yesterday in every way.

And, in the midst of her fear and confusion after being attacked, it had been Clark, not Superman, she'd called for…

"Maybe not this soon." She gave him a crooked smile. "I was doing a pretty good job of refusing to notice what a wonderful guy you are. But you were doing a pretty good job of getting under my guard, all the same. I think, given time…"

"Given time…?" he echoed.

"I just might have succumbed to your Kansas charm anyway." She squeezed his hand.

His answering squeeze was accompanied by a smile that took her breath away.

***

Her room looked like a florist's shop.

The largest bouquet was from the Daily Planet, of course, though her favourite was the arrangement of spring flowers from Clark — freshly gathered in Australia, he'd told her when he'd arrived bearing it. But she also had a sneaking fondness for a vase of peach roses — complete with thorns — which had arrived by messenger a few hours after she'd awoken to see Clark asleep by her bedside.

She'd had to ask Clark to read the card; her eyes were still fuzzy and getting watery when she tried to focus too hard. That was a lingering effect of the lead poisoning and one which, Dr Sutton said, might be permanent. He was arranging for the ophthalmology resident to see her as soon as possible; she'd need correctional lenses, or she could even think about laser surgery.

Considering what could have happened, she'd live with some mild damage to her eyesight. Especially since it was easily correctible. Contact lenses were no big deal. After all, she couldn't have both Clark and herself wearing glasses… it would just look too cute for words.

"Take your time convalescing — my officers will appreciate it. Careful of the thorns — like someone I know, they can sting! Welcome back to the land of the living — Bill H."

She'd smiled when Clark had put the card down. Maybe she'd put Henderson on her Christmas card list this year.

She'd had a few visitors during the day: Perry, Jimmy, her parents and, to her amazement, Clark's parents. He'd arrived in the late afternoon with Martha and Jonathan in tow. To her surprise — and relief — they'd made no mention of her and Clark's marriage, though they had to know. After all, neither she nor Clark had taken off their rings, and she'd caught Martha looking at her ring with a secretly pleased smile on her face.

Though, while her other visitors had been there, she'd been careful to hide her left hand under the cover…

"I'm surprised that I haven't heard anything from Lex," she said as Clark returned from seeing her parents out. "I mean, he was so concerned yesterday…"

"Ah." He looked a little embarrassed. "I completely forgot to tell you. He's… a bit tied up at the moment."

"Oh?"

"Henderson arrested him last night."

"Really? What for?" And when had Henderson had time to do anything like that? From what she remembered, he'd been with her and Clark at the warehouse, and then dealing with everything they'd found there.

She listened in mute astonishment as Clark filled her in on what had happened and Lex's self-incrimination. "So… it's his fault that Griffin got killed?"

"Yes." Clark's expression was grim. "He cost us what looked like our only chance to save your life."

Though, by the sound of it, he hadn't meant for Griffin to be killed. That was still beside the point. If he'd known who her would-be assassin was, he should have told the police. Or Superman.

"Well, I guess we know what our next big investigation is, partner. And we'll get to do it together after all."

"Yeah." He grinned. "I'm looking forward to it. And Bill's promised us exclusive access. He doesn't expect this to be over any time soon — not with someone as slippery as Luthor, and with so many lawyers on his payroll. I think it could keep us busy for a few months."

She caught and held his gaze. "Not so busy that we can't find time for a few dates?"

The grin faded and he gave her an arrested look. "I… think that… could be arranged. Anywhere in particular you want to go?"

She shook her head, smiling. "I think I'd like to know where you'd take me."

"Well, that depends." He pulled the chair over to her bedside again and sat, reaching for her hand. She twined her fingers with his. "Are you dating Clark or Superman?"

"Well, I thought I was married to *both* of you…" She raised their joined hands to her lips, kissing his knuckles lightly. "Seriously, I'd like to know where Clark would take me on a date. And if Superman wants to take me someplace different the next time, I won't complain."

"Sounds like we might have a lot of dates lined up in the near future." And it sounded as if he was pretty keen on the idea.

"I'd say you're right."

"So, you think we should take these off for the time being? Until we make a decision, that is." He tapped his ring lightly with the index finger of his free hand.

Funny how attached she'd become to that little piece of jewellery in less than twenty-four hours. The thought of taking it off was… not appealing. But he was right. Unless they wanted to be faced with questions they weren't ready to answer, from all sorts of people including Perry, colleagues at the Planet and her parents, they didn't really have a choice, "Yeah, I guess you're right."

He gently tugged at hers, sliding it off her finger, but lessened the loss by bending to caress her lips with his in a warm kiss. Not passionate, but a kiss which held the reminder of urgent kisses yesterday and the promise of more to come in their future. "I'll keep it safe for you, I promise."

"You do that. I'll be wanting it back one of these days." And, as she said the words, she knew they were true. And that it probably wouldn't be too long, either.

"Whenever you're ready, Lois. Whenever you're ready."

THE END