Clark Kent, This Is Your Life

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

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: October 2005

Summary: Mixed-up Clarks. One Lana. Two Loises. Add in a couple of universes, a pair of scientists, and you get one big mess. Will everyone find their way home? Read on and find out.

This story contains adult themes which some readers may not enjoy. It is also not without controversy, particularly in respect of altClark's life choices. Whether or not you believe these to be plausible and/or acceptable, I very much welcome your feedback. However, if you find after reading several chapters that you're still not enjoying the story because of the choices I've made, perhaps this isn't the story for you.

It's a bit of an experiment, this story. The first scene popped into my head out of nowhere, and then, before I knew it, the rest of the premise had taken up residence in my imagination. However, I wasn't entirely sure if I should write the story, because it presents a version of altClark that goes against convention and would probably invite accusations of out-of- character representation. I was very curious as to where the story would take me, though, so I continued, hoping to find out whether I could make it work or not. Here's the result.

***

Waking up in the morning was, these days, a very pleasurable experience for Clark Kent. He'd surface slowly, taking his time to emerge from the cosy depths of sleep into the soft embrace of his new wife, Lois Lane. A dopily content smile would spread over his face. Married for just three weeks and every day life just got better and better. There couldn't be another man alive who was as happy or content as he.

This morning, however, was different. Waking up was difficult. He had to struggle, to fight against the sinewy grip of a blackness that was neither pleasant nor cosy. His head swam, and even with his eyes closed he was disorientated. He couldn't focus — couldn't, for the longest moment ever, remember exactly where he was. And when he did, he was even more confused, because Lois was missing. He knew that even without opening his eyes.

Well, maybe she'd risen before him. Three weeks into their marriage, it was too early to say what was routine and what wasn't. They were, after all, still figuring out how to be a married couple.

He didn't understand the sluggishness, though. He was used to waking up fully refreshed and brimming with energy ­ one of the benefits of being super-powered and super-fit. A probe into his cloudy memory yielded a complete blank on why he might feel so awful.

He forced his way up to the surface. Perhaps he'd been mistaken and Lois was lying right next to him. Opening his eyes, however, proved almost impossible ­ his eyelids were heavy and refused to move on his command. Anxious now and a little alarmed, he rocked his head to and fro on the pillow in an effort to wake himself up.

"Shhh."

Cool, feminine fingers brushed his cheek, and he quieted immediately, relieved that Lois was with him after all.

"Wake up, Clark," she whispered. "Open your eyes."

Once again, he tried to force his eyes open, and this time was rewarded by the image of a blurry figure leaning over him. Lois. He blinked to clear the image, allowing a warm and rather relieved smile to spread over his face.

A blond woman with blue eyes and a brittle smile hovered over him. "Welcome back, sleepy-head," she said softly, and bent down to kiss him briefly on the cheek.

His smile died and for a split second, he blanked out completely. Where was Lois? Who was this woman? Why was she kissing him?

Where was he?

He gripped the sheets tightly with his hand. They felt like the sheets he and Lois had chosen a few weeks ago. The pillow felt familiar. Even the bed felt like his bed.

So who was this woman?

She pushed the hair back from his face and smiled down at him. "How do you feel, honey?"

He stared up at her. Gradually, the features stirred a memory from his past. A long, long way back in his past.

"L-Lana?" he ventured querulously.

***

Lois Lane padded through from the bathroom back into their bedroom, tucking a corner of her towel in around her bust. Today was their day off from the Daily Planet, so she and Clark had slept late. Still, she was a little surprised that she was the first one up. Usually her husband was dressed and making breakfast before she'd even hit the shower.

Her husband.

She still got a little thrill from that. At last, her secret ambition, the furtive dream she'd only ever let herself dwell on through the protective prism of soppy movies and trashy romance novels, had come true. And a mere three weeks of marriage hadn't dimmed her excitement at all. She was living right in the middle of her very own romance novel.

Over on the bed, the object of her thoughts was lying on his stomach, his strong, broad shoulders uncovered by the sheets. One arm was outstretched towards her pillow, and his dark hair was endearingly tousled. She smiled. He was the world's most powerful man to those who knew him as Superman, yet to her, he was just Clark, her extremely lovable and currently sleep- befuddled husband.

She walked up to the bed and shook his shoulder gently. "Hey, sleepy-head. Where's my breakfast?"

He made a small moan of protest, then sighed deeply and rolled over onto his back with his eyes open. "Morning, L-"

Suddenly his eyes went wide with shock and he froze, her name dead on his lips. "What are you doing here?" he hissed anxiously. "Has Lana seen you yet?"

His eyes darted around the room as he scrambled to sit up. "Where are your clothes?" he demanded, swinging his legs around and standing up. "You have to get dressed and out of here!"

Puzzled, she watched as he began to hunt around the room, snatching up clothing from chairs, checking the floor and even, at one point, looking under the bed. "Clark, what are you doing?" she asked. "If this is some kind of joke, then I have to tell you, it's not one of your better attempts at humour."

"No joke," he said grimly, darting back to be bed to rummage amongst the tousled blankets and sheets. "Come on, Lois, you know the deal here."

"No, I don't," she replied, concern beginning to replace puzzlement. "I have no idea what you're talking about. And why would Lana, of all people, see me in my own bedroom?"

"Please, Lois," he said. "Don't play games. I hate this sneaking around just as much as you do ­ you know that."

Enough was enough. She intercepted him on his way to the closet and stared up into his anxious face. "Clark, what's wrong?" she demanded. "You're acting really weird. Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine, but I won't be if Lana finds you here!" he whispered. "You have to go. Now!" He gripped her shoulders and kissed her fiercely. "I love you, sweetheart, and I wish things were different, but they're not. I'll come over to your place tonight ­ she thinks I'm working late."

***

"Yes, it's me," replied Lana, her smile faltering. "Were you expecting someone else?"

Well, yes, of course he had been, but looking up into her face with its fading smile and cool eyes, he got the feeling that he'd be wise to keep that to himself until he figured things out. "No," he murmured. "Of course not."

"Of course not," she repeated in an acidic parody of his own voice. "How nice of you to say that."

He frowned. Whether this was a dream or reality, Lana had never spoken to him like that before. What the heck was going on here?

Lying flat out while she loomed over him was making him feel distinctly at a disadvantage. Sitting up, however, proved to be a struggle which made his head spin and awoke a dull ache in his limbs. Wearily, he rested his head back on the headboard and hoped the room would stop swaying sometime soon so he could figure out how to handle this crazy situation.

"Still feeling a little woozy?"

Her manner, all pouting face and sing-song voice, was more like that of a mother quizzing her poorly three year-old than of a mature woman asking after another adult's health. Under different circumstances, he might have made a sardonic remark about it, but he simply didn't have the energy.

"Yeah," he sighed.

She nodded. "That was a nasty turn you took last night," she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "What do you think caused it? I haven't seen you look so ill since that time you fainted back home in Smallville."

"I have no idea," he replied truthfully. Some of his symptoms, like the aching limbs, felt like kryptonite poisoning, but he didn't usually feel this thick-headed after exposure.

She placed a hand on his bare chest, making him distinctly uncomfortable. "It scares me when you get sick." The hand slid up his chest to his shoulder. "What with you being…you know. So different. There'd be no-one to help you if you got really ill." Her fingers pressed deep into the muscles of his shoulder as she leant forward, her eyes cool despite the upward curve of her lips.

He braced himself for her kiss. Thankfully, her lips touched his for the merest nanosecond. Just a brief, dutiful kiss and a glancing whiff of light floral perfume, and then she was drawing away. "I know you were planning on working late tonight, but maybe you should take things easy today," she said, removing her hand from his shoulder and withdrawing into a prim, self- contained unit at the side of the bed. "How about I phone Perry and tell him you're sick?"

"Okay." Anything to get rid of her for a few minutes so that he could do some thinking.

Had he encountered kryptonite last night? He couldn't remember clearly, but he didn't think so. Surely he and Lois had spent the evening working on their latest story…the Star Labs press announcement, wasn't it?…then tumbled into bed. Made love ­ he definitely remembered that part ­ and fallen asleep in each other's arms. So what was Lana doing in his bedroom acting like she was his wife?

And where was Lois?

***

"Get off me!"

Lois tore herself out of his grasp and staggered backwards in horror. He wasn't Clark. He'd just kissed her and was standing half-naked in her bedroom, but he wasn't her husband.

It was the little things, the minute, tiny things that weren't right. His hands holding her just a little too tightly. His lips just a fraction too rough. His stance…wrong. Not Clark's.

She clutched at the towel anchored around her bosom, suddenly feeling very exposed. "Who are you?" she demanded. "And what have you done with my husband?"

His face crinkled up into a frown. "What? Your husband?" He sighed. "I told you, Lois, we don't have time for this. Please — just get dressed and we'll talk tonight."

"It's Tempus, isn't it?" she deduced. "He sent you here. Well, you can tell him that whatever trick he's trying to play on us this time, it won't work. Just head back to your own dimension and give me my husband back."

"Who's Tempus?" he asked. "And why do you keep on about this non-existent husband of yours? Are you sick? Maybe you're feverish."

He stepped forward with a hand outstretched towards her forehead but she quickly ducked away. "Stay away from me," she snapped.

Backing up a few paces, she eyed him warily. Either he was a clone, or he was from another dimension. If he was the latter, then the chances were that he wasn't particularly dangerous, just really confused. If he was the former, then, in her experience, he was likely to have more in common with a lost little boy than a threatening superhero. Either way, she concluded, she could handle him. Okay…

"How do you feel about eating frogs?" she asked.

"Huh?" He was frowning again.

"Just answer the question ­ do you eat frogs?"

"No, of course I don't!" he exclaimed. "I mean, I once tried frogs' legs in Paris, but there's all those tiny bones and you don't get much meat on them…" He shook his head. "Why am I even having this conversation? You need to get out of here before Lana comes back…" His voice trailed off and he gazed around himself slowly. "From wherever she is…"

"Where do you think you are?" she demanded.

"In our bedroom, of course." But he was clearly beginning to have second thoughts about that. His frown deepened as he took in his surroundings.

"Who shares the bedroom with you?"

"Lana. My wife," he answered absently, drifting over to the closet and drawing open the door. "What have you done with her clothes?"

His wife? But the Clark she'd met in the other universe had split with Lana! Surely he hadn't gone back to her?

But no. This Clark was obviously new to the concept of universe hopping, so he must be from a different dimension to the other Clark. Oh, boy. Just how many dimensions were there out there, and just how many Clarks was she destined to meet in her lifetime?

Focus, she instructed herself. Forget all the other Clarks and concentrate on the one who is now closely examining your shoe rack as if he'd like it to magically acquire an entirely new set of footwear.

"I haven't done anything with them, believe me," she told him. "And I'm not the Lois Lane you think I am, either. That sounds crazy, I know, but it's true."

He snorted. "You're right ­ it sounds ridiculous." He slid open the opposite door of the closet. "Where are my suits?"

"Um…red and blue or charcoal grey?"

"Red and blue?" He swivelled around and laughed nervously. "You are kidding, right? You know what colour all my suits are."

"Actually, I don't." She tightened her grip on her towel. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. One, I am going to get dressed. In the bathroom," she added, just in case he had any other ideas. "Two, you are going to get dressed. In here. In…whatever you can find in there ­ " she pointed at the closet ­ "which fits you.

"Three, you have to have figured out by now that your wife, Lana, is not going to come storming in here. Scan the entire house if you like with your x-ray thingy and you'll find she's not here. So you can relax a bit. And four, after we're both dressed, we'll meet back in here and figure out what to do next. Okay?"

His eyes had flickered at her mention of his x-ray powers. Did that mean his Lois didn't know who he really was? Well, tough ­ she knew, and she didn't have time to tip-toe around his sensitivities on the subject. She wanted her husband back. Anything else was secondary.

"No, it's not okay," he replied, his fists clenched tight by his sides. "It's very far from okay. But since I have no idea what's going on and why you're behaving as if you don't know me, I guess I'll have to go along with this crazy game of yours. For now."

"Okay, that's good enough for me," she said crisply. "See you in five."

***

Clark sighed with relief when Lana left to phone Perry and fetch some breakfast. Perhaps he could figure out what was going on now that he didn't have to play-act with her. Wearily, he let his head roll to one side against the headboard and gazed around.

Everything looked…off. The same but different. For example, he could have sworn their curtains were russet-coloured when he'd climbed into bed last night, but now they were beige. The carpet was a darker brown than he remembered. Lois's dressing gown was missing from the chair in front of the vanity unit.

This wasn't his bedroom.

Which meant one of three things. One, he was dreaming or hallucinating. There was no way to test that theory, so it was probably safer to assume that he wasn't. Two, he'd been hit with some kryptonite, kidnapped and brought here. That was a possibility, although unless these were particularly devious kidnappers, it was difficult to explain away Lana's weird behaviour. Three, he was in an alternate reality. Now, normal people wouldn't even consider that option, but given his previous experience of universe-hopping, it wasn't such a crazy idea.

In fact, all things considered, it was the most likely explanation. Unless he was dreaming. Or hallucinating.

He groaned softly. Going around in circles wasn't much help. Time to do a little investigating.

But preferably with the minimum of effort. He turned his gaze to the closet and sent the usual instruction from brain to eyes to do their x-ray thing. Nothing. Just solid, opaque wood and a faint throb across his temples.

Definitely kryptonite. Nothing else could rob him of his powers like this. Okay, time to do things the old-fashioned way…

Slowly and carefully, he swung his legs around and sat on the edge of the bed. Not so bad, if you ignored the weird tilting floor and swaying furniture. Hey, some people would pay good money for an effect like that. Standing up was interesting, too. Who knew it was possible to stand perfectly still yet feel like you were dancing a slow waltz around the room without a partner?

All this needed was a little determination and a willingness to accept mobile furniture as a perfectly normal phenomenon.

He made it to the closet with the barest minimum of detours left and right. Gripped tightly onto the side and slid open a door. A rack of business suits, shirts and sweaters greeted him. Nope, not his. He slid open the other door. Feminine things. Nice colours, but far too neatly arranged. Yikes, they were even arranged by colour. Lois would never do that — Lois wasn't capable of doing that. Thank goodness.

Okay, the alternative universe theory was looking good. What else? Lana seemed to think she was his wife. He lifted up his left hand ­ yup, the wedding band was still there, although it seemed a bit wider than he remembered. Shame he and Lois had never had it inscribed with their names…or maybe these people had. He twisted it off and studied the inside.

"Till death us do part. Love, Lana."

A shiver ran down his spine. What a morbid sentiment to choose, especially when there was such a vast difference in their life expectancy. Lois and he usually avoided anything that could remind them of what might happen as they entered old age. Coupled with Lana's barely-concealed hostility, the inscription even seemed a little threatening

He shook head: now he was getting hysterical. It was perfectly normal to quote from the traditional wedding vows on your wedding band.

Okay, what next? The wooziness appeared to be lessening, so perhaps he ought to figure out how he'd ended up here and how to get back again.

***

As soon as she'd returned to the bedroom ­ and found her visitor fully clothed, thankfully — Lois had wasted no time. She hadn't allowed him to utter a single word while she'd launched into a resume of everything she knew and had experienced of alternate universes. She'd made it clear that he'd arrived in a different universe to his own, and that over here, Clark Kent was not married to Lana Lang, but to Lois Lane.

She was now regarding him warily and awaiting his reaction. His expression was unreadable, which was a bit disconcerting: usually she could tell exactly what Clark was thinking, the poker face not being one of his greatest talents.

He crossed his arms over his chest and pursed his lips. "Prove it."

She gasped. "You're kidding, right? Do I look like I'm making this up?"

"No, but I've learned the hard way that not everything in life is necessarily what it claims to be," he said harshly. "Prove it."

"Just how much proof do you need?" she retorted. "I'm obviously not the Lois you know. Lana, your wife, is nowhere to be seen. You don't recognise any of the clothes in that closet. This bedroom probably doesn't look much like your own and I'm willing to bet that if you took a look at the rest of the house it would look different, too."

The corners of this mouth turned downwards and he shrugged. "You're an actress made up to look like Lois. Lana is out on an errand. You changed the clothes and the appearance of this room to fool me. I haven't seen the rest of the house."

"When?" she exclaimed. "When would I have had time to do all this? Why would I do all this? My God, you sure redefine the meaning of the word 'paranoid', you know that?"

"And talking about parallel universes is perfectly normal, is it?" he sneered. "You, lady, redefine the meaning of the word 'crazy'."

"Okay, fine!" she retorted. "If you don't accept my explanation for all these differences, what's yours?"

Angrily, she crossed her arms and stared up at him, willing him to quit wasting time with his stupid, paranoid objections. Why couldn't he just accept that she was telling him the truth so that they could move onto the important business of getting Clark back? She was damned if she was going to let this universe-swap last one minute longer than it absolutely had to.

"I don't have one yet, but I'll find it," he said through gritted teeth.

She threw up her hands. "Be my guest! Search the entire house if you like," she added in exasperation. "Just do me a favour and do it at Superman speed, okay? We're wasting time."

"Superman? As in Man and Superman? By George Bernard Shaw?" he asked, his face screwing up into a frown. "What the heck are you talking about now?"

Darn — she'd forgotten he didn't know about Superman. "Using your…you know. Fast. Really fast. And seeing through things. All of that."

His expression turned cold. "If you represent who I think you represent, then the last thing I will do on this earth is perform for you like some kind of grotesque circus act." He swivelled on the balls of his feet and headed for the bedroom door. "Your set-up was good, I'll give you that ­ but you just blew it big time."

***

Dressed in his counterpart's work clothes, Clark paused on the threshold to the kitchen. Lana was leaning over the kitchen counter with her back to him, apparently writing something in a notebook. He took the opportunity to compare her with the Lana he'd known back in Smallville. Yep, same build. Same colour hair, although this Lana wore it shorter. She was also perhaps a little thinner than his Lana and didn't have such nice legs ­ they weren't as curvy and smooth as the Lana he remembered. Not that any woman's legs were as nice as Lois's.

Which brought him to the task in hand: get back to his own universe as soon as possible. Assuming he really was in another universe and not in the middle of some incredibly devious plot to outwit him. He'd run through all the possibilities again while he'd been dressing, but no theory had seemed any better or worse than this one, so he was sticking to it for now. At least this way he didn't need to worry where Lois was. She was safe at home in the correct universe.

Yep, safe. No reason to worry. So long as he got himself home soon.

To do that, he needed lots of information and facts, and he wasn't going to get those lying on his back in bed. The place for information was the Planet, and so he'd decided to tell Lana he was feeling better ­ which wasn't entirely untrue ­ and that he was going to work after all.

"Hey," he said, walking into the room and heading for a coffee pot he'd spotted near Lana.

She started, then hastily closed her notebook and shoved it to one side under a pile of papers. Clearly flustered, she pushed her hair out of her face and looked over to him with a brittle smile. "Darling," she said. "What are you doing up?"

Lifting a mug from the drainer, he poured some coffee and glanced surreptitiously around for the fridge. Ah, ha… He strode confidently across the kitchen and opened the door. "I'm feeling a lot better," he said, pouring milk into his coffee.

"But not so much better that you can face your usual black coffee, I see," she said. "Upset tummy?" she enquired, back to her mommy-voice again.

Darn. "No," he replied breezily. "Just felt like a change." Lifting the mug to his lips, he eyed the pile of papers where she'd shoved her notebook. Why the sudden need to hide it?

He couldn't even x-ray it to find out ­ not without drawing his glasses down his nose, and she'd be sure to recognise the gesture immediately and know what he was up to. Besides, he wasn't too sure he could x-ray anything right now.

She frowned. "Well, I still think you shouldn't work late tonight," she said. "In fact, how about I pick you up at five and we'll drive home together? Save you having to take the subway — and we can collect a take-out from the Chinese on Green Street."

She seemed very keen to prevent him from staying late at work. Why?

And was this growing sense that something was off-kilter in this household merely because he was in the wrong dimension, or was there really something odd going on?

"Sure," he said. "Thanks."

***

Lois leaned up against the kitchen counter, pensively watching the coffee machine splutter its way to the end of its cycle. She'd never really understood how it worked. Ground coffee and water went in one end and coffee came out the other ­ that was all she cared about. How much more complex would it have to be to turn it into a universe-switching machine? And would Star Labs have the answer? They had, after all, recently announced the successful transmission of matter from one side of a lab to the other: she and Clark had covered the recent press announcement and had tickets to the forthcoming demonstration.

A demonstration, she realised with a jolt, which was due to take place this morning. She'd have to take her intruder in place of Clark. Damn. Was he even press trained? Did he know how to behave like a reporter?

And just where the heck was he? Still prowling the house, presumably, looking for evidence of some massive conspiracy plot against him. Idiot.

She glanced at her watch. There wasn't much time before they were due at Star Labs. Impatiently, she shoved herself away from the counter and went to search for him.

"Clark?" she called. "Where are you?"

She found him in the lounge. He was standing by the mantelpiece, holding one of their framed photos and staring down at it.

"I just remembered I'm due at a press conference," she told him. "You'll have to come with me in place of Clark…my husband."

He didn't respond.

"I said, I need you to come with me," she repeated, annoyance lending an edge to her words. "Now."

Slowly, as if he was wilfully ignoring the urgency in her voice, he set the picture back on the mantelpiece. It was her favourite, she noticed. Christmas at Smallville, with a broadly- grinning Clark standing with his arms around both his parents.

He turned and faced her, his expression set firm and uncompromising. "Why are you doing this to me?" he demanded. "It won't work, whatever it is. I got over their deaths a long time ago. Lana should have told you that much."

"Those are my husband's parents," she said. "The man in the centre is my husband ­ their son."

"Your alternate universe story again." He turned back to face the mantelpiece and stared as his own image in the mirror above. "I don't understand," he said, his face creasing with confusion and anxiety. "I need to get out of here and find some answers."

Watching his struggle reminded her of the time she'd been dumped into an alternate reality. She'd been frightened ­ finding your own tombstone wasn't exactly confidence-inspiring ­ and very confused, but at least she'd had H G Wells with her to help figure out what was going on. This man had no-one.

She joined him at the mantelpiece and faced the mirror with him. "Look at me, Clark," she said softly. "Look closely. Do you really believe an actress could be made up to look as similar to your Lois as this? You can see how little make-up I'm wearing."

His gaze slid to her reflection. Flickered over her face. "You look so much like her," he murmured. "I wish you were her," he added in an aching whisper. His gaze lingered on her eyes for a moment then shot away quickly. "But you're not."

"And what about that picture-"

"God, what is happening to me?" He leant forward, staring deep into his own reflection. "I don't even recognise…" His voice trailed off and he brought a hand up to his face to rub at his chin. Tilted his face backwards and studied his image through narrowed eyes. "No scar…"

"Scar?" she asked. "What scar?"

"I fell off my bike when I was three and split my chin open," he said, his voice distant as he continued to study his own face in the mirror. "The scar never healed, even after I grew up."

He drew away from the mirror and brought his hands slowly up for study, turning them around and scrutinising every line as if he'd never seen it before. "I…I don't understand," he said faintly, the blood draining from his face.

When he rocked slightly on his feet, she grabbed at his elbow. "Here, sit down," she said, leading him to one of the sofas. He sank down and leant forward with his head in his hands.

"Would you like a glass of water?" she offered, glancing at her watch again. Time was fast running out if she was going to make the press conference in time, but she couldn't very well leave him alone like this.

"No," he said. "Just tell me what's going on."

"I already did that, but you wouldn't believe me."

He shook his head. "No, you don't get it." He fell quiet for a moment, his breathing heavy with distress. She began to think he might faint, he was so shaky, and wondered whether she ought to make him put his head between his legs or something. "I need…" he said, "I need you to explain why this isn't my body."

***

The elevator doors slid open and there was the usual polite shuffle of people exiting and entering. Murmurs of 'excuse me' and 'my floor'. The odd greeting between fellow workers. A waft of hot bacon from someone's McDonald's breakfast. With a great deal of apprehension, Clark joined the exiting crowd and stepped out onto the newsroom floor of the Daily Planet. The place was already buzzing with activity, phones ringing shrilly above the early-morning chatter. Which was probably a good thing ­ no-one would notice a curiously uncertain Clark Kent lingering near the elevator doors.

Glancing quickly around, he saw that the layout was largely similar to his own universe's newsroom and, with an air of confidence which was nine-tenths false bravado and one-tenth blind optimism, he made his way over to what he hoped was his desk.

Sinking down behind the relative sanctuary of the computer and its screen, he pretended to shuffle papers on the desk while trying to gather up his scattered wits. The subway ride had given him a chance to reflect on his situation with more clarity than he'd had a chance to with Lana buzzing around him, and he'd rapidly come to a frightening realisation: this body he was currently inhabiting was not his own.

The wedding band had been his first clue. If he'd merely swapped universes, he should have still been wearing the ring Lois gave him, not the one Lana had given this universe's Clark. After that realisation had come the thought that the underwear he'd woken up in had not been the underwear he'd gone to bed in. He'd long ago exchanged baggy white Y-fronts for closer-fitting marl- grey briefs ­ around the time he and Lois had begun dating seriously, in fact. And come to think of it, he should have woken up butt naked: he distinctly remembered Lois undressing him during their lovemaking the previous night.

The clincher, though, had been the scar on his chin. He'd spotted it in his reflection on the window opposite him. At first, he'd thought it was a mark on the window, but when he'd moved and the mark had moved with him, he'd known for certain: he was inside someone else's body.

Coupled with a faint echo of the wooziness he'd felt earlier, this new revelation was making him feel distinctly queasy. This body didn't fit right. When he moved its arms and legs, they felt awkward and wrong. Clumsy.

He leant his face in his hands and told himself sternly to get a grip. People would start to notice-

"Here." A polystyrene cup came into his field of vision. "You look like you need this."

The oh-so-familiar voice. But his heart clenched: it wasn't her. Not his Lois.

Slowly, bracing himself for the impact on his jangling nerves, he wrapped a hand around the cup and looked up. "Thanks."

Oh, God. Just like her. So, so, like her. With longer hair, just like she used to wear it.

She leant closer. "You look terrible," she murmured, her warm hand sliding over his where it rested on the desk. "What happened?" Her thumb slowly stroked the back of his hand, the nearness of her filling his senses with gentle citrus perfume mixed with her own sweet essence. Her low-cut top revealed the upper swell of creamy breasts and a hint of cleavage, and he had to consciously will himself to keep his eyes on her face.

Not his Lois.

But she reminded him of his wife, and she gazed down at him with his wife's sympathetic eyes.

"Nothing." He shrugged. "Just didn't sleep too well last night."

Her hand withdrew and her lips pursed. "I see. Kept you up late, did she?"

Something was out of kilter here: she wasn't addressing him as a fellow work colleague, but as…what? A close friend? And who was 'she'? Lana, presumably.

"No, I just-"

"It's okay," she said. "I know you have to keep up appearances." She bit her lip. "I just wish you weren't so…so dedicated to your role." She laughed shakily. "Sorry. I know we agreed I wouldn't do this. Look, drink your coffee, it's getting cold."

Thankful for the excuse not to respond, he lifted the cup to his lips and drank. Strong, black coffee slid down his throat, so bitter it made him grimace.

Not a close friend, he decided. A lover? Surely not.

Maybe he was misinterpreting her body language. Reading more into her behaviour than was actually there, because he expected her to act like his wife. Wishful thinking, that was all.

"I have to go out in a few minutes, but I'll see you tonight, okay?" she said, straightening up and raising her voice to the level of the others around them. "For that stakeout we planned?"

"Uh, I can't," he said, remembering Lana's determination to collect him at five and take him straight home. "Lana…"

She pursed her lips again. "But you promised," she said. "This is important, you know that."

No, actually, he hadn't a clue. "I know, but-"

"We've been planning it for days, Clark." She crossed her arms over her chest, her voice bristling with barely-concealed anger. "I can't believe you're backing out now."

"I'm sorry, but Lana wants us to go for take-out." God, that even sounded lame to his ears, but what could he say? He had no way of knowing what this stakeout was for and no way of backing out of Lana's arrangements. Although perhaps he might be able to phone her, if he could figure out where she worked…

Lois's eyes flashed angrily. "Fine. I'll go alone."

She whirled away and strode stiffly over to her own desk, sat down and buried herself behind her computer.

A wave of deja vu swept over him. How many times had he sat guiltily at his desk while a bruised Lois had sat opposite him, simmering with anger and hurt because he'd broken off a date? Sorry, I just remembered I have to return a video. Oops, I think I left the gas on at home. Lame excuses had been his speciality.

And just as he hadn't been able to offer any comfort or explanation back then, he was equally unable to give this Lois anything other than a weak apology. Sighing, he began opening mail and discarding most of it ­ the junk mail — in the trash. It didn't get any easier, watching her move jerkily around her desk, slamming drawers and tossing pens around, flinging files across her desk and treating her keyboard as if it was a creature from hell. His own Lois had been just the same.

He thumbed on his own computer and began to find his way into the system. Password. Oh, heck, how was he supposed to guess that? He tried a few, praying the system wouldn't lock him out after too many failed attempts. On the other hand, he could then just phone tech support and ask them to reset his password. If he could find the number for tech support…okay, that was handy. It was stuck on the monitor.

One phone call later, he was logged in and beginning to search for clues on how to get back to his own universe.

And two minutes after that, Lois was back, standing rigidly in front of his desk. "I need to talk to you," she said in a clipped voice. "Privately."

If only he knew how this Clark would have responded. What leeway might he have to refuse, or at least stall until he'd figured out his role in all of this mess? Not much, he concluded, looking up into her thunderous face. She was ready to drag him out from behind his desk if needed. Warily, he nodded. "Okay."

He'd barely closed the door on the conference room when she began speaking. "We had a date, Clark," she fumed, her hands clenched tight by her sides. "Our first real date for weeks, and you break it off to fetch take-out with Lana?" Her voice rose. "Take-out? What kind of an excuse is that? No excuse, that's what. God, when are you ever going to see how she's manipulating you?"

Lovers. Definitely lovers. Good God, his counterpart was an adulterer!

Squashing down his surprise and instant disapproval, he replied, "I'm sorry. She caught me off guard," he added truthfully. "You…you know what she's like."

Probably a whole lot better than he did, in fact.

"No!" she said. "I don't know what she's like, actually. Who can possibly understand a woman who calls her husband a freak? A woman who lies for years to her husband about her real feelings for him. Who brainwashes him into believing he's some kind of monster just because he's not like the rest of us. Tell me, Clark, just what goes on inside the head of a person who marries someone just so she can spy on him?"

He flinched. Was that really what Lana thought of this Clark? His head began spinning again and he grabbed at the back of a chair. What kind of a mess had he landed in the centre of? He sank down onto the chair in despair.

"Well?" prompted Lois shrilly. "Are you going to answer me or are you just going to sit there pretending you've got the most perfect marriage of all time?"

"Just give me a minute…"

"No, I won't!" she snapped. "I've given you minutes…hours…days, even. Weeks."

She let out a gusty breath and sat wearily down on a chair beside him, her anger seemingly spent for the time being. "Look what she's doing to you, Clark," she said heavily. "You're a wreck."

"I'm okay."

She shook her head. "She's making you ill."

"I'm fine." What else could he say?

"You always say that, but I know you're not." And then she was wrapping herself around him, her soft, feminine curves so familiar yet so wrong. "I hate seeing you like this," she murmured. "I think about what she wrote in that notebook and I want to scratch her eyes out." She kissed the side of his neck. "I want to show you again and again how wrong she is." Her lips pressed against the curve of his jaw-line. "Show you how human you are." She closed her mouth around his earlobe and sucked gently on it. "How sexy you are."

Wrong. This was all wrong. Only Lois ­ his Lois ­ kissed him like that. Resisting the urge to snatch away from her, he instead prised her gently off him and leaned away from her. "I'm not who you think I am," he said. "I-"

"Don't say that," she protested, reaching back for him. "Don't listen to her-"

"No, you don't understand." He got up and paced down the room. "Something happened. Last night."

Was this the right thing to do? He had no idea. But sharing the truth seemed a lot more honest than letting her continue to believe she was talking to her Clark. Besides, this was Lois. She'd be a strong ally in his efforts to return to his own universe, if he could win her trust.

"What do you mean?" she asked in a low voice. "Not while you were…with…her? I don't want to know, Clark. Not that level of detail, please."

"No," he replied quickly. "Nothing like that." God, where did he start? She'd never believe him. He drew in a slow breath. "When I went to bed last night, I was with my wife. My wife, whose name is…Lois Lane."

Her face darkened. "That's not even funny, Clark. Don't try to make a joke of this."

"Do I look like I'm joking?" he pointed out. "I'm telling you the truth, Lois. When I woke up this morning, I was with a stranger — or nearly a stranger. In my world, you see, Lana and I were school friends. No more than that. So I think…and I know this is going to sound crazy…I think there's been some kind of body swap between universes."

***

Usually, only a handful of press turned up for Star Labs' announcements and demonstrations, obscure scientific advances not being very high on the agenda of most newspapers or media organisations. Today, however, was different. The small pressroom was packed with reporters, all eager to see the magical transplanting of matter from one location to another. Extra seating had been brought in to accommodate the swelling numbers, and now even the aisles were filled.

Lois, however, with a judicious use of elbows and a good dose of sheer cussedness, had managed to fight her way to the front row and was waiting impatiently for the demonstration to begin. Beside her sat a brooding, silent Clark.

He'd hardly said a word since he'd accepted the undeniable fact that he was in a new universe, inhabiting her husband's body. She couldn't entirely blame him: she'd been pretty shocked herself when she'd realised he hadn't just swapped universes, but also bodies. In fact, she would have skipped the press conference if it hadn't been for the fact that they were probably going to witness one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the century.

Memories of Woody Sam's swap with Clark's body had come flooding back. That dreadful moment when she'd looked into Clark's eyes and seen the fierce red of an impending laser blow. The one time in her life when she'd been terrified of her own husband.

But this Clark, although bitter and upset, didn't seem dangerous. Just confused and troubled.

And what the heck was going on in his private life? He was married to Lana Lang, yet that kiss he'd given her in the bedroom had been highly passionate ­ a lover's kiss. He'd told her he hated 'all this sneaking around.' He'd been appalled to find her undressed in what he'd thought was the bedroom he shared with his wife. There was only one explanation: he was having an affair with the Lois of his universe.

How weird that, in just about any universe, Loises and Clarks just didn't seem able to remain apart for long. But an affair?

She snatched a sideways glance at him. He didn't look like an adulterer. Other than the bleak expression and the tense jaw line, he looked just like her Clark. What could have happened to make him unfaithful to his wife? Her Clark would never break his marriage vows — a promise was a promise, as far as he was concerned.

Although, what if her Clark was, right this minute, with the wrong Lois? Oh, God, if she treated him as if he was her lover and he didn't realise she wasn't his wife…

No. Clark would know. She was confident of that.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for turning up despite the dreadful weather to attend our demonstration."

Lois turned her attention away from Clark to the smart PR woman now standing behind the small plinth in the centre of the stage. This was the boring bit, where the glossy PR men and women expounded the importance and relevance of this latest scientific advance, usually making it sound at least three times more significant that it really was. But Lois knew that useful clues as to the real story could be winkled out at this stage ­ if she could keep her eyes from glazing over when the heavy science began.

As a slide show presentation started, Lois scanned the room for Dr Bernard Klein. She already knew that this wasn't his project, but she had a hunch he wouldn't be far away: this was Star Labs' big day, after all. And sure enough, after a few moments, she spotted him in a huddle with a few more white-coated men and women. Surprisingly, he didn't look as happy and proud as she'd expect him to be on such a momentous occasion. In fact, he looked downright worried.

Her gaze shot back to the stage, where the PR woman was introducing the scientist in charge of Project Scott ­ thus named because of the engineer in the TV series Star Trek who'd made such extensive use of similar technology. This scientist ­ Dr Henry Schulz — was all confident smiles as he explained the equipment arranged before him on the stage and took them through the brief demonstration they'd be witnessing.

As the demonstration commenced, Lois kept checking on Dr Klein. Interesting. The closer they got to the actual point when the equipment would be operated, the more uncomfortable he appeared to be. He was actually biting his nails when Dr Schulz announced he was about to teleport the small block of wood sitting inside a Perspex box on top of the biggest pile of jerry-built scientific gizmos Lois had ever seen.

She nudged Clark's ribs to draw his attention to Dr Klein's expression, forgetting in her excitement that he wasn't her husband. All she got for her efforts was an irritated frown.

"Forget it," she mouthed to him, turning her attention back to the smiling Dr Schulz.

"Please watch the box on your right very carefully," instructed Dr Schulz, with all the showmanship flair of a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

"Watch the other box," hissed Lois to Clark, just before an almighty electrical humming noise filled the room followed by a loud pop from the right-hand box. There was a collective gasp from the audience and then suddenly the box was filled with white smoke.

Dr Schulz donned a large protective glove, opened the lid of the box, and out of the billowing smoke, produced the block of wood and held it triumphantly up for all to see. "As you can see, the block has been successfully teleported from the box on your left to this box here," he announced.

Immediately, the room erupted with questioning reporters. Lois shot up from her chair, and, using the strident, piercing voice she'd developed over years of practice, drawled, "Nice party trick, but how do we know it's for real?"

The PR woman stepped forward. "Hi, Lois. Good to know the Daily Planet maintains its healthy scepticism of all things scientific," she replied smoothly, then gestured around the room. "As you can see, we haven't been shy about inviting the televised media to this event. You can also see that we've ensured that they're positioned all around the room, recording the demonstration from every angle. I'm sure experts from all over the country will analyse and dissect the resulting footage, and naturally, we have independent scientific observers in the room who can verify the genuineness of the demonstration you just witnessed."

Oh, really? Lois had her doubts. "But given that this is a Star Labs breakthrough," she replied, "and no other scientist in the world is familiar with your technology, how can these independent observers do their job effectively?"

"Because we've already published our research widely within the scientific community," said Dr Schulz. "Today is just the physical realisation of our theories."

"So other labs will shortly be teleporting wooden blocks too?" Lois asked. "Gee, life has never been so exciting for the humble wood block, I guess."

The room tittered. "This is just the beginning, Ms Lane," said Dr Schulz. "Imagine a world where no-one need travel on gas- guzzling machines ever again. Where people can travel from Metropolis to Milan in seconds."

A ripple of muted excitement passed through the room, suddenly pierced by a familiar voice. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet."

Lois jumped. She hadn't expected him to actually take part in the proceedings! What was he up to?

"Is the technology safe?" he asked.

Dr Schulz held up his woodblock and smiled indulgently at Clark: the brilliant scientist enlightening the ignorant hack. "Well, this little critter looks pretty happy."

The room laughed again. "But is the equipment safe to operate?" Clark pressed. "You talk of a utopia without cars, but is this technology any cleaner? How is it powered? Do you fully understand the possible knock-on effects of moving matter around like this?"

The PR woman stepped forward. "Which question would you like us to answer first, Clark?" she simpered. "I think you asked about four or five."

Lois rolled her eyes, although the woman had a point: it really wasn't good journalistic technique to ask more than one question at a time.

"The most important one," replied Clark firmly. "Is it safe?"

The woman shrugged. "For woodblocks, sure. Anything else, watch this space — it's still early days, guys. However, you can be assured that Star Labs observes the highest standards of safety in all its experimental work. We wouldn't have invited all you people here today if we weren't confident that it was safe."

Lois glanced over to Dr Klein's spot to find out what he thought of that, but he'd gone. Back to his lab, or to sit quietly somewhere and bite his fingernails some more? Thoughtfully, she sank down onto her chair. A visit was in order, she decided. Dr Klein knew something, and she was going to find out what!

***

Clark checked the clock on his computer screen: ten to five. Thank goodness. The day had dragged along, every hour bringing with it a new challenge in play-acting the part of his counterpart in this universe. Phone calls from contacts who expected him to recognise their voice and know what they were talking about. Fellow members of staff referring to events he had no knowledge of. Jimmy asking for further guidance on some research work the other Clark had handed over. Perry chasing for stories he didn't even know were due.

And all the time his mind had kept wandering over to the fact that his counterpart was an adulterer. No matter how much of a witch Lana might be, he just couldn't bring himself to approve of the affair. If the other Clark was unhappy in his marriage and loved another woman, then he should simply tell his wife so and move on. It was neither honest nor manly to do anything else. In fact, he'd found it hard to believe anyone who shared even the most tenuous similarity with himself could be an adulterer, and had spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the other Clark was behaving so differently to himself. Time he could ill afford when he was trying to cope with all the pitfalls even the most mundane of conversations presented.

Anyway, he'd bluffed his way through it all, and now he was exhausted. At least he didn't have to face Lana for a while: after a lot of deliberation, he'd decided the better course of action was to go with Lois this evening. She was more likely to be able to help him return to his own universe than Lana, and while he hadn't entirely managed to persuade her that he'd been telling the truth this morning, she was still a more sympathetic ear than Lana would ever be.

Besides, being with Lois would be…easier. Less challenging than Lana.

After searching around for a bit, he'd found the phone number for Lana's work and had called her to announce that he was feeling so much better that he was going to work late after all.

"Oh," she'd replied coldly.

"I'm sorry, honey, but we're really close to cracking this story," he'd said, speaking for the first time that day with a grain of truth. When he'd been poking around the computer, he'd discovered some highly disturbing notes on an investigation which this Clark and Lois were carrying out into a covert military group called Skywatch. Some of what he'd read had been horribly familiar.

"But you were so sick this morning," she'd said without an ounce of sympathy in her voice.

"I'm okay."

"You don't want a relapse."

"I feel absolutely fine, Lana," he'd insisted.

Silence. Except for her frustration, which had come through loud and clear from her short, agitated breathing.

"I'll see you later," he'd said, when it had seemed she wasn't going to say anything more.

"Clark, please." Suddenly there had been real pleading in her voice. "Please stay home tonight. I…I was looking forward to our take-out dinner. I thought we could pretend it was like old times ­ you know, like when we first moved in and didn't even have a bed, let alone a stove? I thought we could have some fun…like we used to…"

She'd sounded so plaintive, he'd felt like a complete heel. If this was what having an affair was like, how did other men cope? How could they do this to their own wives? "I…I'm sorry, Lana. Maybe tomorrow night we can do that. It sounds like fun."

"You mean you won't be working late tomorrow night as well?" she'd asked bitterly.

"No, in fact, I'll come home early." What was he saying? How could he promise to leave work early when he had no idea whether that was even a possibility. The desperation of the adulterer, he'd supposed.

She'd sighed. "In that case, you can do the shopping tomorrow. We're nearly out of milk and bread. And we need light bulbs again. Another one blew this morning."

"Okay."

So he'd rung off with instructions not to wake her up when he finally joined her in bed. He wished now that he'd suggested he sleep downstairs. Perhaps he'd do that anyway.

In the meantime, he had an evening with Lois in which to find out all he could about how he might have got here and how to get back. Assuming she ever returned from wherever-

"Still here?"

He looked up to find Lois shrugging off her coat while simultaneously sitting down at her desk and switching on her computer. Taking a deep breath, he stood and crossed over. "Yeah, I phoned Lana and told her I'm working late," he said quietly.

Even as the words left his mouth, shame and guilt washed over him: he hated the lies he was being forced to tell on behalf of this Clark. The guilt wasn't eased, either, by the delighted smile which spread over Lois's face.

"Great!" she exclaimed, keeping her voice down low. "I was wondering what I was going to do with all that food I bought for our…" Her eyes dipped coyly. "Stakeout. Just let me write up this interview and I'll be right with you."

She turned to her computer and suddenly froze, her hands poised over her keyboard. "Oh, I forgot," she said dully. "You're not Clark. You're just some crazy person who looks and talks like Clark."

He hitched a hip onto the edge of her desk and leant down towards her. "Lois, I know you don't believe much of what I told you this morning, but please let me have this evening to explain it better to you. I need help to get out of this mess, and you're the only one I can turn to."

Her mouth twisted. "You knew I wouldn't be able to refuse that, didn't you? A plea for help from the man I love?"

"No, it's not like-"

"Lois, you got that interview written up yet?"

Clark scrambled off the desk and turned to face an oncoming Perry wearing his sternest editor-on-the-warpath expression. "She's working on it, Chief," he said.

"And I suppose you were helping her," deadpanned Perry. "Don't you have a wife somewhere to go home to?"

Did Perry know about the affair? "I…she…"

"I asked Clark to help me," said Lois. "That's what partners do for each other."

"Hmph!" snorted Perry. "I hear they also cover for each other, but maybe I'm just a cynical old newshound. Thirty minutes, Lois, you hear? No longer. With or without Clark's help." He made 'help' sound like a dirty word.

"On it, Chief," called Lois to his retreating back.

Clark eyed her as she began rattling out the story on her keyboard. "So we're still on for tonight?" he murmured.

"Yes," she snapped. "Go away so I can get this thing done in peace."

***

Lois unlocked her front door and pushed indoors, her unwanted visitor following behind her like a stray puppy. She'd had a frustrating afternoon trying unsuccessfully to track down the elusive Dr Klein and was in no mood to act the welcoming hostess.

Dumping her briefcase and throwing her keys on the coffee table, she glanced back at him. "Do you want take-out? We've got a few places on speed dial if you want to order something."

"Uh…sure," he said, hovering awkwardly between her and the front door like he didn't know where to put himself. "What about you?"

She shrugged off her raincoat and walked past him to the hangers in the corner. "I'm not hungry."

"You didn't eat lunch either," he observed. "You're missing him, aren't you?"

Dumb-ass question. Of course she was missing her husband.

She bit back the angry retort and made her way over to the TV. "Yeah," she said, switching it on. "Just like you're missing your wife, I imagine."

It was a cheap jibe, but it pretty much summed up her feelings about him. She slumped down onto one of the sofas to watch the news. As she'd expected, they led with the Star Labs demonstration. Once again, a smiling Dr Schulz did his party trick with the wooden block.

"Not that it's any of your business," said a coldly angry voice from behind her, "but you have no idea what you're talking about."

"Oh, really?" she drawled, keeping her eye on the scientists gathered behind Dr Schulz. "Don't they call it adultery in your universe, then, when a man cheats on his wife? Must be more different over there than I imagined."

"No, we call it adultery, too," he said. "And I'm not proud of what I'm doing, you know."

"Oh, then that makes it all right," she retorted. "You've got a conscience."

Was it her imagination, or did one of the other scientists on the back row flinch when Dr Schulz activated the machine? She leant forward and grabbed the phone on the coffee table. Dialled.

"Hello?"

"Jimmy, turn on the news," she barked. "LNN. Right now."

"I'm kind of in the middle of something-"

"Now, Jimmy!"

"Jeez…okay, I'm watching. Now what?"

"See that guy third from the end on the back row?" she said.

"The one with the moustache?"

"Yeah, him. I want everything there is to know about the guy on my desk by ten am tomorrow morning, okay?"

"Believe it or not, I do have a private life, you know-"

"Hey, I gave you a whole hour in the morning. More if you get up early."

"I was planning on going out tonight, actually," he protested with just a hint of a whine. "On a date. You remember dates, Lois ­ they're what normal people do-"

"She'll understand if you tell her it's for an important news story," said Lois crisply. "I would. See you tomorrow."

She rang off before he had a chance to protest any more, certain in the knowledge that, for all his complaining, he'd deliver the research on time. And it was definitely important: her sixth sense was telling her that she needed to find out what was happening behind the scenes at Star Labs. Maybe she was being fanciful, but she had a strong hunch that Dr Klein's nail-biting performance this morning and the impostor filling Clark's shoes behind her were somehow connected.

"You don't give people much of a chance, do you?" He'd sat down opposite her while she'd been talking to Jimmy and was now regarding her with an unreadable expression. Respect or dislike? She wasn't sure which.

"What do you mean?"

"Jimmy is expected to drop everything at your convenience. I'm judged guilty before you've even heard my defence," he said. "That poor receptionist at Star Labs got an earful from you this afternoon. Tell me, does everyone in your world have to dance to Lois Lane's tune?"

"And are you always this rude to people you've only just met?" she retorted. Ungrateful idiot. Didn't he realise she was doing this for his benefit as much as her own?

"Only the ones who treat me like something the cat dragged in," he said heatedly. "Look, I know you're missing your husband, but I didn't ask to be switched into his body, you know. It's not my fault we're in this mess."

"I know, but I look at you and I see Clark, except you're not Clark and you're nothing like him." She bit her lip as it threatened to wobble. Damn lip. Traitorous lip. "You're even wearing his clothes, dammit. I bought that tie for him just last month."

His hand drifted up to the object in question. "I'm sorry. Do you want me to take it off?"

She shook her head. Stupid tie. Stupid suggestion.

He dropped his hand into his lap. "It's going to take more than a tie to fix this, huh?" he murmured ruefully. "Okay. I think we got off to a bad start here. You're missing your husband and I'm still trying to adjust to living inside someone else's body ­ and in the wrong universe. So why don't we try again? I'll apologise for being rude to you, and you can…well…"

"Apologise for treating you like something the cat dragged in?" she suggested, allowing a faint smile to lift the corners of her mouth. "Okay. Where do we go from here?"

"Well, how about I order that take-out for us? I'm starving."

She let her smile grow a little. "If you order a pepperoni pizza, I might even eat a corner of it."

He grinned. "Pizza it is."

After he'd ordered the pizza, they spent a few minutes discussing their options for reversing the switch between universes. Lois explained how and why Tempus had made it happen previously, but mused that, based on past experience, she would have expected him to have shown up by now if he were responsible. Tempus could never resist the chance to crow to his victims.

"What if it were accidental?" suggested Clark. "A…a rip in the space-time continuum, or some kind of…I don't know…black hole? A…a door between the universes that one of us accidentally opened somehow." He grimaced. "I have no idea what I'm talking about here."

"Which is why we need Dr Klein," said Lois in frustration. "He's normally easy to track down, too, which is making me even more suspicious."

"Suspicious?"

"I think something is going on at Star Labs, and Dr Klein knows all about it," she said. "We need to find him."

"Yes." He sighed. "Maybe if that Dr Schulz has something to hide, we should speak to him. Get him talking about the project and then try to trip him up."

"Good idea. And if Jimmy comes through on that research about the other guy, we can speak to him, too," she said.

He nodded. "Sounds like we have a plan," he said. "Now all we need is that pizza."

She smiled, letting herself relax a little now that they'd figured out what to do next. "You really are hungry, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Must be what universe-hopping does to you."

"Maybe." And maybe he wasn't such an idiot after all. At least he wasn't as surly as he'd been earlier.

She flicked her gaze over him. She'd been lying a little when she'd said he looked exactly like Clark ­ he didn't. He wore Clark's body differently to her husband. Less…comfortably. Less confidently. Was that just because he felt awkward in a body which wasn't his, or was it how he normally carried himself? "So…what makes you think you deserve a chance?"

His face crinkled in puzzlement. "Huh?"

"Earlier," she said. "When we were…disagreeing…you said I should give you a chance to explain yourself."

She might have expected an angry retort for raising the subject again, but instead he sagged forward, his arms resting on his thighs. "Maybe I can't," he muttered to the carpet. "I mean, it's not like I understand it myself."

"This morning, you said you'd learnt that things aren't always what they seem," she prompted. "What things?"

"Not things. People," he said. "One person, to be exact."

"Who?" she prompted, although she was pretty certain she already knew the answer.

He looked up, his mouth twisting bitterly. "I'll give you one guess."

"Lana…your wife?"

"Yeah. I found out she…doesn't feel about me the way I thought she did." He snorted. "And that's the understatement of the century."

"She was cheating on you?" she asked.

"No. I might have coped with that."

"What, then?"

He shook his head and pushed up from the sofa to pace restlessly towards the mantelpiece again. Lifted the picture of Clark and his parents down and gazed at it. "Are they still alive?"

"Yes, that picture was taken just last year," she answered. "They still run the farm in Smallville."

He nodded. "He's very lucky to have them," he said huskily.

"Yes, we both are," she agreed. "So…you miss them, I guess? It must be hard losing your parents as a kid."

"Yeah," he murmured reflectively, his eyes still on the picture. "If it hadn't been for Lana's parents, not to mention Lana herself…" She watched him drift away into old memories, his expression softening for a few moments.

Then he moved abruptly, replacing the picture back on the mantelpiece. "To answer your question," he continued, his voice acquiring a hard edge, "Yes, just lately, I have been missing them."

Okay, whatever Lana had done had clearly hurt him very deeply, so… "Why haven't you just left Lana?"

"I…don't know. I mean, I do, but… Lois wants me to, of course, but I just…I can't." He brought his hand up to the back of his head to worry at his hair. "She was there for me when Mom and Dad died, and she helped me when weird things began happening to me…she knows all about me. I can't just leave her…"

"But she's obviously done something that really hurt you," she said. "Why would you want to stay with someone like that?"

He sighed heavily and came back to the sofa. Lois settled back against the cushions, realising this was going to be a long explanation. "I found a piece of paper…"

***

He hadn't believed it at first. Standing in the middle of the living room, the vacuum cleaner still shrieking impotently beside him while he stared down at the scrap of paper it had sucked up from beneath the sofa, he'd decided there must be some mistake. Either this wasn't Lana's handwriting, or he'd misunderstood the words she'd written — it wouldn't be the first time he'd misinterpreted his wife, after all. Still…

"…floated in its sleep again last night. Woke him up immediately and instructed him to stop. Will remain vigilant to further occurrences and will wake and stop as needed. No evidence at this time that the behaviour is anything other than involuntary. Sleep disruption and emotional conditioning should ensure this latest alien aberration is soon suppressed.

"Other alien behaviour: none. Marriage and the move to Metropolis seem to have settled him for now."

He'd read it again. And again. And yet again, but the same two words had sprung out at him each time.

Its sleep.

Its.

The thing was, he remembered. How she'd repeatedly shaken him awake and caused him to crash back down to the bed. Told him, so apologetically, that he was keeping her awake with his floating. Please, honey, she'd said. I can't sleep when there's this big black thing looming over me.

He'd been understanding. Apologised that he was being freaky again. Over the following couple of weeks, he'd developed a sixth sense that had kicked in whenever he was starting to float in his sleep — had trained himself to sink back into the bed without even having to come fully awake.

Its.

He'd searched frantically through the house, looking for pictures of her, of him and her together. Stared down at her face. Tried to read her eyes, to find the real Lana behind the pretty smile, the oh-so-straight teeth and the gleaming blond hair. Where was the person that called her husband a thing? Who wrote so clinically and coldly about the man she shared a bed with?

Its sleep.

He'd begun to shake like a man with a high fever. The walls had closed in on him. The house they'd bought together had suddenly become a prison. A laboratory.

He'd burst out of the front door into the fresh air, gasping for breath and fighting nausea that had threatened to turn his guts inside out. Momentum had carried him into the street and set him running to her, to the one person he could confide in.

The pull towards Lois Lane had been there from day one. When she'd walked into the newsroom, brimming full of energy and with an attitude that could slice through cold steel, he'd felt a tug deep in his belly. All of his senses had locked on to her, making him acutely aware of her wherever she went. She'd been a magnet for all the feelings and emotions he'd long forgotten he even possessed.

And then they'd been made partners. The pull had become stronger, and worse still, had been reciprocated. Together, though, they'd resisted it. They'd buried themselves in their work and become good friends instead. More than once, he'd considered telling Perry he couldn't work with her any more, but he'd never been able to come up with a good enough reason. Instead, they'd become even closer. She even knew who he really was.

And now, God help him, he was running to her.

By the time he'd reached her apartment, he'd reigned in his emotions. He was just a work colleague dropping by for some friendly conversation. If she'd noticed his hands were trembling or that he was still gulping back the nausea, she didn't say anything. Not at first, anyway.

He'd been standing at her kitchen counter, stirring sugar into his coffee, when she'd come up beside him and placed the flat of her hand on his back. Right between his shoulder blades. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could recall the exact sensation, the exact spot where her hand had lain. "Clark, what's wrong?"

"Is this coffee new?" he'd asked. "It smells different. Smokier."

"It's a new blend I'm trying."

He'd taken a sip. "Nice."

"I thought you'd like it." Her hand had begun rubbing small circles between his shoulder blades. Soothing him. Making him ache to confide in her. "Tell me what's happened."

He'd shaken his head. "I can't."

"Then why did you come here?" she'd asked softly.

"I don't know. I made a mistake." He'd placed his mug on the counter. "I should go. I shouldn't be here."

He'd made to go, turned away from her, but she'd caught his arm. "I want to help."

"I…I'm not sure you can." Lana's words danced before him, taunting him. Its sleep. Alien aberration. Emotional conditioning.

"You're shaking." She turned to face him. Grasped his other arm and gazed up into his face, a concerned frown creasing her brow. "You look awful," she said in a hushed whisper. "What's happened to you?"

"I…got a glimpse of reality," he said. "How things really are."

"What do you mean?"

"Lana. She…" He tore away from her. "It can't be true. I should go."

"No, stay," she'd said, moulding herself to his back, her soft body pressed close against his, her face resting on his shoulder, her arms around his waist. Gentle citrus perfume filled his senses. "Talk to me," she murmured. "Tell me what's wrong."

He'd closed his eyes, unable to stop himself from revelling in her forbidden closeness.

They'd been avoiding contact like this — known instinctively that it was dangerous, that once they broke through the safety barrier they'd erected between them, there'd be no going back.

The warmth of her body seeped through his back and melted into his soul.

"Tell me what's hurting you," she prompted again.

Her liquid voice, so understanding and easy to respond to. He couldn't resist her any longer. "Lana," he said. "She wrote something."

"What?"

But he hadn't been able to repeat the words he'd read. He'd reached into his jacket pocket, where he'd stuffed the sheet before his flight from their house. Drew out the crumpled paper and handed it back to Lois.

Waited while she read. Cringed with shame while she read the words his wife ­ the woman he had entrusted with his entire life — had written about him.

"My God," she'd muttered in a hushed, appalled whisper. "What is she? Who is she?"

"My wife," he said harshly. "My darling, beloved wife. The only family I've known since I was a kid."

"Clark…" She'd turned him around on the spot and drawn him into her arms. He'd gone willingly, finally allowing himself to draw the comfort he'd sought from the moment he'd decided to come here. He'd held her tight against his chest, clinging on to her, burrowing deep inside her protective circle.

"I don't know what's real any more," he'd confessed, his voice cracking.

"This is real," she'd replied firmly. "And you…you are the most human person I know, Clark Kent. Don't you dare believe what's on that piece of paper."

***

Night had fallen while Clark had been telling his story. The room was dark except for the moonlight streaming in through the patio windows. It glanced off one side of his face, sending the rest of his huddled body into deep shadow.

He'd fallen quiet a few moments ago. His voice had faltered, and, rather than attempt to continue, he'd simply stopped. Now, the half of his face that Lois could see was bleak, the eye hooded as he stared blindly into the darkness.

Lois had been transfixed ­ horrified, even ­ by his tale. From the sound of it, Lana had been studying him for years while she played out the role of good friend and then loving wife. There was even a hint that she'd been exerting some kind of control over him.

No wonder he was so bitter.

And no wonder he'd gone running into the arms of Lois Lane.

But still… "I can understand how upset you must have been, but I still don't understand why you haven't left her," she said softly.

"Well, in the beginning, it was all so new…"

***

Nothing more had happened between him and Lois that night. He'd returned home to Lana, still unable to completely believe what he'd read on that scrap of paper.

But, after that night, he began setting small tests for her. One day he activated his extremely rusty heat vision to reheat her cold coffee. She immediately scolded him and told him they had a microwave oven for that sort of thing. The newly hot coffee remained untouched. Contaminated?

Another time he let himself float in his sleep and was unceremoniously pulled back down to the bed.

At dinner, he chilled their wine with his freezing breath. Fortunately, he did it while facing away from the table, because his lack of skill caused him to also hit a nearby pot plant and freeze it, quite literally, to death. Lana was horrified and immediately assaulted him with a barrage of questions about why he'd done it and what was wrong with him. Couldn't he control himself any longer? Had he forgotten how dangerous it was to give himself away like that?

None of these tests, however, proved anything more than he already knew: Lana cared deeply that he repress any abnormalities. No big deal: he'd known that from an early age, and had willingly gone along with it as the only way to survive in a hostile world that distrusted anything alien. God, he'd even been grateful when she'd helped him train himself out of each new deviation from the norm.

So he also searched the house for more evidence of her note- taking. Furtively, whenever he was alone in the house, he looked in drawers and cupboards, underneath furniture and on the tops of closets. He searched the kitchen. Turned the den inside out.

And while he did that, he also tried to test her love for him. How often did she touch him, he asked himself? Kiss him? When did she last inconvenience herself on his behalf? Do something on impulse just because she loved him?

On the last two questions, he came up with a cold, empty blank. They did things together, sure, but they were small, habitual things like a meal out after the weekly shop. An evening at the opening of a new art gallery ­ tickets courtesy of her job at the Metropolis Museum of Art.

Their marriage, he began to realise, was held in a straitjacket. Everything, from sharing the domestic chores to their minimal social life, was kept within strict parameters. Nothing too adventurous, nothing that wasn't routine, and definitely nothing unusual.

One night, he watched her during their lovemaking. Monitored her, just as that scrap of paper had implied she monitored him. Were her responses genuine or faked? But her head had been turned to one side and her eyes screwed shut. Hiding her real feelings?

"Look at me, sweetheart," he'd murmured.

She'd opened her eyes and turned her head to face him. Wide open eyes gazed steadily up at him with a slight cloudiness behind them. Was that haze borne of love or a need to be somewhere else, far away from this bed and this man invading her so intimately? He'd never bothered to analyse her reactions before ­ had never questioned her love for him before ­ and now found that he couldn't read her at all.

Wasn't a husband supposed to be able to sense his wife's emotions?

Afterwards, he'd muttered a weak excuse and stepped into the shower to try and cleanse himself of the ugliness which now infected all his thoughts about Lana.

The experience didn't stop his search for proof that she was studying him like a lab rat, however. The grain of doubt had been sown and he couldn't ignore it. He widened his search to include unlikely hiding places such as the laundry cupboard and the under-stairs cupboard. The spare bedroom and the linen basket in the bathroom. The umbrella stand in the hall. Searching became his obsession.

And he began to spend more time with Lois. Not by any conscious means, but by stealth. The working day extended: they began earlier and finished later, their rationalisation being that the quieter hours at either end of the day allowed them to get more done. The fact that it also gave them more time alone together was merely coincidental. Late stakeouts and evening meetings with interviewees became more commonplace. Meals out together became a necessity ­ what else could you do between finishing work late and waiting for that mid-evening interview with the mayor, after all?

He and Lois laughed together. They played intellectual games of wit and quick-fire banter. Ideas for stories bounced between them like juggling balls. Lois was easy to talk to, and she didn't always follow convention. She brought bright, brash light into his life where Lana would have changed the bulb for a duller, easier on the eye model.

Finally, one wet Tuesday night when Lana was out at her weekly art class, he found it. A single notebook, buried under a pile of old school textbooks in the loft. Page upon page of clinical observations, written in Lana's neat handwriting. He guessed, from a familiarity with her style borne from hours spent studying together through high school, that the book dated from their late teens to early twenties. Most of it was incredibly mundane, a simple chronicle of absolutely everything he did during the day while in her presence.

But what sent him rushing into the bathroom to lose the contents of his stomach was the pronoun she used throughout the entire book.

It.

It got on the bus and sat next to me.

It ate a hamburger and fries for lunch.

I let it kiss me on the cheek today.

He'd fled through the rain-drenched streets to sanctuary, to the place he always turned to these days. Turned up on her doorstep soaked to the skin and half out of his mind. She'd taken him in and held him while he shook in her arms and babbled about how he'd found the book, how he hadn't been able to believe that first scrap of evidence, how he wished more than anything that he hadn't found the book. She'd soothed him and told him again and again how incredibly human and loveable he was.

"Come on, let's get you out of those wet clothes," she'd said after a bit, reaching up to the first sodden button on his shirt.

"No, Lana will be home soon from her class," he'd protested, covering her hands with his own. "I should go."

"Clark, you can't confront her like this," she'd said. "At least get yourself dry and have a cup of coffee before you leave."

He stood, undecided and still holding Lois's hand against his wet shirt. It would be so easy to stay just a little longer. Delay the confrontation with Lana for as long as possible.

"You're in no shape to confront a limp lettuce leaf, let alone Lana," she'd pressed, a faint smile dancing around her mouth. "Here…"

And she'd begun to unfasten his buttons. One by one, her fingers deft and nimble, unlike his own trembling, clumsy hands now hanging loosely by his sides. Such a simple, innocent little task, he'd told himself: one adult helping another, like a nurse might help a shell-shock victim.

She'd reached his belt and tugged the shirt out to finish the job. Spread the edges of his shirt and splayed her hands flat against his bare chest. The warmth of her hands seeped through his skin. "I don't understand how anyone could write such ugly words about you," she'd murmured, pushing the soggy material off his shoulders to land with a faint plop on the carpet.

She'd stood so close to him he could hear almost feel her quickened breathing. "Lois, we can't…"

"Can't what?" she'd asked, sliding her arms around him, the soft, feminine fabric of her blouse brushing over his skin. "Can't do this?" Her lips had closed over his, as full and luscious as he'd imagined through all the long, aching hours working by her side.

He'd responded instinctively, his sluggish, shell-shocked brain lagging far behind his desire to hold her and kiss her, to wrap his arms around her lithe frame and lose himself in her.

"Let me show you how loveable you are," she murmured around their kiss.

Hands had worked quickly at his belt and his zipper. Yeah, removing his wet clothes. His focus had been their kiss — her intensely sensuous lips, her sweet taste, her warm curves as she moved under his hands.

He'd been lost in his need for comfort, for solace from the cruel world outside where the rain lashed down and his very existence had been turned inside out. Here was Lois, here was understanding. Here, he could prove that he wasn't a thing, but that he was a sensuous, living being.

Here was love.

Afterwards, her hands had twined in his hair, soothing him as he'd sagged against her, gathering his scattered senses together. Smooth palms had caressed his back, calming him and easing away the icy tendrils of guilt already trying to infiltrate his thoughts.

Here. Here was love. Not…there.

He'd risen above her with a vast sigh. Found her already there, not hiding from him but gazing wide-eyed up at him. No cloudiness, no convenient haze cloaking her emotions. Just…love. Without a doubt, he'd recognised that immediately: unlike Lana, he had no difficulty reading Lois's feelings.

And so it had begun: he had entered the tortuous, secretive world of the adulterer.

At first, of course, he'd fully intended to confront Lana and tell her he was leaving her. He'd agreed that much with Lois the very first night. In fact, Lois had needed to calm the seething anger that had threatened to strangle his heart once the shock of his discovery had worn off. He'd been ready to storm home and tell Lana to pack her bags that very night.

But, returning home, he'd discovered that the monstrous, evil woman of the notebook was none other than Lana, his companion and confidante since childhood. Surrounded by his old, familiar things and a house full of their memories together, he'd found that he couldn't yell at her. Couldn't even be sure that he'd got things right ­ where was the cold woman who'd written 'it' so many times? She'd smiled as she'd asked him about work and told him about the still life she'd begun at her art class. She'd made coffee for them and they'd sat watching the late news on the TV together. The scene had been excruciatingly normal, but for his conscience screaming that he'd cheated on his wife.

And yet, he'd kept snatching glances at her. Her face, so serene as she gazed at the TV, had taken on an evil, malicious cast. Those blue eyes, which only this morning had seemed familiar and friendly, now looked cold and scheming. That mouth, so small and neat, was now pinched and sour. Her forehead, so smooth it could only belong to someone with a clear conscience, now hid a callous brain that had called him a thing.

Anger had bubbled up inside him again. His fists had clenched. The mug in his hand had acquired a hairline crack and he'd put it down with painstaking care lest he crush it to dust.

Then, sitting isolated on their rarely-used armchair because he couldn't any longer bring himself to cuddle up to her on the settee, his mind had travelled ahead to a chilling scenario: would she play her trump card if he told her he was leaving her? Snippets of past conversations had floated through his head.

"So I'm the only person who knows you're…you know…not really human?" A young, ten year old Lana, strolling by his side on the walk home from school, the late afternoon sun lighting up her face and her blonde pony tail, which swung lightly from side to side. She'd slipped her hand into his and avowed with all the earnest gravity that only youthful innocence could provide, "I promise I'll never, ever tell another living soul, so long as I live. Cross my heart and hope to die."

Then their first, shy kiss, taken in his foster parents' living room while the adults had driven into town for groceries. Afterwards, her finger had pressed against his lips. "I'm never going to let them take you away from me. You're all mine, Clark Kent."

And always, always, "No-one must ever find out what you really are." Repeated so many times that it had become her mantra from early teens to the present day.

Finally: "As long as we're together, I'll keep your secret safe, my love." First murmured when he'd proposed to her, and repeated endlessly since. A reminder of her loving care and protection of him, he'd thought.

As long as we're together.

The words had taken on a new, sinister meaning as he'd sat there blindly watching TV. If he left her, she'd tell everyone. That was his new interpretation, and he could all too easily imagine it: a jealous and betrayed Lana wreaking revenge on her traitorous husband. He'd seen her possessive side more than once in their marriage, and he knew she had a fiery temper.

His gut had twisted and the room had tilted sickeningly. Bile had crawled up his throat. A world where everyone knew that he was an alien. He'd be hounded by the media and stalked by the government. They'd find a way to capture him and strap him to a table, probe him and inject him and take samples from him…

He couldn't bear…couldn't risk that.

So he'd let things drift a little while he figured out how to deal with the situation. The notebook went to work with him and lay in the bottom drawer of his desk, a dark, evil presence constantly stalking his thoughts. Lois asked him repeatedly if he'd spoken to Lana yet; he brushed her off. One day, she even dragged him into the conference room where he flew off the handle and told her she didn't understand what she was asking him to do.

She wanted him to risk everything. He might as well write the headline himself right this minute: "Alien Found Living In Suburban Metropolis." Didn't she realise what Lana was capable of?

Lois had yelled back that he was being a doormat. Why would anyone even believe Lana? The idea that a farmer's son from Kansas was really an alien was preposterous.

He'd pointed out that Lois herself had believed it when he'd told her.

And so the argument had raged on throughout the day and continued to simmer under the surface for several days afterwards, colouring everything they did together.

A week had passed and bruised feelings had gradually healed. Then, working late one night with Lois after a trying day during which she'd seemed unusually irritable, they'd ended up making love right there at her desk.

He'd begun by comforting her, having discovered that the source of her bad mood wasn't, for once, his own lack of progress with Lana, but a particularly nasty encounter with her mother. He already knew that Lois didn't get on with either of her parents, but this time, it appeared, her mother had exceeded herself in her bid to make her daughter aware of how little she thought of her chosen career, her lack of a good husband, and even her inability to dress herself appropriately. Clark had seethed internally at the faceless Mrs Lane and automatically drawn Lois into his arms.

It hadn't been until they were locked together in a tight embrace that he'd realised how little control he now had over his feelings and responses to her. What had begun as innocent comforting had quickly escalated to needful kissing and heavy fondling, and thence to exciting and illicit lovemaking in the darkened newsroom.

"So…when are you going to tell her?" she'd murmured afterwards, planting a small kiss on his neck.

Unwilling to disrupt their languorous intimacy with guilt and recriminations, he'd replied with a distracted, "Soon."

"We can't keep doing this," she'd pressed.

"No…"

"She called you a thing, Clark," she'd reminded him. "Your own wife."

"I know…"

"I don't understand why you can't just leave her."

"You know why," he'd replied. "I need time…to figure things out."

He found her lips, so full and soft, so tender-

She jerked away from him. "Don't."

He stilled again, breathing heavily.

Abruptly, she pulled off him and stood up. "I can't do this," she said. "I can't be the other woman."

"I…I'm not asking you to do that," he replied.

"No, you're not," she conceded. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have let this happen."

Grimacing, he bent forward to retrieve his clothes . "Takes two to tango," he observed. "I'm just as much at fault as you are."

She finished dressing herself with a final tug on the sleeves of her jacket and a swift finger-comb through her hair. "Yes, you are." Leaning on the edge of her desk, watching him as he stuffed his shirt into his pants and fastened the buttons, she continued, "Clark, I understand how difficult this is for you, really I do. Coming on top of the Skywatch investigation, this thing with Lana must be the last straw for you. But sooner or later, you'll have to make a choice.

"Either you forget Lana's notebook and go back to playing happy families, or you accept it for what it really is and do something about it. Sure, there's a risk she'll tell the world about you, but which would you prefer? A stifling, miserable life handcuffed to a woman who calls you a thing, or a life with a woman who…who really cares about you. Who probably loves you, but is too scared to admit it to herself until she's sure she actually comes first in your life."

And with that, she'd snatched up her purse and fled from the darkened newsroom, leaving him alone and feeling more wretched than ever.

***

"Hold on," interrupted Lois. "What's the Skywatch investigation? You never mentioned that."

In the dimly-lit living room, he was a dark, brooding figure hunched over with his elbows resting on his knees. He'd been relating his story in a husky, strained voice, sometimes stopping altogether for long, emotionally-charged silences. When even the light from the moon had been lost to cloud, she'd turned on only a small table-top lamp, sensing his need for the cover of darkness to tell his tale.

"No, I guess I haven't," he replied, burying his face in his hands. "Look," he said, his voice muffled by his fingers, "I don't think I've got the stomach for this any longer. Do you mind if we call it a night?"

She blinked, frustrated by his abrupt full stop. Skywatch sounded important — he'd drawn her into a compelling tale of deceit and wrecked dreams and now she was ready for the next chapter. Besides, listening to his story saved her from dwelling on her missing husband.

She was already dreading the long, lonely night in their empty bed. Funny how quickly you could get used to sharing your bed with someone, even if you'd been single for years…

However, he did have a point about the lateness of the hour. "Sure. Um…I'll bring you down some blankets and pillows, okay? The sofa's pretty comfortable as a bed."

***

Following Lois into an eerie facsimile of his wife's old apartment, Clark faltered. Fire engines were hurtling towards a fire on the other side of the city. He could hear them as clearly as if they were screaming down the road just outside Lois's apartment.

Great. His powers were back.

But he couldn't respond, could he? He had a strong hunch that this universe didn't have a Superman.

Heck. This was going to be torture if he had to listen to accidents and emergencies without being able to do anything to help.

"What?" Lois's irritable demand dragged him back from his thoughts. She'd paused half-way across the living room and was regarding him impatiently. "Oh, let me guess," she drawled, placing a hand on her hip and rolling her eyes, "this is nothing like your Lois's apartment."

"No, actually, it's very similar," he replied. "Or, at least, it's very similar to her old apartment. We're living at my place these days." Anxiously, he tuned back into the fire scene. The fire fighters were shouting instructions to each other and in the background he could hear the roar of the blaze. From the tone of their voices, the firemen sounded confident they could contain the fire. Okay. He let himself breath more easily. No super help needed. Not this time.

He followed Lois into the kitchen, where, to his surprise, she began pulling out food from the fridge. "You cook?"

She twisted around and looked at him as if he'd just asked what colour the sky was. "Doesn't everyone?"

"Lois…my wife…doesn't." He watched while she filled a pan with water for pasta and emptied a tub of pasta sauce into another pan. "She leaves the cooking to me. Says we stand a better chance of survival that way."

"Clark and I usually cook together," she replied. "He does the salads while I do the complicated stuff like emptying sauces into pans and heating things."

Clark and I. In Lois's mind, he noted, she and the other Clark were already a couple. Did Clark feel the same way? He certainly didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave his wife. What was stopping him?

"I can make a salad if you've got the ingredients," he offered.

She opened the fridge door and gestured at the salad compartment. "Be my guest."

He pulled out a lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and sundry other salad ingredients, found a knife and a chopping board and set to work. "So, how much has your Clark told you about himself?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I think you already know he's not exactly…from around here," he said cautiously. "Don't you?"

"He's from Kansas, you mean."

"Well, that too, but when I say 'around here,' I mean…here. As in…Earth…here." He snuck a quick glance at her to check on her reaction. Nothing. Reassured by her relaxed prodding of the pasta in its pan, he began to pull apart the lettuce, taking great care not to do so at superspeed. No sense in blowing the other Clark's cover if he hadn't told her everything.

"Yes, I know that," she said, moving over to stir the pasta sauce. "What of it?"

"I wondered what else he told you," he said. "Other…differences."

Her spoon stopped moving in the sauce. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said bluntly. "Clark is no different to you or me."

"Actually, I'm very diff-"

"Look, just who are you, and why are you asking all these questions about Clark?" she demanded, whirling on him with her eyes blazing.

Okay, definitely a reaction this time. He suppressed the urge to take a step backwards. This was a Lois. He could handle Loises. "I told you, I'm another Clark. From another universe." Boy, that sounded even crazier spoken out loud than it had in his head.

"If that were the case, you wouldn't have to ask all these questions about him," she pointed out. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you out right this minute."

"Because I'm your best chance of getting your own Clark back," he said. "Believe me, I don't want to stick around in this universe any longer than I have to."

"How do I know you haven't just kidnapped him?" she said, brandishing her spoon at him.

"Have I asked you for a ransom?" he countered, eyeing the drippy spoon and wondering how long it would be before a blob of sauce landed on the floor.

She snorted. "The people who want to kidnap Clark won't be asking for a ransom."

"What people?" he asked in alarm. There were people planning kidnap? "Who wants to kidnap him?"

She bit her lip and turned back to stir her sauce. "If you're who I think you are, then I don't need to answer that question," she muttered.

Talk about paranoid! "Indulge me," he said heavily, trying not to shred the lettuce into tiny pieces in his frustration. "Pretend I'm not who you think I am."

She lifted the lid off the pasta to check whether it was cooked. "How well done do you like your pasta?"

"Al dente," he replied. "Definitely not mushy."

"Okay." She took the pan over to the sink, grabbed a colander and tipped in the pasta to drain it. Then she gave the colander a couple of practised shakes and placed it back inside the empty pan with the lid balanced on top to keep the food warm. "Skywatch," she said at last. "Although, I don't think they want to kidnap him. Not yet, anyway."

Skywatch! Wasn't that the name of the group he'd seen mentioned in Clark's files at the Planet? The quasi-military group headed by Jason Trask?

Thoughtfully, he turned his attention away from the hapless lettuce to the sturdier cucumber. Should he admit he'd read those files or not? If she thought he was involved with Skywatch, she probably wouldn't believe him whatever he said.

She pushed past him back to the stove, not noticing that her hip had caught the handle of his knife where it lay on the chopping board. It spun around, the blade heading straight for her midriff. His response was automatic, his hand grabbing the blade before it sliced into her.

Damn! He'd moved at superspeed without even realising it.

She stared down at his hand where it still grasped the blade of the knife, then slowly peeled his fingers away from the sharp edge and turned his hand around to examine the unblemished skin.

He closed his eyes briefly. Not Lois's fingers. Just someone who looked, felt and even breathed like she did.

"You knew," she breathed. "You knew the knife wouldn't cut you, didn't you?"

He took in a deep breath and drew his hand away, unable to cope with the confusing and conflicting mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar. "Yeah. My body works just the same as his does."

"And you moved as fast as he can…"

"Yeah."

"But you're not him. You…you don't touch me like he does." A little pink crept into her face.

"No."

"My God," she muttered. "How can this be? How can you be in Clark's body?"

"I wish I knew," he said, shifting along the counter so that she wasn't so close to him. "That's what we need to figure out, so that we can reverse it. Is there any chance these Skywatch people could be involved?"

"I doubt it," she replied, turning off the heat under the sauce and fishing out plates and cutlery from a cupboard. "Their speciality is spying and covert operations, not scientific experimentation." She glanced over to him. "Is that salad done, because the pasta's ready."

"No, but…" He shifted into superspeed and completed the job. "Now it is."

She gaped. "Clark's never done anything like that. Wow."

"He doesn't use his extra abilities in front of you?" he asked in surprise.

"He doesn't use them, period," she replied. "I mean, he's shown me some of what he can do, but he says they're useless in everyday life because they're so clumsy and unreliable." A corner of her mouth turned upwards. "When he showed me his heat vision, he sent me into the lounge for safety and even then I had to buy a new sink afterwards. He was mortified."

"Sounds like he never practised enough," surmised Clark. "It can be pretty useful, as you can see."

"I'll say," she agreed. "He could clean this apartment in seconds." She began dishing up the pasta. "He never will, though."

"Why not?" asked Clark. "It's never too late to start practising."

She shook her head. "He hates what he calls the freak-show stuff. I've been trying to make him realise that a lot of people would love to be able to do what he can do. I tell him he's special, not freaky. I tell him he's as human as you or me. But it's not easy after all these years, and Lana-" She bit off the sentence and pursed her lips. "Let's just say that Lana doesn't help."

She took the plates over to the table and motioned for him to bring the salad. "I've just about trained him not to say 'freak,' but then Lana does or says something and we're back to square one again." She sat down and continued in a strained voice, "She's slowly tearing him apart, and the worst of it is, he doesn't even see it."

He joined her at the table and handed the salad bowl over to her. "Why doesn't he just leave her?"

She shrugged her shoulders and gave a funny half-sob. "I don't know. I really don't know." She pressed her fingers to her lips as if trying to prevent her emotions from spilling out, and he saw that her eyes had become glassy with unshed tears. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not usually so emotional, but I…I care about him, you know? He's already been through so much, and now there's this body swap thing, and I just don't know how well he's going to handle it. I mean, he's pretty resilient ­ stronger than a lot of people — but everyone has limits, don't they?"

He nodded. "But he's with my Lois. She'll make sure he's okay." Assuming she didn't beat him up first when she figured out he wasn't her husband. Lois could be pretty resourceful, even in the face of superpowers. "I'm sure they're already well on the way to figuring out how to reverse this thing."

"I hope so," she said miserably. "I miss him."

"Tell me more about these Skywatch people," he suggested. "I know you don't think they're anything to do with this, but they're the best lead we've got so far."

"I guess so."

And so, over dinner, she related their investigation into the covert military-esque group headed by none other than Jason Trask. Apparently, a couple of months ago, Clark had discovered quite by chance that his parents' old farmhouse had been acquired by a faceless business consortium, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a cover for Trask's group. Not only that, but the acquisition had taken place right back in the early Seventies, just after his parents' death. Clark had been horrified, because, on the face of it, Skywatch appeared to have been investigating him ­ perhaps even watching him ­ since he was a kid.

Clark felt the blood drain from his face. "That's terrible," he murmured.

"Yeah," agreed Lois, sipping the coffee they'd made after dinner. "It's the only time I've seen him get sick, when he found that out."

Clark could sympathise: it was too close to his own worst nightmare. "So what do you think Skywatch is up to now?"

"We think they're just watching him," she replied. "Now that he knows about them, he's noticed a couple of people who've seemed to take just a little too much interest in him, and once he was pretty sure he was followed."

"And what does Lana think of all this?" he asked, remembering her cold behaviour this morning. He'd imagined that was due to suspicions about her husband's fidelity, but perhaps there was another reason.

"She doesn't know," said Lois. "At first, he didn't want to frighten her until he was sure of his facts, and then, just when he was about to tell her, he found out…he found the notebook."

"Notebook?" Suddenly, an image of a guilty-looking Lana hastily concealing some kind of book this morning in the kitchen came back to him.

Lois sighed. "I shouldn't be telling you all this, but I guess you have to know if you're going to go back there tonight. Lana's been keeping a diary. She writes down absolutely everything Clark does. And she calls him a thing."

He frowned, sure he must have misheard her. "I'm sorry — did you say a thing?"

She nodded and took a swift gulp of coffee. "It. It ate a hamburger. It kissed me." Her mouth twisted. "Now you know why I hate her…"

He didn't hear the rest of whatever she was saying. Disgust anchored him to his chair for a moment, until seething anger propelled him from his seat to storm blindly into the kitchen. He grabbed the coffee pot, snatched a mug from the drainer on the sink and sloshed the hot liquid into the mug, heedless of the scalding spillage over his fingers. Lifting the mug to his lips, he drained it down in one, letting the fiery coffee sear down his throat to join the fire in his stomach.

It.

How dare she? What right did Lana have to call someone not of her own species a thing?

For a moment he was back at school, listening to his classmates discussing the latest monster alien movie and shrivelling inside whenever they laughed at the aliens and called them names. Made out that they were evil, emotionless creatures. Things.

"Are…are you okay?"

Lois's tentative voice from the threshold of the kitchen drew him back to his surroundings. "Yeah," he said thickly. "I figured drinking your coffee was preferable to smashing my fist through your wall." He took a couple of deep breaths and turned around to face her. "Sorry. How can he bear to stay with her?"

She pushed away from the door jamb and came to mop up the mess he'd made on the draining board. "You'd have to know him to really understand the answer to that one, but basically, it's the lesser of two evils. He's always been terrified that people will find out he's not human, and he thinks Lana would do just that if he left her."

There was something in her tone… "You don't agree?"

"No. She'd be ruining her own life as well as his if she gave him away." She sighed. "But Clark's fear of exposure is pathological ­ like I said, he actually threw up when he found out that Skywatch might already know about him, and you'll know how rare it is for him to get sick ­ so he refuses to take the risk."

All of which explained a lot, but Lois seemed to be clinging to a hopeless cause if Clark was that fearful of exposure. "Leaving you…?"

"Leaving me picking up the pieces and putting him back together again every time his sham marriage gets too much for him." She shook her head in self-disgust. "I'm a fool to stick around, but I can't seem to give him up. I keep hoping that if I chip away at him long enough, he'll see things the way they really are."

He nodded. "I've kind of been there myself. I had to chip away at my Lois for a long time before she even noticed me." He paused, wondering if he should voice what was on his mind. The facts he'd been given were beginning to add up to a pretty ugly picture, and he suspected that, because this Lois and Clark were too close to the situation, they hadn't made the connections he was now making. Of course, he could be entirely wrong, but he'd never forgive himself if he was right and didn't say anything…

"You know, I caught Lana writing in her book this morning," he said.

This time it was Lois's turn to lose the colour from her cheeks. "She's still doing it? We weren't sure, because the notebook Clark found dated from their late teens."

He nodded. "Oh, yeah." He drew in a slow breath. "Look, has it ever occurred to you to wonder…Lana's keeping a diary about Clark, and you know that Skywatch is watching him…is there any chance that Lana is working for Skywatch?"

She stared at him for a moment and then laughed. "Lana? She's just a country girl with a warped sense of right and wrong. Sure, her family is pretty reactionary, but I can't see her working for an organisation like Trask's. She's too well brought-up. Too…nice."

"Well, consider this," he said. "This morning, when I woke up in Clark's body, I felt ill. Okay, maybe you could attribute that to the body swap thing, but some of the symptoms I was experiencing…they were pretty familiar. On my world, I would have suspected I'd been exposed to kryptonite."

"Kryptonite? What's that?"

"Something that makes us sick," he answered cagily. "And I might be reaching here, but I think there's a possibility that Lana exposed Clark to it last night while he was asleep."

Lois lobbed her cloth into the sink and leaned back against the worktop. "Why would she do that?"

"Well," he said, turning to rinse out the mug he'd just used. "She was really insistent that I stay home today and especially tonight. What if she knows Clark's having an affair with you and tried to keep him at home by making him ill?"

"Oh, get real!"

He up-ended the mug on the draining board. "They grew up together, didn't they?" he asked, warming to his theory as he developed it. "So if anyone is likely to know what could hurt him, it would be Lana, don't you think? Especially as kryptonite is usually found wherever his…craft…first landed. Smallville," he added in case she was still in any doubt.

She stared at him. "You're serious, aren't you? Lana Lang: master spy." She looked away from him for a moment, closed her eyes, then opened them again. "Nope, I still get xenophobic country girl, not Mata Hari. Anyway, how sure can you be that it was this kryptomium-"

"Kryptonite," he corrected.

"Whatever. That this stuff was what made you sick this morning?"

He grimaced. "I can't. But I just thought you should be aware of the possibility."

"Okay." She glanced at the kitchen clock. "It's getting late. You should probably go home to Lana."

Was she dismissing his theory? "You'll think about what I've said?" he pressed.

She nodded. "I just…I need to be alone for a while," she said. "You're too much like him ­ well, you are him when I look at you. It's…confusing."

"I know," he agreed. He understood exactly what she was going through, he reflected with an inner sigh. At least her hair was longer than his wife's…

"I guess this is just as hard for you," she said. "I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "We'll figure it out somehow. In the meantime, I guess you're right ­ I should head home."

Not that he was looking forward to seeing Lana again. This morning's encounter had been bad enough, but now he'd have to work twice as hard to be convincing. He'd also better have a good cover story ready for her, and as for sharing a bed with her…

Perhaps he could sleep downstairs on the sofa. Yes, that would be much better.

But no. If she was awake when he got back, he'd have no choice ­ he'd have to join her. Even if she asleep, there was still the risk that she'd wake up in the night and see that he wasn't there. And what if she woke up before him in the morning and found him downstairs on the sofa? He'd never explain that away.

***

Meanwhile, far away in a grey featureless building on the outskirts of Metropolis, a clerk broke the Skywatch seal on a brown padded envelope and tipped out today's tapes for transcription. From the labels, she saw that these were the project director's weekly report tapes and duly opened the relevant file on her computer. Entering the date and time at the top of the page, she slotted the first tape into the tape recorder, pressed play and began to type.

Project Status Review: Recommendations

1. Analyse the alien's newspaper articles for subversive content and subliminal messaging: this has been a serious oversight and requires urgent attention;

2. Increase surveillance of Lois Lane;

3. Instruct Lana to strengthen all security and control measures: the alien must remain within her sphere of influence. However;

4. Lana not to be informed of suspected sexual relations between the alien and the Lane woman. More evidence needed (see point 2);

5. Authorise more frequent applications of Smallville B.

***

Clark found that he was in luck when, later, he entered the bedroom he'd woken up in that morning. Lana was fast asleep, curled up with her back to the centre of the bed. Relieved that there would at least be no further confrontations that night, he undressed quickly. Oh, how he wished the other Clark wore pyjamas in bed instead of just his underwear! Even an added t- shirt would be difficult to explain. Oh, well… Steeling himself to a night spent virtually naked beside a complete stranger, he lifted the covers gingerly and slipped under them as silently and smoothly as he could.

This was horrible. He lay on his back, every muscle tense with unease. Lois should be sleeping here beside him. Just three short weeks of marriage and his love for her grew stronger and more intense with each day. She'd become part of his soul. She was his best friend, his lover and his companion. And he kept thinking of all the little things he was missing ­ had she found that CD she'd wanted to buy? Were her new shoes still killing her? He could be rubbing her feet and soothing away her aches and pains instead of stuck here in this horrible place. Tomorrow, he resolved, he was going to figure out a way to reverse this-

"So did you catch the bad guys?"

He froze. Lana was turning around to face him.

"Not this time," he said. "I might have to try again tomorrow night."

"Can't you skip it? Let someone else go in your place," she murmured, easing closer to him. "I miss you." She kissed his bare shoulder.

"It's my story," he said. "I have to go."

"Give the story to someone else," she said. "Your partner, for example."

Oh, boy. How much did she know about Lois? "She's got enough work of her own."

"I just bet she has," she muttered, planting another kiss on his shoulder. "Women like that always do well."

Women like that. Just what was she trying to imply? Fighting to keep any edge out of his voice, he said, "What do you mean?"

"Smart and good-looking," she said. "It's an irresistible combination for most men."

Was she trying to get him to lie? Say Lois wasn't irresistible to him, because he had Lana? Well, he wasn't prepared to lie on the other Clark's behalf, that was for sure. "Lois isn't like that," he replied as a compromise. "She hates women who sleep their way to the top."

"Of course she does." A small, warm hand landed on his stomach and began tracing small circles there. "You're so tense," she murmured.

Repulsed, he turned quickly on his side. "I'm tired," he muttered. No doubt his refusal would fuel any suspicions she already harboured about her husband's affair, but too bad.

He listened to the pregnant, angry silence behind him. Deep, frustrated breaths full of recrimination. "You know," she muttered eventually, "if you're having trouble getting…you know…there are things that can be done. Pills you can take."

He grimaced and remained silent: there was no response to a remark like that.

"Of course, they might not work on you," she continued. "But you won't know until you try, will you?"

There it was: the reminder that her husband wasn't human. How many times a day did she do that? As for her implication that Clark was impotent ­ well, he was pretty sure she didn't really believe that herself. She was just testing him. Needling him.

"Just a thought," she said, turning away from him again.

Glad he was being left alone again, he forced himself to breathe deeply and relax. Sleep was, for once, a necessity after the day's stresses and strains.

***

Lois opened a baleful eye and glanced at her bedside clock. Three minutes past midnight. The last time she'd looked, it had read twenty seven minutes to midnight. The time before that, twelve minutes past eleven.

Time just seemed to move so incredibly slowly at night. Especially when there was a gaping emptiness on the other side of your bed where your husband was supposed to be.

Sighing, she pulled herself out of bed and crossed to their chest of drawers, where she drew out one of Clark's sweaters. Holding it close to her face, she breathed in deeply, inhaling his scent. Better. As soon as she smelt that fresh, clean, male scent, she could picture him in the sweater, smiling broadly down at her.

She padded back to the bed and slid under the covers on his side, hugging his sweater to her chest. He'd come back to her, she knew he would. She just had to figure out what had caused the switch, and then reverse it. Easy.

In the meantime, where was he? Was he with Lana, sleeping next to her in her husband's place? He'd hate that. He'd be tense and unhappy, and that little muscle in his jaw would be jumping along his jaw-line. He'd try to sleep but she doubted he'd manage it. She'd discovered almost immediately after they'd married that he wasn't good at sleeping when he was unsettled. A particularly upsetting rescue had kept him tossing and turning most of the night ­ or at least until she'd pulled him into her arms and held him tight.

She didn't much like the imagine of him sleeping next to Lana, so she moved quickly on. Had he figured out that the other Clark was having an affair with the other Lois? Well, if he'd gone to the Planet and met her, he probably would have. He might even have told her who he really was, if he'd thought he could trust her.

Could you trust a woman who was having an affair with a married man?

She pursed her lips, remembering how much she'd hated Mrs Belcanto, the next-door neighbour her father had courted over the garden wall. For a time, she'd laid the blame for the entire affair squarely at the evil woman's feet; labelled her as a Jezebel who'd schemed to lure her Daddy away from the family home.

But life wasn't that simple. She'd learned later that her father was as complicit in the affair as Mrs Belcanto As the old cliché would have it, and as the other Clark had said himself, it took two to tango.

And so it was with the other Clark and Lois. Her counterpart probably wasn't a Jezebel, just a woman in love who'd met the right man at the wrong time. Should she have resisted temptation? Of course she should, but Lois herself was only too acutely aware of how powerful true love was. Not only was it impossible to ignore, but it made you do almost anything to make your partner happy. No doubt the other Lois thought that was what she was doing ­ giving her man the support and comfort he desperately needed while he was married to a monster like Lana Lang.

Did that mean Lois condoned the affair these two were conducting? No, she didn't think she did, but she understood it.

Still, the man sleeping on their sofa downstairs really did need to gather the strength together to leave Lana. If he was here much longer, she'd tell him that. Quite often.

***

Right at the edge of Clark's consciousness, a funny whining noise was preventing him from dropping down into deep sleep. He frowned. Unless he was very much mistaken, that was their fridge-freezer, which he didn't usually hear when he was asleep. He heard things like the water tank in the loft, but not equipment downstairs.

He allowed a little more consciousness to bleed into his sleep. Yup, definitely the fridge-freezer. He shifted in bed…why was there a hard button underneath his hip? It felt like one of the buttons on the sofa. And this pillow was resting on something considerably less yielding than their mattress.

Okay, he was awake. No denying it any longer. He opened his eyes and gazed around the darkened…living room. Not their bedroom.

Funny. He could have sworn he'd gone to sleep in a bed in a bedroom.

Oh.

Everything came flooding back to him. He'd been switched with the other Clark. Spent the day with the other Lois. Gone to bed with Lana…

He sat up abruptly and gazed intently all around the room. Found their wedding photo. Him and Lois, with his parents flanking them. He was back!

Exultant, he sped upstairs to their bedroom. Lois was asleep, curled up on his side of their bed clutching one of his sweaters. His heart clenched, and, before he could stop himself, he'd x- rayed her from top to bottom to make sure she was okay. Relieved to find her unblemished, he lifted the bedcovers and slipped into bed beside her.

"Lois?" he whispered, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Mmmm."

"Lois, honey, I'm back," he whispered, shaking her very lightly.

"Jus' five more minutes," she mumbled.

"Wake up, sweetheart," he urged. "Your husband's back."

"Mmmm." Her eyes flickered open and her head stirred on the pillow. "Clark?"

"Yes, it's me," he whispered, clasping her shoulder softly. "I'm back."

"Clark?" Her gaze lifted at last, but as her eyes focused on him, they grew wide with alarm and her body tensed. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get out of here!" She scooted away from him to the very edge of the bed. "Get away from me!"

Dear God, what had the other Clark done to her? "Lois, it's me," he urged. "Not him."

Her eyes narrowed and examined him suspiciously. "Where did we go on our honeymoon?" she demanded, clutching the sheets high around her neck.

"We didn't," he replied quickly. "We were planning on Hawaii, but we never got there."

"What were you wearing on our wedding night?"

"Which one?" he asked.

"Okay, bad question. What's the inscription inside my wedding band?"

"There isn't one. But this year I gave you a silver locket for your birthday that said 'CK loves LL' on the back," he added, aching to reach out and comfort her. Instead, he contented himself with inching just a little closer to her in the bed. "Lois…you're scaring me. What did he do to you?"

"Nothing," she replied. "I just…" She closed her eyes. "It's really you, isn't it?" she whispered.

"Yes," he said, swallowing past the lump in his throat.

And then she was in his arms, his beautiful, adorable Lois, all feminine softness and indomitable spirit. "I missed you," she said just before her lips closed over his and sent his senses soaring and his pulse racing. He'd missed her so much ­ they'd spent barely one day apart and it had felt like a lifetime.

It wasn't long before they'd shed their clothes and they were together again, skin to skin, melding back into the single entity they'd created when they'd married just three short weeks ago. Her voice, uttering quiet murmurs and soft gasps of pleasure, was like the most sensual music he could imagine, caressing his soul and calming the jittering nerves he'd been living on throughout the day.

Afterwards, lying loosely together, they exchanged stories of their day spent apart. They soon discovered that they'd both found out about the affair fairly quickly, and they both knew that Lana was treating her husband like some kind of experimental animal. However, Clark didn't know that Lois had already begun to investigate the possible cause of the body-swap. When she told him about Dr Klein's twitchiness at Star Labs' teleportation demonstration, he had to agree that she might be on to something.

"You think he knows the device isn't as safe as they're claiming?" he said.

"Exactly. What if it doesn't always work? Or what if it actually does something other than what they think it's doing?" she replied.

He frowned. "Hmm. In that case, why didn't we switch back when they ran the demonstration?"

"No idea. But tomorrow you and I are going to interview the project director, Dr Schulz, and find out what's going on," she said. "Jimmy's researching one of the other scientists who looked like he knew something, and we'll also track down Dr Klein. I don't want to lose you again."

"Me either." Although a part of him would have liked to know that his counterpart and the other Lois were going to be okay. He worried that Lana really had used kryptonite the other night, and might even use it again. The other Clark, not being aware of kryptonite and its effects, wouldn't even know what was happening to him ­ he'd just think he was sick. Perhaps it would have been wise to tell the other Lois a lot more about kryptonite than he actually had. Then she could have warned her lover…

"Hey."

Her murmur interrupted his thoughts. "Yeah?"

"You're wishing we could have done more to help them, aren't you?"

He smiled softly. "You know me too well. Yes, I guess I am. I think he may be in real danger."

"Oh? Why?"

So he told her about Skywatch, and his suspicions that Lana might be working for them. He also told her about his kryptonite theory.

"The Lana I know is nothing like that," he exclaimed. "I mean, I haven't seen her for years, but I can't imagine her growing into a complete monster. I wonder what made this Lana so different?"

"Who knows?" replied Lois. "The Clark I met wasn't much like you, either. I mean — an adulterer? I don't exactly approve of what he's doing, but don't forget he has a different background to yours ­ no loving parents to reassure him when all these weird things started happening to him. Not to mention that he was unlucky enough to marry a woman who kept reinforcing all his negative feelings about himself."

"Unlike you," he murmured, dipping down to kiss her. "I am so lucky you finally figured out I was worth marrying."

She smiled. "And I'm lucky you didn't give up on me." Her face grew wistful as she reached up to smooth her hands over his bare shoulders. "Do you think we could have ended up like them? Having an affair, I mean?"

He hadn't really considered it. In fact, he realised, although he'd been disapproving of his counterpart's attitude, he hadn't judged the other Lois at all. Hadn't condemned her, hadn't been angry with her, hadn't even thought about the rights and wrongs of what she was doing. He'd been too busy figuring what to say and do every single minute of the day, he guessed.

But his instinct, now that Lois had asked, was clear enough. "No," he said. "If you'd been married when I met you, I'd have respected that. It would have killed me, of course, but I guess I've been brought up to believe that marriage is sacrosanct. I could no more break my wedding vows than slit my wrists, and I couldn't ask anyone else to do it for me."

He hesitated. This was kind of an awkward conversation to be having so soon into their marriage. The natural thing was to ask in turn how Lois felt, but he didn't want her to think he didn't trust her, or that he needed some kind of reassurance that she'd never break her vows.

"What if I'd been married to Lex?" she asked softly.

"Honey, please don't bring him into this," he murmured, rolling over onto his back and taking her with him so that she was lying on top of him. "That man has no place in this marriage, and besides, he's dead."

"Sorry," she said, kissing his chest. "I guess I was just fantasising about you riding in on your white charger and rescuing me from a fate worse than death."

He cocked an eyebrow. "You have fantasies?"

She rose up to sit astride him. "Oh, yeah," she replied with a grin. "You never asked me if I thought we could have had an affair."

"Okay, I'm asking," he said, playing along with interest. "What do you think?"

"Oh, I agree with you," she said airily. "You're far too well brought up to do this sort of thing with another man's wife." She winked mischievously as her hands slid over his stomach.

"Too right," he agreed. "My parents never taught me to do this with a married woman."

She laughed. "Boy, am I glad to hear that."

***

Back with Lana, his darling, beloved wife. Back in the middle of the chaotic mess he laughingly called his life. Thank God he'd awoken early and could come down for breakfast on his own. He needed some time to figure out how to face the day.

How much did she know about the switch, he wondered? Had the other Clark told her who he really was? His mouth twisted: knowing Lana, she wouldn't have given him much of a chance to tell her anything. She'd have steamrollered through any attempts he might have made to alert her, preferring to live life at her own pace and entirely on her own terms.

No, that wasn't fair. Lana could listen. Listen and make copious, detailed notes about everything you did.

Why did she do it? That was what he simply couldn't understand. What possible motive could she have to watch and record everything he did? Why would she want to live such an appalling double life of lies and secrets?

He could only imagine that he held some kind of incredible fascination for her. She'd found herself right in the middle of the sort of science fiction adventure most kids could only dream about, and she'd revelled in it. She'd acquired her very own pet alien and had resolved to study him like a lab rat. Perhaps she was hoping she could sell her story at some point. Portray herself as some kind of expert on alien life.

Oh, God.

His gut twisted and he tasted the sour taste of bile in his mouth. Exposure. The one thing he dreaded above all else. Bad enough that he had Skywatch on his tail, although at least their agenda was covert. They'd want to use him for secret experiments and tests, so it was in their interests to keep his existence out of the public arena. Lana would have no such qualms.

Time, it would seem, could be running out for his existence as Clark Kent, and, meanwhile, Lois was growing impatient.

Lois. He loved her so much that sometimes he thought his heart might burst. Why, oh, why couldn't he have met her sooner? If only he'd known her before he and Lana had become so intertwined, perhaps things would have been different.

As it was…occasionally he wondered if he should distance himself from Lois. There was the feel of danger in the air, and the last thing he wanted was for Lois to get caught up in anything dangerous. He was pretty certain that she'd be upset if he turned his back on her, but that was surely better than risking her life. In fact, perhaps it would be best for both of them if he just turned tail and ran ­ took off to some far-flung place on the other side of the planet and began again. All those miles would make it easier for Lois to start afresh, too.

But he knew he'd never do it. Quite apart from the fact that he strongly suspected that Skywatch would hunt him down wherever he went, he refused to run away with his tail between his legs. What little self-respect he had left would shrivel and die, and without Lois, he'd be less than half the person he was when he was with her. Oh, he'd survive, but life would be an empty existence if he had to spend it alone on the other side of the world.

So he was locked in to this tortuous game of deceit and danger which, somehow, he had to navigate his way through while at the same time protecting Lois. It was a tall order, but he'd do it. He had to do it, because Lois was his future.

***

"So, a quick check in at the Planet and then we go over to Star Labs?" Clark spread a thick layer of peanut butter on his toast and took a healthy bite.

Lois nodded from over beside the coffee machine. "Yes — Dr Schulz first."

"And then the elusive Dr Klein." He swallowed and went to take another bite, but as he opened his mouth, his head began to swim. Disconcerted, he lowered the toast to the kitchen counter and steadied himself.

"I want to ask him about success rates," Lois was saying. "What percentage of test runs fail, for example."

"Sounds good," he agreed thickly, fighting shaky legs and a woozy head. "Lois…"

"I mean, it can't work every time, can it? And what does he think goes wrong when it fails? That's what I'd like to know."

Her voice sounded like it was coming to him from down a long tunnel. The room seemed to be growing dim. God, he was blacking out. "Lois," he said weakly. "I don't feel so good…"

***

She twisted around just in time to see him crumple slowly towards the floor. "Clark!" She rushed across and caught him, but she wasn't able to do much more than fall with him, merely slowing his descent so that he didn't hurt himself. They ended up as a messy heap on the linoleum, she with her arms around his waist and he on all fours and threatening, by the look of it, to collapse sideways at any minute.

But he wasn't unconscious. Not yet, at any rate. "Sit," she said, helping to ease him sideways. He landed clumsily on his bottom and flopped back against the kitchen unit behind him.

Hurriedly, she eased his tie loose and undid a couple of buttons on his shirt. He seemed confused and disorientated while she did this, and when she asked him how he was feeling, he didn't seem able to answer. Scared, she felt his forehead ­ normal, so far as she could tell ­ then grabbed one of his hands ­ warm and dry ­ and began rubbing it vigorously between her own two hands. "Come back to me, honey," she urged as his head tipped forward. "Come on, talk to me."

Was this some kind of delayed reaction to yesterday's body swap? She couldn't see why else he'd be sick.

"Mmmm," he moaned. "Lana?"

She almost dropped his hand. It couldn't be. Could it?

"No, it's Lois," she said, stroking his hand more slowly. Perhaps he was just confused ­ thought he was still in the other universe. "You came back, remember? Last night."

"Did I?" he mumbled, raising his head and resting his unfocused gaze on her. "Was with Lana…why're you here? She mustn't know."

No! Not again! Please, not again. He was confused, that was all. Whatever had made him collapse had scrambled his brains temporarily.

"Clark? It's me, Lois. Your wife."

His eyelids drooped and his head began to dip forward again. "Lana…married to Lana," he mumbled. "You should go."

Her heart plummeted: they really had switched places again. She let go of his hand and sagged back on her heels, feeling the tug of separation even more keenly than last time. She didn't think she could bear this — seeing him for just a few precious hours and then losing him again. It was like some kind of slow, vindictive torture.

Her thoughts flew to the other universe, where he'd doubtless be struggling, as this Clark was, with dizziness and disorientation. He'd need a hug and reassurance and there'd be no-one there to give it to him ­ just that witch of a wife, Lana. Oh, Clark… She almost wished he'd be waking up at the other Lois's apartment rather than with Lana. At least there he'd get some sympathy.

"Go, Lois."

The other Clark's anxious voice jerked her away from her own Clark. He looked perplexed, as if he didn't understand why she was still there. She sighed heavily, recognising the expression as the same one he'd used yesterday when he thought he'd discovered her in his bedroom. "I'm not your Lois," she explained slowly. "You've switched with my husband again."

His face creased into a bleary, confused frown. "Your husband?"

"Focus, Clark," she urged, gripping his shoulders firmly. "Remember yesterday? You switched places with my husband for the day. We went to the Star Labs demo together."

His expression began to clear. "You…you're married to the other Clark," he said slowly.

"Yes! That's it," she encouraged. "And you told me all about Lana and Lois."

"Right." At last, his eyes focused properly. "You mean we changed places again?"

"Yes."

"Okay." He looked around, seemingly noticing for the first time that they were sitting on the floor. "Did I black out?"

She let go of his shoulders and sat back on her heels. "I'm not sure. Clark ­ my Clark ­ collapsed, and then you were here."

Suddenly, a lump sprung fully-formed at the back of her throat. Clark needed her, wherever he was, and she couldn't be there for him. She'd lost him. After just one night, he'd been taken away from her. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.

She scrubbed her face with her hands and told herself sternly to pull herself together. Pining for him wasn't going to bring him back. "Do you think you could stand up now?" she asked.

"Yeah, I think so."

She moved back to give him room to clamber unsteadily to his feet, standing with him. "I don't know about you," he said, grimacing as he came upright, "but I'd like to find out who's doing this and ask them if they'd kindly stop it."

He pinched the bridge of his nose and screwed up his face, giving the distinct impression of someone with a pounding headache.

"Yes," she agreed, "except I wouldn't be kind about it. I'd twist their arm up their back until their eyes watered and then I'd stomp on their feet with stiletto heels."

He dropped his hand from his face and raised an eyebrow at her. "That bad, huh?"

She nodded, sinking down onto one of the kitchen chairs. "We've only been married for three weeks," she confessed. "I miss him."

"I'm sorry," he said. "You really love him, don't you?"

Stupid question. She'd married him, hadn't she?

But she knew he was only trying to be nice. And, she supposed, maybe marriage and love didn't necessarily go hand in hand so far as this Clark was concerned. She sighed. "Yes," she replied. "Yes, I do."

"You're lucky." He sighed. "I thought I loved my wife."

She winced. "But you love Lois?"

"Oh, yeah. She and I…she makes me whole again." He began rubbing his fingers over his temples in little circles. "I'd never have survived without her."

"I heard about Skywatch," she said, nodding. "Clark told me."

His eyes widened and he paused in his rubbing motions. "Lois must have spoken to him. Does that mean she knows what's going on? With us swapping places, I mean."

"Yes, Clark told her everything." Lois grinned. "She took it quite well, apparently."

"Sounds like Lois," he agreed, resuming his temple massage again. "She takes most things in her stride."

"But Lana doesn't know a thing," she added.

"Good. Let's hope he keeps it that way." He gave up on his temples and sighed. "I don't remember a pounding headache the last time we switched places."

"Maybe because you were both asleep at the time," she suggested. "It'll probably pass soon."

"I hope so," he said. "I can hardly think straight."

Which meant that her Clark was probably suffering, too. She would have massaged his shoulders and made him a mug of his favourite tea. Told him to rest his head back and close his eyes. Given him a hug…

"Is there anything I can get you?" she offered. "A hot drink…?"

He shook his head slowly. "I'd try aspirin, except I doubt it would work with this freaky body of mine."

Freaky? "Hey, watch what you're saying," she admonished. "That's my husband's body you're criticising."

He smiled wanly. "Sorry. I promise I'll treat it with respect."

"Too right you will," she replied acerbically. "I'm very attached to that body." Oh, God, had she really just say that? "I mean, I'm very attached to Clark. My husband. I care about him, I mean." She threw her hands up in exasperation: apparently she'd temporarily lost the ability to string words into coherent sentences. "As any wife would."

"Don't worry, Lois, I understand," he said. "I care about my Lois in exactly the same way."

"Fine. Then we're clear. You'll take care of that body and I'll…" Change the subject, quickly. She remembered her conversation with Clark last night. "There's something you should know," she rushed out. "I'm not sure how to tell you this, because I know how bad things are between you and Lana already, but when Clark was with her…well, he thinks…he thinks she could be working for Skywatch."

He blanched. In fact, she'd never seen a person turn so pale so quickly. "No," he whispered. "No, she can't be."

Clearly, she should have broken this to him more gently. Although, come to think of it, what if another switch happened? At least he'd know what he was facing when he returned. However, she tried to soften it a little. "I'm sorry, Clark. It's just a theory ­ he doesn't have any evidence. But from what I've heard, I think he's probably right."

"No." Slowly, he turned around to face the wall and then leant forward on his hands. "He's wrong."

"It makes sense," she told him as gently as she could. "You know Skywatch has been pursuing you since you were a kid, and Lana has been your closest friend since you were a kid ­ wouldn't it be natural for them to try and recruit someone like that to observe and take notes? Why else would an ordinary country girl like Lana decide to write all those horrible things about her best friend? It doesn't make sense. Unless she was recruited by an organisation like Skywatch."

"No…" His voice was barely audible. "Not Lana. Please, not Lana."

She hadn't realised he'd take the news so badly. He'd seemed so disillusioned with Lana, she'd assumed he'd be fairly dispassionate about any further news of her misdemeanours ­ especially since he was already cheating on her. Besides, surely he must have wondered why she treated him the way she did. But he wasn't taking this at all well. In fact, to her alarm, his body began to convulse ­ once, twice — and then he was clapping his hand over his mouth and bolting for the sink.

She quickly averted her gaze while he threw up noisily, choking and coughing up the contents of his stomach. If he'd been her Clark, she would have rushed to help him, but the urge to hold and comfort just wasn't so strong with this Clark. So she sat and listened uncomfortably while he suffered, wrinkled her nose at the faint, acrid stench of vomit drifting across the kitchen to her, and sighed a little in relief when at last he turned the tap full on to wash away the mess.

Then the rush of water stopped abruptly, leaving in its place a heavy silence.

"Sorry," he muttered.

Now she felt the tug, the need to make him feel better. He might be cheating on his wife, but he was still a person with feelings and he sure as heck didn't deserve what his wife was doing to him. Hesitantly, she went to stand beside him and place a hand on his back. "Are you okay?" Well, clearly he wasn't, since she could feel him trembling, but everything was relative, she supposed.

He nodded, his eyes cast downwards. "Do you have a glass?"

She grabbed one from the counter and handed it to him. He filled it up with cold water and rinsed out his mouth, running the tap again to clear up after himself.

"Why don't you sit down?" she suggested.

"Thanks." He moved over to slump down on a chair at the table. "I'm sorry," he said. "I guess you weren't expecting to deal with a strange guy throwing up in your kitchen sink when you came down to breakfast this morning."

She sat down opposite him. "It's okay," she said. "I gave you quite a shock."

He nodded, taking a sip from the glass of water he'd brought over to the table. "I just…I can't believe it, you know? I mean, you're right, it makes perfect sense, but I thought I knew her. Loved her, even. We did everything together. We shared everything, told each other everything." He took another sip, his hand trembling slightly as he raised the glass to his lips. "How could I have been so blind? I'm a reporter. I'm supposed to notice things like this. Make the connections that no-one else makes."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," she soothed. "You're too close to it, that's all. Believe me, I know how blind a person can be when they're too emotionally involved in a story."

"Even when they're married to the story?" he asked bitterly. "Even when they live in the same house as the story? Share the same bed?"

"Especially then," she replied firmly. "I know what it's like to be too close to a story."

He sipped from his glass again. "If Lana's been working for Skywatch all this time, then that means they know all about me. It means they've been watching me my entire life." He banged the glass down on the table. "God, who am I?" he cried desperately. "What am I? An…an insect for people to study? A freak show for their amusement? I trusted Lana. Did what she asked because I trusted her ­ stayed in Smallville instead of travelling the world, went to Kansas State instead of MetU, didn't ever go back to the farm. I thought she knew what was best for me, but now… I'm just a…a puppet. A freaky puppet who's been trained to behave exactly like they want me to behave — normally." He spat the word as if it were an expletive. "Is anything in my life real?"

"Lois is real," she answered quickly, anxious to head him away from hysteria. "She loves you for what you really are, doesn't she? Hold on to that."

"How do I know?" he demanded. "How do I know if she loves me? How do I know if I love her? I thought Lana and I loved each other, but that wasn't real. How do you tell if it's real?"

"You…you just know," she faltered. "Think about how you used to feel about Lana, and then think about how you feel about Lois. Surely it's not the same?"

"I don't know," he replied, his voice rising in pitch and volume. "Maybe." He began to rub compulsively at his temples again. "Maybe not."

"You told me earlier without any hesitation that you love Lois," she pointed out. "Surely you haven't changed your mind about that?"

"No. No, of course not."

"There you are, then. You love Lois and she loves you. That's as real as it gets." She reached over and grabbed his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face. "Stop this, Clark," she ordered softly. "You're winding yourself up into a full-blown panic attack."

He looked down at her hands gripping his wrists. "I'm fine," he protested.

"No, you're not." She quirked a smile. "You're rubbing my husband's temples like you're trying to drill holes in his head. I thought you promised to take good care of his body."

His face relaxed a little and then, to her relief, broke into a rueful smile. "I guess I did." He leant back in his chair with a gusty sigh. "It's just a shock, you know?"

"I understand, but don't forget this is all just speculation," she said. "When you get home you can check it out more thoroughly yourself. In the meantime, if you're feeling up to it," she continued, "I think we should head over to Star Labs and check out this Dr Schulz character. Clark and I were going to drop into the Planet first, but that was before you arrived. Now I think the sooner we go to Star Labs, the better."

He nodded. "I agree."

***

The Skywatch clerk broke the seal on another brown padded envelope and tipped out this morning's tapes. From the labels, she saw that these were Jason Trask/Lana Lang conversations and duly opened the relevant file on her computer. Entering the date and time at the top of the page, she slotted the first tape into the tape recorder, pressed play and began to type.

JT: We're concerned, Lana. You appear to be losing control of it.

LL: I'm not.

JT: It's showing too much interest in the Lane woman. You mustn't let that happen.

LL: I can't stop them working together.

JT: No, but you can make sure it doesn't have any reason to stray. You can make sure it's well satisfied at home. You do know what I mean by satisfied, don't you?

LL: Y…yes.

JT: Good, because I don't want you to use the Smallville B unless absolutely necessary, okay? The doses are difficult to get right and we sure as hell don't want to kill it yet ­ there's too much money invested in this project.

LL: Don't worry. I'll make sure he…it stays with me.

JT: Good girl. Your country's proud of you.

***

Clark stepped out of the Planet's elevator, feeling a little more confident than he had the previous day. Everything still looked a little off kilter, but at least he knew what to expect this time.

Except, he realised as his gaze automatically went to her desk, Lois wasn't around. He scanned the rest of the newsroom, but she was nowhere to be seen. Darn ­ he'd hoped to pick her brains on who to enlist in his efforts to reverse the body swap. He'd had enough of switching universes and bodies, particularly after this morning's episode.

After nearly blacking out at home, he'd come to only to find himself slumped over the breakfast table, his cheek lying in a warm lake of spilt coffee. Worse still, someone was tugging on his shoulder and a shrill voice was calling his name over and over again. That was when his head had begun to pound and he'd realised that the voice was Lana's.

His heart had plunged.

Still, Lana had been surprisingly solicitous ­ she'd seemed genuinely concerned to find her husband semi-comatose at the breakfast table. If he'd anticipated a row over the spilt coffee, or an interrogation as to why he was in such a sorry state, he was mistaken. If anything, she'd seemed rattled by his collapse, constantly asking if he felt okay and allowing her hand to linger whenever she placed it on his shoulder or arm ­ which was fairly often. Without rancour, she'd cleaned up the messy table and sent him upstairs to change his shirt.

Why the change? She'd even kissed him goodbye, although she hadn't missed the opportunity to exhort him to come home early from work.

"I'll try," he'd replied, mindful that Lois might have other plans for the evening.

"No, Clark, you'll do it," she'd insisted, her hand resting on his chest. "I don't want you getting sick again. Who are we going to turn to if you get ill? It's not like you can go to a regular doctor."

This from the woman who'd wanted him to get a prescription for impotence? Just who in the medical profession did she expect her husband to obtain it from if no regular doctor would do? He'd had a hard time keeping silent over that one. "I'm fine," he'd said. "Don't worry about me."

"But I do," she'd murmured, sliding her arms underneath his jacket and pressing herself into his body. "You've become so distant lately. Don't you find me attractive any more?"

"I…I find you as attractive as I always have," he'd answered truthfully, all the while wondering how to gracefully extricate himself from her too-close embrace. If only she'd go back to being abrasive, unloving Lana! He'd preferred that version to the one currently roaming her hands all over his back.

Belatedly, he'd realised that she was also wearing a very skimpy nightgown that left little to the imagination. What was she up to?

"It's been so long since we made love," she'd said, nuzzling into his neck. "Just imagine how… how hot we'd be together after all this time." She whispered a lewd suggestion as to how exactly they might accomplish this.

Disgusted, and not a little baffled as to why she was suddenly coming on to him so strongly, he'd pulled away from her, unwrapping her arms from around his body. "I'm sorry," he'd muttered. "I have to go."

He'd turned and fled, heedless of the impression he might be creating. If she concluded that he was appalled by her hard sell, then she was right on the money and he really didn't care that she knew. Bad enough that he had her explicit sexual suggestions ringing in his ears as he made his way to work.

Now, though, he wondered how much she knew about the affair. Perhaps that explained her clumsy attempt to interest him last night followed by today's awful encounter. If he replayed her last words in his head, he was pretty certain he could detect hesitation in her voice, as if she really wasn't comfortable making such lurid suggestions. Had it been an act of desperation on her part? The jilted wife trying to win her man back by offering the kind of sex she imagined men liked most?

Or the Skywatch employee doing her bit to keep the alien close to home by offering it plenty of easily available sex?

Or both? To what extent were Lana's actions self-motivated rather than directions from her superiors? She'd tried to make him stay at home last night ­ was that Lana the jilted wife or Lana the dutiful employee? Using Kryptonite on her husband ­ well, that had to be Skywatch, hadn't it? What wife would deliberately make her husband sick, even if she suspected he was being unfaithful?

And, of course, he didn't actually have any hard evidence that she was working for Skywatch. If there was time, he'd do something about that, because even if he didn't approve of his counterpart's adultery, he disliked even more what had been done to him. A gross violation of basic human rights was at stake here.

The Daily Planet, by contrast, was a relative haven of peace and normality, he reflected as he scanned again for Lois. If only he could find her.

"Morning, Clark." Perry walked in front of him, intercepting his view of the room. "Lost something?"

"Yes — Lois," he replied. "Have you seen her?"

"Seen her, briefed her, dispatched her," said Perry. "You're on your own this morning, son."

"Where did you send her?" he asked.

"I got a tip-off that the mayor's finally going to say something worthwhile at his weekly press briefing."

"Um…shouldn't I be there too?" he said, keen to follow Lois and talk to her as soon as possible.

"No, I need you here to cover the reactions to his announcement."

Frustrated, Clark pasted a willing smile on his face and nodded his agreement. The thought crossed his mind that Perry was doing his best to keep Lois and the other Clark apart. A couple of things he'd said the previous day made Clark suspect that Perry didn't approve of the adulterous relationship between his two reporters.

At his desk, Clark thumbed on his computer. Assuming that mayoral briefings took place at the same time in this universe as they did back home, he had about a half an hour before he needed to set to work on the story. Time to resume his internet search.

He grimaced. Where did he begin? Yesterday, he'd come up blank on Star Labs or Dr Klein. Well, perhaps he could try searching for scientists with an interest in time travel or multiple universe theories.

Twenty minutes later he'd put together a shortlist of five possibilities. A couple were overseas, but fortunately that wouldn't present much of a problem to him: he'd simply fly. Nice and high, so as not to be spotted by any commercial aircraft-

"Tower, we're losing altitude fast."

He tensed, immediately recognising the strained tone of a pilot reporting the status of his flight. Listening in for a few more moments, he discovered that it was a commercial flight, probably transatlantic, which was experiencing serious difficulties as it approached its final landing sequence. There was no time to waste. No question that he wouldn't respond. Three hundred or more people would lose their lives if he didn't ­ not to mention the danger to ground staff and the emergency services.

Within seconds, he'd left the Planet via the roof, flown as fast as he could towards Metropolis Airport ­ too fast to be detectable by either the naked eye or radar ­ and located the ailing aeroplane. Moving underneath it, he took its weight onto his back and began to fly it down.

It was only when he was a few feet from the ground that he noticed that one side of the landing gear hadn't locked into place properly. Heck. He gave it his best shot, but the plane was horribly unbalanced and difficult to control as he tried to settle it onto the runway. The result was a sheared wheel brace which, in order to ensure the plane stood steadily on the tarmac, he had to quickly solder back together again with his laser vision.

Not his finest work. The passengers were safe and the plane repairable, but his hasty solder job was clumsy. Eyebrows would rise into hairlines when the engineers began their work and pondered how on earth the repair could have been made. Not to mention that no-one would be able to explain why the aeroplane hadn't crashed.

He sighed and made a hasty exit before the emergency services could arrive and spot him.

***

Dr Schulz's office suite at Star Labs had to be one of the plushest in the building. Lois eyed the contents of his ante- room with a baleful eye while she waited with Clark to be granted an interview with the great man. They were seated on a soft leather sofa in a beige so pale that it had to cost a fortune to keep clean. The carpet was almost white ­ more cleaning bills. Dark walnut furniture complemented the pale furnishings, and the art on the walls looked original.

The contrast with Dr Klein's broom cupboard of an office was laughable. Clearly, Dr Schulz had friends in high places.

"I'm going to leave her when I get back," said Clark suddenly. "I've decided."

She glanced at him. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

He frowned. "Of course. I can't live with her when I know she's spying on me."

"You don't know that for certain," she reminded him. "Besides, even if she is, don't you think it'll be easier to find out exactly what she and Skywatch are up to if they don't suspect you're on to them?"

"I'll take that risk," he said. "I can't live with her."

"I understand how you feel," she said, "but consider this: what do you think will happen to you if Skywatch think their cover's been blown?"

He shrugged. "I don't know."

"Chances are they'll move in. They'll have nothing to lose, so they'll try to capture you."

"I'll run."

"What about Lois? Will she run with you? And do they know she's involved with you?"

From his shocked expression, it was clear that he hadn't considered the possibility. "Hell," he muttered. "I never even thought…" He sprang up from the sofa and paced towards the window. "Lana suspects something, I'm sure. We haven't exactly been…close…lately."

Code for not sleeping together? "Then if Lana suspects, you can bet that Skywatch does, too. If she's working for them."

"I can't live with her," he insisted. "There has to be another way."

"Think about it," she suggested. "Talk it over with Lois when you get back. She deserves a say in your decision, doesn't she?"

"I guess." He sighed. "How ironic is this? Lois has been badgering me to leave Lana for weeks, and now when I finally decide that's exactly what I'm going to do, she may very well be the one who asks me not to."

Before she could reply, Dr Schulz appeared in the doorway to his office. "Ms Lane, Mr Kent? Sorry to keep you waiting. The phone hasn't stopped ringing since yesterday's press conference."

He stepped forward and offered his hand as Lois got to her feet. She grasped it firmly. "Thank you for agreeing to see us, Dr Schulz."

Clark came across from the window. "Yes, we appreciate your time," he said.

"Come into my office," invited Dr Schulz

They followed him into a large office sporting floor to ceiling windows at one end and a large desk and leather chairs at the other. As they settled into the soft chairs, Dr Schulz said, "So, the Daily Planet is interested in my little invention, is it? I'm flattered."

"Well, as you said yesterday at the demo, it has the potential to transform our lives," said Clark. "If it works as well as you say it does."

"You saw the demonstration, Mr Kent," replied Dr Schulz. "Of course it works."

"It transported a wood block across a room, yes," agreed Lois. "But when will I be able to visit my cousin in Australia and still be home in time for dinner?"

"Oh, not for a long time yet," exclaimed Dr Schulz. "We'd have to be one hundred per cent sure that it would work every time before we involved humans in the process."

"So it doesn't work every single time?" asked Lois. "How often, in percentage terms, does it fail?"

Dr Schulz smiled indulgently at her. "I'd have to look up our research notes to give you an exact figure, but off the top of my head? Around fifteen per cent of attempted transports result in non-transference of matter."

"And what happens to those unlucky wood blocks that don't transfer successfully?" asked Lois. "Do they go to the great wood block heaven in the sky?"

"If, by that, you mean 'do they disintegrate', then yes, sometimes they do," replied Dr Schulz. "So you can see that we have a long way to go before we can perform experiments on animals, let alone human beings. However, there is still immense potential for the freight industry."

Clark cocked an eyebrow. "I imagine there is. You could put a lot of companies out of business, Dr Schulz."

"And create many new ones," countered Dr Schulz. "Why do you journalists always look on the negative side? You ask of failure rates and anticipate failing businesses, when there are tremendous opportunities opening up here. You should be exultant!"

"Oh, we are, Dr Schulz," drawled Lois. "We truly are. Forgive us if we seem sceptical, but our job is to look for the story behind the story."

"Or put another way," added Clark, "we're journalists, not PR agents for the people we interview. We write news, not advertising copy."

She blinked, a little surprised by his bluntness: her own Clark usually played nice with their interviewees and left the hardball stuff to her. Glancing over at him, she saw that his expression was pretty steely, too. What had got into him?

"What my partner means," she told a now rather shuttered Dr Schulz, "is that-"

"No, I get it," replied Dr Schulz hotly. "You're here to dig the dirt. That's fine. I hadn't realised that the Daily Planet was a fully paid-up member of the gutter press, but I guess good science and original thinking doesn't sell newspapers these days. So what would you like to know? The name of my mistress? How many times I had sex last week? Whether I've fathered any illegitimate children?"

"We leave that sort of detail to our colleagues on the gossip column," replied Lois quickly. "Look, why don't you explain how your invention works and we'll take it from there." She gave Clark a warning glance to pre-empt any further stupidity from him.

Dr Schulz harrumphed a bit and then settled down into a tedious lecture on ions and protons and energy matrices, none of which made the slightest sense to Lois but at least had the effect of soothing the ruffled scientist's feathers. She pasted on her patented 'attentive listener' expression and let her mind drift onto more pressing matters, such as whatever her husband might be doing right this minute. Was he okay? This Clark seemed to have overcome his headache, so hopefully her Clark had too…

"Dimensions," interjected Clark, jerking Lois out of her glazed stupor. "You said something about dimensions."

She pushed herself up straight in her chair and leant forward with renewed interest. Just as well one of them was paying attention, she reflected.

"Yes, one theory is that the transferring matter actually enters an alternative dimension whilst in transit." Dr Schulz shrugged. "Well, it's more of a modelling construct than a real theory," he added disparagingly. "A way to explain the less well-understood aspects of the process."

"Less well-understood? You mean you don't know what you're doing?" exclaimed Lois. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Clark glaring at her like he was fit to burst, but she ignored him. "How can you use something you don't fully understand?" she demanded of the smarmy Dr Schulz.

"Ms Lane." He smiled thinly at her. "Do you drive a car?"

"Of course."

"And can you explain to me in detail the workings of the internal combustion engine?" he asked, his voice full of syrupy patronage.

"No, but there's plenty of people who can," she retorted. "Can the same be said of your process?"

"Okay, so I chose a bad analogy," he replied, annoyingly unfazed by her reply. "But I think you take my point."

Did she, heck! "Actually, I-"

"Who else subscribes to this particular theory?" interrupted Clark. She shot him an irritated look: she'd just been warming up and had plenty more to say to the self-important, arrogant Dr Schulz.

Dr Schulz chuckled. "Well, I don't subscribe to it myself, actually. Fanciful nonsense, if you ask me."

"Who does?" pressed Lois. "How about Dr Bernard Klein?"

"Klein?" Schulz shrugged. "I have no idea. Besides, this isn't even his field of research."

"But he's a senior member of the research team, isn't he?" said Lois. "I'm sure you must hold briefing meetings on current projects. He'd attend those, surely?"

"He may have," said Dr Schulz. "I really can't remember."

"Well, who else, then?" asked Clark.

"I believe there's a group in the Ukraine who are doing a lot of work on multiple universe theory," he replied. "They'd believe anything that supported their own theories."

"We'll check them out," said Lois crisply, deciding that, as she'd expected, Dr Schulz really wasn't a very useful source of information. "In the meantime, many thanks for your time."

Outside on the street, she whirled on her companion. "What happened in there?" she demanded. "You nearly lost us the interview!"

He raised his eyebrows. "I nearly lost it? What about when you told him he didn't know what he was doing?"

"Well, I was right!" she retorted. "He shouldn't be using processes he doesn't understand. He knows it, you know it, and I know it. You, on the other hand, were just plain rude."

He shrugged. "I didn't like him."

"Neither did I, but we're professionals, Clark! We don't let our own feelings get in the way of the story."

"Just like you didn't let his patronising attitude irritate the heck out of you," he said. "Very professional."

Boy, but he could be annoying! She pursed her lips and glanced at her watch. "We need to find Dr Klein. He's the key to all this."

"I agree. Schulz was far too quick to deny Klein's interest in that alternate dimension theory, if you ask me." He glanced back at the entrance. "So why are we standing out here instead of visiting Klein's lab?"

"Because," she replied heavily, "it's lunchtime and I know where he buys his tuna sub. You coming, or are you going to stand there on the off chance he floats by on a magic carpet?"

He rolled his eyes. "You do know that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, don't you?"

"And this should matter to me because…?"

He sighed. "Just show me where he buys his lunch, Lois."

***

After returning from the airport and discovering that Lois was still absent from her desk, Clark slipped quickly in behind his computer and wondered how the heck he was going to explain to Perry why he hadn't got a single quote from either local politicians or the business community about the Mayor's announcement. Perhaps a few quick phone calls…

"Where the heck have you been?"

Now where had he heard that before? He sighed, wishing strenuously that he was back in his own world. He'd forgotten how hard it was to make excuses to Lois after he'd returned from a rescue.

He looked up to find her looming over him, hands on hips and looking like thunder. "Can I talk to you alone?" he asked.

"So long as it doesn't take too long," Lois replied snippily. "I've got a ton of work to do, thanks to you."

He winced. "I'll be as succinct as I can."

He led her into the conference room and closed the door. Turned to find her with her arms crossed and an impatient foot tapping on the carpet. "Are you still him?" she snapped. "Just so as I know whose butt I'm kicking, you understand."

"Yes," he replied. "I mean, for a few hours last night, I wasn't, but now I am again."

"I'm sorry?" she said. "Can you repeat that in English?"

"We switched back last night for a few hours," he elucidated. "But this morning I woke up here."

"Really? He was here and I missed him?" She turned away from him, but not before he saw her face crumple. "Damn," she whispered hoarsely.

Guilt stabbed at his conscience: at least he'd managed a few precious hours with Lois last night. Enough time to comfort and reassure each other; to exchange stories of their day spent apart. She'd had nothing.

"I'm sorry," he said. "If it's any comfort, Lois says he's fine. No ill effects from the swap at all."

She lifted a hand to her face, dabbing the corners of her eyes with the tips of her fingers. "She said that? I wasn't sure…I thought maybe he wouldn't handle it very well."

"I know, but you can stop worrying." Hesitantly, he reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "He's doing just fine."

"Good. What…what did they do all day?"

"Tried to find out what's causing the switches," he said. "They made good progress, too ­ they think that an experimental transportation device being tested over at Star Labs may have something to do with it."

"Oh? What's Star Labs? Some kind of scientific research place, I guess," she replied.

"Yes, but I don't think you've got an equivalent here," he said. "At least, I couldn't find their website or any mention of their foremost scientist, Dr Klein, on the internet."

Her shoulders jerked, and for a horrible moment he thought she'd succumbed to the tears he could hear in her voice. Then she said dryly, "There's a motorcycle shop near my apartment called Doc Klein's Motorcycle Emporium, but I doubt it's the same guy."

He grinned. "Who knows? Our guy rides a bike and wears black leathers. Maybe over here he gave his interests different priorities."

"Could be." She sighed. "Anyway, I'm glad someone's trying to get us swapped back, because I don't think…I don't think I can bear this much longer."

"Hey," he murmured. "It's going to be okay. Heck, we've got twice as many Clarks and Loises on the case as usual ­ how can we possibly fail?"

She chuckled. "You're right." She scrubbed at her face and turned back to face him again. "So what did you want to see me about?"

He checked her quickly, noting the moist eyes but also the determined set of her jaw. Just like his own Lois, he thought wistfully. "Well, I may have done something a little rash," he confessed.

"Oh? Please don't tell me you told Lana about the swap thing," she said.

"No, nothing like that," he replied. "A plane was going to crash at Metropolis airport and…well…I rescued it."

Her jaw dropped. "Rescued it? How?"

"I got underneath it and flew it down." Seeing her incredulous expression, he decided she needed more explanation. "The engines kept cutting out, you see, and the pilot said he couldn't control it, so I-"

"The pilot said…? How do you know what he said? No, cancel that ­ what do you mean, you flew it down? That's not possible."

"Actually, it is," he replied. "Did Clark never tell you he could fly?"

She stared at him. "You're kidding, right? This is some kind of weird Kansas humour I just don't get, isn't it? Flying men are just intrinsically funny in Smallville, yeah? ­ I mean, it figures. Small town, not much entertainment, so why not gather around the fire and crack jokes about flying men? Beats counting corn husks, I gue…ess… How are you doing that?"

He grinned. "Still don't believe in flying men?" he asked, indicating the foot of clear air between him and the floor. To show that it wasn't some kind of stunt with wires, he flew slowly over to the coffee machine in one corner of the room.

Her jaw was slack with amazement. "That's…incredible. I mean, he told me he used to float above the bed in his sleep, and I thought that was amazing enough, but this…" She shook her head. "And you're sure he'd be able to do this, too?"

"No reason why not," he said, returning to the floor and walking back to her. "He just needs to practice."

"Wow," she murmured. "Just think where we could go. Hawaii, say — I've always wanted to fly over the volcanoes there."

He nodded. "It's pretty neat. But to get back to the airplane rescue, there's a slight problem. One of the wheel braces sheared as I was setting the plane down on the tarmac so I had to do a quick repair. You can clearly see where it's been soldered back together again."

She frowned. "And why is that…oh, I get it. The maintenance crew."

"Yeah." He grimaced. "I mean, people are going to ask why the plane didn't crash, but I guess they might attribute that to freak air currents or something. A miracle, even. But a clumsy solder repair on a wheel brace that was perfect when the plane took off? That's a pretty solid-looking miracle."

"It is," she agreed, wandering thoughtfully over to the coffee machine. She fiddled with the buttons for a bit until she discovered, as he'd already suspected, that it was switched off. "But however hard they try," she continued, turning to face him again, "they won't be able to come up with anything close to a good explanation. They'll have to stick with miracles and stuff like that. I take it no-one saw you?"

"Nope," he replied. "I'm pretty well-versed in concealing myself when I do stunts like this."

Her eyes went wide. "You mean you do this kind of thing all the time?"

"Yes." He grinned. "It's kind of my second job."

"And Clark could do the same?"

He nodded. "If he wanted to, then yes, I'm sure he could."

"You saved all those people."

He shrugged. "It's what I do."

She turned back to the coffee machine, although he imagined her mind was a long way away from paper cups and hot water. He'd just given her a glimpse of an entirely different lifestyle for Clark and herself, and perhaps she was just beginning to see what might have been ­ what, in fact, still could be. "It's just what he needs," she muttered. "Something that'll make him feel good about himself — an outlet for all those extraordinary things he can do. God, if only he realised how amazing he is!"

"Well, you can talk it over with him when he comes back," he suggested. "He'd need a disguise, of course, but that's simple. You'd be amazed at how little you need."

"A disguise?" she said, laughing. "I can't see Clark wearing one of those shaggy beards and donning dark glasses. He'd die of embarrassment."

"He just needs to wear different clothes ­ that's all I do," he said. "People see what they want to see. If you show them a flashy hero in a bright costume, they'll never link him to the ordinary guy who takes the bus to work each day and writes stories for the Daily Planet."

She chuckled. "Well, I'll certainly discuss it with him. I'd love for him to use his abilities constructively instead of just wishing they'd go away."

"I get a lot out of it, certainly. He could, too ­ but don't pressure him into it," he advised. "It's one thing to be able to do this stuff physically, but it can put you under a lot of stress, mentally. Let him decide whether he wants that or not."

She nodded. "Sounds like good advice." She shook her head. "I still can't get over the fact you rescued an entire plane-load of people."

He shrugged. "It's what I do."

"So you said." She turned around, her expression business-like and focused again. "Okay, so what do we do about this? Write the story but play down the weirdness of it?" She grimaced. "Although I'm not that comfortable with writing stuff that I know isn't true."

"Me either," he agreed. "Maybe we should let someone else handle it."

"Yeah, much as it pains me to lose a front page story."

He grinned. "But what about Skywatch? Do you think they'll suspect anything?"

She frowned. "I'm not sure. It depends whether or not Lana really is working for them. If she is, then she would have told them everything he can do. Even then, though, I don't think they'd put two and two together ­ he's just never done anything as spectacular as this before."

"Okay, that's good."

"In the meantime, I guess I'd better write up the mayor's story."

***

Lois pushed the door into Dr Klein's favourite lunchtime haunt. It was a small, family-run café with a distinctly Italian flavour. Sandwiches were made to order at the counter on the left, behind which there were shelves piled high with a huge variety of breads, and then next to that sat a gleaming espresso machine, exuding steam and fragrant smells of fresh coffee. On the right there were a few round tables and bentwood chairs, the tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths. A small TV placed high up in one corner showed the news from LNN, but most of the clientele had their noses buried in their own newspapers or magazines.

Glancing around the tables, she spotted a familiar figure sitting at a table in the window. Dr Klein, dressed in an open-necked blue shirt and nondescript trousers, was absently munching his sandwich while poring over a glossy magazine.

She led Clark over and pulled out a chair. "Mind if we join you?" she asked, sitting down.

Dr Klein looked up from his magazine with a start. "Lois! And Clark. What are you doing here?"

"Eating lunch, I hope," she replied. "Clark, would you mind? I'll have tuna mayo on rye, salad but no cucumber."

Clark froze, halfway between sitting and standing, and gave a theatrical sigh. "Sure, Lois. For you, anything." He rose again and trudged over to the counter.

Dr Klein gazed after him with a frown on his face and then looked at her. "Everything going okay with the marriage?"

What?! How dare he pry into-

"Sorry!" Dr Klein said hastily, waving his hands before him in defence. "None of my business. Sorry!"

"We're just fine, thank you," she replied crisply. "But we were wondering if you're okay."

"Me?" replied Klein. "I'm fine, too."

He'd begun to regard her a little warily, but she pretended she hadn't noticed. "Really? Well, that's a relief, because we thought you looked a little peaky at Dr Schulz's demonstration the other day." She smiled. "I guess you got over whatever it was."

"Peaky?" he said nervously. "I looked peaky?"

She nodded. "Very. We wanted to talk to you afterwards, but you'd already rushed off." She smiled sympathetically. "Those stomach bugs can be truly horrible, can't they?"

"Can they?" he squeaked. "Yes, I guess they can. Look, Lois, I really must go-"

"Oh, but you haven't finished your lunch yet," she exclaimed, indicating his half-eaten sandwich. "And you're only on page…" She leaned over to check. "Eight of your magazine. It looks interesting. All those nice shiny mopeds."

"They're motorcycles," he replied huffily. "And I'm not hungry any more."

"Stomach bugging you again?" she said. "You know, they say upset stomachs are often caused by stress. And stress, in turn, is often caused by bottling things up ­ you know, not talking to people about your worries?" She rested her chin in her hand and beamed at him. "Clark and I are very good listeners."

"Lois, I have no idea what you're talking about, and I really must go."

"If you're worried about…oh, let's say, a colleague's experiments, then you really should talk to someone about it," she remarked conversationally. "Someone you can trust."

"I can't talk," he muttered.

"Oh, so you are worried, then?" she said, glancing over to Clark in the hope that he was nearly ready to return to the table. He needed to be here if Dr Klein was on the verge of telling them anything useful.

But her attention was immediately snagged by the tiny TV showing LNN. An image of an aeroplane filled the screen, and she could just make out the tickertape message running along the top: "Impending disaster at Metropolis Airport. Plane's undercarriage fails."

"Excuse me," she said quickly to Dr Klein and hurried over to Clark. Tugging on his sleeve, she pulled him unceremoniously out of the sandwich queue to where he could see the TV. "You have to go."

He squinted up at the screen. "To cover the story? I'm sure Perry's already got someone over there by now."

"No, to…" She stood up on tip-toe and whispered in his ear. "To rescue the plane, silly!"

"What?" He stared at her in bafflement. "What are you talking about?"

Oh, God. She'd forgotten he didn't know anything about Superman. Grabbing his sleeve again, she dragged him out into the street where it was noisy enough that they wouldn't be overheard. "Okay, so you haven't done this before," she said. "I understand. But it's really quite easy ­ or at least, Clark makes it look easy. All you have to do is fly underneath the plane, take the weight on your back, and-"

"Fly? What do you mean, fly?"

She froze. "You can't fly?"

"No." He laughed nervously. "Of course not."

"Yes, you can. Clark can fly, and you're in his body, so you can fly, too."

He shook his head. "Believe me, I can't fly. I wouldn't even know what muscles to use."

"You just sort of…think it," she said, indicating how easy it was with her hands. "That's what Clark says, anyway."

"This is crazy." He began walking away from her.

"You have to!" she insisted, moving swiftly to block his path. "Think of all those people. They'll die if you don't rescue them."

He flinched. "Not necessarily."

With his jaw set firm, he tried to move around her but she jumped to block him again. "At least try, damn you!"

He pursed his lips. "How, Lois? I don't know how to fly and I certainly don't know how to carry an aeroplane on my back. I didn't even know I could until two seconds ago!" He closed his eyes and frowned hard while straining upwards with his body. "See?" he said, opening his eyes again. "Nothing."

"Try again," she snapped.

Grimacing, he closed his eyes and tried a second time. "Nothing," he said, opening his eyes again.

Desperate now, she glanced around and spotted a darkish side street. "Here," she said, propelling him into the shadows. Away from the bustling main street, it was quieter and calmer. She set him up against the wall and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Okay," she murmured soothingly. "Close your eyes and empty your mind. Forget the aeroplane, forget where we are. Just take some deep breaths…that's it," she encouraged as he followed her advice. "Think of something nice. A deserted island, perhaps. Palm trees swaying gently in the breeze. Golden sand and a blue ocean. Keep taking those deep breaths. Picture a sailboat on the ocean, bobbing gently on the waves. You'd like to be on that sailboat, feeling the wind on your face and listening to the waves lapping against the side of the boat. Keep taking those deep breaths…that's great. But you're on the beach. How are you going to reach the boat? Well, maybe if you just gently floated upwards…"

She lifted her hands from his shoulders and waited anxiously. Time was running out. The news report hadn't given any information about how long it would be before the plane had to attempt a landing. For all she knew, it might have already crashed.

He sighed heavily and opened his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said huskily. "I just can't do it."

"You're sure?" she urged. "Try again."

She took him through the relaxation routine once more.

"Nothing," he whispered at the end of it. "I'm sorry."

With a heavy heart, she patted his arm. "It's okay. It's not your fault."

"Maybe it landed safely anyway," he suggested, but she could tell from the tone of his voice that he didn't really believe that.

"I guess we'd better find out," she said. Better to know straight away, she told herself. Get it over quickly and then deal with the consequences. And it really wasn't his fault he hadn't been able to help. If there was anyone to blame, his wife was probably the best candidate.

The busy café seemed brash and insensitive as they stepped inside: how could people carry on drinking coffee and eating sandwiches as if nothing had happened? Looking up with dread at the TV, she found that the scene had changed to the runway, where the plane stood on the tarmac surrounded by emergency services and men in protective suits hosing it down with flame retardant foam. The ticker tape read, "Narrow escape from death. Damaged plane lands successfully at Metropolis Airport."

Lois's legs went all wobbly with relief. "Thank God," she whispered.

"Yeah," breathed Clark.

A wave of anger swept through her. Not only was his wife to blame, but whoever was responsible for switching the two Clarks had even more to answer for now. They'd nearly cost the lives of over 200 people.

And with that thought, she remembered Dr Klein. Glancing over to his table, she saw that it was empty. "Damn," she muttered.

"What?" asked Clark.

"He was about to tell us something, I'm sure of it," she said. "Look, he left in such a hurry he even left his magazine behind."

"Well, only the cover," pointed out Clark. "Wonder why he ripped out the insides and left that behind?"

Intrigued, Lois went over to the table and lifted the magazine cover. A paper napkin dropped out and fell to the floor.

Clark caught it before it landed. "Meet me tonight at 8 outside Club 37," he read. "Guess he does have something to tell us," he said.

***

JT: Have you seen the news?

LL: Y…yes.

JT: And?

LL: And…nothing.

JT: Bullshit, Lana. You know exactly how that plane landed, and you know how that wheel brace got repaired.

LL: How…how can I know that?

JT: Jeez, woman, do you I have to spell it out for you? The alien, you idiot! Finally, it's come out of hiding and given us a show of strength — and this is only the beginning. Christ knows what it's got planned next.

LL: But Clark can't fly. He doesn't even float in his sleep any more. They're saying on the news that it must have been freak air currents or something.

JT: Air currents, my foot. Hell, Lana, when are you going to see what's going on here? It's been tricking you, woman! Of course it doesn't want you to know it can fly.

LL: Maybe he-

JT: It, Lana. It. Why do you keep doing that? You're not developing feelings for it, are you?"

LL: Of course not! I just…I get confused.

JT: Sloppy, you mean. First you let it stray to that Lane woman, who fills its head with God knows what crap, and now you let it do this! What's next? An assault on the White House?

LL: No, I-

JT: Get it under control, Lana. I don't care how you do it, just do it, okay?

LL: I'll do my best.

JT: No, you'll do a lot better than that. Because if you don't, we'll bring it in and shut down this phase of the project. A lot of people will be disappointed if that happens ­ very disappointed. You understand what I'm saying?

LL: Yes.

JT: Okay. I'll expect a report from you in twenty-four hours. Interrogate it, Lana. Every last detail of the incident, down to what it ate for breakfast. We need to know why it decided to break cover. Why the programming failed. What it's got planned next. Everything.

LL: You'll have my report.

***

Club 37 wasn't the smooth, sophisticated wine bar Lois had pictured when she'd read Dr Klein's note at lunchtime. In fact, as she approached in the jeep, the other Clark by her side, she wished she'd dressed more casually than the good jeans and smart sweater she was wearing. The parking lot in front of the club was swarming with motorbikes and bikers, some of them spilling out onto the street and others spreading sideways into the neighbouring parking lots. The noise from revving engines, thumping music, and loud, enthusiastic bikers, was enough to make her teeth rattle.

Erring on the side of caution, she decided to park the jeep on the opposite side of the road, some distance away from the melee of bikes and bikers.

"You sure this is the right place?" asked Clark.

She pointed at the bright pink neon sign above the building. "What do you think?"

"Well, yes, but look at it!" he exclaimed. "That lot would eat Dr Klein for breakfast, lab coat included."

She shrugged. "Nah, they're harmless. Look at them ­ half of them are probably over 50."

He peered through the jeep window. "Okay, but they seem like a very…fit…over-50s crowd. Just look at all that leather. And metal."

"Yeah, well Jimmy wears leather and drives a bike, but you're not going to tell me you're afraid of him?" she drawled. "Anyway, never mind that ­ can you see Dr Klein?"

"No."

"Me either." She opened her door and stepped out. "You coming?" she asked, when he didn't budge from his seat.

"Wouldn't it be better if we just stayed here until he arrives?" he said. "I mean, we're not exactly going to blend in over there."

He had a point. In her jeans and sweater, she'd look out of place amongst the leather-clad crowd across the road. Clark wasn't even wearing jeans, but had chosen chinos and a button- down black shirt from her husband's wardrobe.

Reluctantly, she slid back behind the wheel and closed the door. "Okay, since it's not eight o'clock yet, we'll stay here."

"Fine."

Why on earth was he so uneasy in the face of a few aging-hippy bikers? Okay, so one or two of them looked like they might be capable of more than just an assault on good taste, but still… "You do know you're invulnerable, don't you?"

He glanced sideways at her. "Yes, but you're not."

She rolled her eyes. "That's very sweet of you, but I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, actually."

He winced. "That sounds like something my Lois would say."

"Well, you should listen to her. Just because we wear skirts occasionally doesn't mean we can't defend ourselves."

He raised an eyebrow. "I'd be just as concerned if you were a man, you know."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yes."

She crossed her arms. "I don't believe you."

His mouth twisted. "Fine by me." He turned away to gaze out the window. "I've been thinking about what you said this morning. About leaving Lana."

"Oh?"

"Much as it pains me to say it, I think you're right," he said. "I have to stay with her until I can get to the bottom of this thing."

At last he was seeing sense! "It's the best way to find out how much she's involved," she agreed.

"I mean, how much worse can it be than it is now?" he muttered. "I already know she thinks of me as a thing. Who cares if she shares those views with Skywatch?"

He sounded so depressed when he talked about Lana. So much so, in fact, that she found herself actually glad that he had Lois to confide in. "Just…take care, okay?" she said, remembering Clark's concerns last night. "She could be more dangerous than you think."

He snorted. "You mean she can hurt me more than she already has? I doubt it."

She did a quick scan of the milling bikers for Dr Klein, but he was nowhere to be seen. Well, they were still early. "Clark thinks she may be using something called kryptonite against you," she said. "Do you know what that is?"

"No." He turned to look at her. "Sounds like it comes from Krypton, though."

She nodded. "It's a meteorite from your home planet. It glows a sickly green, which is unpleasant enough, but more importantly, it can kill you."

His eyes went wide. "Kill me? How?"

"It emits some sort of radiation that's lethal to Kryptonians," she explained. "First it causes extreme pain and nausea, quickly followed by a high fever. If you can get away from it soon enough, the worst you'll suffer is a loss of your powers for a while. But otherwise…" She shrugged. "Anyway, Clark's had a few near-misses, so he recognises the symptoms pretty quickly. When he woke up in your place yesterday morning, he thought he'd been exposed to kryptonite."

"You're…you're kidding me," he breathed.

She shook her head. "I'd trust Clark one hundred per cent on this one." As the blood drained from his face and he turned a sickly white, she put a hand on his shoulder. "You're okay, aren't you? You're not going to be sick again?"

"No," he muttered. "It's just…those symptoms you described…" Suddenly, there was a strange crunching sound from his side of the jeep. Following his downward gaze, she saw that his right hand now held the mangled remains of her door handle. "Hell," he muttered, shoving the door open and striding several paces along the sidewalk.

She glanced quickly at her watch to check the time ­ ten to eight ­ and pushed her door open to follow him. He was standing facing a shop front, his hands clenched tightly at his sides, and looking dangerously as if he were moments away from punching a hole in the glass. She went to stand beside him. "You recognise the symptoms?"

"Yes."

She put a hand on his arm to pull him around to face her, but encountered rock-hard muscle — impossible to budge even a millimetre. "Tell me."

"I'd never been ill before," he began in a cold, hard voice. "That's why I remember it so clearly. There'd been a really bad storm, and several trees were down. Lana insisted we go play near the bottom end of Shuster's Field where the biggest trees had fallen, even though we'd been told to stay away until the area had been made safe. It wasn't like her to disobey her parents, but I couldn't talk her out of it. So I went with her to make sure she was okay."

He brought his arms up to hug himself, his shoulders hunching as he continued. "We found a really big hole where one of the trees had been uprooted, and that's when I got sick. Really sick. The pain was so bad I could hardly move, but instead of fetching help like I asked her to, Lana somehow managed to drag me back to her house." He paused, his chest heaving with suppressed anger. "She said she didn't want the grown-ups to know where we'd been," he spat. "Like that was more important than my health."

"Anyway," he continued, "by the time we got there, I was shivering so bad her Mom put me straight to bed, took my temperature and diagnosed the flu ­ there was a lot of it about at the time. Neither of us mentioned the crippling pain I'd experienced because we were scared that would show up my differences."

Lois nodded. "Sounds like kryptonite. But maybe Lana didn't know it was there."

"Maybe not. But two days later…My God, just two days later…I got sick again. We were eating lunch at school ­ just her and me at a table. Again, there was the crippling pain followed by violent shivering ­ a high fever." He shrugged. "The school nurse sent me home saying I'd obviously come back to school too soon after the last bout of flu, but I knew it wasn't the flu. I didn't have any of the other symptoms for flu."

"Kryptonite again," agreed Lois. "So you think Lana deliberately exposed you to it that second time?"

"Well, get this ­ she was showing me her collection of rocks and pebbles at the time." He snorted. "I didn't even know she was interested in stuff like that up until then. Now I know why."

"Oh, Clark!" she exclaimed softly, rubbing her hand up and down his sleeve. "I'm so sorry."

"I was so grateful I had someone to confide in," he muttered. "She reassured me and made me feel like it wasn't such a big deal ­ even though I could tell she was just as worried as me. Or at least, I thought she was worried."

She felt his muscles tense again. "Come back to the car," she suggested quickly. "If you like, you can stay there while I meet Dr Klein." Glancing at her watch again, she saw that it really was time to get over to the club.

"No, I'll come with you," he said, turning away from the shop window at last. "I need something to take my mind off all this."

And so did she! It now looked as if her husband might be sharing a house with a potential killer! Not that he couldn't take care of himself, but if Lana had kryptonite…

Lois swallowed hard, gave herself a mental shakedown, and walked purposefully back to the jeep beside Clark. No sense in worrying about something she couldn't do anything about. The best thing she could do for Clark right now was to meet Dr Klein and find out how to get him away from that woman as quickly as she could.

But as they reached the jeep, Clark faltered and placed a hand on the jeep's roof to steady himself.

"Clark?" she queried. "Are you feeling sick again?"

He shook his head. "Dizzy. I think…" He began to sink forwards.

Quickly, she grabbed him around the waist. "Sit," she commanded, pulling the jeep door open with one hand and then bundling him inside. "Put your head between your legs." She pressed him forwards with a hand on his back while praying that he wasn't about to throw up all over her jeep. Bad enough that he'd broken her door handle.

"No, I think…happening again…"

"What's happening again?" She shook him gently when he didn't answer. "Clark?"

***

"…over to Dan Wilson at Metropolis Airport. Dan, what can you tell us about this so-called miracle?"

Huh? Where had Lois gone? And why had she put the radio on in the jeep?

He raised his head, which seemed to have gained about a hundred pounds, and blinked to clear his vision.

Not a radio. A TV. His TV ­ the one Lana didn't like because it was the wrong colour. Cold despair settled upon him like a heavy shroud: he was home.

He glanced around the room quickly, but he appeared to be alone. Was Lana out, or merely in another part of the house?

"…and experts are saying that there's no way the plane should have been able to land safely on its own."

Frowning, he looked back at the TV, which was displaying a close- up of what appeared to be part of the undercarriage of an airplane. In the centre of the screen, a bubbly, jagged solder line ran across the metal.

"Gary, we could be looking at a real, genuine miracle here," the voiceover was saying. "Already, some religious groups have arrived to pay homage."

The picture changed to a scene on the runway, where a man in a long, flowing white robe was kneeling down and apparently kissing the tarmac.

What the heck was going on? No-one had been making a fuss like this over in the other universe!

He heard the front door slam, and then seconds later, Lana swept into the room, still in her buttoned up raincoat. Pausing to look at the TV for a few moments, she crossed to his side and bent down to give him a quick peck on the cheek. Her lips were cold on the warm skin of his face. "Good day at work?"

"Okay," he replied. "You?"

"So-so," she said, looking at the TV again. Her lips pursed as she unbuttoned her coat and threw it over a chair. "You eaten yet?"

"Yeah. You?"

"I had something at lunchtime." She sat neatly and primly on the other sofa and looked at the TV again. The reporter at the airport was interviewing one of the passengers, who was excitedly relating how the plane had seemed to glide effortlessly down to the runway, despite the pilot's dire announcements just seconds earlier of the impossible situation they'd been facing.

Glide effortlessly.

An image of the other Lois swam before him, explaining with a swooping motion of her hands just how easy it was to fly an airplane down to safety. "All you have to do is get underneath it and take the weight on your back."

He hadn't, had he? The other Clark?

A mechanic was being interviewed now, inter-cut with pictures of what were presumably ordinary solder jobs on pieces of metal. Then the airplane's undercarriage was shown again with its bubbly, jagged repair ­ clearly done in haste and not very expertly.

He had. The other Clark had flown this plane down to safety.

Clark glanced over at Lana, who was watching the TV intently. Did she suspect anything? She wasn't usually this interested in the news.

The item finished and the program moved on to foreign news. Lana grabbed the remote and muted the sound. Then sat fiddling with the device while gazing at the silent images on the screen. Should he say anything? Pre-empt any suspicions she might be harbouring? The atmosphere in the room was becoming so thick you could cut it with a knife. Maybe he could-

"Why, Clark?" Her gaze had dropped to the remote control in her hands, her voice low and quiet.

"I'm sorry?"

"I mean, I can understand why you'd want to rescue all those poor people, but after everything we've achieved — everything we've sacrificed…" She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and placed the remote carefully on the sofa beside her. "I just don't understand why you'd want to throw all that away."

"I'm not sure I know what you're talking about-"

"Yes, you do," she murmured, meeting his gaze at last. "Please don't pretend you don't. We're better than that, aren't we? More…mature."

She sounded so reasonable. A little hurt, perhaps, but she had every right to be, didn't she? He'd let her down.

At least, that was what he was supposed to think, wasn't it? "Actually, Lana, I didn't-"

"I think what hurts most is that you didn't tell me," she continued quietly, as if she hadn't heard his interjection. "You've always confided in me before. I could have helped you if I'd known."

"Known what?"

She looked down at her hands. "I guess flying could be quite exciting," she mused. "Is that what it is, Clark? It excites you?"

He shrugged. "I really wouldn't know."

"Or is it a feeling of power? Knowing you can do something that no-one else can?" She nodded. "That would make sense. But whatever it is, we can find another way…another outlet for you."

At that, he wasn't able to stop his expression from twisting into a grimace. "Something more normal, you mean?"

"Yes," she replied, smiling at him like he was a dull child who'd for once given the correct answer. "That's right — something to take its place. And…and you could do charity work if you want to help people. Daddy knows several charities in Metropolis who need volunteers on a regular basis. He could recommend you to a few of them. How about that?"

"It sounds just great, Lana," he said tonelessly. "You know how much I want to be invisible."

"Good." She got up and came to sit beside him, snuggling up close and putting her arm around his shoulders. "So you'll promise? No more flying?"

Cringing inside and fighting the urge to remove himself from her grasp, he replied, "Whatever you say, Lana."

"And you'll tell me if you get any more urges like today's?" She kissed his cheek. "You shouldn't struggle alone, honey. I'm here for you — you know that."

Suddenly, his patience gave way. "Aren't you even just a little relieved that all those people's lives were saved?" he snapped.

She pulled away from him, sliding her arm from his shoulders like a snake might withdraw from its prey. "Of course I am," she replied. "It's really wonderful that you rescued them."

He snorted at her insincerity. "How about you try that again and this time sound like you actually mean it?"

She flinched. "That's a horrible thing to say. Of course I mean it."

"Then why aren't you thrilled by what I was able to do? Why aren't you encouraging me to try again instead of telling me off?" He stood up. "I'm going to bed."

"Clark, don't be like that," she pouted. "You know I'm only trying to protect you."

"But at what cost?" he retorted, staring down at her. There she sat, so pretty and neat, not a hair out of place nor a fold of her skirt misplaced, her make-up as perfect as a fashion magazine ­ and not an ounce of real compassion in her soul. Oh, how he yearned for just five minutes of Lois's messy, whirlwind personality. "Goodnight, Lana."

"But it's still early," she protested.

"I'm tired," he muttered and strode from the room.

Walking upstairs, he forced himself to unclench his hands and pull in deep, slow breaths through his nose. He'd needed all of his willpower not to start an argument with her. He'd wanted to yell at her ­ tell her how callous and selfish she was to believe that keeping his secret was more important than saving lives. Tell her he was going to fly whenever and wherever he pleased, and there was nothing she or her friends at Skywatch could do about it. Tell her to stop controlling him.

But he didn't trust himself. In the heat of an argument, with emotions running high, he'd never be able to hold back telling her just how he felt about her notebooks and her 'it' and her cold-hearted manipulations — or about her probable involvement with Skywatch. He'd have let her have the full force of his fury with all guns blazing.

And gone would be any chance to find out just exactly what had been happening behind his back for all these years. If there was even the slightest chance that she was working for Skywatch, he couldn't risk her or them knowing more than he did. Knowledge was power, and he intended to amass just as much of it as he possibly could before he made a single move. He was going to spy on Lana, just as she had spied on him.

***

Lois had been in clubs with loud music, but she'd never experienced anything quite like this before. Her chest felt like someone was thumping it in time to the music with a huge padded mallet. Not only that, but the pounding was reverberating straight through her entire body and she was beginning to wonder whether it possible to die from too much noise.

She, Clark and Dr Klein were sitting around a tiny circular table in the centre of the bikers' bar. All around them were leather- clad bodies, drinking and laughing, and the air was blue with smoke. The floor felt sticky underfoot and her chair rocked on unevenly balanced legs. So far, she'd managed to avoid touching the table, but she suspected she'd find puddles of warm beer if she did.

She could understand why Dr Klein had picked this place ­ no-one was ever going to overhear anything he told them ­ but couldn't he have chosen a nice quiet deserted warehouse somewhere instead?

Dr Klein was leaning close to Clark and saying something.

"What?" she yelled at Clark. "What did he say?"

Clark's lips moved.

"What? I can't hear you!"

He leant towards her and shouted in her ear. "I'll tell you later!"

Frustrated that she was being excluded from the conversation, she put her mouth close to his ear and yelled, "Don't forget to ask him about the alternative dimension theory!"

Clark rolled his eyes and pointed at her drink. His lips moved again and he mimed a sore throat.

She felt tempted to pick up her drink and splash it over him just for being so annoyingly good at hearing people in noisy places. Super-hearing was all very well, but it wasn't fair that she couldn't join in the interviewing of Dr Klein.

But all she could do was sit and sip her drink while Clark engaged in an apparently fascinating conversation. Would anyone hear her if she screamed, she wondered.

Twenty minutes later, she and Clark were sitting in the jeep and Lois was trying to adjust to the seemingly deafening silence all around her. It was exactly as if someone had pulled the plug on sound. There was just none of it to be heard. She was in a negative sound space.

"Well?" she croaked in a voice that seemed to echo tinnily around her head. "What did he say?"

"Well, after I got him to speak English and not scientific mumbo- jumbo," Clark replied with a rueful grin, "what he basically said is that Dr Schulz doesn't fully understand the forces he's working with. According to Dr Klein, he's ignoring too many unexplained anomalies in his experiments and his equations don't add up."

"I knew it!" she exclaimed, and immediately regretted her outburst. "Ow," she muttered, placing her hands over her sensitive ears.

"Awww," murmured Clark. "Your poor ears. Look, how about I drive us home while you lie back and relax? I'll tell you everything he said after we get home."

"No, I want to know now. What if you get switched again?"

"Okay, then how about I drive and talk while you listen and relax?" He rubbed his hand soothingly over her thigh. "You look tired, sweetheart."

Yeah, but not for much longer if he kept doing that with his hand, her libido sighed dreamily. Would it ever wear off, this tingling, electrical sensation wherever he touched her? Did old married couples of seventy-something still feel like this?

She placed her hand over his. More electricity. "All ri-" She stopped and cleared her voice, hoping to bring it up a couple of octaves from sultry and sexy. "Okay," she said. "But watch my bodywork."

He grinned. "I'm happy to watch that any time."

She swiped at his arm. "Just get over here and drive, silly."

***

Clark lay on his back in bed, his eyes closed but still very much awake. The faint sounds of a TV chat show drifted up from downstairs, a muted background chatter that was strangely soothing ­ a comforting reminder of the world outside this bleak and loveless house, he supposed.

As was often his habit these days, he'd managed to blank out Lana, her duplicity and pretty much everything else to do with his marriage, and was thinking beyond his present stifled existence.

What would it feel like to have rescued a plane-load of people?

He'd never before imagined that these strange abilities of his could actually be put to any use, let alone be used to save lives. His eye rays were just about good enough for heating up a cup of coffee, but it was usually touch and go as to whether he'd turn the cup into a pile of blackened cinders. He'd learned how to confine his strength to human levels, but he knew only too well that if he ever switched into full freak mode, he'd crush anything he grasped to dust. As for flying ­ well, he'd tried, hadn't he? What a joke that had turned out to be, straining upwards with his chin while his feet had remained firmly planted on the ground. He must have looked like some kind of a head case.

Yet Lois had told him that it was possible. A man just like him was routinely flying to people's rescue, using every one of his freaky abilities to help them. He wore a costume and called himself Superman — and nobody laughed. Nobody even suspected it was plain old Clark Kent under the disguise.

What incredible freedom he must feel. To be exactly the person he wanted to be, to refine all these weird abilities and turn them into something useful ­ to even make them into a force for good. It seemed almost inconceivable. And yet…

Imagine lying in this bed knowing that families had remained untouched by tragedy, that disasters had been avoided, that people's livelihoods had remained intact, all because of something he'd done. How would that feel?

Bloody fantastic, he decided.

But how had the other Clark done it? How had he managed to tame these clumsy-

Pain suddenly lanced through his body, punching his breath from his lungs.

What the…?

He gasped as the agony gripped and knifed through every part of him. It bit so deeply and so powerfully that within seconds he was feeling sick and dizzy. Rolling onto his side made no difference, curling up and clenching every muscle only made it worse, and when he rolled over onto his back again, the sour taste of bile burned the back of his throat and fresh pain slashed through his head.

"Clark? Oh, my God, Clark!"

Lana. Her hand landed lightly on his chest — just as he had to turn his head to one side and hack painfully to clear his throat. Dimly, he felt her press a paper hankie to his mouth and thought for a moment that she was trying to stifle him. In fact, all she did was provide something for him to cough into, and then when he was done, dabbed efficiently at his lips. Perhaps she was worried he'd mess up the nice clean bed linen.

He rolled his head around on the pillow and looked up at her.

"What…what are you doing to me?" he gasped.

Because he'd identified the pain. The familiar, paralysing agony of kryptonite.

Her oh-so-anxious face acquired a frown. "What do you mean? I came up to bed to find you like this." She reached out and pushed his hair back from his forehead. "It's just like before, isn't it? Poor sweetheart. I thought you'd got over this, whatever it is."

"You…you know what it is," he said. He tried to get some purchase on the bed with his elbows so that he could inch away from her, but his limbs didn't seem able to respond correctly under the relentless onslaught of pain. He groaned in frustration and fell back onto the bed.

"Try to relax," she soothed. "You know it only gets worse if you try to fight it. Take some deep breaths. Come on — with me, Clark. Nice, deep breaths…"

She began pantomiming the in and out of slow breathing while giving him encouraging looks. Not so long ago he would have been taken in by her consummate performance as the concerned wife helping her sick husband, but not now. Oh, no, not now…

"I know about kryptonite," he blurted.

She interrupted her pantomime to frown down at him. "Kryptonite? What's that?"

"A green rock than can kill me," he gasped. "You've…you've planted it somewhere in this room."

She stilled. Even in his pain-filled haze, he could tell that she was rattled. God, what had he done? He'd blown the entire mess of lies and deceit right out of the water with one single, idiotic blurt. What would she do? Kill him while she had the chance?

She was moving again. He flinched as her hand landed on his forehead and she bent low over him. Now what? He waited tensely for her next move. Perhaps if he lay quiet for a couple of minutes, he could gather enough strength to make a break for it…

"I'm so sorry, sweetheart," she murmured, stroking his hair. "But it's for your own good."

My God, she was actually admitting it? He was about to respond to that when fresh pain lanced through him, forcing a moan to bubble its way out of his mouth.

"My poor darling," she whispered, kissing the side of his face. "I'm sorry it has to be this way."

He turned his head away from her. "I…I don't understand."

"If I don't keep you under control, they'll take you away from me," she explained kindly. "They'll hurt you."

"You're…hurting me."

"Shhh…" she hushed. "Just a few more minutes."

Was this how it ended? Murdered in his bed by the woman he'd once loved? A fitting end, perhaps, for a blind fool who'd been so stupid as to place his trust in a woman without once questioning her motives.

But he wasn't ready to die yet. Lois was out there, waiting for him, offering him a chance for a real future. He'd return the love and support she'd given him over the past few months, and he wanted to give the Superman thing a try. There was hope ahead, if only he could avoid dying in the next few minutes.

He began to struggle, to attempt to roll onto his side so that he could sit up and then scramble off the bed. Weakness crippled him, though ­ already he was much weaker than when the pain had first struck ­ and Lana was easily able to press him back down. He fought against her, but even in extremis, his natural instinct to avoid striking a woman prevented him from fighting as hard as he might against a man.

How ironic, he thought hysterically. Killed by his own moral standards.

And then, abruptly, the pain disappeared, leaving him dazed and light-headed. "There," she said. "Now you won't be tempted to do something silly like that aeroplane rescue again."

"Silly?" he choked. "People could have died."

"I know, and I am really proud of you for saving them, sweetheart." She smiled down at him. "I didn't realise you could do anything as clever as that," she said. "In fact, the press are saying it was a miracle."

How could she go from half-killing him to telling him how wonderful he was in less than the blink of an eye? He didn't understand it ­ he could hardly think straight, let alone get inside Lana's head when his own was still spinning. "So…so they don't suspect anything?" he said.

"Not this time, but they will next time." She waved her finger at him as if to scold a small child. "You can't afford to take the risk, Clark, you know that."

"I could wear a disguise."

"Oh, don't be silly!" she exclaimed. "Sweetheart, I know how much you like helping people. That's why I'm doing this, can't you see? So you won't feel so bad when something serious happens like today. You won't feel guilty if you can't do anything to help."

Her logic was astounding. Had she always been like this and he just hadn't noticed before? Or perhaps the strain of her double life had finally got to her and turned her head. "And when I recover?"

"Then we'll see how well you manage. If you don't do anything rash, then we won't need to do this again." She smiled. "Just think of this as your chance to rest from your conscience for a few days."

She pulled the bedclothes up around his chin and kissed his forehead. "Try to get some sleep. I'll be just next door in the spare room if you need me."

He could hardly believe it — she was back to the caring wife routine again. Did she really believe he'd buy it this time? Particularly since she'd all but admitted she was in cahoots with someone else. In fact…

"Who are 'they', Lana?"

She paused at the door, then swivelled around to face him. "I'm sorry, darling? Did you say something?"

"You said 'they'll' take me away from you," he said. "Who are 'they'?"

"You know," she replied, a note of exasperation in her voice. "We've talked about it often enough."

"We have?"

She threw her hands up. "There are all manner of agencies out there who'd like nothing better than to get their hands on a real, live alien. Not to mention the press and the media. They'd all want a piece of you ­ literally, in some cases."

"Sure, but you sounded pretty specific earlier," he said. "Like you were referring to a particular organisation."

"Did I?" she replied. "Don't forget you were in a lot of pain ­ you probably didn't hear me right." She shrugged. "Look, let's not talk about this now. You know how sick it makes you, and you're already unwell."

Thanks to you, he thought bitterly. Resigning himself to losing this particular battle of wits ­ he just wasn't up to the fight — he rolled onto his side, muttering, "Go away, Lana."

He waited until he heard the door close and then pushed the bedclothes down. The cooler air on his bare skin made him shiver, adding to his general feeling of total lousiness, but there was simply no way he intended to remain where she'd left him, meekly awaiting her next assault.

Slowly, he sat up and swung his feet down to the carpet. Sitting on the side of the bed, doing his best to ignore the shivers knocking his teeth together, he planned his next move while gathering his meagre strength together. Clothes. His next priority was to get dressed with the minimum of effort and as quietly as possible. Sweats and his running shoes were probably easiest. Then his wallet and keys from his jacket and he'd be out of here.

Fifteen minutes later he was dressed and standing by the door, one ear pressed to its surface while he cautiously eased the handle down. Momentarily, he allowed himself to sag against the door before he opened it. His trembling legs didn't feel steady enough to carry him onto the landing, let alone downstairs and out into the street. Still, he'd got this far and he was damned if he was going to give up now.

Gingerly, he opened the door and stepped out. Glancing along to Lana's door, he saw that it was closed and there was no light coming from the room. Hopefully she was already drifting off to sleep. He gripped the top of the banister and made his way shakily downstairs. Thank God for a new house and no creaky floorboards ­ this would never have been possible at home in Smallville where every step you took resounded through the entire house.

At the bottom of the staircase he paused, torn between resting on the bottom step and forcing himself to continue while his luck still held. Willpower. You could move heaven and earth with an ounce of willpower. Sitting down was for wimps.

So he continued, clinging to whatever he could ­ the wall, door handles, the back of a chair ­ until he was at the front door. He fumbled the key into the lock, turned it and quickly opened the door, stepped out into the cold night and locked the door behind him.

Success and freedom. But as he turned away from the door, the steps down to the sidewalk tilted away from him like a sheer cliff face. Willpower. He took them one at a time, regrouping and rechecking his balance after every step. Everything was going pretty well until a cat suddenly let out a squeal and darted across his field of vision. He started, and then he was falling, the hard stone steps coming up to meet him and sending him tumbling downwards. He tried to gain some purchase, hands and feet flailing desperately in all directions, but his momentum carried him relentlessly down until he came to a bone-jarring halt at the bottom.

For a long time, he lay still, not sure which way was up and praying fervently that Lana hadn't heard his fall.

Then sensation began to creep back slowly. Bits of him started to hurt. He discovered he was shivering. And he was nauseous. "Willpower," he muttered grimly and pulled himself painfully to his feet. One knee protested when he put his weight on it, his hands were scraped and bloodied and his side hurt, but he was otherwise intact.

Now all he had to do was walk a couple of blocks to the main street, hail a cab and within less than half an hour he'd be tucked up in a nice clean bed. Easy.

Not that he intended to go to Lois's apartment. Oh, no, not this time. Not in this state, having just been assaulted by his own wife and barely able to limp along the street. Lois would think he wasn't able to take care of himself. That he was a wimp who always ran to her whenever he was in trouble. No, enough was enough: he had no intention of admitting to Lois that Lana had attacked him.

So he was going to check into a motel for the night. He'd figure out what to do next after a good night's sleep.

***

Clark followed his wife into their living room, admiring the close fit of her jeans and how well they accentuated her neat behind. Were they new? He didn't remember noticing how nice she looked in them before. In fact…

He took a couple of long strides to catch her up and wrapped his arms around her from behind. "Got you," he murmured triumphantly, nuzzling the side of her neck.

"Mmm," she responded, snuggling into his body. "I guess you have."

She turned her face towards him, so he leant around and closed his lips over hers. So soft and luscious. So feminine and sexy. So Lois. He never tired of kissing his wife.

He let one hand drift over her chest while deepening their kiss. She responded immediately, opening her mouth against his, a soft, wet riot of pliable, expressive flesh. He let himself disappear into the kiss, leaving behind their surroundings for a few dreamy moments. "Have I mentioned lately," he murmured during a break for breath, "that I love you?"

"Um…not since last night, actually," she replied. She swivelled in his arms to face him and pressed her lips back against his, quickly deepening the kiss again. "But then you have been somewhere else for most of today," she said around their lips, "so I'll forgive you."

"I can make it up to you, if you like," he suggested. He dove into their kiss afresh, unleashing more of his passion and finding it returned with just as much force by Lois.

"There's a very convenient sofa just to our left," she said breathlessly. "Just in case you'd forgotten."

"Sounds good to me," he responded, toppling them onto the cushions.

Lying on top of him, Lois immediately got busy with the buttons of his shirt while he tried to simultaneously push up her sweater.

Darn. Her arms were in the way.

"Just wait," she instructed, batting his hands away with a chuckle. "You can tell me about your day while I do this."

"Well, let's see," he mused, shifting his hands down to stroke her sides instead. "I rescued a plane, actually."

She paused in mid-unfasten. "You did? That's weird ­ there was nearly a plane crash here, too."

"Really?" He, too, paused, resting his hands on her hips. "You mean Clark rescued it?"

She shook her head and resumed her task. "No, it landed itself, thank God. He doesn't 'do' Superman ­ didn't even know how to fly."

Which the other Lois had already told him, of course ­ he'd forgotten that. "But he knows now?" he asked. "About Superman, I mean?"

"Yeah, I told him." She yanked his shirt out of his pants and pushed back the sides. "There!" she exclaimed. "All done. Just let me…" She smoothed her hands slowly over his chest, making him suck in a shuddering breath of pleasure. God, she knew so well how to excite-

She sat up abruptly. "Okay, you can pull my sweater off now."

He groaned. "Honey, do you think we could skip the slow undressing bit and-"

Oh, God. Why hadn't this occurred to him before? He'd rescued that plane and now the other Clark was facing the consequences.

"What?" she said. "Please don't tell me you're hearing something right now!"

"No, it's not that," he said. "I just realised the other Clark doesn't know what I did."

"Oh." She frowned. "Well, will that matter? I mean, if you were discreet-"

"It'll be all over the new channels by now," he said. "Unfortunately, I was anything but discreet." He grimaced, wishing again that he hadn't been so clumsy with his soldering. "I just hope he's okay. We figured that Skywatch probably wouldn't suspect anything, since he's never done anything remotely like it before, but still…"

"He'll be fine, honey," she said. "You did the right thing in rescuing all those people."

"I guess so."

"I know so," she replied firmly. "Now, you were saying something about undressing me?"

"Oh, yes…" He smiled and reached up, sliding his hands under the front of her sweater. Rumbling deep in his throat, he quickly swept upwards to push her sweater over her head. Oh, yeah. Maroon underwear. His favourite.

She was shaking her hair from her eyes when she suddenly froze. "Oh, God."

"What this time?"

She looked down at him in alarm. "What if you get swapped? You know…when we're in the middle of things? Heck, what if you get swapped right now?"

Oh, God, indeed. "I…well, I think I'd notice before…we'd have time, I think. To…stop."

"You think." She sat back on her heels. "I need a dead certainty."

Noooo! cried his rampant libido. "Okay, then I'm certain," he said quickly.

"Cla-ark…" She crossed her arms. "You're not convincing me," she said.

"How about if we're really quick?" he suggested hopefully.

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, honey. It's just not going to work." She climbed off him, fastened her jeans and pulled on her sweater. "Until we put a stop to this thing, we'll just have to…go without."

He sighed. "I think you're overreacting a little, sweetheart. I mean, what are the chances-"

"Do you want even the smallest risk that I might end up having sex with the other Clark?" she snapped. "Because that's what you're saying."

He stared up at her, appalled by her suggestion. "No, of course I don't want that! God, honey, I just didn't think it through properly." He pushed off the sofa and wrapped his arms around her. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean to sound selfish."

"Yeah, well, it's okay for you," she mumbled. "You don't get left behind with a complete stranger…"

Oh, boy. He felt her reach the same realisation just as he did. He separated from her and met her eyes, finding his own concern reflected in them. "I'm sure," he began slowly, "that the other two will figure out what we just figured out. Won't they?"

She hesitated. "He's not quite as quick-witted as you, but…yeah. If he doesn't, I'm sure Lois will. And Lana…he doesn't…they don't, do they? Not since he found out what she's been doing to him, surely?"

He dropped his gaze, remembering Lana's insistent advances. The revealing nightie. That lewd suggestion. "No, I don't think they do," he replied slowly. Then he remembered her angry frustration and that needling remark about sexual dysfunction. He lifted his gaze and met Lois's eyes directly. "No," he said firmly. "They don't."

"Okay," she replied. "Then we have nothing to worry about."

***

Clark checked his watch while waiting for the Planet elevator to reach his floor. Nine forty seven. Well, waking late had its advantages. With any luck, everyone would still be attending the early morning editorial meeting. He'd slip in behind his desk, get his head down into some work, and hopefully no-one would notice he was wearing sweats and running shoes instead of a suit and tie.

He'd considered calling in sick when he'd woken late at the motel. It wouldn't even have been a total lie, since he was still stiff from last night's fall and most of him ached to a greater or lesser extent. However, his conscience had won out, and anyway, he wanted to see Lois before he was swapped yet again and they were separated for God knew how long. He hadn't seen her for two days now and he missed her terribly. In fact, he'd needed all of his willpower not to simply call her from the motel room ­ the only thing that had stopped him had been the knowledge that he'd have probably broken down and told her what Lana had done to him. He didn't intend for that to happen.

So here he was, ducking out of the elevator and moving as quickly as possible ­ slight limp permitting ­ towards his desk.

"Hey, Clark!" Jimmy jogged up and handed him a file. "Lois said to give you this as soon as you showed up." He stepped back and looked him up and down. "Working undercover, huh?"

"Something like that," he muttered. "Thanks, Jimmy."

He hurried to his desk and eased stiffly into his chair. Opening the file, he found that it was background material on the directors of the consortium that had fronted Skywatch's acquisition of his parent's farm. They'd asked Jimmy to carry out the research a few days ago, he remembered.

"Morning."

Lois.

Oh, God, Lois. She was here at last. He needed to be calm. Avoid anything too heavy and emotional. He pasted a bright smile on his face and looked up. "Hey."

Her hair style was nearly his undoing. She was wearing it just the way he liked best, with one side tucked behind an ear and the other side falling loose, the ends just beginning to curl around her face like a frame. The style was the epitome of Lois ­ part casual and unruly, part smart and sassy. He could spend all day looking at that style.

She was frowning. "Dressed a bit casually, aren't you? Maybe that sort of thing is okay where you come from, but here we wear business attire."

Oh, no! She thought he was the other Clark. "Lois, it's me!" he replied urgently. "Your partner." Your lover.

Her frown faded. "Clark?" A hand went up to her mouth in shock. "Clark?" she quavered. "It's really you?"

"Yes, I'm back." He reached across the desk to grab her hand. "I've missed you," he said huskily.

"Oh, God." She gripped his hand tightly. "We…we have to go somewhere. Anywhere. Now."

He shot to his feet, his stiff muscles protesting fiercely. A glance over to the conference room told him that it was occupied. Damn. "The photocopier room," he muttered. "Come on."

Quickly, he pulled her across the newsroom to the other side where the photocopier room sat in one corner. One or two colleagues commented on their passing, the comments ranging from the ribald to the downright offensive. Apparently their affair was pretty much common knowledge across the newsroom.

He didn't care. As soon as they reached the sanctuary of the copier room and the door was firmly closed, he fell into her arms.

Except he couldn't hold her close enough. Wherever he put his arms, it wasn't enough. Wherever he kissed her, it wasn't enough. "I missed you…missed you so much…wish this wasn't happening to us…are you okay…" The words tumbled from his mouth, tripping over each other in their eagerness to express his feelings. He kissed her lips, her cheek, her hair, her neck ­ it still wasn't enough.

"Clark, I need to breathe."

Her voice was a distant murmur, a caress in his ears. He held her closer and kissed the parts he'd missed before. Her forehead, her temple, her ear-

"Clark, you're squashing me."

He was? Oh, God, he was. He released her quickly, resting his forehead on hers. "I'm sorry," he murmured breathlessly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." She put her hand on his arm and began to rub it slowly up and down. "But are you okay? That was quite a welcome."

He straightened up and dragged his wits together. "Yeah, I'm fine." He found the cute curl of hair that framed her face and smiled at it. "Just pleased to see you."

She returned his smile, the corner of her lips almost touching his favourite curl. "Me, too. I've been really worried about you these past couple of days."

"You have?" He shrugged ­ and then immediately regretted it when his sore side tugged at him. He converted his grimace into another smile. "I'm fine. I mean, swapping bodies and universes isn't exactly my favourite way to spend a couple of days, but you know ­ a guy can get used to most things."

"Yeah?" Her face hardened. "Well, I've had enough of it. I hope the other two are working on finding a way to stop this."

"I know they are." He frowned. "You're not blaming them for this, are you?"

"No. I just…I know they've got a lead and I hope they're following it up, because I don't want to lose you again. That's all."

"Okay. Well, if he's anything like she is, I'm sure they're well on the way to an answer."

"Oh? What's she like?"

He smiled. "A lot like you. Determined. Knows her own mind and doesn't care if other people know it, too. But also missing her husband," he added.

She nodded. "He was missing her, too. Didn't mention it much, but I could tell, you know? He'd get this sad look when he thought I wasn't watching."

"Well, they've only just got married," he pointed out.

"Yeah." She looked up at him. "I wish…we…"

He dropped his gaze. "I know. We will. One day." Here it came. The "When, Clark?" The "How long, Clark?" The "I can't wait forever, Clark."

He raised his eyes and met hers steadily. "I will leave her. I promise."

She turned away from him, her face expressionless. "Did you hear that the other Clark thinks she may be working for Skywatch?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"Nothing about Lana surprises me any longer," he replied bitterly.

"I see." She took a couple of paces away from him. "I just don't know how you do it," she said, her voice barely audible above the whine of the photocopier. "How you can bear to share a bed with her."

"I can't," he muttered.

"Yet you do just that. Every night."

"I have to keep up appearances," he said. "You know that."

She shook her head from side to side. "When's it going to stop, Clark?" she said. "What has to happen to make you leave her?"

He grimaced, thinking about what Lana had done to him last night — that was certainly enough to make him leave her if he hadn't already made up his mind to do so. Except… "I…I have a plan."

"Oh, a plan," she said sardonically. "That'll really help. How long is this plan? A month? A year? Five years?"

"As short as possible," he replied, "especially if you'll help me."

"You don't need a plan to leave your wife, Clark," she muttered. "You just do it."

"Not if your wife is working for an underground organisation that's watching you like a microbe under a microscope," he pointed out. "Not if there's a risk she might tell the whole world what you really are."

"Oh, please!" she snapped. "That's what she wants you to think ­ she's been programming you all your life to be frightened of that. And look what it's doing to you." She swivelled on the balls of her feet to face him. "Have you any idea how ill you look? How scared I get when you act like you did when we came in here because it shows me how close to the edge you are? She's destroying you, Clark, little by little."

"I'm okay," he insisted. "Just…tired."

"Tired," she echoed in a hollow voice. "You shouldn't be tired. You should be…did you know that yesterday a man just like you saved a whole plane-load of people? Flew right up and brought the plane down single-handedly. He used all the amazing abilities you have to do something positive instead of wishing them away all the time like you do."

"I know," he replied, nodding vigorously. "The other Lois told me all about it. And I really want to give it a try. I'd love to put these freak-" He caught her forbidding look and amended his choice of word. "Unusual abilities to some use, especially if I can help save lives in the process. But first I have to deal with Skywatch and Lana."

She threw her hands up. "What's to deal with? Just-"

Someone knocked on the door. "Um…Clark?" It was Jimmy, his voice muffled by the door. "You have a phone call."

He strode to the door and opened it. A very sheepish and embarrassed Jimmy stood shifting from one foot to the other. "It's your wife."

Lana? What on earth did she want? "Tell her I'll call her back," he replied.

"I already did," said Jimmy. "Three times."

He sighed. "Okay." He turned to Lois. "I'm sorry ­ we'll talk about this later."

Her face like thunder, she waved him off. "Go."

At his desk, he lifted the receiver and swivelled around so that he was facing away from Lois's desk across the gangway. "Yes?" He cupped his free hand around the handset for extra security.

"Clark, thank God!" exclaimed an agitated-sounding Lana. "I've been so worried about you. Where did you go last night?"

"Away from you," he retorted. "That's all you need to know."

"But…but you'll be back tonight?" she asked. "Won't you?"

"I doubt it," he replied, although he hadn't yet figured out what his plan was for tonight. He needed to speak to Lois.

"Please, honey," she whined. "I…I didn't mean it, you know. I didn't want to hurt you."

"Oh, really?" he fumed, hunching himself over the phone so no-one would hear him. "You deliberately exposed me to a substance that can kill me, yet you're telling me you didn't want to hurt me. How am I supposed to believe that?"

"I…I panicked," she said. "What you did yesterday…it scared me. I…I didn't know you could do anything as powerful as that. I thought…if you ever got angry, you might… I panicked, Clark, don't you see? I know you'd never hurt me really."

Hurt her???

For a moment, he couldn't breathe. Couldn't speak. She…she was actually saying…

"Clark?" Her voice was small. Cowed. "Are you still there?"

"I…I can't do this." Blindly, he reached behind and fumbled the receiver onto its cradle. Sat numbly staring at the floor, which seemed to tip crazily at an angle. His own wife had just said she was scared of him. He, Clark Kent, the big bad alien, was a threat to his wife. Which made it all right for her to attack him with poisonous rocks.

Fury suddenly sprung forth. White hot fury that made him tremble like a man possessed. How dare she? How dare she ruin his life? How dare she lie and twist and manipulate him like a puppet?

"You planning on doing any work today, Kent?" asked Perry from behind him.

He spun angrily around on his chair and said the first thing that popped into his head. "No!"

Perry raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really? Then can you give me any good reason why I should let you sit in my newsroom taking up valuable desk space?"

"Not really." God, why was he saying this? He didn't mean it at all, but the words just kept spitting out of him.

"Then I suggest you go home and think long and hard about your position here," said Perry. "Come back tomorrow if you're ready to give me five solid days of commitment and hard work, otherwise don't bother." He jabbed a finger at Clark. "You got it?"

Clark nodded, already rising from his chair.

"And I don't expect to have to remind staff at your level of the dress code around here," Perry added sternly. "Now git!"

Clark stormed to the elevators, his blood thundering in his ears. Not only was Lana responsible for ruining his private life, but she was in danger of ruining his career, too. How ironic that she should tell him that she was scared of him, when, right this minute, she'd probably have very good cause to be. He stabbed at the elevator button, producing a crack in the plastic. Damn. He hadn't done anything like that in years. More reason to be mad at Lana.

"Clark!"

Lois. He didn't want to talk to her when he was like this.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, reaching his side just as the elevator doors opened. Quickly, he strode inside and slammed the door-close button. The doors began to shut, but, to his annoyance, she caught them with her hands and forced her way inside.

"What are you doing?" she demanded again.

He pursed his lips. "Going home."

"Are you trying to throw away your job?" she asked. "Your life isn't screwed up enough already ­ is that it?"

"No."

"Sure as hell looks like it to me," she retorted. "What's going on, Clark? You turn up at work in sweats looking like you just went ten rounds with the world heavyweight champion, you greet me like you thought you were never going to see me again, and you're as rude as hell to Perry. What's happened to you?"

He leant against the wall of the elevator and tipped his head to gaze at the ceiling. "What hasn't happened to me?" he asked the polystyrene tiles.

"Don't give me half-baked answers!" She shoved angrily at his chest, causing him to suck in a wince of pain. "I want the truth."

He sighed. She was right ­ she deserved more than off-hand rudeness from him. A lot more. And it wasn't her fault he felt this way. "Lana and I had…an argument," he told the tiles.

"Oh? What about?"

So he related their early-evening argument about the plane rescue. How Lana had accused him of rash, irresponsible behaviour and how mad he'd been that she hardly seemed to care about the people who'd been saved.

It was the truth, he told the silent tiles. Lois didn't need to know the rest ­ the bit where his own wife nearly killed him. He hadn't changed his mind since last night on that. He'd had enough of being a victim in Lois's eyes, and besides, he just wasn't ready to admit he'd let things get so out of hand. He should have been able to stop it. Prevent it. What sort of a man was he if he allowed himself to be overcome by a woman? Not Superman, that was for sure.

He brought his gaze down from the tiles to see how Lois was taking his story.

She was frowning. "So she knows it was you — well, him, but you know what I mean. That's a big leap for Lana to make all on her own, when all she's ever seen you do is float in your sleep. Do you think she got help?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. We don't know for certain whether she's working for them or not." He drew in a deep breath. "But I intend to change all that. Starting today, I'm officially investigating Lana, the same as I'd investigate anyone else I suspected was hiding an important story. I'm going to spy on her just like she spied on me."

"I see," she commented coolly. She didn't seem very impressed with his announcement. "I suppose you're going to tell me that's why you can't leave her just yet. This is your wonderful plan, isn't it?"

Okay, now he knew why she wasn't impressed. Oh, God, and she'd be even less impressed if she knew he was planning on staying with someone who'd physically attacked him — another reason not to tell her.

"Yes, it is," he replied. He clasped her shoulders and held her gaze steadily. "Lois, I need to do this. I need to know what she's been doing to me all these years. I need to know how much of me is really me. I…I can't begin a new life with you without knowing who I really am."

"And you really think the best way to do that is to stay with her?" she replied. "What's to stop you leaving her and then starting your investigations? You'll probably think a lot more clearly away from her influence."

"True, which is why I need your help," he said. "I need your clear thinking and inspiration. I need your skills as an investigator. I need your intuition."

In response, she simply snorted dismissively, so he added, "There are too many risks if I leave her without knowing the extent of her involvement in this circus, don't you see? Say she is working for Skywatch and I leave her ­ suddenly she'd be useless to them. What's to stop them killing her to keep her quiet, to prevent her telling anyone about them? As much as I hate what she's done, I don't want her to die. And as for me ­ well, if they didn't just kill me, they'd at least want to seize back control of me as soon as possible. That means you'd be in danger, too, if they thought they could get to me through you."

"I'd be fine," she retorted. "I've faced worse than Jason Trask and his henchmen." She pulled away from him and stepped a couple of paces to the opposite wall of the elevator. "Who's to say they know about us anyway?"

"Lois, half the newsroom knows about us!" he exclaimed. "You heard the things people were saying earlier."

"That's just newsroom ribaldry. Doesn't mean they know anything." She shrugged. "But okay, you've made a couple of good points. You've left out the main reason you're scared to leave her, though." She leant back against the wall and crossed her arms.

He sighed. She meant his fear that Lana would expose him if he left her. Yes, he'd deliberately omitted that — because he knew she didn't think he was right and so his argument would have been weakened. But Lois clearly wasn't going to let him get away with that.

"It's a legitimate concern," he insisted. "Say she's not working for Skywatch ­ what's her motive for writing all those notes about me? Maybe she's planning to publish a book, or go to the press with a kiss and tell story."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Lana? Now you're entering fantasyland. Lana would no more print a kiss and tell story than hire a male prostitute for the night."

He shrugged. "Maybe you think you know her well enough to know that for a certainty, but I don't ­ not any more. This person I find myself married to…well, she's virtually a stranger. And she could make a fortune selling her story, Lois!" He glanced up to the indicator lights above the elevator door and saw that they were nearly at the ground floor. "Which, by the way," he added, "is why Skywatch might kill her if she is working for them and I leave her."

"You've got all the angles covered, haven't you?"

"Well, I've thought about it a lot," he replied. "Are you going to help me?" The elevator doors opened, but he hesitated before stepping out. "Lois?"

This was more than just asking her to help him investigate Lana. This was him asking her if they still had a relationship. If she was prepared to wait for him while he resolved things with Lana and Skywatch. The worst of it was, he couldn't blame her if she decided not to. He knew he was difficult, that he hadn't exactly made her life easy since she'd become involved with him. She was an attractive, intelligent woman ­ why should she have to wait around for a complicated guy like him when she could have her pick of eligible bachelors?

From her arrested expression, he could tell that she knew this was more than just a simple answer to a plea for help. Her hand pressed flat against the 'Open Door' button. "Give me one reason why I should help you."

Oh, boy. Yes, she definitely knew. "Because you believe in fighting the bad guys and winning."

She nodded. "Not bad. Give me another."

"Because I love you."

She shook her head, biting her lip. "I'd keep love out of this if I were you ­ trust me, I'd win the argument. Try again."

"Because you hate Lana?"

The corner of her mouth curved upwards, meeting his favourite hair curl. "Spite. Always a good one. Clean and simple and it doesn't pretend it's anything other than what it is. But I need something a little more…wholesome."

"I already gave you two reasons," he protested. "You only asked for one."

"I need another," she insisted.

"Okay…because you love me."

Her eyes flashed. "Dammit, I told you to keep love out of this."

"I can't, Lois," he said softly.

Because if there was no love, what was the point? He may as well stay with Lana and live out the life she'd orchestrated for him if love didn't matter.

Lois's hand came off the 'Open Door' button, bunched into a fist and punched the 'Basement' button. "Dammit," she muttered. "Why does love always mess everything up?"

He let out a gusty breath of tentative relief: she seemed to have decided they were still together. "I don't know," he replied shakily. "I'm not exactly an expert on the subject."

She smiled weakly. "Neither am I."

"Um…where are we going?" he asked, eyeing the lights indicating their descent to the basement.

"To my jeep, of course," she replied briskly. "How else am I going to drive you home?"

"Drive me…" He looked at her, but her expression was unreadable. "You're coming home with me?"

"I can't exactly search Lana's things while I'm sitting at my desk, now can I?" she said. "Of course I'm coming home with you."

His breath caught in his chest. She really was going to help him. He wasn't going to lose her. "Thank you," he said quietly.

"Just don't you dare bring that love thing into this again, okay?" she muttered.

He smiled. "I promise. Would a hug be pushing my luck?" he ventured.

"No, that would be quite acceptable," she conceded.

The elevator doors opened onto the basement garage, but he was too busy holding her in his arms to notice.

***

There are truck-loads of very useful and extremely precise adjectives contained within the rich diversity of the English language. Lois, sitting in front of her computer at the Planet, knew this very well and had indeed used many of them in her writing. However, at this precise moment in time, someone seemed to have sucked every single one of them out of her brain.

She glanced sideways towards Clark's desk. Still there. Still, so far as she could tell, her husband. Well…all the other times she'd checked, he'd looked like he did now, studying his screen intently and occasionally rattling off a few words on his keyboard. So yeah, still her Clark.

He turned and smiled at her. She returned his smile. The exchange was becoming like a little routine between them. She almost wished the next switch would happen right this minute so that she could stop checking him and get on with her work. Almost.

"A word meaning unsure…uncertain of yourself," she asked. "Ex- something, I think."

He frowned for a moment. "Insecure?"

"Yes!" She slapped her forehead. "Why couldn't I think of that?" She turned back to her computer and finished her sentence.

"If it happens, it happens." He'd crossed the aisle to perch on the side of her desk. "There's nothing we can do to prevent it."

She closed her hand over his and looked up at him with a wan smile. "So I should stop worrying. I know."

"We'll get through this." He turned his hand around to clasp hers. "The best thing we can do is to keep working on the information Dr Klein gave us."

"Yeah. I just…I'm scared I'll lose you again and I won't have even hugged you this time because I can't trust myself to stop there."

He nodded. "Me, too. It's crazy, isn't it? We've both gone for years without any…well, without *any*, and now it just takes one night and we're like…like…"

Rabbits on Viagra? Lois supplied silently. "Maybe it's because we know we can't," she suggested.

"Probably." He drew in a deep breath. "Anyway. Dr Klein. I've been thinking ­ you know he said he suspects Schulz's device is actually doing something they're not monitoring for when it fails to work as expected?"

She nodded. "He said the data didn't make sense otherwise."

"He also said he hasn't been able to review any recent data because they're not including him on the review panel any longer," he said. "So here's my thought ­ how about we get hold of some of that recent data for him?"

"Dr Schulz won't give it to us, either," she pointed out.

"I know," he said, grinning mischievously. "I was kind of thinking we might take it."

"Why, Mr Kent," she exclaimed slyly. "You're not suggested we steal it?"

He shrugged. "Just make a copy. Where's the harm in that?"

"Absolutely none at all," she replied. "The scientific community is all for collaboration, peer review and the sharing of information, isn't it?"

"My point exactly," he said. "We'll be doing them a favour."

She joined him in his grin. "I like your thinking, Mr Kent."

He chuckled. "Likewise, Mrs Kent."

***

Clark hesitated at the doorway to his bedroom, uneasily watching Lois as she strode purposefully into the room. He didn't feel comfortable here — the room contained too many memories, too many intimate hours of just him and Lana. Lois didn't belong in the midst of it.

"She wouldn't hide anything in here," he protested. "She'd know I might find it by accident."

"Really? When was the last time you rummaged in her underwear drawer?" She yanked open the top drawer of a tall chest and dug in.

"Probably never, but that's not the point," he said. "She doesn't know I'd never look."

"This is a waste of time unless we do it properly," she replied, her hands deep in his wife's underwear. "We have to look everywhere."

She paused in her rummaging. She'd found something? No — one hand slowly extracted a brilliant red scrap of silk and lace. A bra. As soon as he recognised it, he cringed. It was part of a set he'd given Lana on their wedding night, hoping she'd be flattered by the pretty garment. He hadn't realised she'd kept it.

"Very nice," said Lois, holding it against her chest and peering down at herself. "Did you buy it for her?" Her face popped up to dart him a saucy smile.

A knife twisted in his gut. "Put it away," he grated.

Her smile faded and she let the garment slide downwards in slack hands. "I'm sorry." She turned and stuffed it quickly back in the drawer. "What was I thinking?" she muttered.

"It's okay." Lana had never worn the set, complaining that it was too scratchy and uncomfortable. She'd never even tried it on once for him. His ego suitably dented, he'd never ventured into the realm of lingerie underwear again.

"No, it's not okay." She came over to his spot at the threshold to the room. "That was incredibly insensitive of me," she murmured, reaching up to run her fingers over the side of his face.

He shrugged. "Just another example of how blind I was." He gazed over at the bed. All those nights. All those words. All those lies. "How stupid I was," he muttered bitterly.

Her hand came to rest on his shoulder. "She never wore it?"

"No." He grimaced. "I didn't know those things weren't very comfortable to wear."

She rolled her eyes. "They're not supposed to be comfortable. They're supposed to be sexy."

"Lana doesn't really do sexy." Which was why he'd agonised for so long in the shop. In the end, he'd chosen the red set precisely because he'd thought it looked pretty and feminine rather than overtly sexy. "She's…practical."

"Well, practical can be important too, I guess." She glanced around at where he was standing. "I notice you haven't stepped into the room yet."

"No. It…doesn't feel right."

"Why not?"

"I'm not sure."

"I thought you were going to get changed."

"I was, but…"

"Come on," she said, turning back into the room to continue her search. "You can get changed while I do this."

He stood his ground. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"I know," she agreed. "It's scary ­ you, me, a nice big bed…who knows what might happen?" She shook her head. "We're adults, Clark. We can handle it."

"That's what I'm afraid of," he muttered, stepping reluctantly over the threshold. "Okay, no peeking."

"Scout's honour," she replied, pulling open another drawer and diving in with both hands.

Keeping an eye on her to make sure she was completely focused on her task, he crossed quickly to the wardrobe and selected a shirt, hanging it, hanger and shirt together, on the handle of the wardrobe door. His intention was to switch track-suit top and shirt as fast as possible, then complete an equally quick swap with his pants.

But no sooner had he dragged off his top than he heard Lois's sharp intake of breath from behind him. A corner of his mouth curved upwards, kind of pleased that he had that sort of an effect on her. "I said no peeking," he admonished, grabbing the shirt and quickly threading his arms through the sleeves.

Then she was behind him, lifting the shirt and touching his back with cool fingers. Oh, Jeez…he closed his eyes. Even here, right in this room, her touch was enough to evoke thoughts of that nice big bed just feet away. He could so easily sweep her into her arms and tumble headlong onto the soft mattress to make sweet love with her…

"My God, Clark," she exclaimed in hushed tones. "What happened to you?"

With a jolt, he realised that her touch was actually clinical rather than sexual. She was methodically lifting up his shirt and carefully tracing around his body with her fingers, and when she prodded lightly, the dull ache he'd been endeavouring to ignore all morning flared up into sharp pain.

Damn.

He had bruises? He hadn't noticed anything this morning in the shower, but at the time he'd been dopey from sleep and in a hurry to get ready for work.

"Nothing," he replied quickly. "Nothing happened."

Wordlessly, she steered him in front of the mirror. The edge of an ugly, bluish, yellowish bruise leaked out from under one side of his shirt. Heck, how was he going to explain that?

"Take it off," she murmured, tugging at his shirt collar.

He dragged the edges of his shirt together. "It's worse than it looks," he protested. "These things always-"

"Take it off," she insisted quietly.

He gave in ­ she'd already seen the damage, so there was no point pretending it wasn't there. Silently, he did as she asked, revealing the full glory of the blotchy mass which spread all over one side of his chest. He had to agree with her appalled expression in the mirror ­ it did look extremely ugly and painful. No wonder he'd felt so stiff.

"I…I fell down the stairs," he explained, avoiding the steely gaze she was directing at him via the mirror. "Wasn't looking where I was going."

"You don't fall," she said stonily. "You don't bruise, either."

He shrugged. "It's this body-swapping thing. I…I get tired. Run down. I bet the other Clark's just the same."

"Even when you're tired, you don't bruise."

She was right, of course, but he had no answer for her. He pulled his shirt on again, feeling chilly and very exposed under her piercing scrutiny. "This is different," he muttered, fastening the buttons. "Nothing like this has ever happened before."

"Too right, it hasn't." She grabbed his arms and pulled him around to face her. "Give me a straight answer, Clark. Did Lana do this to you?"

"No!" he exclaimed, producing a laugh that didn't quite sound right even to his own ears. "How could she? You said it yourself ­ I'm invulnerable."

He pulled away from her and crossed to the wardrobe to find a pair of pants. "I tripped and fell, that's all. A good night's sleep and I'll be fine." Charcoal pants and his maroon jacket ­ that would do. He dug out the pants and pulled them off the hanger.

"You're not making any sense," she said. "One minute you're saying you're invulnerable and the next you're admitting you fell and hurt yourself. When did this happen, this fall?"

"Does it matter?" he asked, not wanting to answer the question truthfully and not wanting to lie directly to her either. "I told you, I'm fine."

"Because maybe we should take you to see a doctor," she said. "This body-swap thing might be hurting you in ways we don't understand."

"I can't go to a doctor," he pointed out, keeping his back to her while he stripped off his running pants. "You know that."

"We don't know that for certain. Maybe you're just the same as anyone else, medically speaking."

He snorted. "I doubt it." He pulled on his suit pants, stuffed in his shirt and zipped himself up.

"Stop it, Clark." Her voice was sharp, stinging enough to make him pause where he was. She came up from behind and wrapped herself tightly around him, trapping him in her embrace. "Stop lying to me."

He nearly broke away from her, irritated by her forcible entrapment, but the warmth of her body quickly burned through to his skin, distracting him, making it difficult to be angry with her. "I'm not," he protested weakly.

"You are," she murmured in his ear. "You know you are. Tell me what really happened."

But how could he tell her? What sort of a man let things get so out of hand? What sort of man allowed his own wife to attack him? He was tired of Lois seeing him as a victim.

"I…can't," he insisted.

"Wrong answer, buster," she murmured. "Or have you forgotten the love thing we said we weren't going to talk about?"

The love thing. Yes, he'd used it against her earlier and now, of course, she was using it against him. Playing dirty, just like he had. But would she still love him if he told her what he'd allowed Lana to do to him? What woman wanted a man who couldn't even defend himself against his wife?

Heck, why hadn't he followed his instinct and not come in here with her? He didn't want to lie to her. Lies were what he and Lana did.

"Kryptonite," he said. "She had kryptonite." Then, because he remembered she wouldn't know what it was, he added, "It's a rock that-"

"I know. The other Clark told me." Her arms tightened around him. "Go on."

He cleared his throat. "We'd argued about the airplane rescue so I headed for bed early. I guess I thought she'd sulk downstairs awhile and then come and join me, by which time I'd be asleep…"

Once he got started, it became easier to tell the story. Especially with Lois holding him tight, reminding him that she was there with him but not forcing him to meet her gaze. He could speak with a certain detachment if she wasn't watching him — as if everything he was describing had happened to someone else.

But then he finished and she didn't respond. He'd been right, then. She thought he was weak and helpless. She was probably wondering why she'd let herself get involved with a guy who couldn't even defend himself properly.

"Lois?"

Her only response was to turn him to face her and then wrap herself around him again, resting her head on his chest. Tentatively, he hugged her back. Her quiet calm was infectious, leeching into his soul and soothing away the jagged feelings that had reawakened with the telling of his story. God, how he loved her. Needed her — had craved her closeness for most of last night.

"I can't believe she-" She moved slightly, finding a more comfortable position against him. "You should have called me." Her voice was quiet, without rancour. "I know why you didn't, but you still should have."

"I'm sorry."

"You could have been seriously injured," she continued. "I might have lost you."

"I didn't want to worry you."

"You worried me plenty this morning."

He grimaced. "I wasn't thinking straight."

"No, you weren't," she agreed. "Next time, don't think. Just call, okay?"

He hesitated. He had no intention of allowing this to happen a second time. And even if he did, would he call her? He wasn't certain.

"Clark?" she prompted.

"Yeah, I'll call." Probably.

She sighed. "She's sick, Clark. What she said to you…it doesn't make sense unless she's sick."

"I know. I have to wonder if they brainwashed her or something."

"Or maybe just years of living a double life have finally caught up with her," she suggested.

"Could be."

She raised her head from his chest and reached up to kiss him. A small kiss, her soft lips pressing gently against his. He barely had time to respond before she was withdrawing and gazing up into his eyes. "Make love with me, Clark," she murmured.

Huh? "I…I don't understand," he stammered, thrown by her quicksilver change. "I mean, I'd like to, of course," he added hastily, "but I don't understand. Why now?"

"Because," she replied, pressing her lips to his again. "Just…because."

"I…I don't get it," he confessed, feeling more than a little doltish and stupid.

She sighed. "You need a reason?"

He nodded. "It's just so sudden…out of the blue."

"Okay — because you want to." She smiled softly. "That's why you were so reluctant to come in here with me, wasn't it? You were scared you wouldn't be able to keep things platonic and yet you didn't want to make love with me…in the bed you share with your wife."

He blinked. Was that the reason? He wasn't certain. "Maybe so. But what makes you think I'd change my mind on that?"

"Because you need to," she said. She craned forward to kiss the side of his neck, a soft caress that sent shivers down his spine. "Prove to yourself that she doesn't control you any more. That she doesn't matter to you any more. What better place to do that than right here?"

The ultimate destruction of his marriage vows: making love with Lois right where faithfulness was at its most sacrosanct. "It feels wrong," he protested. "There are better ways to prove she doesn't control me."

"She nearly killed you, Clark!" she exclaimed softly. "Right here in that bed."

He closed his eyes while she planted a trail of small kisses along his jaw bone and down the side of his neck. Stop that, he wanted to say. Let me think.

But he didn't want her to stop, and he was, indeed, angry with Lana. In fact, when he recalled the telephone conversation he'd had with Lana earlier, when she'd tried to twist her actions around into some kind of crazy self-defence tactic, he was even more angry.

Was that a good reason to make love with Lois, though?

"Set yourself free," murmured Lois.

It was so tempting. There was no denying he wanted her; his blood was already singing in his ears and his body was responding as it always did at the slightest encouragement from her. It must have been days ­ weeks? — since they'd last made love.

"Doesn't it bother you," he ventured, "that you'd be making love with me right where I…where Lana and I…"

"No," she replied, her fingers running through his hair. "To me, it's just a bed." She kissed his lips. "I'd make love with you anywhere, Clark."

Me too, responded a voice in his head. He'd make love with her on the top of Kilimanjaro, in the back of a pick-up truck, in the depths of the Amazonian rain forest…

He reached for her blindly and found her mouth, slanting his lips over hers. She responded immediately, kissing him back with a fervour that was exciting and provocative. God, he could so easily do this. Who cared where they were? He wanted her and she, from withdrawing from the physical side of their relationship for so long, now clearly wanted him-

He sheared away, breathing heavily. "Is this for you or for me?" he asked. "I need to know."

"I…I'm not sure what you mean."

"This proof," he said. "Is it for you or me?" He didn't add the next bit, where he accused her of trying to test him ­ to extract some kind of physical demonstration from him that his marriage vows didn't matter to him any more. But that was what it felt like.

"Is that what you think?" she said. "That I'm trying to bed you to get you to prove something to me?"

He shrugged. "I'm not sure."

"Boy, you like to skate close to the edge, don't you?" she snapped. "Yes, I want to make love with you. Yes, I need to know that you love me and want me. Yes, I'd prefer if you left Lana right away — hell, what woman wouldn't? But I believe you when you say you need to get closure with Lana. I even buy the whole deal of investigating her from within, I really do. It's just that, actually, I do need some level of commitment from you if I'm going to put myself through hell and back while you stay with her. So maybe this is for me as much as it's for you. Is that really so unreasonable? Is it so much to ask-"

He didn't hear the rest of her sentence because he was too busy sweeping her into his arms and lavishing hot, urgent kisses on her. She was right. He loved Lois and she loved him and they wanted to make love together. His marriage was only a meaningless piece of paper.

Afterwards, he found he was trembling, his mind and body weak in the aftermath of their lovemaking.

"You did it," she murmured. "You're free."

He shook his head. "No." When her face bobbed up in question, he smiled softly. "I'm much better than that. I'm yours. Every part of me belongs to you."

"And you do have some very acceptable parts," she said, grinning.

He chuckled. "As do you," he replied.

She settled her head back onto his chest. "Oh, and by the way…don't think I haven't noticed you made me agree to let you stay with Lana before you told me what she did to you last night."

He sighed. "I wasn't deliberately trying to lie to you, Lois. I just…even now, I'm…what she did…what I allowed her to do…I'm…ashamed."

God. That had been difficult to admit. Would she understand? Would she think he was a complete wimp?

She took her time answering, running an absent hand over his chest and shoulder while she thought. He closed his eyes. Her touch was soft and feminine, her palm warm and smooth as it slid over his skin. Don't let me lose her, he prayed. Not now.

"Don't be ashamed," she murmured. "I understand why you think you should be, but I don't think any less of you because of what happened. You did as much as you could under the circumstances."

"Yeah?"

"You couldn't have known she was going to attack you with kryptonite," she insisted. "Don't beat yourself up over this. The only thing you did wrong was not telling me, okay? So give me a promise that you won't keep anything from me again and I'll be happy."

"I gave you a promise," he pointed out.

She ran her hand down his arm and clasped his hand. "Give me another." Her hand squeezed his. "We're holding hands so this one's binding." She glanced up at him with a brief grin.

He smiled. "Okay," he replied. "I promise." He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "I told you that all of me belongs to you, and that includes everything that happens to me." He stroked his free hand over her warm, soft skin, tracing the graceful inward curve of her waist. "Can I have one in return?"

"One what?" she asked.

"A promise. That you'll share whatever happens to you with me. That you'll never keep anything hidden."

Her head bobbed up. "Have I ever kept anything from you?"

"Well, I seem to remember working pretty hard to tease out what happened between you and Claude."

She grimaced. "Okay, fair point." She nestled back down onto his chest. "I promise. No secrets, ever again."

He kissed her head. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." He felt her hand slide down onto his hip. "Now, since this is such a nice big bed, I vote we make the most of it while we're here."

"Aren't you forgetting we're supposed to be at work?" he reminded her. "Perry will…" He sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth as she touched a particularly sensitive spot.

"You were saying?" she asked, grinning up at him.

"I was saying…" He gasped and flung his head back against the pillow. She definitely knew how to… "It's a very nice big bed."

She chuckled. "My thoughts exactly."

***

Breaking into Star Labs and stealing ­ or, as Lois preferred to call it, liberating ­ Dr Schulz's most recent experimental data had been pretty straightforward. Persuading Dr Klein to come over to their house to look over the data had been almost impossible. For maximum anonymity, he'd wanted to meet at the noisy bikers' club, but Lois had put her foot down, stating robustly that she wasn't going anywhere near the place ever again. An impasse had ensued until Clark had suggested, in a moment of inspiration, a disguise.

Which was why he and Lois were currently engaged in a mutual support effort to avoid sniggering at the apparition sitting opposite them in their living room. Seeing the normally bald Dr Klein wear any sort of hair piece would have been bad enough, but the shaggy blonde wig he was sporting together with the thick black moustache — which looked like it had probably been alive until shortly before he donned it — was a serious challenge to anyone with even a rudimentary sense of humour. Once you added the baggy, low-slung jeans and sloppy sweatshirt over white shirt tails, there was no hope left. You either laughed until your sides split or you sought the help of a co-conspirator.

Clark squeezed Lois's hand as he felt her begin to lose control again and cleared his throat. "So, Dr Klein," he said with as much gravitas as he could muster, "what do you think?"

The shaggy mop wobbled precariously as Dr Klein looked up from studying the print-outs. Clark fought the urge to steady it and tried to listen intelligently. "It's just as I suspected," replied Dr Klein. "There's an energy spike in roughly one out of three failed runs."

"An energy spike?" asked Clark. "What does that mean?"

"It means that even though the device appeared not to transfer anything during the run, it still processed as much energy as during the successful runs. More, in fact." Dr Klein grabbed one of the print-outs strewn across his lap and held it up. "See?"

Clark saw a spiky graph with bigger spikes every couple of inches or so. Red crosses above the spikes, he deduced, signified a failed experiment, and yes, a couple of those spikes were much higher than the others. He transferred his gaze to Dr Klein, carefully focusing on the scientist's eyes and studiously ignoring other more distracting features. "And that means?"

"Well, this is where I and Dr Schulz part company, but it's my belief that those energy spikes represent matter transmissions," replied Dr Klein. "And since the matter in question isn't the object Dr Schulz intended to transmit…" He shook his head in dismay. "I don't dare speculate on what damage he may be causing."

"But surely this just means some other object in the room will have moved," said Lois. "Where's the harm in that?"

Dr Klein's shaggy mop shook from side to side. "Would you like it if your kidneys suddenly shifted ten feet to the right?"

Lois grimaced. "When you put it like that, no."

"But they'd notice, wouldn't they?" asked Clark. "If…things…started moving around the room, I mean."

Dr Klein shrugged. "Depends on the operating range of the device. No-one, not even Schulz, knows that. You see, all he does to ensure it transmits the correct object is to program it to home in on a transmitter he attaches to the target object. If anything else were to emit a signal at the same frequency as that transmitter, it would be transmitted too. Add to that the fact that some test objects disappear from the base station never to reappear at the destination station, and you've got a completely unpredictable device, if you ask me."

"Which is why you were so concerned during Dr Schulz's demonstration?" asked Clark.

"You bet I was! I was glad when we all got out of there alive, to be honest with you." Dr Klein's dead-animal moustache twitched nervously, although Clark couldn't decide whether that was simply due to its itchiness. Anything that bushy was guaranteed to make you want to sneeze.

He exchanged a helpless glance with Lois and felt her give his hand a warning squeeze. Biting the inside of his cheek to maintain his sombre expression, he nodded gravely. "I guess we are, too, now that you've explained this to us."

"But how likely is it that another object might transmit at the same frequency as Schulz's transmitter?" asked Lois. "My kidneys don't send out signals, do they?" she added dryly.

"As a matter of fact, they do," replied Dr Klein. "At least, insofar as all molecules vibrate at a unique frequency, and your kidneys are made up of molecules, they do."

"Oh." Lois absently pressed a protective hand against her stomach.

"But surely he's chosen a frequency unlikely to be used by anything else?" pressed Clark.

"Oh, yes, he has!" agreed Dr Klein, the shaggy mop bouncing up and down as he nodded eagerly. "But you can never be one hundred per cent sure, and the evidence of these experiments suggests something is happening that shouldn't be."

"Okay." Lois was leaning forward now, wearing what Clark fondly thought of as her going-for-the-jugular expression. "You've explained the theory and the dangers to us. How come you haven't reported your misgivings to Schulz's boss? Why are you allowing such dangerous work to continue?"

"I did report!" exclaimed Dr Klein. "Why do you think I've been taken off the review panel? Why do you think I'm not allowed anywhere near his labs? Why do you think I'm wearing this ridiculous disguise? This is massive, Lois. If Star Labs can perfect the first teleportation device ever, just think of the money there is to be made! Someone very high up in Star Labs is determined to make this happen, and I believe they'll stop at almost nothing to get their way."

"Do you have evidence of that?" asked Lois. "That they'll stop at nothing?"

Dr Klein shrugged. "Nothing I can show you. It's all looks and veiled words. A hint that my funding might be cut due to realigned priorities. Concerns expressed that I'm looking tired and stressed — am I aware of the suicide rate amongst top-rated research workers. That sort of thing."

"What about a name?" Lois prompted. "You said someone high up in Star Labs. Do you have any suggestions?"

Again, Dr Klein shrugged. "All I know is whatever resources Schulz says he needs, he gets. The rest of us struggle to get by on computer systems that are over five years old, while Schulz has enough computing power up there to run an entire planet."

"We should find out who's on the board," said Clark. "Maybe a name will jump out at us."

"And we can get Jimmy to deep background them," added Lois. "Find out who's got most to gain out of this."

"And in the meantime, let us know if you hear anything, or if the threats get more specific," said Clark. "We can always ask Superman to look out for you if you're concerned."

Dr Klein grimaced. "Just don't let him forget that Star Labs holds the biggest supply of kryptonite in the world."

Clark shrugged. "He knows." He felt Lois tighten her grip on his hand and turned to answer her silent comment. "And he'll be careful," he added.

Lois nodded slightly and turned back to Dr Klein. "Tell me, Dr Klein. What are the chances that Superman himself might be affected by this machine?"

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Dr Klein. "Do you know, I never considered that?" He thought for a moment. "He may be at a greater risk than the rest of us, actually, simply because Schulz is unlikely to have taken Superman's unique biology into consideration when choosing a safe frequency. You'd better warn him to stay well clear of the labs."

"But what's the worst that could really happen to him?" asked Clark, thinking that his counterpart had attended the demonstration and not suffered any ill-effects. On that basis, it seemed to Clark that Dr Klein was over-playing the dangers a little, an attitude that was causing Lois to grow tenser and tenser as she listened beside him.

"Well, it would depend on which part of him emitted the correct frequency. At worst, I imagine it could kill him," replied Dr Klein. "Or at least send him into the same oblivion as those wood blocks that disappear during the failed runs."

Lois's grip was now vice-like on Clark's hand. "And no-one knows the range of this thing?" she demanded.

"No." Dr Klein's face looked pale underneath the shaggy mop. "But we're speculating wildly here. The chances that Superman shares a frequency with Schulz's machine are very slim."

Clark agreed, and wished Klein had made that clear earlier. He had to admit, though, that here was a possible explanation for his random transfers into the other universe. Dr Klein, however, had been talking in terms of solid objects, whereas Clark had been swapping consciousness with the other Clark. How was that possible?

"What about thoughts?" he enquired. "Could Schulz's machine transmit brainwaves?"

Dr Klein's moustache twitched. "Brainwaves?" He chuckled. "No, I think we'll have to wait a while longer before that's possible. Wouldn't it be cool, though? Instead of writing up tedious reports and scientific papers, I could just think my findings into my colleague's heads. Just imagine the time you could save!"

"Yeah, and the Daily Planet would be out of business," added Lois dryly. "A journalist could just 'think' their column into readers' heads." Her mouth twisted. "Except some people's heads are so screwed up, they'd probably wind up believing Elvis had landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong sang Jailhouse Rock."

Clark chuckled. "No doubt. Well, thank you for your help, Dr Klein. We'll let you know what we find out."

After Dr Klein had left, Lois whirled on Clark. "We have to get this thing shut down!"

He nodded. "I agree. It's a danger to everyone within…well, we don't even know what range is safe. But you heard what he said about brainwaves. Doesn't sound like this is the thing that's responsible for sending me into the other universe."

"I'm not so sure," she replied. "You have to admit it's our best suspect."

"True…" He put his hand up to his forehead as a familiar dizzy sensation began to creep up on him. "Talking of which, I think…" The room tilted sickeningly so he quickly closed his eyes. "I think it's happening again."

"No!" She wrapped her arms around him and clung on to him. "Don't go!"

"I…I don't think…" His knees gave way, causing him to grab at her for support. "I don't think I've got a choice."

***

Not again! Please, not again!

Lois braced herself as Clark sagged against her, praying that he wouldn't go into a dead faint. She'd never be able to hold him up if he did.

He groaned softly, the confused mumble of someone who didn't know where he was or what was happening to him.

"Here, sit down," she urged, lurching with him towards the nearest seat ­ a dining chair. He tripped over his feet and fell heavily against her, but she managed to steer him onto the chair as he fell. Of course, it nearly toppled over as he landed clumsily on it, but instinct seemed to kick in at the last moment and cause him to right himself.

She gripped his arms as he sagged forwards in the chair. "Try to sit up," she instructed. "I have to make a phone call."

Two minutes later she was speaking to the receptionist at Star Labs. "Dr Schulz, please. It's an emergency."

"Who shall I say is calling?" asked the receptionist.

"His wife," answered Lois.

"One moment please…"

Lois kept an anxious eye on Clark while she waited. He seemed to be slowly coming to his senses, although he still looked like a strong wind would knock him off the chair. Did she care if he wasn't her husband any longer? Yeah, she supposed she did.

"This better be good, Katrina," said a harried voice Lois recognised as Dr Schulz's. "I was right in the middle of a test sequence."

Bingo.

"Was it successful?" demanded Lois.

There was a pause at the other end of the line. "Who is this?"

"Never mind," she replied. "I bet it wasn't, was it? You just tried to transfer something with your machine and it didn't work."

"I don't know who you are, but you're wasting my time," replied Schulz. "Goodbye."

"I can tell you why it's not working," she said.

He snorted. "I very much doubt that." But he didn't put the phone down.

Thinking quickly, she said, "Meet me at the fountain in Centennial Park tomorrow morning and I'll tell you why your machine doesn't work properly."

"Why should I do that?" he said. "Why should I take the word of some crank caller who doesn't even have the guts to say who they are?"

"Because you've got nothing to lose," she replied. "Just ask yourself this ­ how did I know you'd just completed a failed run?"

"Lucky guess," he retorted.

"Pretty accurate timing for a complete guess, wasn't it?" she pointed out. He didn't answer, but clearly she'd snagged his interest since he was still on the line. "Tomorrow morning. Ten o'clock," she said. "You'll be there?"

He grunted. "Against my better judgement."

"The weather forecast says it's going to be a nice day," she said. "Think of it as your daily dose of fresh air."

Delaying the meeting until tomorrow was a risk, giving Schulz more time than she would have wished to entertain second thoughts about meeting his anonymous caller. However, the plan she had in mind was going to take a little time to organise, and besides, Perry would string them both up on a pole outside his office if they didn't make an appearance at the Planet in the near future. She could always phone Schulz later this afternoon to make sure he didn't change his mind.

She replaced the receiver and went back to Clark. He was sitting up straight and watching her with dull eyes. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

"It is you, isn't it?" she said. "The other Clark?"

"Yeah." He stood up and strode across to the window. "This is just great," he muttered.

"Well, it's not exactly great timing for me, either," she retorted. "Now I have to waste time filling you in on where we are with Star Labs."

"How am I supposed to investigate her when I'm not even there?" he demanded of the curtains.

"I have no idea, and frankly, I don't care," she said. "If you want to get back to Lois, or your wife, or whoever, then you'd better stop raging at the curtains and start helping me."

He whirled around, his eyes blazing. "You have no idea, okay? No idea what lousy timing this is for me."

She shrugged. "No, I don't. And yelling at me isn't going to make things any better."

"No? Well, it sure as hell makes me feel better!" he snapped.

"Fine," she said, turning away. "When you've finished yelling, I'll be in the kitchen figuring out how to get my husband back."

***

Damn. That was the second time today he'd yelled at someone who didn't deserve it. What was the matter with him?

Okay, so it had been lousy timing. Just when he'd poured his heart and soul into making love with Lois, when he'd finally committed every single atom of his being to her and had been sitting on the edge of the bed afterwards feeling like he'd just been reborn, he'd been snatched away. No time to build on what they'd just shared, no time to even kiss her goodbye. Just a brief spell of dizziness and here he was. And god only knew what the other Clark might make of the situation he now found himself in. At least both he and Lois had been fully dressed before the swap had taken place.

However, none of that was the fault of the woman he'd just shouted at. She was just as much a victim of the situation as he was.

He just didn't seem able to keep his emotions ­ mostly his temper — in check these days.

Anyway. Time to make the peace. "I'm sorry I yelled at you," he said, pushing open the kitchen doors.

Lois looked up from the notepad she'd been scribbling on. "Yeah? Care to make that sound a little more sincere?"

He grimaced and pulled out a kitchen chair to join her at the table. "I'll try again. I'm really sorry I snapped at you, Lois. I…I seem to be doing that a lot these days." He shifted uneasily. "Which is kind of scary for a guy as strong as I am."

Looking away from her, he noticed that his hands, resting on the table in front of him, were bunched into tight fists. "I know this is just as bad for you as it is for me," he continued, unclenching and flexing his fingers to release some of the tension. "And I had no right to take out my frustrations on you. So I'm sorry."

"Okay." She looked down at her notepad and squared it up in front of her. Placed her pen at a neat 90-degree angle to the pad. Moved her coffee cup two inches to the right.

Watching her, and reflecting how similar she was to his own Lois when she was annoyed, he suddenly realised with horror what could have happened if this latest body swap had taken place twenty minutes earlier. When he and Lois had been…

Oh, God.

Her head came up again. "Apology accepted, I guess. So are you ready to hear where we are with Star Labs? I began writing a few notes, but now that you're here, I may as well tell you…" She paused. "Are you okay?"

"I…I just realised something."

"Oh? What?"

What was he supposed to say? Your husband nearly ended up having sex with my girlfriend? He swallowed. "Nothing. It doesn't matter. You…you were going to tell me about Star Labs?"

He'd have to talk to Lois. His Lois. No more lovemaking until this thing was over. Otherwise the consequences were unimaginable. In fact…

Oh, God.

"Clark, why are you staring at me like that?"

Because he was wondering whether she and Clark had realised what might happen. Because he was horrified to imagine how close he himself may have come to…

"These body swaps," he said. "Have you and Clark…I mean…they're so unpredictable. You're…married. And they seem to happen at any time, day or…or night."

He saw the light dawn in her eyes. "Oh. That. We…we pretty much…well, we're sort of…not."

Okay. Phew.

"And…you?" she asked.

He cleared his throat. "Lana and I…we're…not either."

"Okay." She pursed her lips, and he knew immediately what she was thinking.

"Um…Lois and I…" He felt himself flush pink. "No." Not any longer, anyway! "So the sooner we all figure this out, the better, I guess." His blush deepened as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Idiot, Kent!

"Yes," she said. "So…um.. this is what you need to know…"

Ten minutes later he'd regained his composure and also quite a bit of optimism. "This is great!" he exclaimed. "You guys have made a lot of progress."

Lois shrugged. "We don't hang around when we're on a case. Next up is to figure out how to use our meeting with Dr Schulz to the best advantage. Any ideas?"

"Is decapitation illegal over here?" he enquired.

"Unfortunately, yes. Here's what I think we should do…"

***

The Skywatch clerk gazed dispassionately at the video screen. Typing the transcript for the bedroom camera was usually pretty dull, especially during the last couple of months when marital relations seemed to have ceased completely. However, here at last was something a little more interesting to chronicle. She slipped off her half-frames and let them dangle on their chain while she watched. After a few seconds of activity, she glanced at the chronometer in the bottom left hand corner, replaced her glasses and turned back to her transcript.

11:06 ­ sex with Lois Lane.

She glanced back at the screen for a moment, and then remembered to add something.

No visible evidence of birth control.

After that, she continued the routine transcription of the lovers' conversation, an eyebrow arching above the rim of her glasses when more energetic activity resumed.

Intriguing.

Her intrigue, however, was short-lived when the screen turned fuzzy and then became completely dark. She sighed and hit the stop button. When were the maintenance crew going to get around to replacing these cameras with newer models? They were so old they were always breaking down. She pulled out the tape and slid in the recording from the kitchen microphone instead.

***

The football game Clark was watching on TV wasn't very good. He'd have been just as happy to switch it off and read the newspaper, but after dinner, Lana herself had tuned to the sports channel and insisted he kick back and enjoy himself ­ apparently as a special treat — so he was stuck with it.

She'd been indulging him all evening. Dinner had been first ­ in fact, he'd nearly blown his cover by not recognising that she'd cooked his counterpart's favourite meal. Chilli, apparently. Then he'd been banned from helping with the clearing up, and now he was sitting on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table ­ another concession, apparently. At his side sat a fresh beer she'd brought him from the fridge.

Her over-attentive behaviour was very strange, not to mention pretty unsettling. Lois had told him what she'd done to the other Clark, so was she trying to atone for that? Trying to demonstrate just how loving a wife she could be when she wasn't busily trying to kill him? Or was she trying to persuade her husband not to leave her? And ­ God help him ­ did all this mean he was going to have to fend her off later when they retired to bed? Perhaps he could find a legitimate excuse to sleep in the spare room.

Meanwhile, so lacklustre was the game, his thoughts kept drifting back to this morning's body-swap. Disconcertingly, he'd found himself sitting on the edge of Lana and Clark's bed. Fully dressed, thankfully, but he'd quickly noticed the rumpled bedclothes and hadn't been able to avoid putting two and two together ­ especially when he'd realised the other Lois was in the room with him.

They'd done it right here? In the very bed Clark shared each night with Lana?

"You okay?" Lois had been sitting some two or three feet away, regarding him with a distinct lack of warmth.

"Yeah." Wasn't it kind of…distasteful…to make adulterous love in the bed you shared with your wife?

"Good." She'd stood and, after a moment's hesitation, had begun straightening the bedclothes with quick, edgy movements.

Embarrassed that he'd discovered their guilty secret, he supposed. Well, she was right to be embarrassed, because he really found it distasteful that they'd be so blatant, whether or not it had been a spur of the moment thing. Nobody was that much of a slave to their hormones.

So much, too, for his and Lois's assumption that this pair would realise the dangers of making love when a body swap could take place at any moment. He'd have to find a way of warning her about that. Later, when she was less embarrassed and more likely to listen to him.

His presence on the bed had soon hampered her operations, so he'd stood, which was when he'd noticed that the body he now occupied was stiff and sore. He'd winced and clutched at the source of his pain — the right side of his chest. What on earth had caused this?

Meanwhile, in response to his wince of pain, she'd made a noise that had sounded suspiciously like a snort of derision.

He'd turned to face her across the bed. "What?"

The corners of her mouth had turned downwards. "Nothing." She'd bent and smoothed the coverlet over the pillows. "So when are you going to stop whoever's doing this? I've just about had it with these switches."

Her irritable tone had made his hackles rise. "So have I, actually," he'd retorted. "And we're doing everything we can, believe me. What are you two doing about it?" When you're not making love in inappropriate places, he added silently.

She'd straightened and placed her hands on her hips. "We've been busy dealing with the aftermath of your rescue stunt yesterday, if you must know."

"Oh?" His fears of discovery hadn't been unfounded, then? "What happened?"

Her lips had pursed. "Lana happened."

"What does that mean?"

"Can't you tell?" She'd waved at his side. "She attacked him."

"What?" he'd exclaimed. He'd slid an exploratory hand around his side, prodding carefully. Nothing felt broken, but there was an awfully large area of tenderness. What had Lana done ­ taken a two-by-four to him?

"It was a warning, apparently," she'd said. "Don't do anything like that again, or you'll get more of this ­ 'this' being her trusty lump of kryptonite."

"But kryptonite doesn't cause bruising," he'd protested.

"He fell down the stairs."

Oh, Jeez… "Is he okay?"

Her mouth had twisted. "You're in his body ­ what do you think?"

He'd grimaced at his own stupidity. "Look, I'm sorry," he'd said. "This was all my fault, wasn't it? If I hadn't done that rescue, she wouldn't have attacked him."

"No, she wouldn't." She'd turned away and walked over to the window. There was a small chair by the dressing table there and, after a few moments spent gazing outside, she'd sunk down onto it. "Don't get me wrong ­ I was really impressed by what you did and I'm glad all those people's lives were saved. I think Clark was really inspired by it, too, and that's great. He needs to see that he can use his gifts in a positive way." She picked up a pair of glasses from the dressing table ­ Clark's, presumably ­ and began turning them over in her hands while she studied them. "But you have to remember things are different here. There are consequences."

"I know." He'd sat gingerly back down onto the edge of the bed, taking care not to rumple the smoothed bedclothes. "If there's a next time, I'll be more careful, I promise."

"That would be good." She'd sighed. "Lana could have attacked him any time, I guess. What you did was give her a convenient excuse." She placed Clark's glasses back on the dressing table, her gaze lingering on them for a few moments. "How that woman ever finds the sensitivity and creativity for those art classes she's always attending is beyond me. She's a heartless…well, you know."

He nodded. "Maybe her art is just as heartless."

She snorted. "Who knows? Actually, that's what Clark was saying just before you swapped places. He said he's never seen a single canvas, or sculpture, or anything, from her. We were joking that maybe she doesn't go to art classes at all, she attends special lessons on how to be a…"

She suddenly sat up very straight and turned eyes wide with excitement on him. "Oh, my God."

"What?"

"What if Clark's right? What if she doesn't go to art classes at all? What if she meets with Skywatch?"

And that thought had led them to where he was now: sitting on the sofa with his feet up, watching an awful football game and looking for the right moment to ask Lana when her next art class would be. He and Lois ­ or the other Clark, if they were swapped again — would then follow her and discover exactly who she met with.

When the commercials began, he flicked a glance over to her. She was sitting curled up in an armchair reading a paperback. One hand absently twirled a strand of blonde hair between her fingers while the other held open the book on her knees.

To look at her now, it was hard to believe what she'd done. She was the picture of innocence as she sat engrossed in her book. Yet he'd been warned to be on his guard with her, to watch for any tell-tale signs that she might whip out her stash of kryptonite again. She was unbalanced, Lois had said. Unpredictable and dangerous.

She looked up from her book and caught him watching her. "How's the game?"

He shrugged. "So-so."

"Who's winning?"

"The Mets."

She beamed. "Great!"

Yes, the home team were in front, and that was clearly all Lana cared about or understood of the game. He smiled weakly. "Yeah."

"You ready for another beer yet?" she asked.

"No, this one's still half full."

"Okay." She unwound herself from her chair and stood up. "Back in a few minutes."

"Sure," he replied.

As she disappeared upstairs, a distinct feeling of unease gathered between his shoulder blades. They'd failed to discover her secret stash of kryptonite during their search that morning. Could it be that she'd just gone to fetch it? Perhaps she'd decided that last night's dose hadn't been enough to ensure her husband's good behaviour.

He was somewhat relieved, if also a little disconcerted, when she reappeared at the foot of the stairs dressed in her raincoat and carrying an umbrella.

"Going out?" he enquired. "It's a little late, isn't it?"

"I know, but Andre had to take another teacher's sculpture class at short notice," she explained. "Our class was bumped forward a couple of hours."

The art class! How was he going to alert Lois in time?

"Well, take care," he replied. Why hadn't Lana mentioned this earlier ­ had she made a phone call from upstairs? Spoken to her Skywatch contact, who'd summoned her to a meeting? "Maybe call a cab for the journey home," he suggested, attempting to act the concerned husband.

"That's sweet of you," she said, bending down to give him a brief peck on the cheek. "But I guess you've forgotten the Chevy Cavalier we have parked in the garage."

Blast. He was so used to travelling everywhere on public transport that he'd forgotten a married couple living in a house would probably own a car. He forced a chuckle. "This beer must be stronger than I thought."

She smiled as she straightened up again. "Better not have that second can after all, then."

"What's the subject for tonight?" he asked, following her to the door.

"Uh…" Her face went blank for a moment. "Still…still life, I think."

"Well, have fun."

"I'll bring you back an apple."

As soon as the door closed behind her, he sped around the house, donning shoes, grabbing keys, cell-phone and money, flinging on a coat and finally rushing out into the street. No powers, of course, so he'd have to do this the hard way. Lana had just finished backing the car out of the garage and was setting off up to the junction with the main road. Quickly, he memorised her licence plate and then darted his gaze right and left ­ he'd noticed before that taxis often used this street as a short cut and if he was really lucky…

Yep. He flung up a hand, stepped off the kerb and whistled. The taxi screeched to a halt just inches from his feet. "Follow that car!" he yelled, pointing at Lana's taillights still waiting at the traffic lights.

PART ELEVEN

"Huh?" The taxi-driver's face screwed up in bafflement.

Clark yanked open the passenger door and jumped inside. "Just drive up to the lights," he said.

"O-kay," replied the driver, pulling away from the kerb. "Then what? Where do you want to go?"

"Wherever that blue Chevy is going," said Clark, leaning forward to keep his eyes peeled on Lana's car and speak to the driver through the taxi's glass partition.

"Bud, I hope you got the dough for this," drawled the driver from the side of his mouth. "Following cars is treble time."

Clark rolled his eyes, sure that the rate was a complete fiction invented on the spur of the moment. "Whatever. Yeah, I've got the money." He pulled out his wallet and waved some bills where the driver could see them in his rear-view mirror. "Okay?"

"You'll need more than that."

While they'd been talking, the taxi had drawn up behind Lana's car. Clark sat back and hunkered down on the seat lest Lana should see him. "I've got more," he told the driver. "Just follow the car, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah." The lights changed and both cars swung out into the main road. "You're not a perv, are you? I don't hold with that filth."

"All I need is to know where she's going," replied Clark, pulling out his cell-phone and dialling Lois's number.

"She?" said the driver. "Ex-lover? Ex-wife?"

"Neither," said Clark. "Look, can we cut the twenty questions and just concentrate on not losing her?"

"Clark? Is that you?" said Lois from his cell-phone.

"Sorry ­ yeah, it's me. No time to explain ­ just jump in your car and find me. I'm in a taxi, licence plate…" He found the notice in the front cab and read off the number. "We're going east on Durban Street, towards central Metropolis. Just passed…Africa Avenue. I'm following a mutual acquaintance to her art class."

"Wow, that was quick."

"I know. I think perhaps she just called a certain group and they…summoned her."

"Interesting. Why are you being so cagey with names? Do you have company?"

He glanced at the taxi driver who, if he'd had ears like an African elephant, would have been flapping them wide open as he drove. "In a sense," he told Lois. "Are you in your car yet?"

"Just getting there."

"Okay. Stay on the line and I'll guide you in."

"Sure. Hey, this is fun!"

"Yeah."

Ten minutes later, Lois had joined the chase and the three cars were driving in convoy through the streets of Metropolis.

***

Play-acting the part of Lois's husband was a bitter-sweet experience, Clark had decided. In one sense, he was living the life he'd dreamed of ever since Lois had walked into his world. At work, he was Lois's partner and husband, free to show affection towards her without fear of wagging tongues and tell- tales. No need to sneak into the photocopier room or Jimmy's dark room for a snatched kiss and a cuddle. And colleagues addressed him as her husband, making his heart swell with pride and wrapping him in a warm glow of happy contentment. This Clark even seemed to enjoy greater respect and warmer relations with his work colleagues than he did himself. Away from work, there was no Lana waiting for him at home with her sneaking ways and lethal lump of kryptonite. There was no suspicion and there were no sickly, false terms of endearment. There was just him and Lois doing normal husband and wife stuff together ­ like riding home together after work in her car, as they were right now.

However, in another sense, the experience was pure torture. This Lois wasn't his Lois, so any display of affection he gave was false. And as soon as they were alone, as now, all trace of affection melted away and they were back to the uneasy truce they'd declared that morning in the kitchen.

He wished he could meet her husband. They'd have so much in common and he felt sure there'd be a lot he could learn from him. The guy must have a wealth of experience at being Superman, for example ­ and if he was going to give it a try himself, he could really do with a teacher to get him started on the basics.

Like flying. How did the other Clark do it? Did he just think "up" and things happened automatically, or did he have to flick some kind of switch in his head to get started?

"Penny for them."

Her voice startled him. "Huh?"

"You look deep in thought," she said, pulling up at some traffic lights.

"Oh. I was wondering how the flying works, actually," he admitted. "After my pathetic attempt yesterday, I wonder if I just don't have the same abilities as your husband."

"I'm sure you do." She shrugged. "All you need is a little practice."

"How can I practice when I can't even get off the ground?"

The lights changed and she set off again. "That's easy. I can help you with that part."

"Like you did last time?" he asked pointedly, recalling her frantic coaching efforts and his total lack of success.

"Those weren't exactly ideal circumstances." She turned into Hyperion Avenue. "You need to be relaxed when you're learning a new skill. Do you float in your sleep?"

"Yeah, I used to." Until Lana trained him out of it.

"There you go. Clark does, too. Flying is only the next step along from that. You'll see ­ it's as easy as falling off a log."

His experience so far hadn't made it seem very easy. He frowned as the car sailed past Lois and Clark's house and continued down the street. "Where are we going?"

She grinned. "You'll see."

Fifteen minutes later, he was peering gingerly down his nose to a deserted factory floor some twenty feet below him. "I'm not feeling very relaxed yet," he observed.

He was standing ­ well, balancing, really — on a narrow ledge in front of an aperture which must have been used to send goods from one end of the factory to the other, passing them along some kind of pulley system just below the ceiling. All of the machinery had now gone, leaving a vast chasm of empty space between him and the floor.

"Don't worry," said Lois. "Just remember you're invulnerable."

It was okay for her ­ she was standing on a nice solid wooden floor behind the aperture. "Thanks for the vote of confidence." Clearly, she believed it was 50-50 that he'd just plummet straight down to the floor.

"I'll give you a count. On three, okay?"

He nodded. Would it be better if he closed his eyes? Held his nose and pretended he was jumping into a pool of water?

"One, two-"

"Wait!"

"What?" she asked.

"Should I jump feet first or kind of dive with my arms held out like a bird?"

She seemed to take far longer than necessary to answer, considering he was perched precariously on a narrow ledge teetering over an abyss, but eventually, she said, "Whatever makes you feel most comfortable."

"Okay." Feet first, then. Or would he be more likely to feel like he was flying if he dove?

"Have you decided which it's going to be?"

"Jump, I think," he said. "I'd rather land on my feet than on my head."

"Good call. Okay, here we go. One, two-"

Something heavy drove into his back and sent him tumbling into the void.

Falling. Tumbling downwards in a clumsy, upside-down confusion of flailing of arms and legs. A brick wall sliding past him in a terracotta blur, the grey of the factory floor rushing up towards him ­ he had to stop. Mustn't hit the concrete. Bad for the health. Stop…now.

Everything froze. The terracotta blur became individual bricks. The floor stopped moving. Legs and arms ceased their frantic motions. Only the motes of dust in the air moved, floating lazily past his field of vision.

Without daring to move a muscle, he cast his gaze downwards. Yes, there was the concrete floor, lying just a few inches below his left foot. Wow.

Up, he thought. Up would be good.

The floor receded slowly until there was a good ten feet between his foot and the grey concrete. Yikes. He did the up thing again and was soon parallel with Lois's aperture.

"Hello," he said.

She was grinning broadly and her eyes were sparkling. "You did it!" She gave him a round of applause. "Well done!"

"You pushed me!"

"So?" She shrugged. "You're flying, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I guess so." Gingerly, he glanced down and gulped.

Oh, boy. He quickly switched his gaze upwards again but he was too late. Panic sent him falling again, rapidly losing altitude and rushing towards the grey concrete again. Stop, he thought. Forget the fact you're about to turn into a squashed fly and think stop…

Okay.

Frozen in mid-air again and feeling decidedly queasy, he paused for a breather before pulling himself up once more to Lois's height. Was it possible to be afraid of heights and be able to fly, both at the same time? He was pretty certain it was.

She must have seen the discomfort in his face, for she said, "You just need a bit of confidence in yourself, that's all. Once you know you're in control, the height won't bother you."

He nodded. "Okay. I'm going to drop down a bit nearer to the floor and get practising."

She grinned. "Go for it."

***

At the street corner Lana had just turned down a few seconds previously, Clark pressed up behind Lois and peered down the street. They'd been following Lana on foot for only a short distance from where she'd parked her car, in a run-down neighbourhood adjacent to the Hobs Bay area. Now, though, it looked like she might be nearing her destination.

"If she's attending an art class in there," muttered Lois, "then I'm the King of Siam."

Clark eyed the building Lana had just entered. "I don't know. Looks like a school to me."

"Which was closed down two years ago," said Lois. "Come on." She darted down the street, forcing Clark to follow her.

Together, they jogged up the steps to the old school and pressed their faces up against the glass. A door was swinging shut at the right side of the entrance hall.

"My turn," murmured Clark, pulling open one of the front doors which, judging by the open padlock hanging from the handle, was where Lana had gained access.

A few minutes later, they were crouching in a darkened corridor just outside a classroom, Lois pressing up behind him as they listened to a conversation between Lana and a man.

The blood drained from Clark's face when he heard the man speaking. He'd have known that voice anywhere. You didn't soon forget the man who'd tied your parents up, tried to burn them alive and nearly shot you dead.

Jason Trask.

He felt a hand on his arm and turned to find Lois eyeing him with concern. "You okay?" she mouthed.

He nodded. "Jason Trask," he mouthed back, jabbing a pointing finger at the classroom.

Her eyes widened and then she was darting forwards, steadying herself with her hands on his shoulders so that she could peek into the room. Thank goodness, he reflected, that neither Trask nor Lana were facing the door!

He pulled her back, fearful that one of them would turn and see her. She glared indignantly at him, but he merely placed his finger on his lips and turned away from her to listen in on the conversation. No doubt, if she was anything like his Lois, he'd get an earful from her later on, but if they were seen now, they'd blow their best chance of learning what Lana's relationship with Trask was.

"But he saved all those people," Lana was saying. "How can that be bad?"

"It," snapped Trask. "It saved those people, not 'he'."

"Sorry," she muttered. "You didn't answer my question."

"Don't you see? It's lulling you into a false sense of security. It wants you to think it's benign."

"He is benign," she insisted quietly. "He's never hurt me or anyone else."

"Oh, really? You don't care that it's being unfaithful? You don't care that it's a lying, cheating bastard? Hell, Lana, it would probably sleep with half the women in this city, given half the chance."

"Clark's not like that," she said. "He…it's not promiscuous."

"It's already fornicating with the Lane woman on a regular basis," spat Trask. "What's that if it's not promiscuous?"

"You don't know that for sure. I…I know they spend a lot of time together, but you don't know he's sleeping with her."

"Oh, get real, Lana! Besides, we have it under 24-hour surveillance," he retorted. "Of course we know."

"Twenty…twenty-four hour?" she faltered. "I…I didn't know that."

"You didn't?" he replied. "Sorry, perhaps we forgot to tell you."

"All day?" she said. "And…all night?"

"Yeah, phone taps, video cameras, hidden microphones…the usual stuff."

There was a pause, and then Lana said in a very subdued voice, "Video. You have videos."

"Of him and her? Of course. Hell, Lana, they did it right there in your bed. I tell you, it has no shame. It disgusts me."

"Y…you…disgust me."

Clark could hardly believe what he'd just heard. Twenty-four hour surveillance? How far did Skywatch's reach extend — did they have devices at the Planet? Was this Clark Kent's entire life recorded on tape?

A wave of cold fear made him shiver. Watched. Every single move recorded. Faceless people who knew everything there was to know about him. A short step from there to the dissecting table. Gleaming, sharp instruments and impassive eyes staring down over surgical masks.

He clenched his fist and pushed the childhood terrors back down where they belonged. This was the other Clark's nightmare, he reminded himself fiercely.

But what of his own near-faint in the bedroom ­ had that been recorded, too? What about his conversation with Lois ­ did Trask now know that some kind of body-swap was occurring between him and the other Clark?

Meanwhile, Lois had gone very still behind him. Glancing back at her through the gloom, he saw shocked, pinched features. Of course ­ she was on that tape, too! God, he couldn't imagine what it must feel like to discover people had been watching you make love. Violated, he guessed. Humiliated?

Trask was talking again.

"Oh, really? I disgust you?" He snorted. "What about you, Lana? Do you disgust yourself? All those notes you make about it ­ the nasty little secrets you share with us? Do those disgust you?" Trask's voice was harsh. "What about when you sleep with it? Does that disgust you? For Christ's sake, Lana, this is war, and war requires extreme measures. You knew that when you signed up for this work."

"You…you've been videoing me…with Clark…"

"What did you expect? This is a close surveillance operation. Besides, we needed to know that you weren't shirking your marital obligations."

"My marital…" She gasped. "I can't take this… I can't… I have to go…"

Clark heard a chair scrape on the tiled floor.

"I don't have time for this," snapped Trask. "Sit down, cut the hysteria and listen while I tell you how you're going to deal with it from now on."

"I don't care…"

Clark heard quick footsteps approaching the doorway and hurriedly turned, grabbed Lois and pulled her unceremoniously into a classroom on the other side of the corridor. A moment later, Lana fled down the corridor, heading for the exit.

He was torn between following her and waiting to hear what Trask would do next. In his arms he held a still-shocked Lois who, while he didn't doubt her powers of recovery, was probably not best placed for a fast pursuit across Metropolis just yet. And if they did move, they risked colliding with Trask on his way out.

A radio squawked in the other classroom. "Trask."

"Sir, we think the alien has vacated the house."

Trask swore. "You think. You don't know, I suppose, because of those damned cameras! How the hell am I supposed to run an efficient operation with faulty equipment? This was a priority one project ­ can you believe that? But I've done such a good job of neutralising the danger for them that they think they can cut the funding. Fools!"

"Sir, I don't-"

"Just find out where it is. Try the Lane woman's apartment first."

"Acknowledged."

"Oh, and Barker? Agent Lang has been reclassified as unsafe. I repeat, unsafe."

"Acknowledged. Should we terminate?"

"Not yet. Just watch her."

"Acknowledged."

***

Lois stood in the middle of their living room, eyeing the door to the kitchen with a mixture of amusement and impatience.

"Come on, Clark!" she called. "You're supposed to be faster than a speeding bullet. Even my mother doesn't take this long to get changed."

"It's very tight," said a muffled voice. "Are you sure this is all he wears?"

She grinned. "He says it cuts down on wind resistance."

"It's not resistant enough, if you ask me."

"Just get out here and show me," she said. "Or I'll come in there and get you. In five, four, three-"

"Okay!"

And there he was. Resplendent in blue, red, and yellow.

Except he wasn't really that resplendent. Sure, he was wearing the right clothes, but all his weight was on one foot, his shoulders were hunched, and he was holding his cape across himself like a comfort blanket. He'd even forgotten to remove his glasses.

"Hair's good," she said, finding the one thing he'd managed to get right. "But the rest of you…"

She strode up to him, pushed back his shoulders, yanked the cape from his hands and pulled off his glasses. "Cross your arms and stand with your feet apart," she instructed, then stepped back to survey the result.

Yep, that was better. Now he looked like Superman.

"There you go!" she exclaimed. "How does it feel?"

"Exposed," he muttered stiffly. "Don't people stare?"

She chuckled. "Oh, yeah. But at least they're not staring at your face."

A pink flush spread over his face, immediately destroying the stern hero image he'd managed to create. "God knows what Lois will think of it."

"Trust me — she'll love it. Look, why don't you go upstairs and take a look at yourself in our mirror?" she suggested. "Then you'll see what I mean."

He nodded. "Okay." He began to stride over to the stairs, his cape billowing behind him. But then he paused. "Why walk when you can fly?" he said, a sly grin spreading over his features. His feet lifted off the carpet. "I could get used to this."

She smiled with him and watched him glide stylishly upstairs. He was a different person since he'd discovered flying. At first he'd been like a little boy with a new toy, showing off whenever he could, but mostly he was just so much more confident and relaxed. He'd even been the one to suggest trying on one of Clark's suits. She'd have mentioned it if he hadn't, of course ­ her plan for tomorrow's meeting with Dr Schulz wouldn't work otherwise ­ but she was pleased he'd taken the initiative from her. Perhaps there was hope for this fledging Superman after all.

***

As soon as Trask left, Lois erupted from Clark's loose embrace and stalked across the darkened classroom, her shoulders stiff and hunched. He watched her uneasily, unsure of what he could possibly say to her by way of comfort. How did you talk to someone who'd discovered their privacy had been violated in the worst way imaginable?

All those passionate, tender, and so very private moments he'd shared with his own Lois. Learning each other's bodies — learning how to love and be loved. What if he found out all of that had been taped? He'd be as furious and upset as this Lois clearly was.

She fetched up at the blackboard, where her hand suddenly swung up and slammed hard against the surface. "Damn them! Those…those…bastards!"

Her angry outburst echoed eerily through the abandoned building, making Clark hope fervently that it really was empty and that Trask was long gone. "You and Clark have to stop them," he offered.

She leant her forehead against the blackboard, her hand still in place where she'd made contact. "How dare they?" She struck the surface again, less forcefully this time. "What gives them the right to invade people's lives like that? It…it was the one thing we had together, the one special, private thing, and now they've even taken that away from us ­ from him."

His lips pursed, the disapprover in him still unable to completely accept her legitimising their act of adultery. If they'd been less self-indulgent, a little voice said in his head, they wouldn't be in the position they were in now.

Yet her distress was affecting and Trask's cameras were clearly a flagrant breach of hers, Clark's and even Lana's basic right to privacy. That much he could completely agree on ­ even sympathise with. "No, they haven't," he found himself saying. "You still love each other, don't you? They haven't taken that away."

"Calling him an 'it,'" she fumed. "They have no idea! No idea what a warm, caring person he is. Clark has more humanity in his little finger than an entire army of Jason Trasks could ever have." She sagged against the blackboard and gave a strange, strangled laugh. "It's all my fault, of course. I encouraged him. Told him it was good therapy." Her finger traced the shape of a heart through the dust on the black chalk face. "All because I needed him to prove how much he loved me. This is my reward for being so selfish, I guess." Her hand fell to her side. "But how dare they?"

Her voice had lost its indignation and now just sounded wounded and lost. He walked up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Fight them, Lois," he murmured. "Don't let them get to you."

"Oh, I won't," she said in a low, dangerous voice. "Clark doesn't deserve this and neither do I. Even if I have to kill them to get him the life he deserves, that's what I'll do."

"There are better ways than killing," he said mildly. "Violence is never the answer."

Her hand slammed against the blackboard again. "Don't lecture me!"

"Hey." He squeezed her shoulder gently. "You don't mean it, Lois."

"I do!" She swivelled and turned a tear-streaked face up to him. "I…I do." Her voice broke. "I…"

And then she was in his arms, burying her head against his chest and sobbing. "Why…why am I crying?" she protested, angry through her tears. "I should be mad. Not…not crying like a baby."

He rubbed her back, comforting her as he would his own Lois. "Because you can't cry in front of Clark?" he suggested. "Because you always have to be strong for him?"

A lump was gathering in his throat but he did his best to ignore it. Just because he found his wife's distress incredibly infectious was no reason to go to pieces with this Lois. If only she didn't sound so miserable…

She nodded against his chest. "I…I try to keep his spirits up. He's…he's so battered and bruised from living with Lana. Last thing he needs is…is me crying all over him."

He chuckled softly. "Well, cry all you like on me." He was about to add something flippant about the bruises on his chest, but realised that, in fact, they didn't hurt any more. Was he recovered ­ were his powers back? Hearing was usually the first thing to return, and…yes, he could hear the steady thrum, thrum of her heartbeat.

He let Lois cry herself out until she reached the sniffling stage, and then said softly, "We should go."

"Where?" she asked, her voice desolate. "They'll be watching my apartment."

He nodded. "But they were probably watching it before," he pointed out gently. "The only difference is now you know about it." He felt her tense in his arms. "Look, how about I come home with you and sweep the place for bugs?"

"You can do that?"

"One of the advantages of having really acute hearing and sight," he replied. "And yes, my powers — or rather, Clark's powers ­ are back."

She peeled herself away from him. "That's good, I guess."

He nodded. "And then I should go back to Lana and face the music there."

"Are you going to tell her you were here?" She began dabbing at her eyes and cheeks with a paper hankie.

"I'm not sure ­ I need your advice on that. What do you think Clark would want me to do?"

She frowned. "He wanted to watch her covertly for a while, but after tonight, I'm not so sure. From what Trask was saying, she might be in as much danger as Clark is ­ more, even."

"Yeah, that terminate remark didn't sound too good, did it?"

"No. But on the other hand, I think he'd want to be the one to tell her." She grimaced. "As much as I hate to admit it, he is still her husband and they've been together since they were kids. He knows best how to talk to her."

"True."

She stuffed the paper hankie back in her pocket and turned towards the door. "And he still cares about her."

The blunt remark took him off-guard. Was he expected to challenge it? Reassure her that she was wrong? He could do neither without having ever met his counterpart. Although…

"She nearly killed him," he pointed out.

"I know, but whoever said Clark Kent was logical?" she said. "He may say he doesn't feel anything for her any longer, but if that were really the case, he would have left her by now. As it is, he's staying with her because he's scared she'll be in danger if he leaves her." She sighed. "Come on, let's go back to my place."

***

Flying.

Wow, flying. Who'd have thought it?

Clark turned onto his back on the sofa and let his imagination run free. Zooming around the old factory had been fun enough, but he couldn't wait to soar through the open skies. To swoop up as high as he could and then go diving back down through billowing clouds. To fly alongside flocks of birds or hover high over the countryside like a sparrow-hawk. To act like a stunt pilot and execute loop-the-loops and barrel rolls.

The prospects were exhilarating.

What would Lois think about flying? Would she want to go with him, fly in his arms? He grinned. Yeah, Lois was an adventurer. She'd demand to come with him as soon as he told her he could fly ­ really fly, not just float. He couldn't wait to take her.

And all this because Lois's twin in this universe had decided to teach him. Okay, he knew she had an ulterior motive ­ tomorrow's meeting in the park with Schulz ­ but still. She'd been great. Encouraging and reassuring. He could even forgive her unconventional teaching methods when the end result was so wonderful. In fact, she was pretty wonderful. He could see why the other Clark loved her so much and, moreover, depended so heavily on her. She was resourceful, clever, and strong.

Just like his own Lois. A slow smile curved across his face as he imagined the scene. Him, soaring easily through the skies, a light breeze on his face and the entire world laid out like a giant playground before him. Lois, cradled snugly in his arms, peering down through the clouds and sharing his joyous laughter as they watched the changing patterns of the countryside below.

Yes, flying was pretty special.

***

"Where have you been?"

Lana's shrill demand greeted Clark as soon as he walked through the front door of their house. She stood before him in the hall, her face pale and strained, her hands screwed into tight fists by her sides.

"How was the art class?" he asked.

Her lips pursed into a thin line. "Fine. You didn't answer my question."

"Out," he replied. "I went for a walk."

"At this time of night?"

"Yes."

"I don't believe you."

He shrugged. "Believe what you like." He walked past her to the lounge. "I suggest you go to bed. I'm sleeping downstairs tonight."

"Why?"

"If you think I'm sharing a bed with you after what you did last night, you must be crazy," he replied. "Good night, Lana."

He shut the lounge door without looking back at her. Behind him, he heard quick, heaving breaths as she, no doubt, glared angrily at the closed door. He heard her feet shuffle uncertainly on the stripped wooden floor of the hall and then she turned and thudded quickly upstairs.

He flopped down on the sofa with a sigh. He should have been nicer to her. She was undoubtedly still in shock from her meeting with Trask and, understandably, she was panicked. Her nice tidy world of note-taking and dutiful reporting had just been turned upside down. Not only had she discovered that she, too, was being watched, but from the sound of it, she was in serious trouble with Trask as well.

But he couldn't bring himself to endure more than the barest interaction with her. Besides not wanting to pretend he didn't know what she'd just gone through, he found he had very little sympathy for her. Until she did something to redeem herself ­ something unselfish and preferably of significant help to her husband ­ he could see little in Lana Lang that was worth caring about.

Especially when he'd just left a still shaken but extremely plucky Lois Lane alone in her apartment. No selfish scheming over there — once she'd discovered, to their joint relief and not a little surprise, that there were no bugs or cameras planted in her apartment, all of Lois's concern had directed itself back at her lover. How, she'd fretted, was she going to break this to him? He didn't take threats of exposure well, and this was on an entirely new level to anything he'd so far dealt with. Should she perhaps look into counselling support for him? Have a phone number at the ready in case he needed more help than she could give him? Could she even organise that without having to disclose his real identity?

Clark had reassured her, with a certain lack of inner conviction, that she was as good a counsellor as the other Clark would need, and that perhaps he was stronger than she gave him credit for. She'd smiled and nodded hopefully. He'd left her with a promise to be there in no time at all if she needed him ­ his instruction to call "Help, Superman!" had raised a further wan smile ­ and a further promise to sweep the Daily Planet for bugs early the following morning.

So here he was, sitting on the sofa in a house full of cameras and listening devices. Well, he could do something about that, at least.

Five minutes later he'd eliminated the lot, except those in Lana's bedroom, which he'd deal with tomorrow once she was up and moving around the house. Skywatch had been pretty imaginative in their placing of the devices ­ there were metal ornament collections scattered all over the house, which up until tonight he'd assumed were Lana's family heirlooms. He hadn't liked them much, but otherwise hadn't given them a second glance. Even when he and Lois had been searching for the kryptonite, he hadn't checked them. He'd have to be a lot more careful in future. In the meantime…

The muffled sounds of quiet sobbing interrupted his thoughts.

Lana. Quietly and discreetly crying into her pillow, by the sound of it. For a moment, her distress tugged at his heart. She was alone and scared up there. Unlike her husband, she had no-one to comfort her when things turned against her.

He could go up there, give her a cuddle and zap the cameras at the same time.

But no. She didn't deserve to be comforted. It might even do her some good to know real fear and loneliness for a while ­ maybe she'd realise what a terrible thing she'd done.

He turned over and pulled the blankets up around his chin.

***

"Can you move your left hand a little further down my legs?"

Being carried by a novice Superman was an educational experience. Lois hadn't realised how expert her husband had become until this Clark had lifted her up and clumsily launched himself skywards.

It was morning and they were on their way to the park to meet with Schulz. Lois was looking forward to the encounter ­ she always felt happier when she was doing something constructive. When the something involved outwitting a person she didn't much like, she felt even happier.

"Sorry." Clark shifted his hand and immediately she felt more comfortable. "Is that better?"

She nodded. "Much. Now all you have to do is figure out how to land gracefully with me in your arms."

He grimaced. "Maybe we should have practiced."

"You'll be fine." She winked. "Just don't drop me."

"I wouldn't dare," he answered dryly. "Your husband would never forgive me."

"Believe me, I'd never forgive you, either." She peered down to the ground. "There he is. Take us in, Superman."

"Your wish is my command, Ms Lane," he replied gravely, the sides of his mouth twitching as he fought to maintain his serious hero image.

She grinned. He was so much nicer now that he'd learned to fly. At last she could see what the other Lois might have seen in him ­ why she'd stuck with him while he swithered between his wife and her.

Dr Schulz looked gratifyingly off-balance when they landed in front of him. "I wasn't expecting you, Superman. It's an honour to meet you."

Clark nodded brusquely. "Dr Schulz."

Lois slithered out of Clark's arms and smiled brightly at the scientist. "Hi. I'm your mystery caller."

Schulz's cordial smile faded. "Ms Lane. I should have known. Your hostility to my experiments was all too clear at our last meeting."

She shrugged. "If you choose to interpret my questions as hostile, that's your prerogative, of course. In fact, I often find that people who feel uncomfortable answering my questions interpret them as hostile. Did you feel uncomfortable, Dr Schulz?"

"Not at all, Ms Lane." The corners of his mouth pulled downwards dismissively. "I'm used to hacks rubbishing my work."

"Sir, that's a little strong, isn't it?" intervened Clark. "In my experience, Ms Lane is a well-respected reporter with a sound professional approach to her work."

"If you say so, Superman," replied Schulz. "You probably know her better than I do."

"He knows my work," said Lois firmly. "Which brings us to today's business. Superman, would you care to explain?"

"Certainly. Dr Schulz, over the past few weeks I've been aware of a strange phenomenon affecting me occasionally. Since yesterday, I have reason to believe that this may be linked to your use of the matter transmitting device you are developing at Star Labs."

Schulz blanched. "Really? That's…that's most unlikely. Can you describe this phenomenon?"

"No." Clark's tone was blunt. "I'm sure you'll understand that my personal information is extremely confidential. I can't afford for it to fall into the wrong hands."

"Superman, I can assure you-"

"I'm sorry, Dr Schulz. The only person who is privy to such information is my personal physician, Dr Klein."

Lois had to suppress a sly grin as Schulz's expression turned sour. As she'd expected, he didn't enjoy Bernard Klein, of all people, having greater access to confidential information than he did himself. "I see," he replied. "Well, can you at least tell me why you think it has anything to do with my device?"

"Of course." Clark crossed his arms over his chest, adopted his recently-learned Superman stance, and, in a tone that brooked no dissent or question, continued. "Ms Lane happened to witness the latest instance of this phenomenon and had the presence of mind to contact you. When she discovered that you'd just operated the device, the source of the problem became clear."

"How do you know that wasn't just a coincidence?" pounced Schulz.

"He doesn't," said Lois. "But do you really want to take the risk that it isn't a coincidence?"

Schulz shrugged. "Well-"

"Just imagine the adverse publicity if it became known that your device may be interfering with Superman's ability to protect this city," suggested Lois. "That might help you decide."

Schulz's eyes flashed angrily. "You wouldn't dare," he said. "There's no proof."

Lois raised an eyebrow. "Are you doubting Superman's word, Dr Schulz?"

A steely glare from Clark cut off any riposte Schulz might have made to that. Instead, he pursed his lips and replied, "Okay, but if Superman won't share with me the nature of this so-called phenomenon, how am I to take this any further?"

"Well, clearly further testing is required to prove Superman's theory, but since only Dr Klein can be witness to any effects which result, here's what I suggest," said Lois. "One, you suspend all experiments with immediate effect. Two, you hand over all your notes and the use of your lab to Dr Klein so that he can carry out the necessary tests with Superman. When the tests are complete, Dr Klein will inform you of the results and help you make any necessary adjustments to the device to make it safe."

"If that's possible," added Clark. "While I fully support scientific advances of this nature, safety must be our first concern, mustn't it, Dr Schulz?"

"Ah…yes, Superman."

"So you agree to my suggestions?" asked Lois.

"Agree? This is preposterous! You expect me to blithely hand over my research notes to a…a…"

"Dr Klein is highly respected within the scientific community, isn't he?" enquired Clark. "I should have thought you'd consider it an honour to hand over to such an esteemed colleague."

"Naturally," replied Schulz, looking and sounding as if the word had been squeezed out of him like toothpaste. "Which is why…why I'd like to work with him on this. A collaboration." He stretched his features into a sickly smile. "Surely such a great scientist as Dr Bernard Klein would welcome the opportunity to help a less…privileged colleague."

"Usually, I'm sure he would," agreed Lois. "But we've already explained why you can't be party to this work. Superman is as entitled to patient confidentiality as you or I, wouldn't you say?"

Schulz's smile disappeared. "You appear to have me over a barrel, Ms Lane," he said. "I'm afraid this smacks of blackmail, however, and if I detect even the slightest indication that you are abusing your position as a member of the free press, I will contact your editor and express my displeasure in the strongest possible terms."

Lois smiled. "I'm sure Mr White would be delighted to take your call. Now, if you'll excuse us, Superman needs to visit with Dr Klein to appraise him of our agreement."

Clark nodded curtly at Dr Schulz. "Thank you for your co- operation, sir."

"It's been a pleasure, Superman." Schulz eyed Lois with barely- disguised contempt. "But if I were you, I'd take a good look at the company I keep."

Lois bit her lip to keep from grinning and hopped into Clark's waiting arms.

***

There were no cameras at the Planet, but there were listening devices. Clark destroyed them all, berating himself continuously. He really ought to have noticed these, and the bristling array of equipment at the house, much earlier than this. He should have been more suspicious. He should have made himself think more like Jason Trask ­ the man was the personification of paranoia.

He'd been too focused on Lana. She'd become the enemy he had to outwit; an enemy whose modus operandi had been to write long notebooks about her husband and report them back to Skywatch, not to spy with high-tech electronic devices. And it just hadn't occurred to him that her bosses might have added their own level of surveillance.

Conversely, he could understand why the other Clark hadn't noticed. From what Lois had told him, his counterpart's powers had been, for all practical purposes, completely switched off, whereas he was certain that a little motor needed to keep ticking over at the back of his consciousness in order for the powers to activate when needed. It was kind of like the difference between having the pilot light on a boiler switched on or off: if it was on, then the boiler could fire when instructed by the timer, but if it was off, then the boiler was dead until someone came along to relight the pilot.

He chuckled: Lois was just the right person to relight this Clark's pilot light.

He used his heat vision on the last device and tossed it in his trash can, smiling wryly. The cleaners would have an interesting time tonight.

Meanwhile, where would he be tonight? Tucked up in bed with his wife, he hoped. He missed her ­ especially here at the Planet, where she ought to be sitting at that desk opposite his. It just wasn't fair that so soon into their marriage, they were being forced apart every couple of days. How were they supposed to learn how to live together as man and wife when they never got more than a day or so's practice at a time?

Still, they'd fix this, he was sure. He and Lois always sorted things out eventually.

"Did you find anything?"

He swivelled in his chair to find Lois standing before his desk. "Yes. But you can relax ­ I just zapped the last one."

"Good."

She looked pale. Her eyes lacked life, and even her voice, usually so animated, was dull. "You okay?" he enquired softly.

She shrugged. "Didn't sleep too well." She unfastened the buttons of her coat and peeled it off. "So I guess this means they know everything."

He nodded. "I should think so."

"I feel so dirty." She turned away quickly and moved to hang her coat on the coat stand near her desk.

He pushed back his chair and strode over to her. "Hey," he murmured, resting his hand on her shoulder. "Are you sure you want to be here? Perhaps you should go home for the day."

She shook her head. "Working's better. I'll only obsess about it at home."

"Okay." He wanted to say more ­ tell her she just had to say the word and he'd take over from her so she could go home early, for example. Or tell her he was there if she needed a shoulder to cry on. Anything to make her feel better. But he suspected she wouldn't welcome his offers of support. She wanted business as usual, as if nothing at all was wrong. Just as his own Lois would have wanted, he realised. So he bit back his words of comfort and tried a change of subject instead. "By the way, Lana left this morning."

"Left?" Lois swivelled to face him. "Left where?"

"To her parents," he explained. "She said she needed a few days to think things over."

Lois snorted. "In other words, she can't bear the prospect of remaining in that house with all its cameras and bugs."

"Yeah. Shame she doesn't know I destroyed them all."

"Serves her right," retorted Lois.

He grimaced. "I have to admit I had similar thoughts last night. Although I do wonder whether she's more of a victim in this than we give her credit for."

"Oh, come on!" exclaimed Lois. "She didn't have to spend the last twenty years spying on Clark. She betrayed him, can't you see that? He trusted her with his life ­ literally, his life ­ and she trampled all over him."

"I agree that she's guilty of all that," he replied. "But I don't think she ever expected Trask to go as far as he has. In fact, I think she's only just beginning to see him for what he really is."

"Well, tough. She made a pact with the devil and now she's paying the price. I hope she rots in hell."

"Kent!" Clark jumped at the barked interjection and turned to find Perry bearing down on him with a stern expression. "I hope that suit means you've brought a better attitude with you today."

"Um…yes," replied Clark. Better attitude?

"Good, because I need you to cover the opening of the new subway extension downtown." Perry lifted his left arm and made an ostentatious show of checking his wrist watch. "You have precisely thirty-three minutes to get your butt down there. Lois, there's been another knifing incident at St Patrick's school. Check it out."

Lois was already reaching for her coat. "On it, Chief."

"Me, too," added Clark.

He waited until Perry had stalked off to assail another member of staff, then turned to Lois. "Better attitude?"

She grimaced. "Clark took his feelings about Lana out on Perry yesterday, and since Perry is already down on Clark for his less than stellar performance lately, the timing couldn't have been worse."

"Ouch." Clark winced. "What happened?"

"Perry sent him home."

"You're kidding! Why-"

"Kent, I don't see you moving yet." Perry's voice boomed across the newsroom. "You planning on flying there?"

Clark grimaced. "Actually, I am," he murmured to Lois. "But don't tell him."

She chuckled. "I'll see you later."

***

"Wow, will you look at all this equipment? No wonder my budget has been slashed in half."

Glancing around Dr Schulz's gleaming lab, Clark had to agree with Dr Klein. He was no expert, but it seemed that every high-tech scientific instrument known to man was arranged around the room. Centre-stage was the teleportation machine, planted right in the middle of the lab.

Clark joined Lois and Dr Klein in a slow tour around the machine. On one side there was a console made up of a screen, keyboard and mouse and on the other, there seemed to some kind of vast power generator from which a tangle of coloured wires emerged, leading up to a jumbled collection of oscilloscopes and anonymous black boxes. The crowning glory of the entire structure was an arrangement of four satellite dishes ­ at least, that was the nearest analogy Clark could make.

"What are those?" he asked Dr Klein.

"They broadcast the teleportation signal," replied Klein. "And this," he said, holding up a small black cube, "is one of the receivers."

"So if I were to activate this now," said Lois, studying the console with interest, "you'd end up ten feet to my right?"

Dr Klein hurried to her side and quickly jabbed a key. "Let's not find out just yet."

Lois pouted. "It looks pretty straightforward to me."

"Trust me," said Klein. "It's not." He turned to Clark. "So, to recap, Superman, you think this is the machine which is responsible for sending you into the other universe, yes?"

Clark nodded. He and Lois had already explained all about the body swaps between universes ­ they'd agreed that Dr Klein would have to know everything so that he could help them test the machine. He even knew that the Superman he was addressing was from the other universe.

What he didn't know, Clark was only too acutely aware, was that this Superman was a fake who'd only just learned how to fly the previous day. "I'm curious as to how you think it might be doing that, though," he said, pitching his voice lower than usual ­ as Lois had instructed him to do. "I understand from Clark that you don't think it's capable of transmitting brainwaves, for example."

Klein frowned. "I didn't think so, no. But those unexplained energy spikes I've seen are certainly suspicious. Tell me, Superman, do you know of any reason why your brain might work differently to ours?"

"No, I don't think-"

"He's telepathic!" exclaimed Lois. "Aren't you, Superman?"

He was?

He stared at her, feeling utterly un-telepathic at that precise moment. Was she serious? Telepathy? Wow. "Um…yeah," he said, realising Klein was waiting for his answer. "I mean yes. I'm telepathic."

Lois was nodding encouragingly so, somewhat emboldened, he continued. "I don't…use it much…here?" She nodded again. "So I tend to forget that I am." He switched his gaze to Dr Klein. "Telepathic, that is." He realised his voice had risen out of deep, sonorous Superman mode up into bewildered, rather high-pitched Clark mode and quickly cleared his throat. "Does that make a difference?" he asked, pitching his voice back down in his boots.

Dr Klein also looked bewildered, but whether from consternation that Superman didn't seem aware of his own abilities or from surprise that Superman was telepathic, Clark wasn't too sure. "Um…quite possibly. How does this telepathy work?"

"How does it work?" Yikes, he had no idea. He turned to Lois for clues. "How does it work? Well…"

"You told me once that you didn't know how it worked," offered Lois obligingly. "Kind of like I don't know how my hearing works. I just know that it does."

Of course. Clark nodded. "That's right." He looked at Klein. "I don't know how it works."

"O-kay." Dr Klein began pacing around the lab. "Well, let's hypothesise. If your brain is telepathic, then it's possible that it emits some kind of telepathic signal ­ let's call it a psi wave. Perhaps you're constantly broadcasting that signal so that other telepaths know you're open for communication, as it were. Now, if the signal Schulz's machine is programmed to detect is on the same wavelength as your psi wave transmission, then that might explain why your brain activity, rather than your entire body, is being teleported."

"Sounds plausible to me," said Lois. "But why between universes?"

"I'm not sure," replied Klein. "But we do know that some of Schulz's wood blocks simply disappeared during teleportation. Could it be that they, too, were transmitted to the other universe?"

"It's possible," agreed Lois. "Superman, you haven't happened to have noticed a stray pile of wood blocks anywhere in the other universe, by any chance?"

Clark chuckled. "No. But we shouldn't discount the theory, even so."

"Exactly. So, now that we have a working hypothesis," said Klein, "we need to devise some tests."

***

Two hours later, Clark was sitting on a stool in front of the teleportation device, feeling uncomfortably like the experimental animal of his childhood nightmares. Dr Klein had already performed a number of small tests on him, and now he was waiting for the scientist to complete his preparations for the big one: attempting a body swap.

If it worked, their collective ordeal of the past few days would at last be over. If it failed…

Hopefully, nothing untoward would happen if it failed.

His stomach was churning, though. He'd been asked to sit facing away from the machine ­ something about safety, which didn't exactly increase his confidence ­ so he couldn't even see what Dr Klein and his co-opted assistant, Lois, were up to.

"How's it going?" he called.

"Just sit tight," replied Klein. "Shouldn't be long now."

"Okay." He closed his eyes and commanded his stomach to be still.

At least he'd had a chance to be Superman.

Not just to wear the suit, either. On their flight from the park to meet Dr Klein, Clark had noticed a small knot of people in an alley a couple of blocks from Star Labs. Something about the scene had seemed wrong, and when he'd dipped down for a better view, he'd realised that the person trapped in the centre of the group was receiving a vicious beating.

His response had been automatic. Quickly, he'd landed a short distance away and issued a terse, "Stay here," to Lois before moving swiftly into the fray. He'd reached the middle of the group and, purely by reflex, had managed to block the next blow simply by putting his hand in the path of the swinging fist. There was a yelp of pain from the assailant followed by an indignant expletive.

"Anyone else want to chance their luck?" he'd asked sternly, swinging his gaze around the rest of the group.

Collectively, they'd hung their heads and muttered sullen curses.

He'd been feeling pretty pleased with his first foray into Superman's work when he'd realised that the furthest away members of the group were beginning to melt away into the shadows. Oh, no, they didn't! Moving as fast as he was able ­ which was pretty fast, he'd discovered — he'd grabbed them one at a time and deposited them in a nearby dumpster. Then he'd closed the lid, fused the lock and drilled a few air holes with his fingers.

"Not bad," Lois had observed, pulling out her cell phone. "I'll call the police while you take him to hospital." She'd nodded at the victim, who lay curled up on the ground.

Clark had hurried to his side, gingerly lifted him up and flown to Metropolis General. The medic who'd taken charge, when Clark had asked anxiously for a prognosis, had shrugged and said, "Looks like you got there just in time, Superman."

So he'd saved someone.

It felt good ­ though not quite as amazing as he'd expected. He found himself worrying about the victim, wanting to know if he was really going to be okay. Why he'd been attacked. Would they gang up on him again as soon as he was out on the streets again? Rescuing people, he'd discovered, wasn't as simple as merely pulling them away from danger.

"Okay, Superman, we're ready," said Klein.

If this worked, he'd never know if his first save had been a complete success. Still, the guy had a better chance of survival than he would have had otherwise.

"Hold on," said Lois, and then she was standing in front of him. "I might not see you again," she explained. "So…I just wanted to tell you I think you're going to make a pretty fine Superman. And I hope everything else works out for you."

Wow ­ and to think they'd started out as practically sworn enemies! "Thank you," he exclaimed. "And thank you for all your help."

She smiled. "It was fun." She leant forward and, to his great surprise, kissed him on the cheek. "Just make sure you don't hold out on my counterpart much longer," she murmured. "We Loises can get mighty cranky when we're kept waiting."

He chuckled. "I know. And I won't."

"Okay." She patted his arm briefly and then went back to join Klein at the controls. "He's ready."

Clark held his breath, and…

***

Her heart nearly leapt into her mouth when she saw him fall sideways.

"Cla-"

In the nick of time, she managed to swallow the rest of his name and focused on reaching his side before he crashed onto the floor. Dr Klein was just behind her, and together they caught him and eased him upright on the stool. Still, he sagged forward and she had to support him while Dr Klein's fingers moved swiftly to the pulse at his neck.

"Racing a little…but getting better," he muttered. He began clicking his fingers near Clark's face. "Superman, can you hear me? Superman?"

"Mmmm." Clark's head lolled on his chest.

"Superman?" said Lois. "Can you hear me? It's Lois."

And was he her Clark? He'd collapsed as if a swap had taken place, hadn't he? It had to be him.

"Lois?" His head came up and his eyes cracked open a little. "Lois?"

"Yes, it's me." She studied his face, anxious for any clue ­ any little mannerism that she might recognise. "Clark Kent's wife." There, that should give him a clue, even if she wasn't getting any in return.

A broad grin spread over his face. "Lois. My beautiful Lois."

Yay! He was back, and all she wanted to do was fling her arms around his neck and hug him until the world stopped turning.

But… "Dr Klein's here, Superman," she warned. "He wants to check you over."

Clark's eyes opened fully. "Oh."

Ten minutes later, Dr Klein stepped back. "Superman, I'm…well, I'm speechless. The device did exactly as we hypothesised ­ it homed in on your telepathic psi waves and transmitted your brain patterns across the universes. The potential is incredible. Of course, humans would have to develop telepathic powers first, but assuming we could, the possibilities-"

"Dr Klein, can we focus, for now, on making this machine safe?" asked Clark. "While swapping bodies and universes was an interesting experience, I don't ever intend to repeat it."

"Oh." Dr Klein looked crestfallen. "I was going to suggest a few more tests-"

"No!" chorused Lois and Clark, causing Dr Klein to flinch under the force of their combined protest. "Sorry," continued Lois, "but it's a dangerous machine in the wrong hands and it needs to be neutralised. If the only way to do that is to shut it down completely, then that's what you have to do."

Klein frowned. "I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you," she replied. "Superman, perhaps we should let Dr Klein work in peace? I'm sure there must be someone who needs you more than he does." She felt her face split into a wide smile and had to resist a mischievous urge to wink at him.

Clark grinned. "I'm sure there is. Shall I drop you at the Planet first?"

"Home," she corrected. "It's way past finishing time at work. If that's not too much trouble for you?"

"My pleasure, Ms Lane," he replied. "My pleasure."

***

Home, sweet home. Clark's mouth twisted as he lay in the dark awaiting sleep. How poorly that description fitted this house ­ a house he'd so eagerly chosen with Lana in another lifetime. Cameras and listening devices. A wife who'd spied on him. A life that had been a complete façade, from the day he'd first met Lana to the day he'd learned the sordid truth about her.

He'd sell up. If Lana wanted to keep her share and buy him out, she was welcome to it. In fact, he didn't much care whether she even paid him for it. He just wanted rid of the place.

At least he didn't have to share a bed with her tonight. Lois had told him, after he'd recovered from this latest body swap, that she'd run off to her parents ­ well, good riddance. He supposed he'd have to talk to her at some point, to sort out their affairs, but not tonight.

Tonight he was alone. He'd have preferred to have been with Lois, of course, but…well, he understood. Really, he did. He'd sort of felt the same as she did, in fact.

They'd been at her apartment, talking things over and revelling in the fact that they were together again ­ this time, hopefully, for good. There'd been a new sense of freedom; a lessening of the guilt which usually hovered at the back of his conscience whenever he was with Lois. Things, in fact, had become pretty celebratory.

"Sorry," she'd said, suddenly breaking off one of many long, deeply sensual kisses. "I know…I know you want to, and so do I, but…"

She'd slid off his lap back down to the sofa, compelling him to let his hand slip out from underneath her sweater. The abrupt loss of warm contact with her body was almost as much a shock as a splash of cold water in his face.

His momentary frustration had nearly made him respond rather tetchily, but instead, he'd nodded. He'd known exactly what was bothering her. "You keep thinking about those cameras. I know ­ so do I." He'd reached up to cup the side of her face. "But there aren't any cameras here, sweetheart." He'd said it as gently and as softly as he could, but her eyes still doubted; still looked fearful and uncertain.

"I know. There never were," she agreed. "I know I'm being irrational. We don't even have to worry any longer about you being swapped. But…I close my eyes and all I can think about is that room, and that bed, and what we did, and…and people watching us." Her eyes turned glassy with unshed tears. "I'm sorry. I'll be fine in a day or so, I'm sure."

"Oh, Lois." He'd gathered her into his arms and held her slight, fragile frame against his. "How about I check the place for you? Would that help?"

A little bit of him, in fact, had really wanted to do it, just to show that he could be just as useful as the other Clark. But that was petty, and anyway, she'd shaken her head. "I know there's nothing here. I just…I'm just stupid, that's all."

He'd heard her frustration. "No, you're not," he'd murmured firmly. "It was a horrible thing to discover. I just wish I'd been here for you."

Instead, he'd been enjoying himself tremendously. While she'd been discovering the cameras, he'd been learning how to fly. While she'd been going through hell, he'd been dressing up as Superman.

He'd tightened his hold around her and pressed a gentle kiss on her soft brown cap of hair.

"It must be horrible for you, too, though," she'd replied. "Isn't it?"

"Yeah." He'd sighed. "But maybe I've been through so many shocks lately that they're starting to bounce off me. Look, I don't want you to do anything you're not one hundred percent happy with. We'll take our time, okay? No hurry."

She'd nodded against his chest. "And maybe…maybe you should go home tonight."

"What?" He'd been confused. "I can't leave you when you're like this!" he'd exclaimed.

"I'm fine." She'd pulled away from him, sat upright and scrubbed the tears from her eyes. "Really. I just think it'll be easier for us…for me, if you're not here tonight."

"Of course, if that's what you want. But why, Lois?" He'd reached over to stroke her arm. "I don't understand."

"I don't want us to start something and then have to stop because I'm obsessing about cameras…I don't want that to happen, do you see? I don't want to be thinking about people watching us when we're making love, Clark."

Those…those bastards. They'd even managed to sour the one thing he'd imagined was completely untouchable. The one thing, ironically, that had sustained him throughout this nightmare ­ his relationship with Lois. With difficulty, he'd kept his expression neutral and had attempted compromise. "But we don't have to make love tonight. We… we don't even have to share the same bed — I could sleep out here on the sofa, if you prefer."

"Please, Clark." Her still-moist eyes had pleaded with him. "I know it's stupid, but just humour me, okay? I need to be alone for a while. Tomorrow…I promise you can stay over tomorrow night. If you want to."

I need to be alone. Hearing her say that, he'd remembered something else she'd said earlier. The cameras had made her feel like she was in the middle of a porn movie, she'd confessed — like she was doing something illicit and tawdry. Perhaps she'd also been reminded that theirs was a make-believe relationship; that he was still a married man and she was 'the other woman.' He already knew she hated that aspect of their relationship ­ "I won't be the other woman," she'd said, just after they'd made love one night at the Planet.

Yet that was exactly what she'd become. What he'd made her into.

So he'd left, hoping that a night alone would help her regain her perspective. Knowing that Trask was definitely aware of her, he'd been tempted to sit outside on her fire escape all night, but in the end, he'd contended himself with stern instructions to call him immediately if she needed him.

"Help, Superman, I believe, is the phrase," he'd said, a smile hovering around his lips.

She'd raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really? I think…" Her face had split into a broad grin. "I think I like it."

"Good, because you could be hearing a lot more of it."

"Really? You're actually going to…?"

He'd nodded. "Yep. My mind's made up. Um…that is, if you're okay with it?"

She'd grabbed his shoulders and kissed him so energetically he'd nearly fallen over backwards. "Clark Kent," she'd declared. "I love you."

He'd grinned. "And I love you, Lois Lane."

She'd pointed at the door. "Now go, before I change my mind."

And so here he was, sleeping alone in a big, empty bed in a hollow, unloved house. Across the city slept Lois, his love ­ his real, true love. They could have been celebrating his decision; enjoying being together again. Right now, he could have been holding her in his arms, kissing her, touching her, drinking in her essence…

He groaned and turned onto his stomach. Forget it, Kent. Plenty of time for that later.

***

Pain slammed him awake. Every muscle in his body spasmed. His stomach clenched and the acid bite of bile clawed at the back of his throat. He moaned and curled inwards, wizened and cowed by the fierce pain. Worse ­ a lot, lot worse — than anything he'd experienced before.

Lana. She must have come back. Dear God, had she come back to kill him?

Rough hands grabbed at him, rolled him forcibly onto his stomach and yanked his hands behind his back. His wrists were bound together before he'd even begun to realise what was happening.

Frantically, he began to struggle, fighting the kryptonite pain and the strong, rough hands. Kidnap. This was it ­ they'd come for him. Skywatch. He kicked out and writhed against the hands grabbing at him. Anything for survival. Anything not to be a specimen on someone's operating table.

"Get its legs."

He kicked harder, felt something connect followed by a sharp curse. A heavy fist slammed into the small of his back, knocking the wind out of him.

While he struggled for breath, someone grabbed his legs and bound them together. "No!" he yelled, noise his only defence now. "No! Help me! Someone help me!"

A hand grabbed painfully at his hair and yanked his head up. "Shut it!" snarled a harsh voice, then rammed his face back down into the pillow, making him cough and gasp for breath again.

His strength was fading now, the pain overwhelming all else. The hands began to manhandle him off the bed and he couldn't even struggle against them. "No!" he cried, but his voice was weak. He was being carried, and then he was on a hard surface. Straps came around him, pinning him down.

"No!" he cried again, but only a whisper emerged.

Sounds were fading. Sensation was dissipating. Blackness dragged him down into its evil depths.

***

"No!"

The protest was wrenched from deep within Clark's gut, an instinctive, primordial reaction to an unseen threat. Fear pursued him as he awoke. The familiar became unfamiliar, distorted by the echoes of the nightmare he'd just escaped.

"Honey? What's wrong?"

He blinked against the sudden harsh light of Lois's bedside lamp. "Sorry," he replied thickly. "Did I wake you?"

"You were thrashing around and then you shouted No!" she said, leaning over him and placing her hand on his chest. "Bad dream?"

The fear dissipated, leaving behind clearer memories of the cause. "Yeah. Someone was kidnapping me." He grimaced at the dull throb of pain at the back of his head. A headache?

Lois frowned. "Sounds like that nightmare you said you used to get as a kid."

"Yes, it does." He pushed himself up to sit with his head resting against the headboard. "But that never used to give me a headache."

Lois's frown deepened. "A headache? You don't get headaches. Do you think this might be connected to your exposure to that machine? Dr Klein said it wouldn't hurt you, but maybe he was wrong. Perhaps we should call him-"

He shook his head. "No, I'm sure it's-" He flinched against a sudden shock of icy-coldness on his face.

"Clark? What just happened?"

"I…I'm not quite sure." He replayed the sensation he'd just experienced. "It felt…like someone just threw a bucket of ice- cold water in my face." He met her gaze, seeing his own concern reflected in her eyes. "What's going on?"

"I don't know, but I really think-"

He flinched again, the ice-cold water drenching his face once more. Hesitantly, he lifted his fingers up to wipe the moisture away, but as he already knew, his skin was dry.

Perhaps that machine had affected him somehow. He'd been closer to it than all the other times, of course. Maybe that had made a difference?

He frowned. These sensations seemed very real, and he couldn't see why a teleportation machine should cause them.

Unless…

He felt Lois's fingers touch his own where he was still absently prodding his face. "Sweetheart? What's happening now?"

He looked at her. "This is going to sound crazy, but I think…I think I'm picking up some kind of echo of what the other Clark is experiencing."

***

Ice-cold water drenched his face, shocking him into consciousness. With difficulty, he opened his eyes, but found only a blurry grey world of indistinct shapes and sounds. He tried to focus, but his head was thick and sluggish.

Another deluge of ice-cold water made him gasp in pain. Someone spoke, but he couldn't make out the words. His heavy head lolled on his chest; he pulled it up slowly, rediscovering as he did the constant ache of kryptonite biting deep into his muscles.

"When's the invasion?" demanded an angry voice.

"No…no invasion." He could barely remember any longer why he needed to say that, but he knew he'd been repeating it for a long time and that it was important.

"Liar!" The ice-cold water struck again, filling his nostrils and hurting his eyes. Some went down his throat, making him cough and struggle for breath. "We know about the body transfers. When does the rest of the invasion force arrive?"

"No force."

A heavy fist rammed into his solar plexus, doubling him over against the restraints binding him to the chair upon which he sat. Pain gripped his middle like a grappling iron and forced him to retch. Thin, acid bile burned the back of his throat — he'd already lost last night's dinner after previous blows.

"Enough," barked a new voice. "Dr Wilson needs it alive for the tests."

Tests. He'd sat tests before. Lots and lots of them, at school and at university. He was good at tests.

But these weren't those sorts of tests.

"Won't…submit," he ground out, defiant of the pain and the beating and the freezing cold water. "I. Will. Not. Submit."

Harsh laughter echoed around the concrete walls. "It thinks it has a choice. How pitiful."

"Just get it cleaned up, okay? You can have it back when Wilson's finished."

"Clark…Kent. My name…Clark Kent."

Busy, rough hands around him again, unfastening buckles, yanking him to his feet. He threw an arm out, the best effort he could make at resistance, but there was no power in his limbs. Someone caught his wrist and twisted his arm up his back. "Move!"

He sagged forward, unwilling to help them by trying to walk. A harsh expletive came from his left, and then hands were grabbing under his armpits and he was being dragged along, his feet trailing behind him.

He screwed his eyes shut and focused fiercely on the one thing they could never take away from him.

Lois, I love you.

***

Lois saw the muscles around Clark's neck tighten and his mouth flatten into a narrow line, and knew that it had happened again. He was getting good at suppressing his reactions, but there was no denying that he was still suffering.

There was a kind of logic to it, she supposed. He'd spent so much time in the other Clark's body that he'd built up some sort of link. Maybe if his counterpart was under extreme duress, then the effects would be so strong that they'd cross the boundary between the universes.

And there was every possibility that the other Clark was under duress. They'd discussed the situation with Trask and Skywatch, and concluded that there was a strong chance that Trask had decided to cut his losses with his failing sleeper agent, Lana, and decided to haul his subject in for interrogation. Perhaps even worse things than interrogation.

So she was prepared to accept the theory that her husband was experiencing an echo of his counterpart's distress. In many ways, it was preferable to the theory that the teleporter machine had somehow damaged him.

Still, this was clearly no picnic for him. She could only hope that the other Clark was rescued very soon.

"I think I should take his place."

Clark's words cut into her musings. Take his place? Was he crazy? She sat up straight and stared at him. He was reclined limply against the headboard, having declared sleep an impossibility for the present. His eyes were tired and there were thin lines of strain across his forehead. He looked in no shape to take anyone's place.

"No way." She shook her head. "No way, no how. You are staying right here, buster."

"I could give him a break," he insisted. "And I'm more experienced than he is at these situations."

"Is that what you're going to say every time you sense he's in trouble?"

He grimaced. "Okay, good point. But I want to help."

"You'll help best by staying right here," she retorted. "He needs to go through this ­ whatever it is ­ by himself." When he didn't respond, she added, "Look, I've met him and you haven't. He's been through the wringer, granted, so he's not as strong as you are. I think he's strong enough, though, and he'll only get stronger if he fights his own battles."

"He wouldn't be fighting this particular battle if I hadn't-"

"Stop right there." She reached across and placed her hand lightly over his mouth. "Don't even say it. This is not your fault, okay?"

A fleeting grimace of discomfort passed across his features ­ another echo of the other Clark's pain? "I just wish I could help," he muttered behind her fingers.

"Oh, Clark." She slid back down beside him and wrapped her arms around his big frame. "I wish I could help you."

"You do," he murmured, his hand stroking her back. "You are."

She kissed his chest, glad to have her husband back, even if he was still connected to the other universe in some strange way. Hopefully, though, that link would fade with time and he'd be able to live his own life in peace ­ a life which was quite complicated enough without adding another universe to it!

Still, she couldn't help fretting about the other Clark. Okay, she'd said he'd be able to cope and that the experience might even make him stronger, but when she thought of his tortured eyes and the bitterness he carried around with him, she couldn't help worrying that the opposite might also be the case ­ that he'd go under completely.

Keep safe, Clark. Keep strong.

***

Some time later, he was tipped onto a hard camp bed with a rough cotton pillow. A threadbare grey blanket was tossed at him and then the door to the small cell slammed shut.

Slowly and painfully, he spread the blanket over himself as best he could and curled up under it.

He began to shiver. Cold ­ so bitterly, agonisingly cold. He tugged the blanket up around his ears and hunched his shoulders. Perhaps he was in shock. The place surely wasn't this cold. The shivering turned into shaking ­ his teeth began to chatter and his hands shook as they gripped the edge of the blanket. Nausea churned in his stomach.

Get a grip. Get. A. Grip.

But the memory replayed and replayed in his head.

Dr Wilson had cursed as soon as Clark had been dumped on his examination table. "That brute, Trask!" Cool, doctor's hands had turned Clark's face to one side, his breath unnaturally loud in Clark's ears as he studied his subject. He'd probed Clark's abdomen and chest, eliciting sharp winces almost everywhere he'd touched.

Sticky electrodes had been attached to his chest and forehead. Switches had been flicked and somewhere a machine had begun to hum. The cool hands had then continued their traverse of his body, running down his arms and legs, spreading his fingers and toes, testing his joints. He'd decided almost immediately that if those hands went anywhere near his genitals, he'd summon every ounce of strength left in his body to break free of his bindings.

But his vow had gone untested. "I can't conduct meaningful tests on this," pronounced Wilson, straightening up and addressing an unseen underling. "Bad enough that I have to examine him while he's being exposed to the Smallville B — that'll skew the results in all kinds of unpredictable ways. But with these injuries ­ well, I may as well examine a corpse! Take him away. And tell that idiot Trask to stop wasting my time. If he wants me to gather information that might actually be of any use to him, then tell him to bring me a healthy specimen. Not one that's been half-beaten to death."

Half-beaten to death. To Clark, lying on the narrow camp bed, it felt like a full beating. His torso was alive with flaming pain. It hurt to breathe. One side of his face throbbed in time with his pulse. His right knee was sending stabbing pains all the way up his thigh.

Beaten, but not shaken. Yeah, okay, so he was shaking, but he was not going to lose the battle of wits. To the bitter end, he would be Clark Kent, son of Martha and Jonathan Kent. Until his last dying gasp, he would be the man who loved Lois Lane more than anyone else alive.

As for Superman ­ well, he wasn't exactly super now, was he? Superman wouldn't have let himself get kidnapped like this.

But still. He grunted and pressed his lips together defiantly. He'd show them. He would become Superman. Somehow, he'd get out of this mess and start fixing things. Because this mess was exactly why Superman was needed in this world. To stop groups like this. To fight for justice. To protect the vulnerable. If he ever got out of this mess, Superman would be right up at the top of his list of things to do.

Well, next to marrying Lois, anyway.

"Clark?"

She was whispering his name. How sweet her voice sounded.

"Oh, God, Clark. What have they done to you?"

"I'm…I'm okay, honey. Don't worry about me."

"Shhh." Her hand stroked his hair. "I'm going to get you out of here, but you have to be quiet. Can you open your eyes?"

Nice dream, he thought. Lois to the rescue. A tad implausible, of course, but that was allowed when you were dreaming.

"Open your eyes, sweetheart."

He blinked them open. She looked funny. Streaks of green and black covered her face and an army-style cap hid her hair. Why had he dreamt her wearing camouflage paint and an army uniform? "I'd prefer you in a dress," he murmured, "but this is okay, I guess."

"Don't talk," she whispered. "Just try to sit up."

Difficult. Very difficult, and very painful. But he did it. The room swung around a bit but she was still there in the middle somewhere. "This isn't a dream, is it?" he whispered. Because dreams didn't hurt as much as this.

She chuckled softly. "No, it's very real." She held up some sort of jacket. "Here, put this on."

Next came pants and a cap. Army fatigues, he realised, just like she was wearing.

"Congratulations," she whispered. "You're now a general in the Skywatch unit. You probably outrank everyone here, so if we bump into anyone, you expect them to salute you, okay?"

He nodded.

"You're also a bit tipsy, so I'm helping you back to your quarters."

He nodded again. "I couldn't be falling-over drunk instead? 'Cause I think I'd play that part better."

She chuckled. "Shut up and try standing."

Which he did, but his legs wobbled alarmingly and he was soon sitting down again. "See?" he said woozily. "Told you I'd be better at drunk."

"Drunk doesn't get us out of here. Come on, try again."

His second attempt was more successful, and with Lois's arm locked firmly around his waist, they exited his cell.

The ensuing journey down endless corridors and staircases soon became a nightmarish ordeal for Clark, conducted through a haze of pain and the barest minimum of consciousness. If they met anyone or not, he really couldn't have said. His task was to put one foot in front of the other and to not fall over. Lois had to do the rest ­ whatever that entailed.

Eventually, the terrain under his feet changed to tarmac and he realised they were outside. There was the thrum of an idling engine nearby. A door was opened and he was bundled inside. Hands helped him ­ female hands.

"Thanks, Lois," he mumbled.

"Oh, God, Clark!" she exclaimed. "You look terrible!"

He frowned. Hadn't they already had this conversation? He was hazy on detail, sure, but he could have sworn-

"Just drive, Lana," urged Lois's voice from somewhere behind him. "Now!"

Lana?

He lifted his head in alarm. Was this a trap?

"It's okay, Clark." Lois was right behind him, her hand on his shoulder. "She's helping us."

***

Clark eyed his slumbering wife, still partially draped over his chest. She'd wanted to stay awake with him while he was going through this weird thing with the other Clark, but nature had finally taken its course and sent her into the arms of Morpheus.

He was glad she'd fallen asleep. These past few days had been stressful enough for her without adding lack of sleep into the mix. Not that she'd complained, of course. He smiled fondly as he gazed at the brown-capped head resting on his chest ­ as usual, she'd just knuckled down and got on with the business of fixing things. In a sense, he'd have expected no less of her. But he knew she'd hated the fact that the ink had been barely dry on their marriage licence when the body-switching had begun.

He'd hated it himself. Worse, he'd had to step into the shoes of an adulterer ­ a role which would never have sat well on him but, having just got married, seemed even more distasteful. He'd tried to keep an open mind and feel sympathy for the other Clark's situation, but some things were just plain wrong and adultery was one of them.

He sighed and closed his eyes. The shocks seemed to be subsiding at last; other than an uncomfortable sense of unease and the headache, he felt like he could relax a little. Hopefully, that meant the other Clark was moving out of danger.

***

"He's sleeping."

Lois's hushed murmur brought him back from the edge of sleep. Sharper consciousness brought with it sharper pain, but at least the motel bed he was lying on was soft and comfortable and the room was warm.

His memory of the journey here was hazy. He'd drifted in and out of consciousness, at times faintly aware of Lana at the wheel beside him, sometimes hearing unintelligible snippets of conversation between the two women, and at other times sinking back down into deep blackness. They'd seemed to travel for hours, a long, endless journey to nowhere, until eventually he'd been aware of the car's indicator clicking and felt the car swing off the road and slow down. He'd roused enough to understand they were checking into a motel and had stumbled with Lois's support into the room and onto the bed.

He ought to correct her. Confess that he merely had his eyes closed.

But no, he didn't have the energy. Better, and much easier, to lie here quietly and wait for his body to stop hurting.

"Do you think he'll be okay? He looks so pale."

Lana. Sounding, for once, genuinely concerned. He would have laughed if he'd had the energy. Too late, darling wife. You should have shown such touching concern when Trask first approached you. When he asked you to spy on your best friend. When he told you to marry your alien pet.

"I don't know," Lois replied. "I'll keep an eye on him, and if he looks to be getting worse, I'll get medical help. I don't suppose he has a regular doctor?"

"No, we couldn't afford-"

"Afford to take the risk. Yeah, I know." Lois sounded bitter.

"I…I know you don't think so, but I do care about him," said Lana. "That's how all of this started ­ because I wanted to protect him. Mr Trask said he'd be safer if I watched over him on behalf of Skywatch. I…I made sure he didn't do anything abnormal. That's why they left him alone for so long."

"You spied on him," spat Lois in a fierce whisper. "Called him a thing. That doesn't sound very caring to me."

"I know it doesn't look that way-"

"You hurt him, Lana!"

"Only because I had to. He was running out of control, you see," Lana whined. "Which was your fault, of course," she added bitterly.

"My fault?"

"You were stealing him away from me. Putting ideas in his head. I protected him, but you…you exposed him," she said. "And this is the result."

"You're saying all of this is my fault?" exclaimed Lois. "I don't believe this!"

"He was fine until you showed up-"

"Look, just leave it, okay? He's here, he's safe, and that's all I care about right now. We can leave the rewriting of history for another day."

"I just never imagined Trask would go this far," insisted Lana. "You have to believe that."

"Yeah, you said," drawled Lois. "Look, I guess I should thank you for raising the alarm and helping me rescue him, but all that matters now is making sure he recovers. I think he'll do that better if you're not here."

There was a long, pregnant silence.

"I'll go, then," replied Lana stiffly. "When he wakes up, tell him I…"

You what, Lana? You love me? He grunted. No way. You're sorry? He'd need more than a two word apology from her for all that she'd done to him. You didn't meant for it to turn out this way? Yeah, neither did he.

"…I'll be filing for divorce."

He nearly gasped. Divorce? *She* was divorcing *him*? He was half-dead because of what she'd done to him, yet she was assuming the role of the injured party?

Well, he'd been unfaithful, hadn't he? He really had done wrong in that respect, and he wasn't proud of himself. He'd been weak- willed and shown a selfish vulnerability he didn't much like. He deserved the consequences. Ironic, though, that those consequences would be release from a marriage he hated.

Still, Lana had every right to divorce him.

He heard the door of the motel room close and assumed Lana had left. Where would she go? For all that he despised what she'd done to him and her twisted attitude towards him, he suspected that Skywatch would be looking for her. So far as they were concerned, she was a loose cannon who knew too much. She was also a possible lead in their efforts to recapture him.

Perhaps Lois should have kept her here.

The swish of curtains told him that Lois was pulling them shut. Night-time already? God, he'd really lost track of time since Trask had grabbed him.

He opened his eyes. She was near the end of his bed, a tense figure nibbling nervously at her nails.

"Hey," he whispered. "That's bad for them, you know."

She started, and then drew her hand slowly away from her mouth. "I like to think I'm giving myself some extra calcium." She quirked a smile and came to perch on the side of his bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Better than I was back in that cell." And even better now that she was stroking his hair. Her gentle fingers soothed amidst the throbbing pain all over his body.

"Where does it hurt?"

He shrugged. "Here and there."

"I need to know, Clark," she insisted. "You were limping earlier. Was that your ankle?"

"My knee." To prove to her that he wasn't as ill as she seemed to think he was, he pushed himself up in bed. The movement provoked his bruised torso back into throbbing, painful life, but he persisted, using his good leg to help lever himself upwards. Still, he faltered, his lack of strength alarming him more that he was prepared to admit. A strong arm from Lois was needed to pull him the rest of the way, and even then he was forced to flop limply against the headboard while the room swayed and he struggled to regain his breath.

Powers, come back soon, he prayed. He'd never felt so awful.

"Here."

She was offering him a glass of water. "Thanks." He took it in trembling fingers and sipped slowly. The cold liquid running down his throat was surprisingly soothing. He sipped again. At last he understood why people were always offered glasses of water when they felt faint.

Her fingers touched his forehead. "I think you're running a fever. Do you feel cold?"

"A little, maybe."

She pulled the bedclothes higher around him. "And does your chest hurt?"

He shrugged, wishing she'd change the subject. Sure, things hurt, but nothing that was serious and wouldn't mend in time. "It'll be fine."

"Clark!" Her expression was pained. "Don't do that! I can tell that you're hurt, and if you won't tell me exactly where and how bad it is, I'm just going to assume it's really serious and you're trying not to scare me."

He hadn't realised… "Okay, I think a couple of ribs might be cracked, but that's it. I'm sure once my powers come back, everything will be fine."

It had better be fine, at any rate! Pain ­ at least, on this level ­ was a new experience for him and not one he wanted to endure for much longer.

"When do you think that will be?" she asked.

"I have no idea. Soon, probably." He sipped the last of his water to avoid answering any more questions about his health.

"Okay," she murmured. "I get the message." She squeezed his arm briefly. "Just don't lie there suffering in silence if you start feeling worse, okay? I just got you back ­ I don't want to lose you again."

It wasn't that serious! He'd be okay after a good night's sleep. Although one look at her anxious face made him keep that thought to himself. He nodded. "I promise." Okay, a change of subject was needed. "Where did Lana go?"

Lois's mouth twisted. "As far away as possible, I hope. She's driving through the night to Philadelphia ­ says Skywatch isn't likely to track her that far."

"So she's on the run, too?"

"I guess. But don't feel sorry for her, Clark. She doesn't deserve it."

"I know, but…" He rested his head wearily back on the pillows. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."

She squeezed his arm again. "I'm sure they wouldn't hurt her. She'd crack long before they laid a finger on her."

"Maybe. But I heard you say she raised the alarm. What happened?"

"Oh, so you weren't asleep?" She took the glass from him and placed it on the nightstand. "Apparently she went back to the house to fetch some clothes. The front door had been jimmied open and, when she went upstairs to your bedroom, she found signs of a struggle." She grimaced. "Blood on the sheets, she said."

"Yeah, I kicked one of them."

"Really? Good for you! Anyway, she put two and two together and realised that Skywatch had probably kidnapped you during the night." Lois shrugged. "She didn't know what to do. She couldn't phone the police. Couldn't turn to her boss, Trask. So she called me."

"You're kidding!" he exclaimed. "She actually asked you for help?"

"Yep." She grinned. "She recognised a superior talent, of course. Then we started looking in the obvious place and struck lucky. The rest you know."

"The obvious place being that abandoned school we followed her to with Trask?"

"Exactly." She grinned again. "She was a little shocked when she realised we knew all about that."

"I'll bet!" he exclaimed. "What did she say?"

"Um…let me see…'Oh, god,' I think. Then she wanted to know just how much we knew ­ I said we knew everything." She smiled. "That provoked several 'oh, gods.'"

He pursed his lips together. A pretty vindictive satisfaction was bubbling up inside him. At last, Lana knew what it felt like to be spied on. To discover that someone you'd trusted had betrayed you. To know that everything you'd imagined to be private and personal to you only was, in fact, common knowledge to people you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw them.

He almost wished he'd been there to witness her reaction.

Without warning, the bubbling vindication turned into trembling release. God, it was all over. At last, it was finished. He slammed shut his eyes and fought vainly to regain control. A lump came into his throat and tears formed in his eyes. Oh, God, no. He was not going to cry in front of Lois. No way.

"What is it?" Her hand was on his arm. "Are you feeling sick?"

He shook his head jerkily. "No, just…just relieved. That it's all over. That it's all out in the open."

Damn. Stop this, he commanded himself.

"Yeah, I imagine it feels good to know you don't have to pretend in front of her any longer."

"Yes." He was not going to do this. Not. Going. To. Do. This.

A tear escaped and rolled down the side of his face.

"Oh, Clark. Everything's going to be okay. There's no need to get upset."

"I know." He turned his head away in a vain attempt to hide his tears, willing himself not to lose control any further.

Her hand rubbed along his arm. "Hey."

Her gentle sympathy only made matters worse and more tears began to roll down his cheeks. Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

"Here," she murmured. Her arms came around him and drew him forward onto her shoulder. "It's okay. Crying doesn't mean you're weak, you know. It just means that you're a human being."

That was his undoing. A human being. The tears came tumbling out of him, exorcising the long, heavy burden of deceit and lies and loveless marriage. He was a human being, not the alien monster Lana had turned him into. He could love and be loved. Trust and be trusted. And there would be no more lies. Relief alternated with grief ­ grief that Trask's thugs had beaten him and dehumanised him, made him weak and afraid. It was a confusing jumble of emotions that just made him feel even less in control. He clung to her, his only anchor while the storm raged and lashed him with wave after wave of tearful sobbing.

He hadn't cried like this since he was a kid. When he'd found out his parents were dead. And Lana…holding him together. Being so incredibly nice to him.

How had she done that to him?

When he couldn't cry any more, the hiccupping began and his embarrassment returned. Crying on his girlfriend's shoulder? How super was that?

He pulled away from her. "Sorry. I feel like an idiot."

"You're not." She wiped tears from his cheek with her thumb. "You needed that. You've been bottling it all up for too long."

He shrugged. "Maybe." He eased back against the pillows. "Last time I did anything like this was…a long time ago."

"When your parents died?"

"Yes." He sighed. That was the past. They were gone and there was nothing he could do to bring them back. Moving forward was his only hope. "I did a lot of thinking while I was lying on that camp bed," he said, broaching a subject which was even harder to face but at least concerned his future rather than his past.

"Oh? What about?"

"Well, you already know I want to be Superman." She nodded. "But so long as Trask and Skywatch are out there, that's going to be difficult. I mean, they already know who and what I am, so the secret identity thing is, to some extent, shot to pieces before I even begin. Plus they have kryptonite."

She nodded. "I agree we have to get rid of them. The question is how."

"We have to neutralise them, yes." He paused, because the next thing he needed to say was scary. In fact, the room was beginning to tilt and a familiar sick feeling had returned to his stomach. Usually, at this point, he'd be running to the bathroom to throw up.

He clenched his fist. He would do this. Could do this. If she supported him.

Deep breath. Metaphorically speaking, since real deep breaths hurt. He met her gaze. "If everyone knows who I am, then Skywatch won't have any kind of hold over me any longer."

There. He'd said it. And the world hadn't fallen down around his ears.

He watched her intently. Her eyes widened. She went very still.

Shock, then. But what came after shock?

"Did…did I hear right?" She laughed; a short, stuttering kind of a laugh. The kind of laugh that was all nervousness and absolutely no humour. "I thought you just said you were going to tell everyone who you are." She laughed again. "Sorry, I must have got that wrong."

He shook his head. "No, that's exactly right."

He watched again, willing her to get it. He didn't have the strength to explain ­ his emotions were still too wobbly — so he needed her to understand. Full exposure was the only way he'd ever be truly free. No hiding, no lies. No pretending he was someone else. No looking over his shoulder in case someone had seen through the disguise.

Just Clark Kent being Clark Kent. The real Clark Kent.

"I…I'm confused," she said. She lifted his hand and took it between her two. "You really want this? You're sure about it?"

"I'm terrified," he confessed. "But I'm sure it's right."

"Because…you're tired of lies?" He nodded. "You want to be you?" He nodded again. "You don't want to be scared of exposure any longer?" He nodded. "And…if you're famous, Trask won't dare touch you."

"Yes. But I can't do it without you," he said.

"Oh, God." Her voice was the merest whisper. She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. "The media will eat us for breakfast."

"I know. It'll bring all kinds of weirdos out of the woodwork. It could be dangerous ­ especially for you. But eventually they'll get bored with us. Even the media will get bored."

She smiled weakly. "Especially the media. Today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap."

"So what do you think?"

"I think…" She looked up at him with shining eyes. "I think it's the bravest thing I've ever heard you say, Clark."

He smiled. "But do you think I should do it? You'll be under the spotlight just as much as I will. I mean…if you and I…after the divorce is settled…um, marriage. You will marry me, won't you? I know I haven't officially asked you yet, but I was going to once things had settled down…"

Boy, could he be any clumsier if he tried? He groaned. "Sorry. That wasn't exactly romantic, was it?"

She chuckled. "No, but I forgive you." Her hand came up to play with his hair again. "You've changed, you know that? You're more…well, just more, I guess. More you."

"And…is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Oh, it's definitely a good thing." She grinned. "Means I get even more of you to play with."

Play with? "Lois, I'm not really in any shape for that-"

"I was kidding, silly. And the answer's yes and yes, by the way."

"Yes…you mean you'll marry me?" She nodded. "And you agree that I should go public?" She nodded again. "Lois Lane, did I ever tell you I love you?"

"Shhh." She leant forward and pressed her lips firmly against his. Soft and sensual. Loving and tender and tinged with a hint of passion. The delicate tip of her tongue dipping between his lips. He would have captured her and taken the kiss deeper, were he not rapidly running out of breath. Still, he lingered as long as he possibly could, until his chest felt like it would explode and he was forced to break away to gulp in painful lungfuls of air.

"You'd better rest," she murmured. "We've talked too long."

He shook his head. "Glad we…talked. Will sleep…better."

"Lie down, then."

He slid back down under the bedclothes and closed his eyes. His last conscious memory was of her soft lips pressing a kiss to his forehead.

***

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Lois walked into the kitchen. It was the weekend, so Clark was frying bacon at the cooker and there was fresh coffee in the pot. "Hey, you," she said, sliding an arm around his waist and pressing a kiss to his cheek. "Still feeling okay after last night's weird link thing?"

"I feel great," he replied happily, turning the bacon around in the frying pan. "Which means he must be out of danger."

"Good. Let's hope it doesn't happen again." She left him to his cooking, poured a mug of coffee from the pot, and switched on the small TV they kept in the kitchen. A reporter was addressing the camera from a room that looked oddly familiar.

"…Labs are saying the cause of the accident is unknown at this time. Dr Schulz, they say, is a highly respected scientist with a safety record second to none…"

"Clark, leave the bacon-"

A whirlwind swept her off her feet and turned her surroundings into a blur for a moment. She blinked and looked down at the early morning traffic below her. "You could at least let me finish my sentences before doing that," she remarked.

"Sorry." He shifted his grip around her and then held something up in front of her. "My new in-flight service. Care for a bacon sandwich?"

She laughed and took it from him. "Okay, you're forgiven."

***

Cold, clinical eyes bore down on him. Beneath the eyes, a green surgical mask obscured all other features. He lay on a slab, a naked specimen waiting to be dissected. Cool fingers prodded him. Hard steel instruments probed and measured him. Wires ran all over his face and chest, recording every breath, every heartbeat — every twitch of fear. He closed his eyes to shut out the nightmare but, when he opened them again, hundreds of pairs of eyes were staring down at him. He shrank under their collective gaze. Their fingers probed him, delved into him, touched him ­ all over him, they crawled, hundreds of fingers touching him, hundreds of eyes watching him, he couldn't escape, couldn't breathe, they were suffocating him-

Clark jolted awake, his heart racing like a trip-hammer.

Just a nightmare. It was only a nightmare.

He listened to his racing heart and repeated it again: only a nightmare. There was no-one here.

It was only to be expected, after everything Trask had done to him. It would pass. Just like the nightmares he'd suffered after his parents had died, this was simply a stage he had to work through. He'd be fine.

Still, it had been very real. He could almost feel their hands still touching-

He pushed himself up in bed, resisting the urge to brush the non- existent hands away. The motel room was bright with sunlight and, when he glanced over at the bedside alarm clock, he saw that it was early afternoon.

His gaze shifted to the other bed, which was covered in a brightly-coloured jumble of red, blue and yellow garments. He smiled. Lois had wasted no time this morning, rushing out on a grand shopping spree after a quick breakfast of muffins and coffee from the motel's breakfast buffet in the foyer. Her energy had seemed limitless, her enthusiasm for Project Superman, as she'd dubbed it, quite bewildering.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up carefully. Not bad ­ his knee twinged and his chest still felt tight, but he wasn't as shaky and wobbly as he'd been earlier today.

Hundreds of eyes surrounding him, crawling over his naked body-

No. He would not let the nightmare infect his waking thoughts. He'd remember Lois's optimism; her brisk no-nonsense attitude which was right this minute propelling her around all the shoe shops in the area looking for men's red boots. This was a new beginning for both of them ­ he'd focus on that instead of the past.

The door swung slowly open and in tiptoed Lois. She carefully and silently set down a large paper carrier bag on the carpet and then quietly closed the door behind her.

"Hi," he said.

She whirled. "Oh! You're up! How do you feel?"

"Not too bad-"

"Good, because I want you to try these on." She grabbed the carrier bag and thrust it into his arms. "The shop only has two pairs left and it closes in an hour, so I need to know whether these fit or not so that we can change them. Not that I think there's a rush on men's red boots around here, but you never know. There could be a convention in town or something."

"The red boots convention?" he asked. "Never heard of that one."

She pulled a face. "Just try them on."

He sighed and sank back down on the bed. "Lois, please don't think I'm being ungrateful or anything, but don't you think you're rushing into this too quickly? We haven't really talked about what's going to happen when I become Superman."

"What's to talk about? You wear the suit, do some rescuing, I write about you, we become famous, Trask becomes history. The End." She shrugged. "That's what we agreed last night, isn't it?"

"Yes, but…" He beckoned to her. "Come here and sit beside me."

She rolled her eyes, but did as he asked. When she was settled beside him, he took her hands in his. "I need to know how you really feel about this," he said. "Are you scared? Excited? Apprehensive of what it might do to your career? Sad because your life will never be completely private again? Frightened of what it might do to us?"

She'd bowed her head while he'd been talking, hiding her expression from him. "What's going through your head," he asked a little desperately, "while you're rushing around buying clothes for Superman, Lois?"

Her head came up slowly to reveal a sombre face. "How about all of the above? To be honest, the reason I rushed out shopping this morning was to give myself some thinking time. I tried to imagine how it will be."

As he'd suspected ­ she wasn't as okay with this as she'd claimed last night. "And?"

"And I have no idea," she confessed. "Who knows what will happen? When do we ever know?" She reached up and ran a finger down the side of his face. "But what I do know is that it's right for you. This is your destiny, Clark. I knew it when I heard of Superman for the first time ­ this is what you were sent here for, I think. To help us."

"But what about you? What about your life? Your career?"

"I have no intention of giving it up, if that's what you're asking. Once a reporter, always a reporter." She shrugged. "I'll make it work somehow. The other Lois and Clark seem to have made it work for them."

"No-one knows he's Superman over there," he pointed out.

"I admit that complicates things, but that's the way it has to be for us." She smiled. "Besides, there could be advantages. No- one's going to dare sell Superman's wife a dodgy car, now are they?"

He chuckled. "I guess not."

"So stop worrying, Clark. I'm fine most of the time."

"Most of the time," he repeated.

"I wouldn't be human if I didn't feel all of those things you listed ­ at some point or other," she replied. "But where it matters, I'm fine." She lifted up his hand and pressed it against her chest. "Right here."

And there was her heartbeat, strong and steady. "God, Lois," he murmured huskily. "What did I do to deserve you?"

"You set me free," she replied. "You showed me that there's more to life than copy deadlines and chasing stories. You helped me get over Claude. You taught me how to cope with my mother. You made me feel…like a woman." She turned an endearing shade of pink. "That's what you did to deserve me."

Like a woman. Yes, he'd struggled, earlier in their relationship, to understand why Lois, the most attractive woman he'd ever met, could imagine herself as anything less than incredibly sexy and sensual and absolutely one hundred per cent pure woman. Their physical relationship, in fact, had been a revelation to him ­ that a man and a woman could create so much more than just pleasurable physical sensations when making love. From his point of view, it was Lois who had taught him, not the other way around.

Lois, though, had confided that, before she'd met him, she'd always felt that she was lacking; that there were aspects of herself which had never had a chance to flourish. With him, she'd told him, she'd never had to fret over how sexy or attractive she was; how to flirt with him or to keep him once she'd earned a place in his affections. Her instinct for these things had simply grown naturally out of their relationship together.

"Then I guess we deserve each other," he murmured, leaning in to kiss her.

She murmured deep in her throat and slid her free arm around his neck. "Yes, we do." Her lips opened and moved sensuously over his, kissing him with increasing intensity until his aches and pains were a distant memory and all he was aware of was Lois and the passion smouldering between them.

A sudden clatter of cardboard and tissue paper broke the spell. The shoe box had fallen off his lap onto the floor. How convenient ­ now he could pull Lois onto his lap-

He broke away from the kiss. "I forgot," he murmured. "I'm supposed to be giving you space, aren't I?" At her confused look, he went on, "The cameras? You said you wanted us to cool things down for a while, remember?"

"Oh, that." She frowned for a moment. "Maybe it's because Lana said she was going to divorce you, or maybe it's because I nearly lost you…I don't know. I just know that I don't feel the same as I did before. I don't feel watched. I don't feel like the other woman." She grinned. "I'm THE woman. Your woman."

His woman. He grinned. "And am I your man?"

"Oh, definitely. All mine." She leant forward and kissed the side of his neck. "Especially that bit." She kissed his shoulder. "And that bit. Oh, and this bit." She kissed the nape of his neck.

He began to understand her game, and sat patiently for her, closing his eyes and basking in the small nuggets of pleasure each of her kisses gave him. Soft, moist lips pressed gently against his skin, then lifted, and for a split second, all of his senses quivered in anticipation. Then came her sensual murmur followed by the fleeting shock of her lips landing somewhere new. Exquisite.

"This bit, too." She kissed his chest. "In fact-"

He captured her face and drew her level with his, unable to bear the anticipation any longer. He slanted his lips over hers and kiss her deeply and lovingly and with all the desire in his heart. "I want to make love with you," he murmured. "Until the sun sets and the stars come out and deep into the night until the dawn breaks. In fact, I never want to stop making love with you."

She sank back onto the bed and held her arms up to him. "Sounds like a good plan to me."

He went into her embrace, only the slightest twinge in his chest jarring him as he settled. He could ignore that, and anyway, there were plenty of imaginative ways to avoid putting pressure on his injuries. Perhaps they'd explore a few of them over the next few hours.

***

Dr Schulz's lab was a scene of chaos and destruction when Lois and Clark arrived. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen mingled with men and women in suits wearing grave expressions. Clark assumed these were the senior management of Star Labs, come to assess the extent of the damage for themselves. The floor of the lab was covered in debris, but the object which drew the eye upon entering the room was Schulz's teleporter machine.

Or what was left of it.

The console screen was smashed. The keyboard had lost more than half its keys, and the mouse dangled forlornly from its cable. The power generator's casing was blackened and the wires emerging from it had melted. Most of the oscilloscopes were smashed, and the four satellite dish things at the top of the machine each had large chunks missing, as if a gigantic mouse had bitten into them.

Clark looked at Lois. "I know we asked Dr Klein to render it safe, but this is taking things to the extreme, don't you think?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Klein didn't do this." She pointed to a corner of the lab. "Look, let's go and ask him."

Dr Klein was perched on a high stool, wincing as a paramedic tended to some sort of abrasion on his head. Poor guy-

/Wonder where I…get…symbol like the one…suit?/

"Huh?" Clark stopped walking towards Dr Klein and turned to Lois. "Did you say something?"

"No. Why?"

He frowned. He could have sworn he'd heard someone speak to him. Perhaps he was picking up something from a nearby radio. "Nothing."

Lois eyed him quizzically and then shrugged and led the way to Dr Klein's corner of the lab. Clark followed after a moment's hesitation.

"What happened?" he asked when they reached the scientist. "Are you okay?"

"I don't know," replied Klein huffily. He looked up at the paramedic. "Am I okay?"

"He's fine." The paramedic zipped up his bag and straightened. "A few cuts and bruises, but nothing serious."

"Hmph!" Klein prodded gingerly at the small plaster on his temple. "You try being swung at by a crazed scientist wielding a lethal weapon and see whether you think it's serious."

Lois shrugged. "After a while, you get used to it."

Clark grinned as Klein and the paramedic eyed Lois warily. "We get a lot of threats," he explained. "It kind of goes with the territory."

"Call your doctor if you feel nauseous or dizzy," advised the paramedic. "Otherwise, take the rest of the day off and get some rest. You'll be fine tomorrow."

"I will?" Klein eyed the paramedic balefully as he walked away. "Go home and rest, he says. He doesn't know how much paperwork this has caused me."

"I'm sure no-one would mind if you left that until tomorrow," soothed Clark. "Crazed scientist, you said. Who was that?"

Klein harrumphed. "That idiot Schulz. Came in here while I was working on his pet toy and told me some rubbish about not being willing to stand by while I ruined his life's work. I told him I wasn't ruining it, I was just making it safe, but he wouldn't listen ­ he was almost hysterical."

Clark tried to picture the suave man who'd rebuffed all criticism with calm disdain throwing a hysterical fit and failed. He just couldn't imagine-

/His parents…the farm…-ville./

Clark stiffened. Someone was definitely talking about him.

Not a radio, either. The voice was closer than that. He glanced around the room, surreptitiously tipping his glasses down his nose to get a better view. No-one seemed to be paying him the slightest attention. Listening briefly into the various conversations taking place in the room told him that no-one here was talking about him. So where was this voice coming from?

He felt Lois's hand on his arm. "Sweetheart, did you leave the gas on at home?"

"Huh?" He frowned, and then the penny dropped. "Oh…no."

"You had that look like you'd forgotten to do something," she explained for the benefit of Dr Klein. "Sorry, Dr Klein, you were saying…what did Schulz do next?"

"Pushed me aside saying he was going to lock it down so that I couldn't do any more damage. Trouble is, in his hysteria he didn't notice the modifications I'd already made." Dr Klein shook his head sadly. "I always suspected he was unstable. Probably a genius, but they say genius is madness's twin brother, don't they?"

"Haven't heard that one," said Clark. "So what happened?"

"I tried to warn him. You're going to destroy it, I said, but he just yelled at me to shut up." Klein fingered his plaster again. "I should have left him to it. I wish I had. But…well, I hate to see good science go up in smoke, so I tried to stop him. We scuffled, and that's when I got this."

"What did he hit you with?" asked Clark.

Klein's gloomy gaze moved to the shattered console and the dangling mouse. "I didn't realise the casing was so hard."

Clark looked at Lois, who was clearly biting the inside of her mouth in an attempt not to laugh. "That mouse is your lethal weapon?" he asked, keeping his own expression carefully neutral.

"In the hands of a madman," replied Klein defensively, "anything can be a lethal weapon."

Clark raised his eyebrows. "I guess it can." Okay, so it had a couple of sharp corners, but a lethal weapon? Did this mean that Dr Klein was going to live in fear of mice for the rest of his life?

"Where's Schulz now?" asked Lois.

"How do I know?" said Klein. "I imagine he's been taken to some kind of psychiatric facility."

/Maybe I can have the 'S' symbol made for me/

Clark blinked. There it was again. If he didn't know any better, he would have said the voice was in his head. Considering the current conversation about madmen, that thought was just a little disturbing.

Nah, he wasn't going nuts. This was just something he didn't understand yet. He'd get through the interview with Klein and then deal with it.

He caught Lois watching him, small frown lines gathering between her eyes. Okay, he was worrying her. Time to tune this…whatever it was out of his thoughts and focus. Flashing her a quick smile of reassurance, he asked Dr Klein, "What will happen to his project?"

Klein shrugged. "It'll be folded up. I've got his notes, but I doubt the board will want to let anyone else continue his work. The publicity will be bad enough as it is."

"And his funding?" asked Lois.

"You'll have to ask the board about that."

"But we shouldn't be surprised if you get that new electron microscope you were recently refused?" Lois's eyes were twinkling conspiratorially.

It was Klein's turn to switch on a bland expression. "I really couldn't comment."

***

Star Labs wasn't that far from the Planet, and it was a sunny day, so Lois didn't have much difficulty in persuading Clark that they should make the journey on foot. He fell into step beside her, apparently quite unsuspecting that she had an ulterior motive.

Something was bothering him and she intended to get to the bottom of it. He'd been strangely distracted while they'd been talking to Dr Klein, and she'd assumed, at first, that he'd been hearing a call for help. When she'd offered him an excuse to leave, though, he'd dismissed it. If he wasn't hearing calls for Superman, what was troubling him?

She didn't know the answer to that, but she was pretty certain that he'd try to deal with it on his own rather than risk worrying her.

Lunkhead.

"So, no need, any longer, to worry about getting swapped into another universe," she remarked, glancing across to him as they walked along the street. Even now, he looked like he was only half-listening to her — a frown creased his forehead and his eyes were unfocused.

He nodded. "Yeah."

"I'd feel happier if Schulz's notes were destroyed, though."

"Yeah, me too."

They reached a crossing and waited for the traffic lights to change. "Do you think we could persuade Dr Klein to hand them over to us?" she asked.

"I doubt it."

"Maybe we could ask to see them and accidentally spill coffee on them."

"Maybe."

The lights changed and they set off again. "Although," she continued, hurrying to keep up with his increasingly long strides, "he's probably got everything on computer as well. We'd have to accidentally delete his files."

"Yeah."

"Right after we set fire to his lab," she said, suspecting that he wasn't listening to anything she was saying. He didn't even seem to be aware that he was walking too fast for her.

"Yeah."

She upped the ante. "And planted a bomb under his chair."

"Yeah."

Nope, no-one at home in his head. "Perhaps a knife through the heart for good measure?"

"Yeah."

Okay, time to cut to the chase. She halted and watched him stroll ahead of her, clearly oblivious that he was now walking alone.

Was it possible he'd get all the way to Planet before noticing he'd lost her? "Clark!"

He stopped, looked to his right at the empty space where she should have been, and turned around. "What?"

She stood her ground and beckoned him with a single finger.

Frowning, he walked back to her. "What's wrong?"

"You just agreed to torch Dr Klein's lab, bomb his chair and stab him through the heart."

"I did?"

"You did." She let that sink in for a moment, watching confusion flash across his face followed by guilty comprehension. Time to press home her point. "You didn't hear a word of what I was saying, did you?"

He winced. "No. Sorry. I'm a little distracted."

"You don't say. Care to share?"

He grimaced and thrust up a hand to fiddle with the hair at the back of his neck. "Well, it's kind of weird."

"Try me." She crossed her arms over her chest.

He looked at her warily. "If I told you I was hearing voices in my head, would you think I was crazy?"

Voices in his head? Oh, boy… "Well, if you were anyone else, I would, but with you, sweetest, anything is possible," she replied carefully. "What are these voices saying?"

His wariness increased. "They seem to be talking about me."

As if it had a life of its own, a corner of her mouth curved upwards. "There are voices in your head and they're talking about you?" If he didn't look so uncomfortable, she'd have laughed. Instead, she forced the unruly corner downwards again, taking pity on him. "Just as well I know for a fact you're not crazy."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence. So I was thinking…"

She nodded. "…what if it's the same as last night…"

"…only this time, it's not just feelings I'm sensing…"

"…it's thoughts."

"Yeah." He glanced around cautiously to make sure they weren't within anyone's earshot. "Telepathy?"

"Do you think that's possible?"

"I have no idea." He shrugged. "I mean, I know I was able to talk to the New Kryptonians telepathically, but they were…well, here. In this universe. This person, if it's who I think it is—"

"Clark?"

"Yeah. He's in a different dimension." He began walking down the street again and she fell in step beside him. "But what other explanation is there? If we rule out me being crazy, that is."

"Beats me." She grinned. "You should try sending something back to him."

"I have."

"And?"

"Nothing. I don't know whether the message got through and he hasn't bothered to answer, or if I'm not doing it right. Or maybe he's as confused as I am and doesn't know what to do with this strange voice in his head."

She slipped her hand into his. "Keep trying. I'd like it if we could keep in touch with them."

"Me, too." He squeezed her hand. "Of course, I'm glad that Schulz's machine has been destroyed, but I have to admit I was disappointed that we'd never find out if things worked out for them or not."

"Well, perhaps we will now." She smiled up at him. "You may be different, Clark Kent, but I wouldn't trade those differences for anything. We're so lucky, you and I."

"Yeah?" He paused on the sidewalk and pressed a soft kiss to her lips. "I guess we are. Or I am, for having a wife who doesn't automatically think I'm nuts when I tell her crazy things."

"Just don't ever try to convince me you can fly," she said. "That really would be crazy."

He chuckled, then suddenly set off at a jog, tugging her along with him. "Come on, let's see if you're right."

"Clark!"

But her protest was ignored and she was forced to jog with him, amused by his unusual burst of impulse. Moments later, he'd rounded a corner into a shaded alley and had hoisted them aloft, somehow changing into his suit at the same time.

"So," he murmured as they crested a cloud. "Is this crazy?"

"Yes." She craned forwards and pressed a kiss to his lips. "But it's also wonderful. Don't ever stop being different, sweetheart."

He smiled. "Oh, I won't. With you, being different is so much fun."

***

Clark surfaced from sleep into warm, snuggly bedclothes and the sound of running water next door in their en-suite bathroom. He smiled dopily. How nice it was to wake up to the sounds of Lois getting ready for the day ahead having spent the entire night with her. How nice it was to dream that he might do this every day for the rest of his life.

They'd made love many times during the night, each coupling more loving and leisurely than the last. His injuries hadn't seemed to matter, but eventually their need for rest had won over their desires and they'd drifted into deep sleep. Now, he could only assume that he'd begun to heal during the night. Heal pretty fast, in fact, because today he felt great.

He sat up in bed and experimented with his powers. Yes, he could see through the wall to the outside where an elderly couple were loading up their car ready to leave. Yes, he could read the number plate of the RV parked on the far side of the car park. And yes, he could float up off the bed for a foot or so.

He grinned. He was back.

His other powers he'd leave until he'd had more opportunity for practice. Freezing and heating things required more control than he was confident he could yet exert.

He gazed out the window to the motel car park and the countryside beyond. Sooner or later they'd have to re-emerge from their comfortable hiding place. Nice though it was to languish here in glorious anonymity, safe from Skywatch's clutches, they couldn't hide for ever.

As a start, Lois had phoned Perry yesterday to let him know that they hadn't dropped off the edge of the planet. She'd told him an edited version of events ­ that Clark had gone missing, that she and Lana had searched for him, that they'd found him and rescued him from a vicious gang of thugs. She'd left out certain important details, like the fact that the gang was actually a government-funded organisation chasing after Clark because he was really from another planet, reasoning that Perry already had enough to cope with — it wasn't every day that one of your reporters got kidnapped. Anyway, he probably needed to be told that side of the story in person, because it really, really wasn't every day that you discovered one of your reporters was an alien.

Perry, after tearing a strip off her for taking things into her own hands and not calling the police, and then yelling some more when she informed him there was lots she wasn't yet able to tell him, had finally calmed down when she'd assured him the Planet would soon have a major exclusive on its hands and that banner headlines would be forthcoming. Apparently the sound of gnashing teeth had rapidly been replaced by hands rubbing together with glee. He'd even expressed genuine concern for Clark's well- being, something Clark hadn't anticipated following recent sticky encounters with the chief. Perhaps, after all, there would still be a job to return to when they finally made it back to the Planet.

Meanwhile, what was happening in the world? He grabbed the TV remote off the bedside table and, after flicking through a few channels, found some news.

He blinked and sat up straighter.

Apparently a mysterious pile of wood blocks had appeared on a derelict building plot in central Metropolis. No-one could say where they'd come from yet, judging by the pictures, they made a fairly impressive sight. The plot was shortly to be redeveloped as the new location for a research institute called Star Labs, and there was speculation that the wood block pile was some kind of protest by anti-vivisection groups. Another theory, said the newscaster with an admirably straight face, was that the mysterious appearance was linked to the recent miracle at Metropolis airport when an ailing airplane was carried down to safety by an unseen force.

Clark stared, dumb-struck, at the screen. Wood blocks? Star Labs? What the…

Laughter bubbled up from his chest. In a way, the newscaster was right ­ the airport incident and the wood blocks were linked. Surely they had to be the missing wood blocks from Dr Schulz's experiments with that teleporter machine! Somehow, they'd at last rematerialised in this universe, having been stuck in limbo ever since Schulz had first attempted to move them from one side of his lab to the other.

Oh, boy, if only Clark could write about this in the Planet. He so, so wanted to tell the world what had really happened; the facts were was just so much better than any of the theories being expounded by the newscaster. No-one would believe him, though. Even after they learned there was an alien living in their midst, universe-hopping wood blocks would be one far-fetched story too far.

Still chuckling, he reached for the remote to switch the TV off, but his attention was snagged by the newscaster announcing a return to Metropolis harbour for an update on events there. Intrigued, he sat up straighter in bed, crossing his legs under himself.

A chaotic scene filled the screen. Two ships lay in the water at an acute angle to each other, both listing badly and looking for all the world like a pair of injured whales. A black pool of oil seeped from the side of one of the vessels, increasing the illusion of a beast wounded by a mortal blow. Around the stricken ships, two or three smaller vessels circled, and from the commentary, Clark understood that these were emergency vessels attempting to rescue the crews of both ships and contain the oil leak. Apparently there was a fire on board one ship and there was serious concern that the oil slick was drifting towards it.

For a split second, Clark felt all the blood rush from his head and the world turned mute. This was it. This was the big one. His chance to make a difference. Never mind that he barely knew how to fly and he knew nothing about maritime disasters, the die had been cast for him. He had to go.

Now.

"Lois!"

He was off the bed and scrambling into the suit even before he'd finished bellowing her name. Still yanking on his boots, he hopped over to the bathroom door and thumped on it. "Lois!"

The door opened to reveal a drippy Lois clad in nothing but a skimpy white towel. "What?"

"It's time…I have to…Metropolis harbour, two ships sinking fast, oil slick, fire." He finished pulling on the second boot and rushed to the door. "It was on the news."

He pulled the door open, intending to-

"Take me with you."

She was right behind him, a wet hand on his shoulder. How had she moved across the room so fast? "I can't. It's too dangerous."

"Take me." The hard determination in her voice jerked his gaze up to her face. Her eyes were like steel. "You need me to write this story."

She was right, but he really didn't want her in danger, and besides… "You're not…" He waved a weak hand at her towel then turned away again. "I need to go."

"Then help me get ready."

Again that hard determination. He turned around and sighed. "Lois…"

She pulled away the towel, apparently heedless of the fact that they were standing in an open doorway. "We're wasting time."

Oh, boy.

He slammed the door shut and, moving as fast as he possibly could, grabbed her clothes, pulled them over her, gathered her into his arms and flew out the door and up into the clouds.

He travelled for quite a few miles before she said anything. She was okay, he was certain, because he could hear her heart racing along and she was breathing easily if rather fast. Perhaps he'd taken her request for help just a little too literally. She probably hadn't been expecting to be dressed at superspeed.

"Um." Her voice wobbled and she cleared her throat. "I think…I think you forgot my bra."

He felt his face flush. "Sorry." How could he have forgotten such an essential item? Although, to be fair, he'd never dressed a woman before, and undressing them, which he'd done plenty of times, was a different matter entirely. He let his gaze dip down momentarily. "You look fine."

"I don't feel fine. I feel…" She shifted uneasily. "Unsecured."

His flush deepened. "Lois, I'm sure no-one will notice."

"You think? She fell silent for a few moments, and then nodded. "You're right. They'll be too busy looking at you."

He gulped. She had a point. And suddenly this full exposure thing, this fame thing, felt far too near at hand. He'd been fine talking about it, fine just thinking about it, but this was the real thing. Everyone was going to know what he was…

"Hey," she murmured. "You'll do great. Just focus on the job."

The job. Rescuing two sinking ships and preventing an oil slick from catching fire. Yep, just your normal, everyday kind of a job. Thinking about that was supposed to make him feel better, was it? Okay, so the first task was pretty obvious ­ put out the fire ­ but what then? Which ship would he tackle first? Should he take the crew off or try to repair the damage? Which would be quickest, and anyway, how did you repair the side of a ship?

Oh, boy. Did the other Clark have butterflies in his stomach the first time he attended a big rescue?

When they neared the harbour area, Clark dipped down to release Lois in one of the narrow backstreets behind the docks. As soon as she was on her feet, she flung her arms around him and kissed him fiercely. "I love you and you'll do just fine," she said, and then stepped back and made urgent upwards motions with her arms. "Now go, Superman!"

Stunned, he took off again, her kiss still tingling his lips and her words ringing in his ears. Superman. She'd called him Superman.

He was Superman.

He sped up, suddenly aware of his cape flowing strongly behind him and the fresh wind in his face. He could do this. He was, indeed, Superman.

***

Dousing the fire proved to be fairly straightforward. A few puffs of freezing breath ­ and he didn't have to worry about being too subtle with it ­ and the fire died rapidly.

But now what? He circled above the scene, eyeing the two ships. Both were listing more than ever, but it wasn't at all clear to him which was the most in peril. Should he simply begin snatching crew members in pairs and setting them down on the decks of the rescue vessels? What if he picked the wrong ship and the other one went down while he was working? He'd heard that ships, once they'd begun to sink, went down very rapidly. And what if there were injured crew members? Could he risk lifting them when he didn't know a thing about first aid?

Do something! Anything!

But I don't know what to do.

Just make a decision and go with it!

What if it's the wrong one?

He circled some more, x-raying into the ships to locate the crew members. Both sets were huddled together on the bridge, and in both cases, there were indeed injuries. One man was lying down; another was sitting on the captain's chair supported by his colleagues.

What to do?

I don't know what to do!

/Find whoever's in charge of the emergency services and ask them what they need you to do/

Huh?

He nearly fell out of the sky in surprise. Someone had just talked to him. In his head.

/I'm the other Clark. I'm using telepathy to communicate with you. Can you hear me?/

Telepathy? Was that possible?

/Can you hear me?/

"Yes!" he blurted, heedless of the fact that he was now yelling at seagulls. "Yes, I can hear you. Where are you?"

/Sitting in a café with Lois. But never mind that ­ just find the guy in charge of the rescue operation/

Sitting in a café…?

He gave up and went with the flow. "Okay." Heck, what was one more weirdness to add to all the other weird stuff going on in his life?

He darted his gaze around the rescue vessels and picked the largest. Zooming down towards it, he yelled, "What do I say?"

/Tell them you're here to help and you can do pretty much anything they need. I don't recommend lifting the ships out of the water, though, because if they're damaged, they probably won't be able to support their own weight. Better to lift the crew to safety and then see what you can do to salvage the vessels./

"Okay. How come you know what's happening here?"

/Because you were practically yelling every detail at me/

"Oh." Boy, this life just got stranger and stranger!

He landed on the deck and strode up to a man in a windcheater and some kind of official-looking cap who appeared to be bellowing down a walkie-talkie at someone. "Excuse me," he said.

The guy dropped the hand holding his walkie-talkie loosely to his side and stared open-mouthed at Clark. "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm here to help. Are you in charge of the rescue operation?"

"No, he is." The guy pointed to an older man standing at the edge of the deck gazing through a pair of binoculars at the stricken vessels.

Clark hurried over. "I'm here to help ­ you probably saw me douse the fire. Are you in charge?"

Binocular Man didn't move a muscle. "Yeah, I saw you," he drawled. "What are you, son? Some kind of circus performer?"

"I'm…I'm here-"

"-to help. Yeah, you said. Look, son, I'm trying to run a rescue operation here. I don't need a flying trapeze artist right this minute."

"You need all the help you can get," observed Clark. "There are twenty three men and women on those two vessels, four of them injured ­ one with a broken leg, I think. I could lift them all to safety, if you'll tell me where I should take them."

"We've got a reception area set up on Pier 23," he muttered. "Hell! Damned line broke again. The sea's just too friggin' rough."

"Which ship is going to go down first?"

"Hell if I know." The man swore under his breath. "The May Queen. Her bow is already down."

"Find me a doctor," called Clark as he took off again, "to help with the injured. Meanwhile I'll get everyone else off the Queen."

He didn't wait for a reply.

***

A wry smile curled Lois's lip as she watched Clark dump his eleventh spoonful of sugar into his coffee. He really had no clue what he was doing, which made him all the more fun to watch. In his head, he wasn't sitting opposite his wife in a café in downtown Metropolis, he was flying over two sinking vessels just outside the harbour.

She was happy he'd finally made proper contact with the other Clark. He'd been trying to reconnect ever since that first contact at Star Labs, explaining to her that if he did, he'd be able to confirm for certain that his almost-twin was okay. The lack of success ­ and thus, the lack of knowledge — had been frustrating him.

Her, too, if she was honest. Not just because she'd had to deal with her husband's frustration, but because she also wanted to know what was happening to the man she'd come to know quite well since that first awkward meeting in her bedroom.

Today, however, had exceeded both their hopes. Not only had he made contact, but he was actually helping the other Clark at his first big rescue. He was in his element, and she knew the fledgling Superman would really appreciate the help of a more experienced counterpart — his self-confidence was still a little rocky and rescuing two ships on a heaving sea was a lot to ask of an uncertain rookie.

Clark's hand drifted over to the sugar bowl again, teaspoon ready to shovel up another load. She chuckled and reached across pull the bowl away. The spoon clattered against the table and a startled Clark blinked across the table at her.

"What did you do that for?"

"So we don't get thrown out for sugar theft." She grinned. "That's spoon number twelve. How's it going?"

Crestfallen, he looked down at his coffee cup, dipped the spoon in and tried to stir. "Oops." He grimaced and shoved the cup away. "He's doing okay. A little shaky to start with, but now that I've got him working with the emergency services instead of trying to do everything on his own, he's fine."

"Do you think he'll need you again?"

"Hard to say. This'll build his confidence a lot, and that's what was lacking before." He shrugged. "I'll let him take the initiative ­ if he needs me, I'll be there for him."

He was so nonchalant ­ pretending that this was nothing special — but she knew better. She smiled and reached over to catch his hand in hers. "This means a lot to you, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it does. It's good to be able to pass on some of the things I've learned."

"Especially when he's almost your twin."

He nodded. "Yes. I-"

His face went blank for a few moments and then a wide smile split his face. "He says I need to buy you a large tub of the stickiest, richest, most gooey chocolate ice cream I can find."

She laughed. "Everyone's safe, then?"

"Yes. And you're to make me seafood linguine." He winced. "I take it you never cooked him anything when he was here."

"Hey!" She swiped his hand. "I can cook."

"Of course you can, honey," he replied. "It's just that eating the results is a little…challenging. How about we eat out instead?"

"To celebrate his debut? Good idea!"

"Okay. He says thank you, too, by the way. He'd have never done it without us, he said."

She shrugged. "Nice to know that some good came out of Schulz's machine, I guess."

"I've always said there's good in everyone." Clark grinned. "You just have to know where to look."

Lois rolled her eyes and tugged him to his feet. "That innocent farm-boy act is wearing very thin these days. You need to find a different tactic to charm me with."

"I can think of several." He winked. "Unfortunately, none of them are legal in a public place."

She laughed. "Now I definitely know you're not an innocent farm- boy any longer."

***

After carrying all the crew to safety, including, with a doctor's help and advice, the two injured men, Clark had sought out the head of the rescue effort again. He'd intended to offer his help in towing the two stricken ships to safety, but before he could open his mouth, the man had grabbed his hand and shaken it vigorously.

"That's a fine job you did there, son," he'd enthused. "I don't know what or who you are, but we sure as hell could do with someone like you around more often."

"Well, I intend to be, sir," Clark had replied. "I'm here to help in any way I can."

"Good, good," said the man, shaking Clark's hand even more energetically. "But how do we contact you? What's your name?"

Clark's brain had skittered to a standstill.

His name. He needed to give his name.

Oh, God.

His name. Two small words and his life would never be the same again.

"Son? You okay? Haven't overdone things, have you? You were working pretty-"

"Kent. My name is Clark Kent." And then, because there was no stopping him now that he'd begun to unravel… "I work for the Daily Planet."

Wrong script, surely. Wasn't he supposed to say his name was Superman?

Because this was his big 'coming out' day, that was why. This was the day Clark Kent announced to the world what and who he really was. Superman was just his working name.

"Well, son, I used to read the Star, but from tomorrow, I'm definitely buying the Planet." The man was still shaking his hand. "Are there more of you there? Is there some kind of special division-"

"No, I'm just a regular reporter. I…" But this wasn't the time or the place, no matter how irresistible the temptation was to spill everything in one big cathartic confession. There were ships to be towed, oil slicks to be dispersed. "Well, you can read all about me tomorrow in the Planet, I guess. Just…call me Superman, okay? I'm Clark Kent when I'm at the Planet, but out here…I like to keep the two jobs separate."

And saying 'Superman' hadn't even felt silly. It had felt…right.

"Son, I'll call you anything you like."

"Superman will do fine. Now, about the oil slick…"

And so the rest of the rescue operation had proceeded, Clark helping to disperse the oil slick and then tug the ships to dry dock for repair.

Now, he was sitting on the motel bed, a glass of champagne in one hand and a page from Lois's draft article in the other. She'd phoned in a brief report from the docks, but this was the main piece which would tell his full story.

In the absence of a computer, she'd scribbled it on motel note paper and he was currently discovering just how indecipherable her handwriting was.

"It says here I'm an orange," he remarked to Lois, who was sitting beside him flicking through news channels on the TV.

She leant against him and peered at the word his thumb was indicating. "Orphan." She flicked to another channel.

He read a bit further. "And I…paid up on a loan?"

She sighed and snatched the page from him. "Grew up on a farm." She thrust it back at him. "I don't see what the problem is ­ it's all perfectly clear to me."

"Lois, you wrote it. Of course it's clear to you. I, on the other hand, am finding that even x-ray vision is not enough to make sense of your handwriting." He glanced up at the TV in case she'd found anything interesting, but it was just some report about a road traffic accident. Back to the article. "I don't think that's how you spell serendipity."

"It's how I spell it," she retorted, thumbing the remote again.

"I think Perry probably spells it the same way as I do…"

That road accident. The blue sedan by the side of the road.

He snatched the remote from Lois and thumbed the 'back' button. A children's cartoon filled the screen. Where was the road traffic accident? That car, that blue car… "Which channel were you just on?" He tried another button. A movie. He thumbed again. Commercials. "Which one?"

A blue car. It couldn't be… There were thousands like it. Millions, probably.

Where was the damned channel? He thumbed again. More commercials.

"Twenty six, I think," she said. "What's-"

He hit the buttons and turned the sound right up.

"…and luckily, no other vehicles were involved. Sadly, the sole occupant of the car, a young woman in her mid-twenties, was killed instantly. Police are calling for witnesses to contact…"

No.

His enhanced vision had read and imprinted each letter of the licence plate on his skull, even though they'd been blurred out…

No.

Reality flipped and tuned him out of the world. For a split- second, he was in no-man's land, neither of the world nor outside it. He was blind, deaf, and dumb. Frozen.

Then the silence shattered and he slammed back, ready to check the number again, but the image was gone and the weather girl was talking about rainy squalls.

He'd misread it.

His eyes were playing tricks on him. He was tired.

Lois moved against him. "Was that…was it your…?"

So she'd also mistaken it for… "It can't be. She…she said she was driving to Philadelphia."

"That accident was just north of Philly," she murmured. "Don't you think…?"

He shook his head woodenly. "It's a coincidence. I misread the plate."

"Clark…" Her hand slid into his and held it tight. "I really think…I think it's Lana."

No.

Lana dead?

No.

The licence plate flashed across his vision again. Their licence plate. Every single letter, every single number in the same place as on the blue Chevy he and Lana had bought together two years ago this summer.

She couldn't be dead. He'd seen her just…how many days ago? Two? Three? He'd lost track.

Lois was speaking again but he couldn't make out the words. The images on the TV were a blur surrounded by a blackness creeping in from the edges of his vision.

Something hard rattled against his teeth. A glass. Lois's muffled voice again. His hand being lifted to clasp the cool glass.

Automatically, he tipped it up and took a sip, clumsily allowing some of the water to trickle down the side of his mouth. He wiped it away, the purposeful action seeming to clear his vision and unblock his hearing.

"Take some more," she encouraged.

"No, I'm okay." He swung his legs off the bed and placed the glass on the bedside cabinet. "I'd better go." He stood up and looked around for something to pack clothes into. There was a carrier-bag left over from Lois's shopping trip ­ he grabbed it off the chest of drawers and walked into the bathroom to fetch the few toiletries they'd bought for the short stay. Toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant.

He came back into the room. What else? There wasn't anything else except the clothes he was wearing. He wouldn't need the Superman suit. Was there really nothing else? He was going on an important trip; he should be well-prepared. A coat ­ he'd need a coat in-

"Clark, what are you doing?"

Doing? He was getting ready, couldn't she see that? "I have to go," he explained. "I…Identify the body, that sort of thing."

She shoved herself off the bed and came to stand before him. "Right this second?" She reached out and clasped his arm. "Sit down for a few minutes. Give yourself time to adjust."

Adjust? He laughed, but it came out wrong and sounded more like a hoarse sob. "I'm adjusted. I've adjusted just fine, thank you. My wife is dead. She was probably murdered by Trask. Either that, or… Heck, we were going to divorce anyway, so what's a little detail like her murder going to matter? He's done me a big favour, if you ask…if you ask-"

His throat closed up. Embarrassed, he pushed past her with his carrier bag and grabbed the first thing that came to hand ­ a motel pen ­ and stuffed it into the bag. You could never have enough pens. All those forms he'd have to complete at the mortuary…

Her warm body pressed up tightly against his back and her arms slid slowly around his chest. "You don't think that at all," she murmured. "You wish she was still alive. You're hoping you'll get down there and discover this is all a big mistake."

"No, really, I think Trask-"

"Shhh. Don't do this to yourself. It's not healthy."

No, he wasn't healthy. He was sick to his stomach. Lana was dead and it was all his fault.

Her arms tightened like a vice around him. "And don't blame yourself," she said fiercely. "Don't you dare blame yourself for this."

"How can I not? If I hadn't-"

"Number one, you don't know if Trask did this. Maybe it was just an accident. Number two, did you ask Lana to spy on you? No. Number three, did you get her involved with Trask? No. Number four, she damned nearly killed you."

"Oh, so that makes it all right, does it?" he retorted. "She almost killed me so it's okay that she's dead."

"Clark… You know that's not what I'm saying."

Yes, he knew. He could hear the distress in her voice, too. She was only trying to help him, but the bitter words just seemed to be tripping out, lashing out mindlessly in any direction. Mostly at Lois.

God, what was he doing? What had he done?

He peeled her arms away from his torso and crossed to the motel phone on top of the dresser. A few minutes later he'd contacted the Philadelphia police, identified himself as the owner of the vehicle and the husband of the driver. They gave him instructions on where to report to when he reached the city.

So simple. So easy. Your wife's dead, sir? No problem ­ just fill in this form.

"I'm coming with you," said Lois from behind him once he'd replaced the receiver. "Don't even try to argue."

He'd expected to go alone. His wife, therefore his responsibility.

But he couldn't go alone. He needed her. Couldn't do this without her. He nodded, his throat tight again. "Okay. Thank you."

He felt her hand on his shoulder. "You don't need to thank me."

But he did. He needed to thank her for understanding. For knowing that he wasn't lashing out at her, but at himself, at Trask, and all the other lesser Trasks of this world whose bigotry had helped kill his wife. Even, God help him, Lana herself.

An image of the carefree, young Lana he'd known as a child flashed before him. She wore a fresh, happy smile, freckles and a bouncy ponytail, and she was giggling with him over something.

When had it all gone wrong?

"God, Lois," he said, his voice cracking. "She didn't deserve to die."

He turned and let her draw him into her arms, surrendering himself to her as he'd done so many times in the past. Here, he could drop the pretence. Here, he didn't have to keep a tight rein on his emotions. Here, he could let go of the anger and pain and trust her to catch him when it threatened to overwhelm him.

***

"Lana's dead."

Lois froze, her slice of toast half-way to her mouth. "Oh, my God…how?"

She eyed Clark as he rose slowly from the breakfast table and walked over to the coffee machine. "A car accident, apparently. He didn't tell me everything, but I understand her car went out of control at a sharp corner and smashed into a tree. She was killed outright."

"When?"

"A few days ago." He poured coffee into his mug and came back to the table. "I guess this explains why I haven't been able to contact him lately."

"Yeah. How is he?"

"Pretty upset. Lois is with him ­ thankfully ­ but I get the sense he's keeping some stuff to himself." He sighed. "I guess he's in a tricky position with her."

She shook her head. "She'll understand that he has to grieve for his wife, no matter how much of a bitch she was and how much he loves Lois."

"Yeah, but I don't suppose he knows that. He's not exactly thinking very clearly. Anyway, what seems to be upsetting him the most is that he suspects foul play ­ Trask, of course ­ but the police are calling it suicide. He can't get them to investigate because he doesn't want to tell them about Trask."

She nodded. Even if he managed to persuade them of Trask's existence, he'd then have to tell them that Lana had been working for Trask, and that was probably a story he didn't want plastered all over the world's media. "Superman Spied On By His Wife" wasn't a headline he'd welcome at any time, but especially not when Lana had just died.

"But suicide? That's a surprise — which do you think it is?"

"Hard to say. She was certainly unstable. Whether she'd go so far as to kill herself, I really couldn't say. On the other hand, Trask is definitely capable of murdering her. With Clark becoming Superman and clearly wanting to separate from his wife to be with Lois, Lana's usefulness to Trask was practically zero. She was a loose cannon who knew too much about his organisation."

"So whether or not he actually killed her, I bet he's not crying in his beer over her death."

"No." Clark sighed heavily. "This is really hard for Clark. The Planet and the rest of the media ran his Superman story the day she died, and then a couple of days later, Lana's suicide was the big news. You can just imagine all the speculation that's going on."

"They're saying he drove her to suicide?" She watched him nod slowly. "What about his affair with Lois? I bet they're loving that angle."

He shook his head. "Apparently Lois threatened to kneecap anyone at the Planet who dared write about that or leak the story elsewhere. Perry's placed an embargo on any speculation until after the funeral."

"Good. But even so, I bet there's some even wilder speculation saying he killed her." She snorted in disgust. "Don't you just love our media? If there's a story to be misreported, they'll find it."

"I wish I could help him." He began pushing his mug restlessly around on the table. "The funeral's tomorrow and I think he's dreading it. Her parents will be there and he doesn't think they know anything about Lana's involvement with Trask. Not to mention that the world's media will also be there."

"You could go with him," she suggested. "You can tell Perry you're attending a friend's funeral and find somewhere quiet to sit and talk with him telepathically."

"Yeah, I wondered about that. I'd kind of like to be there, in spirit if not in person." He ducked his head. "Pay my last respects, even if she was…well, what she was."

"Okay, we'll do it." She sighed. "At least he'll have Lois there with him."

He grimaced. "I wouldn't be too sure about that."

"Oh?"

"He doesn't want her to go."

***

Clark folded up his newly-acquired black tie and placed it on top of his suit in the small hold-all. He'd collected the suit in a superfast trip back to Metropolis, but everything else had been bought at the mall a couple of blocks away from their hotel.

Going back to the house had been horrible. The place had felt claustrophobic; stuffed full of memories, all of them involving Lana. Even the press camped outside on the lawn had clamoured her name, demanding to hear her story. He hadn't lingered a moment longer than absolutely necessary.

His meagre packing complete, he closed the zip, left the hold-all on the bed and crossed over to the window. The view wasn't impressive: a tired office block in seventies brown stood just a stone's throw from the window, and many stories below, a grey, windswept car park contained a handful of cars and SUVs. Not Philadelphia's most scenic hotel bedroom.

He was sick of motels and hotels. Sick of dull views and anonymous furnishings. He was tired and he wanted to go home, except that he had no home. The house in Metropolis certainly didn't qualify, and Smallville, where he'd be tomorrow, had ceased to be his home years ago.

"It's still not too late to change your mind."

Lois's weary voice interrupted his thoughts. Was she never going to give up trying to convince him? He dropped his forehead onto the cool glass of the window and measured the distance to the ground. A hundred feet, perhaps. Hardly enough for a good workout at superspeed. "We agreed, Lois," he muttered. "I don't want to discuss it any more."

"No, you agreed," she said from the other side of the room. She spoke without heat but her words still stung; they'd rehearsed this argument too often over the past couple of days. "I still think you should take me with you."

He pictured the scene. Mr and Mrs Lang ­ or Mom and Dad, as they'd insisted he call them after the marriage ­ clinging to each other on the porch of their house in Smallville and trying desperately to understand why their daughter had taken her own life. He, their daughter's husband, newly exposed as an alien with extraordinary powers, expressing his sorrow at their mutual loss while holding hands with Lois, the woman he'd slept with while leaving Lana alone at home.

There were just too many lies in that scene. The Langs didn't know the truth about their daughter ­ didn't know she'd worked for Trask from an early age; didn't know she'd spied on her own husband. They didn't know their son-in-law had been unfaithful to their daughter ­ was still being unfaithful, in fact. They didn't know their daughter might have been murdered.

Remove Lois and at least there was one lie less. The Langs didn't have to see their son-in-law with another woman and wonder how he'd managed to acquire another female companion so quickly. He didn't have to lie to them; pretend that she was just a friend.

"I can stay out of the way," she said.

And then there was the media. They were already hounding him about Lana's suicide ­ had she known he was an alien when they got married, had she agreed to him becoming Superman? Their implications were obvious, and if they got wind that he was seeing another woman, the verdict would be unanimous: Clark Kent had driven his wife to suicide.

"They'd find you anyway," he said.

He didn't even care so much what the public thought of Clark Kent. If they chose to believe he'd all but killed his own wife, then so be it. He knew the real truth.

But he cared like hell what they thought of Superman. He needed to earn their trust if he was going to be useful to them. No-one was going to shout for his help if they mistrusted or were scared of him.

"You shouldn't face this alone, Clark."

"I have to." He turned away from the window and faced her across the room. "Besides, the other Clark said he'll stay with me through the funeral."

She'd been delighted when he'd told her about the telepathy with Clark, but now her face creased in anguish. "That's great, but he can't be with you all of the time."

"No, but it'll have to be enough." He sighed. "I'll be fine. I'll phone you whenever I can."

"Trask is still out there," she pointed out. "You need me to watch your back."

He bit his lip, his patience worn thin by too little sleep and too many disagreements. "Please, Lois." He closed the distance between them and placed his hands on her shoulders, forcing down his frustration in the interests of peace between them. "We've been through all this. I don't want us to argue any more."

"You know I'm only arguing because I care about you." She reached up and took one of his hands in hers. "Promise me you'll call if you need me. Any time, day or night."

He let out a breath of relief. "I promise. And you, too." He was flying her back to Metropolis before heading out to Smallville and he was a little anxious that Trask might go after her as a way of getting to him. "Keep in touch and call me any time. I can be there in seconds." He wanted to say a lot more, but he'd already tried to give her instructions on personal security and had his head bitten off for being over protective.

She nodded. "And you try to get some sleep. You look tired."

He smiled wanly. "You, too."

"I love you."

"And I love you."

They embraced, clinging tightly to each other because this hug would have to last through far too many hours of separation. The past few days, with all that had happened, had brought them closer together than ever and this would be their first time apart since Lois had rescued him from Trask.

Lois broke away first, easing reluctantly out of his embrace and smiling bravely up at him-

He pulled her back into his arms, not ready to let her go yet. He needed her strength ­ this slight, fragile woman who'd saved his life in more ways than he could count. Burying his face in her soft hair for one last time, he felt her arms tighten fiercely around him. "Any time, day or night," she murmured. "Okay?"

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Five minutes later they were soaring through the bleak skies above Philadelphia on the way to Metropolis.

***

Clark knew almost immediately where he wanted to sit while he accompanied his counterpart to Lana's funeral. The choice was obvious, and, luckily for him, travelling there during the working day wasn't a problem.

He paused in front of the white, steepled building and gazed upwards. He hadn't been inside the modest church on Smallville's main street for a very long time and he wondered briefly if it would look the same inside as he remembered. Certainly, the exterior looked the same, right down to the broken clock still showing half-past nine. Folks said it had jammed the day Kennedy had died.

Pushing the large wooden door open, he stepped inside. Light streamed in from all the upper windows and bathed the church in a warm glow. Looking around, he found it just as he'd remembered ­ clean and simple wooden pews, plain glass windows, white walls, and a modest altar.

He selected a pew about half way up and sat.

/I'm here./

***

On hearing his counterpart's voice in his head, Clark sagged down onto the single armchair in his motel room with relief. Just when he'd been wondering how he was going to get through today…

"Where's here?" he asked.

/The church, of course. I'm about half way down on the right hand side./

He smiled wanly. "Neat idea. But you're early ­ the taxi hasn't even arrived to take me to the Langs' yet."

Where he'd receive a stiff, awkward reception if yesterday was anything to go by. He'd dropped by to finalise the arrangements for the funeral. Mrs Lang had given him the briefest of hugs and Mr Lang had barely clasped his hand before moving straight into a clipped, business-like discussion of the arrangements. He'd tried to believe their coolness was due to lingering shock over their daughter's suicide, but a large part of him was convinced they were repelled by their alien son-in-law and blamed him for Lana's death.

Heck, hadn't he heard the relief in their voices when he'd declined their offer to put him up for the duration of his stay in Smallville? They hadn't wanted him anywhere near their house.

/I came early because I wanted to make sure there wasn't anything taking place in the church today./

Clark nodded. "Makes sense."

The Langs had ordered the taxi for him, of course. They hadn't remembered he could simply fly to the funeral, and he hadn't hurried to correct them.

/Are you talking out loud, by the way? You don't have to, you know./

"I wasn't sure I could make this work if I don't speak out loud," he explained. "Let me try…"

//How's this?//

/Coming through loud and clear. Now we can talk even when you've got company./

//Yes.// Clark had a feeling he'd appreciate that. This day was not going to be easy. He felt like he was deceiving half of Smallville by pretending that he was the grieving widower. Yes, he was sad that she'd died. Yes, he remembered the young Lana with real fondness and warmth. But any tears he shed today would be crocodile tears, because he could never forget how badly she'd blighted the first thirty years of his life. For evermore, he'd wonder what sort of a man he might have been if Lana hadn't been there to stifle and suppress.

So today, he, as the chief mourner, would be perpetrating a huge lie right at the centre of what should be a very sincere occasion. He'd be play-acting his grief while all those around him would be genuinely moved and upset.

/So how are you?/

He had no idea. Numb, perhaps. Living through each minute because he had to. Focusing on getting things done because that was easier than dwelling on feelings.

//Okay. Okay as I can be, I guess.//

/Are you any closer to finding out if Trask killed her or not?/

//No. The police won't investigate and I can't push things any further without telling them and her parents more than I want to ­ there's no way, for example, that I could request an autopsy without getting her parents' consent. How can I tell them their daughter worked for a man like Trask?//

/Are you sure they don't already know?/

//Not entirely, but I can't exactly ask them, can I?// He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose to relieve the ache behind his eyes. Invulnerability and enhanced abilities were great for rescuing sinking ships, but they were no match for a tension headache. //When Lois and I are back in Metropolis, I'm going to try and find Trask himself. Nothing like going straight to the source.//

/Sounds dangerous./

He shrugged. //I need to know the truth.//

/Yeah, I'd feel the same./

There was a soft knock at the door.

He stood up. //Sounds like my taxi's here.//

/Okay. Remember now ­ the taxi driver won't be telepathic. You'll need to use your voice./

//Ha. Very funny.//

He opened the door to find a well-built middle-aged guy wearing jeans and a close-fitting khaki t-shirt. "Mr Kent?"

Clark looked past the guy to the taxi parked just outside his motel room. He nodded. "Hold on while I get my coat."

He turned back into the room to fetch it from the back of the chair. Behind him, he heard the door close.

"Do you mind if I use your bathroom?"

Surprised to hear the guy's voice just behind him, he turned. The guy grimaced in apology. "Got a weak bladder."

"Uh, sure," replied Clark, stepping aside to let him pass.

A few moments later, he heard the toilet flush and then water running in the sink. Remembering the other Clark, he remarked, //Hey, at least we'll never need to worry about stuff like this.//

/Like what?/

//Weak bladders. He's using my bath-//

Pain exploded in his head, forcing him to double up and then crumple to his knees. Muscles spasmed in agony, nausea rose in his throat, and cold dread settled in the pit of his stomach.

Kryptonite.

A rough hand jerked his chin upwards and, through a mist of pain, he found a gun pointed at his head and beyond that, a very familiar-looking face. "My God, the arrogance," it snarled. "Calling yourself a super man. You're no more a man than a cockroach."

"Trask," he gasped. How had he…? A disguise, that must be it. Trask was wearing the same clothes as the taxi driver.

Trask sneered. "In the flesh. I've come to exterminate you, cockroach. I should have done it years ago, but I was persuaded — against my better judgement — to just watch you instead. What a frigging waste of time." He grimaced. "Have you any idea how disgusting it is to watch a cockroach? To watch it eat? Watch it grow? Watch it copulate?"

"You…you bastard." Clark wanted to take a swing at him, but there was a gun and he was feeble and uncoordinated… He sucked in a deep breath and tried to stabilise his reaction to the pain. What was pain, anyway? It was just a physiological warning system, wasn't it? Didn't actually stop you moving. "Did you kill her?"

"Who? Oh, you mean your whore? No, much as I'd like to take the credit for that, she did it herself." Trask shrugged. "Saved me the work. Maybe I should thank her parents — since I can't thank Lana herself."

"Leave them…alone!"

"Yeah, they're probably still recovering from the shock of discovering their daughter was married to a cockroach." Trask suddenly released his chin, causing him to lose his precarious balance and crash forward onto the carpet. Dazed and nauseous, he pushed up weakly with one hand to find that Trask had stepped back a couple of paces and adopted the classic two-handed police stance.

Clark's heart leapt into his mouth as Trask spoke. "Ready to die, cockroach?"

No, he was not. In fact, he'd hardly begun to live. There was so much still to do.

But if Trask was asking first and not merely firing immediately, then surely that meant there was a seed of doubt in his mind? Buy time, buy time… "How do you expect to get away with this, Trask? How will you dispose of my body? How…how will you explain the bloodstains on the carpet?" The gun, Clark had already noted, was equipped with a silencer so there was no risk of anyone hearing the shot.

He began to focus away from the pain again. Mind over matter. He could do this…

/Yes, you can, Clark! Focus on me. Listen to my voice and let me help you./

Clark! He'd forgotten his counterpart. //I…I can't think…//

/Don't try to talk to me. Just listen. The pain isn't there, okay? I'm handling it for you. All you have to do is gather your strength./

"My unit will clean up." Trask shrugged. "There are procedures."

/Feel the strength returning, Clark. Feel it coursing through your body. Any moment now his attention will drop just a fraction and that'll be your chance./

Clark took deep breaths, focusing on his anger and hatred for this man. Everything that had happened to him was because of this man. Lana had been this man's pawn. She'd died because of this man. This man was evil.

"Are you sure they'll clean up?" he rasped. "Is this an authorised killing, or are you operating alone?"

"What's it to you, cockroach?" sneered Trask. "Time to die."

"No!"

Clark's heart leapt again, for the protest hadn't come from his lips, but from a new voice. A female voice.

***

Slumped in his pew, Clark gritted his teeth against the pain. He'd no idea how it was possible, but the agony coursing through him couldn't be denied: he'd successfully transferred his counterpart's pain into his own body.

/You're getting stronger, Clark. I can feel it./

Actually, he could feel no such thing, but if he could transfer pain across universes, he reckoned anything was possible.

//Lois!!!//

Clark's mental shriek of distress pierced through his brain. Shocked, he folded forward and held his throbbing head in his hands.

/She's there with you?/

No answer.

With dread rising rapidly, he tried again.

/What's happening?/

***

Trask's attention shifted and Clark sprang. With hatred and venom coursing through his veins, he launched himself at Trask like a panther attacking its prey. Crashing into him, he thrust both hands under Trask's arms and shoved upwards in a frantic attempt to neutralise the gun.

They both toppled to the floor and the vicious spit of the silenced gun sent a wave of terror through Clark. "Lois?" Was she hit? Was she okay?

Waiting anxiously for her answer, he grappled with Trask, fighting to get possession of the gun. Trask was strong and used his entire body as a fighting machine, legs swinging and kicking, torso twisting and turning, arms gripping like cords of steel, but Clark had seething, boiling anger on his side. He fought for his life, for Lana's life, and for all the lives this bastard had probably ruined. Vicious blows rained over him, but he didn't feel a thing.

"He missed me."

Relief spurred him on and he fought harder, roaring like an animal as he brought all his strength to bear against his opponent.

Suddenly, Trask went limp beneath him.

Clark continued to fight, fearing his opponent was playing possum, but when his hand closed around the gun and there was no resistance from Trask, he stopped and scrambled to his feet.

Trask lay in a crumpled heap, his mouth hanging open and his eyes closed.

"Did I hit him too hard?" Lois was standing to one side, holding a heavy table lamp in both hands and peering down at Trask.

Clark bent stiffly and felt for a pulse. "No, he's still alive."

Her mouth twisted. "Pity."

/What's happening?/

The other Clark sounded frantic with worry. //It's okay.// Clark straightened and trained the gun shakily on Trask. //Lois knocked him unconscious.//

/Thank God. You went so quiet… Is he tied up? What…what about the kryptonite?/

Clark nearly dropped the gun in surprise. He'd forgotten the kryptonite ­ could hardly even feel it. His head was swimming and his legs felt like jelly, but there was no pain. //How…?//

/Just find it and…and get rid…of it. Hurry./

***

Doubled over in pain, Clark heard a door open and footsteps come down the aisle. Darn. Just what he didn't need ­ another visitor to the church. He hoped he just looked like someone deep in prayer rather than a person in excruciating agony.

The footsteps came closer and then, to his chagrin, he felt a hand on his back.

"Are you all right, son?"

The voice was kind and fatherly. Squinting sideways, he saw a pair of brown shoes peeking out from beneath a black robe.

"Yes, thank you."

A fresh wave of pain made him renew his grip on the back of the next pew. Please. Please let him find the kryptonite soon and get rid of it…

"You're in pain," observed the voice.

"It'll pass soon." Hopefully.

"Can I get you anything?"

"No, but thank…you for asking."

"Okay." The hand left his back, the shoes turned and footsteps receded down the aisle again.

Time to ask again. /What's happen-/

Abruptly, the pain left his body.

Relieved beyond belief, he sagged against the wooden pew and waited for his head to stop spinning.

//Lois found the kryptonite…and put it in a…box she found in…the bathroom.//

Good for Lois. He'd ask later where she'd suddenly sprung from. /Good. Are you okay? You sound funny./

//I've been…better. Really weak. You?//

He grimaced. /Also been better./ He hauled himself upright in the pew and drew in a slow breath. /But I'll live. Is Trask tied up?/

//Yeah. Thank you for…whatever you did.//

/Beats me, but you're welcome./

//Okay, Lois wants me. Talk to you in a few.//

/Sure./ He guessed that, in his severely weakened state, Clark wasn't yet up to holding two conversations simultaneously. Not surprisingly ­ he still felt a little light-headed himself.

Glancing up the church, he saw the minister approaching with a glass in his hand. "Here," he said, sliding into Clark's pew and handing over the glass of water. "You look like you need this."

Clark took the glass and sipped. "Thanks."

"Aren't you Jonathan Kent's son? Clark, isn't it?"

Clark blinked, surprised to be identified by someone he'd never met before. His parents didn't even attend church regularly. "That's right."

The minister chuckled. "It's a small parish and I'm a frequent customer of your father's hot dog stand at the corn festival."

"I get it." He sipped some more water. "Dad loves running that stand."

"I know ­ it shows." The minister smiled. "I don't often see you in here, Clark."

"No, I live in Metropolis these days."

"Ah, yes ­ journalism, isn't it? I imagine that keeps you pretty busy."

"Yes, it does." Clark could almost hear the minister wondering why he was in Smallville in the middle of the working week, and quickly added, "But I come out here whenever I can to visit my folks."

The minister nodded. "It's good to keep in touch. There's nothing like the support a close-knit family can bring to each other." He cleared his throat. "Of course, sometimes it's easier to talk to an outsider, especially if you want to avoid upsetting loved ones."

Clark felt himself the subject of a fairly searching and steady gaze. He nodded. "True." Understanding where the minister was headed, he handed back the glass and stood up. "Luckily, that's not a problem for me."

The minister stood with him. "I'm glad. Illness is a hard cross to bear alone."

Clark shook his head. "I'm not ill. That was just…a cramp."

Again, he felt the knowing gaze as his reply was assessed. "I see." The minister held out his hand for Clark to shake. "Well, our door is always open, Clark. Come by any time. Remember that God watches over all of us, wherever we may come from." He nodded briefly in the direction of Clark's pew, then smiled warmly and turned back up the church.

Puzzled by the minister's words, Clark glanced downwards and felt his heart do a backwards flip plus a double somersault.

Where he'd been gripping the back of the next pew, a deep hand- shaped dent was clearly visible.

***

By the time Trask began regaining consciousness, Clark was feeling slightly less like a limp dishrag and slightly more like a rational human being. Granted, every inch of his body ached and he was bone-weary, but at least thinking had stopped causing his head to spin.

Which was fortunate, because he had a lot to think about. Trask, much to his surprise, was now his prisoner and he intended to make the most of the situation. In preparation, he'd already phoned Lana's parents and told them he would be delayed. His words had, understandably, met with a very frosty reception, but perhaps his weak, faltering voice had persuaded them that his reasons were genuine, because they'd agreed to phone the church and have the funeral postponed by an hour. The other Clark, meanwhile, had returned to work having insisted that Clark contact him in time for the start of the funeral.

Lois was standing a few feet away from their prisoner, training the gun steadily on him as he awoke. Clark himself was sitting on the chair Lois had helped him onto when he'd collapsed earlier.

He'd received a potted account from Lois of how she'd followed him here, intent on being with him for the funeral whether he liked it or not. She'd just drawn up outside the motel when she saw a taxi drive up and familiar-looking man get out. A few seconds later, she'd identified the man as none other than Jason Trask, the man she'd seen talking to Lana back at the abandoned school. Guessing the room he'd entered was Clark's, she rushed to follow and discovered him preparing to shoot Clark.

Trask grunted and opened his eyes. From his twisted position on the carpet, he squinted up at Lois. "That's government property you're holding, whore."

"Watch your mouth, Trask!" barked Clark.

Trask's gaze swivelled slowly around. "What else should I call women who sleep with you, cockroach? Sluts? Prostitutes?"

"I said shut-"

"Don't listen to him, Clark," said Lois. "He's just trying to rile you."

"And doing a pretty good job, by the sounds of it," jeered Trask. "How can you stand to let it touch you? That's what I don't get. Makes my flesh crawl just to look at it."

"Say what you like, Trask," said Clark. "She won't listen."

"Sluts seldom do, in my experience."

Impatient with Trask's foul mouth, Clark leaned forward in his chair. Stiff and bruised muscles protested loudly as he moved, but he managed to keep his expression stoical. Trask was not going to get the benefit of seeing him suffer. "Let's forget the cheap insults and get down to business," he snapped. "I want to know about Lana. How long had she been working for you?"

"That's classified information, cockroach."

"Did you recruit her as a child? Did you tell her to keep all those journals about me?"

Trask shrugged. "Classified."

"Maybe I should just shoot him," suggested Lois.

"You won't shoot me," sneered Trask. "You haven't got the guts."

Lois cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?" Her hands flashed right a fraction and the gun spat harmlessly into the carpet. Trask flinched. Aiming at him again, she smiled with a manic gleam in her eye. "Silencers are a wonderful invention, aren't they?"

Clark eyed Lois, impressed by her ability to play-act the tough gunwoman ­ until he remembered her anger when she'd discovered Trask had been filming their lovemaking. Perhaps she wasn't play-acting after all…

"I'd start talking if I were you, Trask," he advised. "Lois wasn't very happy when she found out you had cameras planted in our bedroom."

Trask snorted, but to Clark's ears it sounded like false bravado. Lois had definitely managed to rattle him. In fact, Trask didn't know Lois well enough to have any idea how she might behave. Clark himself was beginning to think she might well send a bullet into Trask if he angered her sufficiently.

"I wouldn't have to shoot anything vital," said Lois plaintively. "Just a foot or something. He'd still be able to talk."

"Yes, but think of the mess he'd make of the carpet, sweetheart." Clark was beginning to feel like one half of Bonnie and Clyde. "Come on Trask, Lois is getting impatient. When did you first meet Lana?"

"You really want to know, don't you, cockroach?" He shrugged. "Okay, I'll tell you. The day after your so-called parents died ­ that's when I spoke to her. They didn't want to co-operate, you see, so we had to dispose of them and find a new recruit. Little Miss Patriot was the perfect choice." He laughed. "She lapped up every word I told her, staring up at me with those big, round patriotic eyes. Her parents would have been proud of her."

Clark felt what little colour was left in his face drain away. The room tilted. "You…you killed them?"

Trask shrugged. "What can I say? They made the wrong choice. They should have chosen patriotism over cowardly sentimentality."

Murdered. His parents had been murdered. The car wreck…

Running towards the car…the blast of hot air that had rocked him backwards when the car had exploded into flames…standing helpless, watching his parents die…

Murdered.

His head swam. Trask became a shapeless blur on the carpet. Reality dissolved into nothingness. He heard his own voice, low, husky and full of hatred. "You bastard."

"Clark, don't do anything-"

But he was out of his chair and seizing Trask to rattle him back and forth like a rag doll before Lois had finished her sentence. Rage consumed him, coloured his vision a deep blood red. "You bastard, you killed my parents! You filthy bastard! How could you? They were kind and generous. I loved them. They loved me. You…you bastard!"

His rage temporarily spent, he flung Trask to the floor and stumbled away.

"Clark…"

"Tell me everything." The fury had returned. He whirled back and grabbed Trask off the floor again. "When did you speak to them, what did they say? What did you tell Lana? How did you convince her to spy on me? Tell me, or I swear I'll take that gun and use it on you myself."

His voice wasn't his own. It growled, aggressive and violent, at the pale face that loomed before him, a dim shape floating amidst the red haze filling his vision.

"I didn't speak to them," said Trask. "We sent a tame government official — the farm was failing so we offered them certain…incentives. Extra tax breaks, special one-off payments ­ that kind of thing. All they had to do in return was send us weekly reports of your activities and take you for monthly medical exams. The fools refused. Some sentimental crap about freedom and civil liberties."

"So you killed them?"

"They knew too much and they were in the way. The nation's security was at stake."

"The nation's-" Clark couldn't believe it. "And that justifies murder?" he demanded. "Your ignorant, bigoted paranoia was enough to convince my own government to kill my parents?"

"They're not your government," retorted Trask. "This is the planet Earth, alien. We don't work for you or your kind."

Furious, he shook Trask again. "Shut up and keep to the subject. Tell me about Lana."

"She was easy. Little Miss Patriot already knew what you were, so I just told her that we needed to know everything about you so that we could protect you. Bad men would come and take you away if we didn't keep close watch over you."

"You told her to keep all those diaries? To call me a…a thing?"

"Only because that's what you are. Yes, I told her to keep the diaries, although I didn't really need to know what flavour popcorn you liked best or how many times you brushed your teeth in the morning. I needed to know what you were capable of and what you were plotting for. But she took her duties very seriously, did Lana." He grinned nastily. "I had no trouble at all persuading her into your bed when the time was right."

"I don't believe you." Because to believe Trask was to believe that he'd all but raped her. That she'd been an unwilling participant the first time they'd made love. Those bright eyes gazing up so trustingly at him ­ how could he have misunderstood them? That hitch in her voice when she'd told him she loved him ­ how could he have misinterpreted that?

"Believe it, cockroach. Oh, she may have wanted you, but I told her when and where. Hell, I even supplied the condom. Want to know the make?"

"No." Disgusted, he dropped Trask again and stumbled into the bathroom. He couldn't take any more. Slamming the door behind him, he leant up against it, breathing heavily.

His parents murdered. Lana taking instructions from Trask on their sex life.

His knees buckled and he slid clumsily to the floor. The bright bathroom lights, chrome fittings and white tiles swung dizzily around him in a sickening kaleidoscope. His gut twisted in on itself and bile rushed up his throat, barely giving him time to grab the nearest receptacle ­ a small metal bin ­ before he retched.

Where did it all end? When did he emerge from this dark tunnel into the bright light? Just when he'd thought he was beginning to pick himself up and build a new life, everything crashed down on top of him again.

"Clark?"

It was Lois, knocking on the bathroom door. "Are you okay?"

No.

He pushed the bin away. "Yes," he called. "Don't leave Trask unguarded."

"He's out cold. He hit his head when you dropped him."

Oh. "Is he…?"

"He's still alive. Can I come in?"

He closed his eyes. She mustn't see him like this. Broken like a puppet without its strings. "Give…give me a minute."

He scrambled to his feet and staggered to the sink. Turning on the tap, he splashed cold water on his face, hoping the shock would bring him to his senses.

It didn't, but he towelled himself dry and opened the door nevertheless. She stood before him, the gun held loosely in one hand, her face creased with anguish. "I don't know what to say to you."

"There's nothing you can say," he replied, feeling curiously empty of emotion. "There are no words for this."

"I…I wanted to kill him."

"Me, too."

"But we can't."

"No."

She stepped into the room. "What can we do?"

"I don't know."

Her nose wrinkled as she detected the sour aroma rising from the metal bin. "Oh, Clark." She swept her free hand over his forehead. "You're ill."

He shook his head. "I'm angry."

Because suddenly he was, having now seen her so upset and in so much pain. His own anguish was one thing, but for Lois to suffer at Trask's hands…

He pushed past her and strode out to Trask, who was stirring groggily on the carpet and struggling feebly against his bonds. "Listen to me," he commanded.

When Trask didn't respond, he bent down and pulled Trask up so that their faces were inches apart. "Can you hear me?" he demanded.

Trask's eyes lolled loosely and his eyelids blinked rapidly. Clark waited a few moments until he began to focus and then asked again. "Can you hear me?"

Cold eyes narrowed and heavy eyebrows lowered as Trask recognised his questioner. "Yeah, cockroach."

"Then listen and listen well." Clark's rage was ice cold this time, an iron fist wrapped tight around his emotions. He knew exactly what to say and how to say it. "You are the cockroach. You are the insect the rest of society is going to stamp on. Because the difference between you and me, cockroach, is that I do not murder. I do not kill. I save lives. And I will continue to save lives, no matter what you do.

"You will never defeat me, or terrorise me, or prevent me from helping those who need me. I will grow stronger while you grow weaker. Your threats will be meaningless. People won't believe you when you try to discredit me. Why? Because they can tell the difference between good and evil. They'll know that you are the evil that needs to be stamped out of their lives.

"So we're not going to kill you, Lois and I. Killing is too easy. We are going to defeat you by winning the hearts and minds of our fellow human beings. By using the laws of this country to put you in jail for the rest of your life."

Clark yanked Trask even closer until he was staring directly into his eyes. "And make no mistake," he growled. "I am human. You are the cockroach."

Trask stared at him in silence for a moment, his gaze unflinching. When he finally opened his mouth to speak, his voice was flint hard. "To my last dying breath, I will hunt you down and kill you."

"What with?" scoffed Clark. "Your green rock doesn't appear to work any more." Without waiting for an answer, he let Trask go, this time taking care not to make him bang his head again.

Standing up, he turned to a white-faced Lois. "Phone the police. This man needs to be arrested for attempted murder."

She nodded. "Okay."

Forty minutes later, Lois pulled up outside the Langs' house. Reaching across for his hand, she said, "Are you sure you want to do this? I could run inside and tell them you're too ill to attend." She squeezed his hand. "Which wouldn't exactly be a complete lie, you know. You look awful."

He shook his head. "I want to do this ­ even more so after everything that's happened. I'll be fine."

"Okay. You've got my cellphone number?"

"Yes, and I'll call you when I'm ready to leave the reception afterwards. I won't stay long."

She lifted his hand and kissed the knuckles. "Remember to contact the other Clark. I'll feel happier knowing he's with you."

"I will."

"And don't let them upset you with their cold shoulder treatment."

"I won't." He glanced up to the house and saw the door opening. "I'd better go."

"Okay. I'll see you soon."

"Yeah."

***

Distractions on a slow news day were always welcome, so when the elevator's ding coincided with the end of Lois's second game of Solitaire in as many hours, she looked up. Who was this latest arrival and was he or she a potential story?

Oh, God.

She leapt from her seat, darted around the corner of her desk and hurried up the ramp to meet him halfway. "What happened?"

All he'd been doing was sitting in a quiet church in Smallville, so why did he look for all the world as if he'd just been exposed to…

No, that wasn't possible.

Was it?

She studied his pasty face. "Clark? Honey?" He looked like a stiff breeze could topple him. She reached out to him.

"I'm fine." He smiled weakly. "Really, I'm fine."

Yeah, right. "What happened?"

"Trask happened." He swayed slightly and grimaced. "Maybe I do need to sit down for a moment."

She remained close to his side as he made his way to his desk. His gait was slow and careful, and he sank into his chair with obvious relief. She felt an overwhelming desire to wrap her arms around him and cling on for dear life, but, conscious that curious glances would turn into fascinated stares if she did, contented herself instead with gripping his hand as she perched on the edge of his desk.

"It's not what you think," he said. "Clark took the brunt of Trask's attack with…well, you know what. I just took over his pain so that he could fight back. It was some kind of weird transfer thing."

Huh? "Took over his pain? How?"

"I have no idea." He sighed wearily and leant back in his chair with his eyes closed. "But let me tell you ­ even pain alone really takes it out of you. That's the closest I've ever come to dropping straight out of the sky."

"Clark!" She glanced around the newsroom to reassure herself that no-one had heard his unguarded confession, the image of him falling like a stone to the ground ­ a fluttering jumble of red and blue ­ flashing across her brain with alarming clarity. What on earth had possessed him to fly back if he'd been feeling that weak? "You should have called me," she admonished. "Or your parents ­ they could have picked you up. Why did you come back, anyway? Is the funeral over already? Is Clark okay?"

He opened his eyes and looked up at her. "He's fine. Last I heard, he and Lois had Trask tied up on the floor and were preparing to interrogate him about Lana. The funeral's been postponed for an hour and he's going to call me when he needs me."

"Lois? Where did she spring from? I thought she was staying in Metropolis."

"So did Clark, but apparently Lois had other plans." He smiled. "Sound familiar?"

She cocked an eyebrow. "Maybe." He wasn't going to distract her that easily, though. "So why didn't you call me?"

He looked sheepish. "I didn't feel that bad when I started out. I mean, I did…sort of…but I thought I'd be okay. I mean, it's not like I didn't have my powers."

"If you'd called me I would have told you just how okay you were!" she retorted.

He shrugged. "This was all new to me, honey. How was I to know how my body would react?"

"Well, okay, I'll grant you that." She sighed. "But next time, assume the worst, okay? I don't want you dropping out of the sky like some kind of man-shaped clay pigeon thing. You might land on someone."

His eyebrows crinkled. "A man-shaped clay pigeon thing? That's the best you can do?"

"My powers of description have been stultified by the lack of news today," she replied. "Tell me the rest of what happened. I can't write about it, but at least it's more interesting than anything happening here."

And listening to him would give her time to get over this latest scare. Marriage to Clark certainly wasn't turning out to be dull; any concerns she may have had about losing the fun and excitement of her single life were well and truly shot to pieces. Every day with Clark brought new challenges and experiences ­ some more welcome than others!

***

"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life…"

Dark, crumbled sods of earth dropped slowly onto the lid of the coffin, gradually obliterating the mellow wood and shiny metal hasps. Clark watched through glassy eyes, the tightness in his throat threatening to stifle him as he listened to the pastor's words.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…"

All those years ago, he'd heard these same words. Stood at the graveside, flanked by sombre adults in dark clothes. Felt small and alone. So very alone.

Dad.

Riding on the tractor. Learning how to milk the cows. Reading stories at bedtime. There was never any uncertainty ­ no self doubts when Dad was around. No insecurity. Solid and dependable, that was Dad.

"And be gracious unto her and give her peace…"

And Mom.

I miss you, Mom. Even now, after all these years, I miss you. Always in the kitchen when I came home from school, ready with a freshly-baked cookie to stave off the hunger pangs before dinner. Always ready with a hug. Always just there.

A single tear trickled down his face. He wanted them back. All of them, even Lana. None of them had deserved to die. Especially not his parents. They'd been good people.

Murdered.

He clenched his fists as another tear ran down his face. Murdered!

Trask would pay for this. He'd pay by watching Superman fly through the skies every damned day, fighting crime and rescuing people in danger. He'd pay by witnessing Clark Kent become a strong man who wasn't afraid of people like Trask ­ who wasn't afraid to be the real Clark Kent. He'd pay by witnessing his own existence tumble into dust, imprisoned behind bars as strong as the nails in Lana's coffin.

All was dark earth now; blurred, as if viewed through a rain- drenched lens.

His resolve was strengthened by all that had happened; all that he'd learned. He'd show them ­ he'd show the world that Clark Kent was a force for good. He'd use these fantastic powers he'd been given to help people, and he'd do it knowing that his parents would have approved, would have wanted this for him.

"Clark?"

Someone was tugging on his sleeve. He looked up into Mrs Lang's grey, lined face. "The car's waiting," she said.

He nodded. Only a small knot of people remained near the graveside, a huddle of subdued figures making small talk. All the close relatives and friends had already made their way to the cars waiting to take them back to the Langs' for the wake.

He fell into step beside Mrs Lang. No words came to him, no appropriate platitudes that might make either of them feel more at ease with the other. They didn't belong together.

She stopped just before reaching the car and turned to him. "I'm sorry things have been so…so difficult between us. John and I…well, we're still in shock. We never expected to be burying our own daughter." She sighed. "I suppose no-one does. But we wanted to say…you're still family, Clark. You're still our son-in-law. And perhaps one day, when we're all feeling a little less raw, you'll come and visit us. We'd love to share happier memories of Lana with you. If you'd like."

His throat tightened up again. How could he respond? She was extending an olive branch, which of course he appreciated, yet he had no wish whatsoever to remain in contact with these people. "Thank you," he muttered. "That's very kind of you."

She nodded and continued on to the car. He followed mutely behind, wondering how he was ever going to make it through the next hour.

/Hang in there, Clark. You can do this./

His mouth twisted. //I don't know these people any longer. I don't fit.//

And even as he thought the words, he spotted a small gaggle of reporters and photographers standing at the gates to the cemetery. At least two telephoto lenses were pointed straight at him.

This would be his life from now on. Reporters on his tail wherever he went. His image photographed time and time again and plastered on every newspaper, every gossip magazine in print. If ever there was a reminder that he was different, that he didn't fit, this was it.

//The press are here.//

/No surprise there./

//Yeah.//

But he'd chosen this life and he would have to make it work. He'd show them all that he did fit ­ that he was an essential part of daily life in Metropolis.

He joined Mrs Lang in the car and they set off, gliding slowly down the drive towards the gates. The press began to jostle for position, trying to get the best shot of the grieving husband.

Or the alien being in their midst?

"Stop the car." He unbuckled his seatbelt.

"It's best to ignore them," said Mr Lang from the back.

"I can't. Stop the car." He waited with his hand on the door handle until the car drew to a stop and then got swiftly out. "Go on without me," he said through the window to the driver. "I'll follow on once I'm spoken to them."

"Clark, you can't!" exclaimed Mrs Lang.

"Go," he instructed the driver. "I'm sorry, Mr and Mrs Lang, but I have to do this. I'll be there as soon as I can."

He turned away, turning a deaf ear to their further protests. In front of him, the frantic clicking of camera shutters grew in pitch and speed as he approached. When he got within earshot, a forest of microphones poked out from the group and questions began to rain down upon him.

He raised his hands to quieten them down, and over the remaining stalwarts determined to continue pressing for answers, said, "I have a statement I'd like to make and then I'll answer any questions you have."

"Clark, will you continue to make Metropolis your home now that your wife has passed away?"

He fixed the over-eager reporter, a young man no more than twenty, with a hard stare. "Statement first, questions after. Okay?"

"Yeah, whatever."

"Okay." He cast his gaze over the group of men and women, noting the mixture of cynicism and boredom in their eyes. They were used to celebrities trying to control them and had no intention of capitulating to him any more than they had with anyone else. He figured he had about one minute to change their minds. "I wanted to talk to you all because I figure our paths are going to cross a lot in the future and I want to get a few things straight.

"First, I chose to step into the public eye when I became Superman. I could have remained anonymous ­ kept Superman's identity a secret ­ but I decided not to because I didn't want there to be any secrecy surrounding Superman. However, the people attending this funeral didn't make any such choice. I'd ask you to remember that and respect their privacy."

He paused to make brief eye contact with each of them in turn, receiving a few curt nods and a couple of cynical yawns in return. Fine. One hundred per cent agreement would have been a miracle, but at least the majority seemed to accept what he was saying.

"Second," he continued, "I will always give you full access whenever I'm working as Superman, so long as no-one's safety is endangered. You'll get interviews, exclusives ­ whatever you need to keep your editors happy. As a reporter myself, I understand what you need and when you need it, and I'll do my best to accommodate you.

"That's not because I'm interested in whether or not there are Superman stories in the press, by the way. Nothing could be further from my agenda. But you'll write about him whether I like it or not, and I figure I may as well work with you rather than against you.

"Third, I'm not naive enough to believe you'll leave my private life alone, but I do ask you to consider the consequences of whatever you choose to write about me before you print it."

A hack near the back of the group let out a pantomime sigh of fake sympathy.

"Not because of any soft-hearted consideration for my feelings," Clark added, meeting the culprit's bored gaze directly, "but because of what it might do to public confidence in Superman. Sure, the public have a right to know if Superman isn't trustworthy, but I can't do my job if people won't call for me because they read something salacious about me in a newspaper."

The culprit rolled his eyes.

"The next person I rescue could be one of you," Clark pointed out. "Some of you get into pretty tight corners from time to time. Would you rather have someone like me to call on when you get out of your depth, or would you rather make it untenable for me to do my job? I won't say more than that ­ I'll leave you to decide whether there's a line, and if so, where exactly that line might be.

"Lastly, I-"

/Help, Superman!/

He blinked. //Huh? What did you just say?//

/Me? I didn't say anything./

//You said help, Superman.//

He sensed the other Clark chuckle. /Sounds like someone needs you, Superman./

//Oh…//

The group were frowning at him. A couple were whispering to each other. "Did his batteries just run out?" "Nah, he's communing with the other aliens."

Anger flared briefly. "Actually, there are no other aliens," he said sharply. "I'm the last of my race." His voice had acquired a hard edge he'd intended to avoid, so he drew in a deep breath and added in a lighter drawl, "And no, I don't run on batteries."

Most of the group laughed while the pair of whisperers looked taken aback.

"But I do possess extraordinarily good hearing," he continued, "so if you have any more questions like that, you may as well ask me directly rather than asking each other."

Superman! Help!

It was a child's voice, high-pitched and full of panic.

"Someone needs me," he explained. "I can hear them calling for me. I'm afraid your questions will have to wait."

He took off, spinning into his suit as he flew. Below, he heard a few gasps of amazement plus one cynical voice observing that they had no way of knowing if the emergency was real or not and what a great way to avoid answering questions. Quickly, he reversed direction, scooped up the doubter and continued on his way. "Lucky you," he told his shocked passenger. "You get to be the first reporter to see Superman in action."

"I…I…didn't really mean it," quavered the young man, whom he now realised was the same guy who'd suggested he ran on batteries. "I was just kidding."

"Saving lives isn't a joking matter," said Clark. "You'll find I don't have much of a sense of humour in that respect."

"Okay. S…sorry, Superman."

"Apology accepted. Now, let's see if we can find this child and make him safe."

In fact, it turned out that the person in danger was the boy's companion, a little girl who'd slid down the edge of an abandoned quarry and was unable to scramble back up. Clark returned her to her grateful parents with no more than a scraped knee and lots of tears. He thanked the boy for calling him but also delivered a mild lecture of the dangers of playing near quarries and other industrial sites. Big brown eyes gazed earnestly up at him, followed by much vigorous nodding and grand, sweeping promises to never, ever do anything naughty ever, ever again.

Suppressing a smile, and satisfied that his work was done, Clark scooped up the bemused journalist again, dumped him back with his colleagues and flew over to the Langs' house, feeling curiously confident and at ease with himself. Rescuing children, it appeared, was good for the soul.

***

A slow news day did wonders for Clark's energy levels, so that by bedtime, he was feeling pretty much back to his old self. Flicking off the main bedroom light, he climbed into bed beside Lois. "You know what I like most about going to bed with you?"

She rolled over to snuggle close up to him, draping one arm across his chest. "Tell me."

"Knowing that when I wake up in the morning, you'll still be you and I'll still be me."

She chuckled. "Yeah, I guess we can start taking that for granted again now that Schulz's machine is toast."

He bent forward to kiss her hair, enjoying the clean, fresh smell of her shampoo. "Exactly. Although, I don't think I could ever take you for granted, especially now that I've seen what might have been."

In fact, he didn't think he'd take anything about his life for granted. Stepping into the other Clark's shoes for a while had really taught him to appreciate the life he had.

"Does that bother you?" Her thumb lazily stroked the skin of his upper arm. "That your Lana could have turned out like his Lana?"

He sighed. "I just can't imagine her behaving so cruelly. She wasn't like that. On the other hand, she was always strong- headed, and if she fell under the influence of a man like Trask…well, I don't know. The Lana I knew was prepared to go a long way to defend what she thought was right, and she was fiercely protective. Put that together with a man who's feeding her a lot of lies about false patriotism and unseen dangers, and you have a dangerous cocktail."

"So you think she could have done what the other Lana did?"

"Not to the same extreme." He frowned. "And I think I'd have noticed, anyway. Mom and Dad, too. But what I guess this teaches us is that children can be very impressionable and it's incredibly important to protect them from men like Trask."

Lois nodded. "And to make sure they understand what's really right and wrong."

"Yeah." He smiled. "So are we going to have any kids to teach what's right and wrong?"

She stilled. "Kids? We haven't really discussed kids."

He immediately sensed the subtle change in her mood and kicked himself for raising the subject so clumsily. Sure, he wanted children, but the ink was hardly dry on their marriage papers and there was plenty of time in the future to discuss kids, wasn't there? Heck, they didn't even know if it was biologically possible. So he should be content, right now, with what he'd already got ­ hadn't he just finished telling himself that?

"No, and I guess this isn't a good time to start," he replied. "Let's just enjoy each other for a while, shall we?"

She relaxed. "Yes. Although," she added with a sly grin, "I have no objection to us practicing having kids. I think we should do that quite a lot, in fact."

He chuckled. "Practicing, huh? You mean…" He rolled them over so that he was gazing down at her. "Like this?"

"Exactly like this," she agreed, snaking her arms around his shoulders. "Make love with me, Clark."

"Gladly, Lois."

And so time stood still while he made slow and very thorough love with his wife, secure in the knowledge that nothing could or would interrupt them. The deep contentment he'd basked in just after their marriage returned full force — what more could he possibly want than the life he enjoyed right at this minute?

Nothing, he concluded afterwards, when they were lying together in a contended tangle of arms and legs. Life was just about perfect, and if his new telepathic companion still had a lot of struggles ahead of him, at least he was over the worst and headed down the right path. It was only a matter of time, Clark was sure, before he was as happy as Clark himself.

***

Two Days Later

Clark stood in the middle of Lois's tiny kitchen and conducted a mental inventory of the items on his to-do list while simultaneously tying his tie and flicking a glance at the hob to check that the pasta wasn't boiling over. The plates were warming, the wine chilling, the table was set, the salad made…what else? What essential item had he forgotten for the perfect candlelit dinner for two? Um…

Candles.

Candles would be good for a candlelit dinner. He gave the pasta sauce a quick stir before speeding into her dining room, locating the four thin, tapered white candles he'd bought especially for the occasion and setting them into the simple silver candleholders he'd also purchased for tonight. So what if they'd cost a little more than he'd anticipated? Lois was worth it.

Standing back, he surveyed the table. White linen tablecloth, two place settings complete with folded napkins and creamy white side plates, two slender wine glasses, a single red rose in a bud vase, and now the four candles. Perfect.

The apartment door clattered open, causing his heart to do a little nervous flip-flop. The guest of honour had arrived, and he so wanted this to be special for her. All she was expecting was a TV dinner and a glass of last night's cheap white wine, but she was going to get a lot more ­ he hoped.

Quickly, he lit the candles and strolled over just as she turned to shut the door behind her. "Good evening, Ms Lane."

"And good evening to you, Mr K-" She turned around as she answered, and now her mouth hung open in surprise.

He grinned, pleased with her reaction. Wearing his best charcoal grey suit had definitely been a good idea. "May I take your coat?"

Her gaze glanced past him to the soft lit room beyond and the dining table set for two. A smile spread over her face and her eyes glistened with delight. "That would be nice." She shrugged out of her coat and handed it to him.

He draped it over one arm. "If you'd care to follow me?"

"To the ends of the earth," she muttered, causing his grin to widen even further as he led her to the sofa in the living room.

"Dinner will be served shortly," he said as she settled down. "Would you care for an aperitif beforehand?"

"Yes, please." She beckoned him down to her level with a single, curved finger and a sly smile. As he bent towards her, she slipped her arm around his neck and pressed her lips to his.

He murmured with pleasure when her soft, yielding lips moved over his. Every kiss he shared with Lois seemed better than the previous one. This was soft and sensuous, a loving, welcome-home kiss full of nuance and promise. Dinner, if he hadn't taken so much trouble over it, could rapidly become an irrelevance if he allowed this to develop to its logical conclusion. Especially when the tip of her tongue began to probe delicately inside his mouth, seeking, touching, and teasing…

He sighed and drew reluctantly away. "Dinner first."

"Aww." She pouted. "Although that was the best tasting aperitif I think I've ever had."

He laughed. "You're welcome." He tried not to bounce too obviously into the kitchen on his way to tend to the meal.

Two minutes later, he'd dished up, lit the candles and invited her to the table. As she approached, he held out her chair for her and she slid elegantly into place. "Clark, this looks wonderful," she murmured.

He returned to his side of the table and began pouring the wine ­ their favourite red, fruity and full-bodied. "I wanted to say thank you, and this was the best way I could think to do it. Later, if you like, we can go flying. Anywhere you want."

"Oh, Clark! I'd love to." She took a sip of wine. "But you don't have to thank me. I haven't done anything."

"Lois, you have done everything!" he exclaimed. "I can't begin to describe what you've done for me. You've…" He searched his vocabulary for the best words to express himself. Nothing seemed quite right, nothing expressed the vast change he felt within himself. Until…

"You've brought me from the darkness into the light," he declared. "That's what you've done for me."

She raised an eyebrow. "Even after everything that's happened? Lana's death, your parents, being kidnapped and beaten up?"

"That was part of the journey. And you've shown me how to be the real me."

"I think the other Lois probably had a hand in that," she pointed out. "She told you about Superman."

"True, but I could never have done any of it without you." He sat down and pushed the salad bowl towards her. "So I do need to thank you."

She began helping herself to salad. "You'd have done the same for me. But okay, if this is my reward for helping the man I love, then I accept. You can thank me like this every day of the week."

He chuckled. "Now don't start getting greedy. This took a lot of effort and planning, you know."

"Yes, actually, I'm surprised you had time today. How did it go with the Langs?"

He sighed. "As well as you might expect, I guess."

After the funeral, they'd known that it was only a matter of time before news leaked out of their affair. Perry's embargo, placed at Lois's insistence, wouldn't hold up for much longer, whether or not he gave his journalists permission to write about the events they'd witnessed in and around their own newsroom for the past few months.

So they'd made two decisions. One, to tell Perry everything, including all that they knew about Skywatch, Trask, and Lana's involvement. Giving him their version of events seemed preferable to letting him get the information second or third- hand, twisted through the prism of hyperactive imaginations. Besides, Perry was a seasoned newspaperman whose advice they valued. So Clark had put his acute discomfort and embarrassment to one side and told his boss the entire story from start to finish. The only part he'd omitted was the universe hopping, reasoning that it wasn't necessary to the story and no-one but he and Lois knew about it.

Initially, Perry had been a prickly, reluctant and highly sceptical listener, his reactions no doubt coloured by his opinion of Clark as an adulterer with a history of absenteeism at work. However, by the end of the story, Perry was won over; he was furious with Trask and whatever branch of government had permitted such a monstrous organisation to develop and exist within its midst. He'd given sage advice on how to handle the leaking of the story onto the pages of the Planet and the rest of the media, and had pledged to give Clark whatever support he needed to bring Trask to book.

That success gave Clark the confidence he'd needed to enact their second decision, which was to tell the Langs everything about their daughter's involvement with Trask and Skywatch, and to confess to his affair with Lois.

***

He'd hated doing it. All his instincts told him that the Langs knew nothing of their daughter's undercover activities, and to tell them so soon after her death seemed horribly cruel and insensitive. However, he'd reasoned that to learn everything from the imminent news coverage would be infinitely worse; at least this way, they'd be prepared for the media storm that would soon erupt over their quiet lives.

Mr Lang had nearly thrown him out of the house. He'd snatched up a poker from beside the fireplace and brandished it in Clark's face, while Mrs Lang sat quietly on the edge of a sofa, softly weeping over Lana's notebooks Clark had brought to back up his story.

"I'll kill you!" Mr Lang had yelled. "So help me, I'll kill you. How dare you make these filthy accusations! You killed her, didn't you? I knew it! All of this is just a smokescreen to hide the fact that you murdered our daughter. So help me, I'll kill you!"

He'd swung the poker down, forcing Clark to catch it in his hand and redirect the momentum away from his body ­ anything less would have jarred Mr Lang hideously and possibly caused him to injure himself. As it was, Mr Lang fell forward and would have crashed to the carpet if Clark hadn't caught him and righted him again.

"Get your hands off me!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but you would have hurt yourself-"

"How many more of us are you going to murder? With strength like that, I suppose you could snuff us all out-"

"Stop it, John," begged Mrs Lang from the sofa. "Stop saying those dreadful things about him." She looked past her husband to Clark. "He doesn't mean it, really. He's just upset…we both are."

Clark eyed her tear-streaked face and nodded. "I know." Yet, even as he agreed with her, he couldn't help wondering if Mr Lang's knee-jerk reaction was an indication of where Lana may have got her xenophobic ideas from. "I'm sorry I've upset you ­ believe me, I would have preferred not to come here today and tell you all of this. God knows, you've been through enough already. But very soon now, whether we like it or not, the media will get hold of all of this and I thought you'd prefer to be forewarned of what was to come."

Mr Lang grunted. "In other words, you wouldn't have bothered to tell us if you hadn't been afraid of the media."

"Not at all." Clark replaced the poker in its holder by the fireplace. "I would have told you anyway ­ I'm sick and tired of secrecy and lies ­ but I would have given you time to grieve properly first."

"I still don't believe it," said Mr Lang. "Lana would never have done any of what you say she did. I brought her up to know the difference between right and wrong. And as for cheating on her ­ well, all I can say, mister, is that in my day, we had ways of dealing with men like you. There's a lot of dangerous machinery on a farm and accidents happen all too frequently."

Clark grimaced. "Sir, I can only apologise again. I was weak and selfish and incredibly stupid. I wish I'd made different choices, and I won't try to defend those that I made." He sighed. "But what's done is done, and all I can do is apologise and try my best to do better in future."

"Those are good, humble words, Clark," said Mrs Lang, "but you'll understand that we can't accept them. You broke your marriage vows to our daughter and we can't forgive you for that."

Her flat, lifeless rejection made his heart weigh heavily in his chest, but he had no choice but to nod. Now was not the time to defend himself. "I understand."

She stood up. "Despite what I said at the funeral, I don't think you should come here again, Clark. Please leave us to grieve in peace."

Mr Lang snorted. "Peace? He comes here making wild accusations about our daughter, and you expect us to live in peace? Don't be a idiot, woman."

Mrs Lang cringed under her husband's scathing, angry looks. "Let me show you out, Clark," she said quietly.

Clark followed her to the front door, leaving behind a still- apoplectic Mr Lang. Clark's opinion of his ex-father-in-law was somewhat less charitable than when he'd arrived; where previously, he'd thought the man was gruff but generally well- meaning, he now suspected Mr Lang had a much harsher outlook on the world. He didn't appear to treat his wife with much respect and seemed to slip far too easily into xenophobic generalisations. Clark wasn't too bothered that he was no longer welcome at the Langs'.

"Here," said Mrs Lang, handing him Lana's notebooks. "These don't belong in this house."

Clark took them silently, biting back his true feelings. It appeared that, no matter how grievously their daughter had treated him, the Langs had no intention of acknowledging anything other than his own shortcomings in the affair. Well, fine. They were clearly in denial ­ publicly, at least. Privately, he felt sure that Mrs Lang believed what he'd told her about Lana. One of these days, she might even leave her husband over it.

Another casualty of Trask's evilness.

***

Dinner was over and Lois was gripping Clark's hand across the table by the time he'd finished telling her what had happened at the Langs'. "I can't believe that after all that you prepared this wonderful meal for me," she said.

"I wanted to do something positive," he confessed. "To counteract all that ugly stuff."

She gripped his hand tighter. "It really hurt you, didn't it?"

He pushed a smile onto his face. "I'll survive. So, what would you like to do now? Still want to go flying?"

"Sure! But let's stay local, okay? I'd love to fly over the city."

He nodded. "Metropolis it is."

Five minutes later they were soaring over the bright lights of the city. Far below, the busy streets were bright ribbons of colour, and between them, tall skyscrapers rose up like majestic beacons of light. Muted traffic noises created a musical backdrop to the scene and a fresh, cooling breeze on their faces completed the perfect mix of sights, sounds and sensations.

Clark felt himself relax as he watched the city glide by beneath them. Flying was rapidly becoming his favourite method of de- stressing and he could only marvel that he'd taken so long to discover its healing powers. All those years training himself not to float above the bed ­ what a fool's errand that had been. If only he'd known; if only Lana hadn't made him suppress all that he was…

But this wasn't the time to reflect on what might have been. He turned his attention away from the scenery to the woman in his arms. She was gazing out at the city with bright, shining eyes, a smile dancing around her mouth and her hair fluttering around her face like a halo. "I love you, Lois," he murmured.

She looked up at him, her smile even broader than before. "And I love you, Clark."

He closed his lips over hers and let himself melt into her. The sounds and sensations of their flight drifted away, leaving behind a calm stillness that carried him far away from the Langs and the rest of his earth-bound troubles. This evening, he was flying with Lois ­ flying just like he'd dreamt all those days before in another universe. He was free. Free at last.

***

Some weeks later, in our universe

Lying in the dark, in the dead of night with Lois sleeping soundly beside him, Clark reached out with his thoughts, probing outwards into the void to find that other mind, that person who was so like him yet so different in many ways.

Silence.

Had the connection broken? Was the fact that they hadn't switched bodies for some time making the link unsustainable? Or had the other Clark simply decided he no longer needed the guidance and support of his more experienced counterpart?

Clark wasn't concerned, whatever the reason. He'd already sensed that his counterpart was rapidly growing in confidence and self- esteem. Their conversations had become less frequent over the past couple of weeks, the fledgling Superman requiring only minimal guidance when dealing with new rescue situations. Sure, they'd exchanged chat and banter on other subjects, but even that was drying up these days. Over the vast gulf of space and time that they had to span, their differences seemed more apparent than their similarities.

Still, he was pleased to have been given the opportunity to help the other Clark. He wished his counterpart well, and felt positive that it was only a matter of time until Clark Kent, the orphan from Smallville and Krypton, became a Superman in every sense of the word.

THE END