The Long Road Home

By Erin Klingler <erinklingler@cableone.net>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: September 2005

Summary: In this Elseworlds story, two reporters on opposite coasts are seeking something to fill the void in their lives. Fate draws them together, but their happiness — and their lives — are soon threatened when a bicoastal investigation leads them to a formidable enemy. Will their tender new relationship be able to weather the storms ahead?

I'd like to dedicate this story to my great friend and awesome beta reader, CC Aiken, who stuck by me throughout this monster, and encouraged me to finish it even when I felt overwhelmed with the task. CC, I owe this story's completion to you. :)

A *huge* thank you goes out to my brainstormers, LabRat and Wendy, who both helped me smooth out this story when it was still a rough draft. I also need to give a lot of credit to Tank and Paul (Hatman), for selflessly jumping in to help me with this when I first started it almost two years ago, by giving me all kinds of feedback and ideas. In fact, many of the ideas and scenes in this fic are a compilation of ones suggested by my brainstormers and beta readers. I owe so much to you guys!

Many thanks also go out to the readers on the fanfic message boards, who gave me such wonderful feedback and stuck with me clear through to the end. You have no idea how much your devotion and cheerleading has motivated me. I owe you, my friends, a debt of gratitude.

Even though I thanked her already <g>, a big "Thank You!" goes out to LabRat, our amazing editor-in-chief of the fanfic archive, who went above and beyond the call of duty and offered to GE this fic of mine. She did a fabulous job of finding the things I overlooked. Thanks, Labby! You're the best. :)

Standard disclaimers apply: The story is mine, as are the original characters in this story; the other characters, however, belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers. A couple of sections and some miscellaneous wordings in particular came directly from a couple of the episode's scripts. In order to avoid spoilers, those credits will come at the end of the story. No copyright infringement was intended on my part as I borrowed them for a couple of scenes in my story.

I hope you enjoy! Comments are always welcome. Feel free to email me at erinklingler@cableone.net, or erink@lcfanfic.com.

***

Some people are lucky enough to start and finish their lives right where they belong, always feeling comfortable with themselves and their lives. They have exactly what they want, and they feel an amazing sense of contentment.

Others, however, spend their entire lives searching—searching for themselves, searching for something…for whatever it is they feel they are missing. Their journey is wrought with difficulties and disappointments, a need to fulfill some part of themselves they simply don't know how to satisfy.

For these people, their lives continue to feel like the very first step on a long road home.

***

With weary fingers, Lois typed the final few keystrokes to finish her story—a damning expose on a San Francisco crime ring. She sent the file off to Jim Langley, her editor-in-chief, then leaned back in her chair with a sigh of relief.

She was finally done. The realization left her both exhilarated…and exhausted. She'd been working so hard and for so long on this investigation, and now that all the evidence had finally been gathered, every source had been checked out, and every fact had been documented, she felt too tired to even move from her chair. But she also felt an incredible sense of exhilaration, knowing that when her article came out in tomorrow's morning edition, heads were going to roll.

Her editor had been momentarily concerned when she'd come to him a month ago asking to be put on the story. He knew that, without hard evidence, a story naming several high-ranking officials in the city and its surrounding area could cause the San Francisco Chronicle a world of trouble. But even he hadn't been able to find fault with the tirelessly obtained evidence she'd presented him with the day before that would, most certainly, be one of the most incredible exposes the newspaper had ever printed. It would also present prosecutors with enough evidence to make the necessary indictments. It was investigative journalism at its best.

A confident smile worked its way across her face. 'Dang, I'm good. And this story proves it.'

'Not that I have anything to prove,' she quickly amended.

In the six years she'd been a reporter, she'd built a name for herself by writing stories that had exposed everything from illegal gun-running operations to money-laundering schemes. She had even dealt local crime lords blows by exposing their carefully constructed operations, thereby cleaning up her little corner of the world.

She was known among her colleagues and peers as one to be reckoned with, an investigative journalist who got to the bottom of absolutely any story. If something were hidden, she would find it. That was all there was to it. Everyone knew she was the best. And she was.

But strangely enough, lately, being the best didn't seem to be enough. It felt like something was missing in her life. Something…

"Lois! Where's that story of yours?"

Lois jerked her thoughts back to the present and turned in the direction of the voice. She immediately spotted the familiar scowl on her editor-in-chief's stern, dark face as he stormed about the newsroom, making sure everyone was going to meet the evening deadline.

"It's done, Chief," she called back wearily. "I just sent it to you."

He nodded with satisfaction, but his mouth maintained its firm line. "Great. Now get out of here. Go home and get some sleep. That's an order."

Lois let a weary smile slip out and she pushed her chair back from her desk. "You don't have to tell me twice. G'night, Chief."

"'Night, Lois." This time his voice was a little less gruff as he turned and headed back to his office.

Lois shook her head as she gathered up her overcoat and attache and headed for the elevator. She'd worked for Jim Langley for a long time now, and she knew that underneath that gruff exterior, he was really a softie. He'd seen her through losing her parents, through threats of suspension from her job when witnesses hadn't panned out, through everyday hardships and trials. He'd become more of a friend than anyone knew. And these days, she was glad to have every friend she could get in her often lonely profession.

Yet, even though she was grateful to have a handful of people she could honestly call friends, she felt the same hint of depression trying to work its way into her soul. With great effort, she pushed it aside.

'What on earth do you have to be depressed about?' she asked herself as she stepped out of the elevator and into the Chronicle's below-ground parking garage. 'You just nailed the expose of the year. If this story doesn't earn you the Pulitzer prize, nothing will. Enjoy the moment!'

But even as she insisted, she found it hard to do so. She always craved the action, the intensity, the battle to get the story—and usually the glory that came along with it—but this time, she just didn't feel her usual enthusiasm.

'It's the after-story blues,' the little voice in the back of her head reasoned. 'You always feel like this after you finish a big story. All those weeks of tracking down leads and digging up the dirt—it's only natural that you would feel a sense of letdown.'

Somehow, though, Lois didn't think that was the only reason she was feeling this way. She felt restless. Discontented. With everything that she had going for her, for some reason it didn't seem like enough.

As she rounded the corner and approached her silver BMW, she couldn't help glancing over the car for any signs of tampering. It wouldn't have been the first time someone had set out to get her, to attempt to stop her from printing her articles. It was a fact that her investigative reporting made more enemies than friends.

When nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Lois hit the unlock button on her car's security remote and climbed in. So many times, her editor had voiced concerns about her ability to watch out for herself. He knew she was in a dangerous position, remaining in the public eye as her exposes tore down criminals and even occasionally sent men of power and wealth to prison.

On more than one occasion, he had wanted to assign one of the Chronicle's security officers to at least get her safely home, but Lois always insisted she could take care of herself. She knew the risks. There was always the possibility that the person or persons she was exposing would threaten her life. She had to stay on guard and remain watchful. But strangely enough, that's what made her feel alive, knowing she was constantly in the line of danger. It was an adrenaline rush, and it was addictive. But she knew it would be useless to try to explain all that to her editor- in-chief.

She started the engine and steered the sports car through the busy streets of San Francisco, dodging in and out of traffic. At her increased speed, it was only a few minutes before she was parking her car in her apartment's garage and taking the elevator up to her fifth-floor apartment.

The elevator chimed and the doors slid open, and Lois stepped out onto her floor. She crossed the hall to her apartment on the left and was just inserting her key into the lock when the door to the next apartment opened. A head with a bright blue, clear plastic cap that covered a dozen or more bright pink rollers poked through the crack.

Lois raised her eyebrows at her elderly neighbor. "Hello, Agnes. Nice hair-do."

The elderly woman let out a noise of disgust as she stepped the rest of the way out of her apartment. She was dressed in a wild, floral print robe and hot pink slippers that almost matched the color of her hair rollers. A tiny white poodle with little red bows secured above each ear was held securely in her arms.

"Don't get smart with me, young lady," Agnes scolded, yet an unmistakable note of affection contradicted her firm tone. She glanced down at her thin, gold watch. "You're home late again. What have I told you about working too hard?"

Lois let a smile slip out at her neighbor's familiar reprimand. "That I'm going to grow old before my time and end up an old maid." She repeated the words Agnes had told her many times before. Then she pointedly glanced at the little dog her neighbor was holding, and her voice took on a light, teasing tone. "Like you, perhaps? Living alone in an apartment in San Francisco with only a dog for a roommate?"

Agnes snorted good-naturedly. "Never you mind about that. This isn't about me, this is about you. You just need to have a little fun once in a while, instead of working at that newspaper of yours all hours of the day and night."

Lois stepped away from her door and closed the distance between her and her neighbor. When she was close enough, she reached out to rub the little dog's ears and coo softly at her. The dog responded by twisting her head into Lois's hand, obviously enjoying the attention. "She sure loves people, doesn't she? Seems unusual for a poodle."

Agnes chuckled. "It's true poodles can be yippy and sometimes mean, but Princess has always been sweet. She loves people and the attention they give her. But she's a good judge of character. I'd hate to see her meet up with someone she didn't trust. She knows you're a good person, so she really loves you."

"Or maybe she just knows a sucker when she sees one." Lois grinned as the dog licked her hand. When she pulled her hand away, she took another look at her neighbor's interesting hairstyle. "You have a hot date tonight, Agnes?"

"One never knows." Agnes flashed a cryptic smile. "Just because I'm old doesn't mean I can't have a life. And that holds true for you, too, dear. Not the 'old' part, but the 'having a life' part, I mean. Are you going out tonight?"

Lois felt a pang of sadness come over her, but she quickly pushed it aside and shook her head. "Not tonight. I think I'll curl up with some ice cream and a good book. I'm tired."

Agnes made a tsk-tsk sound with her tongue and shook her head reprovingly. "You're young and beautiful, Lois. You probably have a dozen dashing young men eager to take you out. You should take one of them up on their offer."

"Maybe sometime." Lois sighed. "None of them interest me, I guess."

"Interest, schminterest," the old lady scolded as she scrunched up her already wrinkled face at her younger neighbor. "I'm not saying you have to marry one of them. Just go out, for once! Having some kind of life outside that paper of yours would do you some good."

"I know." Lois nodded half-heartedly. "I just…I don't know. I seem to be looking for something that doesn't exist." She paused a moment, afraid of moving into territory that was better left unexplored. Finally, in an attempt to lighten the mood, she grinned and met Agnes's gaze. "I guess I'm just waiting for that knight in shining armor to sweep me off my feet, just like you are."

Agnes let out a laugh that could be heard clear down the hall. "Smart girl. And a romantic at heart, I must say. I always knew there was a hopeless romantic in you beneath all those exposes you write." She reached out to pat Lois's arm. "Good for you, Lois. Good for you."

Then, without another word, Agnes turned and went back into her apartment, shutting the door soundly behind her.

Lois smiled after her neighbor. Despite their age difference, Lois thought of her as a friend…as kind of the mother she didn't have.

Turning back to her own apartment, she unlocked her door and went inside. The lights were dim in the entryway, and she tossed her overcoat and attache onto the Victorian chair next to her. Then she crossed the darkened living room to the floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the bustling city.

Settling into the overstuffed armchair beside the windows, she stared out at the flickering lights of the houses and buildings below her and in the distance. It was a beautiful sight, one she never tired of. It had soothed her on many an occasion after a long, stressful day of work. But tonight, even the beautiful views and the twinkling lights of the city spread out before her couldn't soothe her soul.

Lois shook her head. She didn't know why she felt so restless. She had a good career that earned her a nice living, a nice apartment in a safe part of town, and a life that was her own. She could come and go as she pleased.

'Then why am I not happy?' she asked herself as she felt a hint of depression sinking back in. 'What is it, exactly, that I think I'm missing in my life?'

She propped her elbow on the arm of the chair and dropped her chin into her hand as she stared out into the darkening night sky. She didn't know what it was, but something was missing. Something she just couldn't put her finger on.

She wanted more out of her life.

But for the life of her, she had no idea what it was.

***

Lois walked into the newsroom bright and early as usual the next morning. She was just nearing her desk when Jim Langley noticed her entrance and came rushing over. He had the morning newspaper in his hand and a huge smile on his face.

"You've created a real media frenzy with your story, Lois. Indictments were issued early this morning, and I hate to say, I think you have a whole slew of new enemies. You've really outdone yourself this time. Great work."

Lois smiled back. "Thanks, Chief."

She wasn't surprised by his news of the indictments issued that morning, however. The moment she'd woken up, she'd turned on the television to see if anything was being said about her article. To her satisfaction, the news channels were humming with reports of indictments and businesses were quickly issuing statements in an attempt to do damage control. Even more satisfying, video was being shown of the influential men involved being led away in handcuffs.

She smiled. She loved this part. It made her feel like she was making a difference in the world. Or at least in her little corner of it.

She went through the rest of the day catching up on various things that had been cast aside while she'd worked on her investigation. She actually felt relaxed for a change, with the weight of her time-consuming and stressful story off her shoulders.

By late afternoon she had caught up, and she was just contemplating going home a little early for a change when a startled cry came from somewhere to her right. She looked up and saw that a group of her coworkers had gathered around the newsroom televisions to watch the east coast launch of the space shuttle bound for Space Station Prometheus.

Curious, she ambled closer to the bank of televisions. She heard the television reporter saying something about a bomb being detected on the transport, and attempts to defuse it were failing. Suddenly, shrieks of surprise could be heard from the large crowd gathered at the launch site out of the camera's range. Lois's brow furrowed. What was happening now?

Just then the cameras panned to the right and gave viewers a glimpse of something streaking through the sky toward the transport. She watched, her eyes glued to the television, as the commentators tried to describe what was happening.

"There appears to be something flying overhead, but it doesn't appear to be an aircraft. It appears to be…" The reporter's voice drifted off and Lois leaned in closer, waiting anxiously along with the rest of her coworkers to hear the reporter's next words. Finally, the reporter continued, her voice reflecting her disbelief. "It appears to be a man! Yes, reports are coming in saying it's a man, dressed in a tight blue suit with a red cape, flying toward the transport!"

Lois's jaw dropped, and a collective gasp came from the crowd of people around her. 'A man?' she thought. 'How could it be a man? There's no such thing as a flying man!'

But as she watched the cameras zoom in on the mysterious figure, Lois caught a better glimpse of what the people in Metropolis were seeing. It did indeed appear to be a man. He was dressed in a rather revealing blue costume, with a red cape billowing out behind him as he flew.

Or appeared to fly.

She shook her head. This had to be a publicity stunt. It didn't make any sense! Maybe this man was being held up by cables and supported by an overhead helicopter or something. She couldn't see why such a publicity stunt would be appropriate in the face of looming danger, but at least it made more sense than the other explanation—that a man could really be flying under his own power.

Unable to tear her eyes away from the screen as the events unfolded before her, she watched as the picture on the televisions changed from the outside footage view, to the view inside the shuttle where glimpses of the colonists had been broadcast for PR purposes. The monitors showed the mysterious, costumed man pry open the door of the transport and hurry in. The security members of the colony froze upon seeing the strange newcomer. She couldn't hear the words they exchanged, but it was obvious one of the members of the security team was directing the costumed man to the bomb's location.

Lois watched along with everyone else around the world as the mysterious man reached the bomb. She didn't have long to wonder what he was going to do with it. With quick determination, the man ripped off the connecting wires, yanked the bomb from its casing, then flew out of the transport so fast he was a blur of blue and red as he streaked into the sky. The cameras panned up after him, and a moment later there was an explosion. A brilliant cloud of oranges, reds, and yellows lit up the night sky.

There was a shocked cry from the crowd of onlookers in Metropolis, as well as from Lois and the group of coworkers around her. Moments later, there was another streak of blue and red heading back toward the transport.

As the reporters at the scene tried to explain what was happening, Lois's coworkers started to chatter excitedly amongst themselves. The cameras on-board the space transport showed glimpses of the mystery man back amongst the colonists. The few smudges of black powder on his face and colorful suit were the only signs he'd been near the explosion.

Lois ignored the chatter around her as she studied the screen carefully. Who was this man? Where had he come from? If this wasn't some illusion, there were a lot of questions to be answered. The world was going to want those answers. And so was she.

Lois's attention was immediately drawn back to the TV when the picture shifted to a distance shot that showed the transport slowly lifting off the ground. A gasp escaped her lips. Was what they saw happening really happening? Moments later, the transport disappeared from view into the night sky.

The cameras panned away, once again focusing on the reporters who were making a valiant attempt to report the events that had just unfolded before the world's eyes. But Lois was no longer interested in what they had to say. Nothing they could report would tell her what she wanted to know. That information she would have to gather for herself. And there was only one way to do that.

"Chief!" Lois stormed over to her editor's office, where he was standing and watching the events unfold from his doorway. "I need to get to Metropolis. Now."

Jim Langley shook his head and held up his hands placatingly. "Now, Lois, calm down. I know this is big news, but you know I can't authorize sending a reporter across the country just like that. One of our sister companies can cover this. They're closer to the action and won't have an expense account to consider."

"Chief, come on!" Lois pleaded. "There's no one good enough there to get to the bottom of this story! This isn't just news. This is huge! If this isn't just some illusion or PR stunt, imagine the ramifications this could have. To be able to do the things this man did, he would have to be some kind of genetic experiment…or maybe even some kind of alien! No human I know is capable of doing those things."

She paused, studying her editor-in-chief for any signs that he was wavering. When she didn't see any, she rushed on. "Chief, think about this. This man could be the biggest story *ever.* The San Francisco Chronicle could go down in history as the newspaper who got the exclusive! And you would go down in the history books as the editor-in-chief at the time it happened."

Lois saw a light of interest spark in her editor's eyes. That had done it. She had him.

With renewed confidence, she rushed on. "How could you let some sister newspaper send some inexperienced reporter to cover this? They'd blow it, and then what kind of story would you have? Send me. This has Pulitzer written all over it, and I want it."

Jim Langley studied his star reporter carefully, mulling things over. She was right. If anybody could get the scoop, she could. She was ruthless, determined. In all his years in the business, he'd never met another journalist so passionate and resourceful.

After what seemed like hours, he finally nodded. "Okay, Lois. Let me make a few phone calls and I'll see what I can do."

"Great!" Lois flashed him a triumphant smile. "Thanks, Chief. I'll be at my desk."

Leaving her editor alone, Lois wandered out into the newsroom and sat down at her desk. From there, she was able to continue to watch the footage of the averted disaster being played over and over again on the bank of televisions.

It was amazing, really. If it had been staged, it could go down as the world's most amazing hoax. If it was, she was ready to expose it. If this wasn't a hoax, though…if there really was a man out there who could fly, dispose of bombs, and lift transport vehicles into outer space…well, that would be even bigger news.

As the minutes ticked by, Lois tried to occupy herself with going over her notes for the next story she was working on. Instead, she kept glancing up at the clock on the newsroom wall. The anxiety building within her, she allowed herself a glance at her editor's office. He was still on the phone.

Unable to sit still as she awaited the verdict, she got up to pour herself a cup of coffee. She had just returned to her desk when Jim's voice boomed out across the newsroom.

"Lois! In my office!"

Lois jumped at the sound of her editor's voice, then quickly obeyed his command. Her eyes searched his intently as she stood in his doorway, awaiting his answer. Her heart skipped a beat when she finally saw him nod.

"You catch the Red Eye first thing tomorrow. I've managed to get permission for you to work out of the Daily Planet there in Metropolis. Since we're owned by the same investment group, you won't be stepping on anybody's toes. But be sure to check in with Perry White when you get there. He's the Daily Planet's editor- in-chief, and an old friend of mine. He'll be expecting you."

Lois could hardly contain her excitement. "Thanks, Chief. You won't be disappointed."

"I'd better not be." He gave her a stern look. "And just so you know, you only have three days. That's all I could manage." He held up his hand at her exclamation of dismay. "There's no use arguing. It's the best I could do. Be back here by the end of the week. And you'd better have something spectacular to show for it, understand?"

Lois nodded reluctantly as she turned to leave his office. Three days! How was she supposed to get to the bottom of this in three days? It wasn't much time, but if that was all she was going to get, she'd just have to make the most of it.

Deciding she'd better get home to pack, Lois hurried to the parking garage and was soon navigating the congested late afternoon traffic. By the time she pulled into her own apartment building's underground parking garage, she knew she'd better hurry. She had three days to pack for, and she wanted to do a little research before she left. She planned to scour the Internet to see if anything had turned up about this mysterious man. Hopefully there would be something to give her some clues as to how to contact this flying phenomenon.

Lois hurried into her building only to see a group of a dozen or so tenants waiting to get into the elevator. She growled in frustration. She didn't have the time nor the patience to wait. Instead, she hurried down the hall and threw open the door to the back stairwell. Taking the stairs two at a time up all five flights, she felt winded but exhilarated when she finally burst through the fifth-floor stairwell door.

The door banged open loudly, and down the hall, Agnes looked up in surprise from where she was waiting with Princess at the elevator. The elderly woman's eyebrows lifted when she saw Lois, still breathing heavily, emerge from the stairwell at a jog.

"Where's the fire?" Agnes teased.

Lois attempted to grin as she panted for breath. "I didn't mean to startle you," she said as she hurried down the hall toward them on the way to her apartment. "I just got the okay to head to Metropolis on the Red Eye tomorrow to do a story on that mysterious man at the Prometheus transport vehicle. Did you see what happened?"

Agnes nodded, a light of curiosity brightening her features. "I saw it on CNN just a while ago. Do you think that man's for real? Or just some carefully orchestrated hoax?"

Lois laughed. "Agnes, you sound just like me, questioning everything."

"I guess you're rubbing off on me." Her neighbor smiled good- naturedly. She watched Lois fumble with the keys to her apartment in her hurry to get in. "How long are you going to be gone?"

Lois finally managed to get the key into the lock and open the door. "Just 'till the weekend. My boss says that's all the time I have. How am I supposed to track this guy down and get the story in three days?"

Agnes smiled supportively. "If anyone can do it, Lois, you can."

"Thanks," Lois breathed. "I only hope I get there in time. I want the exclusive, and I don't want anyone to beat me to it."

"Go get 'em, girl!" Agnes called out.

Lois smiled as she hurried into her apartment. Agnes was her number one cheerleader. She loved that about her kindly neighbor. She didn't know what she would do without her. After all, Agnes was the closest thing to family she had.

Lois forced herself to shake that last thought from her mind, refusing to allow it to pull her into a momentary bout of depression. She wasn't alone. She had friends. Well, she had Agnes, she corrected herself. But Agnes filled a huge void in her life, and for that, she would always be grateful.

Turning back to the task at hand, Lois retrieved her suitcase from the hall closet and carried it into her bedroom. She set it down onto her bed and unzipped it. Then she turned to her closet.

Staring at her closet's contents, she tried to decide what to pack. It had been a long time since she'd been back east. It was fall; did that call for sweaters and suit jackets? Or was it still warm enough for skirts and blouses? She wanted to make sure she looked her best. After all, she knew there would be hundreds of other reporters vying for the story. And not just any story. *The* story. And to get a story of this magnitude, one needed to know what was involved in getting that story.

Then it came to her, and she knew exactly what she had to do.

If this wasn't a hoax, if there really was a man who could fly, she was going to have to dress and look incredible enough to catch this mysterious man's eye. She didn't know anything about him in particular, but he looked human enough to her. And she knew men. No man could resist a sexy woman.

She smiled smugly. This called for skirts. Short skirts. And drooping necklines. And curve-hugging clothes.

'You don't want to look like a tramp, though,' the voice in the back of her head insisted. 'Pick something sexy yet tasteful.'

With renewed vigor, Lois started pulling carefully selected articles of clothing out of her closet and tossing them onto her open suitcase. She made sure to include several of her most heart-stopping outfits—her red suit; a low cut blouse; a pair of dark slacks that showed off her slim, curvy figure; a couple of tight-fitting yet tasteful sweaters.

When she was at last satisfied that she had everything she needed, Lois folded everything carefully and packed them into her suitcase and garment bag. A look at the clock told her it was almost eight, and she knew she'd better grab a bite to eat and then unwind for the evening. She would have to leave very early the next morning to catch her flight, so it would be imperative to turn in early.

Besides, it was going to be a big day tomorrow. She would need every ounce of her energy to get this story. She knew all her hard work would pay off in the end, though. It always did.

When Lois finally changed into her favorite sleepwear—an oversized T-shirt and boxers—she wandered through her apartment turning off the lights. As she did, her apartment was immediately bathed in a comforting moonlit glow. The peaceful, serene feeling the moonlight cast conflicted with the myriad of emotions pulling at her from within.

When Jim had first told her she only had three days, she'd been disappointed. But over the course of the evening, her disappointment had been replaced by excitement. Even if it was only for three days, there was nothing she loved more than the thrill of the chase. She was able to put her abilities to the test, to let her mind work all angles of a potential story, and challenge herself mentally as well as physically. And being an investigative reporter was a much more physical job than most people realized. There were times when she spent all day walking from place to place, tracking down leads and trying to beat other reporters to the story. But she loved every minute of it.

She climbed into bed a short time later, but sleep continued to evade her. The excitement of what was to come continued to grow within her, and as hard as she tried, she couldn't still her thoughts or quell her jittery stomach. She was simply too wound up.

Throwing off her covers, Lois climbed out of bed. She walked into the living room where her terrace beckoned her, the moonlight spilling across it invitingly. She slid the door open and stepped out. The cement was cool beneath her bare feet as she walked to the edge and rested her forearms on the wrought iron railing. As she stood there, looking out over the glimmering lights of the city, she closed her eyes and drew in a long, deep breath of the cool night air.

A sigh of contentment escaped her lips. There had always been something soothing to her about the night—the inky black sky sprinkled with stars, the cool breeze that tickled her face, the feeling of oneness with the universe. It was a feeling she had only at night when the darkness seemed to ease her repressed heartache, and mask the cares of the world behind the veil of moonlight.

Some people felt more lonely at night; for her, it was just the opposite. The night seemed to reach out for her, to draw her in. She often wondered what it would feel like to drift on the clouds that were cloaked in darkness, and stare down at the city beneath her. She supposed it might give her a whole new perspective, maybe even help her understand what she felt was missing from her life. Maybe the clouds would even whisper to her about how to make her life complete.

She shook her head. 'Foolish thoughts,' she chided herself. 'Staying grounded is the only way to make it through life. Keep your head out of the clouds and maybe someday you'll find whatever it is you're looking for.'

The breeze picked up, causing an unexpected chill to run down her spine. She stared out over the horizon.

Something felt different, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. In some strange, eerie way, it felt like there was change looming on the horizon.

She found herself wondering fleetingly if the strange sensations she felt had anything to do with the strange newcomer she was about to travel across the country to investigate. Maybe the change she felt coming had something to do with him.

'Of course it has something to do with him,' the little voice in the back of her head chided. 'This man is going to change your life—by being the means to the end for earning that Pulitzer Prize you've been working for all these years. That's why you're feeling what you are.'

Lois knew the voice in her head was probably right. That's all she was feeling. Still, she couldn't help wondering if there was more to it than that.

She shivered at the sudden breeze and wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill. It was getting late. She needed to get to bed.

With one last, lingering look at the twinkling stars overhead, she found herself wondering if the mysterious man was off flying somewhere in that darkness of a night sky, the sky she'd long since emotionally reserved as her own.

***

Clark hovered in the darkness of the night sky high above Metropolis, looking down over the millions of lights twinkling in the city and its surrounding areas. Flying at night, cloaked by darkness and concealed from prying eyes, used to be the one comfort he could rely on to make himself feel better.

But not tonight.

It had been a long day, longer than he'd ever had in his life. He had finally managed to use his powers openly, to help the doomed colonist transport by intervening at the launch site. He had averted disaster by removing the bomb, then had helped put the space shuttle into orbit and dock it at Space Station Prometheus.

He was exhausted—more mentally than physically—yet he felt exhilarated at the same time. Everything had gone even better than he'd expected. His mother's costume had worked perfectly, and no one had suspected a thing.

So why did he feel so…down?

He knew he shouldn't feel that way. It didn't make any sense. He should be celebrating; he should be flying loops and performing amazing feats of aerial acrobatics. It was the first time he'd been able to perform a rescue without worrying about people seeing the source of help. He'd been in plain sight for the world to see.

All his life he'd been hiding who he was, what incredible things he could do. He always managed to find a way to use his powers to help others, but always made sure to make the help appear to come about by luck, or by some mysterious force of nature. This time, though, he hadn't hidden or rushed off in fear of being discovered. And he loved that.

The highlight of his night was when he'd been able to talk a few minutes with the colonists on board the transport vehicle. He'd been terrified, at first, at the thought of interacting with people while in his disguise, for fear of being recognized—or worse, of scaring people. It wasn't every day that people met a man who could fly and do things that no other person alive could do. But the people on board had been so grateful, and they were much more welcoming than even he could have hoped for. It was a moment, he knew, he would cherish for the rest of his life.

Finally he felt like he was making a difference, *could* make a difference. It gave him a sense of hope—about what his future might hold, about what he might have been put here on Earth to do. He'd finally mustered up the courage to help people openly, to show the world what he could do. It felt liberating.

And terrifying.

A whole new chapter in his life was upon him, and the fear of the unknown threatened to overwhelm him. Was he going to be able to keep up this dual identity indefinitely? The task seemed daunting. He had a normal life, one that he very much enjoyed. He'd spent his college years and the years since working to further his career as an investigative reporter. He had traveled the world over, freelancing and working for newspapers around the globe. He'd been able to choose where he wanted to work, but from the start, he'd only been interested in working for one newspaper—the Daily Planet in Metropolis. They strived for the same kind of excellence in reporting that he expected from himself, and the Daily Planet was renowned the world over.

When he finally applied and was offered a job, he'd been thrilled. Finally he could settle down somewhere and stop hopping around the globe from job to job, opportunity to opportunity. And something about Metropolis just felt right. He couldn't put his finger on it, exactly, but this felt like where he was supposed to be.

He sighed. Even though he felt right about his decision to settle in Metropolis and had finally found a way to use his powers openly to help, he didn't feel the thrill he'd been expecting. Instead, tonight he just felt…empty.

Empty and alone.

His future loomed bright and was clearly within his reach, yet with everything that had happened in the last twelve hours, he was terrified to go into it alone. The feeling was more than a little unsettling, and definitely not what he had expected after making such a successful debut.

With one last look at the twinkling city lights below, Clark turned and flew toward his apartment. Hovering outside his loft window, Clark slid the window open, suddenly realizing how lucky he'd been that he hadn't locked it. There was certainly no place to put a key in the tight costume he was wearing, and he wasn't thrilled about having to replace a doorknob on his front door, had he had to yank it off to gain access to his own apartment. As he flew in through the window, he made a mental note to leave it open from now on. It was two stories up and without a fire escape, so he wasn't concerned about someone trying to enter his apartment through it.

He smiled as he touched down inside. He could tell there were aspects of this new identity he would have to consider. He supposed in time it would become second nature.

Going into his bedroom, he struggled to change out of the costume. Man, it was tight. He sucked in his breath in an attempt to strip the material from his torso. He was grateful his mother had thought to install a zipper in the back beneath his cape—and even more grateful that, with a few minor contortions, he managed to undo it himself. He chuckled to himself when he thought of the repercussions of being stuck in the suit and having to ask somebody for help unzipping it.

Once Clark managed to strip the suit off, he stared at it for a long moment, wondering what to do with it. He glanced around the room. When he had approached his mother only a few days ago about making some kind of outfit for him, something he could wear when he wanted to perform a major rescue, yet still keep his real identity concealed, she had been skeptical yet supportive. They had talked about what kind of disguise he had in mind, then his mother had spent the next two days working on various outfits before they'd finally settling on the one he now held in his hands.

It seemed like fate that his mother had just finished the costume minutes before the news was broadcast on TV that the space shuttle was in trouble. At least the costume's maiden flight had been successful. He hoped his debut that night had made his mom and dad proud.

Clark turned his thoughts back to the costume in his hand. He had known going in there were going to be many aspects of having a secret identity he would have to deal with. This was obviously one of them.

Clark considered his options as he studied his bedroom. The dresser was out. The costume could be too easily stumbled upon there. His closet wouldn't work either for the same reasons. What he needed was a place where it couldn't be innocently discovered, hence arousing curiosity and suspicion. Maybe a box under his bed or up on a shelf in the hall closet? He shook his head. No, he didn't feel comfortable storing it in popular hiding places.

Suddenly it hit him. The secret closet off his living room!

When he had rented the apartment, he'd had no idea the place contained a hidden closet. He discovered it shortly after moving in and remembered thinking it was cool, but then promptly forgot about it. Now, though, it seemed like fate. It was the perfect place to store the costume, to keep it hidden from potentially prying eyes.

Feeling rather satisfied with himself, Clark changed into a T- shirt and boxers, then hung the costume in the hidden closet, making sure to shut the secret door securely.

That done, Clark relaxed a bit. He thought again of his parents and wondered if he should call them to let them know he was all right. Knowing his mom, she was worrying about him.

He walked over to his phone and caught sight of the blinking light on his answering machine. He pushed the 'play' button, expecting to hear his parents' voices. Instead, a gruff, no-nonsense voice boomed out from the speakers. He immediately recognized the voice of Perry White, his editor-in-chief at the Planet.

"Clark! Where are you? I hope you're out covering this story of the flying man who just saved Promethesus' future! This could be the biggest thing since…well, ever! You're a great reporter, Clark, and I know you have your sources. Get to the bottom of this, you hear me? I want the exclusive…or else!" There was a click, then the machine fell silent.

Clark stood frozen in place for a long moment, staring at the phone in wide-eyed realization.

He'd been so busy thinking about the rescue—and even feeling inexplicably sorry for himself—as he'd lingered in the darkness over the city, then turned his thoughts to finding a place for his costume and wondering if his parents were worried about him that it hadn't occurred to him what other repercussions his outing might involve. Perry's message brought him back to earth with a bump.

He was still Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet. He was supposed to investigate, get to the bottom of things and then write them up. Not once had he ever connected the two. He was going to have to report on himself.

A momentary panic seized his heart. How was he supposed to do this—be two people? He'd thought about it briefly, naively thinking he could just change into the hero when his powers were needed, then change back and go about his life. He hadn't considered what would happen when those two "lives" overlapped.

'I guess I always figured there would be a media storm,' he thought, his spirits drooping a bit. 'But I never thought about having to be the focus of it *and* report on it!'

Clark reached for the back of the couch and lowered himself onto it a bit shakily. There was much he hadn't considered, things that were now glaringly apparent. And for the second time that night, he felt terrified.

'I can't do this alone.'

The realization weighed down upon him heavily, bringing on a momentary bout of depression. He had his parents, of course; they were always there for him, to offer him the love and support he needed. But tonight, right that moment, that didn't seem like enough. He was still sitting by himself, staring around at a resoundingly empty apartment. Never had he felt more alone.

Clark forced himself to take a long, deep breath to collect himself. It was going to be okay. This was what he had decided to do with his powers; he would find a way to make it work.

His thoughts turned back to Perry's message and his jaw tightened. So much for remaining inconspicuous. But he knew Perry wasn't going to be the only one who wanted the story. The entire world would have seen the footage by now, and the media was surely in a full-force frenzy. He didn't dare turn on the TV. He almost felt afraid to hear what they were saying about him.

Clark was almost tempted to ignore his editor-in-chief's request— no, demand—for the story. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that this might be a really good opportunity.

He could tell the world a little about himself without indulging too much, or letting things slip out that he didn't want shared. He could even put himself in a favorable light. There was no guarantee that he would get good media if he were to let the media report on what little they knew about him. They might even propose such things as him being a threat to national security, or try to turn the public against him by making them afraid of him before he even had a chance to prove what good and honorable things he could do for everyone.

No, the best thing to do was write the article about Metropolis's new hero himself.

Before undertaking the task, he phoned his parents to let them know he was okay. Their concern for him was obvious even over the phone line, and he spent several minutes reassuring them he was fine. They had noticed the media storm and voiced their concerns over what would happen next. Clark managed to calm them down by filling them in on his plans to write the story himself, hopefully dispelling fears and answering questions as to his purpose and plans. They promised to watch for it the next day. Then, before they said their goodbyes, they told him how proud they were of him.

Clark's heart felt lighter as he hung up the phone. Somehow his parents always seemed to know what he needed to hear.

Feeling more ready to handle things, Clark next dialed his editor's cell phone number. The second Perry heard Clark's voice on the other end of the line, he demanded to know what he had. Clark told him he'd managed to talk with the mysterious man and had gotten the exclusive for the Planet. Cringing inwardly, Clark hoped what he was telling his editor couldn't technically be considered a lie.

To say his editor-in-chief was ecstatic was an understatement. Perry told him if they hurried, they could bump the morning's front-page story and replace it with his before the paper went to print. Clark promised to email it to him within the hour, then hung up and decided to get to work. With the phone calls behind him, Clark sat down at his computer.

Perry wanted an exclusive. Well, he'd just have to give him one. With a favorable slant, of course. Writing an article not only proving the existence of alien life, but explaining that this "alien" had super powers that he wanted to use to help the world was definitely Pulitzer material.

At the thought, Clark balked. He had always wanted a Pulitzer, but this really wasn't the way he wanted to go about getting one. It felt like cheating. He would be interviewing himself to get the scoop of the century.

Clark sighed. There was nothing he could do about that now, he supposed. It was more important to tell the world who he was and what he was doing there. Then the chips could fall where they may.

Staring at his computer screen for several long minutes, he tried to decide what to write. How much of who he was and what he was hoping to do did he want to share? After long minutes of contemplation, Clark decided to simply share the basics. He gave himself a mental interview, working his "responses" into the story as he would for anyone else he interviewed. He struggled to come up with something to call himself, but in the end, feeling rather unoriginal, settled with calling himself "a friend."

He went on to state that he was there to help, shared that he was from another planet without going into any further detail, and declared Metropolis was now his home. He knew he couldn't give any specifics regarding where he had come from or what he had been doing since his appearance at the colonists' shuttle launch, so he left those references out. He told of his special abilities—his ability to fly, his superhuman strength, his speed, his enhanced vision, and his invulnerability.

He worked to make the story intriguing and reassuring for those who might feel threatened by the fact he mentioned he was from another planet. When he was done, he felt satisfied with the results. Clark Kent's exclusive "interview" with Metropolis's new hero didn't exactly answer all the questions he knew would be on everybody's minds, but he was confident people would read what he had to say, and accept him for who he was and why he was there.

Sitting back in his chair, Clark read the interview twice more, making sure it was perfect. Then he emailed it to Perry with plenty of time to spare. That was one of the things Clark loved about his special powers. Writing an article quickly wasn't a problem.

Clark smiled as he thought about what Perry's response to his article would be. He could just see his editor, grinning like the cat who'd just swallowed the canary. The story was guaranteed to send the Daily Planet's circulation soaring, being the only newspaper in the world with an exclusive on the new hero.

It was going to be a good day tomorrow. Perry would undoubtedly treat him like gold.

With the story finished and sent, Clark shut off his computer and stood up from his desk. He stretched. It had been a long day and he was tired. It wasn't often he felt tired; his powers enabled him to keep going longer than anybody else. Tonight, however, the excitement and exertion of the day's events were catching up with him.

Clark turned off the lights in his apartment, then climbed into bed. As hard as he tried, though, he couldn't sleep. His mind simply wouldn't rest. Finally he gave up.

Getting out of bed, Clark wandered around his apartment feeling restless. He wondered if getting back into the costume and going for a fly might do the trick; it often helped clear his head. But Clark shook his head, dismissing the idea. Flying hadn't helped earlier. It had only made him feel more empty than soothed, flying up above the city and staring down at the lights of a town where he wasn't sure he even belonged.

It wasn't Metropolis that made him feel that way, necessarily. In fact, he felt more comfortable here than anywhere else he'd been. Well, except for Smallville, of course. Smallville would always feel like home.

Home, though, was an elusive term, he'd discovered. Growing up, it was easy to feel like he was home. His parents were kind, supportive, and always there for him when things got tough. And tough was exactly what it had been, growing up. He'd had to reconcile the fact that he was different from his friends. Nobody else could fly, burn and cool things with his vision, see through walls, run faster than a moving vehicle, bend steel pipes with his bare hands, or rip doors from their hinges. The trials of pre- adolescence had been compounded by his having to learn to temper and control his powers, as well as try to learn where he fit in the universe.

His parents had taken him aside in junior high when more of his powers started to develop. They told him how they'd found him in a spaceship in a neighbor's field, and how they suspected he was from another planet. They told him they had once wondered about him being some kind of government experiment, but had quickly ruled that out. If he had been such an experiment, then why the space ship? Why the strange writings along the craft, and technologies they had never seen before?

When Clark had doubted their truthfulness, his father had taken him out to the northeast corner of their field, telling him that's where they had buried the spaceship. His dad had stood back while Clark used the shovel to dig, and in only a few seconds, there was a large hole—but no capsule. His dad had been angry and worried at the fact that somebody had apparently dug it up and stolen it.

Clark remembered sitting in the dark field that night, staring at the empty hole, thinking of what might have been. Would seeing the spaceship in which he had supposedly traveled to earth give him any answers?

He couldn't *not* believe that his parents had spoken the truth about him being from another planet. It was the only explanation. Besides, something in his heart told him it was true. But what planet could he have come from? And who had sent him away in the capsule? Had there been a reason for sending him away? And what about his birth parents? What had come of them?

His earth parents hadn't been able to give him any answers, and he doubted those questions could ever be answered. It frustrated Clark, knowing there were so many unanswered questions—about who he was, what he was doing there, and why he'd been given the powers and abilities he had. An even bigger question, though— with more immediate consequences—was what he was supposed to do with his powers.

He had found himself using his powers over the years to help out here and there as opportunities presented themselves: stopping a ladder at school from falling when the electrician leaned out too far from it to reach a faulty wire; dashing out into the road only slightly faster than a normal person in order to save a young girl from being hit by a car; and physically diverting a train traveling along the tracks at the back of his family's property when the track switching mechanism had failed to work properly.

The times that he'd been able to help had filled him with a sense of purpose. He didn't know exactly why he was there on earth, but he did know one thing. His powers could help people. And that, he decided, was what he wanted to do with them.

How to do so without exposure, though, had been a completely different dilemma. He'd often talked about it with his parents, but they had had little to offer in the way of suggestions. His father often worried about his son being discovered as the superhuman being that he was, and the consequences that could come from that. But Clark didn't share his father's preference to keep his powers secret from the world. He wanted to help, and he was tired of trying to come up with ways to do so without being discovered.

It had all finally came to a head one evening in Metropolis a week ago when he had rescued two men from a collapsing mine north of Metropolis. In the darkness of the mine, the men hadn't been able to see who had held up the framework of the mine's collapsing ceiling until they could scramble from the site. Clark's clothes, however, would easily have told the tale, had he hung around. He was filthy from the coal dust, and he knew his clothes were ruined.

That night, as he scrubbed his clothes with every substance he could think of, he'd found himself talking to his mom on the phone.

"It's just not coming out, Mom. I think they're ruined."

"They may be, honey," she agreed. "You might just have to cut them up and use them as rags."

Clark dropped the clothes onto his washing machine in resignation. "I can't help thinking this wouldn't have happened if I'd had something to change into before making that rescue; some kind of outfit."

"What do you mean, Clark? Like old jeans and a T-shirt? You had to get there fast. You didn't exactly have time to go home and change."

"I know, but what if I wore something under my clothes that I could change into during rescues like that?"

His mom sounded skeptical. "I don't know, honey. Wearing clothes under your work suit would be awfully bulky."

"Not if it were something clingy, like spandex or something."

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then, "Spandex? Like a leotard or something? Clark, you can't run around in public in nothing but a leotard. People would think you'd come from ballet rehearsal or something."

Clark laughed. "Not a leotard, mom, but you're not far off." He paused. "Are you busy tonight? I was thinking of picking your brain some more about this."

She told him she'd love to have him come by, and Clark had gotten there in moments. Together they'd rummaged through his mother's extensive supply of fabrics and costumes she used for Smallville's small performing theater group. Jonathan had looked on skeptically as his wife and son put their heads together, trying to come up with some kind of outfit Clark could wear. The leotard suggestion had quickly evolved into a unitard, then came the question of colors, designs, and accessories such as a mask, gloves, boots, and belts.

Nothing had been decided that night, but Clark had flown home feeling more hopeful than he had felt in months. His parents still weren't sold on the idea of a costume being all he needed to disguise himself for rescues, but at least they were supportive.

Over the next week, Clark had flown to Smallville in the evenings to work out the details of his costume and try on several samples. Some costumes were outlandish and off the wall; others became possibilities. Martha continued the painstaking process of putting together the ideas they both liked, and finally they came up with a costume they agreed was the best by far. The blue and red looked noble and vibrant, the cape classy, the matching red boots sharp.

By the evening of the colonist vehicle's launch, the costume was finished. Clark had moved from side to side in front of the full- length mirror, taking in his appearance from different angles. He liked what he saw. It was a little daring, with the tight spandex bodysuit and flamboyant cape, but he liked that about it. The more flamboyant, the better, in his opinion, since that narrowed the odds of anyone thinking that mild-mannered Clark Kent was the man under the suit. After all, who would expect Clark Kent, the genteel and somewhat awkward-looking reporter to be the city's new mysterious flying hero dressed in a tight, flashy spandex costume?

"What do you think?" his mother had asked, looking anxiously over his shoulder.

Clark smiled. "I think it's great. It seems to be missing something, though."

Martha looked thoughtful for moment, then her eyes lit up. "I know just the thing."

Clark followed her as she retrieved a trunk from under her bed, then opened it and pulled out a folded blanket. She held it to her face nostalgically for a moment, then opened it to show Clark.

"It's the baby blanket you were wrapped in when we found you."

Clark's jaw dropped open and an air of reverence filled the room. Clark had never seen the blanket before. It was perfectly preserved, obviously unused. For a moment, Clark felt a connection with his unknown heritage in a way he never had before.

He took a step forward, reaching out to finger the soft blue fabric of the blanket his mom held. As he thought about the task he was about to undertake, he wondered what his birth parents would think. Is this what they would have wanted for him? Could this possibly be what they had sent him to earth to do? To use his powers to help others?

For a moment, he was overcome by emotion. Then he noticed the red and yellow emblem sewn into the fabric. It was a red shield bordering a large yellow letter "S." He found himself wondering what it meant.

"Mom, why didn't you tell me you had this?" Clark asked, looking up at his mom only to see that she had tears in her eyes.

She smiled and shrugged. "To tell you the truth, I'd forgotten about it until just now. I always meant to show you, but I knew it wouldn't mean as much to you when you were young, so I waited." She touched the "S" shield lovingly. "I think this would be perfect on your costume. A way of respecting your heritage, don't you think?"

Clark nodded silently. Then he cleared his throat, thick with emotion. "I do. Let's use it."

So Martha went to work, carefully removing the emblem from the blanket and sewing it onto the chest of his costume. When it was done, Clark once again tried on the suit. It was perfect. Clark reached up to touch the "S," wondering again what it meant. Maybe it symbolized his name, or that of his parents. Maybe it was where he was from, or possibly even a line of lineage. He didn't know, but it made him feel closer to his heritage. He felt proud to wear it on his chest as a reminder that both sets of his parents would want him to do great things for his fellow man.

It was not an hour later when the colonist's launch vehicle had run into trouble. It seemed like destiny. His costume was done, and there was nothing stopping him from being drawn out into the public eye. And this time, he felt ready to do so.

A sudden gust of wind drew Clark back to the present. He turned to see his loft's window shutters bang open, caught in the breeze. He went up to the loft to close the window more tightly, then turned to look out over his apartment from his high position.

Yes, strangely enough, this felt like home. Maybe not as much as Smallville did, but more so than anywhere else he'd lived. He had traveled the world over in search of something…something he'd never seemed to find. But there was just something about Metropolis that felt right. He wasn't exactly sure what that was, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something here he was supposed to do.

He glanced back at the closet where he'd hung the suit. Maybe being the disguised hero was the reason. 'But why Metropolis?' he couldn't help wondering. 'I could live anywhere and be a hero in disguise. Why do I feel so strongly that whatever I'm looking for is here in Metropolis?'

But that was yet another question that seemed to go unanswered. All he did know for sure was that he could sense there was something there for him in Metropolis, something that was about to change his life drastically.

'Of course your life is about to change drastically,' the voice in the back of his head mocked him. 'You just revealed your superhuman abilities to the world. Did you think that wouldn't change your life drastically, even if people don't realize it's really Clark Kent behind those powers?'

Clark's more rational side supposed that was true. But even as the argument continued to weigh heavily on his mind, Clark didn't think that was it. There was more to it than that, something that touched the very depths of his soul. Something in the air spoke to him that his life was about to change, and not just because of his new identity.

Something was different. Something huge was about to happen.

What that was, though, he had no idea. The future would tell him when the time was right, he guessed.

Resigned to the fact that he wasn't going to be getting any answers tonight, he went back into his bedroom and slipped beneath the sheets. Maybe tomorrow those answers would come.

***

Lois was tired and irritable as she stepped off the plane into the Atlanta, Georgia airport terminal. It had been a long morning already, since her flight out of San Francisco had been delayed due to mechanical difficulties. The plane had arrived in Atlanta with only minutes to spare before her connecting flight to Metropolis International Airport was to depart.

She grasped her carry-on bag more tightly and pushed her way through the busy terminal, grumbling at the people meandering around her. 'Don't these people realize other people have planes to catch?' she grumbled to herself as she skittered around a group of people standing around, chatting with each other. She glanced at her watch. Five minutes.

She shook her head. At this rate, there was no way she was going to make her connection. Flinging the strap of her carry-on bag onto her shoulder, she began to run. She was out of breath and winded by the time she arrived at her gate. A last-call announcement was being issued over the loudspeakers as she handed her boarding pass to the gate attendant.

With a sigh of relief, Lois boarded her plane and maneuvered down the narrow aisle to her seat. She scanned the numbers along the overhead bins for her seat number. Finally she found it and collapsed into her seat at the window. "Airports," she grumbled under her breath.

It was only a few minutes before the plane was taxiing down the runway, then taking off and finally leveling out in the clear blue sky. Lois stared out her window at the sun glinting off the wing of the airplane not far in front of her. She loved flying. She could leave the airport hassle; what a pain that was. But flying…feeling the wings lift the plane over the expanse of clouds, giving her glimpses of cities, then open fields and mountain ranges below…it was something she'd always loved.

The flight attendants began working their way down the narrow aisle with breakfast carts, and Lois eagerly accepted a cup of coffee and a small plate of pancakes and toast. She hadn't eaten since the night before, and even airplane food looked appetizing at that moment. The flight attendant also offered her a newspaper, which Lois took. She knew Metropolis's new hero was international news by now, and she was eager to see what was being said about him.

Taking a sip of her coffee, Lois unfolded the newspaper. When she did, she nearly choked. The headline leapt off the page:

An Exclusive Interview with Metropolis's Flying Hero!

Lois covered her mouth with her napkin as she coughed and sputtered. She waved off the flight attendant's inquiry as to whether or not she was all right, then thumped herself on the chest a couple of times. When her coughing fit subsided, Lois turned her attention back to the newspaper.

An exclusive! Somebody had scooped her! She glowered at the article. She'd expected to see a front-page article on the mysterious flying man to be splashed across every newspaper in the world, but she hadn't expected to see someone nail down an exclusive interview with the man so soon. How had somebody managed to track him down so quickly?

Lois studied the picture of the mysterious flying man accompanying the article. He was good looking; that much she had to admit. The shot wasn't a close up, but it was close enough to gather a few details. The picture showed the man interacting with mission control officials after returning to earth from delivering the colonist transport to Space Station Prometheus. It wasn't the best picture in the world, but it did nothing to detract from the hero's rugged, masculine good looks, firm set jaw, and solidly muscled body. The tight costume he wore emphasized each well- defined muscle in his body.

Lois cocked an eyebrow. 'Impressive' hardly began to describe him.

Her eye traveled back to the headline, and her momentary distraction with the picture was gone. The anger she'd felt moments before returned as she spent the next few minutes poring over the article, her breakfast long since forgotten.

As she finished reading, her brow furrowed. Yes, somebody else had managed to get an exclusive interview, but the reporter obviously hadn't done a very thorough job. The question remained, who was this guy? The mysterious man explained that he was from another planet, but not which one, or how—or when—he had arrived on earth. And there were the questions unanswered—or unasked. Where did this alien live? Did he have a job somewhere? Surely he needed money to live. And did he even speak English? Had the reporter needed someone to translate for him? She didn't suspect that was the case, since there was a quote given by one of the colonists at how nice the man had been when he'd talked with them. That meant he had to speak fluent English, didn't it?

The bottom line was, yes, this was an exclusive, but there was still room for a tell-all expose like the one she planned to do.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Her story wasn't down the drain after all. Obviously, this reporter didn't know how to get the nitty gritty on an interviewee. Maybe he hadn't even asked the questions everyone was dying to know. Maybe he was just some hack who had managed to get lucky in tracking down the hero.

She nodded. Luck. That had to be it. This reporter obviously didn't know one end of his pencil from the other.

She turned back to the front page and squinted at the byline. Clark Kent. There was no picture of him, so she assumed that meant he was relatively new and inexperienced at the Daily Planet. He had to be, if he couldn't conduct a proper interview, supplying more questions than answers. She was sure she wasn't alone in wanting to know more. Where was the story behind the story?

She didn't buy it that this flying man suddenly appeared out of nowhere to become a superhero. Nobody just appeared out of nowhere. Everybody had a back-story, had a background and a history. This Kent guy obviously overlooked that fact and settled instead for a controversy-free, feel-good story about Metropolis's new hero.

She, however, wasn't such a lacking reporter. There was a story to tell here, and while this Clark Kent managed to get the scoop, he didn't get the entire scoop. And that was now her new mission. She would get to the bottom of this. Of that, she was certain. She'd show this hack how an expose was done. And if it was the last thing she did, she was going to expose this new hero, and give the world a story they would never forget.

The Pulitzer was as good as hers.

***

Lex walked out onto his balcony overlooking Metropolis. It was a sight that always put him in a good mood. From his vantage point he could see all of Metropolis, much of which he owned either directly or indirectly. In a sense, the city that lay below him was his kingdom, and there was nothing better than waking up in the morning and walking out on the balcony to look out over his subjects.

This morning, however, something else held Lex's attention. The morning edition of the Daily Planet.

He read in fascination about the flying man who had made his astonishing debut at the launch of Space Station Prometheus' colonist vehicle only the evening before. He shook his head. A man from another planet. Unbelievable.

He strolled over to the table on the balcony set for breakfast and sat down, picking up each of the five other papers set near his plate. They all reported on the new hero's debut, but only the Daily Planet had an exclusive, telling him more of what he wanted to know.

Lex's thoughts were pulled away from the articles when Nigel approached to pour his coffee. "The headlines are much the same," Nigel said. "This flying man is international news."

Lex nodded and took a sip of his coffee before answering. "Yes, he is that." Lex glanced at the headlines and photos adorning the papers, then addressed Nigel again. "What do we know about this man?"

"Nothing more than the papers report. Nobody seems to know how to find him."

Lex smiled. "Yes, I can see that it would be difficult to track down a man who can fly." He gave the Daily Planet in his hand one more look, then tossed it onto the table and picked up his fork instead. "See what you can find out about him—his weaknesses, his strengths. Most importantly, find out about his moral ethics. I want to know if this man can be bought or manipulated."

Nigel's eyebrows lifted. "You think he might be a threat?"

"Any man who can fly and perform superhuman feats could be a threat." Lex took a bite of his crepe, then waved his fork dismissively. "At this point, I'm more intrigued than worried. I can't afford to have any more 'incidents,' however." He paused to take another sip of his coffee. When he set the cup down, his jaw tightened imperceptibly. "That Lane reporter already shut down my western seaboard importing and exporting business by sending many of my connections to jail with that crime ring expose of hers. I don't need some superhuman Boy Scout making things worse."

"Agreed." Nigel nodded. "Speaking of Ms. Lane, I've just been told she's on her way to Metropolis as we speak." When Lex looked up at Nigel questioningly, Nigel shrugged. "You told me to have our boys in California keep an eye on her when she started getting close to your seaboard business. This was just our latest report on her whereabouts."

Lex smirked and leaned back in his chair. "I assume she's coming to investigate Metropolis's new hero."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I know her type. She's young; she's hungry. She's out to prove herself to the world, and she loves nothing better than to shake things up with a good expose." Lex turned back to the papers on the table beside his plate. He rummaged through them for a minute, then pulled one in particular from the stack. There, beneath the large type "San Francisco Chronicle," was a follow up on Lois Lane's crime ring expose; and beside that was her picture.

Lex smiled. She was young, all right. And beautiful.

"Nigel," Lex spoke up. "Find out where she's staying while she's here in Metropolis and offer her a dinner invitation from me. Then put someone on her. I want to know who she talks to while she's here and where she goes."

Nigel's eyebrows rose. "You want to dine with her *and* have her followed?"

"Have you ever heard the old saying, 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer'?" When Nigel nodded, Lex dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. "That's exactly what I intend to do. I'm willing to bet she's here to see about our new hero, but I would not have gotten where I am today if I didn't cover my bases. I want to make sure she's not here because she's following any leads she may have dug up during her crime ring investigation."

He paused and looked at her picture one more time. Then he pursed his lips and smiled. "Besides, Nigel, having a beautiful and intelligent woman as a dinner companion could be rather…enlightening."

And with that, Lex stood up from the table and walked back inside, ready to begin his day.

***

Lois walked out of the terminal, her eyes blinking at the sun's mid-morning brightness. She was finally here. Metropolis.

She was surprised to see that it hadn't changed much in the dozen or so years since she'd visited. There were a few new buildings where old ones used to be, and there was a new, more efficient layout of the streets running past the airport. All in all, it seemed very much like the same bustling city she remembered.

As she approached the curb and put up her hand to hail a cab, memories unexpectedly flooded through her. She remembered seeing her younger sister jumping up and down eagerly on the curb, waving her arms frantically in an effort to hail one of the yellow vehicles hurtling past. Lois had lost the dollar she had bet that day, that her sister couldn't hail a cab by herself. She also remembered her mother and father smiling, as surprised as she, when one soon pulled over to pick them up. They were good memories, the ones she had of their family trip to Metropolis to visit distant relatives there in the city so many years ago.

Lois blinked back unexpected tears. Their trip to Metropolis was something she hadn't thought of for a long time. But those times with her sister and parents were gone, she reminded herself in an effort to pull herself back together. This was her life now. And she had a story to write.

Forcing herself to turn back to the task at hand, she climbed into the cab that stopped in front of her and gave the driver the name of her hotel.

***

Lois found herself in yet another cab a short time later. She had checked into her hotel, showered, put on a fresh change of clothes, and was now heading over to the Daily Planet where she knew Perry White was expecting her.

She stared out the window as they drove, trying to re-familiarize herself with the bustling city. It would be helpful when she hit the streets in search of the city's new hero later that day.

After what seemed like an eternity, the cab pulled over to the curb in front of the Daily Planet. She paid the cab fare, then climbed out of the car.

An inexplicable feeling of deja vu swept over her as she stood on the sidewalk and stared up at the Daily Planet globe. She knew she'd never seen it before—not in person, at least. But for whatever reason, the building seemed so familiar to her. Something about it pulled at her, as if drawing her in. There was a soothing, almost comforting feeling about the Daily Planet, like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter's day.

Shaking her head to force away the inexplicable feelings of deja vu, she walked through the revolving doors into the lobby. The person at the reception desk told her she would find Perry White in his office on the newsroom floor, then directed her to the elevators. Lois followed the directions and soon found herself stepping off the elevator into the newsroom.

She was pleased with what she saw. The newsroom was large, with a long ramp leading down into the bullpen, and to the offices and conference rooms surrounding it. The place was modern and efficient, and the normal hustle and bustle around her made her feel right at home.

She had only been standing there a few moments when a young man in jeans, a T-shirt, and cowboy boots appeared at her side.

"Can I help you with something?"

"Oh, um, yes, I'm looking for Perry White. Could you tell me where to find him?"

"Sure could." The young man nodded and smiled cordially as he pointed across the newsroom to one of the offices. "He's over there in his office. Come on, I'll walk you over." He led the way down the ramp and turned back to Lois as they walked. "Is he expecting you?"

Lois nodded. "He is. I'm Lois Lane, from—"

"The San Francisco Chronicle," he finished for her, his eyes widening. "Sure, I know who you are. Well, I've read your stories," he hurried to clarify. "What are you doing way out here? I'm Jimmy Olsen, by the way."

Lois smiled. She liked this young man. He was friendly and personable, and he made her feel welcome. It was just what she needed, knowing she was going to be spending the next few days in an unfamiliar newsroom. "Nice to meet you, Jimmy. As for what I'm doing here, I'm here to do a story on your resident superhero."

"You and everybody else in this country," he joked as they reached the bottom of the ramp and turned toward Perry White's office. "And yeah, the guy's definitely super. Our Clark Kent managed to get an exclusive interview, you know."

She nodded, though she did her best to keep her opinion of "their" Clark Kent's reporting job to herself. "Yes, I saw that," she managed diplomatically.

If Jimmy noticed her lack of praise, he didn't mention it. They arrived in front of Perry's office and Jimmy knocked on the open door, then stepped in. "Chief, Lois Lane is here to see you."

Lois followed Jimmy through the doorway, then stopped. The stocky, graying man sitting behind the desk was not at all how Lois had pictured Perry White. Knowing the Daily Planet was one of the best newspapers in the world, she had pictured a man in his early forties, someone stern, unforgiving and unrelenting, maybe with a polished, corporate look. What she hadn't pictured was a slightly overweight, jovial, teddy-bear of a man with pictures of Elvis hanging on his office wall and a jiggley-hipped Hawaiian dancer figure on his desk. When he spoke, though, his deep, booming voice, full of confidence and authority, told her in no uncertain terms that he demanded respect, yet gave it, as well.

"Ah, yes, Lois Lane." Perry smiled broadly as he stood up from his desk. He reached out a large, gnarled hand to shake her small, slim one firmly. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

She smiled back, liking this man immediately. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too, Mr. White."

"Oh, please, call me Perry. Your editor Jim Langley has told me a lot about you."

"It was all good, I hope."

"From the way he went on and on about you, you'd think you were his own kin." He chuckled as he gestured to the chair across from his desk. "Go ahead and have a seat. Jimmy, how about something to drink for Ms. Lane?"

Jimmy nodded. "Sure, Chief." He turned to Lois. "What would you like, Ms. Lane?"

Lois looked up at Jimmy and smiled graciously. "Oh, please, call me Lois. And actually, I'm fine, thanks. I had enough coffee on the flight over to last me for a week."

Perry's hearty, booming laughter filled the room. "I know what you mean," Perry agreed. "Airplane coffee is bad enough to kill your taste buds, but when you have a lot of it, that's even worse." He turned back to Jimmy. "Jimmy, how about a diet Coke for me? I think I've already had my fill of coffee for the day, too."

"You got it, Chief." Jimmy hurried away to fill his boss's order.

When Jimmy was gone, Perry turned back to Lois. "He's a good kid. He's got quite an eye on him for photography, and I have high hopes for him. In the meantime, he's paying his dues."

"You mean he's being ordered around by everyone and used as an errand boy?" When Perry nodded and grinned, Lois smiled, as well. "I've been there myself. Not getting drinks and running errands, mind you, but I've had my share of writing obituaries and auction notices. Don't tell anybody I said that, though. I like people to think I started at the top."

Perry laughed. "We all do."

For the next few minutes, they chatted about Jim Langley, San Francisco, and some of the places Perry had visited during a recent trip to the city. Then they turned to the topic at hand.

The stocky editor leaned forward and clasped his hands together on his desk. "So, your editor tells me you want to do a piece on Metropolis's new hero."

"Yes, I do." Lois nodded eagerly. "I see one of your reporters managed to get an exclusive for this morning's edition, but I feel there were a lot of questions left unanswered. I'd like to get the whole story, find out where this guy has been all these years and what makes him tick. That's why I'm here."

"Like I told your boss, I'm happy to have you. I should warn you, though, my staff may not be entirely receptive to the idea of you being here. Everybody wants the next big exclusive on our new hero. It's a real dog-eat-dog world out there right now."

Lois lifted her chin, a renewed sense of determination etched across her face. "I can handle it."

Perry's eyes narrowed as he studied her closely for a moment. Then a corner of his mouth turned upwards. "Somehow I believe you."

He paused, then slapped his hands down on his desk. "Well, as long as you know what you're up against, I might be able to help you out a bit. I could partner you with someone on this, someone who knows the city, and in exchange, we could run it with a joint by-line when you manage to get that story—"

Lois felt the world start to spin around her. Partner her with someone? Joint by-line?

She swallowed past the bitter taste in her mouth. The joint by- line she could understand. She didn't like it, but she understood. She was working out of his newspaper office, after all; they would expect something in return. Her editor Jim Langley had probably even used that as a bartering chip to position her in the sister office.

But a partner? Never. She worked alone. Always had. Partners just slowed her down and made her crazy. The few partners she'd had were completely incompetent, and it had been a complete waste of her time.

"Oh, um…excuse me for a minute," Lois broke in, cutting the editor off in mid-sentence.

Perry paused, waiting for her to continue. Lois licked her lips as she smoothed her hands along the silky skirt fabric covering her thighs. Finally, she cleared her throat uncomfortably. "Did you say partner?"

Perry's brows furrowed. "Is that a problem?"

"Um, well…kind of." Lois shifted in her seat. "Mr. White, I'm sorry if this comes off sounding ungrateful, because you really are being very kind to let me work out of your newsroom for the next few days, but…I want to do this alone. I just don't think I can do the kind of story I want to do if I have a partner tagging along. No offense."

Perry lifted his eyebrows in surprise. Then a slow smile worked its way across his face. "Not the partnering type, huh? I remember when I was young and hungry, I didn't want a partner, either. I think you'll come to learn, though, a partner can be helpful—someone to bounce ideas off of and brainstorm with. You often come up with angles the other person doesn't."

He watched her closely for a moment, as if waiting for a rebuttal. When one didn't come, he sat back in his chair and finally nodded. "Well, Ms. Lane, I've got work to do, and so do you, it sounds like. I was thinking of partnering you with a bright young man who's relatively new but very talented, but I suppose that's your decision to make. Let me know if you change your mind."

Lois stood up and shook the hand he again offered her. "I will," she said graciously. "I appreciate your understanding."

Just then Jimmy reappeared with his editor's can of diet Coke. "Here you go, Chief."

"Oh, thanks, Jimmy." Perry took the can, then gestured at Lois. "If this young lady needs anything while she's here, see to it she gets it, would you? In fact, why don't you show her to an empty desk so she can get working."

A broad smile spread across Jimmy's face. He was clearly happy to be given the responsibility of looking after the well-known visiting reporter. "I'd be happy to."

***

As Jimmy led Lois out of the office and into the bustling newsroom, Perry watched her go. He had always prided himself on gathering accurate first impressions of the people he met, and the one he got of Lois Lane was undeniable. That girl was something special.

Her editor and his longtime friend, Jim Langley, had told him she was an incredible reporter, the best when it came to breaking a story wide open. Perry was sure that was true, but what he hadn't expected was for her to be as personable and charming as she was, let alone drop-dead gorgeous. If he were young and single, he would probably be doing everything in his power to catch her attention. But what surprised him the most, he realized, was how young she was to have achieved the level of success she had attained in her profession. She was obviously driven. It was also easy to see that she was fiercely independent. He didn't know why she was so set against having a partner, especially when a partner who knew the city would only be an asset.

Jim Langley was right. She was a handful, just as he'd warned him she would be.

The bottom line, though, was…he liked her. In a way, she reminded him a bit of himself when he'd first started in the business—vital, passionate, and hungry. She knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to go after it. That much was clear. Otherwise she would not be standing in his newsroom, three thousand miles from home.

He found his gaze following her as Jimmy showed her to the empty desk near the back of the newsroom. He hadn't been kidding when he'd warned her that his other reporters wouldn't be thrilled by her presence when they learned what she was there to do. The new flying hero was a hot commodity. Everybody wanted to land that next exclusive. But he had no doubt she could handle herself, as she'd assured him in his office.

All in all, it was a win-win situation. She could compete for the story she wanted, the Planet would get a great by-line if she managed to nail it down, and having a nationally acclaimed investigative reporter to compete with for the next few days for the exclusive of the century could only serve to light a fire under his own reporters.

'Besides,' Perry thought with a smile, 'I like her.'

She was obviously an amazing and talented lady, and he was excited at the idea of having her around the newsroom for the next few days. He had excellent reporters, but few showed her level of fire and determination. Having her around was sure to be a breath of fresh air in his sometimes stale newsroom.

***

Lois spent the next few minutes jotting down a list of questions she planned to ask the city's new hero, then decided she was ready to get started. The big question, though, was where.

She leaned back in her chair and chewed on the tip of her pen. How did she find this flying man? In the morning's article, it said nothing about where the man lived, other than the fact that he considered Metropolis his home. So where did she start?

Obviously, the hero planned to use his powers to help the citizens of Metropolis. It only made sense that he would be out today doing just that. Maybe she could borrow a scanner to listen to, to hear what emergencies might be taking place that would require the hero's help. Then she could track him down and hopefully catch up to him that way.

Deciding that was her best course of action, Lois stood up and walked across the newsroom to Perry's office. He was on the phone, but the door was half open. She knocked lightly.

Perry looked up from the stack of papers in front of him and smiled a little as he waved her in. He gestured toward the chair she'd sat in earlier, and she sat down quietly, politely waiting for him to finish.

***

Clark stepped out of the Planet elevator and into the busy newsroom. It had been a long morning. If he had thought being two people would be easy, he was wrong. He'd spent as much time— if not more—performing heroic duties in the blue and red costume, as he did tracking down his sources to get the much-needed information for his latest story. Having to dart away at every distant cry for help was definitely putting a kink in his investigating style. It was hard to concentrate on sources and information while continually keeping an ear out for cries for help.

He sighed. If he didn't have something solid to show Perry on his story soon, Perry was going to kill it. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing had happened, but Clark was never happy when it did. It seemed like such a waste of time and legwork—time and legwork he apparently wasn't going to have much time for now that he was divided into two people.

Knowing he had better come up with some information soon, he decided to jot down what little information he'd been able to gather that morning, then go back over his previous notes. Maybe he had missed something.

He walked down the ramp to the bullpen, stepping out of the way when an overeager copy boy barreled past him. He was almost at his desk when something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Turning, he looked toward Perry's office. There, sitting on the leather chair across from Perry's desk, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

She was slender and shapely, with smooth, flawless skin and luxurious brown, shoulder-length hair worn in a trendy yet professional style. Dressed all in red, the vibrant color brought out the color in her cheeks and made a startling contrast against the dark, silky hair hanging down around her shoulders. Her fitted suit jacket clung to her feminine curves, and the low, scooping neckline gave a tantalizing view of ample cleavage. A hint of black lace peeked out above the neckline.

His heart pounding in his chest, his eyes traveled lower, taking in the fitted skirt that reached only halfway down her thighs as she sat, giving him generous glimpses of her long, shapely legs, especially when she moved to cross one leg over the other. For a moment, she turned her face toward the newsroom. Long, thick eyelashes framed beautiful brown eyes that seemed to take in everything around her. Her full, red lips parted slightly as she glanced around.

Clark felt infatuated, dizzy, and lightheaded, all at the same time. For some reason he couldn't even begin to explain, he felt inexplicably drawn to this woman sitting in Perry's office. Something about her seemed to touch his soul, leaving him wanting for more.

He shook his head. Ridiculous. He didn't even know this woman. He'd never fallen in love at first sight before, if that's indeed what this was. He was usually more sensible than that. Finding someone to care about…it was a tricky business. He'd never wanted to get too close to a woman before because romantic entanglements could prove dangerous. How did he explain to a girlfriend about himself, about all the things he could do? And if he ever did find somebody to love, could he trust her to keep his secret? It seemed so unlikely. And risky. Because of that, he had always been cautious involving matters of the heart.

All that had seemed to fly out the window the very moment he saw her, however. Without even realizing it, she had a hold on him; a hold that left him feeling transfixed and spellbound.

Jimmy walked by in front of him, breaking him from his trance-like stare. Impulsively, Clark grabbed his friend by the arm. "Jimmy, who is that in Perry's office?"

Jimmy turned to look, then grinned broadly and turned back to Clark. "That, my friend, is Lois Lane."

Clark's eyes widened. "THE Lois Lane? From the San Francisco Chronicle?"

Jimmy nodded, his smile reaching clear into his eyes. "Sure is. I had no idea she would be so hot! I mean, I've read her stuff before, but I always pictured her as some grouchy, middle-aged woman. Well, obviously she ain't."

Clark nodded in complete agreement. "What is she doing all the way out here?"

"She's here to do a story on Metropolis's new hero. I overheard her telling Perry that your exclusive interview with the hero left a lot of questions unanswered, and she's planning on getting the whole story. And knowing how much she loves to expose things, I wouldn't put it past her to leave Metropolis with a tell-all expose on the guy. If you ask me, that man had better look out. I hope for his sake he doesn't have anything to hide."

Clark's mouth went dry and he had to remind himself to breathe. Jimmy hurried away at the sound of someone calling his name, but Clark remained frozen in place. He turned his gaze once more toward Perry's office. His feelings of infatuation for the stunning brunette begin to deflate with the rapidness of a spiked tire.

A tell-all expose of Metropolis's new hero. Of him.

This was not good.

He couldn't afford to have an investigative journalist of her caliber on his tail. From everything he'd heard about Lois Lane, she was ruthless…would stop at nothing. As Metropolis's new hero in disguise, that wasn't what he needed.

Swallowing past the constricting tightness in his throat, Clark resolved right then and there to stay as far away from her as possible. Even if his heart wasn't entirely in agreement.

Overruling his heart, he grabbed a stack of papers from his desk and headed for an empty conference room. If he couldn't be seen, maybe he could avoid her completely.

***

Lois ran from the Daily Planet building, hot on the trail of Metropolis's new hero. Perry had showed her where to tune into the police scanner, and soon after she did, she heard a report on a fire that had just broken out in an apartment building not far away. There were people trapped, and the fire-fighters were only just beginning to arrive.

Lois knew this was her chance. This was exactly the kind of situation Metropolis's new hero would show up to help with, wasn't it? She was sure it was. And if she hurried, she was likely to catch the new hero in action.

She jumped in the first available cab. "Lincoln and 9th," she barked to the driver. "There's an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there fast."

That was all the incentive the cab driver needed. He stomped on the accelerator and screeched away from the curb. She opened her mouth to yell at him in protest, but quickly clamped it shut. She had, after all, bribed him to hurry. And she did want to get to the man in the blue and red spandex before anybody else did. If he got her there fast, she guessed it was worth a few bumps and bruises.

When the cab pulled over at her destination, Lois glanced down at her watch. Seven minutes. Not bad. She quickly pulled out the cab fare plus the extra twenty bucks and tossed it over the seat at the driver in her haste to exit the car. There was already a crowd gathered there behind the police barricades, and she didn't want to miss a thing.

Lois pushed her way through to the front of the crowd. When she reached the police barrier, she jerked to a halt. About fifty feet away, behind the wooden barriers and two parked police cars with flashing lights, she saw him. He was impossible to miss. The blue of his costume and the red of his fluttering cape made him stand out in the crowd; but even if he hadn't been wearing the bright colors, his stance and poise commanded attention.

He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, listening intently to the fire chief as he was apprised of the situation. Behind him, fire-fighters dashed around, barking out orders and unrolling hoses. Bright red and orange flames began to be visible behind the thick, black smoke that poured from the building's windows and rose into the sky.

Lois eyed the smoke warily and coughed into her hand. It wasn't the best of locations. The smoke around the building was thick, blowing into the crowd and causing the more sensitive gatherers to abandon their spots along the police barrier. But Lois held her ground. Her eyes teared up at the debris in the air around her, but still she watched, intrigued by the still-mysterious hero standing not far from her.

She knew he'd be good looking; she'd known as much after seeing his picture in the paper that morning. She'd already committed to memory the broadness of his shoulders, his muscular build and well-toned abs, and the thick brown hair that lay, unmoving, in the slicked-back style. But what she hadn't been prepared for was how much more handsome he was in person.

The photo had been inadequate in showing his more intriguing features: his full, red lips; the muscle that twitched in his jaw as he concentrated with intensity to the fire chief's instructions; and the large, capable-looking hands he now had placed on his hips. But most of all, she found herself admiring the intelligent brown eyes she saw darting away from the fire chief every now and then to survey the flames coming from the building with obvious concern, especially when a particularly heavy cloud of smoke drifted over the gathering crowd.

He cared. That's what those eyes told her. And for some reason, that touched her deeply. It touched her to know a stranger could care so much for the well-being of people he had never even met, when with the powers he possessed, he could be doing anything else he wanted. Instead, he had chosen to be here, helping strangers and making a difference.

He was definitely incredible, Lois decided, and not just because of the showy display of powers she'd seen the day before on TV.

As she continued to watch, she saw him nod at something the fire chief said, then glance up at the building where the chief was gesturing. His attitude was professional, his stern eyes and firm jaw evidence that he was focused on the business at hand.

She watched along with him as the fire fighters moved their ladders into place up against the building. One fire fighter tried to dampen the flames using a hose from his perch high up in the bucket of the fire truck's extendable ladder arm, but it appeared to be too little too late. The flames continued to increase in size and intensity.

Just then a fire fighter came running out of the building coughing, causing his teammates, the fire chief, and the flying hero to hurry over to him.

"The stairs are impassable!" the fire fighter choked out, gesturing feebly at the engulfed building behind him. "There are people trapped on the top floor, but I can't get to them."

She saw the fire chief turn to the hero, a look of inquiry on his face. The hero nodded, then sped into the building in a blur of vibrant colors, eliciting a cry of surprise and delight from the crowd. Moments later he returned, carrying two coughing residents and setting them carefully on the ground before the gathered paramedics. Then he flew back into the building for two more victims. Soon the rest of the trapped victims were safely outside with the paramedics, and the superhero looked no worse for the wear.

A shout came from the fire fighters in the bucket of the fire truck's ladder, and Lois looked up to see him gesturing for the operator to move him back, away from the building. "It's no use!" he shouted down to the chief. "We can't control it!"

With a quick nod and a word to the fire chief, the caped man launched himself into the sky and hovered near the top of the building, not far from where the fireman in the bucket lift had been positioned. He hovered there for a moment, then inhaled deeply and blew an icy cloud of air into the building. Lois's eyes widened in surprise as the flames diminished. A few more clouds of icy breath, and the fire was out.

A roar went up from the crowd, and the cheering continued long and loud as the costumed man smiled—a little sheepishly—at the attention, then drifted back down to the ground to talk once again to the fire chief.

Lois stood in stunned silence. Wow. This guy was impressive. He was even more impressive in person than he had been on TV. She'd been in the news business a long time, and not much impressed or surprised her any more. This, however, left her feeling more than a little in awe at the scope of his powers.

When the hero was finally finished talking to the fire and police chiefs, he walked over to the paramedics to check on the people he'd rescued. They all seemed to have come through the ordeal relatively unscathed, with only some smoke inhalation and a few cuts and bruises to show for it. Lois knew how lucky they were. The outcome would have been very different if it hadn't been for the city's new caped hero.

As the superhero left the victims, his movements took him within a few yards of the police barricade. Lois quickly raised her hand and called to him to get his attention, but her cries were quickly droned out by the dozens of other reporters around her, all clamoring for his attention. His only acknowledgement to their calls was a tight-lipped smile and a nod before he pushed off from the ground and rose steadily into the sky. A moment later, he was gone.

Lois dropped her arm in disappointment. He hadn't even seen her…seen any of the reporters. He had looked more *through* them than *at* them, she realized, discouraged. She looked down at her short, curve-hugging red skirt and low cut, clingy, red jacket and sighed. Her carefully selected outfit wasn't going to do any good if he wouldn't even look at her. If she couldn't even get his attention, how was she supposed to hold it long enough to get him to agree to an interview? As far as he was concerned, she was just one of hundreds of reporters vying for his attention.

She shook her head. She had a sinking suspicion this was going to be even harder than she thought.

The crowd around her started to disperse, and Lois overhead the two woman reporters next to her chatting about the superhero.

"Isn't he gorgeous? Too bad he didn't even glance our way. I would have loved to ask him if he was single."

Her companion laughed. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'd gladly throw myself off a building if it meant I could get that man's attention."

Lois rolled her eyes as she turned away. Throw themselves off a building? Talk about desperate. Some women would obviously do anything these days for love.

Lois shook her head. While she found him attractive—gorgeous, even—she wasn't after him to date him. She only wanted his story. And if it was the last thing she did, that's what she was going to get. With his cooperation or not.

With a new level of determination flooding through her, Lois set her jaw and headed for an empty cab. She'd show him. Nobody ignored Lois Lane.

***

Lois spent the rest of the afternoon rushing around the city, tracking down sightings and gathering eyewitness reports and information on this mysterious new hero. She managed to catch him in action twice more that day, once at a multi-car pile up not far from the Planet, and at a bomb scare at a local bank. Each time the results had been the same as that morning—he had ignored her, as well as the rest of the press.

Lois was at her wits end by late afternoon. She'd spent almost an entire day trying to get the elusive superhero's attention, with nothing to show for it.

She dropped onto a nearby bus bench on her way back to the Daily Planet to regroup and reassess. This was a challenge, she had to admit, but she was not deterred. There had to be a way to catch up with this guy. Somebody had to know him, or know how to get hold of him. If this had been her hometown, she would have had sources to turn to, informants who were willing to talk for a little cash. Being new to the scene, she didn't have that luxury.

She took a deep breath to rally herself. 'Come on, Lois, you've hit dead ends before. Think. What can you do to get this guy's attention?'

Before she could answer her own question, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She stiffened. Someone was watching her. She could feel it.

She'd been watched and followed before in her sometimes-dangerous career, but this time it felt different. The sensation was menacing, washing over her and sending a chill down her spine. She'd had enough strange things happen to her in her career to put her subconscious on permanent alert, and she'd learned to trust her instincts.

She'd made the mistake of mentioning this to Agnes once. Her neighbor had simply laughed, telling her she was paranoid; but Lois was convinced she wasn't. Her "paranoia," as Agnes called it, was what kept Lois out of danger. It had proven invaluable on more than one occasion. She didn't want to disregard it now.

As slowly and inconspicuously as possible, she turned her head to the left and studied the people along the busy sidewalk, then did the same in the other direction. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. The citizens of Metropolis seemed to be simply going about their business.

When a quick scan of the nearby store windows and parked cars also revealed nothing out of the ordinary, she reached slowly and deliberately into her purse. Her fingers closed over her compact and she pulled it out. With a casual flip of her fingers, she released the catch and pretended to scrutinize herself in the mirror. The reflection of the area behind her proved to hold nothing of interest as she tilted the mirror slightly to the left and right.

She sighed with relief. If there had been someone watching her, they weren't anymore. At least, she didn't feel like they were. Feeling more at ease, Lois got up from the bench and decided to head back to the Planet. She had more research to do. Maybe if she learned some more about this man, she could figure out a way to track him down.

"Taxi!" Lois raised her arm at an approaching cab. When it shot past her, she signaled another one. It drove past her, as well.

Lois groaned and dropped her arm. The traffic was heavy, and she was beginning to realize how difficult it was going to be to hail a cab. They were likely all going to be occupied by people traveling home from work.

She glanced at the street sign on the closest corner and thought for a minute. If she remembered correctly, the Planet was only a few blocks away. If she hurried, she could walk and be back there in no time. She wanted to talk to Perry White before he went home for the day and see if he might have heard anything that could help her contact her subject.

Her mind made up, Lois started to walk briskly. It didn't take her long to cover the distance to the Planet, and as she turned the last corner, she glanced at her watch. Five o'clock. Plenty of time. If Perry White was anything like her own editor-in- chief, he would be there for an hour or so yet.

She had just lowered her wrist when suddenly a hand came out of nowhere and grabbed her arm in a vice-like grip. Too surprised to scream, Lois found herself being dragged into the semi-darkness of the alley to her right. She caught a glimpse of the culprit—a bald, burly man with a series of ear piercings and a rather elaborate tattoo of a dagger on his right forearm. When they stopped a dozen yards in, he released her arm but held up a jagged-bladed pocketknife in his hand. He pointed it at her threateningly.

"Give me your purse, lady," he growled.

Lois stared back at him, unblinking. Her hand tightened subconsciously on her purse. "I don't think so."

The man raised his eyebrows. He glanced down at his knife, then back up at her. "Don't you get it, lady? If you *don't* give it to me, I'm going to cut that pretty face of yours. Is a credit card and a lipstick really worth all that?"

Lois's jaw tightened. "As a matter of fact, yes." Then with a swift, trained movement, she shifted her weight onto her back leg and kicked the knife out of her attacker's hand, sending it skittering down the dirty alley floor. The man glanced at his knife now laying several feet away, then looked back at her in shock. Lois didn't wait for him to draw any conclusions. With another skilled movement, she drew her leg back and then swung it forward, connecting with the man's sensitive area. He doubled over in agony. Lois quickly brought up a knee into his face, then swept his legs out from under him with a well-placed kick at the back of his legs. He went down in a crumpled, unconscious heap.

"I'm rather fond of the lipstick in my purse, thank you," she tossed out at his unconscious form. Then, with a smug look of satisfaction, she brushed off her hands, picked up her purse that had fallen to the ground during her display of self-defense, and stepped over the man on her way out of the alley.

She grinned to herself. 'That felt great,' she thought with satisfaction. It was definitely cheap therapy to take out her day's frustration on some petty criminal by knocking him senseless.

Two steps later, though, she stopped. Her eyes widened in disbelief as something occurred to her. With the new thought, she stomped her foot and let out a yell of aggravation. "Lois, what did you just do?!" she berated herself aloud, the sound of her voice echoing off the alley walls. "Someone just tried to mug you, and what did you do? You beat the crap out of him. What were you thinking?!"

She shook her head in disbelief. That, clearly, was the problem. She *hadn't* been thinking. If she *had* been thinking, all she would have had to do was emit a loud and frightened, "Help! I'm being mugged!" and the very man she'd been after all day could have been standing right there in front of her.

She had blown it. Blown it big time.

Lois turned back to her would-be assailant, who was still out cold. Maybe she could wake him up and ask him to try again? She could promise not to beat him up this time if he would let her yell instead.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. The mere suggestion was insane. Wake up a criminal and ask him to try again? She was definitely losing it. For a moment, she considered calling for the superhero anyway, but quickly dismissed the idea. Most likely he would fly over, see that her assailant was out cold, and move on to other cries for help.

A tickling sensation on her thigh caused her to look down. To her dismay, she saw that she had ripped the right side seam of her skirt clear up to the top of her thigh.

"Great!" she exclaimed, her pretty features molding into a frown as she flicked her hand at the dangling threads. She turned to her would-be assailant, still out cold. "Thanks a lot! You made me ruin a perfectly good skirt, too!"

She shook her head. This just wasn't her day. With one last growl of aggravation, she stomped back to the sidewalk.

Wasted opportunities. She hated those more than anything.

***

By the end of the day, that wasted opportunity proved to be more monumental than she could have imagined. She had struck out in all her attempts to track down information on the whereabouts of the city's hero. She had talked to many of the city beat's reporters, and not a single one of them knew anything. They were as clueless as she was. Or maybe they just saw her as competition and weren't about to help her beat them out of a scoop. She supposed if she were in their shoes, she would keep any information she had to herself, too.

Lois leaned back in the chair at her temporary desk and pouted at the useless notes in her hand. There had to be something—some piece of information she was overlooking. Surely there were clues to this man's whereabouts. If there were, though, she certainly hadn't found them.

She shook her head in frustration. She'd come all the way across the country to get the story, and what did she have to show for it after an entire day? Nothing. She was used to being the best, at having other reporters follow her lead. Here she felt like one of the pack, a faceless person in the crowd.

And she hated it.

She shifted her gaze from her notes to the afternoon edition of the Daily Planet on her desk. A picture of the hero rescuing the people from the burning apartment building loomed larger than life on the front page. She leaned forward and picked up the paper. The headline reported "Mysterious Hero Strikes Again!"

Lois read the article half-heartedly, noting that at the bottom of the column, there was a brief report of the hero's other feats of the day—the bomb scare at the bank and the multi-car pile up.

Suddenly the wheels in her head started to turn. Nobody had been able to find the hero, but he was clearly adept at finding people—people in trouble, that is. She grumbled at herself once again for wasting the perfect opportunity earlier for him to rescue her. It was exactly the kind of thing he would respond to—a damsel in distress.

That made her smile. He wasn't exactly a knight in shining armor, but he clearly was to some. He was to those women she'd overheard at the fire.

Lois's thoughts screeched to a halt. Those women at the fire. One had said she would gladly throw herself off a building to get his attention.

Lois let that thought tumble around in her mind. Would something like that work? Hadn't she thought just a short time ago about waking up her would-be assailant to ask him to try to mug her again? The idea was ridiculous, but the fact remained—this hero responded to cries for help. What if she were to set herself up? To put herself in peril and then call for help?

She rolled her eyes at herself. She was as desperate as the women at the fire.

She forced her mind back to the more conventional methods of tracking the guy down, methods that people expected a respected journalist like her to use. But after several more minutes of looking over her notes, she realized she'd exhausted her conventional methods. It was time for something different. And gathering information on unconventional story subjects called for using unconventional means.

Lois stood up from her desk. It was worth a try. At this point, anything was worth a try. She started to walk away, but then stopped. Where was she going? She hadn't given any thought to what kind of peril she wanted to put herself in. Tie herself to train tracks? Dangle herself over a cliff? No, those seemed a little dramatic.

That made Lois laugh out loud, but she quickly bit her lip to stifle her laughter when several people nearby eyed her strangely.

'Dramatic?' she thought with a shake of her head. 'Putting yourself in peril to get *anybody's* attention is dramatic, no matter what it is you do.'

Accepting that, she decided to go for a simpler, less involved means of peril. The roof. It was close, convenient, and equally as dangerous. It was several stories off the ground. You would be just as dead when you hit the ground as you would be if a train ran over you.

Her mind made up, Lois located the back stairs. She glanced around as she reached for the doorknob, not wanting anyone to stop her. Nobody was looking, so she quietly slipped into the stairwell and began to climb the stairs to the roof.

She was winded but determined when she reached her destination and stepped out onto the roof. The sounds of the city drifted up to her on the early evening breeze, and dusk blurred the colors of her surroundings into a more monochromatic color scheme.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to stay focused on the matter at hand—her staged peril. With determined footsteps, she strode to the low brick wall indicating the edge of the roof. The sounds of the traffic below caught her attention and she glanced over the edge.

"Whoa." The word slipped from her mouth before she realized she was saying it. Looking down, she suddenly felt faint of heart. The ground was a long way away.

'Of course it's a long way away,' the voice in the back of her head goaded her on. 'It's what you needed, isn't it? Where there's danger, there's the city's new hero. Did you think he would rush to save you if you were jumping of a park bench?'

Somewhere below her a siren wailed. She stared at the rush-hour traffic several stories down, watching the stop and go motion as the traffic lights turned from red to green. Yes, if she were to put herself in danger, this was a good way to do it.

'Step up onto the wall and jump. It's as simple as that,' the voice in her head instructed her boldly. 'Make sure to scream, though. You wouldn't want your efforts to be for nothing, would you?'

Lois shuffled her feet forward until her toes were pressed against the base of the wall. She leaned forward out over the edge, spotting dozens of dark spots moving around on the sidewalks far below. With a gulp, she realized they were people.

Suddenly this didn't seem like such a good idea.

'Lois Lane isn't afraid of anything,' the voice piped up once again. 'Just do it. Jump and scream. That's all there is to it.'

Lois contemplated the ground for one more excruciating minute, then backed away.

'Chicken.'

"Yeah, well, I have an aversion to dying," she snapped aloud to the mocking voice in her head.

Feeling torn between being disappointed with herself for not having the nerve to throw herself off the roof, and relief that she didn't have to put the new hero's hearing to the test, she straightened her blouse and smoothed the front of her skirt before walking back to the roof's stairwell door. Taking risks in her profession was second nature, but even for her, this one was too risky. Besides, this was her first day in Metropolis. If she got really desperate by her last day there, she would probably be desperate enough to get up on that wall.

She emerged from the stairwell into the newsroom only a couple minutes later and took a deep breath. 'Now what?' she asked herself. 'You don't exactly have a lot of options.'

'Try no options.' The pesky voice in her head was back, reminding her of the dead end she was facing.

She frowned. She had to admit, she was stuck. The coffee machine caught her eye, and she made a beeline for it, deep in thought. She hadn't managed to catch the hero's attention at any of the rescues she'd made it to that day, she'd wasted her opportunity by knocking out her mugger, and she'd chickened out of jumping off the roof.

'Lois Lane, you are losing your edge,' she told herself silently as she poured herself a cup of coffee and added two sugars.

She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes as she turned and leaned up against the bar, stirring her coffee and thinking. As impossible as this seemed at the moment, there had to be a way to track this man down. She didn't come all the way across the country to let the story slip away from her. She was the best. She was supposed to find ways to do the impossible.

The Planet's morning edition lying on the bar's counter caught her eye. She leaned forward, studying the article about the hero. Her eyes traveled to the by-line. 'Clark Kent,' she read for the second time that day.

"That's it!" she exclaimed, standing upright and causing some of her newly poured coffee to slosh over the edge onto the floor. "Why didn't I think of it before?"

With a burst of adrenaline, she scurried towards Perry White's office.

***

"You want me to set you up with Clark Kent?" Perry cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at her. "I thought you didn't want a partner."

Lois bit back a retort. It had been a long day and she wasn't in the mood for this. But before she could vent her frustration, she reminded herself that she was in somebody else's newsroom. She took a long, deep breath before responding. "I don't want to be partnered with him; I just want to talk to him about how he managed to get hold of this hero guy."

A look of amusement crossed Perry's features. "Crapped out, huh? I figured that somebody with your experience and resourcefulness wouldn't have any trouble tracking him down."

Lois stiffened. She couldn't decide if Perry was sympathizing with her or poking a little fun at her. Either way, after the day she'd just had, she didn't need to be reminded that her investigation had come up lacking. "I'm not having trouble," she told him, trying to keep her tone neutral, "it's just…taking a little longer than I expected."

"I see." Perry barely managed to contain the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. As an attempt to disguise it, he leaned forward and glanced down at the papers on his desk, the same ones he'd been going over when she'd burst through his office door with barely a knock.

He cleared his throat, then continued. "Well, uh, Clark Kent was the one I was going to have you talk with this morning. I figured that not only does he know the city well, but he's already managed to track down our local hero once and just might be able to do it again." He looked up, this time not bothering to hide his smug, amused smile. "If you hadn't been in such a hurry to go off and do your own investigating, you could have saved yourself a lot of time."

Lois bristled at the I-told-you-so undertone to his voice. It reminded her of her father's, so many years ago. "Look," she said, quickly losing what little patience she had left. "Can I talk to him or not? Maybe I can get something out of him that would be useful."

"Sure, you could talk to him," Perry said with a shrug, restoring his business-like demeanor when he sensed he'd pushed her too far. "He may not be very forthcoming with information, though. He won't say how he managed to get the interview, or even if he can reliably contact the man again."

"I think it's worth a shot. Talking to him can't hurt, can it?"

Perry studied the determined look on her face for a moment, then finally nodded. "Last time I saw him he was at his desk. Come on, I'll introduce you."

They walked out of his office together, and Perry gestured to a dark-haired man sitting a few desks away. Lois was surprised to see that Clark Kent was a good-looking, well-built man about thirty years old, dressed in a nicely tailored gray suit. The crisp white shirt was a stark contrast to his olive complexion, and a bold burgundy and yellow tie gave his otherwise sharp outfit a touch of personality. If she had allowed herself a moment to think about something other than tracking down the city's elusive superhero, she might have stopped to consider the fact that he wasn't wearing a wedding ring. As it was, she filed the tidbit away in her mind for a later time.

Clark was focused on his computer screen as they approached, engrossed in whatever it was he was working on. He didn't pull his eyes away from his monitor until Perry's booming voice sounded beside him.

"Kent, I'd like you to meet somebody."

Clark looked up amiably, giving her a glimpse of beautiful, intelligent brown eyes behind stylish tortoise-shell frame glasses. When their eyes met, however, Clark's body stiffened and a guarded expression replaced his open, friendly one. She was both surprised and intrigued by his abrupt change of expression.

Perry continued on with his introduction. "Clark Kent, this is Lois Lane, from the San Francisco Chronicle. She's here to try to do a story on our new hero. Lois Lane, Clark Kent—the one who already nailed down an exclusive." Perry said the last statement proudly, and he clapped the rather anxious-looking young man on the shoulder. "Ms. Lane has had a bit of trouble tracking down our local hero to get an interview with him, and she wondered if you might be able to help her with that."

Lois watched as Clark's Adam's apple moved as he swallowed. 'Is it just me, or does he seem nervous?' she couldn't help wondering. He got slowly to his feet, then extended a hand.

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Lane." His voice was deep and strong, but his hand barely grasped hers before he pulled it back.

Her eyes narrowed. Was this one of those situations Perry had warned her about, when his staff would not be very welcoming because she would be considered competition for the new hero's story? He'd already gotten the exclusive, though. He should be feeling superior, if anything, shouldn't he? Or maybe because of his exclusive, he felt like he owned the hero?

Lois's jaw tightened. 'Well, he doesn't,' she thought irritably. 'Besides, he had his shot and blew it. Now it's my turn, and if he doesn't like it, he can just go to—'

"Ms. Lane, did you hear me?"

Lois pulled herself from her increasingly irritable thoughts and turned to Perry, who was looking at her expectantly. "I'm sorry?" she asked.

"I was just saying that if Jimmy can be of any assistance, you should give him a holler. Okay?"

She nodded, then turned back to Clark, fixing him with a determined stare. He actually flinched.

Lois's brow furrowed. What was with this guy? He looked like a deer caught in the headlights. How had he managed such an important exclusive when he was clearly afraid of his own shadow? He was obviously a hack, who had fallen into the story with a great deal of luck. Not that she had anything against luck; luck was often a journalist's greatest friend. But this guy—it hardly seemed fair that he had been able to nail the first big exclusive on Metropolis's newest media sensation, when she, herself, had worked long and hard for a chance like this. It should have been hers.

'It will be,' she told herself. 'And it will be the expose of the century. All you have to do is find out how this hack of a reporter tracked down the hero. And don't you dare let him tell you no.'

***

Perry's brows furrowed in confusion as he watched the two reporters standing before him, staring at each other. The tension between them was palpable. 'Is there something going on here that I don't understood?' he wondered.

He watched as the two reporters stood, eyeing each other—Clark's expression wary, Lois's determined. Perry tried hard to hide the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. 'Apparently so,' he thought, answering his own question.

It was an interesting moment, watching the two size each other up. His gaze went from one to the other, comparing them. Clark hadn't been at the Planet for very long; a few months was all. But in that amount of time, he'd come to like his new investigative reporter. He had a wonderful writing style that was honest and likeable. He was a hard worker, if somewhat mild-mannered by nature. He never did anything halfway, if his few short months there had been any indication, and he was impressed by that. He had high hopes for him.

But when he turned to Lois Lane, it was easy to see the strong contrast between the two reporters. Kent was easy going, determined yet polite, and thoughtful. He loved to run a good investigation, but he tried to never step on anyone's toes in the process. Lane, on the other hand, was independent, passionate, and demanding. He'd only known her a day, but from the moment she'd stepped into his office that morning, he'd sensed she was a reporter who wouldn't take no for an answer…no matter what.

She'd been polite enough to him, but he could tell there was an underlying hunger that would push her to the brink. He'd had a little fun testing that breaking point in his office just a short time before, and was not surprised to see an underlying temper that could prove volatile under more familiar circumstances. With a smile, he wondered how many times his old friend Jim Langley had been on the receiving end of that temper.

He shook his head and chuckled to himself. He'd hate to be in the shoes of the person who set her off, or wouldn't give her what she wanted.

Perry decided to slip away to his office, and did so unnoticed by either of them. But he couldn't resist one last glance over his shoulder as he went. He was just in time to see Lois take a confident—though almost irritated—step toward Clark, which caused him to take a step backwards. If he didn't know any better, he would have thought Clark was afraid of her.

He grinned. 'Why shouldn't he be?' he asked himself in amusement. 'She's a handful. If I were their age, I might be intimidated by her, too.'

Perry stepped into his office and shut the door. As he thought about Clark's genteel nature and Ms. Lane's fire and passion, one thing seemed certain.

Lois Lane was going to eat that boy alive.

***

Clark swallowed past the lump in his throat. Not only was Lois Lane even more beautiful up close, but she was definitely intimidating. She walked with an air of confidence that spoke volumes as to how she'd been able to get where she was in this man's world. She was good, and she knew it.

He tried not to waver beneath her intense, determined gaze. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally cleared his throat and sat back down in his chair. "So, Ms. Lane," he began, glancing at his computer screen, then back at her, hoping she would take the hint that he was busy. "What can I do for you?"

She crossed her arms over her chest. "Like Perry said, I'm here to do a story on this new hero, and obviously you managed to track him down. How did you do it? I want to contact him myself."

Clark shifted nervously in his chair. "He's already given an interview, Ms. Lane," he hedged. "Why would he want to give another one?"

"It isn't a matter of him 'wanting' to give another one," Lois insisted, her tone becoming condescending. "It's that you didn't get the whole story, and somebody needs to."

Clark didn't know whether to be offended by her tone, or worried that she was clearly digging for things he didn't want to have turned up. Trying to stall for time, he forced his voice to remain even. "What do you mean, I 'didn't get the whole story'?"

She tossed the newspaper she'd had under her arm onto his desk and nodded at his front page article. "I mean, where's the story behind the story? Seriously, who is this guy? All you gave was some touchy-feely story about how he was from another planet and was here to help. That's all fine and good, but everybody wants to know more about how he got here and who he is. Does he even have a name? He calls himself 'a friend.'" She snorted. "That doesn't tell us anything! I mean, doesn't he even have a name? What's he planning to call himself, 'friend man'?"

In spite of his concerns over being discovered, Clark had to fight back a smile. When this woman babbled, she really babbled. He wondered how she managed to take a breath between her sentences. Or maybe she just had really strong lungs and didn't need to.

He watched as she looked down at the picture on the front page. Then she hurried on. "And just what the heck is that 'S' on his chest supposed to stand for?" she continued. "I mean, if he'd been smarter, he would have tied that in with a name for himself."

Clark's eyebrows rose. This was something he hadn't considered. "Like?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Like…well…" She thought for a minute. "The stuff he can do is pretty super. Some people are even referring to him as a 'superhero.' Maybe he should have called himself…I don't know…like, 'Superman' or something."

Clark almost laughed out loud. Superman? That was something he never would have even considered. It sounded so vain. But then again, maybe she was onto something. A name like that could only help with his cover. After all, who would think of conservative, mild-mannered Clark Kent as 'super' anything? It just might work out to his advantage in the long run.

He opened his mouth to reply, but she knocked a pen from his desk and quickly bent down to grab it. When she did, he noticed her skirt was ripped clear up to the top of her thigh.

Clark froze. If her skirt hadn't been short enough to give him a good look at her long, shapely legs before when she'd been sitting in Perry's office, he was definitely getting a good look now. His cheeks flushed. He found it harder to pull his eyes away from her bare expanse of leg than it had been for him to lift the colonist's launch vehicle into orbit.

"Uhhh," he stammered, his embarrassment growing even more as he caught the hitch in his own voice. "Your—your skirt is ripped." He gestured feebly at her split side seam.

Lois glanced down at her skirt, then grimaced. "Yeah, I know." She swiped a hand at it, brushing away a couple of loose threads hanging from the edge. "I got mugged in an alley on the way back here."

Clark's eyes widened in dismay, and he wondered how she could speak of such a thing so casually. "You got mugged?! Are you okay?" His concern over his own predicament was quickly overshadowed by his concern for her, a victim of a potentially serious crime. "Did you report it to the police?"

She waved her hand dismissively. "No, the thug didn't get anything, so I didn't bother."

"He…didn't get your purse?" Clark's voice faltered as his confusion grew. "I thought you said—"

Lois shook her head. "Okay, maybe I should have said the guy *attempted* to mug me. He pulled a knife and told me to give him my purse, but I knocked him out instead." She grinned, obviously pleased with herself. "I don't think he'll be walking normally for a week. Maybe he'll think twice before he tries to rob a woman again."

Clark stared at her in shock, unaware that his jaw was hanging open. "What exactly did you do to him?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him meaningfully. "You're a guy, Kent. I'm sure you're familiar with the best way to cripple a man."

Clark grimaced. Ouch. That mugger had obviously tried to mug the wrong person.

"Actually, that wasn't the only thing I did to him," Lois continued proudly, "but that's what had the biggest effect. If he'd asked, I would have told him I'd just gotten my black belt in Tae Kwon Do last month. Maybe if he had known that, he could have saved himself some pain and humiliation."

Clark was suddenly aware of his hanging jaw and snapped it shut. For a long moment, he continued to stare at this woman in a mixture of disbelief and newfound anxiety. A woman well versed in using her feminine wiles, with the passion and fire to go after her stories like a mad woman, *and* a black belt to back it all up?

He was in trouble. Big trouble.

"The point I was trying to make before we got talking about my non-mugging," she said, re-capturing his attention and getting back to the topic at hand, "is that there's a lot more to know about this new hero than you got out of him. And those things are exactly the things I want to know."

Certain he didn't want to know the answer, he asked anyway. "For instance?"

"For instance, who is this guy, really? Where did he come from? And don't tell me he came from another planet," she hurried on when Clark opened his mouth to speak. "He already told us that much. What I want to know is, where did he come from *after* that?"

Afraid he knew where she was going with this, he forced himself to remain calm. "I'm afraid you've lost me, Ms. Lane."

Lois rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I mean, where was this guy *before* he saved the transport vehicle and those colonists? Did he arrive on earth moments before that bomb was detected? I don't think so. He had to have been here on earth for a time before that. How long a time? And where was he during that time? No one saw a guy in blue and red spandex walking around the city before that. Surely someone would have spotted him. No, my guess is that he's been here on earth for a while. Maybe he's been learning the culture, the lay of the land, maybe even living like a human being. Maybe he's even had a job somewhere, and this blue and red spandex costume was his idea of a disguise so no one would really know who he is."

Clark drew in a breath sharply, almost choking on the sudden intake of air. He coughed a couple of times, then played down his reaction by patting himself on the chest a couple of times. "Excuse me," he muttered.

When he realized she was waiting for him to respond, he shook his head. "Ms. Lane, I think your assumptions are a little far fetched. How would some guy with super powers hide everything that he could do? When I interviewed him, this man gave no indication he'd been living here for any length of time before the shuttle incident. I don't see what he could have possibly had to hide. He was very forthcoming with information about himself."

"Forthcoming! Hah! You call this article forthcoming?" Lois slapped her hand on the newspaper in front of Clark, causing him to jump. "It gives more questions than answers! Like I said, I believe there's a lot more story to tell. That's why I'm here. I'm going to get the whole story, Kent, and you're going to help me."

Clark stared back into Lois Lane's determined brown eyes, trying not to waver beneath her gaze. He took a deep, shaky breath and released it slowly. "I—I don't know what I can do to help you, Ms. Lane…"

"How did you manage to get hold of this man?" she demanded, losing what little patience she had left. She was running out of time, and she could see her story starting to slip away. And what was worse, she was wasting her precious time being jerked around by the likes of this guy. She threw her hands up in frustration. "Come on, Kent! You must have some kind of source or connection. That's the only explanation for a hack like you lucking out and getting the exclusive like you did."

Clark felt something inside of him snap. He rose slowly from his chair, his eyes narrowing. "Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You think I'm some hack that got lucky?"

She snorted a laugh. "You didn't do a very thorough job of getting the answers everybody wants to know. How else do you explain it?"

Clark put his hands on the desk and leaned in toward her, his eyes blazing. When he spoke, it was through gritted teeth. "Ms. Lane, I don't appreciate you calling my reporting abilities into question. And yes, I have connections, but that doesn't make me lucky. It makes me a good reporter."

She opened her mouth to speak, but Clark cut her off. "Look, Ms. Lane, I'm sorry that you're angry I scooped you, but I'll have you know I'm not just some hack. I've paid my dues just like you have, and I would not have been hired here as an investigative journalist if I didn't have the skills *and* the credentials…plus something else you've probably heard of—it's called professional courtesy. And right now I'm not feeling particularly courteous. If you're going to walk in here and call me a hack, you can go and find your own sources."

Lois's eyes widened and her jaw dropped. In the silence that followed, Clark was surprised to see that she was actually speechless. Judging from her babbling of only minutes before, he assumed that probably didn't happen often.

For a moment, he almost felt guilty for lashing out at her— something he couldn't ever remember doing in the history of his career. He had always been courteous and respectful to his colleagues. But something about this Lois Lane's attitude and accusations had really rubbed him the wrong way. He had worked hard to get to where he was, and he wasn't about to let this woman—no matter how beautiful she was—talk down to him and accuse him of being a hack.

With his outburst hanging heavily in the air, Clark cleared his throat. "Well. If you'll excuse me, I've got some work to do. Good luck with your story."

And with that, Clark stalked across the newsroom and into the elevator, leaving her staring silently after him.

***

"I can't believe I lost it like that," Clark vented to his parents later that evening. "I don't think I've ever done that to a colleague before."

"Well, it sounds like you had the right to," Martha Kent consoled, her tone supportive and understanding. "Accusing you of being a… What was it she called you?"

"A lucky hack. Can you believe it?" He shook his head, even though he knew his parents couldn't see him. "Still, I should have been more courteous. I felt a little guilty then, and I feel even guiltier now. What possessed me to act like that?"

"It's simple, Clark," his mom analyzed. "Here this Lois Lane woman shows up, a very renowned journalist, with a reputation for getting to the bottom of any story she goes after, and she's demanding to know how to get hold of Metropolis's new hero, which just happens to be you. You felt threatened, plain and simple. Anyone in your place would have felt that way. It's perfectly natural to lash out when you're scared. Not that I recommend you do that again in the future, though," she finished in her best scolding-parent tone.

Jonathan chuckled, joining in on the conversation on their other phone extension. "Yeah, we're not recommending you treat your colleagues that way, but it doesn't sound like she had much respect for you. Maybe she will now, though, and leave you alone. If that secret of yours ever got out, there could be some terrible consequences. I don't think I need to remind you what those scientists would do to you if they ever found out you're from another planet. They would open you up—"

"—and dissect me like a frog," Clark finished for him. "I know, Dad. Why do you think I was worried when I found out Lois Lane from the San Francisco Chronicle was at the Daily Planet? I've read her stuff; I know how talented she is. And from what I've heard, she's ruthless. But I guess I never expected her to be so…"

When Clark didn't finish, his mom prompted, "So…what?"

Clark paused, then went ahead and said it. "Beautiful. I never expected her to be so beautiful."

There was a moment of silence from his parents' end of the line, and Clark groaned inwardly as he imagined them exchanging a look of interest. He hurried on to dispel what they were surely thinking. "And aggravating!" he put in, starting to pace across his living room. "I cannot believe how aggravating she is. She storms around like she owns the place and treats people like she has no consideration for them at all. It makes me wonder if she even has any friends back in San Francisco."

"Now, Clark." His mom's voice had a scolding tone to it. "That's not a very nice thing to say. The truth is, you really don't know that much about her. I'm sure she only acts that way because she's had to fight so hard to get where she is in her line of work, especially being a woman. I can't say that I blame her. I know what it's like. Your father and I both work equally hard to farm our land, and I know almost as much as your father does about how to run a farm. But if I ever try to voice an opinion around other men farmers, they all treat me like I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm sure this Ms. Lane must feel the same way from time to time."

Clark stopped his pacing. "Mom, are you taking Lois Lane's side? I thought you were supposed to be on my side."

"We are on your side, honey," his mom hurried to reassure him. "I agree she shouldn't have treated you like she did. But I'm just saying you shouldn't go jumping to conclusions and think she's a terrible person. Until you've walked a mile in somebody's shoes, you have no right to judge them."

Clark paused, confused. "So…you don't think I should be worried about her?"

"Oh, you should be terrified." His mother chuckled. "You just shouldn't judge her while you're running the other way."

Clark heard his dad laugh, and he found himself smiling, too. "Got it, Mom. Thanks."

"You be careful, son," his dad put in before they said their goodbyes. "And keep us posted."

Clark assured him he would do both, then hung up. He smiled. His parents always made him feel better. There were times when he felt very lonely, living the life he had to, but they were always there for him when he needed them. That made things almost bearable.

Almost. As much as he loved and appreciated his parents, there were times when he wanted something else. Someone else.

An image of Lois Lane floated into his mind. It was true what he'd told his parents. Lois Lane was beautiful. He could still picture her—her intense brown eyes framed by long, thick lashes; her flawless, fair complexion set off by the silky brown hair that barely brushed her shoulders and curled under slightly, drawing attention to her full, red lips. Then there was that long expanse of bare, shapely leg he'd gotten a good look at…

He shook his head, refusing to let himself go there. Yes, there was definitely something there to interest a man. But it wasn't just that she was beautiful. There was something more that had piqued his interest.

He smiled at the memory of how she'd babbled on about the 'superhero' needing a name, and how she'd sarcastically called him 'friend man.' She had a sense of humor, he had to give her that. There was also a fire and determination that gave her cheeks color and brightened her eyes.

Under other circumstances, he would have loved to get to know her better, but he knew that just wasn't possible. She was after an expose, a tell-all story to expose him and his life. He couldn't let that happen. It was dangerous. *She* was dangerous.

As much as he felt inexplicably drawn to Lois Lane, he knew he had to steer clear. No matter what his heart was telling him.

***

Lois shut her hotel room door, then walked across the room and plunked down on the couch. "What an awful day," she grumbled to herself.

She leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling for several long minutes. It had been bad enough that she'd crapped out in her efforts to track down the hero, but what made her feel even worse was the way she'd treated Clark Kent.

She closed her eyes and shook her head. The more she thought about their conversation, the more disappointed she was in herself. She hadn't meant to offend him. She'd been frustrated at her lack of success and had taken it out on him. She'd had no right to do that, and he was absolutely right—it was no way to treat somebody from whom she needed a favor.

When he had stormed off after taking her down a notch, she had been shocked into silence. She wasn't used to being stood up to. Most people were intimidated by her, and got out of her way when they saw she was in one of her moods. But Clark hadn't. She didn't know whether to be angry…or impressed. There was clearly more to this Clark Kent than met the eye.

She sighed. She'd really made a mess of things. She'd struck out in her search today, then had alienated Clark Kent, the one person who could possibly help her to get in touch with the superhero she'd come to find.

There was only one thing she could do. Apologize.

She groaned and leaned forward, dropping her face into her hands. She hated apologizing. It was demeaning and embarrassing. Regardless, she knew she had to do it. It was the only way she could set things right with Clark Kent, and hopefully convince him to help her reach the city's new hero.

"I'll apologize tomorrow morning," she conceded with a sigh.

Feeling a little better, she stood up and wandered over to the nightstand where the in-house menu had been placed. The room service prices were costly, but she decided she wasn't up to going out. Not after the day she'd had.

Picking up the phone, she ordered a turkey sandwich and the house soup, then went to change into something more comfortable before it was delivered. She rummaged through her suitcase and pulled out a black T-shirt and a pair of blue and black plaid lounge pants. It was only eight o'clock, but she decided she'd spend the evening in doing research on her computer through the hotel's provided Internet service.

After changing into her comfortable sleepwear, she hooked up her computer and grabbed her cell phone to call in to check her messages. There were two new messages. She punched in her code to listen to them, grimacing when her editor's voice came across the line demanding an update. She made a face. That call was going to have to wait. She wasn't about to call Jim back and tell him she'd crapped out that day.

The next message caused her brow to furrow. An unfamiliar woman's voice sounded in her ear:

"Ms, Lane, this is Deirdre Long, Mr. Luthor's personal secretary. Mr. Luthor is an admirer of your work and has learned you are in town for a few days. He was hoping you might have time to have dinner with him while you're in town. Please give me a call me back and let me know."

After leaving a phone number for Lois to return her call, the message ended. Lois stood frozen in place for long moments with the phone still pressed to her ear.

Lex Luthor wanted to have dinner with her? Sure, she knew who he was. Who didn't? He was the third richest man in the world, and one of the most powerful men in the United States. He owned so many companies and corporations that it was impossible to list them all in one sitting. He had his hand in everything from real estate and computer software, to space technologies and nuclear power plants. She'd read articles about him over the years, intrigued by his rise to wealth and power from his meager beginnings.

'And he wants to have dinner with me,' she thought, feeling both surprised and flattered.

She replayed the message, this time writing down the phone number on the notepad sitting next to the phone. Then she glanced at her watch. She wondered if it would be too late to return the call. Figuring it was worth a try, she dialed. Her stomach danced with butterflies as the phone began to ring.

A female voice answered smoothly, "Lex Luthor's offices, may I help you?"

"Hello," Lois said, trying to sound professional in spite of her fluttering stomach. "Is Deirdre Long available?"

"This is Deirdre Long. What can I do for you?"

"This is Lois Lane—"

The receptionist's response cut her off. "Yes, Ms. Lane, let me put you through to Mr. Luthor. He's expecting your call."

There were a couple of clicks on the line, and Lois's throat seized up. She was actually being put through to Lex Luthor? She swallowed nervously. She hadn't been expecting this. She'd expected to schedule something with his secretary, not talk to him herself.

She squeezed the phone a little tighter in anticipation and tried to keep her hands from shaking. She didn't have long to wait. It was only moments later that a smooth, cultured voice came across the line.

"Ms. Lane, how kind of you to return my call."

Lois shook herself out of her momentary state of shock and cleared her throat. "Mr Luthor," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "It's a pleasure to talk with you. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to receive a message from your receptionist. If you don't mind me asking, how did you get my number?"

Lex Luthor's voice had a smile in it when he answered. "I learned you were in town, and I'm such an admirer of your work that I had my secretary phone your editor in San Francisco. He passed your number along. I hope you don't mind."

"Oh, not at all," she said. "I'm flattered you would go to so much trouble."

"It was no trouble at all. Ms. Lane, I know you're busy, and that you're probably only in town for a few days, but I was hoping we could get together. Would your schedule allow for a dinner appointment?"

"I think so," Lois answered, trying not to sound too eager. The thought flitted through her head that this could definitely work to her advantage. Maybe if she played her cards right, she could return home with an exclusive interview of the city's new hero *and* an interview with the highly sought out Lex Luthor. "I fly home Saturday morning. Is there a night that works better for you?"

"How about tomorrow night?" he suggested. "We could go to any restaurant you'd like, or better yet, we could have a private dinner in my penthouse. I have a personal chef on staff who is one of the most renowned in the world. I think you would be pleased."

Lois smiled to herself. Dinner at Lex Luthor's penthouse with a world renowned chef? 'Such a tough decision to make,' she joked silently. Not only would the food be wonderful, they would have some privacy, and any good reporter knew the best way to get a subject to open up was talking with them on their home turf, where they felt most comfortable. There was no way she could say no.

"Tomorrow night would be great," she told him. "I look forward to it."

"As do I." She could hear a smile in his voice. "If you approve, I'll send a car for you around seven."

Lois agreed, telling him which hotel she was staying in and then bidding him goodnight. She hung up the phone and stared at it for several minutes.

She was having dinner with Lex Luthor. In his penthouse. Unbelievable.

A knock sounded on her door, and she hurried over to look through the peephole. A young lady stood on the other side in a hotel uniform, holding a large tray. Realizing it was her dinner, she quickly opened the door.

The tantalizing smell of hot soup wafted up to her nose as she set the tray down on the table and lifted the lid. Her stomach growled. It wasn't until then that she realized she'd never had lunch. She'd been so busy chasing the superhero all over the city she'd never found time to think about lunch.

She settled down at the room's small table and began to eat. As she did, she thought about her conversation with Lex Luthor. He had sounded nice, and she knew from the pictures she'd seen of him that he was a very handsome, distinguished man. And she, Lois Lane, was going to be having dinner with him.

She shook her head. She still couldn't believe it. She was going to be having dinner with the third-richest man in the world, a man who carried a great deal of influence in the corporate world. What surprised her even more was that he had been interested in meeting her. She wasn't exactly in his social circles.

He had said he was a fan. A fan? She didn't realize she had fans. Most people who contacted her were usually people who were more interested in delivering death threats. This was a nice switch.

As she took a bite of her turkey sandwich, she couldn't help wondering how he'd learned that she was in town. She made a mental note to ask him tomorrow when she met him. Reaching for the complimentary evening addition of the Daily Planet sitting on her table, she began to read as she ate.

She reread the front-page article about the hero's rescue at the apartment fire, remembering first-hand the scene that was pictured. The grainy picture of the superhero in action did little to show how truly good-looking he was up close. Lois always made it a point to not get involved with her stories—or the subjects of her stories—but this superhero…he was really something.

His display of powers in person had been even more impressive than on TV. More than that, though, she had been surprised by the very human side to him that hadn't shown up on camera. Like the way he'd tried to cover his sheepish smile when the crowd of onlookers at the fire had cheered when he'd put out the fire single- handedly, for instance. He had seemed a little embarrassed at the attention, but there was something else…something that she'd gotten a brief glimpse of. He had seemed…flattered.

Sitting back in her chair, she reached up to twist a lock of hair around her finger as she contemplated that. Would an alien really have the sense of human emotions she'd glimpsed on his face in that brief moment? There seemed to be something very human about him, much more so than she'd expected. He didn't come off as just an alien from another planet, flying around and helping people like a robot. Clearly he had at least some human emotions. And that made her wonder…did he have other feelings as well? He was obviously worried about the people he had rescued from the fire, but what about the more personal emotions? Did he ever get scared? Did he ever feel…lonely?

She thought about the ladies next to her at the fire and remembered their obvious interest in his eligibility status. They would obviously go out with him in a heartbeat. Probably any eligible woman in the world would jump at the chance. But she knew from personal experience that having somebody to date didn't necessarily make a person less lonely. She knew because she had gone out with a myriad of different men over the years, but none of them had been able to fill the void in her heart.

Could this hero possibly feel the same way—alone in a world of billions? She could only imagine he would feel ever more so, knowing that he was so different from everybody else on the planet. With that realization, she wondered if he could possibly live any kind of normal life. At the end of the day, where did he go? Did he have friends to talk to? Somebody special to be with? Surely he had to live somewhere completely isolated in order to keep from getting hounded by the media. Having a support system of friends seemed unlikely in those circumstances.

With a start, Lois realized she felt sorry for him. And what was worse, for the first time since she'd seen the footage on TV, Lois realized that this was very much a person she was hunting down, not just an impressive, mechanical being performing impressive feats and rescues.

She frowned. That made her job harder. If she started personalizing this man's potential situation, it was going to be that much harder to remain detached and objective in her attempts to expose him.

With a firm shake of her head, she forced herself to pull herself together. She couldn't think about it that way. He was her story, pure and simple. She wasn't out to hurt him; she just wanted to give everyone the answers they all wanted.

And that was exactly what she was going to do.

Lois took the last bite of her sandwich and looked once again at the front-page photograph. Something caught her eye, and she leaned forward, scrutinizing the picture. The dark hair, the broad shoulders, the intelligent brown eyes…

For some strange reason, she realized just how much this hero resembled Clark Kent. If she didn't know any better, she would think that Clark Kent was…

Lois laughed out loud, the sound reverberating through the empty room. "Oh, Lois, you are *definitely* losing your edge!" she declared. "Where's your common sense? You met Clark Kent at the Planet. He was afraid of his own shadow! Well, he was until you set him off by calling him a lucky hack." She grimaced at the memory, then felt a wave of guilt wash over her once again.

She pushed the memory aside and stared back down at the picture, shaking her head and smiling. There was no way a guy like Clark Kent could be the world's strongest man, flying around the world saving people's lives. He was too mild-mannered. Besides, he'd been wearing glasses. She still didn't know much about this new hero, but someone with his powers surely didn't need vision help. The thought was ludicrous.

Lois cleaned up her dinner, still chuckling to herself. It had been a very long day, and she needed to get some sleep. Her usually sharp investigative instincts were clearly suffering.

***

Clark stepped off the elevator into the newsroom early the next morning feeling apprehensive. He glanced around the room. There was no sight of Lois Lane, but he knew that didn't mean she wasn't there. She may have already been hitting the streets on her search for…well, him.

He frowned. He would consider himself lucky if he could find a way to avoid her completely. With one last look around, he went to his desk and sat down. He still had a story to work on, one that was dangerously close to being axed by Perry. If he didn't want that to happen, he'd better get in research mode.

An hour later, he was so engrossed in his notes and research that he didn't hear the light footsteps approaching. But the sound of an all-too-familiar voice at his side caused him to jump.

"Hi, Clark."

Clark looked up, and his heart lurched in his chest. Lois was standing there beside his desk, looking amazing in a sleek black suit with fashionable white accents. The dark color complimented her fair complexion and dark hair and eyes perfectly, and the stark white blouse was elegant beneath her tailored suit jacket. The suit's black skirt came down just below her knees, but a long slit ran up the side, giving him another glimpse at those long, shapely thighs.

Feeling a blush threatening to creep onto his cheeks, he forced himself to maintain his composure. He met her gaze coolly and nodded. "Ms. Lane."

He turned to go back to work, hoping she'd take the hint and move on. But when she remained where she was, he didn't know whether to be worried or glad. Finally, he steeled himself and glanced back up. Their eyes met, and he was surprised to see a look of vulnerability in hers that hadn't been there the day before. His heart skipped a beat. Somehow it made her appear even more beautiful.

He watched as she shifted on her feet, then wet her lips. His brows drew together in confusion. She looked as if she had something to say, but the fact that she hadn't come right out and said it surprised him. If the day before had been any indication, she wasn't exactly the type of person who was ever at a loss for words.

"Did you…have something to say, Ms. Lane?" he prompted, half afraid to ask, but too curious by her obvious change of attitude not to.

She nodded. Then she looked down and smoothed her hand over a non-existent wrinkle on her skirt. Finally, she looked back up and met his gaze.

"Look, Clark," she began. "About last night…you were right about my lack of professional courtesy. I had no right to call you what I did, and I feel really badly about how I treated you. I was out of line, and…" she paused for a moment, then continued, her voice sincere, "…I'm really sorry."

Clark's eyebrows flew up his forehead. She was sorry? That was the last thing he'd expected to hear from her. The voice in the back of his head warned that she was possibly only apologizing to get him to help her, but he didn't suspect that was the case. Watching her as she'd struggled to get the words out told him that apologizing wasn't something she did often. He had no reason to believe she was being anything but sincere.

"Thank you," he finally answered, seeing her tense body relax at his acceptance of her apology. He half expected her behavior to revert back to her stubborn determination of the night before, but she appeared uncertain what to do next.

Seeing her stand there looking so vulnerable and uncertain made him wonder if there really was more to her than he'd expected, as his mom had suggested. Maybe she wasn't the completely ruthless and unfeeling woman he had judged her to be.

Clark felt his defenses weaken. "I'm sorry, too," he told her quietly. "I shouldn't have lashed out at you like that. I guess you just kind of…hit a nerve."

She raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow at him. "Oh?"

He nodded, then found himself offering an explanation. "Even though I've traveled all over the world, working for different papers and as a foreign correspondent, I'm originally from Kansas. A lot of people have given me a hard time about that over the years. I guess the 'hack' accusation kind of set me off."

Lois smiled, and Clark felt his heart twist against his will. It was clear that stubborn organ was not about to listen to reason.

"I guess I can understand that." She nodded, a look of sympathy softening her features. "Stereotypes can be hard to escape—like being a woman in this business, for example. It hasn't exactly been easy. I tend to come off pretty strong, and I have this bad habit of kind of running over the top of people." She looked sheepish as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "It's not that I'm trying to be mean, it's just kind of become a survival skill when I've had to work twice as hard as any man to get where I am." She paused. "Again, I'm sorry. I really am."

Clark stared at her in surprise. His mom had been right. Dead on, in fact. It figured. His mom was rarely wrong.

"Apology accepted," he told her. Then he smiled, and this time it was a genuine one.

They stood there for a long moment, staring at each other. Finally, Lois opened her mouth to speak…only to be interrupted by a shout from the end of the newsroom.

"Kent! I just got a tip on the Mayor's voting scandal and I want you on it."

Lois looked over to see Perry White coming toward them. Clark listened intently as his editor passed along the information he'd received about the recent allegations of ballot stuffing during the mayoral race. When Perry finished, Clark nodded and reached for his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair.

"I'm on it, Chief."

Perry left to talk with another member of his staff, and Clark slipped into his suit jacket and grabbed a notebook off his desk. Lois quickly spoke up before he could leave.

"Um, Clark, I don't want this to sound like this was the only reason I apologized a minute ago, because it's not, but…would you mind if I tagged along with you and asked you a few questions about what you might know about this hero? I have to go back to San Francisco the day after tomorrow, and if I go back empty handed, well…my editor's going to have my head."

Clark froze. His hands stilled on his lapel as he'd reached to straighten it. Her eyes were earnest as they continued to stare hopefully up into his, and he felt the tug-of-war start up inside himself between his heart and his head.

There was nothing he'd enjoy more than having her spend the morning with him, but he knew he couldn't give her the answers or the help she was looking for. It was too dangerous. And apology or not, she was too good at what she did. Eventually, she might see right through him. And he just couldn't afford to have that happen.

'You could just be really careful,' his heart offered up hopefully. 'What is it going to hurt to have her tag along? You could hold firm to the explanation that the man found you, and offered to give you the exclusive, and that you have no idea how to get hold of him.'

'Yeah, like she's going to buy that?' the voice inside his head argued.

'Why not?' his heart argued back. 'She already accused you of being a lucky hack. Play off that. Admit you got lucky, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. If you stick to that story, she'll have no reason to suspect otherwise.'

Perry's gruff voice interrupted his internal debate. "Kent, are you getting on this anytime soon, or are you going to stand around my newsroom all day?"

Clark nodded at his editor, then looked back at Lois. She was watching him intently, hope brimming in her eyes. Finally, he sighed, giving in to his heart. "Fine. Come on. I can't promise I'll be of any help, though."

He heard her murmured, "Yes!" and glanced over at her just in time to see her imperceptibly pump her fist. He smiled and shook his head. She certainly wasn't lacking in enthusiasm. He started walking quickly toward the elevators, and she hurried to catch up with him.

When they stopped to wait for the elevator, she turned to him. "Thank you. I really appreciate it."

A muscle involuntarily twitched in his jaw, and he nodded. He wasn't about to let on, but his mind was continuing to wage a war with his heart. He knew this was stupid, but he just couldn't seem to help himself. There was something about her that just wouldn't allow him to say no.

He only hoped he wouldn't live to regret it.

***

"So who is it you're looking for?" Lois asked as their cab pulled over to the curb in front of a run-down, two-story building in a seedy part of town.

Clark got out of the cab, then held the door open for Lois to climb out onto the sidewalk next to him. He followed her gaze to the building's sign over the front door announcing the soup kitchen's entrance. He tried to see the place through her eyes, taking in the handful of homeless people loitering around the entrance, and the questionable neighborhood they were in.

He wondered briefly if she would be uncomfortable in such a setting, but she didn't seem the least bit fazed. 'San Francisco has its share of slums,' he reminded himself. 'I'm sure she's tracked down leads in areas like this, too.'

Clark shut the cab door behind her, then explained, "I have a source that comes in here from time to time. I thought he might be able to help fill in the blanks from what Perry's source had to say."

Lois nodded, accepting his answer, and fell into step with him as they walked to the entrance. Clark's heart tapped out an erratic rhythm. Even though his head continued to warn him to be wary, he couldn't help feeling a sense of elation that this beautiful woman wanted to spend time with him. His voice of reason argued it was simply because she was using him for information, but he didn't buy that entirely. That may have been the reason she asked if she could tag along, but he was pleased to see how much she seemed to be enjoying herself. She'd grilled Clark about the mayoral voting scandal allegations in the cab on the way to talk to Perry's source, then had listened intently to Perry's source as the man told them about the information he'd been able to gather. She'd even asked a couple of very perceptive questions that Clark hadn't thought to ask. He had to admit, the woman was great at what she did.

In addition to being impressed, though, Clark felt relieved that her interest in the mayor scandal allegations had seemed to keep her attention off of him and his hero alter ego…at least for the time being.

He opened the soup kitchen's door for her and followed her inside. They both looked around the room, and a moment later Clark nudged Lois with his elbow. He pointed to a man at the far end of the room. "That's him over there at the corner table in the dark coat."

He led Lois across the room to his source, a tall, thin man with rumpled dark hair and a thin, pointed nose. The man spotted them as they neared. He lifted a hand in greeting at Clark, then turned his attention to Lois. He quickly looked her up and down, taking in her good looks and elegant career suit.

Finally he turned back to Clark and flashed a mischievous grin. "Hey, Clark. Who's the good looking dame?"

Clark chuckled, feeling an unexpected rush of pleasure at walking into a room with a gorgeous woman at his side. "Bobby, this is Lois Lane. She's visiting from the west coast for a couple of days while she works on a story. Lois, this is Bobby Bigmouth."

Bobby rose halfway from his seat to shake her hand, his grasp firm and strong. "Pleasure," he said, chomping on a piece of gum. Then he turned back to Clark and winked. "You picked yourself a looker here, Clark. I admit, I'm impressed."

Clark turned a dark shade of red. "Oh, we're not together or anything," he hurried to clarify. "We just…she…" His voice trailed off, and he turned to Lois, clearly flustered.

Lois grinned as she chimed in, in an effort to relieve Clark's embarrassment. "I'm just tagging along for the morning. And it's nice to meet you, Bobby."

Luckily, Clark managed to pull himself together, cringing at what Lois must think of him. He hadn't exactly made a good showing, stammering incoherently like that. He tried to push those thoughts aside as he turned his attention back to Bobby. "I'm working on the mayoral scandal allegations and was hoping you'd heard something that might help me."

Bobby gestured to the chairs at the table and they sat down. He shared with Clark what he'd heard, though most of it was information they already had. With not much new to go on, Clark thanked him and stood up.

"Sorry I'm not much help this time," Bobby said. "I do have something else that might interest you, though."

Clark's eyebrows lifted. "Oh? What's that?"

"You know that other story you were working on? That shipment of diamonds from Africa that was stolen? Rumor has it the stuff was sold on the black market, and that the board members of the corporation that owns the shipping company got a good-sized cut of the profit."

"So it sounds like they were in on it. The plot thickens." Clark looked thoughtful for a moment, then he clapped Bobby on the shoulder. "Thanks, Bobby. I'd say that's worth a steak dinner at your favorite rib joint." He pulled out some cash and handed it to Bobby, who grinned.

"Hey, thanks. This might even cover a few side dishes, as well."

Clark laughed. "Happy eating. Let me know if you hear anything else on that, would you?"

"You got it." Bobby nodded as he tucked the bills into his coat pocket. Then he turned to Lois. "It was great to meet you, Lois, and I hope to see you again soon. You class up Kent's act."

This time it was Lois's turn to blush. She couldn't help smiling, though, as Bobby winked at Clark before walking away.

"Sorry about that," Clark murmured as they left the soup kitchen. "He's always been a little…outspoken."

Lois smiled. "I like that about him. Why 'Bobby Bigmouth'?"

"Ah," Clark exclaimed as they reached the door and he held it open for her again. "You'd never know it from his build, but that man loves food. He can out-eat anybody. He gives me the best information, and in return I keep him well fed. It's a win-win situation."

"I guess so," Lois said as they stepped out into the late morning sunshine. "I know how invaluable good sources are. I have a couple of those back in San Francisco that I can always count on."

They got back into the cab that Clark had arranged to wait for them, and they started off down the street. Lois turned to Clark, a curious look on her face.

"What was all that Bobby was saying about a stolen diamond shipment from Africa and black marketing?"

Clark smiled. He'd been waiting for that. In the short time they'd been together that morning, he'd learned that Lois never missed a thing. "About a week ago, Customs had been tipped off that a large shipment of uncut diamonds from Africa was arriving in the states illegally. Customs intercepted the boat in the Metropolis Harbor and confiscated a shipment of African artifacts, wares, and also the uncut diamonds. Two days later, however, the diamonds and artifacts were reported missing from Custom's lock up."

"Hmmm," Lois murmured with interest. "Do they have any leads?"

Clark shook his head. "Not a one. According to Bobby, though, it sounds like the diamonds, at least, were sold on the black market."

"And that the board members got the proceeds." She nodded. "That sends up all sorts of red flags, doesn't it?" Lois was quiet for a minute as she digested the information. "How long have you been working on this story?"

"I haven't been working on the story, per se, as much I've been following leads and hunches." Clark frowned. "If I don't turn up something soon, Perry's going to kill it and tell me to work on something else."

Lois made a face. "I hate that. Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours on something and having your editor yank it."

"Agreed."

"If you wouldn't mind, I'd love to see any notes or information you've been able to gather on the story," Lois said. "It sounds really promising." But before Clark could respond, Lois cringed. "Oh, man, I just realized how bad that sounded. Honestly, I didn't ask because I'm trying to steal your story or anything, though I know that happens sometimes in this line of work. But that's not why I asked," she hurried to clarify, her reassurances turning into babbling. "I'm just interested because I recently did a story where a shipping company got caught smuggling drugs, which led to a much bigger investigation involving money laundering by a California senator and a congressman. It just sounds like a similar pattern, which is why I asked—"

"Lois." Clark shook his head and tried to interrupt her stream of words, but he could only grin as he realized his attempt to stop her had failed.

"—not that you have any reason to trust me," she kept going, "especially after how I treated you last night, but I was just kind of hoping—"

"Lois!"

Amazingly, she stopped this time. He chuckled and shook his head. Geez, this woman could babble. And for some strange reason, he found that he liked it.

Seeing her watching him expectantly, he knew he'd better give her an answer before she started babbling again. It didn't take long for him to realize what she was proposing was a win-win situation for him. Not only could he use some fresh eyes to look over what he had, but it would also go a long way to distract her from what she was really after. His alter ego.

"I'd love to have you look over my notes," he told her. "You could give me an objective opinion on what I have so far. Maybe you could even pick up on something I've overlooked."

Lois breathed a visible sigh of relief. "Thank you. I was worried for a minute there. I didn't want you to think—well, you know." She smiled sheepishly as she realized she'd just explained all that in fast motion a few moments before.

He laughed again, his heart feeling lighter than it had in a long time. He glanced at his watch. "Are you hungry? It's almost lunchtime, and my notes are at my apartment. How do you feel about grabbing some take-out, then going to my apartment to eat?"

Lois nodded eagerly. "That would be great."

They decided on Chinese food, so Clark gave the cab driver directions to his favorite Chinese restaurant not far from where he lived. There they picked out several items from the menu, then walked the two blocks to Clark's apartment.

Clark led the way up the dozen or so steps to his apartment, then unlocked his door and pushed it open, gesturing for her to enter first. "It's not much, but it's home."

Lois stepped through the doorway and took in her surroundings with a sweeping glance. She let out a low whistle. "Wow, this place is great. It has such a nice, open feeling with the high ceilings and studio feel. I like it."

"Thanks. It's nothing fancy, but I like it too."

Clark walked over to the coffee table that was strewn with papers. "Here's everything I've got. I've tried to put things in some kind of order, but it's been hard because there are so many things that seem unrelated." He pushed some of the papers aside in an effort to make room for the take-out food.

He watched as Lois reached for a paper on the top of the stack, then started to skim the information. "Go ahead and have a seat," he offered, gesturing to the couch beside the coffee table. "I'll grab some plates for the food. Here, let me take your jacket."

She looked up at him briefly and smiled her thanks, then turned her attention back to the paper she was holding as she shrugged out of her suit jacket. She barely noticed when Clark took it from her.

Clark felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He'd never seen a reporter so intense. He wondered if she'd even notice if the apartment caved in around her. Slipping out of his own suit jacket, he crossed the room and draped both jackets over the back of the leather recliner in the corner. Then he got two plates from the kitchen cupboard and walked back to her.

"Here you go." He handed her a plate, then sat down beside her. "What would you like to start with?"

She finally looked up from her reading and saw him pulling cartons out of the bag. "I'd love some of the sweet and sour chicken and fried rice."

"You got it." He poured some of the chicken and sauce onto her plate, then spooned out a portion of rice before getting the same for himself.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Lois asked, "Do you have anything from Customs about the confiscated shipment and what exactly it contained?"

Clark leaned forward and shuffled through several papers nearest him. "Yeah, it's in here somewhere." At last he extracted one in particular. "Here it is."

He handed her the paper and she skimmed it thoughtfully. "Hmmm. Diamonds, artifacts… Have you done any research on the artifacts themselves?"

"No, why?" Clark asked, taking another bite of his food. "Do you think that's relevant?"

"I don't know…maybe," she said noncommittally. " When you were telling me in the cab about the shipment being intercepted by Customs and then disappearing from the Custom's lockup, it had a familiar ring to it. I just finished a crime ring expose, and the patterns between my investigation and yours seems to have some similarities. Have there been other shipments reported missing over the past few months by this shipping company?"

Clark's face reflected his surprise. "As a matter of fact, there have." He found the reports of stolen shipments and held them out to her. "How did you know?"

Lois put a bite of chicken into her mouth as she took the papers from Clark. She flipped through them for a moment without responding. Then her hand stilled on the third sheet and her eyes widened.

"What?" Clark asked, leaning over to see what she was so intent on.

"Clark, this lost shipment claim is marked 'Mesopotamia, Inc.'"

He nodded. "Yeah. So?"

"Mesopotamia, Inc. is one of the companies that reported shipments missing in my west coast investigation." She felt a burst of adrenaline as she realized there might indeed be a connection. Her expression animated, she began to gesture with her hands as she went on. "That crime ring expose I just did? I gathered information on a California senator and congressman who appeared to be laundering money. I managed to follow some leads and a money trail to discover they were trafficking drugs through a shipping company in San Francisco. But when I tipped off the police and they ransacked the warehouse, I did a little snooping of my own in there."

Clark looked startled. "You searched through a crime scene? Lois, that's illegal!"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, so? Haven't you ever bent the law a little during an investigation?"

"No." Clark's voice was firm.

Lois stared at him in disbelief. "Never? No breaking and entering, no slipping a little piece of evidence into your pocket?"

Clark's eyes widened. "Lois, that's illegal!" he repeated. "Please tell me you've never done that."

"Well…" Lois answered, a sheepish expression on her face.

Clark's jaw dropped open. "I can't believe it! I don't even want to know how many laws you've broken in your career. I'd never do anything illegal to get a story! I can't believe that you have."

Lois laughed out loud. "Oh, come on, Clark! How do you think I got so successful at such a young age? By avoiding crime scenes and obeying every little law? No, I take risks, bend the rules. Sometimes to get what you want, you have to go after it, no matter what it takes."

'No matter what it takes.' The words resounded in Clark's head. He had been so wrapped up in their easy camaraderie that he had temporarily forgotten what this woman had come here to do. She was after *him.*

With that in mind, he wasn't so sure he liked seeing this side of her. Her tenacity and determination continued to be intimidating, to say the least. And here he had invited the proverbial wolf inside the sheep's pen. He knew he should be fleeing for his life, but instead he was having lunch with his hunter and discussing investigations as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

At that moment, he found himself wondering if he should have listened to the little voice in back of his head. This was crazy.

But even as he realized that, he found himself unable to steer clear of her. He found himself meeting her gaze openly, and marveling at her beauty, her passion. He knew it was crazy to still be sitting there with her, but he couldn't help it. She may as well have been a fisherman luring in a fish. He was helplessly hooked.

"Anyway, as I was saying," Lois continued a moment later, "I did a little snooping around the shipping warehouse and found evidence that the shipping company had not only been smuggling drugs, but had also been stealing goods from inbound and outbound freighters and selling them."

"On the black market?"

Lois nodded. "You got it. The people at the shipping company were obviously good at covering their tracks, and they never stole enough at one time to send up red flags—it was only a carton or two here and there. It was enough to make me suspicious, though, which is why I ended up doing some research on the missing items. I turned over what I'd found to a detective I knew on the police force, and they managed to track down many of the items."

Clark listened closely, his curiosity growing. "What kinds of goods went missing?"

"Antiques, mostly. But there were also computer components, high tech gadgetries…anything that could bring a price. On a hunch, I started piecing together a list of everything they'd stolen. And this is where it gets interesting. You'd think that once a company started having bad luck with a shipping company not their your stuff, they'd change shipping companies, right?"

Clark nodded, but Lois shook her head, her eyes bright with excitement. "Not the case. In fact, one company in particular had more items go missing than any of the others, and the dollar amount listed on the claim forms filed with insurance companies grossed almost three million dollars."

Clark's eyebrows flew up his forehead. "Three million dollars! You're kidding!"

Lois shook her head. "No, I'm not. And guess who that company was?" She paused for dramatic effect. "Mesopotamia, Inc."

Clark stared at her for a long moment, trying to digest the information. "That doesn't make any sense," he finally responded. "You'd think this Mesopotamia, Inc. would care enough about getting their antiques that they'd switch companies with those kinds of losses."

"You'd think so," Lois agreed, "which is what made me suspicious of them. And get this. One of those stolen antiques—a vase— made headlines in France a short time ago for selling at an auction for nearly half a million dollars."

Clark shrugged. "So? The company probably recovered it and sold it at the auction."

"But that's just it. When the authorities questioned the people at Mesopotamia, Inc. about it, they claimed their vase had never been recovered and that the vase sold at the auction wasn't the same one. But I did a little digging, and guess what I found? The very next day after the auction, a tidy sum was deposited into Mesopotamia's account by guess who? The person who sold the vase at the auction."

"That does sound suspicious. Any luck finding out who's behind this Mesopotamia, Inc.?"

Lois sighed as she sat back on the couch and crossed her arms. "Word on the street was that the owner of the company is some huge business mogul who has his hands in some pretty questionable enterprises, but I could never find out who it was. I was never able to prove that they were in on the sales with the shipping company, either."

"Are you still researching the story back in San Francisco?"

"Afraid not." Lois shook her head. "My editor axed the story because I was at a dead end. It killed me to let it go. I was so sure the people behind Mesopotamia, Inc. were tied into the shipping company, the smuggled drugs, and the senator and congressman. I just couldn't prove any of it."

She turned and looked at the papers scattered across Clark's coffee table. "If the name Mesopotamia, Inc. has already turned up once in your research, I'd be willing to bet it will turn up again. I wonder why I didn't come across these Mesopotamia, Inc. shipping records when I was researching them?"

Clark shrugged. "They're recent. Maybe this business person had to move his place of destination to the east coast because your investigation of the San Francisco shipping company shut down its west coast operations?"

"Maybe," Lois murmured thoughtfully, leaning forward to pick up another paper to study. "Have you done any research on this Metropolis shipping company itself? I wonder if it has a high number of lost shipment claims, as well."

"With everything you just told me, I wouldn't be surprised to find that connection," Clark admitted. "I'll have Jimmy pull up their records this afternoon and see what turns up."

Lois set the paper down on the stack and reached for another. "Be sure to let me know what you find out. I think this could turn into something big." She glanced over at him and gave him a hopeful look. "Maybe we could even make this a bi-coastal investigation."

Clark's eyebrows lifted, and a slow smile worked its way across his face. A bicoastal investigation. He liked the sound of that.

But just as his heart started to soar at the idea of staying in touch with her after she went back home, his brain jerked him back to reality with a thump. The danger of her exposing him was still too great. If he managed to pull this off and keep his secret under wraps while she was here, he should plan to breathe a sigh of relief the second she got on that plane, and cut all ties with her forever.

Even so, he wasn't sure he could. If this last hour had been any indication, she was a dynamic person to work with. She thought on her feet, was clever and intelligent, and knew just how to approach an investigation. She was smart enough to know which people to talk to, and which avenues to pursue to get what she needed.

Their argument about using illegal means to gain information for an investigation resurfaced in his mind. He frowned. Her approach to investigating was completely opposite to his. It was clear she had little regard for rules and regulations, and that surprised him. He'd assumed she was brilliant just because she was. But he'd gotten a good look at the real Lois Lane, the one whose success came, in part, from her fearlessness, and from her willingness to break the rules.

He may not have agreed with her methods—he himself would never break into a place of business to steal information, or disturb a crime scene to look for clues for his own investigation—but it clearly worked for her. And he could honestly say that in all his time working as a journalist, he'd never enjoyed working with someone more.

'Goodbye' was the last thing he wanted to say to this woman, a woman who was quickly working his way into his heart…whether he wanted her to or not.

Clark glanced at his watch. The lunch hour was gone, and he knew Perry would be wondering where he was. "I guess I'd better get back to the Planet," he told Lois as he stood up and collected the empty take-out cartons. "Perry's going to want to see something on the mayoral scandal by the end of the day."

Lois looked up from her reading, saw him cleaning up, and hurried to help. She looked into the bag and saw there were still a couple of cartons they hadn't opened. "Do you want me to put these in your fridge?" she asked as she picked up the bag and carried it into the kitchen. "You could have them for dinner or something."

"What about you?" Clark asked as he threw away the garbage and put their plates in the sink. "Would you like to take them back to your hotel for tonight? You don't have the luxury of cooking dinner for yourself, and I imagine eating out can be a pain."

"I eat out all the time at home," Lois admitted with a grin. "It's a lot easier than trying to cook something and setting my kitchen on fire. I have the fire department on speed dial."

Clark laughed. "You can't be that bad."

"Oh yes, I can." She grinned.

Not sure whether or not to believe her, Clark went on. "Well, if you don't feel up to eating out tonight, you're welcome to take those with you."

"Thanks, but I'll be okay." She opened his fridge and set the cartons on a shelf. "I have a dinner appointment at seven."

Clark turned to look at her in surprise. Dinner appointment? 'Appointment' sounded suspiciously like another word for 'date.'

An unexpected stab of jealousy shot through him. She'd only been in Metropolis for a day. Who could she possibly have a date with?

Gathering the nerve to ask, he tried to sound casual in spite of the rapid beating of his heart. "You're having dinner with someone? That's great. Is it somebody you already knew here?"

Lois shook her head. "I've never met him before, but I know who he is. Lex Luthor, of LexCorp?" She voiced it as a question, wondering if he knew who she was referring to.

Unfortunately, Clark did. Everybody knew who Lex Luthor was, especially the people who lived in Metropolis. He was the east coast's most renowned philanthropist, was incredibly rich and influential, and was always in the news for one thing or another.

Clark had interviewed him on a couple of occasions for projects he was funding, but while everyone else seemed to think of him as some sort of saint, Clark had the nagging suspicion that the man was not what he seemed. Call it intuition, but there just seemed to be something calculating in Luthor's eyes, something hidden behind that cool, suave exterior. Everybody else seemed fooled, but maybe it took a man who'd been hiding a secret of his own his whole life to find another who'd been doing the same. The bottom line was, he'd never trusted the man from the moment he'd met him.

After spending the morning with Lois, he could tell she had the same intuition about people that he did, and was clearly adept at seeing beneath the exterior. That's what made her so good at what she did. But if that was the case, then why had she agreed to have dinner with a man who was clearly questionable in character?

'Maybe it's because she's never met him before,' the voice of reason in Clark's head suggested.

Clark bowed to that. That was indeed possible. She did live on the opposite coast and hadn't been exposed to him on a weekly basis. She would not have had the opportunity to build up any suspicions about him.

He shook his head. What this boiled down to was that he shouldn't care what she did. He was far better off to distance himself from her, to let her get distracted with other things so she wouldn't be so interested in tracking down his secret identity. But if he really felt that way, then how did he explain the stab of jealousy at the thought of her in another man's company?

It was clear he was going to have to give his heart another talking to.

"That's—that's great," Clark finally responded when he realized Lois was watching him curiously.

Lois shrugged. "I see it as an opportunity. He found out I was in Metropolis—don't ask me how; I'll have to ask him that myself tonight—and tracked down my cell phone number through my editor in San Francisco. His receptionist called and told me he was a fan and wanted to get together for dinner while I was in town."

"I see." Clark couldn't muster much enthusiasm, and judging from the strange look Lois shot his way, she had noticed. He looked away and busied himself with straightening a pile of papers on the counter.

"I take it you don't like him."

Clark looked up. He caught her studying him intently, analyzing his reaction. Finally, he shook his head. "Not really, but don't let my opinion ruin your date."

She rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't call it a date. At least not from my perspective. I see it as an opportunity to have dinner with one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. I'm hoping I can convince him to let me interview him."

"You're not the slightest bit attracted to him?" Clark cocked an eyebrow at her. "Most women I've talked to think he's very good- looking, and he's often referred to as the world's most eligible bachelor."

Lois sighed and leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. "I don't know. Sure, I've seen pictures of him, and I agree he's good looking. But from everything I've heard about him, he's into elegant balls, the theater, dinner parties, and hob-knobbing with the rich and famous. While I'm incredibly flattered he would go to so much trouble to track me down to ask if I'd have dinner with him, I really don't think he's my type."

Clark felt a flash of hope. Before he could stop himself, he found himself asking, "So, what *is* your type?"

A tiny smile tugged at the corners of Lois's mouth. "Not fancy balls and the theater, that's for sure. I guess I'm more of a pizza-and-a-video kind of girl."

Clark's heart skipped a beat. Darn. That wasn't what he needed to hear. A night in with pizza and a movie was his favorite evening luxury, too. He shook his head. Here he was trying to distance himself from her, but instead he kept corralling himself into learning things about her that made her even more attractive.

He felt her eyes on him, but he busied himself with pulling the full trash bag out of the kitchen garbage can so he wouldn't have to meet her gaze. But then he realized Lois was talking. He glanced up briefly to show he was listening, but refused to let himself meet her penetrating gaze.

"Anyway, back to what you said earlier…" Lois began. "Why don't you like Lex Luthor? I'm curious."

Clark shrugged. "It's nothing I can put my finger on. There's just something about him that makes me wonder if he's not really all he appears to be."

He chanced a look at her and saw her cock an eyebrow. "Hmmm," she murmured thoughtfully. Then, "You think he's hiding something?"

"Could be. History is full of dictators and rulers who were motivated by power, and I've been around this business long enough to know that men like that don't usually get where they are by playing nice."

Lois looked impressed. "Good point."

Silence crept in, and Clark focused on cinching the garbage bag up, then setting it by the now-empty garbage can. Just then Clark's pager went off, and he unclipped it from his belt and glanced at the number. It was Jimmy.

"It's the Planet," he explained to Lois when she looked at him questioningly. He went over to the phone and dialed Jimmy's number. "Hey, Jimmy, it's Clark. What's up?"

Jimmy's voice was animated. "Perry told me to page you. There's been a break-in at ENSCO labs, and the guy locked several employees in a security vault before taking off with some high- tech equipment. Perry wants you to get over there fast."

Startled, Clark tuned into the noise of the city and finally heard it—the security alarms. He grimaced. Now that he was listening for it, he could hear them plain as day, but he had let himself get distracted.

He looked over at the source of his distraction and saw her regarding him curiously, her brown eyes unblinking, and her full, red lips slightly pursed as she tried to determine what he was being summoned for. For a moment, he almost forgot who he was even talking to.

With a mental shake, he forced his thoughts away from the gorgeous woman only a few feet away and focused on his phone conversation. "Thanks, Jimmy. Tell Perry I'm on my way."

He hung up the phone, then hurried over to grab his and Lois's jackets from the recliner in the corner of his living room. He was back beside her before she could speak. "I'm sorry, Lois, I've got to go." He handed her her suit jacket, then slipped his arms into his. "There's something going on at one of the science labs and Perry wants me to get over there." He took her arm— trying to ignore the jolts of electricity sparking between them as he did—and led her up the stairs beside him to the door.

Lois seemed speechless as he opened the door and guided her out, then walked with her down his front steps. "But—but Clark…" she stammered. "What about what we were going to talk about?"

Distractedly, Clark looked in the direction of the sirens, then back at her as they reached the sidewalk. "What are you talking about?"

"You know…'friend man'?" Lois prompted. "You were going to tell me how to contact him, but we got distracted by talking to your source about the mayoral scandal, then by the notes in your apartment on the shipping company investigation." She paused, then reminded him, "You said you'd help me."

Clark's response was something between a groan and a sigh. "I didn't say I could help you contact him; in fact, I distinctly remember saying that I couldn't promise to be of any help."

"You haven't been any help!" Lois protested. "Come on, Clark, give me *something.*"

Clark cringed. What was he supposed to say to that?

'Stall, Clark, stall,' the voice in his head instructed.

This time he listened. "Lois, I've got to go." He glanced once more in the direction of the sirens, feeling more anxious by the minute. "Can't we talk about this later?"

"But we spent the whole morning talking about everything *but* this acquaintance of yours. I only have a day and a half left!"

Clark felt a mixture of relief and regret at her plea—relief that he'd managed to put her off after spending an entire morning with her, yet regret that in just a day and a half he was going to have to force himself to let her go.

When the sirens of dispatched emergency vehicles merged with the sounds of the science lab's security alarms, Clark knew he was out of time.

"Lois, I have to go." He shrugged apologetically. "We'll talk later. You can find your way back to the Planet or your hotel from here, right?" Without waiting for an answer, he hailed an approaching cab and jumped in before she could respond. He told the cab driver his destination and asked him to step on it. They sped away, leaving Lois staring after them, looking confused and frustrated.

Clark hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath until he let it out in a rush the second they rounded the corner. Knowing they were out of Lois's sight, he leaned toward the front seat.

"This is good," he told the driver, eliciting a surprised look from the man. But the driver obediently pulled the cab over, and Clark handed him a couple of dollars before jumping out. He waited until the cab drove off, then looked around to make sure nobody was watching.

Confident nobody was, he darted into the nearest alley, spun into his costume, and rocketed into the sky toward the distant sirens.

***

Lois looked around the limo she was riding in. It boasted gorgeous black leather seats, a high-resolution television and expensive stereo system for the occupant's use, and darkly tinted windows that blocked the view of outside observers. When Lex had said he would send a car for her, she had assumed the vehicle would be nice—maybe a Cadillac or some other luxury car. A limousine had been the last thing she had expected. If he'd been trying to impress her, it was working.

Unexpectedly, Lois wondered what Clark might say to all of this. The thought made Lois smile. When she'd mentioned her dinner appointment with Lex to him earlier that day, she could have sworn he was jealous. She'd been amused by that, especially since they hardly knew each other. But if he *had* been jealous, wouldn't that mean he was attracted to her? Was interested in her?

The thought made her pause. How could he be attracted to her? He didn't even know her.

But then she was hit with a sudden burst of inspiration as she remembered her arrival at the Planet. She'd been looking her very best, wearing her curve-hugging, low-cut, red suit jacket and the matching red skirt that revealed much of her long, shapely legs— what she considered to be one of her best features. She'd caught the way Clark had looked at her, especially moments before he'd told her her skirt was ripped. It hadn't dawned on her then, but now she smiled as she realized that her feminine attempts at capturing Metropolis's new hero's attention must have caught somebody *else's* attention.

After a minute, though, she shook her head. No, that couldn't be it. Clark seemed like the last person who would let himself be ruled by his libido. She didn't actually know him that well, but she credited herself as a good judge of character. He didn't seem the type to fall for every pretty face he saw.

In the short time she'd worked with him on his beat that morning, she'd had the chance to get to know him a little. What she'd learned was that he was smart and kind and a true gentleman; she couldn't remember the last time she'd had so many doors opened for her. He did have his strange quirks; that was non-debatable. He'd all but dragged her from his apartment and then abandoned her for a breaking story. What was that all about? That didn't seem in line with all that door holding. Overall, though, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy— not a guy to be a victim to his hormones.

'Plus you can't deny he's incredibly handsome,' the voice in her head chimed in.

Lois rolled her eyes at the voice. True, she couldn't deny he was handsome—much more so than your average man. If Agnes were here, she would definitely have something to say about his looks. Lois could just picture her. She would elbow Lois in the ribs, then lean toward her and whisper, "He is *hot*! I think you should go for him!"

That brought a smile to Lois's face. Yep, that was definitely Agnes. If she were there, Lois was certain her neighbor would be pushing her straight into Clark's eligible arms.

'How do you know he's eligible?' the annoying voice spoke up again.

'Of course he's eligible,' Lois argued back silently. 'He's not wearing a ring…and no, that doesn't mean I was actually looking for one. It just means I'm a good reporter and observant, and notice those kinds of things.'

The voice continued to debate. 'Well, then, what if he's not married, but in a serious relationship?'

'Not a chance,' she argued back. 'Would a guy in a serious relationship spend the morning with me, invite me into his apartment for lunch, and act jealous—or at least interested—the second I mention having a dinner date with another man?'

The voice remained silent and Lois smiled smugly, knowing she'd won the argument with the annoying voice of reason in her head. At any rate, yes, he was good looking and single, but she wasn't ready to fall for somebody she'd just met. Besides, she was leaving in a little over a day. That wasn't the most opportune time frame to try to strike up a romance, not matter how handsome or eligible the guy was.

Regardless, she had to admit she had really enjoyed the time she'd spent working with Clark that morning. He was obviously a hard worker, good at what he did, and easy to talk to—once you got past the deer-in-the-headlights thing. He had warmed up quickly, and she had liked what she'd seen. They worked well together in the short time they'd discussed Clark's investigation, their minds strangely in tune. She'd always hated working with a partner, but for whatever reason, she found herself wondering what it might be like to work with him on a full-time basis.

As quickly as the thought came, though, Lois realized that was impossible. They worked for different newspapers, on completely opposite coasts. But then she remembered the idea of a bi-coastal investigation of sorts, to get to the bottom of the shipping company similarities, and the mysterious company, Mesopotamia, Inc. With a start, she realized she might like forming a tentative, long-distance partnership with him over this story. It wouldn't really be the same as working with somebody you could see, but the mere idea of not saying goodbye to him forever seemed comforting somehow.

The reminder that she was here in Metropolis to investigate a certain elusive hero brought her back to reality with a bump. Her afternoon had been a frustrating one—one that had taken a long, hot bubble bath with her favorite bath scent to ease away the frustrations of being no closer to catching up to the superhero than she had been at the start of the day.

With Clark missing in action, she had had to fend for herself that afternoon, camped out part of the time in front of the loaned police scanner, listening for possible clues as to the hero's whereabouts during his many good deeds of the afternoon. But not once in the handful of times she'd rushed out to the reported scene had she managed to catch up with him. He'd always been too far away, deliberately ignoring any and all reporters, or simply too busy to pay heed to anything but his work. It had taken almost more will power than she had to stay away from the roofs of tall buildings.

She was quickly running out of options. She knew her best shot at going home with her tell-all expose lay with a certain mild- mannered reporter, one who seemed to be doing everything in his power to avoid talking about his superhero interviewee.

She shook her head. If Clark Kent was the key, as her lack of options suggested, she was going to have to keep pestering him. Maybe if he got sick enough of her, he would tell her what she wanted to know so he could get on with his life. If she'd been back in San Francisco, and was meeting with this kind of resistance from a potential source, she knew she would have ripped the man apart to find out what he knew. But Clark…

For whatever reason, she found herself having a hard time doing that. There was more to the man than she'd first anticipated, and she found herself intrigued by that. More than she wanted to admit, she liked working with him and spending time with him.

And there was no question he was heart-stoppingly handsome…

'Stop that,' she commanded her heart. 'If you start thinking about him as anything else except the means to getting your story, you're never going to get what you came here for.'

The limousine slowed, bringing Lois's attention back to the present. They had turned off the streets of Metropolis and were pulling into the entrance of an underground parking lot. Two security guards stood at a metal and glass booth, and one of them stepped out at their arrival. A moment later he was waving them on through.

The driver parked next to the elevators, and Lois waited for him to open her door, assuming that was what was expected of her. She then followed him to a private elevator. He punched in a code and the elevator door opened, revealing a luxuriously decorated compartment with plush fabric-covered walls, cherry wood paneling, and soft lighting.

She looked around as the elevator began its ascent. If the limo and the elevator were any indication of what was to come, she couldn't wait to see Lex Luthor's penthouse. It was sure to be spectacular.

When they finally reached the top floor, the elevator bell chimed, announcing their arrival. The doors opened slowly, and Lois realized that "spectacular" was an understatement. It was clear no expense had been spared in the construction or decoration of Lex Luthor's penthouse. Rich, plush carpeting in soft earth tones stretched the entire expanse of the open greeting room. Tall, vaulted ceilings made the room feel even bigger than it was, and a wall of windows overlooked the city from what seemed to be heaven's view. To top it all off, gorgeous, intricately carved furniture was placed around the room.

A moment later, the set of beautiful cherry double doors in an extra wide doorway opened, announcing her host's arrival. She immediately recognized the tall, slim, immaculately-dressed man coming through the entrance as Lex Luthor. If anything, he was more cultured-looking and handsome in person.

He smiled and approached in confident, measured strides. "Ah, Ms. Lane. What a pleasure to finally meet you." He stopped in front of her and took the hand she held out for him. But instead of shaking her hand, he pressed a light kiss to her knuckles.

His eyes sparkled at the look of surprise in her eyes. "I trust your trip here was enjoyable?"

A grin slipped out before she could stop it. 'In other words, he's asking if you were duly impressed,' the voice in her head informed her. She shoved the voice back into its little closet.

"The limo was great," she answered with a smile to reflect her thanks. "If you were trying to impress me, I can honestly say it worked." She met his gaze for a moment, then glanced around the room again. "Your home is equally as impressive, Mr. Luthor."

"Please, call me Lex."

"Lex," she corrected.

He smiled. "Better. And thank you." His gaze, too, turned to their surroundings. "It suits my needs well. Would you like to see more of it?"

"I'd love to." Lois nodded. She could tell a lot about a person from their home, and she was eager to see if Clark had valid reasons to suspect this man of something.

>From what she'd glimpsed of her surroundings already, she would wager Lex's home was much like him—intent upon impressing and intimidating others, while constantly reminding others of his wealth and power. The hard woods and cold glass attested to that. Lex's penthouse had none of the openness, warmth, or homey-ness that Clark's place did. Without question, she found herself more at home in Clark's place than she did here.

Before she could further analyze what significance that had, if any, a well-dressed butler appeared through a doorway to their right.

"Dinner is ready, sir."

Lex turned to Lois. "Shall we have dinner first and then have the grand tour?"

"That sounds fine."

Lex bowed his head graciously and made a sweeping gesture toward the doors at the far end of the room from which the butler had come. "Shall we?"

He led the way through the doors and into an expansive dining area where a large, intricately carved table had been set for two. Fine linens and china adorned the tabletop, and a beautiful, low arrangement of flowers served as a centerpiece. Lex appeared at her side as she stood, taking it all in, and pulled a chair out for her.

She smiled her thanks, then sat, admiring her impeccably arranged place setting. Lex went around the table and sat across from her in the chair the butler held out for him. He shook out his linen napkin with a flourish and laid it on his lap. Lois did the same. Several servants emerged from the dining room doors as if on cue, carrying silver serving trays to the table.

For the next hour, Lois enjoyed the feeling of being pampered as she appreciated the gourmet food, beautiful surroundings, and good company. Lex, she learned, was well educated, and she enjoyed herself as they talked about books, politics, current events, and how many of today's events related to the events of world history—one of his passions, she had been surprised to learn. Lois had always enjoyed learning about world history herself, but his knowledge of historical events, places, and the lessons learned from each was truly fascinating.

When they were done with their meal, Lex leaned back in his chair and smiled. "I'm afraid we've spent most of the meal talking about me and my passions," he apologized. "Maybe the time would be better spent talking about you."

The corners of Lois's mouth curved upward. "There's not much to tell. I spend most of my time working."

Lex shook his head. "Surely there's more to you than work. To do the kind of stories you do, the research involved tells me you're quite well-versed in politics, history, and a myriad of other subjects. You must have interests that lend to your exposure to those things? Maybe involving yourself in political groups or art circles perhaps?"

"Nothing as exciting as that." Lois smiled sheepishly. "I've always loved learning, and I took a wide range of classes in college when I was majoring in journalism. Since then, though, my life's pretty much been about work. I love to read whenever I get the chance, but my busy schedule allows little time for it. Most of my reading comes from staying up-to-date on current events for my research. I've had to work non-stop since graduating just to get where I am."

"I can understand that. The world of journalism can be a brutal profession."

She nodded as she lifted her cup to her lips and took a sip. "Especially for you, I imagine."

Lex pursed his lips and regarded her curiously. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, you're wealthy, powerful, influential. I imagine you must get your share of interview requests."

"Ah, yes." He smiled as he reached for his own glass of wine. He turned the glass in his hand slightly, swirling the small amount of dark liquid in the bottom. "I do at that. I agree it can be tough to live your life when everybody wants to know everything about you."

Lois decided this was the perfect opportunity to play her card. She raised her glass to her lips and watched him closely. "Even the things you want to keep hidden?"

Lex's hand stilled. An indiscernible look flickered across his eyes. "Pardon?"

Bingo. Lex's reaction and the look in his eyes gave her plenty of reasons to side with Clark. Lex was definitely hiding something.

Putting on a practiced smile, Lois continued. "I'm not saying that you, in particular, have anything to hide. I'm just saying that there's nothing a newspaper loves more than headlines, and if one of those reporters can uncover something about someone high up in society, it's always news. Knowing that, I can imagine you must feel rather picked on by the press. I mean, I'm part of that press, and even I recognize what a pain we can be." She laughed.

Lex relaxed. He chuckled along with her and took a sip of his wine. Their conversation quickly returned to the easy tone of before, and they continued to talk through dessert. When they were finished, Lex slid his chair back from the table.

"Would you like that tour now?"

Lois nodded, rising from her chair as well. "I'd love one."

The tour took them through several more rooms that proved to be just as impeccably decorated and as beautiful as the greeting and dining rooms. Some of her favorite discoveries were a library with floor to ceiling bookcases, a sun room with an incredible view of the city, and a gallery showcasing various pieces of art, antiques, and ancient artifacts. Lex seemed to take particular pride in his collection of one-of-a-kind artifacts, including a Macedonian sword that had been used by Alexander the Great.

Lois had to admit, she was impressed. She would never have thought such a valuable item with such historical significance would be kept in a private collection instead of in a prestigious museum.

When their tour at last ended in the greeting room at the elevators, Lois turned to Lex and smiled. "Thank you for a wonderful dinner, Lex, and for showing me through your home. I had a lovely time."

Lex smiled and took her hand in his, kissing it for the second time that evening. "The pleasure's been all mine. I'm glad we got to meet while you were in town. Perhaps we can do this again the next time you're in Metropolis?"

Lois met Lex's gaze and tried to determine his intentions. Was he being polite? Or was he sincere about wanting to see her again? She couldn't decide. There was definitely something lurking behind those eyes, though…something she couldn't put her finger on. Clark was right. There was something this man was hiding. For a moment, she wondered if anybody else had ever thought to look closely enough to consider that.

Suspicious or not, she knew better than most how important it was to have friends in high places. She smiled back at him graciously. "I'd love to. Or the next time you're in San Francisco, do call me. I'd love to return your hospitality."

Lex smiled. "I'd like that. I do make periodic business trips to San Francisco, so I'll get in touch with you when I do."

He walked with her the few steps to the elevator, and Lois turned to him as the doors opened. "The fact that you'll need to call me to tell me you're in town reminds me…how did you know I was in town?"

If her question had caught him off guard, he didn't show it. "I stumbled across the information quite by accident yesterday," he told her. "I was having a business lunch with a couple of executives at the Planet yesterday, and one of them mentioned Perry was expecting you. He said you were hoping to do a story on Metropolis's new hero, is that right?"

"That's right." She nodded. Forgetting about the elevator, she looked curiously at Lex. "What do you think of this hero's sudden arrival?"

Lex managed an indifferent smile. "He's definitely an eye opener."

Lois cocked an eyebrow at him. "That's it? An eye opener?"

"Did you expect me to say something different?"

Investigator Lois fought to overtake Social Lois. She nodded. "Everyone seems to have something to say about him. Most citizens are welcoming him with open arms, while a minority of others less so. Some are even worried he'll create a real problem for them."

This caught Lex's interest, and Lois chalked a point down in her column of the conversation. She'd managed to pose something unexpected, which she'd learned was the best way to unsuspectingly interview somebody—to find out something about that person they hadn't wanted to reveal.

"A problem?" Lex asked, his brow furrowing slightly. "How so?"

Lois shrugged. "Word on the street is that the criminal element worries he'll cut into their profits. It's harder to hide black marketing and other illegal underground activities when you're dealing with a man who can see through walls and is invulnerable." Her eyes stared intently into his as she said her next words, eager to judge his reaction. "There are those who will have their underhanded business dealings compromised because of him. Don't you agree?"

To his credit, the man didn't flinch. His gaze met Lois's fearlessly, and for a moment she was disappointed. If he was hiding something, he was really good at keeping it hidden. Of course, that shouldn't have surprised her. He couldn't have gotten where he was without covering whatever shady business dealings he might have.

"I suppose those people would have to worry about that, Miss Lane," he replied, his voice changing from Social Lex to Interviewee Luthor. He motioned toward the open elevator doors and she acquiescingly entered the upholstered compartment.

"Thank you again," she told him, letting the subject drop. "I had a lovely evening."

"As have I." Lex smiled. "I look forward to doing this again soon."

She smiled back and nodded her agreement. "Goodnight, Lex."

As the elevator descended with only the silent doorman for company, Lois mentally reviewed her evening with the man she had only before read about. She could see why he was considered the world's most eligible bachelor. He was definitely good-looking, and certainly charming. She didn't know if he'd really been serious about wanting to see her again, but she wasn't sure she cared, other than the fact that she would relish the opportunity to find out what was lurking behind those polished smiles and cultured good graces. She simply wasn't interested in him as a man. There was no chemistry between them, no sparks…

'Like there had been that moment Clark held your arm in his apartment?' the voice in her mind suddenly interjected, disrupting her train of thought.

She almost laughed out loud. While she could see that Clark's boy-next-door good looks and old-fashioned values were much more appealing to her than Lex's sophisticated, high society life- style, she didn't see herself falling for either of them. Men were just too much of a complication, one she didn't have time in her life for right now. There were too many stories to write, too many investigations to do.

She sighed and looked at the plush limo she was helped into when the elevator reached the underground parking garage she'd arrived in earlier. Lex Luthor's illustrious enterprises was one investigation she would love to sink her teeth into. The man was definitely hiding something, and the investigator in her wanted nothing more than to find out what it was.

'If I weren't so wrapped up in trying to track down the story on this hero guy, I might do a little digging on Lex while I'm here in Metropolis.'

'Too many stories, too little time,' she thought to herself as the limo whisked her back to her hotel. 'But right now I've got a superhero to track down, and that means I've got to talk to a certain reporter who, if I didn't know any better, seems to be trying to distract me from the story.'

She shook her head. Clark Kent, whether he had intended to or not, had certainly distracted her today. She knew her time in this city was short, but still she had gotten so wrapped up in working with Clark and learning more about the investigations he was working on that she'd momentarily forgotten about the hero. And when she'd remembered, it had been too late; Clark had gone rushing off in bold fashion. Because of it, day two had been a total waste.

She decided that as soon as she got back to her hotel, she was going to call Clark, even if she had to track down Jimmy Olsen to get the phone number. She just hoped Clark would cooperate. With day three—her final one—looming on the horizon, she knew she was almost out of time.

***

Lex continued to stare at the closed elevator doors for almost a full minute after Lois had gone. Nigel approached and stopped a few paces behind him. "She's quite charming, I would say."

Lex pursed his lips and smiled. "Very charming indeed. She's quite a prize to be won. If only she didn't have that inquisitive streak about her…" He shook his head. "I'd say she's definitely a force to be reckoned with."

"Does she know anything?"

"About our little import business?" Lex glanced over his shoulder and Nigel, then looked back at the closed elevator doors. "If she does, she's hiding it well." He paused for another few moments, then turned to Nigel. "Continue to have her followed." And with that, he hurried from the room.

***

Lois woke up the next morning, tired and frustrated. She'd stayed up until long after midnight, trying to get hold of Clark. Her attempts had proved futile. She'd gotten his home phone number from Jimmy, who had been more than happy to help. If she hadn't felt so pressured to get the story, she might have been flattered by how intent he seemed on getting into her good graces. But all she could think about was getting hold of Clark, and she'd struck out. He was either out incredibly late, or he wasn't answering his phone.

She knew her best bet was to track Clark down that morning at the Planet. Surely he wouldn't skip work to avoid sharing any information he had on the hero with her. That's what she was beginning to suspect, anyway—that he was avoiding the subject. Why he would do that, though, was a mystery to her. What was he hiding? Did he know more about this hero guy than he was letting on? Did he feel the need to protect him?

Deciding she wasn't going to come to any conclusions right then, she put the questions out of her mind and turned her attention to getting ready to leave. After she was dressed and had her makeup on, she took one last look in the mirror. Satisfied she looked her best, she grabbed her attache and headed for the hotel door.

She was just reaching for the doorknob when the sound of a firm knock on the door startled her. Opening the door, she was surprised to see a hotel delivery boy standing there, holding a large bouquet of flowers. Her eyes widened. Who would send her flowers? And such a large, gorgeous arrangement at that? She was certain it must have cost a fortune.

She smiled her thanks at the hotel delivery boy, then took the arrangement and set it down on the credenza. She reached for the small white envelope tucked inside the bouquet and pulled out the enclosed note. It read:

*Lois,

Just wanted to thank you again for a wonderful evening. It was a real pleasure to finally meet you. I hope we can do it again soon.

More a fan than ever,

Lex*

She smiled. The bouquet was gorgeous, and it was definitely a thoughtful thing for Lex to do. But then her smile faded. Maybe this was something Lex did for every woman he dined with? She couldn't be sure, but she supposed it was a possibility.

Regardless, that didn't explain why she felt somewhat disappointed at seeing Lex's name at the bottom of the card. Who had she been hoping it was from?

Before she could analyze her hidden emotions and perhaps discover something she wasn't ready to learn, she gave the flowers one last glance, then hurried from her room. She wanted to make sure to catch Clark before he left to do whatever it was he had to do this morning.

***

As soon as Lois stepped off the elevator, Lois spotted Clark working on his computer at his desk and made a beeline for him. She stopped next to him and opened her mouth to speak, but Clark beat her to it.

Without even looking up from his monitor, he asked dryly, "How was your date?"

Lois lifted her eyebrows in surprise. He hadn't even looked up to see who she was. How had he known? Was it her perfume? Or did he have some uncanny ability to sense her presence? Even more baffling to her, though, was the hint of something she'd caught in his voice on the word "date." Was it jealousy? Contempt? She studied him for a moment, but he didn't look away from his computer screen.

Finally, she responded just as dryly, "Hi to you, too. And my date was fine, thanks." She paused, waiting for him to say something. When he didn't, she went on. "Lex is a remarkable man. He showed me around his gallery of antiques. He has quite a collection."

"Hmmm," Clark answered noncommittally.

Lois decided to change the subject. "I tried to call you last night."

That got Clark's attention. He jerked his head up and his gaze met hers. A mixture of surprise and delight played across his face before he made an obvious attempt to cover the look with feigned indifference. "You did?"

"Several times." She nodded. "Where were you?"

Her question seemed to fluster him, and he quickly turned back to his computer screen to avoid her scrutinizing gaze. "I had a bunch of errands to run."

"After midnight?"

"I just had some things to do," Clark answered evasively, his tone sending the message he didn't plan to talk about it.

Lois studied him for another moment, then shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter; I'm talking to you now." At the questioning look Clark threw her, she perched on the corner of his desk and forged ahead. "You said we were going to talk later about how I can get hold of Mr. Hero Guy, remember? I've got a story to do, and only one day left to do it. I fly back to San Francisco tomorrow, and, like I told you, my editor is going to have my head if I don't come back with something good."

Clark turned his attention back to his computer and started typing. "I can't tell you how to contact him, Lois. Let's just say the opportunity kind of fell into my lap."

Lois cocked an eyebrow at him. That was certainly elusive. "Does that mean you *can't* tell me how to contact him, or you *won't*?"

"What difference does it make, Lois?" He let out a sigh of exasperation and looked up once again from his computer. "He's probably off saving the world right now. I'm sure he has better things to do than give an interview to every reporter that wants one."

"How do you know unless you ask?" Lois persisted. "Maybe he'd be honored to let someone of my reputation interview him."

Clark snorted. "Yeah, right. By 'your reputation' you mean someone who's going to filet him and serve him to the public for lunch."

Lois let out a little gasp of indignation. "That's not fair!"

Before she could protest further, Clark took a deep breath to calm his nerves and held up an apologetic hand. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean it like it sounded. I just meant he probably doesn't want the world to know every little thing about him. Did you ever think of that? Maybe he has some secrets he doesn't want shared."

"Secrets?" Lois's ears perked up at the word. "You think he has secrets? I mean, I suspect he does, but I didn't know if you'd picked up on that, or—"

Clark sighed again and hurried to cut off her ramble before it turned into one of her full-fledged babbling episodes. "Lois, everyone has secrets. I'm sure he's just as opposed to sharing them as other people are about sharing theirs."

Just then Jimmy walked up and held out a stack of papers to Clark. "Here's that research you wanted. Let me know if you need anything else."

"Thanks, Jimmy." Clark glanced down at the pages in his hand as Jimmy hurried off to his next errand. He skimmed the first couple of pages. "Hmmm, this is interesting. Hey, Lois, check this out…"

"Clark, you're doing it again!" Lois let out a noise of exasperation.

He looked up, his forehead creased in confusion. "Doing what?"

She snatched the papers from him and scowled. "I'm sure whatever you have here is fascinating, but you're changing the subject again! We were talking about Tights Guy, remember? Are you going to tell me how to get in contact with him or not?"

"Lois, I told you, I—"

Clark's voice trailed off and he looked out across the newsroom, his eyes not focused on anything in particular. Lois glanced in the direction he was looking. When she didn't see anything out of the ordinary, she turned back to him, confused.

"What?" she demanded, trying to regain his attention. "You told me what?"

But Clark held up his hand to silence her, appearing to be listening to something. Finally he turned back to her, appearing anxious. His hand went to his tie and he started to fumble with the knot. "Umm, Lois, I've gotta go. I just remembered…something…that I've got to go take care of. I'll be back later."

"Wait a minute!" Lois put her hand on her hip in indignation. "You're not going to run off on me again like you did yesterday, are you?" When he started to inch away, she realized that was exactly what he was going to do. Her eyes turned pleading. "Wait, where are you going? What about Friend Man?"

"Lunch!" he called over his shoulder as he turned and started jogging toward the elevator. "We'll talk at lunch!" And with that, he was gone.

Lois stared at the closed elevator doors and groaned in exasperation. 'What is it with that guy?' she grumbled to herself. 'I've only known him for two days, and twice already he's made some baffling excuse and run off, leaving me standing here staring after him.'

She glanced at her watch. What on earth was she supposed to do for the next few hours until lunch? Her head told her to hit the beat again and try to find that mysterious man in tights herself, but the idea of spending the morning chasing fruitlessly after him wasn't particularly appealing.

No, she had a lead—even if that "lead" seemed to mysteriously disappear every time she brought up the subject of finding Metropolis's new media darling. And as little as Clark Kent claimed to know about the superhero, she had the sneaking suspicion he wasn't telling her the whole truth.

He knew something. And if it took everything she had, she was going to find out what it was.

***

Clark spun into his blue and red costume and rocketed off the Daily Planet's roof, heading toward 9th and Oxford where a bank robbery was apparently in progress. As many downfalls as there were to learning how to be this superhero, he could see that it definitely had its advantages, as well. An excuse to leave awkward situations was one of them.

He shook his head as he flew toward the robbery. Why did it seem like he was only avoiding one disaster to go to another one? Well, thankfully, a bank full of robbers and scared hostages seemed much easier to handle than Lois Lane.

'Did you really just ask her to meet you for lunch?' the voice in the back of his head scolded. 'What on earth possessed you to do that? You made the perfect getaway, dodged her questions about finding your alter ego… All you had to do was leave without explanation and you would have been home free. But now you're going to see her in less than three hours, and you know she's going to be asking the same questions. What were you thinking?'

That was just it, he realized. He hadn't been thinking. The words had tumbled out of his mouth before he had even realized he was saying them. He kept drawing Lois in when he knew he should be pushing her away. But he couldn't seem to help it. There was just something about her…

The memory of her standing at his desk that morning came into his head without warning. Man, she had looked good. Her long, maroon skirt clung to her shapely hips and emphasized her slender waist, while the slits in each side gave tantalizing glimpses of her long, shapely legs. The color made a startling contrast against her white, silky, short-sleeved blouse, which had set off her dark hair and eyes…and full red lips.

Clark frowned. Why couldn't he stop thinking about her? If he wasn't daydreaming about how beautiful she was, he was thinking about the other ways he found her so attractive. They seemed to have some…connection. He had sensed it many times the day before, and he was certain she had sensed it too. His heart seemed inexplicably in tune with hers, which was why he'd been able to sense her arrival that morning without even looking up from his computer.

'But what does that feeling of connection mean?' Clark wondered. 'It can't mean that we're supposed to be together, that's for sure. How could I be with her? She's set on revealing my secret. I can't let that happen…even if that means ignoring whether or not fate is trying to tell me something.'

Up ahead he caught sight of flashing police lights and knew he was nearing the scene of the crime. He had to concentrate.

With all his willpower, he forced Lois out of his head as he landed next to the police barricade and turned to the task at hand. Lunchtime would come all too soon, he knew. He only hoped he could come up with more believable excuses by then.

***

Lois looked down at her watch. She was sitting on a bench just outside the Daily Planet's revolving front doors, waiting for Clark. But it was almost one o'clock. Where was he?

She glanced up and down the street, hoping to catch sight of him approaching. If he didn't arrive soon, she was going to demand that Jimmy page him. Time was ticking. If something didn't break in the next few hours, she was doomed.

Finally she caught sight of a familiar head of dark hair in the crowd. Jumping to her feet in relief, she pushed past the people separating them. When she reached him, she noticed the firm set to his jaw and the wary look in his eyes. Her first thought was to ask him what was wrong, but then she remembered how short on time she was. She needed to find out what he knew, and she needed to know now.

"It's about time you showed up," she grumbled when she was finally standing next to him. "My editor called me twice this morning to ask what I had for him. I told him I was meeting your hero friend this afternoon. Please don't let that be a lie."

The muscle in Clark's jaw tensed, and she couldn't decide if that meant he was nervous or angry. He seemed to be thinking about something, his expression a myriad of emotions. Then he took a deep breath and put on a smile. "Are you hungry? Let's get some lunch. What are you in the mood for?"

"Clark…" There was a warning tone in her voice. "You're changing the subject again."

"I'm not changing the subject," he objected a little too brightly. "I'm just hungry. There's a great sandwich place just down the street. Let's grab something to eat, then we can talk."

Lois's shoulders rose and fell visibly as she sighed in resignation. "Fine. But if you run off on me one more time, I'm going to encase you in duct tape and throw you off the Metropolis bridge."

Clark chuckled in spite of himself. "The scary thing is, I believe you would."

"Darn right I would."

Fifteen minutes later, Lois followed Clark to an empty spot on the lawn of Centennial Park not far from the Planet. The beautiful autumn day had brought out the lunch crowd in droves, and every bench in the park was occupied. She watched with a smile as Clark slipped out of his suit jacket and laid it, lining down, on the grass for her to sit on.

'Ever the gentleman,' she thought as she smoothed her skirt around her legs and settled down onto the smooth, gray fabric. She kicked off her high heels and pulled her stockinged feet up underneath her as she sat. Clark lifted his eyebrows in amusement.

"Offering your suit coat as a picnic blanket was such a noble gesture that I wouldn't want to ruin your jacket by putting my shoes on it," she said by way of explanation.

He grinned. "It will be fine, don't worry. Besides, if anything were to happen to it, it wouldn't be the first time I've had a jacket ruined."

Lois raised her eyebrows as she took a bite of her sandwich. "Oh? Care to elaborate on that?"

Clark's head jerked up as he realized what he'd just said. Instead of elaborating, he took a bite of his own sandwich and shrugged. "Nothing. It's no big deal. I'm just hard on clothes, that's all."

If Lois had noticed his sudden discomfort, she didn't comment on it. Instead, she fixed Clark with an intent, unwavering stare. "Okay, Clark, in case you've already forgotten, I'd like to point out that we now have lunch and are sitting in a park where nobody is going to interrupt us. I'd say this is as good a time as any for you to answer my questions. Are you going to tell me how to get hold of this superhero guy or not?" She waved her sandwich at him and added, "And don't you dare say you're not, because that would result in duct tape and a certain bridge we talked about earlier."

Clark's attempt at a smile failed, and he swallowed his bite of sandwich before he could choke on it. Then he stalled by taking a drink of his bottled water. He studied Lois carefully, seeing that determined, fixed look in her eye. That's when he knew. He was not getting out of this so easily.

His mind quickly worked over his options. She was obviously not going to take no for an answer, nor did he seem physically capable of steering clear of her. Maybe he could arrange to meet her as his alter ego and simply watch his words? He was a reporter, himself; surely he could recognize and avoid any leading questions he saw coming. If worse came to worse, he could pretend to hear a cry for help and get out of there. Fast.

With one more look at her gaze, now more pleading than confident, he caved. When she got that look, he realized there was no way he could say no.

Finally, he sighed. "Fine, Lois. I'll see what I can do about getting hold of him."

"Yes!" Lois exclaimed, her face lighting up and creasing into a huge grin. Impulsively, she reached out and squeezed his forearm in gratitude. The instant she did, a surge of electricity shot through her at the contact, surprising her and causing her to jerk her hand back. Her eyes flew to Clark's. If his startled expression was any indication, he had felt it, too.

Trying to slow her pounding heart, Lois sat back and returned her hand to her lap. "Clark, thank you," she managed in an even, but grateful, tone. "I promise I'll return the favor. Maybe I can help you with your investigation on that shipping company, like we talked about. We could compare notes after I get back home and find out if two heads really are better than one."

Clark's feeling of defeated resignation was quickly replaced by one of optimism. He liked her proposal. If he could get through this "interview" with her, he could focus on keeping in contact with her long distance. And long distance contact had to be safer than face-to-face contact. Wasn't it? It was easier to keep a secret from someone you didn't see on a daily basis. And just as appealing, it would mean he could keep in contact with her even after she went home. He had to admit, the thought thrilled him.

Just then he realized Lois was talking again, and he forced his attention back to her.

"If you can arrange a meeting for later this afternoon or evening," she was saying, "that would be great. Do you think he'd agree to that?"

"I'll see what I can do." He took another bite of his sandwich, and they fell into a comfortable silence as they ate their lunch and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine.

"Mmmm, this is nice," Lois murmured as she set her sandwich down for a moment to stretch out her stockinged legs and rest back on her hands, tipping her face up to the sunshine. "It's not often I find a moment to stop and enjoy a fall day like this."

"Everyone should take a minute to stop and enjoy the day, especially a day as nice as this one." Clark finished his sandwich and looked at the business people around him, many of them talking on cell phones and conducting business while eating. "Maybe the world would be a less stressful place if everyone learned to slow down and enjoy life's simple pleasures once in a while."

Lois's eyes held a teasing glint as she took a drink of her bottled water. "What are you, a philosopher?"

Clark grinned sheepishly. "Sometimes."

"Well, I, for one, actually feel invigorated by work." Lois shrugged. "Which reminds me…what were you going to have me look at when we were at the Planet?" At Clark's blank look, she clarified, "You know…the research Jimmy handed you?"

"Oh! That's right." Clark swallowed his mouthful, then dabbed at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. "After our morning together yesterday, I asked Jimmy to do a little more digging into Mesopotamia, Inc. I had him pull up financial records, a list of board members…things like that. I only got a brief look at what he handed me, but it seemed to confirm what I'd dug up yesterday afternoon. They appear to be a shell company."

"You're kidding!" Lois sat up straighter. "Were you able to tie them to another corporation?"

Clark nodded. "Several. But for all I know, those could be shell companies, too. I'd have to do a lot of digging. Maybe between what you've learned in your investigation, and with what I've gathered for mine, we can find some similarities that would point us in the right direction."

"It's a definite possibility," Lois agreed. "Whoever is behind this has obviously covered his or her tracks well. I wonder how deep it goes? I mean, to pull off this kind of scam, you'd have to have a lot of people on the inside—people at the insurance company, black marketeers, the people shipping them the goods…" She paused, thinking for a moment. "Do you have any idea where the diamond shipment came from? Maybe if we can find an invoice with a place of origin, we might be able to use that as a connection, as well."

"That's a good idea. Maybe that person or company would have shipped wares to the San Francisco area, as well?"

"Exactly what I was thinking. If we can make that connection, maybe it would help us tie them into the person behind Mesopotamia, Inc."

Clark crumpled his sandwich wrapper into a ball and lobbed it into a nearby garbage can. "What I don't get is the information Bobby gave us. If the board members really are getting the diamonds, what are they doing with them?"

Lois shrugged. "Maybe it's as simple as the diamonds being their payment for orchestrating the whole thing."

"So, let me get this straight." Clark's face lit up as understanding began to dawn. "You think that the board members got their share of the diamonds as payment for orchestrating this whole thing…"

Realizing they were thinking along the same lines, their voices became more animated and their words came faster as they jumped in to finish the others' sentences.

Lois nodded, finishing Clark's thought, "…then they sold the diamonds on the black market…"

"…making a sizeable profit. And at the same time…"

"…they're claiming all that insurance money…"

"…for so-called stolen goods," Clark finished excitedly. "And when all is said and done, nobody—"

"…would be the wiser." She smiled victoriously. "It's perfect."

They sat there grinning at each other for a moment, enjoying the way their minds had worked off each other so perfectly.

Lois laughed, breaking the silence. "Do you think we knew each other in a previous life? Only people who know each other so well should be able to do what we just did."

"Finishing each other's sentences?"

"Yes!" She grinned and shook her head. "Weird. Anyway," she said, turning back to the subject at hand. "I think if we put our heads together and go over each other's research, we can get to the bottom of this."

Clark chuckled and shook his head. "I can't wait. I have a feeling, though, that whoever is behind Mesopotamia, Inc. is going to regret the day you ever got hold of this information."

Lois beamed. "Well, thank you. But it won't be just me who would take them down. We're talking a joint investigation, remember?"

"How could I forget?" Clark smiled. "I get the feeling you don't partner with people very much, though."

"I don't. Not for long, anyway." She made a face. "The times that my editor has told me to work with somebody, it's never worked out."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "I'm not the easiest person to work with. I work long hours, demand one hundred and ten percent, and never settle for second best."

He raised an eyebrow. "Pretty high standards."

"Hey, I don't ask for any less than I give," she defended herself. "At any rate, either my latest partner or I are in my editor's office by the end of the day, asking to get out of it." She paused, then a slow smile worked its way across her face. "Perry seemed to think we would work well together. He told me he'd been planning on partnering us up while I was in town."

Clark's eyes widened in surprise. "You're kidding."

Lois shook her head as she took a swig of her bottled water. "No, I'm not. I told him I worked alone, so he didn't press the issue. Still, I think that's interesting, since we're sitting here talking about a joint investigation. Maybe he thought we would make a good team."

"I'd say he was right, wouldn't you?"

Their gazes met and held, and a look passed between them that made Lois's heart stop. Then Clark shifted his position on the grass and changed the subject.

"Here we are, talking business during our lunch hour instead of relaxing." He flashed her a smile. "Didn't we just talk about the evils of doing that just a short time ago?"

Lois laughed. "So we did. To be honest, though, I actually feel invigorated by the thrill of the hunt."

Clark nodded in agreement. "I do, too. But don't you ever feel like just taking time off? Leaving all your work behind and doing something different for a change?"

"Not really." Lois finished her sandwich, then crumbled her empty wrapper into a ball and tried to toss it into the nearby garbage can just as Clark had. She missed.

Clark laughed as he reached for the wrapper and tossed it into the garbage for her. "I don't think the NBA will be pounding down your door any time soon."

She threw a handful of grass at him. "Watch it, buster."

He steered the conversation back to her answer. "You don't ever feel the need to get away? To quit working for a while?"

"Nope. I can count the number of times I've thought about taking a vacation on one hand—and I wouldn't need any fingers to count the number of times I've actually taken one." She smiled wryly. "Seriously, though, work is what I do. It's all I really know."

"What do you mean?" Clark ventured, more than a little curious. "Don't you have friends you do things with back home?"

Lifting her water bottle to her lips, she took a long drink before responding. "Not really. I have a couple of coworkers I get together with from time to time for dinner or a movie or something, but I don't know that I would really call them friends. If I ever want to be with somebody who understands me, there's always Agnes."

Clark's eyebrows lifted. "Agnes? Who's that? A relative?"

That made Lois chuckle. "No, though I suppose we both think of her as a surrogate something. She's my neighbor. She's eighty- four going on twenty, and I've known her since I moved into my apartment building years ago." Her grin broadened and she shook her head. "She's quite a character."

"Sounds like you're close," Clark observed.

"We are. But what about you?" she asked, changing the subject. "Do you have a lot of friends you do things with?"

"A few." Clark brushed a few stray crumbs from his slacks. "I haven't been in Metropolis very long—just a little over six months. It was hard at first since I didn't know anybody in town, but Perry kind of took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He trusted me with some bigger stories, and I met a lot of people. I play poker one night a week with Perry and some other coworkers, and Jimmy and I sometimes go to ball games together."

"Sounds nice," Lois said.

"It is. And then there's my parents." He smiled and shook his head. "They were so thrilled when I told them I'd gotten a job at the Planet, since Metropolis isn't that far from my home town. It's closer than Africa or Europe, at least, where I've worked in the past. I'm an only child, and fussing over me is their favorite thing to do. I don't mind, though. We're really close."

Lois's smile slipped a bit, and Clark noticed. Lois averted her gaze from his curious stare and fiddled with a long blade of grass. "I think that's great. You're really lucky."

It was quiet for a moment. Then Clark pressed on, curious about her sudden change in demeanor. "What about you? Are you close to your family?"

Lois felt the sensation of tears prickling at the backs of her eyes, and she kept her gaze on the grass between her fingers. She didn't dare look up for fear that seeing sympathy in Clark's gaze would send her tumbling from her precarious emotional precipice.

"I was," she said at last. "My mom and dad and younger sister were killed in a car accident when I was fifteen."

She heard Clark's sudden intake of air, and then he fell silent. Finally feeling strong enough to look up, she met his pained expression with her own.

Clark's voice was sincere and full of compassion when he whispered, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Lois lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and attempted a tremulous smile. "How could you have known? It's okay, really. It happened a long time ago."

Clark didn't say anything right away, and Lois concentrated on the sound of the afternoon breeze rustling the leaves of the nearby trees. When Clark spoke again, his voice was soft and gentle. "That must have been so hard. What did you do? Who took care of you?"

Lois took a deep breath to reclaim her emotions. "My great aunt was the only family I had on my side of the country, so she took me in for a couple of years, but she wasn't in the best of health. When her doctors recommended she be placed in a health care facility, I went out on my own for most of my senior year."

She paused to pull up a few blades of grass, then rolled them absently between her fingers as she went on. "I bounced around a bit, staying with different friends for short periods of time while I worked a couple of jobs—one in the evenings and another on the weekends. It was tough, but I refused to let me school work slip. I had a lot of sleepless nights as I stayed up late to finish my homework." She smiled, but there was little humor in it. "It paid off, though, and I graduated with Valedictorian honors. I got several scholarships, and between those and the money I saved while working, I was able to put myself through college."

Clark's heart went out to her as he listened to the tough circumstances she'd had to face so early in life. "Didn't you have an inheritance, or get anything from their life insurance policies?"

"That would have been nice," Lois agreed, "but the ironic thing is, as smart as my parents were, they were never very practical. My dad was a scientist and my mom was a nurse, so they made a decent living, but they put most of their earnings into funding my dad's research. There wasn't much left to inherit. To make matters worse, their life insurance policies lapsed several months before the accident." She shook her head. "No, I was pretty much on my own."

Clark sat, stunned, for several moments. He'd had no idea she'd been through what she had. His heart ached for her loss. No wonder she was so fiercely independent and extremely determined. She'd been on her own for a long time and had learned that she had no one else to rely on but herself. It was a testament to her strength of character that she'd managed to come through it all so successfully. It also made him realize how wrong he'd been to judge her as cold, hard, and ruthless—the stop-at-nothing-to-get- a-story reporter he figured her to be. Inside, she was just as alone and hurting as he was.

Clark blinked back sudden tears at the connection and cleared his throat. "Wow," he said at last. "I hope this doesn't sound trite, but I'm impressed with what you've managed to accomplish. I don't think there are many people who would have made it through what you have."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Lois answered, downplaying his compliment. "Besides, people don't choose the trials that come their way. You simply do your best to play the hand you've been dealt."

Clark thought of his unusual powers and his life-long quest to discover who he was and his purpose on earth, and he found himself nodding. "True enough. How you come through it, though, proves the kind of person you are. I'd say it proves you're a fighter."

This time, a genuine smile—albeit small—broke through. "There you go, philosophizing again."

Clark smiled back. "Sorry. I honestly believe that, though." Then his smile faded, and his voice was hushed—almost reverent— when he continued. "Do you miss them?"

Lois nodded. "Some times more than others," she admitted, trying to keep her tone even as she fought to hide the deep well of emotion the topic brought. "Especially my sister. Lucy and I always had a lot of fun together. She was only fourteen months younger than me, and my parents both worked so much that we spent a lot of time entertaining ourselves."

"What about your parents?" Clark asked. "Were you as close to them as you were to Lucy?"

"Not as much. Like I said, they weren't home very much, but we did love each other." She suddenly smiled nostalgically as a memory surfaced. "We used to take these really great family trips every summer. In fact, the last trip we took together as a family was here to Metropolis to visit some of my dad's distant relatives. We were only here for two days, but some of the buildings and places are so familiar that it makes me remember…"

At the sudden thickness if her throat, Lois cut off her sentence and cleared her throat. In an effort to hide the fresh tears springing into her eyes, she turned to watch a squirrel near the trees a short distance away, its tail twitching nervously as it moved in quick stops and starts across the manicured lawn.

Clark seemed to sense she wasn't ready to continue, so he waited patiently in silence. His gaze moved to the squirrel she seemed so intent upon. When it finally reached a tree and scurried up the rough bark, Lois spoke again, her voice wistful and longing.

"Anyway, as families sometimes are, they were kind of a pain, but…well…" She trailed off as her voice caught, and she shrugged. "I loved them."

It was quiet for a minute. Finally, Clark said softly, "I can tell. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have parents who are still so much a part of my life. It makes me feel almost guilty to have what you don't."

Lois's stomach twisted at his words, and she silently scolded herself for getting emotional. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to make you feel guilty." She rallied her emotions and smiled. "To be honest, I don't have it all that bad. It's not like I don't have anybody. I have Agnes. She's been kind of a surrogate mother to me. She's my best cheerleader." Lois's voice was upbeat as she tried to brighten the solemn mood that had fallen over their conversation.

But Clark didn't smile. His eyes seemed to be staring into the depths of her soul, and she found herself squirming under the intensity of his gaze. "Do you always do that?" he asked seriously, his eyes full of concern.

Lois frowned. "Do what?"

"Try to pretend something doesn't upset you?"

His eyes were searching, and Lois felt the wall around her tender emotions start to crumble. She looked away. "It doesn't do any good to dwell on the past. I chose a career that I'm good at and enjoy, so I focus on that."

"I'm not saying you don't enjoy what you're doing," Clark clarified. "Or that you aren't good at it. I'm just saying you don't have to pretend it doesn't hurt to think about your past. There's a world full of people out there, Lois…many of whom are eager to listen and understand. It's not a crime to let them in…to admit you're hurting."

Lois's pent-up emotions finally found their release in the form of anger. "Don't try to tell me how I should deal with things, okay? I'm doing just fine!" She scrambled to her feet and refused to look at Clark as he got up beside her. She grabbed her shoes and jammed her feet into them. Then she bent over to snatch Clark's suit jacket off the ground at the same time he bent over to pick it up, and their heads clunked together.

"Ow!" Lois protested, putting a hand to her head and rubbing the tender spot. She straightened up and glared at Clark as he straightened up beside her.

"Sorry," he mumbled, a flash of red starting to creep across his cheeks. He reached for the jacket she was clutching in her hand. As he did, their hands brushed. For the second time that afternoon, a jolt of electricity passed between them, and they both pulled back, startled.

Lois looked up shyly, and their eyes met. She stared into Clark's beautiful brown eyes and found herself transfixed by the gentleness she saw there, shining through from the depths of his soul. She was aware of Clark lifting a hand to her face, but she found herself unable to move or even breathe as the world around her faded into a misty haze. The only thing that remained in focus was the man in front of her.

At the feel of Clark's hand on her cheek, she closed her eyes briefly at his touch, savoring the sensation of his thumb stroking her cheek. When she opened them again, she found Clark's gaze still upon her, an intensity there that hadn't been there before.

"I am sorry," he whispered, his words so quiet they were almost lost on the breeze. "I didn't mean to upset you. I just meant…well, I know it might sound strange, since we've only known each other two days, but…I do care. If you ever want to talk, just let me know, okay?"

Lois nodded wordlessly. He was right; it did sound strange, to have a virtual stranger tell you he cared…that he wanted to listen. But something about Clark just felt right; she couldn't explain it. And the way he was touching her… Something about it encased her heart in warmth, and she found herself feeling uncomfortably vulnerable.

Perhaps sensing her emotions and recognizing them as his own, an unspoken need passed between them, drawing them closer. Imperceptibly, Clark closed the distance between them, his face nearing hers. Her breath caught in her throat.

When his lips were only inches away, her gaze was drawn to them. They were full and enticing over his square jaw, and for the first time, she noticed the tiny mole above his upper lip. Her pounding heartbeat quickened even further as his lips parted and they drew even closer. Lois let her eyes flutter closed in anticipation, awaiting the touch of his lips to hers…

BZZZZZZZ!!!!

Clark jumped back, and Lois looked around startled. Then Clark muttered under his breath. He looked down and pulled his buzzing cell phone from his belt clip and flipped it open. "Yes?" he grumbled, holding it to his ear.

Turning away to give him a little privacy, Lois stepped back and wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to ward off the sudden chill. 'What almost happened?' she asked herself, flustered. 'Did we really almost kiss?'

Her lips tightened into a frown and she took a small step away, realizing that, yes, that was exactly what had almost happened.

'But Lois, that's crazy!' she thought in dismay. 'You've only known him for two days. That hardly sounds like you, letting someone get that close to you so fast…especially a man!'

Before she could scold herself for being impetuous, she heard Clark snap his phone closed and she turned back to him. He was frowning.

"That was Jimmy. They need me back at work."

Lois averted her gaze and nodded, letting her hands fall to her sides. Wordlessly, she bent over to pick up her lunch wrappers and threw them into the garbage can. Clark did the same. As she turned to start walking back to the Planet, Clark's hand on her arm stopped her.

"Lois."

His soft voice compelled her to look up. With a wary expression, she met his gaze. Confusion was clearly etched on his face. He cleared his throat, then he spoke again, this time his voice firm, yet still sincere.

"I meant what I said. If you ever need to talk—"

She forced a smile she didn't feel. "Thanks, Clark. For now, though, let's just head back to the Planet. It sounds like you have work to do." Then her voice became more business-like as she turned back to her initial topic. "You also need to get in touch with Mr. Superhero for me, too, remember?"

Clark sighed, the mood of before now broken. "I know, Lois. I'll see what I can do."

***

Lois and Clark stepped off the elevator into the newsroom in time to see a few people gathering around the bank of televisions along the far wall. They hurried over, and Clark stopped beside Jimmy.

"What's going on?"

Jimmy spared him a glance before looking back at the screen. "There's been a multi-car pile-up on the highway bridge."

Clark turned to watch. The reporter standing in front of the camera was explaining that a semi truck had jackknifed on the bridge, causing several cars to crash into it, which resulted in multiple rear-endings. One car had been hit so hard from behind that it had jumped the guardrail and was dangling precariously over the bridge's edge. Rescue crews had arrived to secure the car to keep it from going over, but they were having a hard time reaching the panicked driver, who was frozen to his seat.

Clark reached for his tie, now an instinctive gesture. Before he could turn and run for the elevator, Perry's loud, booming voice sounded from across the newsroom.

"Clark! Glad you're here. Get over there and get the story!"

"Got it, Chief!" Clark nodded, grateful for a reason to flee in front of Lois. He didn't dare tempt her with that duct tape.

Without so much as a glance at Lois, Clark made a dash toward the elevator. He'd just made it through the closing elevator doors when he heard Lois gasp, then call out his name. He saw her hurry toward the elevator after him, but then the doors closed, and he breathed a sigh of relief. At least for the moment, he was safe.

He forced his thoughts away from Lois and concentrated his super hearing on the distant sound of sirens. People were in trouble. He needed to focus.

***

Lois gasped as she saw Clark run for the elevators at Perry's insistence to cover the story. He was doing it again! Running off and leaving her empty handed. She glanced down at her watch. It was already after two o'clock. If he spent the afternoon getting the story on the accident, he may never find time to make contact with the superhero, and she'd be out of luck.

She set her jaw. There was no way she was going to let that happen. She was Lois Lane. And Lois Lane never lost a story she set out to get.

She dashed toward the elevators after Clark just as he made it through the closing elevator doors. "Clark, wait!"

But she was too late. The elevator doors shut and the compartment began its descent. She muttered a curse under her breath, then took off toward the back stairs. She had to hurry. If she didn't catch him, she could pretty much kiss the article she came for goodbye.

Fueled by adrenaline, she took off running, hoping to beat the elevator down and catch up to Clark before he left the building. It seemed like an eternity before she finally reached the lobby, but as she threw open the stairwell door, she caught sight of Clark rushing through the lobby, darting in and out of people in his haste to reach the door.

Lois ran after him. "Clark!"

He apparently didn't hear her as he dashed out of the building. Lois continued to run, shoving her way through the revolving door, then stopping on the sidewalk outside. She glanced left and right. There was no sign of him in the crowd of people passing by on the sidewalk. She growled in frustration. But then she caught a glimpse of someone with dark hair and a dark suit like Clark's a distance down the sidewalk, so she took off running once more. If it was him, she might still be able to catch him before he got into a cab.

She half-jogged, half-ran in her attempt to catch Clark, dodging people on the sidewalk and ignoring their sounds of protest as she bumped and jarred her way through them. She kept her eyes focused on the man with dark hair still a ways ahead of her, moving just as quickly down the sidewalk.

A large man suddenly loomed ahead of her, easily six-and-a-half feet tall, and her eye contact with Clark was lost. Swearing under her breath, she finally managed to get around the large man and then tried to find Clark in the crowd once more. For one devastating moment, she thought she'd lost him. But just as suddenly, she caught sight of him again, just in time to see him turn and dart down an alley to his left.

Lois fought her way through the last few people that stood between her and that alley, then breathed a sigh of relief as she turned down the empty stretch. There was no sign of Clark, but she kept running. The alley forked off to the right, so, on a hunch, Lois turned that way, too.

As she did, she nearly plowed into someone. She felt arms grab her before she could fall, and she grasped them in return, instinctively using them to regain her balance. When she looked up, she saw it was Clark.

"Clark!" she gasped, trying to catch her breath. "Holy crimony, you took off fast! I was trying to catch up to you because—"

She stopped. As she took a step back, she noticed that Clark was in a state of undress. His tie was undone and hanging loosely around his neck, his shirt was unbuttoned…and a glimpse of blue and red spandex with the now-famous "S" shield peered out from underneath.

Lois's eyes widened in shock. "You!" she blurted out. "You're him! You're Metropolis's superhero!"

***

Clark's heart sank. This was a nightmare. He'd only been in disguise for a week, and already someone had found out.

And not just anyone. Lois Lane, world-renowned investigative journalist. Well known for her ruthlessness, for going after a story at all cost. He shook his head. This was it. His life was over.

So much for keeping his identity a secret.

Lois, on the other hand, looked like a kid on Christmas. "I knew it!" she bubbled as he tried to pull himself out of his sinking depression. "I knew there was something about the two of you! I was looking at a picture of you—well, the you in that hero get- up, not the 'you' as Clark—in the newspaper in my hotel room the first night I was here, and thinking that the similarity was uncanny. But then I figured I was just crazy. I mean, who would think that Clark Kent was actually some super powered alien hero in disguise!"

She paused in her babbling only long enough to open her eyes even wider as another thought occurred to her. "Oh! Then my theory was right! You really *were* here for a long time before the transport vehicle incident, and were working and living like any other normal person! Hah! I knew it!" She smacked him on the chest, clearly proud of herself that her theory had been dead on. "So, what do you have to say for yourself, Kent?"

Lois may have been on cloud nine, but Clark felt grim. He couldn't even muster the enthusiasm to enjoy that babbling of hers that he was so coming to love. He could only concentrate on what a devastating, life-altering moment this was going to be. With an ugly, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he knew he was doomed. It was over.

He watched as Lois's grin faded and turned into an expression of confusion as he merely continued to stand there, looking completely devastated and dejected. The sound of distant sirens and cries for help jarred Clark out of his sinking depression. He turned and glanced over his shoulder in their direction, then turned back to Lois and finally cleared his throat.

"Lois, I've got to go," he said despondently. "Those people need help. But please…please don't say anything to anyone about this until we can talk. I'll give you a story. There are just…aspects of it that I'd like to discuss with you first, okay?"

Lois's mouth stretched into a puzzled frown. Clark couldn't help thinking she no longer looked as ecstatic as she had only moments before. He guessed he should feel a little better about that, but all he could think about was how close he was to having his identity splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world.

When she didn't respond, Clark once more glanced behind him toward the cries in the distance, feeling an increased sense of urgency. He had to get out of there, but he didn't want to leave until he had Lois's word.

"Lois? Please?" His eyes were pleading as they met and held hers.

Finally, she rolled her eyes and nodded. "Okay, fine. Go. Do whatever it is you need to do. But don't think you can weasel out of this one, Clark! I want an explanation, you hear me?"

He nodded grimly, then took two steps back, spun into his costume, and rocketed off into the sky, leaving a breathless and awed Lois Lane, star reporter, staring after him.

***

Feeling both stunned and ecstatic, Lois watched Clark disappear into the sky in a blur of blue and red. Incredible! Clark Kent was Metropolis's superhero. Who would have thought?

Thinking back to that night in her hotel when she had looked at the picture of the hero in his costume, she remembered being startled by how much she thought he'd looked like Clark. But she had quickly dispelled that notion, probably as anyone else would have done when their logic had kicked in.

For several moments, she realized how easily fooled she had been. She tried to console herself with the fact, though, that other than a slight physical appearance, their demeanors and personalities seemed very little alike. The hero seemed to be all business the times she'd spotted him when he was on the job. His arms were usually crossed or his hands were on his hips, and he listened intently to the officers as he learned the situation at each scene. It was clear he knew he had a job to do, and was only interested in getting it done successfully. His dedication to saving the lives of those in trouble was clearly etched in the firm set of his jaw, his steely, concentrated stare, and his tensed muscles. He was the picture of confidence and concentration

Clark, on the other hand… She remembered the deer-in-the- headlights look he'd worn the day they'd first met. He'd been a nervous wreck…until he'd lashed out at her for calling him a lucky hack. Neither reaction could have been associated with the strong, silent hero she'd witnessed at the rescue scenes. But as she'd gotten to know him a little better, her first impressions had been altered by what she supposed was his truer nature: he was kind and soft-spoken, and clearly respected the feelings of those around him, more so than the importance of getting the story.

She shook her head. The two men seemed nothing alike on the surface. Maybe that's why no one had put two and two together. But she had. She had him! That Pulitzer was as good as hers.

But then, why did she feel so conflicted?

She thought back to the way his face had fallen when he'd realized he'd been caught…that look of utter dejection on his face as he'd hung his head. It was obvious he was devastated.

Uncharacteristically, Lois felt her heart go out to him. She tried to shake herself out of it, knowing how important it was to maintain an emotional distance and not get involved in the story— or with the people you were doing a story about. But the mental image of Clark, looking so lost and forlorn as he'd stood there, listening to her rambling on about her theory being right…well, it tore at her heart.

'But why should it? You hardly know the guy,' the voice of reason in the back of her mind chimed in.

Lois frowned. It was true she hardly knew him; she'd only known him for just over two days. But in that time, she could honestly say that she felt a connection with him. The day before when they had spent the morning talking to sources, and then having lunch together at his apartment and going over his investigation notes, she had been surprised at how easily they had talked and shared ideas. She couldn't remember a time when she had enjoyed working with somebody as much as she had with Clark. True, he was a little straight-laced and old-fashioned, but that was part of his charm.

Then there was their lunch in the park just twenty minutes before… She remembered how their conversation about the shipping company investigation had turned to more personal things. Never before had she shared so many details of her painful past with a near stranger—or even with many of the people she called her friends. Jim, her editor, had known her history, and they'd forged a connection since his own father had died when he was a teenager.

Then there was Agnes. She knew. In fact, her elderly neighbor was the only person she felt comfortable enough going to whenever she struggled with the painful memories.

But Clark… Somehow he had managed to get her to open up about her past before she'd even realized she was doing it. There was just something about him that made him so easy to talk to, so easy to confide in.

Memories of what happened next made her heart leap in her chest. She lifted her hand to her cheek where Clark had touched her, and she closed her eyes briefly, savoring the memory. She saw an image of Clark, his face so near. She remembered feeling the swarm of butterflies in her stomach as she realized he was going to kiss her. They'd been so close…and then came the ringing of the cell phone.

Lois groaned inwardly. Jimmy had ruined what was sure to have been a perfect kiss. But her disappointment at the spoiled moment made her realize just how eager she had been for the touch of his lips on hers. It was enough to tell her that something was amiss in the matters of her heart.

She couldn't remember the last time she'd actually thought about kissing a man. The dates she'd gone out on were few and far between, and never had they been with somebody she'd wanted to go out with more than once or twice, let alone kiss. There had just never been the desire. No one had ever caught her attention.

Until now.

With a sigh, Lois glanced up one more time at the sky where Clark had disappeared, then turned to leave. A short time ago, she would have been rushing to the phone to call in the story to her editor. But now… She just wasn't sure if that's what she wanted to do.

His nervous reaction to her that first day suddenly made sense. He knew what she was there for, and he was afraid she would do just that—find out about his secret identity and report it to the world. But in spite of his fear, he had been nothing but kind and welcoming, even inviting her to his apartment and having lunch with her. He'd even had lunch again with her earlier that day, and had listened compassionately as she'd talked about losing her family. He could have ditched her many times over, but he hadn't.

She wasn't exactly sure why he hadn't. Surely a man with so much to lose would run the other way in self-defense. So why hadn't he? What made him keep coming back?

She had to admit, her curiosity was piqued. Clark had said he wanted to talk with her about some aspects of his secret identity before she wrote her article. And as tempting as it was to rush out and call in her story to her editor, she decided to wait and see what Clark had to say.

Trying to decide where Clark would want to meet with her, Lois decided her best bet was to head to his apartment. She was relatively certain he would know to find her there. Hurrying out of the alley, she merged back into the crowds on the sidewalk and competed for a cab. Then she directed the cab driver to Clark's apartment and soon found herself standing on his front steps. She glanced at her watch. She had no idea how long this wait was going to be. With a sigh, she sat down on his steps to wait.

It wasn't long before her lack of patience and sitting on the cold, cement steps outside his door convinced her to change her plans. She stood up and reached into her purse, drawing out her well-used lock pick. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she inserted the tool into the keyhole.

Besides being uncomfortable on his apartment steps, she figured it would be beneficial to check out his apartment a little more closely. She'd been there the day before, but she hadn't looked at it from the perspective of Clark being an alien with super powers. Maybe a closer look would give her some more insight into his life and abilities. Besides, he owed her. She could have rushed out and written an article fingering him as Metropolis's new mysterious hero, but she hadn't.

In a matter of seconds, the lock clicked, making Lois smile. She hadn't lost her touch.

Turning the doorknob, she let herself in. If she was going to wait for Clark, she might as well make herself comfortable.

***

It was almost three hours later when a breeze rustled Clark's curtains. Lois turned expectantly. She wasn't disappointed. Clark appeared in the open window, looking dirty and tired in his blue and red suit.

"What took you so long?" she asked.

Clark's head jerked up at the sound of her voice. When he saw her standing in the middle of his living room, he sighed wearily. "I got that car back on the bridge and helped with some other things at the accident. Then I made a couple more rescues on the way home." He walked toward her, his expression solemn. "Let me guess. You picked the lock."

She crossed her arms and took a couple of steps toward him, the hint of a smile on her face. "For someone who has so much to hide, you sure have lax security. It took me all of three seconds to pick that lock. You should at least consider a dead bolt."

Clark didn't smile. He walked as far as his hallway and gestured with one hand in the direction of his bedroom. "I'm going to change, and then we can talk, okay?" When she nodded, he said, "I'll be right out."

After he disappeared into his bedroom, Lois wandered around his living room, once again studying the books in his bookcase and the assortment of pictures around the room. When several minutes passed, she glanced toward the hall. Where was he? It couldn't take him long to change—not after the display she'd seen in the alley when he'd spun into his costume in a blur of red and blue. He had to be stalling.

Just as she began to wonder if he was ever going to come out, he walked into the living room. He was dressed in jeans and a long- sleeved, black and white flannel shirt. He hadn't bothered to tuck in the shirt, and it hung loosely around his waist and hips. Unexpectedly, Lois found his rumpled look attractive and endearing.

With a start, she realized she was doing it again. She was letting herself get involved with her story. 'You've got to remember,' she told herself firmly, 'that's what this man is. Your *story*.'

Forcing herself to remember that, she took a step toward him and fixed him with a determined stare. "These past two days I've been running all over Metropolis trying to track you—the superhero— down, and all this time you've been right under my nose. You do realize this is the expose of the century, don't you?"

"I know." Clark's shoulders slumped, and he looked down at the floor, his hands shoved into the front pockets of his jeans. When he finally looked back up and met her gaze, his eyes were anxious and pleading. "Can I talk you out of writing it?"

Lois's eyes narrowed. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't."

He looked at her for a long moment, then turned and walked over to the bookcase she had been studying so intently just a short time before. There he picked up a framed picture and walked back to her. He handed her the photograph. "Is this a good enough reason?"

She glanced at him quizzically, then looked down at the framed picture in her hand. She studied it for a long moment. The picture was of an elderly couple, the man robust and jolly, with wise eyes and a gentle smile. The woman standing next to him wore wire-framed glasses and a bright smile as gentle as the man's. They had their arms around each other as they stood in front of an old farmhouse.

Lois looked up at Clark. "Are these your parents?"

"Yes." He nodded. "And I love them more than you could ever imagine."

"Umm…okay," Lois began, not seeing his point as he took the picture and returned it to the shelf. When he came back, he gestured for her to sit on the couch, then sat across from her in the large brown recliner. She cocked an eyebrow at him, urging him to continue. "And?"

"And," he echoed, "I don't ever want them to get hurt, which is exactly what would happen if my secret were ever to get out. Can you imagine the repercussions? The media would swarm my little hometown, and every bad guy in the world would go after them to convince me to do their bidding. Does that sound like a good enough reason?"

Lois sobered. She had to admit, it was.

"So that's why you wear the costume?" she asked. "To have a disguise?"

He nodded. "Though the costume is kind of a recent development. I've only had it a few days."

"Starting the night of the colonists' launch." It was more a statement than a question.

"Yes. I helped people before that as often as I could and still remain undetected, but it wasn't until a few days ago that it occurred to me to try some kind of disguise." He shrugged. "I talked to my parents about it, and my mom helped me with the costume. It seemed to be working until…"

"…until I caught you changing in the alley," Lois finished for him.

Clark nodded again, his expression crestfallen. He glanced over at the clock on the wall and sighed. "Look, I know I owe you some answers, but would you mind hanging around for a few minutes while I get the accident story typed up and emailed to Perry? He'll want it by deadline. Then we can talk, okay?"

"Deal," Lois agreed, leaning back against the couch.

As Clark sat down at the desk in the corner of his living room, Lois found herself studying him with new interest. So he was Metropolis's new hero. It was hard to believe that Deer-in-the- headlights Guy was actually the strongest person on earth—let alone an alien. She'd always thought of aliens as those little green guys who kidnapped people from their beds and did strange experiments on them. Clark didn't look green. Neither did he look threatening, for that matter. In fact, he looked rather…dispirited. As if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

She thought back to what he'd said about his parents, about them being a target if people knew who he really was. She'd never considered that, but she supposed he was right. Criminals never cared who they used or hurt in the process of getting what they wanted. And when those victims could be people you cared about…

Lois felt a painful twinge in her heart as she remembered the loss of her parents. If anybody could relate to Clark's plea, it was her. She knew what it was like to lose somebody you loved. But surely there was a way to get the story she wanted without putting his parents at risk, wasn't there? After all, she was one article away from the expose of a lifetime.

Deciding to make herself comfortable, she slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet up underneath her. Then she turned slightly, leaning back into the corner of the couch so she could study Clark further as he worked.

He was obviously much more than he seemed to be on the surface. The reporter in her demanded to know more. What made a Kansas- raised farm boy decide to don a disguise and become a world famous superhero? And how, exactly, did those powers he displayed so spectacularly come to be? Had he been born with them? Had he been some genetic experiment? And how did he handle having super powers in his daily life? Did they change him as a person, or were they simply an added bonus? She couldn't imagine how it must feel to hide all the time, wondering which slip-up might potentially ruin his life.

She didn't have long to deliberate over the possible answers. In only a matter of minutes, Clark had switched off his laptop and closed the screen. He stood up from his desk and walked over to the recliner he'd vacated only a short time before.

Lois raised an eyebrow. "That was quick."

"Yeah, well, it wasn't exactly front-page news. There wasn't much to embellish on."

Before he was even seated all the way in the chair, Lois started in. "You said back there in the alley you would give me the story, but that there were aspects of it you wanted to discuss with me first. What aspects?"

Clark took a deep breath and tried to prepare himself for the onslaught. This was no rookie reporter; this was Lois Lane, seasoned journalist. She wouldn't be so willing to settle for the easy answers. He only hoped he could give her the answers she sought, and at the same time convince her not to reveal his secret to the world.

"Well, there's the issue of the people I love becoming targets if the world were to find out who I am," he began. "And I'm not just talking about my parents. My friends would be at risk, as well. And then there's you."

"Me?" Lois looked at him questioningly.

Clark nodded. "Do you think the criminal element is going to overlook the fact that you, Lois Lane, were the reporter to spill every last detail about the superhero's secret identity? They're going to know you were able to get close enough to me, the hero, to learn all that. It would make you a target as well."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Don't try to scare me by bringing me into this. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

"I don't doubt that you can." A smile tugged at the corners of Clark's mouth as he remembered the would-be mugger who'd been unfortunate enough to cross her path earlier that week. "But this would be a whole new ball game. You're not just talking about some angered crook you sent to jail because of an expose; you're talking about being a connection to the world's new superhero. Criminals wouldn't think twice to use you as a means of extortion, with them seeing my powers as a unique means to carry out their illegal activities."

"How *did* you get your powers?" Lois shifted her position on the couch to see him better. "Were they something you were born with?"

"I'm not sure about that," Clark admitted. "I don't know if the things I can do are genetic, or if they have something to do with my arrival here on earth. My strength was the first thing that became evident. As a toddler I was already lifting cars and furniture. My mom used to tell me how much it freaked her out when I started doing things like that." He chuckled to himself at the memory. "My other powers didn't start to develop until later when I was in junior high and high school."

Lois leaned forward and rested her hands on her knees. "In the 'interview' you printed about yourself in the newspaper, you said you were from another planet. Did your parents know that at the time? Or did they only suspect it when you started doing all these incredible things?"

Clark let out a noisy breath and shook his head. "All the evidence pointed to the outer space theory. My parents were driving home one night and saw a flash in the darkening sky near our neighbor's field. They went to investigate and found a small spaceship with me inside."

"Wow," Lois breathed, clearly impressed. "What did they think?"

"They didn't know what to think." Clark shrugged and sat back in his chair. "All they knew was to trust their instincts and take me home with them. They'd tried for years to have children of their own, but couldn't. They kept checking the news for reports of a missing boy, but when nothing surfaced, they decided to keep me. They made up a story about how I was a relative's child they had adopted, and nobody thought to ask any questions."

"And what did they do with the spaceship?"

Clark smiled. Leave it to Lois to ask the key questions. "My father took it back to the farm and buried it."

"So he still has it?" Lois's eyes widened in excitement.

"No, it's gone." Clark shook his head sadly as regret moved in. "When I started asking my parents questions about why I was so different, they told me how they'd found me. I wasn't entirely sure I believed them, so my dad took me out to the spot where he'd buried the ship. We tried to dig it up, but it wasn't there."

"Who took it?" Lois asked with a frown. "Nobody knew it was there, did they?"

"Not that we know of. My parents never told anybody. We have no idea who would have taken it, but it's always made my parents nervous, knowing there could be somebody out there who knows about me." Clark paused, running his hands up and down the smooth leather arms of the chair. "There are times when I wish more than anything that I could find that ship. I keep wondering if it could have told me more about who I am and where I came from."

Lois expression became a mixture of surprise and confusion. "So, you don't know anything at all about yourself other than the fact you came from another planet? You don't know why your ship landed here, or even if it was supposed to? There are no records to tell you anything?"

"No." Clark's hands stalled their movements on the armrests and he clenched his fingers around the smooth leather. "That's why I wish I had the ship. My parents tell me there were strange symbols all around the outside edge. I wonder if it was the language of my birth parents. I can't help thinking that my ship could be the answers to the questions I've been asking myself all these years—who I am, why I was sent here, what I'm supposed to be doing with my life…" He looked down sadly at his lap and moved a hand from the armrest to pick at a loose thread on his jeans.

Lois watched Clark's frown deepen, and her heart went out to him. She missed her parents, but at least she knew who she was and that her parents had loved her. Clark, on the other hand, had no knowledge of his parents, or even of the people or the culture of the world he had come from. And having such unique abilities were sure to make his lack of knowledge all the more frustrating.

"So," she began, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, "for now, you live your life, work at the Planet, and try to use your powers to help others when you can?"

A wistful smile crept across Clark's lips. "You make it sound so easy."

"Isn't it?"

Clark's smile quickly became a frown. "Of course it's not easy." He stood up and ran a hand raggedly through his hair. "I have the same things to deal with that everyone else does—work, finances, commitments… I have good days and bad days." His voice was tinged with frustration, and even a little anger, as he continued. "Sure, I have special abilities, but that doesn't make me any better than anyone else, or my life any simpler. If anything, my abilities make things harder. Do you have any idea how hard it is to have the powers that I do and not be able to help everyone who needs it? Or how it feels to be so different from everybody else? Do you know what it's like to not fit in? It's lonely, Lois. *I'm* lonely. My life isn't a cakewalk. You seem to think it is, but it isn't."

When he finished, an uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Lois stared at him, stunned. Ever since she'd first seen the costumed hero on the television screen, she'd been awed by his special abilities and unique origin. But now, for the first time since she'd discovered that Clark was the elusive superhero she'd been hunting, she realized the hero was simply Clark Kent, a man with insecurities and fears who was just trying to make a difference in the world with the gifts he'd been given. What tugged at her heartstrings even more was the realization that, if for somewhat different reasons, Clark Kent was just as lonely as she was.

After a moment, Lois cleared the growing thickness from her throat. "Clark, I—I had no idea. I just assumed…" Her voice trailed off and she shrugged, at a loss for words. "I'm sorry."

Her response made Clark realize he'd said more than he'd intended. Muttering something under his breath, he made a conscious effort to relax his tensed muscles and let his hands fall to his sides. "No, *I'm* sorry." He walked back to his chair and sat down. "I shouldn't have gone on like that. It's been a long week, and with everything that's been going on with this whole hero thing…" He shook his head. "I didn't mean to take it out on you."

"That's okay," she answered quietly. For a moment she was content to watch Clark, her mind trying to process all she was learning about him. After a pause, she asked, her voice soft, "Tell me something. What do your parents think of all this?"

Clark raised his eyebrows. It was a question he hadn't been expecting. "My parents? They're supportive, of course. My mom's more supportive about this secret identity thing than my dad is, though. He would rather have me keep the things I can do a secret. But I can't do that. I can't stand by and not help when someone needs it."

Lois brow creased with confusion. "Why would your dad rather you keep it a secret? Is he afraid of becoming a target, like you said?"

"No, not really. It has more to do with me. Ever since I was little, he's warned me not to tell anybody about the things I could do. He's worried that some government agency would take me away and send me to some lab where they would dissect me like a frog."

Lois's eyes widened in horror. She supposed it was possible, that someone would want to do that, but…Clark was a human being! He had rights just like anybody else…didn't he?

For the first time since she'd known him, she got a look—a good, hard look—at how terrifying his life must be for him. He was so eager to use his powers to help, but she could now see that there was always the possibility someone might, in the end, try to hurt him if they found out who he really was.

In that instant, Lois realized what an amazing amount of courage he had to do what he felt was right, in spite of the dangers that loomed around him, and the prospect of everything that could go wrong with his plan. And she respected him for it. She wasn't sure she would have his kind of courage to follow through with it if she had been in his place.

Addressing his father's concerns, she asked, "You don't think somebody would really do that to you, do you?"

"I doubt it." Clark shook his head. "But it's true that people are scared of what they can't understand."

"What about you?" Lois asked seriously. "Do you worry about that?"

"Not really," he admitted. "After all, I haven't found anything yet that can hurt me."

Lois leaned forward with interest. "Nothing? Not bullets, not a moving car…nothing?"

He shook his head. "No."

"Wow," Lois said, impressed. "That must be nice. Maybe I do want you for a partner. You'd make a great shield when all those criminals I've sent to jail come gunning for me."

Clark laughed. "Gee, thanks. That's flattering, to know the only good thing I could bring to a partnership would be protection." Lois started to protest that that wasn't what she meant, but Clark cut her off. "I'm only kidding. But seriously, I've never really worried about my safety. Even as a kid, I didn't seem able to get hurt. There was the time one of my friends and I climbed the highest tree in the town square during the Corn Festival. The branch broke beneath us and we fell. He broke his arm in two places, but I didn't have a scratch."

"So, your strength was noticeable early on," she said, trying to wrap her mind around everything he was telling her, "and about the same time you started to notice you couldn't get hurt. When did you start to discover your other powers?"

The next few hours seemed to pass by as if they were minutes. Lois found herself more captivated with every story she heard. More and more, she began to realize what an amazing man Clark was. He had been through so much, yet was obviously so strong because of it.

But Lois wasn't the only one enjoying their talk. For the first time in his life, Clark found himself able to talk openly about himself with somebody other than his parents. He knew he should have been terrified at the thought of exposing so much about himself, but with Lois…it just felt right to share himself with her. He forgot about the late hour, the darkening sky outside his windows, and the fact that she had come to Metropolis to get just this story. In that moment, he trusted her. He trusted her with his secret, even though he couldn't explain why he should. He just knew that it felt right.

As their conversation wore down, Lois yawned and stretched her arms. "What time is it?" she asked, looking around the room for a clock.

Clark glanced down at his watch. "Oh, man, it's a quarter after one. I'm so sorry. I had no idea it was so late."

"Don't be," Lois reassured him with a smile. "I've enjoyed hearing about you."

"Yeah, well, I've monopolized all this time talking about myself. Now you know pretty much everything about me, and I don't know a single new thing about you."

Lois moved forward on the couch to stretch her legs. "You're not missing anything, really. Your life is the exciting one. What is there to tell about me? I get up, go to work, go home. Then I start the whole thing all over again the next day."

Clark chuckled softly. "Somehow I doubt that. But I guess we'll have to leave that for another time. It's late, and you really should get some sleep. You look exhausted."

"I guess I am," she admitted. She stood up stiffly and looked around the room for her jacket. "I wonder if I'll be able to get a cab at this hour. Do you have a phone book I could borrow? Maybe I'll just call one."

"You're welcome to stay here for the night," he suggested. "I'd be perfectly happy to take the couch so you could use my bed."

"Oh, no, I couldn't do that. I appreciate the offer, though."

But Clark shook his head, dismissing her objections. "Please, I insist. You could even borrow a T-shirt and sweats to sleep in. Really, I don't mind."

Lois studied Clark intently for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Finally, she smiled and nodded. "Okay, I will, then. Thanks."

Clark's heart soared. Even the several hours he'd just spent with her hadn't seemed like enough. And the realization that she would be flying back to San Francisco in a matter of hours made him all the more eager to spend every last minute he could with her.

Forcing himself into action, he showed her to his room and let her know where she could find something to sleep in. He pulled an extra blanket and pillow out of his closet for himself, then paused next to her in the doorway.

"You going to be okay in here tonight? Do you need an extra blanket or anything?"

Lois smiled softly. "No, I'll be fine, thanks. I just appreciate you letting me stay."

"It's no trouble at all," Clark insisted.

Silence fell between them for a long moment. Suddenly it was disrupted by the loud growling of Lois's stomach. They laughed at the sound, but then Clark's eyes widened in dismay.

"Oh, no! I just realized we never had dinner!" He lifted his face toward the ceiling and growled in frustration. "I can't believe I let you starve like this! Have you had anything to eat since lunch?" But before she could answer, Clark hurried on, starting to fuss over her. "Would you like me to go make you something? I'm sure I have some leftovers in the fridge I could heat up…"

Lois grinned at his fussing and quickly cut him off. "Clark, I'm fine, really. I got so caught up in everything we were talking about I never even thought about food." She paused, and her grin softened as she took in the concern apparent in his eyes. "We may have forgotten to eat, but…well, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed talking to somebody more."

Clark's look of concern faded, his slow smile showing his pleasure at her words. "Me too."

Their gazes met and held, and Lois felt that same feeling of connection pass between them. Clark looked like he wanted to say something, and Lois waited anxiously. But then the moment was gone, and Clark gestured toward the kitchen. "Are you sure you don't want a snack at least? I'm serious about making you something to eat. I could go and see what I have…"

She laughed softly and shook her head. "Really, Clark, I'm fine. I'm more tired than anything. Besides, if I ate something this late I'd just feel sick in the morning."

"Then at least plan on me making you a big breakfast in the morning."

Her eyes sparkled as she nodded. "It's a deal."

They fell silent once again, and Lois was suddenly aware of how close Clark was. He stood only a foot away, his eyes watching hers intently. The chemistry between them was almost palpable in the air around them.

Lois's heartbeat quickened as Clark's gaze flickered from her eyes to her lips, then back to her eyes once more. For one heady moment, Lois was sure he was going to kiss her. And it surprised her to realize just how much she wanted him to.

But just as suddenly, the mood was broken. Clark cleared his throat awkwardly and took a step back. "It's late," he said. "I really should let you get some sleep. What time does your plane leave in the morning?"

That's when it hit her. Home. Tomorrow she was going home.

Unexpectedly, she felt her heart sink. Going home didn't hold the same appeal it might have as recently as a day ago. She'd enjoyed the time she'd spent in Metropolis the last two days, but more importantly, she'd enjoyed getting to know Clark. It was impossible to deny the connection they shared, the feeling that they were on the cusp of something amazing. The idea of going home and not being able to see Clark on a daily basis made her heart ache.

Trying to ignore the painful twinge in her heart, she told Clark, "I have to be at the airport by ten."

Clark nodded, and for a moment, Lois thought she glimpsed a reflection of her own emotions in his eyes. But as quickly as they had come, they were gone. "Then I should let you get some sleep. We can talk a little more in the morning."

They said goodnight, and then Lois was alone. She climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin, trying to erase the confusion she was feeling in a few hours of sleep. But sleep would not come. Her mind refused to shut off, and a myriad of thoughts continued to bombard her.

She thought about her life back in San Francisco even a week before, and realized just how empty her days were going to feel. Even work wasn't going to feel the same, without Clark there to talk to about a new piece of information she'd hopefully be able to dig up on the shipping company investigation.

Then it hit her. Work.

Lois felt the blood rush from her extremities, leaving her feeling cold. What was her editor going to say when she returned without the glaring expose she'd been sent to Metropolis to get?

She felt sick to her stomach. What was she going to tell him? That she thought she was falling in love with the subject of her story and couldn't bring herself to expose him? No, that wasn't going to fly. After all, she was Lois Lane. And Lois Lane always got her story.

Suddenly she was feeling the pressure, knowing she had to go home with something. And not just with 'something.' Something *great*. Jim expected nothing less from her.

But she couldn't expose Clark; not after everything she'd learned about him. He was an amazing, kind, and compassionate man, who was just trying to make a difference in the world. By exposing him, she would essentially be turning him over to a science lab as the experiment his father always worried he would be.

And what about his parents? She didn't know them, but she could sense how strong their love for him was. Could she really do that to *them*? To have them see their son exposed to the world and have their worst fears realized?

Lois shook her head. There was no way she could do it. But…then what? Jim was expecting the story. How could she let him down? It was everything she had worked so hard for.

When the hours continued to pass and sleep still refused to come, Lois let out a growl of frustration and climbed out of bed. She grabbed the afghan lying across the foot of the bed and wrapped it around herself, then wandered silently out into the living room. As if pulled by an unseen force, Lois found herself drawn to Clark's sleeping form on the couch.

She smiled at the sight. His hair was tousled from sleep, and his thick lashes were dark against his cheeks, his closed lids hiding the warm, gentle brown eyes that seemed to bore into her soul. He looked rumpled and vulnerable, and she found herself unable to turn away. He was truly an amazing man, a man who was quickly becoming something special to her. How could she write what she knew about him? She stood there for what seemed like hours, watching the rise and fall of his chest, as the battle between her heart and her mind continued to rage on within her.

The fact that he hadn't held anything back from her during their talk earlier proved just how much he trusted her. To further prove his trust—or maybe his naivety?—he let her sleep at his apartment and went to sleep himself. For all he knew, she could have rushed out right that second and filed the story. But it was obvious he trusted her not to. How could she violate that trust?

But then came the image of her editor's furious face when she'd have to tell him she had nothing. For one frightening moment, Lois wondered if he would be angry enough to fire her. He had been known to fire seasoned reporters before; it wasn't unheard of. He was one of the best in the business and ran a very tight ship. If he didn't feel like you were pulling your weight, you were gone.

She swallowed hard. The possibility hadn't crossed her mind before, but now that it had, she took a moment to consider it. 'Jim's going to be furious if you come home without the story you came here to get,' the nagging voice in head told her truthfully. 'Besides, this is your job. You have no one to blame but yourself for breaking your number one rule about letting yourself get involved with your story. This is the big story you've been waiting for so long. This is what you came to Metropolis to find, and you found it. You have your story. Now all you have to do is write it.'

For several minutes the battle raged between her heart and her head, and finally Lois couldn't stand it any longer. She was tired, and it was impossible to think clearly. Maybe in the morning things would be clearer.

With a heavy sigh, she pulled her gaze away from Clark and tiptoed back into the bedroom. As she climbed into bed, she suspected sleep was going to be a long time in coming. She had some tough decisions to make.

***

Lois woke up the next morning feeling tired and distracted. The couple hours of sleep she'd managed to get hadn't left her feeling very refreshed. There was simply too much on her mind. The big question remained: Should she write the Big Story or not?

She climbed out of bed and ran her fingers through her hair, her mind once again starting to churn. But before her thoughts could encompass her, she found herself breathing in deeply. She paused. Something smelled great!

Her stomach rumbled noisily. If the tantalizing smell was any indication, Clark was cooking breakfast. She'd never been much of a breakfast person; toast and juice usually sufficed. But this morning she was famished. She hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, and she found herself eagerly slipping out of her borrowed sweats and T-shirt and into her clothes from the day before. She made a quick stop in the bathroom to try to make herself presentable, then hurried down the short hallway into the kitchen.

The sight stopped her short. Clark stood in front of the stove stirring scrambled eggs in one pan and flipping sizzling bacon in another. He had changed into jeans and a white T-shirt, and Lois found herself more attracted to his rugged good looks than ever. The white of his T-shirt set off his olive complexion and dark hair, and the short sleeves showed off the powerful muscles in his arms. A slight blush crept across her cheeks as she caught herself glancing lower, noticing how well he filled out his jeans.

With more than a little difficulty, she pulled her gaze away and walked the rest of the way into the kitchen. As she did, Clark looked up, his face breaking out into a grin when he saw her. Her heart somersaulted in her chest. What was it about that gorgeous smile of his that turned her to putty every time he sent it her direction?

"Morning," he greeted her cheerfully, though Lois could sense a cautiousness lurking behind that cheerful veneer. "I knew you had to be starving this morning, so I thought a big breakfast was in order. It's the least I could do after being so inconsiderate last night and forgetting dinner."

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "You don't need to feel guilty. I told you that last night." She walked over and peered into the pans. He'd added onions and cheese to the eggs, plus several other spices, she guessed, from the sprinkle of colors across the yellowed bulges. "You look like quite the cook. I had no idea you could do this."

He looked up from stirring the eggs and cocked an eyebrow at her. "Sure, I cook. Don't you?"

She shrugged a little sheepishly. "No. Well, sometimes I make toast or oatmeal."

He laughed, then tried to cover it up by coughing. When he'd managed to control his reaction, if not his incriminating smile, he spoke. "Something that involves two ingredients and a toaster or a microwave doesn't count."

"Oh. Than I guess I don't cook." She shrugged again, then picked up one of the glasses he'd set out on the counter and poured herself a glass of orange juice. She took a sip as she leaned back against the counter and watched him. "Thanks for the use of your bed. I feel a little guilty about making you sleep on the couch."

"You shouldn't," Clark told her. "I can sleep anywhere. I suppose it's one of the benefits of being invulnerable."

The mention of his super powers hung heavily in the air, overshadowing the companionable exchange of moments before. Lois frowned and took another sip of her juice. All her thoughts and internal arguments of the night before started to weigh down on her once more. She then made the mistake of sighing. She'd forgotten about Clark's super hearing, and was a witness to its effectiveness when he turned back to her, a look of concern on his face.

"You look tired," he observed. "Didn't you sleep well?"

She shook her head slowly. "No, I didn't. I had a lot on my—" She suddenly broke off, deciding he didn't need to know her conflicting emotions. She took a long drink of her juice, then picked up the plate Clark indicated. She shrugged as she moved to stand next to him at the stove. "Well, anyway, it was just one of those nights."

As Clark started spooning out bacon and eggs onto her plate and his, he didn't say anything; he couldn't. It didn't take a mind reader to know what had caused Lois's sleepless night. It was obvious she was trying to decide whether or not to reveal his secret.

A brief flash of panic seized him at the thought. She couldn't still be considering it, could she? After all he had shared with her, after everything they had talked about the night before, he thought she would finally see how dangerous it was to both him and his loved ones to have his secret identity revealed. But apparently, the jury was still out.

Neither of them talked as they carried their plates and juice to the table and sat down to eat. Long minutes passed. With each one, Clark felt his heart contract further in his chest. When he didn't think he could stand the uncertainty and silence for one more moment, Lois cleared her throat. Clark jerked his eyes up to find her regarding him hesitantly.

"There is something I've been wondering about," she began quietly.

Clark tried to force his features into a look of casual interest. "Oh?"

She set her fork down and turned her full attention to him. "If you're so concerned about keeping your family and friends safe by not giving everyone too much information, why did you share so much about your powers in your article?"

Swallowing past the tightness in his throat took all of Clark's concentration. With a quick swallow of his juice to wash it the rest of the way down, he asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well, in your article, you told everyone about the powers you have. Do you really think that was wise? Don't you think spelling it out puts you at a disadvantage?"

Clark's look of confusion deepened. "I don't understand."

Lois sighed in frustration and tried again. "Didn't you think far enough ahead to know that there would be a criminal element out there just dying to find a way to use you to their advantage? To hurt you? They're going to want you out of their way, and you gave them a head start on what they need to know about you."

Clark stared at Lois in stunned silence for several long moments. He'd never thought of that before. She was right. What had he been thinking? When he finally managed to get his voice working, he stammered, "I—I guess I didn't see the harm in it. Obviously I wasn't thinking."

Instinctively, Lois opened her mouth to chastise him for being so naive, but then stopped herself. That was exactly the problem, she realized. He was so naive, so kind and pure-hearted that he *wouldn't* have thought to think about things from a criminal's perspective. 'Oh, boy,' she thought with an internal grimace. 'This man is going to be eaten alive.'

"Clark, look," she went on after a long minute. "It's obvious you really didn't think out this whole two identities thing. There are clearly aspects of it that you need to be a little more careful about. Didn't your parents help you talk out these kinds of things?"

"No," he admitted. "It really didn't occur to me that someone might come after *me.*"

"You may be invulnerable, but that doesn't mean the bad guys aren't going to try to find some weakness they can use to their advantage. That's what criminals do to get what they want—they find a way around the system. And right now, you're it."

Clark looked down at his food and pushed his eggs around his plate. "I never thought about it that way." His expression was sheepish when he looked back up to meet her gaze. "You must think I'm incredibly naive."

The hint of a smile played across her lips. "Yeah, well, other than the fact that it's going to get you in trouble someday, I find it kind of…endearing."

Clark's expression brightened and a surge of hope flowed through him. "You do?" he asked, his breakfast forgotten.

"Yes, but don't let it go to your head." She stood up and took her empty plate to the sink. "I've got to get back to the hotel to pack. Do you mind if I use your phone to call a cab?"

Clark opened his mouth to tell her he could fly her there, but then thought better of it. She'd just said she found him endearing. It was a big step, to admit something like that to someone you'd only known a couple of days. He didn't want to scare her off by doing too much, too soon.

He listened as Lois placed the call and arranged for a cab, feeling a little sad at the realization that she really was going. He found himself wishing he had even a few more minutes with her before she got on her plane. Suddenly he had an idea.

When Lois hung up the phone, Clark asked, with more casualness than he felt, "How would you feel about a little company? I could ride with you in the cab to your hotel, wait while you pack, then go with you to the airport."

Lois raised a dark, shapely eyebrow at his offer. If she didn't know any better, she would have thought he was as reluctant for her to go home as she was. "Don't you have plans?" she asked. "I don't want to disrupt your Saturday."

"You wouldn't be."

"Then that would be great," she told him with a smile.

The cab arrived a short time later, and Clark climbed into it with Lois. They chatted on the drive to her hotel, but neither of them mentioned the decision that was ultimately Lois's to make. Before Clark was ready, the cab dropped them off at her hotel, and Lois left him in the lobby while she went upstairs to pack.

Clark glanced around the nicely decorated hotel lobby and walked over to a smartly upholstered, rolled-arm chair in a corner that granted him a view of the elevators. It would help him know the second she arrived, and allow him to hurry over to help her with her luggage.

He leaned back in his chair and glanced at his watch. She was going to have to hurry if she wanted to make it to the airport on time.

As the minutes ticked past, Clark found himself growing increasingly nervous. Several times since he'd woken up that morning, he'd wanted to ask what she was planning to do. Was she going to write the story? Or had he convinced her not to? His life as he knew it hung in the balance, and he hoped something he might have said to her or shared with her would tip the scales in his favor.

Just then another thought occurred to him. Lois had told him that morning she thought he was naive, and trusted people too readily. Had he trusted her with everything about himself when he shouldn't have? What if she were up there in her room right now, calling the story in to her editor back in San Francisco? She had come to Metropolis for the story, and now she had it. What was stopping her from doing that?

His throat constricted. She wouldn't do that, would she? He found himself considering that long and hard. He hadn't known her for very long, but she didn't seem like that kind of person. Sure, she was tenacious and went after what she wanted with a vengeance—apparently even breaking an occasional law to get what she felt she needed for a story. But did that mean she would stab him in the back?

The fact that Clark couldn't answer that one way or another only worried him even more. But even as he continued to sit there and worry, something deep inside of him told him to trust her, that she wouldn't violate his trust.

He glanced at his watch once more, then looked back up at the elevator. He only hoped his instincts were right.

***

Lois scurried around her hotel room in an effort to pack up her things. She knew she was going to have to hurry if she wanted to make her flight, but it was hard to concentrate on packing when her mind was on other things—specifically, whether or not she should write the story about Clark. As huge as this story was, though, and as validating as it would be for her career, the thought of splashing Clark's identity across the front pages of newspapers around the world appealed less and less.

The memory of Clark standing in front of the stove cooking breakfast that morning popped into her mind, and she smiled. He had looked great, but what had appealed to her even more was the sweet, naive manner he had about him. There were times that morning, though, when he had seemed wary, almost nervous.

'Of course he feels nervous,' she thought with a grimace. 'He knows what you're capable of, and he's trusted you by telling you everything about him. Do you really plan on betraying that child- like trust?'

Her options—and the possible consequences of those options— continued to weigh down heavily upon her as she finished packing. When she was done, she glanced around the room to make sure she wasn't forgetting anything.

Her eyes fell on the large flower arrangement from Lex. After a moment's deliberation, she decided to leave it. They didn't evoke any special emotions, and they wouldn't exactly be easy to take on the plane.

Remembering the jealous tone in Clark's voice when he'd asked her how her date had gone with Lex, she found herself wondering what Clark might say if he knew Lex had sent her flowers. Would he be jealous? Would he care?

She thought back to how hopeful he had looked that morning when she'd mentioned that she found his naivety endearing. She smiled. If she were a betting woman, she would bet that he was as interested in her as she was in him.

'If that's the case," a voice whispered from her heart, "that's one more reason to keep from exposing him. Exposing him will only destroy your chances of any future you two may have together.'

Lois almost laughed out loud at that. He was Metropolis's superhero and the world's media darling. She'd heard first-hand what women thought of him—like when she'd been standing along the sidelines at the fire her first day in the city. There was no doubt there were thousands of women around the world who would give their right arm to go out with the superhero, including movie stars and models. What made her think he would be interested in someone like her?

She sighed as she took one last look around the room. Confident that she had everything, she slipped her garment bag onto her shoulder and picked up her attache and suitcase. Then she turned out the lights and shut the door.

The elevator delivered her to the lobby, and when the doors opened, she immediately spotted Clark sitting in a nearby chair, watching the elevators intently. His face was creased with tension, but when he saw her, some of the worry lines around his eyes faded. He got to his feet and was beside her in an instant.

"Here," he said, reaching for the suitcase at her feet, "let me get this."

Their hands brushed, and once again Lois felt the tingling sensation move up her arm. She braved a glance at him. If his startled expression was any indication, he had experienced the same thing.

With only the shortest of hesitations, Lois let go of the handle and straightened, but not before Clark was lifting the garment bag from her shoulder, as well. She started to object, but Clark's quirked smile cut off her protests.

"Lois," he leaned close to her and whispered, his low, rumbly voice doing strange things to her insides, "I've lifted a shuttle into orbit. I'm sure I can handle your luggage."

Quiet laughter bubbled up from within her. "Yeah, I suppose you can."

Relinquishing her bags, they crossed through the lobby in silence and walked out to a waiting cab. It was funny, she thought as she watched Clark lift all three of her bags effortlessly into the trunk, that she was not only here with Clark, but with the strongest man in the world. With great effort, she tried to merge the two men together in her mind.

Clark Kent seemed so different than the person the media was starting to call "the Man of Steel." Maybe it was because she'd gotten to know him first as Clark, rather than the media sensation who had taken the world by storm only a few days before. In her mind, he was just Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, the ruggedly handsome man who had somehow managed to break down a few of the barriers around her heart with his compassion, kindness, and old-world manners. Would she ever be able to think of him as anything else? Would it be hard to eventually resolve the two men as one in her mind?

When he slid into the cab beside her, she moved as far away from him as she could, careful not to let his arm brush against hers— or any other part of him, for that matter. She was already having a hard time deciding what to do. She didn't need her obvious physical attraction to Clark Kent complicating things.

***

Clark glanced at Lois out of the corner of his eye. She was pressed up against her own door, putting as much distance between them as possible. He cringed. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Ever since he'd met Lois at the elevator in the lobby she'd been acting preoccupied and distracted. He wondered briefly if she had indeed phoned the story in to her editor. But a part of him— probably the part of him that was entirely too trusting, he thought scoldingly—didn't believe she'd done that. In fact, there seemed to be a sense of deliberation about her that led him to believe she was still trying to decide what to do.

He found himself breathing a sigh of relief. If she hadn't exposed him, maybe there was still a chance she wouldn't. But then, he knew how tempting the story must be to her. After all, she was good journalist. Heck, she was one of the best. He could tell from the first time he'd met her that she went after her stories with a vengeance. But would she follow through with this one? She knew what was at stake; he had told her as much. He only hoped that his gamble to open up and tell her everything about himself would pay off. He had inadvertently asked for her trust by fully giving of his. He just hoped he wouldn't be disappointed.

He looked over at her discreetly once more. She hadn't moved, and for a moment he wondered if it meant she couldn't stand to be near him physically. But as quickly as the thought came, he shook it off. There was no doubt they still had chemistry; he had felt the little jolt of electricity pass between them as their hands had brushed on her suitcase's handle. No, he doubted the reason for her pressing herself against her cab door was that she was turned off by him. Maybe she was just having as tough a time saying goodbye as he was, and was hoping to put a little emotional distance—more than physical distance—between them.

Clark anxiously watched one mile post after another fly past along the highway, knowing that with each one they drew closer to the airport. His nervousness continued to build until finally he saw the exit sign overhead that read 'Metropolis International Airport.' By the time the cab stopped in the unloading zone, Clark could hardly breathe.

He climbed out of the cab without a word, glancing over at Lois. Her expression was masked and she avoided his gaze.

He swallowed. No, this was definitely not good.

His chest walls tightened around his heart. Silently, he intercepted Lois's path to the back of the cab and lifted her luggage from the trunk. He was careful not to look at her, afraid of what he might see in her eyes if he did. When her luggage was finally checked and she was given the status of her plane's departure, they were sent on their way.

The silence continued to suffocate Clark as they walked through the airport. As they neared the security areas, their steps slowed. He dared to bring his gaze to hers. A myriad of emotions seemed to flicker across her face as she glanced toward the security checkpoint, then finally looked back at Clark. She smiled, but Clark noticed it didn't reach all the way into her eyes.

She shifted from one foot to the other and fidgeted with the strap of her small carry-on bag. "Well, I guess this is it."

Clark's jaw tightened, and he could feel the pulse in his neck thumping. "Yeah, I guess it is."

They looked at each other for a moment, then Lois looked down at the floor. Finally, Clark couldn't stand it any longer.

Drawing a shallow breath, he asked the question that had been plaguing him since Lois had learned his secret. "So, what are you going to do?" he asked, his voice quiet and strained. "Are you going to write the story?"

Lois looked up, and for the first time since they'd climbed into the cab at the hotel, her gaze was unwavering. She seemed to be contemplating her answer, a mixture of emotions flitting across her features. Her deliberation drew out until Clark didn't think he could take it any more. At last, a look of resignation settled onto her face.

She averted her gaze and stammered, "I—I can't."

Clark's relief was visible as his shoulders slumped and the tension drained from his face. Without hesitation, he took her into his arms as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do. Then he dropped his head to hers, burying his face in the thick curtain of her hair.

"Thank you," he murmured, his voice a husky whisper.

***

As Lois stood, enveloped in his embrace, she couldn't help thinking just how right it felt to be there. Hesitantly, she slid her arms around Clark's waist and hugged him back, breathing in his scent, and wondering how it would feel to be in his arms every day for the rest of her life.

When they pulled apart, Clark seemed to realize what he'd done and stepped back self-consciously. "Sorry," he murmured, but his gaze told her he wasn't entirely so.

They looked at each other for a long moment, then Lois made a noise that was something between a sigh and a groan. She turned away slightly and shook her head. "I can't bring myself to write what I know about you, but that doesn't help me to know what I'm going to tell my editor. He's going to kill me."

An idea surfaced in Clark's mind, and he glanced down at his watch. "Your plane doesn't leave for a few minutes. Why don't we go somewhere quiet and I can give you some kind of official interview to take back to your editor? At least then you won't go back empty-handed."

Knowing it was the best compromise she was going to get, Lois agreed. They walked until they found a quiet, uninhabited corner and sat down in the vacant chairs. Lois pulled out her ever- present notebook from her bag, and together they briefly discussed some suitable questions and answers. Fifteen minutes later, Lois had what she hoped would be an interview that would pacify her editor. She wasn't sure it would, but it would have to do. She simply couldn't expose Clark.

Just then the airport speakers announced the upcoming departure of her flight, and Lois turned to Clark. She felt an unexpected tightness constrict her throat at the thought of having to leave him. "I guess that's me," she said.

He nodded, and she thought she caught a reflection of her regret mirrored in his eyes. They stood and walked back to the security area, each step harder to take than the one before. 'Home' just didn't feel like home anymore, she thought…not when this was where her heart wanted to be.

When they stopped, Clark cleared his throat. His voice held a hint of nervousness when he spoke. "I know we just met a couple of days ago, but I can't help but wonder…"

Lois's heart stopped as she looked up to meet his gaze. "What?" she prompted, hardly daring to breathe.

"I—I can't help but wonder how things might have worked out between us had we had more time together," he finished, his eyes searching hers deeply.

She smiled. So he *had* been thinking the same things she'd been over the last two days. Somehow, just knowing that made things easier. "I wonder, too," she responded quietly.

His countenance brightened a little then. "This doesn't have to be goodbye, you know," he told her, a slow smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "After all, I do have my own mode of transportation. I can come down to visit you as often as you'd like."

"I'd like that," Lois agreed with a sincere smile. Pulling her gaze from Clark's, she started to rummage through the outer pocket of her bag. When she finally pulled her hand out, she was clutching a business card and a pen. Uncapping the pen with her teeth, she looked back up at Clark. With the cap still between her teeth, she mumbled, "Turn around."

Clark smiled a little at her strange request. "What?"

"Turn around," she repeated, motioning in a circle with her pen. "I need your back. My business card only has my work number, so I'm going to write down my home number on it for you."

Chuckling, Clark obeyed. He felt her press the card against his back as she scribbled on it. When she finished, he turned back around.

She handed the card to him and then pulled the pen cap from her teeth. "My home number's on the back, and I also wrote down my email address at work. Jimmy already gave me yours, so I'm set."

Clark raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You asked him for my email address?"

"And Perry's. I was going to email you both a thank-you note after I got home."

His face fell. "Oh."

Lois laughed and rolled her eyes. "Don't go getting all glum at me. Now that I have it, I'm sure I'll be using it for more than just that."

"I hope so," Clark said, his face brightening at the prospect.

Lois turned and glanced once more in the direction of the boarding gates. "I guess I'd better go."

Clark nodded reluctantly. "I guess you'd better."

Their eyes met and held. In the next moment, Lois's breath caught in her throat as Clark lifted a hand to her cheek the same way he had done the day before in the park. The pad of his thumb stroked lightly across her cheekbone, causing her skin to tingle and her heart to pound. She leaned into his palm and closed her eyes briefly, letting herself get lost in the moment.

When her eyes flickered open, she saw him staring down at her with a gentle look of longing in his gaze. Then, before she realized he was going to, he leaned down and touched his lips softly to hers. She closed her eyes, savoring the beautiful feeling of his soft lips, the touch of his hand as it lingered on her cheek, and the loud beating of her heart.

Before she was ready, the kiss was over, and Clark moved back only far enough to look into her eyes once again. He smiled softly. "I've been wanting to do that since the first time I saw you."

Lois smiled breathlessly. "Really? I hope it was worth the wait."

"More than you'll ever know." His voice was deep and husky, causing delicious shivers to trickle down her spine. Finally, he stepped back and let his hand fall from her cheek. He grasped her fingers lightly, then released them. "Have a good flight. I'll talk to you soon?"

She nodded. "I'll call you."

Turning and walking the few steps to the security station, Lois got in the short line. Then, unable to help herself, she glanced back over her shoulder at Clark. He was still there. His expression was tinged with regret as he watched her leave, his hands pushed casually into the front pockets of his jeans. When he caught her eye, he smiled and lifted a hand in a shy half wave. She waved back, then stepped forward as the security guard motioned her up. By the time she made it through the checkpoint and looked back, he was gone.

Lois walked to her boarding gate, still reeling from Clark's kiss. For the first time in a very long time, she felt alive. And not just the 'I-nailed-a-big-story' kind of alive… No, this time it was her heart that felt alive. And it felt wonderful.

Lois smiled, suddenly feeling at peace with her decision. She had done the right thing, and not just for Clark. For herself, as well. She had given them a chance. And that was all she wanted.

***

It was nearly midnight when Lois finally climbed out of the cab in front of her apartment Saturday night. She was exhausted.

Her trip home had been a nightmare. Her connecting flight in Atlanta had been cancelled at the last minute, and alternative flights out west were booked. When she finally managed to make stand-by, it was mid afternoon. Then she'd had to settle for changing planes twice in two different airports en route to San Francisco. Now, finally, here she was, back at her apartment. All she wanted to do was climb into bed and sleep.

She rode the elevator up to her floor and climbed out, carrying her luggage wearily down the hall to her apartment. She let it fall to the floor with a thump and slipped her key into the lock. Just then Agnes' door opened and the elderly woman stuck her head out.

"Oh, Lois, it's you." Agnes's smiled turned to a frown as she took in Lois's rumpled appearance. "Judging from how exhausted you look, I take it your trip home wasn't good."

Lois groaned. "You've got that right." She looked up and down the empty hall. All was quiet in their apartment building. "Agnes, what are you doing up so late? Don't you have anything better to do than lie awake at night and wait for me to come home?"

"It's good to see you, too, Lois," Agnes replied with a smile. "And I wasn't lying awake waiting for you. I was waiting for the pizza man."

Lois lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. "At midnight?"

Agnes shrugged. "What can I say? I was hungry. So? How did your trip to Metropolis go?"

"Fine. Sort of." She grimaced. "I'm afraid I won't be able to give you a straight answer tonight, Agnes. I'm tired and a little jet-lagged."

Her neighbor smiled kindly. "Then you head off to bed and we'll talk tomorrow. I want to hear all about this hunky superhero you managed to track down. You did manage to track him down, didn't you?"

"I guess you could say that." Lois's grin held a hint of her usual spirit at the thought of everything that had transpired over the last three days. "He is definitely…super."

"Ooh, this sounds like a story I can't wait to hear. Tomorrow," she clarified, pointing authoritatively at Lois's now-open apartment door. "For now, get to bed. That's an order."

"Yes, ma'am," Lois responded with a smile. Agnes disappeared back into her own apartment, and Lois shook her head as she went into hers. In some respects, it was good to be home.

She flicked on her apartment lights and carried her bags into her living room where she dumped them unceremoniously onto the floor. Then she slipped her notebook out of her attache and headed for her desktop computer in the corner of the living room. She was exhausted, but she wanted to write up the interview that Clark had given her in the airport while it was still fresh in her mind. She could edit and tighten it up in the morning, and then give it final go-through later Sunday. Jim wasn't expecting it until Monday, so maybe she could even catch up a little on her sleep.

At the thought of sleep, a yawn forced its way out, but she did her best to smother it. Sleep could wait another hour. Right now, she had a story to write.

***

Clark dried the last of his dishes and put the mug away in the cupboard with the others. The chore done, he glanced around his clean kitchen. Not only was it absent of the remnants of his breakfast with Lois that morning, but it was also absent of her.

He sighed. She'd only been gone about twelve hours, but it seemed like so much longer than that. He missed her already.

Ever since she'd told him in the airport that she couldn't write the story, the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. His secret was going to remain just that. A secret. Granted, it was a secret to one less person, but he was glad that Lois knew. It somehow made his world feel less lonely.

His heart started to beat uncontrollably as he thought about their goodbye kiss at the airport. He'd kissed a few women before, but this… It had been simply spectacular. The only thing he could have wanted more from her was…well, more.

The last three days hadn't been easy; in fact, they had been three of the most stressful days of his life. But they were also three of the most wonderful days he'd ever had. For the longest time he felt that something had been missing from his life. Now he suspected that he may have found that mysterious 'something.' And that 'something' had come in the form of Lois Lane.

His ringing phone startled him out of his thoughts. He glanced quickly at the clock. Could it be Lois? He hadn't asked her to call when she arrived home, but he'd been hoping she would.

With shaking hands, he tossed the damp dish towel onto the counter and hurried over to grab the cordless phone from where it sat on the table. He clicked the 'on' button and lifted the phone to his ear.

"Hello?"

"Clark. You haven't left yet."

When he heard his mother's voice, his excitement faded. He reminded himself it was probably too early, anyway, for Lois to have arrived back in San Francisco.

Trying to muster some of his earlier enthusiasm, he responded, "Hi, Mom."

"You sound disappointed," she observed. "Were you expecting someone else?"

Clark smiled. He should have known he couldn't fool her. Nothing got past his mom. "Not really. What's up?"

"You're still planning on coming over for dinner tonight, aren't you?"

"I was just about to leave, actually. I was kind of hoping to hear from somebody before I left, but I guess I'm not going to tonight. Did you need me to bring anything?" he hurried to add, hoping she wouldn't ask him who he was hoping to hear from.

Either she didn't pick up on his comment, or decided to give him his privacy because she didn't comment. "Just bring yourself. The roast is ready to come out of the oven, so we can eat any time."

"Then I'll be right there."

"Great," his mom exclaimed happily. "See you in a minute."

It was only a few minutes later when Clark landed on his parents' front porch and opened the front door. He heard his dad's voice call out from the family room.

"Clark?"

"Yeah, Dad, it's me." He walked toward the sound of the voice and met his father in the kitchen. Jonathan smiled when he saw him and hurried over to hug him.

"Good to see you, son. It's been a few days. How's the hero business?"

Just then Martha bustled into the kitchen and hugged Clark, too. "Jonathan, give him a second to settle in. He just got here."

Clark laughed at his parents' fussing. "It's okay, mom. Actually, the hero business is good. Busy, but good." He took the large bowl of mashed potatoes his mom handed him and carried it to the table. "There were aspects of this hero thing I didn't consider, so that's been kind of an adjustment."

His dad eyed him curiously. "Such as?"

"Like trying to keep up with both my job and the hero stuff. I think Perry and Jimmy think I'm scatterbrained lately with all the weird excuses I've had to make to get away to help people."

"You're not letting your responsibilities at the Planet slip, are you?" his mother asked. "I know saving lives is important, but I'd hate to see you lose the job you worked so hard for."

Clark hurried over to help his mom take the roast out of the oven and shook his head. "No, it's fine. It's just a little trickier than I expected. Then there's the constant presence of the media every time I go to make a rescue. It's kind of embarrassing, actually."

"Well, you're big news, son," his dad put in. "You didn't expect them to lose interest so soon after your debut, did you? You're a reporter. I would think you'd know first hand what's considered big news."

"Yeah, I know, and I guess it is big news. I just didn't expect it to be so intense."

"Speaking of intense…" Martha put a slice of roast on each of their plates and then looked at Clark. "What ever came of that reporter, Lois Lane? The last time we talked she was insulting your journalism skills and making you feel threatened. Did she finally go back to San Francisco?"

Clark lost his grip on the napkin he'd been placing in his lap and nearly dropped it on the floor. Had so much really transpired since the last time he'd spoken with his parents? In the last couple of days, had he really fallen in love—or something on the way to love, he reasoned—with the very same reporter that he'd told his parents he feared might expose him? Had he really talked through his secret identity with that same reporter, and shared with her more than he'd ever shared with anybody?

How did he even begin to explain everything to his parents that had transpired? And would they even understand? Or would they think he'd finally lost it and needed to have his head examined? Not that he didn't think that himself. In a way, it was crazy. But there was also no denying it felt right. It felt like a part of him was finally being made whole. He and Lois shared a special connection, and he knew they were on the road to something special. Would sharing his feelings with his parents convince them he was doing what he felt was right? They'd always been protective of him. Would they be so protective they'd discourage him from following his heart?

When he realized both his mom and his dad were looking at him strangely, wondering at his extended silence, he cleared his throat and hurried to answer.

"She left this morning," he said evasively, trying to decide just how much to say.

Martha's eyebrows lifted above the rims of her glasses. "And? There's not going to be an expose about you splashed across the headlines anytime soon?"

Clark shook his head. "No, no expose."

"Good!" Jonathan exclaimed. "I had to admit, I was worried for you there for a while."

"Me too." Martha breathed an obvious sigh of relief as she sat down in her chair and started to pass around the bowls of food. "Though I can imagine it was probably a blow to her confidence to go home without the story."

Clark hesitated. Did he tell them or didn't he?

Not saying anything for a moment as he deliberated, he took the bowl of fresh garden peas that was passed to him. At last, he hedged, "Well, she didn't exactly go home empty-handed."

"Oh?" His dad looked up from putting a helping of potatoes on his plate. "What do you mean?"

Before Clark realized he'd made up his mind, the words tumbled out of his mouth. "I gave her a story because we started to become friends, and then she found out I was the hero she was looking for in disguise, and she threatened to write the whole story, but then we talked a really long time at my apartment, and I finally convinced her to keep everything a secret, then I went with her to the airport to see her off, and I kissed her, and she gave me her phone number, and then I gave her a kind of interview so she would have a story to bring back to her editor so she wouldn't be going home empty-handed."

Clark's words finally rambled to a close and he cringed. Lois had definitely rubbed off on him.

When silence hung heavily in the air around him, Clark looked up and saw with dismay that his mom and dad were staring at him, their eyes wide with shock. The next thing to break the silence was the sound of his dad's fork clattering to his plate.

Looking away, Clark quickly busied himself by spooning handful after handful of peas onto his plate. Neither of his parents said anything for almost a full minute. His mom managed to regain her composure first.

"Would you care to run that by us again?"

Clark looked up at her and smiled sheepishly. "Which part?"

"All of it," she suggested, her expression showing how shell- shocked she still was at his announcement.

Before Clark could say anything, his dad jumped in, his voice filled with concern. "She found out about your disguise? And then you told her everything? Are you sure that was smart?"

"What else was I going to do, Dad?" Clark looked down at his plate heaped with peas and started to spoon most of them back into the bowl. "She already knew who I was. The only thing I could think of to stop her was to tell her everything. And it worked. I convinced her how much was at stake and thankfully, she decided not to write the story."

Jonathan cocked an eyebrow at him. "And you honestly believe she won't rush off and write the story now that she's back in San Francisco and you're here in Metropolis?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah, Dad, I do."

It was quiet for a moment as his parents digested this piece of information. Finally, his dad nodded his head and picked his fork back up off his plate. Trying to keep his tone supportive, he said, "I guess you know what you're doing, son. I hope you do, anyway."

"Jonathan," Martha spoke up, her tone scolding, "if our son says he trusts this woman, we should believe him. He's always been a good judge of character." When Jonathan held up his hands in a placating gesture, Martha turned back to Clark, her expression softening and her eyes beginning to twinkle with mischief. "What I want to know more about is how Clark feels about this Lois Lane. In that ramble I thought I heard something about him kissing her at the airport."

Clark felt his cheeks grow hot. Had he really said that? If he had, he didn't remember. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, umm, I guess I did. Kiss her at the airport, I mean." He stared down at the food on his plate and made a lake in the center of his mashed potatoes like he used to do when he was a kid.

His mom persisted. "So, how do you feel about her? You said something about becoming good friends?"

He nodded, feeling both his parents' eyes on him. He took a bite of his roast and chewed for a long minute in an attempt to stall for time. How exactly was he supposed to explain everything that had happened in the last three days? He'd never been an impulsive person, and he was worried that's exactly what they would say he was being.

When he finally swallowed and knew he had stalled as long as he could, he began cautiously, "At first I thought she was this cold, ruthless reporter who didn't care about anything except getting her story, but I was wrong. She turned out to be very different than I'd expected."

He watched his parents closely, half-expecting an immediate argument and words of caution. But when neither came, and his mom only nodded encouragingly, Clark relaxed a little. "I found out the cold, hard attitude she had that first day was just a tough act. It was like you said, Mom. She's worked hard to get where she is, and she feels like if she comes across as anything but tough, she'll get walked all over. Once we got past that, I learned what an amazing person she really is."

As Clark continued to talk, his words picked up speed, his feelings for her fueling his enthusiasm. "I brought her to my apartment and we looked through the notes I have for a story I'm working on, and I was impressed at her insight. She thinks my investigation might tie into one she did not long ago, so we're going to keep in touch and compare notes. Maybe a big story will come from it." He smiled and paused to shake his head as he thought of the unethical—and often illegal—means with which she'd obtained evidence in the past. "I don't exactly agree with all her methods of investigation, but there's no denying she's brilliant at what she does."

"And beautiful," Martha added, her eyes twinkling mischievously when she saw the look of surprise on her son's face at her remark. "You told us that, remember?"

Clark's brow wrinkled in confusion. "I did?"

"Don't you remember?" Martha urged. "You said so the day we talked about her on the phone."

"Oh, that's right." Clark looked sheepish. "I forgot about that."

"I didn't," she said, her mischievous grin broadening. "I suspected then that there might be something more on the horizon for you two."

Clark's mouth fell open. "You're kidding. What on earth made you suspect that?"

His mother's laughter rang out in the room. "Clark, when have you ever confessed to us you thought somebody was beautiful— especially in the same breath that you're ranting about how dangerous she could be?"

Clark's face reddened at his dad's knowing chuckle. Fiddling with his fork, Clark admitted, "Well, I didn't see it. I had no intention of getting anywhere near her, let alone considering having a relationship with her. Why didn't you guys say something?"

"What were we going to say, honey?" his mom asked, trying to smother her grin as her son's cheeks flushed an even deeper shade of red. "That we thought there was more to the whole encounter than you were admitting? You would have become all defensive and maybe even avoided her just to prove us wrong. We wouldn't have wanted that. We want for you to be happy, and if this woman makes you happy, then we're happy."

Clark frowned and set his fork down on his plate. "You make it sound like we're together or something."

"Aren't you?" Jonathan arched his eyebrows at his son.

At his dad's question, Clark sighed and stared out the kitchen window at the darkness settling in. As he deliberated how to answer, he found himself wondering how long it would be before it was dark in San Francisco.

Finally, he responded, "No, not really. We have each other's phone numbers and we plan to talk soon, but to be honest, I don't know where we go from here. I think about her constantly, especially now that she's gone. I know I've only known her for three days, but everything feels different since I met her. My life feels different. *I* feel different." He tore his gaze away from the window and looked instead at his plate. He picked his fork back up and stirred his now cold mashed potatoes. "In fact," he continued softly, "I think I'm falling in love with her."

When he finally felt brave enough to look back up at his parents, he was startled to see that neither of them looked surprised. "Did you hear what I just said?" he asked.

They nodded, and his mom reached over to squeeze his forearm. "We did, honey, but it's not exactly news. It was clear how you felt when you started talking about her. My question is, what are you going to do about it?"

Clark looked at his mom in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"You said you didn't know where you and Lois were going to go from here," his mom reminded him. "Well, you're going to have to do better than that. Long distance relationships are hard, but you have an advantage. You can fly there to see her faster than I could dial the phone. I hope you're planning to take advantage of that."

His dad chuckled. "It would definitely be the most convenient long-distance relationship in history."

Martha smiled at her husband, then turned back to Clark. "He's right, you know. If you really want this to work out, you two need to find ways to be together. Fly out there to see her, or better yet, fly her out here. We'll want to meet her."

When Jonathan nodded in agreement, Clark shook his head. "I don't even know if things are going to work out between us. Like I said, we've only known each other three days. I'd like for it to, but to be honest, I have no idea if they will. I know that a long distance relationship wouldn't really be an issue because of my abilities, but I keep thinking about all the other things that might be an issue."

"Like?" his dad prompted.

"Like how busy our lives are," Clark explained with frustration. "She's busy with her job in San Francisco, and I'm still trying to find a way to keep up with my job at the Planet *and* be the hero everybody's counting on now. How are we supposed to find time to get to know each other when we're living such busy and completely separate lives? And what happens if we're together somewhere and I keep getting sidetracked by hero stuff? How's she going to react to all that when she realizes there are going to be three people in this relationship instead of two?" He sighed and shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe all this is just fate's way of telling us we're not meant to be together."

Martha reached over and placed a hand on his arm. "Clark, no relationship worth having is ever easy. If you want it to work out, you'll both find a way. And just for the record, I don't agree that fate is trying to keep you two apart. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite."

"How do you figure that?"

"Well, how else would you explain everything that's happened these last few days if it weren't for fate?" his mom suggested. "I don't think it's a coincidence that Lois came all the way across the country to investigate you, the hero, and then stumbled onto your secret just as you were beginning to be good friends." She shook her head. "No, if anything, fate's trying to get you two together. And she's doing a pretty good job of it if you ask me."

Jonathan chuckled and looked over at Clark, his eyes twinkling. "Your mother's a hopeless romantic."

"So what if I am?" She grinned at her husband. "I'd like to think there's been a reason to all of this—that somebody special has finally appeared in our son's life. He deserves a break more than anybody I know."

Clark thought about that as the subject finally turned to other things. He wanted to believe his mom, that it wasn't a coincidence that Lois had found her way into his life. He'd been forced to live in a kind of shell his whole life, and the idea of having somebody to love, somebody who he could share everything with…it made everything feel better. He only hoped he could find a way to make it work.

***

"Have you gone *soft*! What in the world IS this?!"

Jim Langley's angry yell reverberated off the walls of the San Francisco Chronicle's newsroom early Monday morning, making Lois cringe. The walls hadn't seen this much shaking since their last earthquake several months ago.

She steeled herself by taking a deep breath, then releasing it slowly. Then she began, "It's my story—"

"You call this a STORY?" Jim threw her article onto his desk. "I sent you to Metropolis to get *the* story on this guy— this…Superman, as you call him—and what do you do? You come back with this ridiculous piece of fluff! Other than a fancy name for the new hero and a smattering of details, there's nothing to discern your article from the one that ran in the Daily Planet the day after this guy's debut! We still don't know who this guy is, how he got to this planet, how long he's been here, or even if he's the only one of his kind here." Jim shook his head and pounded a fist onto her article on his desk for emphasis. "Where's the *real* story you promised to bring home? Where's the story *behind* the story? *That's* what I sent you to Metropolis for! You were supposed to bring home an article bigger than Watergate! What am I supposed to do with this boring crap?"

Lois felt like crawling into a hole and disappearing. She could feel the eyes of everybody in the newsroom on her as her editor continued to rage on. She knew her story wasn't *that* bad. Sure, it lacked all the gritty details she'd set out to get on the man she now knew was the superhero, but she didn't think it was "boring crap."

"Lois, I can't even begin to tell you how disappointed I am in you," he continued, his tone softening from anger and instead relying on guilt to deliver the blow. "From the day you got here I could see the raw talent you possessed. You're a natural. But you and I both know your method of going after stories is a little unorthodox, and that you can be reckless in your pursuit of your stories. But it's because of that that I was able to convince the Suits in Corporate to expand our budget a bit and let me send you to Metropolis. I told them you'd bring back the expose of a lifetime. But you didn't."

He leaned back against his desk and crossed his arms over his chest. Eyeing her coolly for a long minute, he finally went on. "Lois, I don't understand it. What's going on with you? This fluff piece just isn't like you. Everyone knows they can count on you to get to the bottom of any story. For all I know, you've lost your edge. And until you can prove me otherwise," he said, pushing off from his desk and fixing her with a stern glare, "I'm going to assume that's the case and put you on something more your speed."

Lois's eyes widened. She knew what that meant: boring society pieces and dog shows…anything he deemed humiliating enough to be a suitable punishment for being in his dog house. She opened her mouth to protest. "But Chief—"

Jim held up his hand to ward off her arguments. "Sorry, Lois, but I don't want to hear it. I'm already going to get an earful from Corporate when they find out you didn't get the story I told them you would. Now get. I've got work to do."

Lois swallowed past the lump in her throat. Realizing her hands were shaking, she quickly grasped them together in front of her to still the movement and nodded wordlessly at Jim, then hurried from his office. She did her best to ignore her coworkers' stares as she made her way to her desk with as much pride as she could muster and slid into her seat. Then she put her elbows on her desk and dropped her head into her hands.

She felt like slinking away and holing up somewhere in embarrassment. It wasn't as if she hadn't worked hard on her article. She had. And she wouldn't exactly call it a piece of fluff. She felt like she had addressed several important issues, and brought to light some new facts about Superman. But it wasn't the expose on the man behind the superhero she'd told Jim she would bring back, and now he was disappointed in her. And that hurt. It hurt a lot.

Lois took a deep breath and blinked back the tears in her eyes. More than anything, she longed to be back in Metropolis with Clark, to have his shoulder to cry on, to have somebody who understood what she was risking in her career by keeping his secret out of print. Instead, she had nobody.

Turning to her computer screen despondently, she got to work on a couple of articles she had pending. None of them were very inspiring, however, and she found herself wishing she had something big, something she could put together quickly to redeem herself in her editor's eyes.

One potential story in particular leaped out at her and raised her hopes a little. She'd almost forgotten! The Mesopotamia, Inc. investigation. With the new information she'd come across in Clark's notes, the investigation might launch itself in a new direction. It could be huge. It would take time to investigate, though, and could be a while in coming.

She grimaced. If she didn't want to be put on dog shows and boring society gossip articles for the next several weeks, she needed something big, something juicy. And she needed it now.

She leaned back in her chair and tapped her pencil's eraser on her lips as she racked her brain. There had to be something. What leads had she followed lately? She'd been busy chasing after a lot of leads around the Bay Area lately. Could something come from one of those?

'You could always print the real story about Superman,' the voice in the back of her head slipped in unexpectedly. 'That would definitely get you back in Jim's good graces, and in the good graces of the money men in Corporate.'

Lois's fingers froze on her keyboard. The idea was preposterous. She felt sickened that the thought had even entered her mind. But before she could argue, the voice persisted.

'You're a reporter, Lois. This is what you do. Besides, what is Clark to you, really? You knew him for what, three days? You're three thousand miles away from him now, and you still have to prove yourself in this man's world. You went to Metropolis to get the story worthy of a Pulitzer, and instead you came home with little more than the guy's phone number.'

For the tiniest of seconds, Lois felt herself wavering. It was true—it *was* her job as a journalist to report the stories. But as quickly as she thought it, she yanked herself back to reality. She couldn't expose Clark. She wouldn't. He was an incredible man with great intentions. Even more importantly, he trusted her to keep his secret.

Already upset with everything that had happened that morning, Lois shoved the nasty little voice back into its tiny closet in her mind and slammed the door. No. She wouldn't do it. There would be no expose on Clark. She'd just have to keep looking for that redeeming story.

Disgusted with herself at her moment of weakness, she turned back to her computer screen. There was a worthy potential story on her hard drive somewhere. She just had to find it.

***

Feeling more than a little grumpy, Lois pushed her key into her apartment door's lock later that night. It had been a long day, and she could hardly wait to climb into a hot bubble bath and try to forget she'd ever woken up that morning.

Inevitably, her neighbor's door opened and Agnes hurried out. Lois groaned inwardly. She loved Agnes, but she really wasn't in the mood for the third degree.

She sighed and turned to face her neighbor. "Hi, Agnes."

Agnes frowned at Lois's ragged, weary appearance. "Oh, dear. Lois, I don't think you're taking very good care of yourself. Are you getting sick?"

"No, I just had a really bad day at work." Lois shook her head and kept her hand on her doorknob, hoping Agnes would take the hint that she wanted to get inside.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Agnes sympathized. "But I know just what you need to keep up your strength. I have some lovely lamb chops in the oven all set for dinner. Why don't you freshen up and then come over to eat? You still haven't told me about your trip to Metropolis."

"Oh, I don't know, Agnes," she began, trying her best to decline gracefully. "I'm sorry, but could I take a rain check? I really don't feel like eating anything. All I want to do is take a long, hot bath and climb into bed."

"Nonsense." Agnes shook her head. "What you need is a good meal and somebody to talk to about that bad day. I promise you'll feel one hundred percent better after having dinner and a slice of my apple pie. And I'm not taking no for an answer," she finished, her hands on her hips and a motherly look of authority on her face.

Lois had to smile in spite of herself. "Okay," she finally agreed. "But don't expect me to be good company."

Agnes grinned, knowing she'd won the battle. "As long as you're there. See you in ten minutes." And with that, she hurried back into her apartment.

Pushing open the door to her own apartment, Lois walked in and flipped on the light switch. She looked around the room and sighed. More than ever, it felt empty and lonely.

Her thoughts drifted back to Metropolis, and she found herself wondering what Clark was doing right then. Maybe he was getting ready for bed, or maybe he was out on a rescue. She felt a sudden urge to talk to him, to call him and simply hear his voice.

She glanced longingly at the phone, then at the clock. As much as she longed to call and hear his voice, she just didn't have time. Agnes was expecting her. And by the time she got home, she knew it would be too late to call, since there was a three-hour time difference between them to complicate things.

Trying not to feel more depressed than she already did, she went into her bedroom to change clothes, then pulled her shoulder- length hair back into a ponytail. A few minutes later she was knocking on Agnes's door.

***

"So, tell me how your trip to Metropolis went," Agnes urged, pouring Lois a cup of her favorite herbal tea as they sat down to dinner. "I want to know all about that cute man in those tight pants."

In spite of her mood, Lois found herself laughing at Agnes's description. "Agnes! I can't believe you just said that."

"What?" her elderly neighbor asked with a feigned air of innocence. "I'm not too old to appreciate a good-looking man. So let's just dispense with all this nonsense and get to the good stuff. I want to know what you thought of Metropolis's new hero. 'Superman,' I think you called him in your article this afternoon?"

In spite of all her editor's yelling and flying insults, he had let her know an hour before press time that he was going to go ahead and run her story since they didn't have anything else new on the superhero to run. Still, she knew he was less than pleased about it.

Lois grimaced at the memory. "You read that, did you?"

Agnes nodded. "I did. Not sure that article really sounded like you, though, if you ask me. It lacked your usual…well, punch, I guess."

"You could say that." Lois shook her head and frowned. "My editor nearly skinned me alive for that one, complaining that the newspaper spent all that money to send me to Metropolis to get the story, and all I brought him was a 'fluff piece,' as he called it. He also called it a few other choice words, but I'm too much of a lady to repeat them all."

Agnes chuckled. "Well, you can't win 'em all, I suppose," she sympathized. "Though I thought you, of all people, would be able to get the story. It's such a shame. Maybe it could have gotten you that Pulitzer Prize you keep talking so much about winning."

At Agnes's words, Lois felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the region near her heart. For the second time that day, she'd heard words of disappointment expressed by the people whose opinions she valued most. They thought she had failed. But she hadn't. She really *had* nailed the expose of the century. Once again, Lois had placed herself in the right place at the right time, just as any world-class reporter needed to do to get that story of a lifetime. And she had it.

But she couldn't print it. Nobody would ever know that she, Lois Lane, had tracked down the elusive truth behind the new hero's appearance and identity. The truth would redeem her, but in this case, that truth would never see the light of day. How could she possibly explain that to these people, whose opinions mattered so much?

The bottom line was, she couldn't. She'd just have to let them think she'd failed at the task of getting the story—and be disappointed in her because of it. And knowing that her friends thought she was a failure hurt more than anything.

Pushing aside the sudden urge to write the expose she was capable of just to prove everyone wrong, that she wasn't a failure, she sighed heavily and reached for the basket of rolls.

"Anyway," Agnes continued after a moment, spooning some more of her famous gravy over the lamb chops on her and Lois's plates, "at least you got to meet him. Is he as handsome in person as he is on TV?" She gave Lois a mischievous wink that made her seem decades younger.

Suddenly Lois felt like she was back in junior high, when everything was easier and hours were spent gossiping with friends about their latest crushes. Her solemn mood dissipated, and she found herself teased into a smile. "Handsome? Yeah, I guess you could say that."

"And?" Agnes prompted, clearly wanting more details.

Lois grinned at her neighbor, then stared dreamily into space. Thoughts of a certain Man of Steel and his alter ego came flooding to the forefront of her mind. As clearly as if it had just happened, she remembered the look of anxiety on his face at the airport, followed by immense relief when she told him she wouldn't be running the story—and the magical and unexpected kiss that had soon followed.

Unable to wipe the broadening grin from her face, she barely managed to contain a blissful sigh as she admitted, "I think it would be safe to say he was…well, super."

Agnes's eyes widened and a mischievous smile worked its way across her face. "You don't say? By that twinkle in your eye, I'd say he had quite an effect on you. Do you think there might be something there between you?"

Lois quickly caught herself as a blush warmed her cheeks. "Oh, no, it was nothing like that. What makes you say that?"

Agnes smiled knowingly and lifted her cup of tea to her lips. "Only a man can make a woman smile and blush like that. It doesn't take a mind reader to see that you've fallen for someone special."

Lois sighed as she picked up her utensils and began to cut her meat. "I might have," she admitted sheepishly. But then she realized how that sounded and she rushed on to clarify. "Not for Superman, though," she quickly amended, hoping the little white lie wouldn't endanger her friendship with Agnes. "I mean, I met someone else while I was there, a man who was working for the Daily Planet. In fact, he was the man who had the first exclusive with Superman."

"Oh, yes, I remember reading that." Agnes nodded as she set her cup of tea back down on the table. "His article left a lot of questions about this 'Superman' unanswered."

"I know. That's what I thought when I read it, which is why I worked so hard in Metropolis to get the answers that first article didn't answer." She frowned as she turned her attention back to her food and speared a piece of meat with her fork. "I guess I blew it."

A heavy silence fell between them for a few moments. Finally, Agnes changed the subject. "So tell me about this man you met at the Planet. When did you find time to do anything together? Knowing you, you were all work and no play while you were in Metropolis."

Lois took a long drink of her tea as she deliberated how much to share. "I managed to convince this man to help me get in touch with Superman, so we ended up talking quite a bit. We ate lunch together a couple of times, and I went to his apartment to look over some notes he had for an investigation he's working on."

"The plot thickens," Agnes teased as she awaited the rest of the story.

Lois laughed. "It's no big deal. He just turned out to be a really nice guy. He's sweet and considerate, and he opened doors for me a lot." She paused to grin at Agnes. "It turns out we have a lot in common, since we're both investigative reporters. He asked for my phone number and I gave it to him."

"Do you have his?" When Lois nodded, Agnes leaned forward eagerly. "Have you called him yet?"

"Not yet."

"Why not?" Agnes fixed her with a stern look. "If you got along as well as you say, I would expect he'd be waiting to hear from you."

"I don't know," Lois hedged. "I have thought about calling him, but I'm either at work, or by the time I'm home and I have a minute, it's kind of late for a casual phone call to the east coast."

"Lo-is," Agnes scolded, drawing out her name much as her mother used to do when she was in trouble. "It sounds like you're making excuses. Call him tonight."

Lois glanced at her watch. "It's getting kind of late…"

Agnes jumped up from the table, startling Lois. "Go call him right now before it gets any later. We're both done eating, so go."

"But—" Lois looked down at her empty plate, then back up at Agnes. "We haven't eaten your pie yet."

With a quick stride around the table that seemed to defy her age, she took Lois by the arm and guided her to her feet. "Pie can wait," she insisted, steering the gaping young woman toward the door. "Your young man can't. I wouldn't want someone accusing me years from now of sabotaging their budding romance with a piece of apple pie." She winked at Lois as she opened the front door, and Lois smiled.

Feeling energized at the prospect of talking to Clark, Lois gave Agnes's cheek a quick kiss, then hurried through the door with a grateful wave. "Thanks, Agnes! You're the best."

Leaving her elderly neighbor chuckling after her and shaking her head, Lois hurried into her apartment and grabbed her attache off the couch. Then, with shaking fingers, she pulled out her PDA and looked for Clark's number. When she found it, she snatched her cordless phone off the end table and started to dial. She glanced up at the clock on her living room wall. She cringed. It was a little after ten on the east coast. She hoped she wasn't disturbing him by calling so late.

The phone started to ring, and she held her breath. But after four rings his answering machine picked up. Her heart sank. She was sure he would be there. Where was he so late?

She listened to his answering machine message and her heart lifted a little. She'd forgotten how much she loved the deep, rumbling sound of his voice. Just hearing it made her feel a little better.

Just then the answering machine beeped, signaling the caller to leave the message. She froze. She hadn't considered leaving a message. What was she supposed to say? That she already missed him desperately, had a terrible day and was just hoping to talk, and that her neighbor had practically forced her onto the phone because she knew they were on the cusp of something more?

Lois groaned inwardly. She couldn't tell him any of that—even if it was the truth. Wasn't a woman supposed to play hard to get at the beginning of a relationship so as not to seem so desperate? Was she even supposed to call *him* first? He had been the one who suggested they keep in touch. Did that mean she should let him make the first move?

She tried to think back to the "dating rules" she used to know, but it had been so long since she'd liked somebody that she felt nervous and uncertain. Feeling unprepared and suddenly shy, she quickly chickened out and hung up without leaving a message.

Sinking down onto the couch, the earlier feeling of depression started to sink back in. Where could he be this time of night? It wasn't all that late, but he hadn't exactly seemed like the partying and staying-out-late type of guy.

'Maybe he's out doing Superman stuff,' she reasoned.

It was possible, she knew. Hadn't he mentioned something about liking to fly over the city at night?

Her gaze drifted over to her darkened balcony. Suddenly feeling drawn to it, she crossed the room and opened the sliding glass door. When she stepped out onto the cold cement, she curled her toes slightly. She drew in a long, comforting breath as she rested her hands on the railing and stared up at the star-filled night sky just as she had a hundred times before. This time, though, it looked different. Felt different. Somewhere in the darkness above there was a man sharing her night sky in a way she'd never imagined possible. Suddenly, her sky seemed to hold new possibilities…new meaning.

With a hopeful smile and a warm heart, she turned and went back into her apartment. She and Clark may have been three thousand miles apart, but strangely enough, at that moment, the thought didn't seem quite as depressing.

She went through her apartment and turned off the lights, deciding to take that hot bubble bath she had planned on. It was getting too late to try Clark again tonight, but she decided to try him again tomorrow, dating rules or not.

She had finally found a man she was interested in seeing again. So, one way or another, she was determined to make their long- distance relationship work.

***

Clark flew in through his open loft window and touched down in his quiet apartment. It was almost ten-thirty, and it was the first time he'd been home since early that morning. He shook his head wearily. 'Superman' was in high demand these days.

In spite of his weariness, a smile curved the corners of his mouth. Since Lois's article about him that day had been carried on the AP wire, the name she had given him had caught on like wildfire. Just like the first time she had mentioned it when they were talking at the airport about what she should include in her article, he realized how arrogant it sounded. But now he didn't mind so much. Every time he'd heard a bystander shout it out at him that day, it had only succeeded in bringing a smile to his face because it reminded him of Lois.

Lois.

His heart started to beat faster as he looked up at the wall clock in the kitchen. Doing some quick math, he realized it was only seven-thirty her time. Was she home, or was she out doing something? She had been on his mind all day, but as much as he longed to hear her voice, he'd never found a spare minute to call her. He had some time now, though, and nothing sounded more appealing than hearing her voice.

His mind made up, Clark lifted the cordless phone from its base, then glanced up at the cork board above it where he'd tacked the piece of notebook paper she'd torn out and scribbled her phone number on at the airport using his back as a desk. He smiled at the memory.

But as quickly as the smile had come, it faded as he felt a tinge of sadness as he thought about how much he'd missed her the last few days. He'd never heard from her Saturday when she arrived back home, but he hadn't dared to call in case she'd had a hard trip home and needed some time to recuperate. Then Sunday and today had gone by in a blur of Superman duties, so he had no idea if she'd tried to call. At times like this, he wished he had Caller ID.

He dropped his gaze back down to the phone to dial, but the blinking red light on his answering machine caught his eye. His heart skipped a beat. There was a message. Could it be from her?

Daring to hope, he pushed the 'play' button. But instead of Lois's voice, the sound of his dad's voice came out of the speakers. His hopes deflated like an untied balloon. It wasn't that he wasn't glad to hear from his dad, but it hadn't exactly been the message he'd been longing for.

Deciding to try Lois first before returning his dad's call, Clark dialed the number she'd scrawled on the notebook paper, then leaned back against the counter as he waited for his long distance call to connect. When it did, a busy signal beeped in his ear. With a sigh, he clicked the phone off, then back on again so he could dial his parents. He knew it was a little late, but he knew they wouldn't be asleep yet. With harvest over, they were staying up later at night and sleeping in later in the mornings. His call was answered on the second ring.

"Clark," his mother greeted him cheerfully from the other end of the line without so much as a 'hello.'

Clark grinned. At least somebody had Caller ID. "Hi, Mom," he answered. "Dad left a message for me earlier saying he needed help with something. What's up?"

"Your father's out in the barn or else I'd let you talk to him, but he was putting some of the harvesting equipment away for the winter and needed a hand," she explained. "He called Wayne and they got most of the easier things done this afternoon, but he was hoping you could pop over in the next day or so to help with what's left before the weather gets bad. Do you have time?"

"Sure, Mom," Clark replied. "I'll see if I can fly over tomorrow during lunch or something, if that works."

He heard his mom chuckle. "I knew those powers of yours would come in handy someday. Thanks, dear."

Clark laughed. "No problem. Tell Dad I said hello."

"I will, sweetie," she responded with a smile in her voice. "How's Lois?"

Switching the phone to his other ear, he walked over to the couch and sat down. "Busy, I guess. At least her phone was when I tried her a minute ago."

"You haven't talked to her since she got home?" His mom's voice reflected her surprise.

"No, but I know she got home okay. She wrote up that interview I gave her and it was in today's papers."

"I saw that," his mom replied. "You told us you trusted her not to expose you, and you were right. Knowing the pressure she's sure to be up against, I'd say that says a lot about her character."

Clark leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. "I guess so."

Martha picked up on the tone in her son's voice. "You guess so? What does that mean? Were you worried that she would after all?"

"Oh no, it's not that," he hurried to clarify. "I guess I'm just…I don't know, uncertain about things. She hasn't called, and her line was busy when I finally got up the courage to call her a few minutes ago. What if she's thought it over and decided that being part of my life with all these secrets wasn't what she wanted? What if she's decided that a relationship with some normal guy in San Francisco would be easier? I can't say that I would blame her…"

"Oh, Clark, I don't think—"

"Even if she decided to give this thing between us a try," Clark went on as if his mom hadn't spoken, "what am I supposed to do? I haven't been home long enough these last two days to even try to call her. If I can't even find time to call her, how am I supposed to build anything substantial with her? I'm putting so much energy into doing my job at the Planet *and* trying to be Superman that I haven't had time to breathe, let alone focus on her. How's that going to effect a new relationship?" He shook his head and frowned. "I just don't see how I can make it work."

Martha's voice was full of sympathy when she responded. "I know it probably seems hopeless right now, but don't give up just yet. When you do get a chance to talk to her, tell her what you just told me. She'll know what you're both up against, and she can decide for herself if she wants to give the relationship a try. I'd hate to see you give up entirely on that connection you seemed so sure of the other night if there's a way to make this work."

Clark thought about that for a moment and decided his mom was right. Instead of dwelling on the 'what ifs,' he should have a heart-to-heart talk with Lois. That was the only sure way to know if she was willing to give what they might have together a try.

He thanked his mom and hung up a short time later, feeling a little better. But as the week progressed, Clark's fears about his busy schedule seemed to become more founded. Each day seemed busier than the last. His investigation on the Mayoral scandal started to heat up, and his unplanned—and often inconvenient— Superman duties continued to keep him out until after midnight. By Wednesday night, as he arrived home after midnight yet again, he found himself uncharacteristically tired.

And depressed.

He still hadn't managed to talk to Lois. He had tried to call her once from work, crossing his fingers that he wouldn't get in trouble for the long-distance personal call, but all he'd managed to reach was her voice mail. Not knowing what to say, he hung up.

To make matters worse, he hadn't heard from her, either. Each time he'd come home from work or from a rescue, he'd made a beeline for the answering machine, hoping to hear the sound of her voice blaring out from the speaker. But he never did. Either she hadn't tried to contact him, or else she had, and hadn't left a message. He didn't know which was worse—the thought that she hadn't bothered calling him because she just wasn't interested, or that she had tried and just got frustrated and gave up when she kept getting his machine.

In desperation, he'd called the phone company the day before and ordered Caller ID to be put on his phone line, but it wouldn't be operational until after the weekend. In the meantime, he'd have to continue to stew about whether or not she'd tried to contact him.

Knowing the phone was not their only means of communication, though, and each day he checked his email religiously at work, hoping she might try to contact him that way. But there was never anything from her there, either.

He groaned in frustration. How was he supposed to talk to her if their schedules never meshed? This was impossible. His life was so busy he could hardly manage to keep up with it, let alone be a boyfriend to somebody. The phone thing simply didn't seem to be working.

Suddenly a new option entered his mind. Why not just fly out to see her?

As quickly as the idea came, however, he dismissed it. As tempting as it was to drop by for a visit, he worried that it might be too much too soon. What if she had indeed changed her mind about wanting to keep in contact with him, and suddenly a red and blue clad superhero showed up at her door? How unsettling could that be for her, knowing there was a man out there who could fly, and track her down practically anywhere she went? His superpowers could add an entirely new element to the word 'stalker.'

The 'dropping in' idea rejected, he deliberated about whether or not to try emailing her. He even got as far as trying, but each time he brought up a blank email, he chickened out. His insecurities always managed to get the better of him, and he couldn't help thinking how devastated he would feel if he learned the reason he hadn't heard from her was that she had changed her mind about them, that she'd decided trying to have a relationship with a very busy superhero was simply too much trouble.

As much as he wanted to talk to her, though, he also knew that he was afraid. The idea of having a relationship had always seemed unattainable for him, but now that the possibility loomed on the horizon, he knew how much he stood to lose. What if he was right, and he discovered that having a relationship was too much for him to handle? There would be, in all truth, three people in the relationship, two of which he would be responsible for. The odds weren't good. If either one of him screwed up, he stood to lose the first woman he ever felt like he could love. And he wasn't sure he could handle that.

Clark sighed heavily. It was a lot of pressure. He only hoped he could find a way to make it all work.

***

Lois unlocked her apartment and hurried inside, hoping to hide away before anyone could see the tears filling her eyes. She shut the door soundly behind her and leaned against it. What a week this was turning out to be.

It was only Thursday night, but already she found herself wishing it were the weekend so she could have a couple days off. For the first time in years, she was seriously considering calling in sick tomorrow.

The week had started out with Jim yelling at her and accusing her of losing her edge over that article about 'Superman,' and telling her how disappointed he was in her. Then Agnes had agreed with her editor that she was performing below par. She hadn't said as much, but her implication had been clear when they'd had dinner together Monday night.

But if the notion that she'd let down the two people whose opinions she valued most wasn't bad enough, Jim had set out to make sure she never "disappointed" him again. He had assigned her to cover the Miss San Francisco pageant, then further humiliated her by assigning her to cover a small museum opening, as well as a myriad of other society-related stories that she knew were well beneath her. Frankly, she was embarrassed to even have her name attached to the things she'd had to write.

And things just continued to get worse. Randy, the biggest jerk at the Chronicle, a weasel of a man who seemed to take immense pleasure in making everyone else miserable, went out of his way to scratch at her already raw nerves. Every time Jim assigned her another humiliating piece, Randy seemed to know, and made sure to make a snide comment about still being in their editor's doghouse. Lois tried to console herself with the knowledge that he was probably just jealous of the career success she'd had, and that he was possibly even eyeing the now vacant—though hopefully only temporary—spot as their editor's favorite reporter. It was little compensation, however, when it felt as if he were rubbing salt in her open wounds.

The thing that had hurt the very most, though, was that it had been a week, and still she hadn't heard from Clark.

She had really hoped to talk to him on Monday night when she'd returned from Agnes's dinner, but the only time the phone had rang after she'd tried to catch him at home had been shortly after she'd climbed into the bathtub. She remembered how her breath had caught in her throat at the sound of the ringing phone. She had leaped out of the tub, hastily threw a towel around herself, and made a dash for the phone, leaving a wet, sudsy trail behind her.

When she'd picked up the phone on the fourth ring, however, it had only been a solicitor offering to save her money on her long- distance service. With sinking disappointment, she had declined and hung up. Then she'd gotten back into the tub, this time taking the cordless phone with her into the bathroom where she might be able to reach it should Clark decide to call. But the phone never rang again, and she had groaned, thinking it would just figure if Clark had picked that exact moment to call and had gotten a busy signal.

The disappointment she had felt that night continued to build over the week as each day went by without so much as a phone call or email from him. It was impossible not to wonder if he'd changed his mind about how he felt about her. In an effort to hear his voice, to try to reassure herself that she hadn't been imagining the connection they seemed to share, she'd tried phoning him several times over the past week. Each time she had gotten his answering machine.

It occurred to her that he was possibly avoiding her. Why else would he have gone a week without calling? She knew he was busy; she had looked through the papers every day for news about his latest rescues, and she knew there had been many. But surely that didn't make him to busy to at least leave her a message on her answering machine? Or jot her off a quick email? Anything would have been better than nothing. Even a note or message saying he'd been thinking of her but would talk to her as soon as he got a chance would have bolstered her wavering confidence.

Lois wiped at the tears on her cheek as she pushed off from the door and walked into the kitchen. She dropped her attache onto the floor in the entryway, then opened the freezer door in search of chocolate ice cream. Chocolate ice cream was the answer to any crisis.

Seeing there wasn't any, she slammed the door shut in her frustration and plopped onto one of the barstools at the island. She propped up an elbow on the cool counter and dropped her chin into her palm. As she continued to dwell on the possible reasons why he hadn't contacted her, a new possibility worked its way into her mind.

What if she *had* read too much into things? What if she had only imagined that they had the beginnings of something special?

She thought back to how the air seemed to crackle with electricity whenever they were close, and to that incredible, heart-stopping kiss they'd shared at the airport. That hadn't seemed fake. But then, Clark's alter ego was, in fact, a big fake. What was to say the rest of the man wasn't a fake, too? What if 'Clark Kent' was every bit as much an elaborately and carefully constructed identity as Superman, in order to throw people off track? Maybe he liked fooling people; maybe he liked the satisfaction that came from making people think one thing, while doing another.

The thought made her stomach turn. What if he had been playing her, pretending to be the kind, gentle man she'd come to know him to be, in a mere effort to convince her not to reveal his secret?

'But you've always been such a good judge of character,' she consoled herself. 'He didn't seem like he was being insincere.'

'Yeah, well, he's obviously fooled a lot of people,' the skeptical voice in her head argued back. 'What's to say he wasn't trying to fool you into thinking he cared for you in order to keep you from writing the story?'

Lois paled. That couldn't be true…could it? He couldn't have been using her, manipulating her emotions to keep her from exposing him, could he? Lois's chest grew tight, making it hard to breathe. It would certainly explain why she hadn't heard from him, not even a quick email saying 'thank you for not exposing me' after seeing the article she had written about him. But there had been nothing—not a single phone call, not a single email.

In that instant, she knew. She had been played for a fool.

Lois sat numbly, barely aware of the tears coursing down her cheeks. She'd never felt so strongly about someone before, and the first time she had, that 'someone' had used her to get what he wanted. The thought made her heart ache. Giving in to the overwhelming emotions settling in, she let out a week's worth of frustration and heartache in the form of tears.

A long time later, when her tears were finally spent and the ache in her heart became numb, she wiped away the remnants of the tears from her cheeks and climbed off the barstool.

What was she supposed to do now? She supposed she should get on with her life and forget all about a certain superhero, but that thought made her heart ache even more. Her life had felt different—*she* had felt different—since meeting Clark Kent, and even the realization that she had been manipulated and played for a fool didn't make it any easier to want to go back to a loveless, empty life.

Lois's stomach rumbled. It was reminding her that she hadn't eaten since breakfast, but the thought of eating didn't sound very appealing. Halfheartedly, she walked back to the fridge and opened the door, searching its meager contents. All she had was a stick of butter, a slice of moldy cheese, and some ketchup. She shut the door in frustration and opened the freezer door. Not only was she out of chocolate ice cream, the freezer was just as bare as the refrigerator. There wasn't even a TV dinner to microwave, and she knew she was out of bread in the cupboard and couldn't even make toast.

Just then she remembered Clark's comment the morning they'd shared breakfast at his apartment that two ingredients and a toaster or a microwave didn't count as cooking. At the memory, she slammed the freezer door in disgust.

'Clark can take a long walk off a short pier,' she thought unkindly. But then she realized such a feat wouldn't even hurt him. She rolled her eyes. Great. She couldn't even make a bad thought toward him stick in her mind.

"I don't really care what he does, because we're through," she muttered as she headed back to the living room. "He can't treat me like that, making me think we had the start of something great. I deserve better than that. How dare he do that to me!"

Her heartache starting to turn to anger, Lois stomped through the kitchen entrance, snagging her foot on the strap of her attache and nearly falling. She managed to catch herself on the entryway molding and looked down to see the strap looped around her foot. In a flash of anger, she kicked at her bag, sending it skittering across the floor and banging against the leg of her coffee table with a thud. Her big toe started to throb, and she limped into the living room and dropped onto the couch.

She lifted her foot and began to rub her toe in an effort to relieve the pain, but the soothing gesture did nothing to ease her growing anger. "I've been listening to people tell me this week that I'm losing my edge," she muttered to the empty room, "that I'm just a big failure, and for what? Some guy who's giving me the brush off? A guy who tricked me and manipulated me into keeping his story out of the public eye? Who does he think he is? I'm practically ruining my reputation for him over here, and he doesn't even have the decency to call and thank me."

In a sudden burst of adrenaline, she stood up from the couch and stalked over to her computer. "I'll show him. *Nobody* uses Lois Lane and gets away with it."

Sitting down at her desk, she punched the button to turn the computer on. The machine started to whir and hum, and Lois drummed her fingers impatiently as she waited. She'd show everybody she hadn't lost her edge. She'd write the story of the century, exonerating herself in her editor's eyes and winning the Pulitzer Prize in the process. It's what she'd set out to do in the first place. Her first Superman story hadn't exactly been spectacular, but this time she wasn't about to make the same mistake.

With fiery determination, she began to write.

***

Lois stared at her computer screen. The story was definitely better. In fact, it was great. It was finally a Superman story worthy of her byline. She stared again at the headline that she knew would catch everyone's attention:

Superman Exposed!

She read back through the details, making sure she had her facts straight. He was raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent of Smallville after his space pod crash landed in a farmer's field not far from their home. His powers started developing from a young age, and by age eighteen, he was able to fly.

The article continued on about his college schooling, his work abroad as a journalist, and how he finally settled in Metropolis when he was offered his dream job at the Daily Planet. It wasn't long after that when he decided to take on a disguise in order to help people, and still maintain a somewhat normal life as a "regular" person.

The story went on to tell everything else she knew about him, and Lois knew her editor would be ecstatic with her story. It was exactly what he wanted. He would tell her it was what he had been expecting of her, what he knew she was capable of. Apparently, it was what Agnes expected of her and knew she was capable of writing, too. It was great, and she knew without doubt it would be the story of the century.

'Pulitzer Prize, here I come,' she thought with a smug smile.

But the longer she stared at her computer screen, the more her smugness faded. Soon it became a new emotion entirely.

Guilt.

Lois sighed and dropped her chin into her hand. Now that her anger had worked itself out and her hurt had diminished to a dull ache, she found herself in an ethical debate over the issue. Should she print it and prove to everybody that she wasn't a failure? That she, Lois Lane, was capable of writing a story that would alter the course of history? She honestly felt it was her best work ever. But did she really want to do this? Did she want to expose Clark?

'Come on, Lois,' the voice in her head protested. 'After the way he treated you and made you think there was something between you? He lied to you, manipulated you, and made you risk your reputation as a journalist who always got the great stories. You don't owe him anything. Besides, you were able to get this story by being in the right place at the right time—the sign of a great reporter. Because of it, you nailed the story of the century. You deserve this for yourself.*

But even as she considered this, she knew there were other consequences to consider. An image of Clark's parents in the picture she'd seen came to mind. Clark was invulnerable, but his parents were not. She knew Clark was right—they could very well become a target if someone knew the truth about his identity. She didn't know them at all, but they seemed like good people. She would hate to jeopardize their safety for a story, even a Pulitzer Prize winning one.

'How do you know there really is a Martha and Jonathan Kent?' the argumentative voice in her head jumped back in. 'If Clark lied to you about himself and played on your emotions to keep you from writing the story, how do you know if his so-called parents really exist?'

Lois leaned back in her chair, contemplating. She supposed it was possible they didn't even exist. Perhaps the 'once a liar, always a liar' philosophy applied here. Could he have made up the story of having parents in an effort to give his made-up history more punch? If this Martha and Jonathan Kent didn't even exist, it just made it all the easier to run with the story.

Launching into investigation mode, Lois went online and found a phone book website. She typed in 'Jonathan and Martha Kent' in the search field, and told the computer to look in the Smallville, Kansas listings. She waited anxiously as the computer searched. After what seemed like an eternity, her request came back with an address and phone number.

'Okay, so there is a Martha and Jonathan Kent,' she thought. 'But that doesn't necessarily mean these people were really his parents, or that he wasn't still trying to manipulate you.'

Even so, it did put a little nagging doubt in her mind about the possible consequences of printing the story. Her mind continued to go back and forth over the pros and cons for a long time. Finally a new consideration entered her mind. What if she turned out to be wrong about Clark's motives? What if he hadn't been lying to her and trying to deceive her? What if there *was* another explanation for his apparent lack of interest in her? Did she really want to expose him because she felt hurt and betrayed over a miscommunication?

Lois crossed her arms and sighed, contemplating the story on the monitor in front of her. What was she supposed to do? Should she hand in the story that would expose Clark and make her an overnight success? This story would do that. But it would also expose Clark and potentially ruin his way of life—and that of his parents and close friends—forever. In spite of what she felt he had done to her, could she really do that to him?

'Lois, as a reporter your job isn't supposed to be worrying about the consequences of a story; your job is to report the story. That's it. Besides, what is he to you? You spent a total of what…three days together?'

Lois shook her head. Only three days. It had felt like much more than that. Regardless, it was just three days…and, well…okay, one incredible kiss at the airport. And then there had been the deep, meaningful conversations they'd had their last night together that had left her feeling a connection to him she'd never felt with any man before.

At least, she thought she had felt it.

At this point she couldn't be sure of anything. Yet… While she knew he may have used her, manipulated her, and tricked her into keeping his secret identity a secret…did she really know that for sure? As much as she hated to admit it, she did still have feelings for Clark, and exposing him would ruin any chances they would have at having a relationship. Was she really willing to risk that if there was even the smallest chance he really was who he said he was, and that they could possibly build something together?

As she continued to work things out in her mind, she forced herself to consider a new viewpoint. What if she hadn't felt a connection to him, hadn't kissed him, hadn't become so attracted to him, but had still found out about his secret? She may very well have listened to his explanations and ultimately decided she understood his reason for his secrecy, and respected keeping it as part of the greater good.

Lois looked back at the article on the screen and her stomach tightened. She suddenly realized that her decision to write the story had more to do with lashing out in anger than it did with needing to tell the world everything about Superman. Being angry over feeling jilted in love didn't justify betraying somebody she considered a friend. Hopefully, she wasn't far off in her consideration of him as such.

She felt herself start to waver. The story was great. It was everything she had planned for it to be, in fact. But as she weighed the many options in her mind, she found herself reconsidering. Whether or not Clark had betrayed her, she felt uncertain enough in her mind about whether or not it should really be printed that she couldn't bring herself to send it to her editor.

Reaching for the mouse, she closed the file, disappointed in herself for being so easily tempted by the need to feed her ego and rebuild her own battered confidence that she would consider writing a story she had promised not to. She stared at the 'articles' folder still open on her desktop and found the one she'd labeled "Superman." She moved the cursor over to the file and selected it, then reached for the delete button. But just as she was about to hit the key, her hand paused. She knew she should delete it and move on, but the reporter in her refused to do it.

She groaned in frustration at her indecision. If she was so certain she didn't want to expose Clark, then why couldn't she bring herself to delete the article?

Feeling too tired and mentally exhausted to read too much into it, she closed her articles folder without deleting the story, deciding to analyze her feelings later. Right now, she needed chocolate ice cream. And lots of it.

She shut down the computer, pushed her chair back from the desk, and stood up. Agnes. She would have ice cream. Her neighbor always had some on hand for times like this when Lois found herself needing a friend. And right now, a friend was exactly what she needed.

***

Clark climbed in through his loft window on Friday morning just before dawn. He was exhausted, both emotionally and physically.

When he'd been getting ready for work the morning before, he'd heard the neighbor's radio broadcast a report of a hurricane ravaging several remote Caribbean villages. Knowing that the victims needed Superman more than the Daily Planet needed Clark Kent, Clark decided to call in sick. He'd felt a stab of remorse at lying to Perry, but he knew he could make up for the time off.

Trying to prepare himself for the disaster he knew he would face, he'd flown to the hurricane-ravaged villages and had spent all day Thursday working with rescue teams and the Red Cross, helping the devastated hurricane victims. By the time he finally stumbled back into his apartment before dawn that morning, one thing became obvious.

He couldn't keep doing this alone.

With a despondent sigh, he dragged himself into his bedroom to get out of the Suit. More than anything he longed for someone to talk to about the distressing things he'd seen, someone to remind him why he was giving up so much of his life to do things that often didn't seem to make a difference.

More than ever, he realized he needed Lois. He needed the source of strength she'd already shown him, and the brightness of hope he felt when she was around. He had no idea whether or not she needed him, but at that moment, all he knew was that he needed *her*.

An idea began to form in his mind as he took a quick shower, then changed into his business suit. Because he'd called in sick the day before, he knew he'd better head in to work a little early in order to catch up on things.

Then, with a firm set to his jaw, he walked into the kitchen and pulled the phone book out of the drawer. When he found the number he wanted in the yellow pages, he picked up the phone and dialed. If nothing else, he was determined to make sure Lois knew he hadn't forgotten about her.

***

Lois dragged herself in to work the next day. Friday was usually her favorite day of the week, but today she just wanted it to be over. It had been all she could do to keep herself from calling in sick that morning; instead, she had forced herself to swallow her pride and come in to finish the "punishment" stories Jim had assigned her. Then she would go home, lock herself in her apartment, and wallow in self-pity over the weekend.

She walked the long way through the newsroom in an effort to keep out of her editor's line of sight in case he decided to torment her further with another mindless story assignment. When she reached her desk unnoticed, she sighed with relief and slipped into her chair. She'd just switched on her computer when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps.

Feeling apprehensive, she looked up. But instead of her editor, she saw a delivery boy holding a gorgeous floral arrangement of pastel-colored lilies, chrysanthemums, and myrtle. Her eyes widened in surprise.

"Lois Lane?" the delivery boy inquired. When she nodded wordlessly, he held out a clipboard. "Sign here, please."

Lois scribbled her name on the delivery sheet, then accepted the large vase she was handed. "Thanks," was all she could manage before he hurried away.

Lois set the arrangement down on her desk and reached for the white envelope tucked into the front of the flowers. With shaking hands, she opened the envelope and slid the card out. Her heart began to pound as she read the words.

*Lois,

I've tried calling you a few times but haven't been able to catch you. Apparently, you've been as busy as I have. I read your article. Thanks. I owe you one.

Would you still mind if I called you sometime? If you've changed your mind about that, I would understand. Let me know.

Your friend,

Clark*

A feeling of warmth started in Lois's heart and worked its way out from there. Soon she felt warm and tingly all over. He did still want to see her. All her worrying had been for nothing.

Suddenly, her heart missed a beat. Just last night she had been considering printing the expose she'd written in a fit of anger. What if she had? Instead of flowers, she could very well have been holding a newspaper with the truth about Clark splashed across front pages around the world.

She turned to the flower arrangement on her desk, feeling sick to her stomach. Luckily, she had come to her senses last night and had decided not to run with the story.

She thought of the article still sitting on her computer at home. The story was bold, insensitive, and blatantly truthful. She hadn't pulled a single punch. And it made her sick. He was too good a man to be stabbed in the back by somebody he considered a friend. She didn't deserve his friendship, let alone his interest.

Angry and disgusted with herself, she read the card once again, her thoughts lingering on the request in his last paragraph. He still wanted to call her. She knew she should feel thrilled that a man like him was still interested enough in her to want to purse something more with her, but instead she felt awful. Guilty and awful.

She tucked the card back into the bouquet and tried to turn her attention to the puff piece Jim had given her to write. But as hard as she tried to concentrate, her gaze kept drifting to the flowers beside her monitor. It was a constant reminder that Clark was waiting to hear from her.

She did want to see him again; that was a non-issue. But could she ever face him again, knowing she had gone as far as writing the expose she had promised him she wouldn't?

After several minutes of debate, Lois decided that if she wanted to see Clark again, she was going to have to put her guilt aside, forget it ever happened, and move on. Everybody made mistakes. And when they did, they learned from them and moved on. That was exactly what she needed to do.

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Lois looked up Clark's work number on her PDA and dialed. She didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed when she only got his voice mail. Deciding this was a time she wouldn't to be satisfied leaving him a message, she reached again for her PDA and pulled up the newsroom's number. Luckily, Jimmy answered on the second ring.

"Daily Planet, this is Jimmy."

Lois smiled at the sound of his voice. "Jimmy, this is Lois Lane. How are you?"

"Lois!" he exclaimed, a grin evident in his voice. "It's great to hear from you! What can I do for you?"

"I'm trying to track down Clark. Do you have his cell phone number handy?"

"Sure do. Hold on a sec." There was a pause, then Jimmy's voice came back on the line. "Here it is."

Lois jotted down the number on the note pad beside her keyboard. "Got it. Thanks, Jimmy. Do you know what he's out doing? I don't want to interrupt him if he's in the middle of something important."

"No, I think you'd be fine," he told her. "He was out tracking down leads for a story he's working on. I'm sure he'd love to hear from you."

"Okay, thanks," she told him, hoping he was right. Then she remembered he might very well be out performing Superman duties and had used the 'tracking down leads' as an excuse. If that was the case, surely he wouldn't have his cell phone on him. She bit back a groan. Getting hold of him could be even trickier than she'd hoped. Deciding to cover her bases, she told Jimmy, "Would you mind telling Clark I called just in case I can't get him on his cell? He can call me on my cell number if he needs to. Let me give it to you." She recited the number, and he repeated it back to her.

"I'll tell him, Lois. Good to talk to you again."

Lois smiled. "It was good to talk to you, too. Be sure to let Clark know I'm trying to get hold of him, will you?"

Jimmy promised he would, and they said their goodbyes. She hung up, waited for a moment, then picked up the handset again. This time she dialed Clark's cell phone number. Anxiously, she waited for him to answer. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four rings. Discouraged, she was just about to hang up when Clark's voice came across the line.

"Hello?"

Her breath caught in her throat at the sound of his voice. "Clark?" she asked tentatively. "It's me, Lois."

"Lois!" His tone reflected both his surprise and delight at hearing her voice. "How great to hear from you! How are you?"

"I'm good," she responded, hoping that it wasn't a complete lie considering the emotional roller-coaster she'd been on that week. "I called Jimmy to get your cell number. I hope I'm not interrupting you while you're working. If I am, I can call you back later—"

"No, no, no, you're just fine," Clark hurried to say, sounding unwilling to let her go. "I'm thrilled you called. Considering the fact I've been trying to get hold of you all week without success, I don't dare hang up."

Lois grinned as she leaned back in her chair. Her gaze drifted to the beautiful flower arrangement next to her monitor. "I've been trying to get hold of you, too. I'm glad I finally got hold of you this morning, though, because I wanted to thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful."

There was a pause on Clark's end of the line, and she could picture him smiling. That smile was evident in his voice as he spoke. "I'm glad you like them. I've been thinking about you constantly, but I've been so busy with work and trying to be—" He paused and lowered his voice. "Well, you know. It's been really hard trying to keep up."

"I imagine it has." Lois thought back to the dozens of reports she'd read that week about his Superman appearances and rescues. "I'd ask you about everything you've been doing, but I suppose that's probably not wise on the phone."

The statement hung heavily on the line. When Clark responded, his tone was wistful. "I know. What we really need to do is find some time to get together. Then we could talk about…everything."

Lois wondered if she'd heard the pause or just imagined it. "Getting together would be great, but I doubt I can get time off anytime soon. I'm kind of in my editor's doghouse. Long story," she said with a grimace. "Anyway, I wish I could come out there to see you, but I don't know that I'll be able to in the near future."

"Lois…" Clark interrupted, chuckling a little. "There's no need for you to come out here. With my…'advantages,'" there was a grin in his voice at the word, "I can be out there to see you in a matter of minutes."

"Oh, yeah." A blush crept across Lois's cheeks. "I guess you could. I just didn't think…well, I didn't know how that worked," she rambled, feeling sheepish. "I didn't want to assume…and then have it turn out to be an imposition, and…well, you know."

"Yes, I know." He grew quiet for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was husky and gentle. "But Lois…just so you know, you could never be an imposition."

Her heart filling with warmth, Lois let his words burrow in and entwine around her heart. Suddenly, everything that had happened to her that week seemed like a distant memory. Feeling happier than she'd felt in days, she clutched the phone more tightly to her ear. "I'd love to have you visit."

"Great," he answered happily. But then he paused and sighed. He lowered his voice again as he spoke, as if not to be overheard by anyone around him. "I'd love to plan something definite, but every time I do, something seems to come up, if you know what I mean," he said, clearly hinting at his alter ego's duties. "That's why I've had such a hard time calling you this week. With everything I've had to do lately, the schedule thing is pretty much out the window."

"I understand," Lois answered, trying not to sound discouraged. "Well, let's just play it by ear. If you can pop by, great; if not, I really do understand. But in case you do get a chance to drop by, let me give you my address." She waited for him to pull out his PDA and write down the information. When he finished, she said, "I'm going to be around pretty much all weekend, so if you get a chance, I'd love to see you."

"I'd love to see you, too." Clark's voice was soft and sincere, sending butterflies fluttering crazily in her stomach. Then he added, "Thanks for understanding about my crazy schedule, Lois. I wasn't sure that you would."

Lois felt a momentary stab of guilt. She was just glad he didn't know how little she *had* understood this past week, and the consequences that had almost come from that. Deciding to leave that in the past, she said, "I'm just glad you decided to tell me about it. It's hard to know what you're going through if you don't tell me."

"I know. I promise I'll try harder in the future."

"See that you do," Lois feigned a lecture, "or I'm going to have to come out there with that duct tape."

Clark laughed again, and the sound warmed her heart. It was so good to hear the sound of his laughter again, a sound she had already come to love. "Thanks for the warning," he said.

He started to say something more, but immediately broke off. She was about to ask him what was wrong when he spoke again, his voice sounding distracted and rushed. "Lois, something's going on. I'm sorry, but I've got to go and…you know."

Lois smiled as she realized what he meant. He had to go be Superman. Why did she have the feeling that being with Clark was never going to be boring?

"I got it," she assured him, feeling rather honored to be privy to such information. "Go and do whatever it is you have to do. I just wanted to thank you for the flowers, anyway. They made my whole day."

"You're welcome, Lois," his deep voice came again, leaving her insides tingling. "Hopefully, I'll see you this weekend."

"I'll look forward to it."

Clark said a hasty goodbye, but Lois didn't mind. She knew what he was off to do, and she knew it was important. But their conversation also told her one other thing: *she* was important, too. And that meant more to her than anything.

She hung up the phone and turned back to her computer, her heart feeling lighter. Instead of looking forward to a weekend locked in her apartment wallowing in misery, she had something incredible to look forward to. *Somebody* incredible. And she could hardly wait.

***

Clark lifted the last of the debris—a ten-foot long metal beam— from the road, then stepped aside as the firemen moved in to spray down the smoldering embers. The fire caused by a building's partial collapse during a Los Angeles earthquake had been only one of many he had helped with that day. There had also been a bridge collapse and several multi-car pileups due to the quake that had happened during the morning hours. Though the earthquake had been strong enough to do quite a bit of damage, there had been, thankfully, very few casualties.

As soon as he'd heard about the earthquake on the radio that Saturday morning, he had flown to southern California to assist the fire and rescue crews already on the scene. They had been thrilled to see him and immediately put him to work since some of the heavier work—like clearing sections of the collapsed bridge from a busy roadway and assisting in clearing debris from the building's collapse—would have taken their crews much longer than the few minutes it had taken him. It felt good to be needed and appreciated, and to assist with efforts that didn't involve a lot of casualties. He just wished there were more hours in the day to do everything he needed to do.

Remembering his day's "to do" list brought a smile to his face. More than anything, he wanted that "to do" list to include seeing Lois. If he could finish up in Los Angeles before it became too late, he planned to take a detour home and stop in to see her. The thought made his stomach dance with excitement, and it made the hard work less taxing.

It was almost seven o'clock before the city's more heavily damaged areas were cleaned up and cleared, and Superman was on his way. Clark flew high above the coast as he headed north, in an effort to keep his presence undetected. The last thing he wanted to do was alert others to his new interest in a certain woman living in the Bay Area.

By the time he touched down in a quiet alley not far from Lois's apartment, the sky was dark, and his arrival went unnoticed. He did a quick spin change—a handy tactic he'd learned over the past week to get in and out of his Suit in a hurry—and emerged from the alley in his jeans and long-sleeved navy blue T-shirt.

Pushing his hands into his jeans pockets, he walked down the street, mentally following the path he'd mapped out last night to get to Lois's apartment. He found her street without trouble, and turned the corner, heading toward the tall, brick building a block away. He stopped in front of the multi-story building and found the address on the glass above the large, glass double doors leading into the foyer. This was it.

He studied the building as he went through the doors, impressed with what he saw. It was in a nice neighborhood, with tiled floors, a couple of couches, and a building attendant who apparently doubled as a security guard seated behind a long desk a few yards from the elevators. The man smiled at him when Clark stopped to announce he was there to see Lois Lane. He was directed to the elevators, which, he was told, would take him to her third floor apartment.

Thanking the man, Clark stepped into the waiting elevator, his nerves tingling with anticipation. Was she even home? They hadn't set a time, so he supposed she could be out running errands. He hoped that wasn't the case.

The elevator chimed as it reached the third floor, and the doors slid open. When he stepped into the small foyer of the third floor, Clark took in the newer, neutral carpeting, the warm tan colors on the wall, and the bright white chair rail that ran about chest height along the walls the entire length of the hall.

'Nice,' he thought as he passed through the foyer. He started scanning the apartment doors lining the wide hallway for Lois's apartment number, but he didn't have long to look. Her apartment was the first one of the left. He altered his course and, before he was ready, found himself standing at her door. He took a deep breath to calm his ragged nerves, then lifted a trembling hand to knock.

Before he could, though, the door suddenly pulled open, and he jumped. His movement startled the exiting tenant, and Lois looked up from the keys in her hand and gasped. Clearly she hadn't been expecting somebody to be standing in her doorway. But just as quickly as the look of surprise had come, her eyes lit up and a broad smile crossed her face.

"Clark!"

He grinned at her pleased expression, wondering why it had taken him a week to do this. She was clearly happy to see him, and knowing that made his heart soar. "Hey," he greeted cheerfully.

They stood in the doorway smiling at each other for a long moment, and Clark took advantage of the pause to gaze upon the woman who'd been at the forefront of his mind all week. He took in her silky brown hair, her luscious brown eyes framed perfectly by long, thick lashes, and her trim figure clothed in curve-hugging jeans and a sea blue, short-sleeved top that hung wide on her shoulders, revealing a large expanse of creamy skin along her throat, neck, and collarbone. If possible, she looked even better in casual attire than she did in form-fitting sweaters and skirts with ripped seams. His heart started to pound out an erratic rhythm.

When he finally managed to pull himself together, he glanced down at the keys in her hand and felt a sinking disappointment. "I caught you on your way out."

Lois's eyes widened and she shook her head. "Oh, I wasn't heading out to do anything special," she insisted. "I was just thinking about grabbing a bite to eat. I can do that later, though. Come in, come in," she urged, stepping back and gesturing to her living room.

Clark hesitated. "Are you sure? I didn't mean to come at a bad time."

Lois rolled her eyes and grabbed his arm, hauling him into the apartment. "You're *not* coming at a bad time. I'm thrilled to see you."

Clark allowed himself to be pulled into the apartment, and he watched as she shut the door behind him. Then she stood there for a moment, hovering in the entryway, suddenly seeming nervous and uncertain. She fingered the keys in her hand for a moment, then seemed aware of her movements and tossed the keys as if they were a hot potato onto the credenza. Finally, she turned back to him and smiled.

Biting the inside of his lip to keep himself from smiling, he realized Lois was as nervous to see him as he was to see her. Hoping to put them both at ease, he looked around her apartment, taking in the high ceilings and comfortable furnishings. What impressed him the most, though, was the large bank of floor-to- ceiling windows at the far end of the living room that gave a spectacular view of the city.

He let out a low whistle. "Nice place," he said. "Your view is incredible."

Lois moved toward him, appearing to relax at last. "Thanks. It's not as fancy as some of the other buildings in town, but I love it." She stopped beside him, following his gaze to the large windows overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. Then she turned her gaze back to him and smiled. "So how are you? I saw you on TV today, helping with the earthquake in L.A."

"You did?"

She nodded. "I had the TV on for a good part of the day while I did some cleaning and laundry, so I got to see a lot of the coverage. It looks like they had quite a bit of damage."

"It wasn't as bad as it could have been," Clark said. "I'm just glad there weren't a lot of people hurt."

"Me, too," Lois agreed.

She looked like she was about to say something more, but instead, her expression became thoughtful. She studied him for a long minute, and Clark squirmed beneath her gaze.

"What?" he asked self-consciously.

"Nothing." She shook her head. "It's just…" She paused, then seemed to decide to go ahead and say what she was thinking. "It was just kind of surreal, watching you on TV and knowing that it was really you doing all those spectacular things."

Clark felt a blush start to warm his cheeks, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "It wasn't that spectacular," he mumbled, embarrassed at her compliment.

"See, that's where you're wrong," Lois insisted. "You don't see it as spectacular because it's what you've been doing most of your life. Well, not the Suit and the tights and everything…" She smiled. "But the things you do…to everybody else, it *is* spectacular. Why do you think the media is in such a frenzy? You're the greatest thing since apple pie."

Clark's blush deepened. "No, I'm not. I'm just a man trying to do what he can to help."

"Clark, don't sell yourself short. There are a lot of men in this world who wouldn't lift a finger to help anyone else. I think it's pretty great that you've decided to use your powers this way." Then she chuckled and shook her head. "It's just going to take me a little time for me to wrap my mind around the fact that you and the superhero are the same man."

"Then how about I help you out a little," he suggested, drawing a look of confusion from Lois. "You said you were on your way out to grab a bite to eat. Well, I seem to remember owing you a dinner. What are you in the mood for?"

Lois lifted a dark eyebrow suspiciously. "Why? What do you have in mind?"

Clark grinned at her expression and shrugged. "Dinner from anywhere in the world. You name it."

Her mouth dropped open. "You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not kidding. What kind of food do you like?"

When he continued to stand there, waiting for her answer, she realized he was serious. "Umm, I don't know," she finally stammered. "I don't really want to impose on you to—"

Clark let out an aggravated growl and rolled his eyes. "Lo-is. You are not imposing. Just tell me what sounds good."

"O-kay…" Lois responded. "Umm…maybe some Indian food?"

Clark grinned, pleased she'd decided to cooperate. "Indian food it is." He stepped back, spun into the now-famous Suit in a blur of red and blue, then looked toward the sliding glass door in her dining room. "Do you mind if I use your balcony?"

It took Lois a moment to recover from the impressive display of super powers, and from the magnificent form of a man standing before her in showy tights and a cape. She blinked and cleared her throat. "My balcony?" she asked in confusion.

He nodded. "It's a less conspicuous exit. Do you mind?"

"No." She shook her head quickly, still feeling somewhat dazed. "Be my guest."

Flashing her his heart-stopping smile, he turned and walked over to the sliding glass door. He slid it open and stepped out onto the dark balcony. He looked around at the stucco walls rising high on either side of the patio for privacy, the detailed wrought iron railing, and the steep drop off of the mountainside below, maintaining a secluded feel. It was perfect for Superman comings and goings, since there were no homes immediately below on the hilly incline. He also noted the lounge chair and large potted plants, which gave the area a nice, homey feeling.

"Nice," he commented for the second time that evening.

Lois laughed, finally drawing herself out of her state of shock. "Did you come out here just to admire the architecture, or are you actually going to get us some food?"

Clark caught the mischievous twinkle in Lois's eyes and knew she was teasing. "Okay, okay, I'm going. Slave driver."

"Hey, you're the one who offered." She folded her arms across her chest, her eyes sparkling. "You clearly want to show off for me, so let's see it."

That made Clark laugh. "Fine. See you in a minute." And with that, he shot up into the night sky and disappeared amongst the stars, leaving her duly impressed.

***

Turning and going back into her apartment, Lois smiled and shook her head. She knew her comment was dead-on. He wanted to show off for her. And she had to admit, she *was* impressed. Having a boyfriend—okay, so maybe he wasn't a boyfriend just yet; maybe she should say 'a potential boyfriend'—that could do such incredible things like help with fires and clear literally tons of debris caused by earthquakes, *and* fly anywhere in the world for take-out was pretty impressive. And the fact that he wanted to do that for her made the warm glow in her heart that had started the second she'd opened her apartment door and saw him standing in the doorway, increase until she felt warm all over.

Since it was a balmy, fall night, she decided to leave the sliding glass door open for him since she was sure he was going to come back in that way. Sure enough, only a couple of minutes later, she heard a 'whoosh' and felt a gust of wind. She turned to see Clark, still clad in his costume, coming in through the open glass door with two bags in his hands.

She caught the delicious smell of exotic food and her stomach started to rumble. She chuckled as he walked over to set the bags down on her table. "I can't believe you really went all the way to India for our dinner."

He looked up at her and smiled. "Just one of the many advantages to having super powers." He glanced around the kitchen at her cupboards. "Where do you keep your plates?"

"Oh, I'll get them." She hurried across the kitchen and took two plates out of the cupboard, then took silverware out of a nearby drawer and set them each a place at the table. Clark dished out the food, and they sat down to eat.

As Lois took her first delicious bite of the authentic meal, she looked across her small table at Clark, still in his costume, and couldn't stop the grin from spreading across her face. "Are you really going to eat in that?" She gestured at his colorful costume with her fork. "You're not going to change or anything first?"

Clark looked down at his Suit, then glanced back up at her quizzically. "Why? Does it bother you?"

"Not at all," she quickly clarified. "It's just…don't you worry about spilling on yourself? Somehow I don't think you'd look as super with a curry stain on your 'S.'"

Her comment caught him in the middle of swallowing his first bite, and he started to cough and sputter with laughter. He took a drink from his glass of water, then thumped himself on the chest a couple of times. "What, it might make me look too human?" he rasped. "I guess I'd have to kiss my 'spectacular' status goodbye."

Lois grinned at his reference to the adjective she'd used earlier to describe him. "I guess you would. Besides, your mom would probably kill you. Didn't you say she made it for you? Tell me how that came to be," she prompted, hoping to learn more about how this duel identity came to be.

In spite of her instance that he didn't have to change, he took a moment to spin out of his colorful attire, then sat back down at the table in the jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt he'd arrived in. They spent the rest of dinner eating and talking, and Lois felt the return of the easy camaraderie they'd shared while in Metropolis. She was glad the initial awkwardness in her doorway had passed. The mood was relaxed and fun, and Lois found herself falling for his kind, gentle nature all over again.

When they'd finished their meal, they cleaned up and went to sit on the couch. They talked and laughed until the hour grew late, and the grandfather clock in the living room chimed eleven.

Clark glanced down at his own watch and smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I had no idea it was so late. I should probably let you get to bed."

But Lois shook her head, reluctant for the evening to end. "Believe it or not, I'm not even tired." She fell silent, and their eyes met and held for several long moments. On an impulse, she reached out for Clark's hand where it rested on the couch next to her and gave it a squeeze. "Thanks for coming tonight. You have no idea how much I was looking forward to seeing you, and hoping you'd find the time to drop in."

Clark's fingers tightened around hers. "I'm glad you were. I've been wanting to all week, but I just…" He hesitated. "I just didn't know if you'd changed your mind about…us."

This time Lois knew she'd heard the pause in his voice, and she squeezed his hand again. "No, I'd still really like to see if we can build on what we have. That is, if you want to…?"

Clark's eyes brightened with hope. "Of course I do." He looked down at their joined hands and rubbed the side of her hand lightly with his thumb. "I've been worrying, though, about how I can manage to make a relationship work," he admitted after several moments. "I've been struggling with my schedule, trying to find a way to do everything I need to do at the Planet, plus keep up with all the Superman stuff." He finally pulled his eyes up to hers, the concern evident in his expression. "I don't want you to think I'm ignoring you, or that I'm not giving our relationship the attention it deserves. I guess what I'm saying is…I hope you'll be patient with me while I try to fit together everything I want to have in my life."

Lois smiled softly and tightened her grip on his hand. "You don't have to do everything alone, you know. I'm not sure there's anything I can do to help, but I'm here if you ever do need me."

Touched, Clark slipped his hand out of hers and lifted it instead to stroke her face. "Thank you, Lois. You have no idea how much it means to me to know you're willing to give this a chance."

She reached up to cover his hand with her own, and their gazes met and held. For one heart-stopping moment, Lois thought he was going to kiss her. But then he slowly got to his feet instead, and pulled her up beside him.

"It's late," he murmured. "I should go."

Lois nodded wordlessly, trying to stem her sudden feeling of disappointment. But she smiled as he reached for her hand, and she walked with him to the balcony. "I wish you didn't have to go," she said as they stepped through the sliding glass door and into the darkness falling over the balcony.

"Me too." Clark was quiet for a moment. Then he asked, "What are you doing next week?"

"Working." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm kind of in my editor's dog house, and he has me writing all these fluff pieces that I'm embarrassed to even have my name attached to. Anyway, I'm going to work really hard next week to come up with something to redeem myself."

Clark grimaced in sympathy. "I've been there. You should see some of the things Perry has us reporters do when he's mad at us. It's not pretty."

"It makes me wonder if there was a class they attended in editor school that taught them how to torture us."

Clark laughed. "I wouldn't doubt it. So what did you do to get in trouble? Or do I want to know?" he teased, remembering the conversation they'd had in his apartment about her often-illegal means of obtaining evidence.

Lois grew quiet. As she tried to decide how to answer that, she lowered her gaze to her feet and toed the loose pebbles in a small crack in the cement. Clark picked up on her abrupt change of mood and moved in front of her, trying to draw her gaze.

"He wasn't mad at you for coming back from Metropolis without an expose, was he?" When Lois didn't answer, Clark swore under his breath and took both her hands in his. "Lois, I'm *so* sorry. You have to believe that I never meant to get you in trouble with your editor by covering for me."

"I know, Clark." She nodded and looked up, her heart lurching at the sympathy in his eyes. "It's not your fault. I'll just have to find a really great story this week to make up for it."

Clark thought for a minute. "What about the Mesopotamia, Inc. story? We'd talked about working on that. Have you done any digging yet on the connections?"

She shook her head. "I haven't had time, but I think it's a good idea. We should put our heads together and see what we can come up with. Working on that's got to be better than anything Jim has me doing."

"Great," Clark enthused. "Take a look at what you have on Monday and I'll do the same, and we can email or fax each other what we find."

"It's a deal." Lois felt excitement building up within her at the prospect of working together with Clark, even if it was long distance.

The sound of an airplane rumbled overhead, drawing Lois's attention. She tipped her head back to regard the sky, sprinkled with stars that illuminated the black backdrop of night. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

He followed her gaze, noting the faint white trail from the airplane against the sky's blackness. "It is. Even in the city with all the lights that make it harder to see the stars, it's still beautiful. You should see the sky in Smallville, though. It's spectacular. There are no city lights to dim your view, and the stars look so big and bright you'd think you could reach up and pluck them right out of the sky. I used to lie on my back on the grass at night and stare up at them for hours. It was comforting somehow."

Lois nodded, her tone almost reverent when she answered. "I know what you mean. I've always loved nighttime. There's just something about the night sky that draws me in, makes me feel safe."

Impulsively, Clark squeezed her hand and turned toward her. A mischievous grin twinkled in his eyes when their gazes met. "Would you like to see what it's like?"

"Like what's like?" She furrowed her brows in confusion.

"Up there." He nodded up at the night sky. "How would you like to take a ride?"

Suddenly, she realized what he was suggesting. Her eyes widened in surprise. "You mean…fly with you? Up there?"

His grin broadened deliciously. "Why not? Nobody will see us, and you'll be perfectly safe. I promise I won't drop you." When she didn't say anything for a moment, her expression telling him she was clearly torn, he took a step back, spun into his Suit, then offered her his hand. "Please?"

She hesitated at first, frightened at the thought of being high up in the sky without a fuselage surrounding her. But she finally placed her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the edge of the balcony.

When they reached the railing, he leaned over and lifted her effortlessly into his arms. "Are you ready?" he asked, his eyes dancing in the moonlight.

Lois gulped. "No."

He laughed and held her more tightly against his chest. He took two steps toward the balcony, and the movement caused Lois's arms to become a vice around his neck. He chuckled. "You don't have to strangle me, Lois. I promise I won't drop you."

Lois self-consciously loosened her arms from around his neck. "Sorry. I guess I'm a little nervous."

"There's nothing to be nervous about," he reassured her. "I do this all the time."

"Take women for rides at night? Gee, why doesn't that make me feel better?"

Clark grinned and shook his head. "No, Lois, you're the first woman I've ever taken flying. What I meant was that I fly all the time. There's nothing to it."

Lois looked up at him and saw the sincerity in his eyes. Relaxing a little in his arms, she turned and looked at the dark horizon eagerly. Hadn't she always loved flying? Hadn't she always wondered what it would be like, to get lost in the beckoning darkness of the night sky?

Before she had a chance to deliberate further, she felt the strange, unfamiliar sensation of floating up off the ground. A slight gasp escaped her lips. She looked down at the ground and saw it fall farther and farther away as they drifted up into the night.

As they changed directions and started to move out over the mountainside, the feeling of freedom that came from soaring through the sky took Lois's breath away. She looked down at the twinkling lights of the city below them as they flew, and gazed up at the twinkling stars in the sky above. She felt as if she existed somewhere in between the lights, in a place where she and Clark alone could dwell.

Feeling breathless, she turned to look at Clark, his face only inches from hers. When their eyes met, his eyes crinkled into a smile. Lois found herself grinning back, awed by the unexpected and heady experience.

They continued to fly north until the lights beneath them became fewer and farther between. She felt Clark's arms move around her more securely as the wind picked up, and he held her closer to keep her warm. She snuggled up against him, wishing she could stay this way in Clark's arms forever, drifting through the night sky, her heartbeat strangely in tune with his.

As she relaxed completely, she looked around at the clouds scattered about the sky, sometimes close enough to touch. The unique experience gave her an even stronger sense of connection to the man who held her protectively in his arms. For the first time she was seeing the world through Clark's eyes. It gave her an even stronger sense of how very different his life must be from everyone else's.

She could tell when they finally returned to San Francisco by the millions of lights of the city sparkling up at them. Before long they were drifting back down to her balcony, and she loosened her arms reluctantly from around his neck.

"You're shivering," Clark observed as he set her on her feet. "I'm sorry. I guess I didn't think of you getting cold, since I don't feel the temperature changes like you—"

Lois shook her head, cutting him off. Her cheeks were rosy, but her eyes were sparkling. "Clark, you don't have to apologize. That was *amazing*. I think it's the most incredible thing I've ever done. Thank you."

Clark's face creased into a pleased grin. He reached out with his free hand to grasp hers. "I'm glad you enjoyed it, Lois."

Their gazes held for a long moment, then Clark moved imperceptibly closer. Lois felt the swarm of butterflies start to careen about in her stomach and her heart began to thump so loudly she was sure he could hear it, even without super hearing.

She held her breath as their faces neared, her skin tingling as his warm breath caressed her face. In eager anticipation, she closed her eyes as his lips touched hers. Instantly, her knees went weak. She was glad for the steadying arm Clark slipped around her waist as the world disappeared in a haze around her. All she could think about was Clark's kiss—tender, meaningful, perfect.

When the kiss finally ended, Lois could tell by the flush across Clark's cheeks that he felt as moved by the experience as she did. A blissful smile tickled across her lips as she looked up at the man standing before her, the man who had succeeded in capturing her heart in such a short amount of time. She'd never been in love before, but she had no doubt that was what she was. In love.

Clark stepped back, letting his fingers slip from hers as distance finally necessitated, but his gaze never left hers. "Goodnight, Lois. I'll talk to you soon?"

His eyes were a dusky color in the moonlight, and Lois found herself hypnotized by the intensity of his stare. She managed to nod, then found her voice. "Thanks for coming over. Dinner and…well, everything…was great."

He smiled through the darkness. "I look forward to doing it again soon."

"Me too."

With one last look, Clark turned and drifted up into the sky. Lois watched him until she could no longer make out his form in the darkness.

"Wow," she murmured breathlessly. A moment later, a faint sonic boom reached her ears.

She smiled. Her week may have been a bad one, but it certainly had ended well. Better than well. Perfect.

Clark was definitely something special—and not just because he had incredible powers, powers he had clearly wanted to show off to her tonight. What he didn't realize was that even without those powers, she was impressed. He was a man unlike any she had ever known. When he had held her in his arms, she felt safe. Protected. Loved. And it wasn't his powers that made her feel that way. It was the gentleness of his touch, the look of love in his warm, brown eyes. And in the gentle touch of his lips.

A happy sigh escaped her lips. Yes, he was definitely something special. And for the first time in her life, she found herself falling in deep.

Deeply in love.

***

Lex stepped out of his private elevator into the reception area of his penthouse, his eyes never lifting from the newspaper in his hand. A large picture of Superman and an account of his latest heroic adventure were splashed across the Daily Planet's front page.

"Superman," Lex said to Nigel as he walked beside him. "It seems he's all anybody can talk about these days."

Nigel nodded his head in agreement. "Yes, he is causing quite a stir, isn't he?"

They entered his office, and Lex tossed the newspaper onto his desk. He was contemplative as he set his leather briefcase down on top of the newspaper, flipped the latches, and opened the lid. He extracted a folder and looked up at Nigel, who was standing a few paces inside the room with his hands clasped behind his back.

"What do we know about this 'Superman'? Anything of real substance yet?"

"Just what has been in the papers," Nigel stated.

Lex pulled one more folder out of his briefcase, then shut the lid. "It seems nobody really knows what this man is capable of, and it's always wise to know your enemy, wouldn't you say, Nigel?"

Nigel nodded. "It is, sir."

"Then let's schedule some tests, shall we? That will help us know what we're dealing with."

A slight frown played across Nigel's features. "Just how do you plan to do that, sir? I doubt he'll subject himself to a series of tests."

Lex smirked. "My dear Nigel. It's easier than you think. What would draw Superman out?"

Nigel thought for a moment. "Someone in trouble?"

"Yes!" Lex clapped his hands together and beamed with enthusiasm. "Someone in trouble. So all we need to do is stage a series of tests based on people in trouble, people who need rescuing. Let's also stage a few mini disasters to see just what he's capable of. We'll find out what we're up against, then plan our strategy to deal with this new adversary accordingly."

Nigel tipped his head in acknowledgement to the plan. "Very good, sir. I'll make the arrangements."

***

Lois found herself actually looking forward to work Monday morning. She steered her BMW through the morning traffic, for once not put off by the chaos of the commute.

Most of the "stories" she'd been assigned by Jim had been finished, so she was eager to dive back into her research on Mesopotamia, Inc. She'd suspected the company had been involved in something illegal back when she was researching them, and now that she had stumbled across their name in Clark's investigation, she was sure there was something huge there.

When she finally got to work, she took the long way around to her desk as she had all week, in an effort to avoid her editor. She wanted to remain out of his sight long enough to dig up enough information to warrant him keeping her on the story.

She spent the next few hours poring back through her notes and files, refreshing her memory on the things she had found. Then she picked some of the more pertinent pieces of information and took them to the fax machine to fax them to Clark. She included a cover sheet with Clark's name on it, then faxed the small stack of papers with circled sections and handwritten notes in the margins.

After a quick lunch, she was back at it again. She was engrossed in her research when one of the Chronicle's interning copy boys appeared at her desk holding several pieces of paper. "This just came for you, Ms. Lane."

"Thanks." Her forehead wrinkled in confusion as she took the papers and looked down at them, wondering what they were. She caught sight of Clark's name on the fax's cover sheet and smiled. Obviously he'd gotten the information she'd sent and had decided to send some of his own. She spotted a hand-scrawled note near the bottom:

*Lois,

Looks like you've been busy! I should have some time this afternoon, and I plan to go through what you've sent. In trade, here are some of the papers we were looking at in my apartment. You mentioned being interested in the connection, so maybe you'll find something here that I haven't? Let's compare notes ASAP.

Thanks for a wonderful evening Saturday. Remember how I said my favorite night sky was the one back home in Smallville? I changed my mind. My favorite is the one I got to share with you.

Love,

Clark*

Lois melted. Who said guys weren't romantic? Or maybe Clark was just the last of a dying breed. Either way, she felt lucky to have him.

She set the cover letter on her desk and leafed through the pages Clark had faxed. Jimmy had managed to track down the shipping records for the Metropolis shipping company, and their activity did seem to have increased in the last several weeks. She wondered if that had anything to do with the San Francisco shipping company being investigated and consequently shut down. She knew it wasn't solid evidence of wrongdoing, but the discovery was encouraging enough to make her want to keep looking.

She spent the rest of the afternoon and all of Tuesday digging, talking to sources around the city, and trying to make connections. Comparing Clark's notes with hers, she turned up a few more interesting pieces of information. She already knew that Mesopotamia, Inc. had their hands in several lucrative affairs. They dealt with importing art and artifacts, mostly shipped from third-world countries where the items could be obtained relatively inexpensively, then sold for a tidy sum in the States off market, mostly to private parties. But what was new to her was a connection she'd been able to make between several of the company's board members.

Several of the board members' names showed up as owners on several seemingly non-related companies that didn't appear to do much of anything. After doing a little research on those corporations, she began to suspect they were shell companies. What intrigued her even more was that one of them had been on the list of companies that was investigated by the FBI during her crime ring investigation for possible money laundering. The owner had mysteriously disappeared during the investigation, and the company shut down. It had been suspicious then, and it seemed even more so now. If all the companies were owned by Mesopotamia, Inc.'s board members, and they were indeed shell companies, she wondered if they were being used to launder Mesopotamia, Inc.'s profits.

She still wasn't sure how any of this tied into the shipping company in San Francisco, or even to the one in Metropolis, but she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Filling her attache with notes, she took everything home with her to read that night. She settled onto the couch in her apartment with a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk, then used the remote to flip on the TV for some background noise. She never worked well in absolute silence; her thoughts seemed to flow more freely when there was something going on around her, and in an empty apartment, that usually meant TV noise.

She opened her attache and started pulling out notes. As she read, she stacked papers in various piles on her coffee table in an attempt to make heads or tails of the information. When the entire pile of papers was sorted, she looked at the stacks and sighed. There was no way she was going to get through all of this in one night.

She reached for her sandwich and leaned back against the couch, drawing her feet up beneath her, Indian-style. A series of images flashed across the television screen, and a familiar sight of red and blue caught her attention. Apparently, Clark—Superman—had performed some newsworthy feat. She reached for the remote and turned up the sound.

The news reporter on the early edition was recounting Superman's busy day. He'd reportedly thwarted two suicide jumpers' attempts, dealt with a bomb in a Metropolis building, and stopped a speeding elevated train that had mysteriously lost its brakes. A few images of his appearances flashed on the screen, but the one that caught Lois's attention the most was when a cameraman had managed to catch Superman on tape just before he left the scene of an attempted convenience store robbery. He looked tired, and maybe even a little overwhelmed.

Her heart went out to him. More than anything, he looked like he could use a friend. In a moment of clarity, she realized how lonely he must feel, going home to an empty apartment and having no one there to confide in or pour out his frustrations to. She knew he had a few friends he did things with, but she assumed it wouldn't be the same as having friends he could share everything with. After all, none of them knew his secret. And while he had good and understanding parents, she knew it wasn't the same as having someone your own age to talk to or confide in. In that respect, she suspected his life was very lonely.

On an impulse, she reached for the phone.

***

Clark flew home Tuesday night, both tired and distracted. He'd spent very little of his day at the Planet, and he was starting to worry that Perry suspected him of shirking his work responsibilities.

He frowned. That's all he needed—a reason to worry about the security of his job.

When he finally landed in his apartment, he breathed a sigh of relief. He loved being Superman, and he loved helping people and making a difference with his powers, but there were days when something about his new alter ego's "job" caused him to pause and think. Today had been one of those days.

Perplexed by the day's events, he furrowed his brows in thought. The day had started off as any other morning, with Superman needed on a few different occasions, but as the day progressed, the rescues became more unusual and baffling. He was not a suspicious person by nature, but it was impossible to dismiss the nagging feeling that something odd was going on.

The sound of his phone ringing jarred him out of his thoughts. He sped into his bedroom to change out of his costume and into jeans and a T-shirt before speeding back to lift the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Clark?"

"Lois!" he exclaimed, both surprised and delighted to hear her voice. "How are you?"

"I'm good. I was just sitting here on the couch working on this investigation of ours, and I saw you on TV. It looks like you've had a busy day."

Clark sighed. "You could say that. It was one thing after another."

"What was that about suicide jumpers and a bomb?"

Recognizing the reporter curiosity in her voice, Clark's lips quirked into a grin. She had to be one of the most inquisitive people he'd ever known. Knowing he had an attentive ear, he sat down on the couch and got comfortable as he poured out the events of the day. It felt good to have somebody to talk to, and he didn't feel nearly as down or tired as he had when he'd arrived home.

When he finished recounting the duties he'd performed, he hesitated, wondering if he should share his concerns over the strange occurrences that were nagging at him. Finally, he decided to.

"I hope you don't think I'm crazy when I say this, Lois, but the more I think about it, the more I think those rescues with the suicide jumpers and the bomb seemed a little…"

"A little what?" Lois prompted.

"Well, strange," he finally admitted.

Lois's interest was clearly piqued. He could hear it in her voice when she asked, "Strange? What do you mean?"

He explained about the two suicidal jumpers, and how they'd jumped from two of the tallest buildings in Metropolis on completely opposite ends of town within seconds of each other.

"Doesn't that seem a little odd?" he asked. "I mean, it's not like Metropolis never has suicidal jumpers, but to have two of them jump from the tallest buildings in the city within moments of each other… I don't know. At the time I didn't think about it, but then there was the situation with the bomb in the Carlin building."

He told her how he'd heard that the bomb squad was being dispatched to the building, and had flown over to help. He'd been glad he did because he'd convinced the leader of the squad to let him go in to take care of it, and it had gone off as soon as he had. He'd come out of it unscathed, but he hated to think what might have happened had those men gone in instead.

"What shocked me, though, was what I found out afterward," he told Lois as he shifted his position on the couch. "I talked with one of the members of the bomb squad as Clark afterward, and he told me that the explosion had been remote controlled. It was set off from somewhere within a mile radius of the building. They'd found security cameras installed in the lobby that were not a part of the buildings system, and suspected the two things might be connected."

"You mean somebody watched you go in, then detonated the bomb?" Lois asked incredulously.

"That was my thought exactly."

Lois was speechless. At last she managed, "But why? That doesn't make sense. Do you think somebody was trying to get rid of you?"

Clark shook his head. "I have no idea. I wouldn't rule it out. You said yourself that the criminal element probably isn't too thrilled with me being here. I'm just glad whoever did it didn't have any interest in hurting the people on the bomb squad. Better me than them."

"Yeah, but…" Her voice drifted off as she thought over the situation. Finally, she continued. "I know I said that, but to hear that somebody actually tried to do it… Did you tell your parents about this?"

"No!" The word flew out of Clark's mouth before he could stop it. Realizing how harsh he had sounded, he took a breath and spoke again, this time his voice softer. "No, I don't want my folks to know. My dad already thinks this whole superhero thing is a bad idea. I don't want to give him even more cause to worry. Besides, I'm not convinced someone did that to try to kill me."

"You don't?" Lois asked, her confusion evident in her voice. "Then why do you think someone did it?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I began to wonder if…well, if maybe those incidents had been staged."

"Staged?" Her voice was loud and indignant. "You think somebody was trying to test you?"

"My powers, maybe. How else would you explain the situation with the jumpers and the remote-controlled bomb and the video cameras? The guy with the bomb squad really made me think."

"Do you have any idea who would try something like that?" she asked. "Anybody you've talked to recently that struck you as somebody who would be interested in staging these incidents?"

"Nobody. I'm going to keep my eyes and ears open, though. Something was weird about it, and I'd like to get to the bottom of it before one of those 'tests' hurts somebody."

"What about the jumpers?" Lois pushed on. "Do you have any information on them? Maybe there's a connection there that would give you a lead."

Clark blinked. He hadn't thought of that. "That's a good idea. I'll have Jimmy track down their names and backgrounds."

"Good. Let me know what you find out." There was a pause, and then he heard Lois laugh a little. "Speaking of strange things, I should tell you what happened to me today."

With a smile on his face, Clark turned and lay back on the couch, propping his feet up on the armrest. It felt so great to be talking to Lois like this, comparing notes on their days. He could definitely see this becoming a nightly occurrence. Then he grimaced at the thought. If this did become such, he was sure his phone bill—and Lois's—wouldn't be pretty.

"What happened to you today?" he asked, settling deeper into the corner of the couch and feeling content and happy.

"I was out talking to some sources about the San Francisco shipping company I investigated, and its clients, when this tabloid reporter from one of the city's rags overheard my name. He came rushing over and offered to pay me a ridiculous sum of money if I'd give him some dirt on Superman." She laughed. "I guess he figured that since I'd managed to get an exclusive on you, I might be able to pass on something juicy."

Clark bolted upright, his comfortable position forgotten. She'd been approached by a tabloid reporter? That meant people in her area were starting to connect her with Superman since her interview with him. What disturbed him the most about that was the fact that he lived such a long way away. What happened if someone tried to single her out because she was the only one on her coast who'd met the Man of Steel, and tried to use her to get to him?

He realized then that she was still speaking, and he tuned back in to her voice.

"It cracked me up," she was saying with laughter in her voice. "Of course I told him to jump in a lake, but I thought it was pretty funny, the lengths tabloid reporters will go to get a story. I think you owe me a really great night out for maintaining my silence." She giggled. But then the laughter in her voice faded when she noticed he hadn't said anything. "You're not laughing."

Clark shook his head in an effort to clear it. "Sorry, Lois, it's just…you think something like that's funny, but it just worries me. What if someone decides to do something to you in an effort to get to me? I don't like that thought."

She made a disgruntled noise and he could picture her rolling her eyes. "Clark, you worry too much. Has anybody ever told you that?"

"My parents," he confessed sheepishly, "but that's not the point. I just don't want anybody to get hurt because of me. Just promise me you'll be careful, okay?"

"I will, Clark, but honestly, you don't have anything to worry about. I can take care of myself."

Relaxing back on the couch, Clark grinned at the memory of her run-in with the would-be mugger in the Metropolis alley…and her torn skirt. His heartbeat faltered then quickened when he remembered the glimpse he'd gotten of those long, incredible legs. But as quickly as the thought had come, he forced it away, feeling guilty for taking pleasure in a sight she hadn't really intended for him to see.

Deciding to change the subject, he asked, "You said were out checking on things with our investigation. Did you turn up anything?"

He listened as Lois explained the connection she'd been able to make between the board members of Mesopotamia, Inc, and the handful of smaller companies she suspected of being shell companies. She also told him about the one company in particular that had shut down just as it was suspected of laundering money.

"So, maybe Mesopotamia, Inc. is trying to hide its illegal earnings by hiding it in one of those companies?" Clark surmised.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Lois agreed. "Or maybe because the companies are small, they get some kind of tax break or government grants that a bigger company would never get. There are lots of possibilities. I am having a tough time following the paper trail, though, so it could take me a while to figure everything out."

"Well, I'll help," Clark offered. "Maybe we can get together one night this week and go over the new information you've tracked down."

"I'd like that." Her voice was soft. "Any excuse to see you is fine with me."

Clark smiled against the phone. He loved that she felt the same way about seeing him as he did about her. He heard her grandfather clock chime in the background, and it reminded him of the late hour. He sighed reluctantly. "As much as I hate to, Lois, I'd better go. Perry's starting to give me the look that says he thinks I'm not pulling my weight since I've been out so much lately, so I was hoping to make up for it by finishing a couple of stories tonight that he assigned me."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Lois said quickly. "I didn't mean to interrupt your night. I'll let you go."

"No, wait." Clark sat up from his relaxed position on the couch and clutched the phone more tightly to his ear. "I didn't mean to imply that you were interrupting. In fact, I'm really glad you called." His paused and began to finger a loose thread on the seam of his jeans. "This dual life has been hard to adjust to, and I can't tell you how nice it is to have someone to talk to about it. Anyway, I just…well…thanks for listening."

The smile was evident in Lois's voice when she responded. "Any time, Clark. But just so you know, I'm not being entirely selfless, here. I love talking to you, too."

Clark chuckled as he switched the phone to his other ear. "In that case, I think we're going to be in big trouble."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you have any idea how much our phone bills are going to be?"

Lois laughed. "I hadn't thought about that. Maybe I'd better get a second job to pay for it."

"Or maybe I'll just save us both some money and drop by more often."

There was a pause. Then Lois said softly, "I'll hold you to that, you know."

Clark's heart warmed at her words and he found himself wondering why he was sitting here talking to her when he could be there holding her and kissing her. But then he glanced at the clock and knew he couldn't. One hour would turn into two, then maybe three or four. As much as he liked the idea of being with her, he had stories to write.

"I guess I'd better go," he said at length. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, though, okay? But maybe I'll email you to save the money."

The sound of her lilting laughter made him smile. "It's a deal. Good night, Clark."

"'Night, Lois."

He heard the phone click, but he continued to hold the phone to his ear for several more moments. Finally, he clicked the 'off' button and walked over to set the phone in its base.

Feeling happier than he'd been in a very long time, he whistled as he walked over to computer to get to work on his stories.

***

Lex sat in his favorite leather chair in his den, a fire crackling in the fireplace and the lights in the room dimmed. The ambiance was lost on him, however, as he studied the report in his hand.

"It appears Superman will be a formidable adversary," he told Nigel, who stood motionless in the room after delivering the testing results on Metropolis's superhero.

"Formidable, yes." Nigel nodded, watching his employer carefully. "He appears to be invulnerable. Clearly not what you were wanting to hear."

But Lex appeared unruffled as he smiled a little and pursed his lips. "No, but I like the idea of having a challenge. All great men in history were challenged, yet rose above. This is my chance to do the same." He stood up and tossed the stapled pages onto his desk. "It may appear that this 'Superman' is invulnerable, but I intend to find a way to eliminate him. It's only a matter of time before I do."

With a confident nod thanking Nigel for the results, he strode from the room. He had things to do and a strategy to plan.

***

Lois walked out of her editor's office and shut the door behind her. Maintaining her composure, she went around the corner where she was out of sight from her coworkers. Then, looking around to make sure nobody was looking, she betrayed her cool outward exterior by doing a little dance step and pumping her fist.

Yes! He had bought it. When she'd gone into Jim's office that morning to present him with the information she'd gathered on her Mesopotamia, Inc. and the Metropolis shipping company investigation, she half expected him to tell her he'd killed the story for a reason not long ago and assign her another fluff piece instead.

But, much to her surprise, he had listened and even told her it looked like she was on to something. He'd tempered his announcement that she could work on the story by insisting he didn't want it to be her main focus just yet until she'd gathered more hard facts, and wanted her to keep working on a couple of her other stories in the meantime.

Even so, she considered his permission to go forward with the story a victory. She guessed that meant she was now officially out of her editor's doghouse.

Hurrying to her desk, she brought up a blank email and sent off an enthusiastic note to Clark, telling him Jim Langley had green- lighted her story. She asked if Jimmy had been able to come up with any more background information on the Metropolis shipping company, commenting that the Chronicle's own research assistant was swamped and hadn't been able to give her the information she wanted.

She sent the email, then started going back through the information she had gathered thus far. A few minutes later, her email program chimed, alerting her to the arrival of new email. Turning to her computer screen, her heart did a little dance when she saw the email was from Clark.

*Lois,

I'm so excited to hear your editor gave you the go-ahead with the story! Maybe now we can track down whoever's behind this. I'm beginning to think it's not just a case of somebody wanting to collect insurance money. If what you're discovering is correct, there's the possibility of money laundering, smuggling, and so much more. I hope it's big enough to get you out of your editor's doghouse for good.

Sorry to hear your research person is behind. Don't worry, though. Jimmy has come through, as usual. He gave me a big stack of papers on Mesopotamia, Inc.'s finances, business dealings, and miscellaneous records. I'm faxing the most interesting ones to you, and maybe I'll just bring the rest in person later. I know you'll say I don't need an excuse to come, but I'll consider it just that. ;)*

Lois grinned as she read his words, her heart warming at the thought of seeing him again soon. Then she continued to read:

*On a separate subject, I think you'll find this interesting. You know that double suicide? Jimmy did a background check for me on those two jumpers, and get this. Both of them worked for LexCorp. That seems a little coincidental, don't you think? I'm going to do a little more digging and see if I can find any other connections. I'll keep you posted.

Check your fax, and let me know what you think of the new info. I hope we can get together soon to compare notes on everything. I only wish we worked at the same newspaper. It would be so great to work with you on these things in person. I can't imagine having a better partner than you. :)

Hope to see you soon!

Love,

Clark*

Lois smiled at the 'Love, Clark'. 'Love' sent her spiraling, and made her feel warm inside and out.

Still smiling at his words, she leaned back in her chair to ponder Clark's findings on the jumpers. Could there really be a connection between those "tests" and LexCorp? She wasn't so sure that one connection was enough to link the two suicidal jumpers. From everything she'd read about LexCorp, it was a huge company. They employed thousands of workers in many numbers of fields, ranging from nuclear physicists at power plants and scientists at labs, to investment firms and media-based companies. The fact that both jumpers were employed by LexCorp didn't necessarily mean anything, did it? It could be coincidence…or not. It didn't give them any hard evidence, but it did suggest there might be something to look into.

Deciding to talk to Clark more about that when she saw him, she went to the fax machine to look for the information from Clark. There were a dozen or so papers on the fax machine, which she grabbed eagerly and went back to her desk.

The rest of the morning was spent poring over the new information, using a highlighter to mark sections she found particularly interesting. She suspected they had a long way to go in building their investigation, though, and she hoped she could use the new information to tie in to her own research.

She was so engrossed in her work that she didn't notice her coworkers gathering around the bank of TV monitors off to her right until she heard several people gasp. She looked up quickly and spotted the gathering. With furrowed brow, she pushed her chair back from her desk and wandered over to see what was happening.

Stopping beside her coworkers, she turned her attention to the breaking news story. The on-site Japanese correspondent was explaining that there had been a volcanic eruption, and it looked to be one of the biggest in history. Dozens of people had already been killed, and while there were rescue crews on the scene, nobody seemed to be able to evacuate the villagers fast enough to escape the lava flows.

The camera panned to the right and Superman came into view. The correspondent explained that he had arrived a little over an hour ago and was doing all he could to help the rescue crews evacuate the villagers and attempt to build dams to slow the lava flow.

Lois was unable to tear her eyes away from the devastating events playing out a world away. She watched along with the world as Clark—Superman—did everything he could to help. Her heart grew heavy as she realized he was fighting a losing battle. The lava was simply descending upon everything—and everyone—in its path too quickly.

The coverage continued on into the afternoon, and Lois had to force herself to go back to work. She kept checking back from time to time, saddened and sickened at the rising death toll. She heard more mentions of Superman doing various things to help as the hours passed, and she found herself wondering how Clark was holding up under the particularly devastating circumstances.

It was getting late when she finally shut down her computer for the day. She packed Clark's faxed pages and some of her own research into her attache, then headed for the elevators. She stepped out into the lobby minutes later and was on her way out of the building when the afternoon edition of the Chronicle sitting on the newsstand caught her eye.

A gasp escaped her lips. She picked up a newspaper and looked at the headline and picture that jumped out at her from the front page. The story had been written by a foreign correspondent on the scene in Japan, and the headline was bold and heartbreaking:

*Superman Reveals Human Side*

Below the headline was a larger-than-life, color picture of a very dirty and rumpled Superman with tears coursing down his cheeks, and the limp, lifeless body of a young girl in his arms.

Lois felt an invisible hand clench around her heart. Numbly, she fished some money out of her pocket and handed it to the man at the stand. Her eyes never left the paper as she walked into the parking garage and climbed into her car. There she read the details of the events that had transpired earlier that day, including the event shown in the picture. When she finished, her tear-filled eyes went once again to the picture. Her heart ached for Clark. Knowing what a loving, tender-hearted man he was, she was sure this was killing him.

She drove home in a daze, barely managing to concentrate as she navigated the busy streets. Her thoughts were solely on Clark, and she decided to phone him the second she got home. She had no idea if he would be back in Metropolis yet, but all she knew was that she had to try. If he wasn't home yet, the least she could do was leave a message for him on his answering machine to let him know she'd seen what had happened and wanted to know how he was doing.

By the time Lois finally reached her apartment, darkness had settled in. She rode up in the elevator, then tiptoed to her apartment door. For once, she didn't feel like talking to Agnes. All she wanted to do was slip inside her apartment unnoticed and call Clark.

Unlocking her door, she hurried inside and flipped on the lights. As she did, a sudden movement in her living room made her gasp. The sight of a man on her couch caused her hand to fly to her throat and adrenaline to rush through her veins. But a moment later, she recognized the man and breathed a sigh of relief. It was Clark.

Forcing her racing heart to slow, Lois lowered her hand and drew a shaky breath. "Oh my gosh, Clark, you scared the daylights out of me." She started toward him, but her steps slowed as she got a good look at him. He was still in his Superman costume and was streaked with dirt and ash. His hair was tousled, his shoulders were slumped, and his cheeks were patchy and red from crying. He looked utterly devastated.

Her heart constricting, she went and sat beside him on the couch. He didn't even seem to register her presence as she put a hand on his knee.

"Clark—" she began, but her voice trailed off. For once, she had no idea what to say. She gave herself a mental shake and tried again. "Clark, I saw the coverage on the news. Are you okay?"

For the first time since her arrival, he moved. He shifted his weight on the couch and shook his head. He blinked a couple of times, then cleared his throat. Finally, he managed to speak. His voice was hoarse and strained as he spoke. "Lois, it was horrible. Nobody was expecting the volcano to erupt as violently as it did. The villagers had hardly any warning. I did all I could, but we couldn't get everyone evacuated in time."

His voice wavered and then drifted off, and Lois could see the muscle working in his jaw as he struggled for composure. She lifted a hand to his back, rubbing soothingly. "I know," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."

He shook his head, still looking as if he were in shock. "I keep thinking about how many people died…how many people I couldn't get to in time… But the worst part was…" His voice faltered and broke, and he swallowed hard past the lump in his throat. "There was this little girl who had been separated from her parents. They had gotten away safely, but the rescue teams and I mounted a search for her. I—I finally found her, but she was…" His voice choked again to a halt and a sob escaped. "I was too late…"

This time he broke down in earnest, sobs wracking his body. He leaned forward, dropping his head into his hands, and let the tears come. Instinctively, Lois slipped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him to her. His head slumped against her shoulder as his cries shook his body.

With tears in her own eyes, she slid both arms around him and held him tightly, stunned by his unexpected emotional response. He clung to her as if she were his lifeline, letting many hours of pent-up emotions flood to the surface. For a long time, Lois held him without speaking, her hand stroking his dark, rumpled hair in an effort to console him.

When his sobs finally diminished, he straightened a little, his face creased with exhaustion. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to show up here and get into your apartment without permission, but I didn't know where else to go…"

"I'm glad you came," she reassured him quietly. "I want you to feel like you can talk to me whenever you need to. I know how horrible this must have been for you, but Clark, you can't blame yourself for the death of that little girl, or for the deaths of any of those other people. No one can expect you to be everywhere at once. You did your best, and there are a lot of people alive today *because* of you. Maybe that's what you should think about instead—the people you did help, rather than the ones you couldn't."

"But that's just it, Lois," Clark argued. "The ones I didn't help are the ones who will be haunting my dreams and keeping me awake at night. How can I live with myself, knowing that I couldn't save them—especially that little girl? I keep thinking that maybe there was something more I could have done. Maybe I could have been faster, maybe I could have tried a little harder, or anticipated better. There has to be something that—"

"Clark, stop!" Lois's stern yet sympathetic voice caused him to break off and look up at her. "You. Did. Your. Best." She enunciated each word for added emphasis. "No one can ask you to do more than that. Without you, none of those people would have survived. Yes, you have some special powers you can use to help people, but that does not make you perfect. It was a terrible thing to happen, but it was not…your…fault. Do you understand me?"

Clark didn't answer for a long time, but he finally nodded. She could tell from his expression that he still wasn't convinced, though, and she sighed. What was she supposed to say to convince him? Then it dawned on her that there were likely no magic words. He may be physically invulnerable, but she was acutely aware of how good his heart was, and how vulnerable that made him inside. His powers made him super, but his emotions made him human. She wasn't sure that was a very healthy combination when you factored in his guilt and his tenderness for his fellow man.

With new sympathy for the man sitting beside her, she once again reached out and took him into her arms, hugging him tightly. Without hesitation, he slipped his own arms around her and clung to her. His tears had long since been spent, but he seemed to take comfort in her closeness.

Lois had no idea how long they sat that way, holding each other, but when Clark finally pulled away, he didn't look quite as despondent. She reached up to wipe a smudge of dirt from his cheek with her thumb. "Are you going to be okay?"

He nodded, his gaze still pained as it met her compassionate one. He glanced down at himself and his eyes suddenly widened as he took in his appearance. He jumped up and looked with dismay at her dirt-smudged couch. "Oh, Lois, I'm so sorry! When I got here I was just so… I didn't even think about—"

"Clark, it's okay," she reassured him, standing up to take his hands in hers. "You don't have to apologize. I had everything Scotchguarded when I bought it because I eat out here all the time and didn't want to have to worry about spills. It will clean up just fine. You, on the other hand, are a wreck." She smiled when he looked at her, clearly surprised by her matter-of-fact statement. "You're welcome to use my shower, and I'm sure I can scrounge up some clothes that would fit you. I always wear oversized sweats to lounge around in on my sloppy days."

Clark hesitated. "Are you sure you don't mind? It's not that big a deal for me to fly back to Metropolis—"

Lois cut him off by grabbing his arm and dragging him toward the hall. "Clark, you're exhausted. In the state you're in, you'd probably crash into the Golden Gate Bridge or something." She led him into the hall bathroom and flipped on the light. Then she pulled a couple of towels out from under the sink, shoved them into his arms, then told him to wait there as she hurried across the hall into her bedroom. She rummaged through her drawers for a moment and returned to him with an oversized white T-shirt, a baggy pair of blue sweats, and a pair of drawstring boxer shorts that made him cock an eyebrow.

She rolled her eyes at his expression. "No, they're not an old boyfriend's pair or anything," she insisted indignantly, knowing that was exactly what he was thinking. "I just like sleeping in baggy boxers, okay?" She put a hand to his chest and pushed him back until he was standing in the bathroom. Then she closed the door between them, grinning to herself at the look of surprise on his face. Clearly, he wasn't used to being ordered around by slender women half his size.

Trying to give him his privacy, she went into the kitchen and opened her fridge. Maybe she had something she could whip up for a quick dinner. She didn't know if he was hungry, or if he even had to eat, but she was starving. It had been a long time since her hastily eaten sandwich at lunch.

She spotted a plate of chicken drumsticks Agnes had brought over the day before and stuck them in the microwave. With a quick flip of her wrist, she turned the knob, then punched the 'start' button. When that was on its way, Lois turned and surveyed the kitchen. She grimaced. It had been a couple of days since she'd cleaned up, and she noticed a couple of cereal bowls with cereal dried and stuck to the inside, and a ring of congealing milk inside the bottom. She quickly put them in the sink and filled them with hot water to soak, then spotted the empty take-out cartons near the stove.

She heard the shower turn off and knew she'd better hurry. Apparently, he even used his super powers to speed through his showers. She grabbed the garbage can from the corner and carried it to counter so she could sweep the empty containers and crumpled napkins into the garbage with a quick swipe of her arm. Then she rushed back across the kitchen to set the garbage can back in its spot.

Acutely aware that she was almost out of time, she grabbed the sponge next to the sink and stuck it under the stream of water still pouring from the faucet into the cereal bowls. She yelped as the hot water soaked her sponge and burned her hand. She jerked her hand back, sending a stream of water flying behind her across the kitchen—and onto Clark as he stepped into the room.

She gasped as the water splattered his startled face and shirtfront. "Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry!" she apologized as she grabbed a dishtowel from the counter, then cradled her still stinging hand against her as she hurried over to hand him the towel. He smiled a little, seeming a little more like his old self after a hot shower. 'Or two,' she thought with a grimace, 'if you count the one I just gave him.'

"You didn't think I was clean enough?" he joked. His voice still sounded strained from his experience, but she was relieved to hear a hint of his usual sense of humor returning. He flipped the dishtowel up to rest over his shoulder and reached for her hand. "Let me see."

He took the hand she held out to him, grasping her fingertips lightly as he examined the reddened skin. "You burned yourself pretty good here. Let's get it under some cold water." He led her to the sink, turned off the hot water, then turned on the cold. He checked the temperature first, then guided her hand under the water.

She flinched as the cool water made her burned skin tingle, but she didn't pull her hand from Clark's grasp. Lois looked up to see Clark's eyes on her. His expression was tender, yet there was still a haunting sadness behind his eyes. It was quiet for a moment, the running facet and the humming microwave the only sounds in the room.

Just then the sound of something exploding in the microwave made them both jump. Their gazes flew to the appliance, and Clark quickly dropped her hand and rushed over to open the door. Lois turned off the cold water, then followed. She grimaced as she peered around him to see little bits of exploded chicken clinging to the insides of the microwave.

Clark glanced at the microwave's timer. "You put chicken in for fifteen minutes? It only needs a couple. No wonder it exploded."

"Oops," she said, looking sheepish. "I just turned the knob to nothing in particular, meaning to come back and check on it in a minute, but I guess I let it go too long."

Clark chuckled in spite of himself as he took the plate of what remained of the chicken out of the microwave and set it on the counter. "You really are a disaster in the kitchen. I've only been in here a couple of minutes and you've already burned your hand and blew up your dinner."

He smiled at her over his shoulder, then turned to face her. Seeing her wet hand dripping onto the floor, he reached up for the towel across his shoulder. He went over to the sink and ran it under cold water, wrung out the excess, and handed it to her. "Here, wrap this around your hand for a few minutes. It will help."

When she did as she was told, Clark went over to survey the now rubbery chicken. "I'm sorry to say your chicken looks pretty hopeless. Let's see what else we can find you to eat." He threw away the remnants of the chicken and walked over to her fridge. Opening the door, he looked inside and shook his head. "How do you even stay alive? There isn't even enough in here to make a single meal."

He surveyed what little she had in the fridge and then moved on to her cupboards. He opened and closed each door in search of ingredients.

Lois watched him from her perch on the barstool at the island in the center of her kitchen, feeling a little like a scolded child. How did she explain that she'd never had an opportunity to learn how to cook, and that her meals usually consisted of pizzas, take- out, and microwave dinners? With no mother around to teach her such things, fending for herself had taken on the form of quick, easy meals.

Clark pulled a couple of cans out of the cupboard, a forgotten, half-empty bag of shell noodles, and a small block of cheese from the fridge. Then he extracted a couple of pans from another cupboard and set them on the stove. He used the can opener he found in one of the drawers to start opening the cans. Lois watched with interest as he worked.

As if sensing her gaze, Clark glanced up and smiled when their eyes met. "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to teach you to cook. You have to keep yourself healthy, you know. If not for you, for me."

His eyes were earnest as he spoke the last words, and Lois had no trouble understanding that he felt grateful to have her to turn to when things happened like they had that day.

Lois smiled back, and Clark inclined his head. "Come over here and I'll show you a really simple recipe."

She climbed off the stool and tossed the damp towel from her hand onto the counter next to the sink before walking over to Clark. When she stopped beside him, he lifted his hand to her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze. For the next few minutes, he talked her through cooking the noodles, then draining them before adding the sauce he'd concocted from a couple different cans of soup. Then he helped her pour the ingredients into a small casserole dish, sprinkle the top with grated cheese, and slide it into the hot oven. Twenty minutes later, the stove timer went off. Clark pulled the bubbling dish out of the oven and set it on the stove top with a flourish.

"Voila. Instant dinner."

Lois had to admit, she was impressed. He hadn't even worked from a recipe card or a cookbook. "How did you know what to include in the casserole? I would have never been able to look through my cupboards and pull a dish like this together."

He shrugged as he took two plates out of the cupboard and set them on the counter next to the stove. "It just takes practice. The more you cook, the easier it is to know what will work and what won't."

He dished them up, and they sat down on barstools next to each other at the island. "This is really good," Lois said with appreciation around the hot bite in her mouth. "I'm impressed."

"Don't be. It's nothing fancy, but it has to be better than mutilated chicken."

Lois laughed at his thinly veiled joke. "I'm still embarrassed about that. The last thing I wanted to do was make you cook for me. You've been through enough today."

Her mention of the day's events caused a pained look to resurface in Clark's eyes. Lois immediately wished she could take back her words. "Clark, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"

"No, it's okay." He shook his head, cutting off her apology. "Besides, I liked cooking dinner for you. It gave me something to do to take my mind off things. I suspect it will be a while before I can think about today's events without remembering everything that happened." His voice held a note of sadness. "Anyway, I just want to thank you for letting me show up unannounced tonight. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."

Lois's frown turned to a gentle smile. "You're welcome. Any time you feel like you need to, I'd love for you to come by. My window is always open."

Clark chuckled at the change in wording of the familiar expression. "Thanks. It's nice to know that, especially for those times when I really don't want to be alone."

They finished eating and put their dishes in the sink. Lois glanced up at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was just after nine o'clock. "You don't have to rush off, do you?" she asked Clark as he refilled his glass with water from the faucet.

He shook his head. "Not unless you feel like I'm imposing."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Like that would ever happen. I'd love to have you hang around for a while longer. Maybe I can show you what I've learned from our combined Mesopotamia, Inc. notes."

Clark brightened. "You found something?"

"Nothing conclusive yet," she admitted, "but there are some interesting things when you compare your research notes to mine."

She retrieved her attache from where she'd dropped it just inside the front door and carried it over to the coffee table. At about the same time, she noticed Clark emerge from the kitchen with the damp dishtowel. She watched, curiously, as he crossed over to the couch and dropped to his knees before it. Then he started to wipe at the dirt streaks on the cushion.

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Clark, stop! You don't need to do that. I can clean it later."

"Not when I'm the one who made the mess."

Rolling her eyes skyward, she realized this wasn't an argument she was going to win. She sighed. "Okay, fine. While you do that, though, I'm going to change out of these work clothes and into something more comfortable. Do you mind?"

Clark glanced up from his scrubbing. "Of course not. Go ahead."

Leaving him to his scrubbing, she turned and walked to her bedroom at the other end of her apartment and shut the door. She changed out of her business suit and heels, and into a pair of well-worn jeans and a cropped, loose T-shirt that was one of her favorites. Then she went into her private master bath and let her hair down from the professional-looking bun she'd been wearing that day. Brushing her hair back, she secured it in a simple ponytail and then checked her reflection in the mirror. Casual and comfortable. Much better.

Turning off the lights in her bathroom and bedroom, she wandered back into the living room. She was just in time to see Clark standing up from his kneeling position in front of the couch, apparently satisfied with his cleaning job. He caught sight of her coming into the room and looked her up and down. Then he gave her his first genuine smile of the evening.

She glanced down at herself, suddenly feeling self-conscious. "What?"

"Nothing." Clark shook his head as she approached. "It's just— well, I've never seen you dressed so casually before. I like it."

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Why don't I believe you?"

"Really, I do," Clark insisted, his tone sincere. "I like you like this—just Lois, hanging out at her apartment after work." His smile softened and he took a step closer. "But most of all, I like hanging out *with* you. You make me feel—"

His voice trailed off as he searched for the word he was looking for, and Lois waited with her breath in her throat. Finally, he smiled and finished with, "Better. You make me feel better. You give me the strength to go on. Without you, I'm not sure I could have after today."

"Clark, please don't say things like that," she told him with a frown. "I know you meant it as a compliment, but it just makes me worry about you. Besides, I'm sure you would have bounced back without me. What about your parents? Surely you could have gone to them and told them how rough your day was."

"Not with this," he admitted quietly. "If I had shown up an emotional wreck at their place like I did here, they would have been beside themselves with worry. They're worried enough about me already, and I can hear them telling me I should quit, how none of this is healthy…" His voice trailed off and he sighed. "I *want* to help people, Lois. And for the most part, it's everything I wanted it to be. I just hadn't expected days like today."

He looked down, unable to meet her gaze as he continued. "Anyway, when I was flying back from Japan, all I could think of was how I couldn't show up at my parents' house in the state I was in. But I couldn't stand the thought of going back to my empty apartment, either. That's when I found myself steering my way over here. Somehow I knew I could only find the comfort I needed with you." When he finally looked back up at her, his eyes were bright with tears. "I'll probably have nightmares for months about the things I saw, but I just know I'll be able to get through that knowing I'm not so alone anymore."

Lois felt tears welling up in her own eyes. Without hesitation, she stepped forward and slipped her arms around Clark's waist, hugging him tightly. His arms went around her in response, and she pressed her cheek against the strong wall of his chest. An understanding passed between them that didn't require words, and Lois felt the bond they shared even stronger than ever.

"Promise me you'll at least phone your parents to tell them you're okay, though," Lois urged. "The media coverage was shown on pretty much every channel, and I know they'd worry if they didn't hear from you."

He nodded. "I was already planning on calling them."

It was quiet for several moments, then Clark cleared his throat and stepped out of their embrace. "Now, before I start to dwell again on everything that happened today, let's talk about something else. You said you'd made some connections in your research?"

Lois nodded and bent over to retrieve her notes and papers from her attache. She sat down on the couch and Clark did the same. Showing him the highlighted sections she'd researched in the last few days, his interest grew.

"Jimmy dug up a bunch more information that I think would help fill in some of these blanks," Clark told her as he flipped through her research. "I'm going to have to fly back out here with that stuff, though. I don't think anybody would be very happy with me if I faxed the whole stack of papers to you."

"Probably not. Flying out here with them sounds like the way to go." Then she shook her head and grinned. "It sounds so funny to hear myself saying that. I have to admit, this has all the makings of the easiest long-distance relationship in history."

Clark laughed. "Thank goodness, because if we had to rely on airplanes and telephone calls, we'd be broke."

They talked for a while longer, but the time finally came when Clark knew it was time for him to go. He stood up and pulled Lois to her feet beside him. "Come on. Before I go, let me help you with the dishes."

"Clark, you—"

"And before you argue that I don't have to do that," he cut her off and grinned when she looked surprised that he'd anticipated her protest correctly, "I should tell you that I have surefire ways of keeping you from arguing."

Catching the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, she smiled and moved closer. "You do, huh? Like what, exactly?"

Accepting what sounded to him like a dare, Clark demonstrated his method of silencing her protests by bending down and pressing his lips to hers.

Lois leaned into his kiss, relaxing against him. "Mmm," she murmured when their kiss finally ended. "If that's what I'll get for arguing, I promise I'll argue a lot more often."

She leaned in to kiss him once more and Clark laughed against her lips. "Sounds good to me," he mumbled.

After a few more light kisses, Clark took her hand and led her into the kitchen. "Don't ever let me hear you say I didn't pull my weight around the house. I can wash dishes extra fast without breaking a single one." Then he grimaced. "Okay, occasionally one. But that wasn't my fault. I heard shots fired and dropped it in my haste to spin change into Superman."

Lois laughed. "Leave it to you to have a spectacular story about breaking a dish."

Clark proceeded to demonstrate how fast he could do the dishes, and Lois teased him about showing her up as she had to dry dishes at normal human speed. She was glad to see that his mood seemed to be brightening as the evening wore on, and she hoped the worst of his experience was over.

He helped her dry the remainder of the dishes, and Lois put them back in the cupboards. She was standing on her tiptoes, putting a large bowl up on one of the higher shelves in the cabinet, when she heard Clark gasp.

"Lois, what happened?"

Startled, she glanced over at Clark to see him staring at her stomach. Her gaze dropped to see what he was looking at, and she saw that her stretching motion had caused her short shirt to lift up. In plain sight was her long, harsh-looking scar running from just above her belly button up towards her ribs, where it disappeared beneath the fabric of her shirt. A few other smaller scars ran at various angles on either side of it.

She quickly dropped her arms and tugged her short shirt down self- consciously over her stomach. "Oh, um, nothing," she stammered, attempting to shrug nonchalantly. "It's nothing, really."

Clark opened his mouth to press for information but then thought better of it and closed it again. Lois breathed a sigh of relief as he let the subject drop.

"Well, I guess I should head out," he said. Then he glanced around the kitchen. "You don't happen to have a plastic grocery bag anywhere, do you?"

She stared at him in confusion. "Why?"

"I almost forgot about my Superman costume. It's too dirty to put back on, so I thought I'd carry it home in a bag and wear what I'm wearing on the way home. If that's okay with you."

"Sure, that's fine," she said. "Don't you worry about flying home in anything but the Suit, though? What if somebody sees you?"

"I'll fly high enough that nobody will. Then I'll land in the deserted alley not far from my apartment. It's after one A.M. in Metropolis, so I should be able to get home undetected."

Lois pulled a plastic grocery bag from a drawer and handed it to him. He went into the bathroom to put his folded, dirty Suit into the bag and returned to where Lois was standing on her balcony, admiring her view of the city.

"Thanks for the use of the clothes," he told her, fingering the sweats and T-shirt she'd lent him. "I'll bring these back to you next time I come over."

"Sure, no problem." She glanced up at him, then dropped her gaze to the thin, gold ring she wore on the middle finger of her right hand. She began to twist it nervously as she spoke. "Speaking of coming over," she began, "I know you've already been out here a couple of times in the last week, but I was kind of wondering…"

When she didn't continue right away, Clark prompted, "Yes?"

Unable to look up to meet his gaze, she forged ahead. "I was kind of wondering if you might like to…well…go on an official date."

A slow grin spread across Clark's face. "I'd love to go out on a date with you," he told her, closing the rest of the distance between them and reaching out for her fingers. "When? Where?"

Feeling more courageous now that he'd accepted, she looked up at him and shrugged. "I don't know…maybe Friday? We could go out to dinner. I know this great little place that isn't swarmed by tourists. I'm sure you'll love it. And maybe I could give you a tour of the city, and show you some of the sights… What do you think?"

"It sounds great. What time should I be here?"

Lois let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Maybe around five o'clock? You'd be off work by then because of the time zone difference, but it would still be light enough here to show you around the city."

Clark's smile broadened. "That sounds perfect." After a few moments of comfortable silence, Clark's expression softened as he tightened his grip on her hands. "Thanks again for letting me come here tonight, Lois. I don't know how I would have gotten through everything that happened today without you."

She smiled up at him and squeezed his hands back. "No thanks are necessary. I'm just glad I could help."

Clark leaned down to kiss her gently, then he stepped back, clutching the bag containing his Suit. "Goodnight, Lois. I'll look forward to seeing you on Friday."

"Me too."

With one last smile, Clark turned and lifted off the ground, soaring into the night sky. Lois shook her head as she watched him go. It looked so strange to see him do that in Clark clothes. She'd only ever seen him do it in his Superman costume, and somehow it gave her an extra rush seeing him do it as "Clark." Turning, she walked back into her apartment and shut the sliding glass door behind her.

Their first official date. That was an important milestone, wasn't it? She suspected it was, but it didn't seem like the typical first date. She already knew she liked him, and they'd already kissed.

She smiled at that. How could she forget? He was a great kisser. And an official date usually had kissing in there somewhere, didn't it?

Her smile broadened. The possibility gave her just one more reason to look forward to Friday.

***

"Hey, Clark, where are you off to in such a hurry?"

Clark glanced over his shoulder as he walked up the ramp from the Daily Planet's newsroom. He spotted Jimmy hurrying to catch up with him and slowed his pace. "Hi, Jimmy. I, uh…I have a date."

Jimmy's eyebrows crawled clear up to his hairline. "You have a date?"

"Yeah…" Clark drew out the word, wondering why that was surprising. "Why?"

A broad grin spread across his friend's face. "Nothing. It's just…I don't think you've gone out with anyone since you moved to Metropolis."

Clark felt his defenses go up. "That's not true. I go out."

Jimmy's grin broadened even further. "Going out with me and the other guys doesn't count."

"Ha-ha, very funny," Clark drawled as he continued on to the elevator. Okay, so he didn't go out very much. Or at all. But that was because he hadn't found anyone he wanted to go out with. That is, until now. Regardless, what business was it of Jimmy's?

He took a deep breath and forced a patience he didn't feel. If he didn't hurry, he wasn't going to have time to shower and change before flying to San Francisco. When he reached the elevator, he turned back to Jimmy, who was still on his heels. "Is there a point to this?"

Jimmy's smile slipped a bit when he saw that Clark wasn't smiling. "Hey, CK, I didn't mean…I was just teasing, and I didn't—"

Clark sighed and realized he had sounded harsher than he'd intended. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I'm not mad. I'm just a little preoccupied, I guess. Yes, I have a date, and yes, this is our first date. Sort of." Clark made a face at the amendment. It wasn't as if he could tell Jimmy the circumstances. His friend had no idea he could fly anywhere in the world to see the love of his life.

"So, is this woman hot?" Jimmy asked, his good nature restored by Clark's apology and explanation. When he saw Clark's face flush slightly, his own grin flashed back across his face. "Ahh, she *is* hot! All right, CK!" He clapped Clark on the shoulder. But then he sobered and shook his head. "It's too bad Lois Lane doesn't live closer. Now *that* woman is the ultimate definition of hot. I could have really seen you two together."

Clark breathed in sharply at the unexpected comment and started to cough. Jimmy looked at him strangely, but just then the elevator doors opened and Clark breathed a sigh of relief at its perfect timing. "I should probably get going," he told the younger man. "See you tomorrow, Jimmy."

"Be sure to tell me how it goes!"

Clark smiled and shook his head as the elevator began its descent. He knew he wouldn't have to wait to tell Jimmy how the date had gone. He could tell him right now. It was going to be wonderful.

A flutter of anticipation filled his stomach as he thought about what Lois might be doing right then. Was she as nervous and excited about their date as he was? Was she at home, rushing around to get ready? She was probably putting on something that would make her look amazing. Not that she needed to put on anything to look amazing. He was certain she would look incredible in nothing.

His eyes widened at the thought and a blush crept across his cheeks. Whoops. That hadn't been what he'd meant. But now that the thought was in his head, he found his thoughts turning to the glimpses of bare skin he'd gotten of her in the short time they'd known each other: the expanse of long, bare leg emerging from her short skirt in Perry's office, then again when she'd ripped her skirt clear up to the top of her thigh after her encounter with the would-be mugger. Then there was the tantalizing view he'd gotten of her bare midriff the other evening when her shirt had lifted up as she'd reached to put the bowl high up in the cupboard.

His smile faded at the memory. He remembered the troubling image of the long, harsh scar on her stomach, and the little ones around it. She'd seemed so unsettled when he'd asked her about it. What had happened? What was she hiding? He realized they had only known each other for a short time, but he already felt like he could tell her anything. Clearly, that wasn't the case with her. Not yet, anyway.

The realization gave him new resolve. He would do everything in his power to prove to her he was worthy of her complete trust. It would help deepen their relationship, and he only hoped it wouldn't be long before she felt as trusting of him as he was of her.

The elevator chimed and the doors opened. Glancing again at his watch, Clark hurried out through the lobby and outside into a nearby deserted alley. With time as short as it was, he needed some 'super' help getting home and ready for his date quickly. He made sure no one was looking, then took off for home.

***

When Clark finally stepped off the elevator at Lois's apartment building and onto her floor, his nerves were a jittery mess. The hall was deserted, and he took a moment to pause and collect himself.

'It's just Lois,' he told himself in an effort to calm his jitters. 'There's no reason to be nervous.' But no matter how many times he told himself that, it didn't seem to help. Nervous was exactly what he was.

He had just taken a few steps towards Lois's apartment when the apartment door next to hers flew open, making him jump. He looked over to see an elderly woman appear in the doorway, her short but thick, silvery hair curled around her face. Her wrinkled face took on a look of concern when she realized where he was headed.

"Can I help you with something, young man?"

Clark started as he realized she was talking to him. Feeling very much like he had in third grade when he'd been caught snooping in the school's janitor closet during lunch, he froze in his tracks and swallowed. "Umm, I'm here to see Lois. I'm a friend—"

He was about to say more when Lois's door opened. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw her emerging from her apartment, smiling at him. When Clark's eyes darted to back to the woman, Lois's gaze followed his. She gave her neighbor a reassuring smile.

"It's okay, Agnes, this is Clark. He's my…" She paused, then turned back to Clark, her smile turning mischievous as she met his gaze. "…good friend," she finished.

Upon hearing the elderly woman's name, Clark realized this must be the Agnes Lois had mentioned as being kind of a surrogate mother. His body relaxed as he realized the elderly woman was simply being protective of Lois.

Agnes snorted. "Good friend, huh? Just what exactly does that mean? You're going to have to be more specific than that."

Lois rolled her eyes playfully, then turned back to Clark. "You'll have to forgive Agnes. She seems to think everyone who comes to see me requires the third degree."

"Humph," Agnes muttered indignantly, but Clark suspected she wasn't as put off by Lois's good-natured teasing as she sounded.

He opened his mouth to reassure the woman that his intentions with Lois were honorable, but just then a small white dog barreled out into the hallway, barking viciously. The next thing he knew, the dog had bit him on the ankle. Before he could react, the dog yipped in pain (he suspected those little teeth hadn't appreciated biting into a hard-as-steel, invulnerable leg), then backed off, still barking. He suspected it was in an effort to regain some of its dignity.

Realizing two people were staring at him in wide-eyed shock at the dog's behavior, he quickly pretended the dog's bite had hurt. "Ow," he exclaimed, reaching down to rub his ankle, hoping he sounded convincing.

"Princess!" Lois exclaimed, looking at the dog in dismay. "What has gotten into you? Agnes!"

Agnes bent over to pick up the dog at her feet and gave her a couple of reassuring strokes in an effort to soothe her. "Princess is protective, that's all," she said in defense of her dog. Then she looked up at Clark, a hint of suspicion shining in her eyes. "But she's also a pretty good judge of character. She knows better than most people when someone is hiding something." Agnes took a step closer to Clark, the dog still growling in her hands, and her eyebrows drew together as she scrutinized him. "You're not hiding anything, are you, young man?"

Clark tensed. To his immense relief, Lois came to his rescue.

"He's fine, Agnes, I promise," Lois said, giving the elderly woman's hand a pat. She grabbed Clark's hand and turned back to her apartment door. "We'll see you later."

Clark followed Lois into her apartment with very little urging, and he heaved a sigh of relief when she shut the door. "Whew," he breathed. "That's some neighbor you have there. She's certainly watching out for you."

Lois smiled. "Yeah, well, I've known Agnes a long time. Naturally, she's protective."

"And what's with that dog of hers? It's a good thing I'm invulnerable or I'd have teeth marks on my ankle."

Lois laughed as she led the way into her living room and they sat down on the couch. "Well, like Agnes said, maybe Princess knows you're hiding something. Maybe we should just go back over there and explain that you're Superman. Learning that you're hiding something honorable instead of something dishonorable might make her dog feel better, you know."

"Just the dog?" Clark grinned. "Maybe it would make Agnes feel better, knowing you're with a man who could protect you from the consequences of your own impulsiveness."

Lois made a face. "You've got a point there. But then I'm sure she'd find something about you not to like. According to her, nobody's good enough for me. I don't mind the way she is, though. It's actually kind of nice, knowing I have somebody looking out for me. Without her, I would have been terribly lonely."

The unspoken "since my parents and sister were killed" hovered in the air, and Clark wasn't sure if he should say something about the implication or not. Before he could decide, Lois glanced at the clock and stood back up, abruptly changing the subject.

"So? What do you want to do?" she asked, clapping her hands together in front of her. "Are you hungry? If you're as starved as I am, we could grab a bite to eat…" She suddenly paused as a thought occurred to her. "But then, maybe you don't get hungry. I mean, I know you eat, because we've eaten together, but…well, do you even get hungry? I mean, if you're not hungry and you don't want to do dinner, we could do something else, or—"

Clark reached for her hands. "Lois." When her babbling stopped, he gave her a reassuring smile. "Dinner would be great. I don't really need to eat, but that doesn't mean I don't like to."

Lois breathed an obvious sigh of relief, then gave him a sheepish look. "Sorry. I didn't think…I mean…I didn't want to offend you by how little I still know about you, and—"

"Lois." He interrupted her again. "There may still be things you don't know about me, but I hope you know you don't have to walk on eggshells around me. If there's something you want to know about me, just ask, okay?"

Relaxing a little, Lois nodded. "Okay." She took a step back, pulling her hands from his and smoothing the front of her tan slacks. "We won't want to go to any fancy restaurants. Not only are they incredibly expensive, but neither of us are that dressed up."

For the first time, Clark noticed how great she looked in tan slacks that emphasized her small waist and curvy figure, and the silky red sweater that gave a glow to her fair complexion. He was relieved that he had chosen clothes along the same level of dress. He had decided on his olive green Dockers, a black-and-white pinstriped shirt, and his black leather jacket. He had known the fall evening would be chilly in the city by the Bay, and while he wasn't susceptible to the temperature, he wanted to fit in with what others around him might be wearing.

"Whether or not you think you're dressed up, you look great," Clark said.

"You look great, yourself." Lois reached out to finger the lapel of his leather jacket. "Black is a great color for you. Very sexy."

Clark's heart skipped a beat. When he caught the mischievous glint in her eyes, he managed to laugh. "Thanks."

Lois surprised him by reaching for his hand, entwining her fingers through his, and giving his hand a squeeze. "Ready to go?"

"Absolutely."

They left the apartment complex in Lois's car, and Clark sat back in the passenger seat as they drove through the city, happy to listen as she told him a little about their surroundings. She explained there were lots of places to go and see in San Francisco, but most of them cost money—and often lots of it. But if you knew the city well, there were a lot of things to do that didn't require a load of cash.

She asked him about his food preferences, explaining that the city was well known for its restaurants and its variety of foods. There were restaurants in the city representing a wide variety of foods—Thai, Greek, Chinese, Cambodian… The list went on and on, but they finally decided to try a Chinese restaurant in China Town that Lois spoke highly of.

As she steered toward China Town, she admitted that it was one of her favorite places to visit, with its variety of stores and markets, as well as the colorful displays and cultural items.

After finding a place to park, they entered at the gateway on Grant Street where Chinese arches stretched above the entrance. They walked north, and Clark eagerly took in all the shops and colorful window displays. Before long they arrived at the tiny restaurant.

He was skeptical as they entered. The place looked like a dive, but he soon learned his first impressions had been deceptive. The food was incredible—as incredible and as authentic as any he'd eaten during his brief visits to China. What he enjoyed even more, though, was the easy conversation he and Lois shared as they ate. He knew it had only been a couple of days since he'd seen her, but in those two days he'd managed to forget how her smile lit up her eyes, and how the sound of her carefree laughter tugged at his heart.

When their meal was finished, Lois led him back out into the crowded streets, and he found himself enjoying the festive feeling of the area's ethnicity. Soon they were back in the car. The daylight was all but gone, but the night was barely noticeable as a blaze of lights gleamed down from streetlights and buildings throughout the city. The bustle of activity around the city only seemed to increase, as did the intense traffic. He'd lived in big cities before, but few seemed to have the energy of San Francisco.

They drove for a while around the city, and Lois told him about some of the city's bigger attractions, such as the dozens of theaters and the Museum of Natural Art. He was entranced by the streets of San Francisco, and found himself holding his breath on several occasions as she navigated the steep streets. They'd be driving down hills so steep he thought for sure the car was going to tip over frontward, and then they'd turn a corner and go up and up and up.

Signs dotted the curbs, warning drivers who were parking their cars to "curb your wheels" to prevent runaways down the steep inclines. He shook his head in amazement as he watched Lois use her left foot on the brake and her right on the gas almost simultaneously in order to navigate the hilly roads. After experiencing the streets, he had no idea how anybody could drive with a standard transmission in the city.

He continued to listen with interest as Lois told him about the bridges in the Bay Area. There was the Golden Gate, which was the shortest of all the bridges and connected San Francisco to the North Bay area. There was also the Bay Bridge, which connected San Francisco to the East Bay. He was fascinated to hear that it took a full three minutes to get from one side to the other, and that it was actually two bridges with Treasure Island in the middle. She told him of several other bridges, but he found himself looking forward to coming back to the city another time to walk along the pedestrian section of the Golden Gate with her. He was sure it was something he would love experiencing.

Their driving tour took them to Fisherman's Wharf, and Lois found a parking place not far away. As giddy as a kid on a field trip, Lois grabbed Clark's hand and pulled him toward the Wharf. Clark had to admit, it was amazing. There were tons of gift and specialty shops, but Lois steered him toward Boudin's, a place serving delicious clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. Even though it hadn't been long since they'd eaten, the soup they purchased was gone in a matter of minutes, the treat warming them from the inside and helping ward off the evening chill.

They wandered around for almost an hour, and Clark was captivated by the huge, black pots of boiling water dotting the piers, containing lobsters and other seafood being offered for quick meals. Just off one pier was a dozen or so log rafts about twenty-by-twenty feet square, where a couple of hundred sea lions could be seen and heard, their barking filling the night air.

Just when he thought they'd seen everything they could possibly see, Lois took his hand once again and hurried him along. Not far from where they were, they boarded one of the cable cars and rode it downtown. They got off at Union Square, where a bustling shopping district attracted tourists and residents alike.

"This place is amazing," Clark gushed as he took in the sights of the bustling city around him, holding on to Lois's hand tightly as they walked. Even though it was approaching ten o'clock, the stream of pedestrians and traffic only seemed to increase. "I can see why you love it here."

As soon as he said the words, he realized the appeal of the marvelous city could actually work to his disadvantage. If their relationship were to progress and things started to look promising between them, what would happen then? Surely she loved her city as much as he loved Metropolis. How did that fare for one of them moving closer to the other?

"It's never boring, that's for sure," Lois answered, looking around them as if seeing her city through the eyes of a newcomer. "Sometimes you can feel a little lost in a big city, though, you know? I've never lived in a small town like you have, but I expect it would feel more personal—like somebody there actually knew you and thought about you. A busy city doesn't hold that charm."

He nodded. "I know what you mean. Smallville is really little, and everybody knows everybody else. It's very personable and friendly. I think that's what I like the most about it."

They finally boarded a cable car and headed back to the Wharf. When it stopped the few short blocks away from where they'd parked, they climbed off. A breeze picked up, and Lois tightened her light jacket around her.

"Are you cold?" Clark asked as they stopped on a street corner to wait for the pedestrian light to signal that it was okay to cross.

"A little," she admitted. "The city always gets chilly at night with the cool air coming off the bay." She glanced around, noting that, for the first time that evening, they were alone on the sidewalk. She made a face and said dryly, "Let me guess. You're not cold because you're invulnerable."

Clark grinned. "It's one of the perks, yeah. I can't get hot or cold. My body kind of regulates everything just right."

"That must be nice." She looked pointedly at his long-sleeved shirt and leather jacket. "If you can't get cold, then why the warm clothes?"

He shrugged. "It's just one more way I try to fit in. If I never wore a coat on a cold winter day, or wore sweaters during the summer, it might look suspicious, you know? Here." He slipped out of his jacket and held it out for her. "Put this on. It'll warm you right up."

Lois hesitated for only a moment, then slipped her arms into the sleeves. She could feel his body warmth radiating from the jacket's lining. She smiled up at him gratefully. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

Lois started to button up the jacket in an effort to retain the comforting warmth, but just then the light turned green. She giggled as Clark grabbed her hand and pulled her along behind him as he half-walked, half-jogged across the street. They didn't slow down until they reached a store's darkened doorway several yards past the street corner.

Lois was a little breathless when they finally stopped and stepped into the store's doorway for a moment to shelter themselves from the breeze. Lois took advantage of the break to finish buttoning up the jacket. Her fingers, stiff from the cold, fumbled at the task.

Clark's hands were suddenly on hers, stilling their movements. She looked up to him, but the smile on her face fading when she saw the intensity in his gaze. Her heart started to hammer as he moved imperceptibly closer. His gaze lowered to the empty button hole near the collar.

His voice was husky and deep when he finally spoke. "It looks like you missed one."

She looked down in time to see him reach for the missed button and start to work it through the hole. Her pulse thudded and raced as his knuckles brushed the skin at the base of her throat. The simple contact created a current that went straight to her heart.

When the task was done, his fingers lingered near her throat. Slowly, hesitantly, their gazes lifted, and their eyes met and held. A silent moment of connection passed between them. The noises of the bustling city faded into the background, blurring all but each other.

Clark closed the remaining distance between them, his own pulse hammering in his ears. Unable to pull his gaze from the woman standing before him, his eyes roamed over her face, taking in the flawless, creamy skin, the dark brown eyes set off by his black leather jacket, and the silky, dark hair that danced around her shoulders. There was no doubt about it. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

The air seemed to crackle with electricity around them as Clark's eyes flickered down to her full, red lips, then back up to meet hers. At last he gave in to the urge to kiss her. His fingers tightened on the dark leather of her jacket—his jacket—and slowly pulled her to him. Then he leaned down to kiss her— slowly, tenderly, deliciously—and found himself wishing the moment would never end. When it finally did, he let his forehead rest lightly against hers, savoring the undeniable connection they shared.

The sound of a car horn honking jerked them back to the present, and Clark glanced around to see that they were no longer alone. The sidewalks were busy once again.

Letting his hands slip from her lapels, he took her hand and pulled her away from the storefront. "As much as I hate to go, we should get back to the car. You're going to freeze if we stay out here too much longer."

They walked the rest of the distance in silence and were at Lois's car before either one of them was ready. They climbed in and buckled their seatbelts before Clark spoke again. "One of these times," he said, "I'm going to talk you into taking me to the beach. It's dark now and I'm sure the water's freezing, but I'd love to see it."

"Let's go tonight," Lois suggested, her eyes sparkling in the dim glow of the streetlight. "You'd love Ocean Beach. It stretches on forever. Somebody could walk along it all the way to San Mateo County if they wanted." She broke off to turn and look behind her for oncoming traffic, then steered the car onto the road. "It's been a long time since I've walked down by the ocean, and there's nothing like walking along it at night. If we wear coats, we should be fine."

Her enthusiasm was contagious, and Clark found himself nodding. "That sounds great. Count me in."

Lois smiled, clearly pleased he liked her impulsive idea. "If it's okay with you, let's swing by my apartment first so I can change. You may be impervious to the cold," her tone was light and teasing, "but I'd like to put on something a little warmer."

It wasn't long before they were back at her apartment. They stepped off the elevator, and Clark waited while she unlocked her door. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Agnes was nowhere in sight. One third-degree for the night was all he could take.

When the lock clicked, Lois opened the door and led the way inside. "Go ahead and make yourself at home. I'll just be a minute."

"Take your time. Neither of us has to work tomorrow," Clark reminded her as he wandered over to the wall of windows in her living room overlooking the city.

"Thank goodness," Lois called back from where she'd disappeared down the hallway. "I've been working really hard on the Mesopotamia, Inc. stuff the last two days. I've found a few things that look promising, though. I might have found a link between their board members and a larger corporation back east."

With his super hearing, he heard a door sliding across carpet. He guessed she'd gone into her room, but when he didn't hear the door click shut, he supposed she'd left it open part way so she could still talk to him.

He raised his voice so she could hear him as he responded. "Really? What corporation?"

"It's a corporation I hadn't heard of before," she called back, "but they seem legit; not a shell company this time. I was doing some research on them at home last night. I put the research I found into a file on my computer's desktop. Take a look and tell me what you think."

Clark smiled. She truly was a workaholic, doing story research from home at night. He couldn't chastise her, though. He did the very same thing. When you didn't have somebody to spend the evenings with, work was sometimes all you had.

He turned from the windows and walked the couple of steps to her computer. As he switched on her computer and waited for it to boot up, he glanced at the view she had from her desk. She'd arranged the desk to provide a beautiful, unobstructed view of the lights of the city out of the large windows while she was seated at the desk. Apparently, she loved the view as much as he did.

The computer screen flashed, drawing Clark's attention back to it. From his standing position behind the desk chair, he reached for the mouse. It only took him a moment to find the folder on her desktop listed "Articles" and click on it. He skimmed down the list of files and spotted the one listed "Mesopotamia."

He was about to click on it when another file further down the list caught his eye. He paused. Why did she have a file titled "Superman" in her work file?

But as quickly as the question came to his mind, he remembered the story she wrote for her editor. The file was probably that story. Still, his curiosity got the better of him. After only a moment's hesitation, of wondering if what he was doing could be considered snooping, he moved the cursor to the file marked "Superman" and clicked on it.

The article came up, and the bold headline "Superman Exposed!" leaped off the page. Clark put a shaking hand on the desk's surface to steady himself as the room started to dip and sway around him. Struggling to breathe due to the increasing tightness in his chest, his eyes began to move over the words of the article. Each word seemed to shove an invisible dagger deeper into his heart. When he finished, Clark reached blindly for the desk chair and sat down before his legs gave out.

She had done it. She had written the story.

And not just any story. A full-blown, vicious, no-punches-pulled expose.

But what was even worse was that she had lied to him. She had told him she understood the reasons for keeping his secret, and had spent the last two weeks stringing him along. How long had she planned on doing that? Until she printed the story?

He was a fool. A trusting fool. He had trusted her, yet she was obviously planning on betraying him. No wonder she didn't want to open up to him about her scars, or divulge too much information about herself. She wasn't planning on letting him get too close because she knew what they appeared to have wouldn't last.

Feeling as if somebody had reached into his chest and ripped out his heart, he continued to stare unseeingly at the computer screen in a daze. The woman he loved had been about to betray him. Not only had he trusted her, but he had poured out his heart and soul to her. He had turned to her for comfort after that horrific day in Japan and had cried on her shoulder. He didn't let people see that real side of him, yet he had trusted her enough to let his guard down. In return, she had betrayed him. She had become such an important person in his life in such a short time, and he had fooled himself into thinking she felt the same way.

He shook his head numbly. She, herself, had said he was too trusting of people. And naive. Well, obviously she had been right. He *was* naive.

Naive and stupid.

A sound behind him yanked him out of his desolate thoughts, and he turned slightly to see Lois stopping behind him.

"Clark? Did you find it?"

She put a hand on his shoulder, but this time it held no comfort. It only served to remind him how he had been played for a fool. All those wonderful, delicious kisses… She would obviously stoop to anything to maintain her cover of a woman in love. She'd been faking the whole thing, every emotion he thought he'd been sharing with her. But now he knew the truth.

Pulling away abruptly, his hurt quickly turned to anger. His eyes were blazing as he leaped up from the chair and whirled toward her. His face was tight with anger and the muscle twitched in his jaw. "How could you, Lois? How could you do this to me?"

Lois looked startled at the tense muscles in his face and the clenching and unclenching of his fists. "Clark, what are you talking about? How could I do what?"

When he didn't respond right away, she glanced around his bulky form to see if the computer held a clue to his behavior. When she saw the expose on the computer screen, the color drained from her face. For several moments she stood frozen, unable to move, unable to speak.

Finally she managed in a strangled voice, "Clark…I—"

But Clark shook his head, cutting her off. He'd seen the evidence. There was nothing she could say to explain her way out of this. "Lois, I trusted you!" he hissed, his words bitter and hurt. "I thought we had something…something special. How could you do this? How could you betray me by writing an article exposing me when you promised you wouldn't? Didn't you listen to a word I said about how damaging an expose like this could be to my parents? To my friends? To me?"

Seeing the pained expression on his face, Lois rushed to explain. "Clark, yes, I wrote it, but I'm not going to print it! I came back to Metropolis with that interview you gave me, and my editor went ballistic. He accused me of losing my edge, of going soft. Then I had that terrible week, and when I didn't hear from you, I started thinking you'd didn't really care about me, that you'd only made me think you did so I would print the story. I was hurt and angry, and I came home and wrote that article."

"So, were you even going to tell me about it? Or was I just going to wake up one morning to see the headline and my picture splashed across every newspaper in the world?"

"Clark, I told you, I wasn't going to print it!" she repeated, her voice pleading. "At first I wanted to…I planned to. But after I finished it, I felt awful. I knew I couldn't turn it in. No matter what I thought you had done to me, I knew I couldn't betray you like that."

"Then why didn't you delete it?" he shot back, his voice increasing in volume. "If you really had changed your mind, then why is it still sitting on your computer?"

Lois felt her mouth go dry. "I—I don't know, Clark," she stammered. "I guess I got busy and didn't think about it—"

"Don't lie to me, Lois!" he shouted, his eyes flashing. "I'm a journalist, too. I know what it's like to stumble across that story you think will make your career. And you…you found that story and then wrote it! It's as simple as that!" He stood there for a moment, daring Lois to argue.

When she continued to stare at him in shock, her mouth half open in stunned silence, he shook his head and went on, unable to stand the silence even a moment longer. His anger turned to a throbbing ache as tears sprung unbidden into his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was a strangled whisper.

"Lois, I can't believe you'd do this after everything we've meant to each other. I thought we had something. For the first time in my life, I thought I'd finally found someone I could share everything with. And I did…along with my heart and soul. And this is how you repay me."

Lois took a step toward him, her eyes pleading and her hand outstretched. "Clark, please, you've got to believe me, I wasn't going to—"

But Clark shook his head and took a deep, shaky breath in an effort to hold back the threatening tears. He wasn't about to let her see him cry a second time. "Goodbye, Lois."

Then, without a backward glance, he turned and walked out her front door.

He got as far as the alley two blocks away before he let the tears come. He changed into the Suit and launched himself into the night sky, flying faster and faster in an attempt to exert the anger he felt exploding inside of him—and the hot, aching pain of betrayal in his heart.

A few days ago, he had turned to Lois when his world had been falling apart. His heart had been aching, and she had been there for him. But this time, as his world crumbled down around him, he knew the situation was very different. He was going to have to deal with his own heartache. Alone.

***

Lois watched, her heart aching, as Clark stormed out of her apartment and slammed the door behind him. Then the room fell quiet. Too quiet. Clark's angry words continued to echo in the silence as the tears began to slip down her cheeks.

Why had she ever written that article in the first place? She remembered being angry and using it as an outlet to vent, but that seemed like an eternity ago. And now, everything she'd hoped to share with Clark was ruined. Because of her.

'You should have deleted the article in the first place so no one could ever find it,' she thought dismally. 'Why didn't you? Was there some underlying, subconscious reasoning for it?'

Before she could delve into the mysteries of her own subconscious, she hurried out onto the balcony. Surely he would be flying home. Maybe there was a chance she could catch him.

'But then what?' the little voice in the back of her head chided. 'He's furious. Do you really think he would come back if he did hear you?'

Realizing the voice was right, her steps slowed. But she found herself out on the balcony moments later anyway, searching the night sky. Just then she heard the tell-tale sonic boom, and her heart sank. He was gone.

Gone.

The word hung heavily in her heart. Had she really just ruined the best relationship she'd ever started? Clark was definitely something special, and not just because he was Superman. He had a kindness and gentleness about him that made him easy to talk to and easy to trust. She felt comfortable with him in a way she'd never been with any other man. And they had more chemistry than she'd ever imagined possible. Her whole body felt tingly and alive when she was with him, and she knew he felt the same way. She could tell by the way his eyes lit up when he saw her, and by the way his eyes followed her every movement.

They were perfect together, yet she'd ruined everything.

She shivered as a cool ocean breeze picked up and wafted over her. In spite of the warmer, beach-walking clothes she'd changed into, she felt chilled clear to her bones. Sadly, she realized it didn't have everything to do with the chilly fall night. It was her own fault that she felt so miserable—and her fault that Clark undoubtedly felt the same way.

She tightened her grip on the balcony's wrought iron railing until her hands hurt. Things couldn't be over between them. They couldn't. And she wasn't going to let it.

With renewed determination, she turned and walked back into her apartment. As she approached the phone on her end table, she realized Clark may not even be home yet. Even if he were, he probably wouldn't pick up the phone. All she knew was that she had to try.

She dialed the number she now knew by heart and listened as the phone rang once, twice, three times. On the fourth ring, she wasn't surprised when she heard his answering machine pick up. The sound of his voice caused her heart to turn. She found herself wondering if she would ever be able to hear it in person again.

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she heard the beep, then began to talk. "Clark, are you there?" She paused, hoping he would pick up, but not surprised when nothing happened. She breathed a heavy sigh and continued. "You're probably not home yet, or maybe you are and you just don't want to talk to me, but…well, I just had to tell you again that I'm sorry. I know you don't believe me, that I wasn't going to print that story, but it's the truth. Please, you have to believe me."

Lois's voice faltered and she took a moment to steady it. "You were right when you said we have something special. I feel it, too. Please don't let my one stupid act ruin what we have. Can you just…call me so we can talk? But even if you don't, and you decide you never want to talk to me again, I want you to know that I'll never expose you. Your secret will go with me to my grave. I just thought you should know that."

With shaking hands, she hung up and set the cordless phone back in its base. She knew there was no reason to carry the phone around with her. He wouldn't be calling. At least not tonight. She'd seen from the pained look in his eyes that he was deeply hurt. She had no idea if he would ever forgive her. But if he did, she knew for certain it wouldn't be tonight.

She sighed dejectedly as she walked through her living room and kitchen turning off the lights, planning to head to bed. It was the best place for a good cry.

When she flipped off the switch in the living room, the light from the computer monitor caught her eye. A fresh ache filled her heart. That stupid article. Why had she ever written it in the first place? Her own insecurities had gotten the better of her, and she felt ashamed.

Anger fueled her steps as she strode over to the computer and dropped into the chair. Furiously, she grabbed the mouse and right clicked on the file, then hit 'delete.' But even that didn't feel good enough. She moved the cursor over to the recycle bin icon on her desktop and emptied everything from it with a click of the mouse.

There. She sat back in the chair and stared at the computer screen for a long time. It was finally taken care of. She realized it was probably too little, too late, but at least nobody else would ever stumble across it. A single tear slid down her cheek. Somehow that realization didn't make her feel much better. The damage had already been done. Clark thought she'd planned on betraying him, and apparently no amount of arguing or explanations from her was going to make him believe her.

She had ruined everything.

She flicked off the computer, then hurried into her bedroom. Throwing herself down across her bed, she let the tears come.

***

By the middle of the next morning, Lois was even more miserable than she'd been the night before. She'd tried Clark twice more on his home phone, and twice on his cell phone. He didn't pick up at either line. To make matters worse, every time the phone rang or she heard a sound outside her apartment—especially coming from the direction of the balcony—she'd jump and run to investigate, hoping each time it would be Clark. But it never was.

Her heart grew heavier with each hour that passed. She realized that if she couldn't stop crying, she was going to have to go to the store to buy more tissues. But in the frightful state she was in, she doubted that would be a good idea. She'd only had the heart to pull on the first pair of jeans she'd found in her drawer—an old pair with a large hole in the right knee—and a grubby old dark green sweatshirt. She'd made the mistake of looking into the mirror after running a brush through her hair and securing it into a simple ponytail. She couldn't help noticing her pale complexion and red eyes, swollen from hours of crying, and the bags under her eyes from a sleepless night.

She tried to busy herself around her apartment, not daring to leave in case Clark did call. But he didn't. By dinnertime, she found herself staring glumly into the near empty fridge, wondering what she might make that required the smallest amount of effort. The memory of Clark rummaging around in her kitchen, gathering up ingredients in an effort to teach her to make a healthy meal brought tears to her eyes once again.

She shut the fridge. Right now she'd rather stay hungry than have to face yet another memory of Clark—and thoughts of what she had ruined.

The sound of the doorbell made her jump, and Lois practically launched herself at the front door. She fumbled at the locks with shaking fingers, then yanked the door open. The sudden movement startled her visitor. But instead of seeing Clark's surprised face, she was staring at Agnes's.

Her elderly neighbor stood in the open doorway with a container in her hands, her eyes widening as she looked Lois up and down, taking in the younger woman's haggard appearance.

"My dear, what's happened to you? You look dreadful!" The tone of sincere concern was evident in Agnes's voice.

Lois struggled to contain her disappointment upon realizing her visitor wasn't the person she'd been hoping to see. "I—I've just had a rough day, that's all," she stammered, hoping her neighbor didn't notice the tears pooling in her eyes.

But the perceptive older woman did, and her eyes never left Lois's as she extended the warm container to Lois. "I don't know why, but something told me to bring you some of my leftover ham."

That did it. Lois's shoulders started to shake, and tears soon followed. Agnes silently stepped forward and engulfed her in a hug, guiding her into the apartment so she could shut the door.

"There, there, dear," she soothed as she steered Lois over to the couch and sat down with the younger woman still crying in her arms. "Whatever's happened can't be that bad. There's always a way to fix whatever's gone wrong in our lives."

Lois shook her head. "But that's just it," she sobbed. "I don't think I can fix this, Agnes. I've screwed everything up with Clark, and I don't think he's ever going to want to see me again."

"What exactly happened?" Agnes asked quietly. "Did this happen last night?"

Lois nodded. She sat up and swiped at the tears on her cheeks. "Clark is the man I met at the Daily Planet in Metropolis when I was there. We've been talking on the phone and emailing, and everything's been going so great between us. He…flew out to see me last night, but we got into a fight about…something."

Lois hoped Agnes didn't pick up on her hesitations as she tried to explain in the fewest amount of details possible. She couldn't exactly explain that Clark had flown out there not on an airplane, but under his own power, and that he had found an article betraying him by exposing his secret identity as the world's new hero and media darling.

But her explanation seemed to be good enough for Agnes because the woman 'tsk-tsk'ed and shook her head sympathetically. "Have you tried to apologize?"

"Repeatedly." She nodded. "He's already back home, so I've called him several times, but he won't pick up. Either that or he's purposely out doing things to avoid me. I've even tried his cell phone, but he must have Caller ID on it because he's not picking that up when I call it, either."

"He's already back home?" Agnes's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "That was a fast trip. What did he do, hop on the first plane home after your fight?"

Lois's breath caught in her throat. She'd never lied before to Agnes, but she realized that's what she had to do. It was only a little white lie, after all.

For the first time, she wondered if this was what Clark felt like, having to tell little white lies to the people he cared about, to cover for himself all the time. The guilt of telling one little white lie to someone she loved was nearly eating her up inside already. What must it be like for him?

As if she needed something else to make her feel even more guilty, she found herself sympathizing with Clark, and wishing once again that she'd never written that stupid article.

She felt a sob catch in her throat as she finally nodded at Agnes. "Apparently. I assume he's home by now, unless…"

Suddenly, a new thought occurred to her. Smallville. Could he have gone to Smallville to talk to his parents? Before he had her in his life, they were exactly who he turned to.

But as quickly as the thought came, she dismissed it. She didn't know how much he'd told them about her, or even if they knew things were becoming a little more exclusive between them, but she knew he felt uncomfortable talking with them at least about certain things. Like the disaster in Japan, for example. Maybe he wouldn't want to talk to them about something as close to home as her apparent attempt at betrayal.

Besides, she didn't think grownups spilled their guts out to their parents about their love life. Not that she knew that for certain, since hers weren't around to help her test the theory. But then her eyes focused on Agnes, sitting patiently on the couch beside her, waiting for her to go on. Maybe the idea wasn't that far-fetched. Wasn't she sitting there, spilling her guts out to Agnes? She was definitely her elder, and she was doing just that.

Her mood brightened a little. She'd looked them up in the online phone book once before, so she knew she could get their phone number easily. But what were the chances Clark would actually be there if she phoned? Even if he had talked to them about what was happening between them since last night, he could be off being Superman or something.

Finally, she decided it was worth a try. At least she could leave a message with his parents that she was trying to get hold of him.

A mental image of Clark's parents from the picture he'd shown her came to mind. They seemed like nice people. Surely they wanted their only son to be happy, and to fall in love with a nice young lady and eventually settle down. Maybe she could use that in her favor?

But then a new argument occurred to her. What if he *had* told them what happened and they sided with him? Because of the special person he was, she knew from the things Clark had said that they were fiercely protective of him. What if a phone call from her wouldn't be welcome after everything he'd told them?

She frowned. It was indeed a possibility. Was it enough to keep her from trying, though? After a long moment, she decided it wasn't. She had to try. She cared enough about Clark to do everything in her power to convince him to give her another chance.

Agnes squeezed her hand, bringing her thoughts back to the present. "You have an idea about how to get him to talk to you, don't you, dear?" she asked, knowing Lois well enough to recognize the familiar, impulsive, leap-into-action gleam in her eye.

Lois smiled for the first time that day. "I think I do. It's worth a shot, anyway."

"It certainly is." Agnes nodded encouragingly. Then she patted Lois's hands and stood up. "I'm going to let you try to get hold of that young man of yours, but you be sure to let me know how it goes. And if you need to talk or anything, you know where to find me."

"Thanks, Agnes." Lois stood up to give her a hug. "I love you."

"I love you, too, dear." Agnes smiled and hugged her back. Then she headed for the door, nodding a reminder at the container she'd set on the credenza during their rushed entrance. "And have some of that ham, will you? From the look of you, you haven't had a bite to eat all day. I wouldn't want you wasting away to nothing. You're already thin enough as it is."

Lois rolled her eyes playfully as she followed her neighbor to the door. "I will. And thanks. I hardly have anything in the fridge, but I wasn't brave enough to run to the store looking like this."

"I understand." Agnes opened the door and gave Lois one last smile. "When you feel ready, give me all the details, would you? Oh, and for what it's worth, I like that young man of yours. He's as handsome and nice as the sun is bright."

Lois lifted her eyebrows in surprise. "Oh? What made you change your mind? I thought Princess convinced you he was hiding something."

"Everyone has something to hide, dear. But there are things I can see that Princess can't, being a dog, and all."

"Like?" Lois prompted.

"Like the way you two looked at each other. You may not have known each other for very long, but I can tell there's a bond between the two of you. That kind of instant bond is rare. Anyway, in this case I'm overruling Princess's opinion." She winked.

Lois laughed. "Thanks. I think."

"Well, don't just stand here talking to me." Agnes shooed her toward the phone. "I'll see myself out. Just let me know what happens." Then she shut the door between them, and Lois was alone.

Lois grinned and shook her head, feeling happier already. What would she do without Agnes in her life? She loved the elderly woman dearly.

Taking a deep breath and then letting it out slowly, she went over to her computer. She got online and looked up Clark's parents in Smallville as she had a few days before. Finally, she picked up the phone and dialed.

***

Martha was drying the last plate from dinner and enjoying the quiet after a hectic meal. It had been their neighbor Wayne Irig's birthday, and she and Jonathan had invited Wayne and his wife over for dinner. She had even managed to convince a sullen Clark to come after he had called earlier that day to try to cancel.

She sighed as she put the last plate away in the cupboard. Clark was definitely down about something. It worried her. She knew he was under a tremendous amount of pressure. She only hoped it wasn't starting to drag him down.

Neither she nor Jonathan had had much time to try to pry out of him whatever was wrong before their neighbors had arrived. But each time she had glanced his way during dinner, she noticed his eyes never left his plate and his expression remained downcast. Something was definitely wrong.

She shook her head. It always bothered her that he kept so much bottled up inside. It was something he'd done since a young age. He always tried to work through things himself first, as if he were afraid he would be a bother by spilling out his problems to somebody. No amount of convincing had ever helped him to understand that she and his father *wanted* him to confide in them, to ask them for help.

He was a stubborn person. He always had been, and she expected he was going to keep whatever it was that was bothering him bottled up inside for now. She only hoped he would come around soon and tell her what was wrong.

The phone rang, drawing her out of her thoughts. She crossed the kitchen to answer it. "Hello?"

There was a brief silence on the line, and she was about to say 'hello' again when she finally heard a voice.

"Is—is this the Kent residence?" came the uncertain sounding voice of a young woman.

"Yes," Martha replied, taking the dishtowel off her shoulder and draping it over the sink's edge. "Can I help you?"

"Umm, I hope so," the hesitant voice continued. "I hope I have the right number. I'm looking for the Kents who have a son named Clark."

Martha's brow furrowed at the strange beginning to the conversation. "Yes, you have the right number. Is there something I can do for you? Are you trying to get hold of Clark? He actually lives in Metropolis, but—"

"Oh, yes…I mean…I know he does." The young woman faltered, then began to pick up speed as she continued. "I've been trying to get hold of him there, but I haven't been very successful, so I thought I might try you—"

Martha listened as the woman's babbling stopped, as if she'd caught herself in the act. Then Martha heard a deep sigh from the other end of the line and realized whoever this was was having a hard time gathering her thoughts. She didn't sound like a salesperson, so Martha found herself relaxing slightly. "Go on," she encouraged.

The young woman finally did. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm just a little nervous about calling you out of the blue like this. You must be Clark's mom."

Martha smiled. Whoever this young woman with the lilting, uncertain voice was, she sounded charming. She found herself wondering if she was single, and maybe even somebody Clark liked. Heaven knew she wanted to see Clark married off before she was too old to enjoy such an event. Back in high school, there had been a lot of girls calling, but as Clark's powers had begun to develop, he began distancing himself from them more and more, and by graduation he had become something of a loner. How nice it was to have a girl calling again—and a nice-sounding one, at that.

"Yes, I'm Martha Kent," she found herself saying with a smile. "And you are…?"

"Oh! I'm sorry," the young woman quickly exclaimed. "My name is Lois Lane. I don't know if Clark's ever mentioned me, but I live out in California. I met your son when I was in Metropolis doing a story…"

"On Superman," Martha finished for her, her smile broadening. So this was the beautiful and talented Lois Lane. She had no idea she would be so young and pretty sounding, if such a thing was possible. All she knew was that Clark had been on cloud nine ever since he told them he had been flying out to spend time with her. Judging from the bright smile on his face each time he popped in for a visit—before tonight, anyway—she assumed things must have been going well between them.

"Sure, he's mentioned you," Martha continued, walking over to the table and sitting down in a chair. "I've heard lots of wonderful things about you. I guess I should also thank you for not exposing my son's identity, as you'd initially gone to Metropolis to do. My husband and I love him dearly, and we were very grateful to you for your discretion."

There was a lengthy pause on the line, and Martha wondered if they'd been disconnected. She was about to say the young woman's name to see if she could still hear her when she finally heard Lois clear her throat awkwardly.

"That's…good." Another pause. "So he…umm, he hasn't said anything bad about me in the last day or so?"

Martha's eyebrow's lifted. "No. Should he have?"

"Oh, I hope not," Lois went on. "It's just…well, we had a kind of a fight yesterday, and I've been unable to get hold of him. I've tried him at home and on his cell phone a few times, but I think he's avoiding me." She paused. "I understand you probably don't want to get in the middle of this, and believe me, I wouldn't ask you to. I was just kind of hoping you could tell him I was trying to get hold of him. Or would I be stepping on your toes to ask if you could do that?"

The light of realization turned on in Martha's head. Suddenly it all made sense. A smile quirked at the corners of Martha's lips. Clark wasn't moping around because he was depressed about the ever increasing demands of being two people. He was moping around because of a girl!

'What a welcome change,' she thought. Usually his sullen moods had more to do with him internalizing the stress that came from the demands he was continually placing on himself to be everything to everybody. It was nice to see him worrying about something normal for a change.

She turned her attention back to her phone conversation, still smiling. "Of course I'll tell him," Martha reassured Lois. "He is here now, as it happens, but he's out in the barn with his father and our neighbor. They're probably talking about which farm implements they need to buy this coming spring, or some such man talk. Would you like me to have him call you when he comes back in?"

There was another sigh from Lois's end of the line. "I'd love that, but I don't think he will. He was pretty upset with me. I've left messages for him on his answering machine, but it hasn't done any good. Like I said, I don't want to put you in the middle. I just…could you please just tell him I'm sorry? Contrary to what Clark thinks, I would never do anything to hurt him. He doesn't want to listen to me, but maybe he'll listen to you. I just…I guess I'd really appreciate hearing from him."

Lois's voice broke, and Martha suspected she was about to cry. Then she heard Lois clear her throat and steady herself before continuing. "I really like your son, Mrs. Kent. I feel very lucky to have found him, and I hope I don't lose him." There was another pause, then a teary laugh. "I'm sorry. I hadn't meant to call and practically pour my heart out to you. You probably think I'm nuts, calling like this."

Martha's heart went out to this young lady who obviously meant a great deal to her son. She didn't know her at all, other than what Clark had told her and Jonathan, but she seemed nice enough…very sweet and sincere. It took a lot of guts to call your boyfriend's parents and try to get an apologetic message to him. She wasn't sure she would have done something like that when she and Jonathan were courting all those years ago. But then, being assertive was probably a life skill in Lois's and Clark's profession.

"You don't need to apologize, Lois," she said at last. "It's obvious you have strong feelings for my son, and I know he does for you, as well. I'll make sure to tell him you called."

Lois sounded relieved when she answered, "Thank you, Mrs. Kent."

"It's no trouble," Martha assured her. "It was really good to talk to you, Lois. I hope we'll get a chance to talk more in the future."

"I hope so, too."

They said goodbye, and Martha found herself absorbed in her thoughts as she returned the phone to its cradle on the wall. She was still replaying the phone conversation in her mind as the kitchen door banged open, and the sound of male laughter filled the room.

She looked over to see Jonathan and Wayne coming in—sure enough, talking about farming and the next year's planting possibilities— and she immediately looked for Clark. She spotted him lagging a couple of steps behind his father and Wayne, and he still didn't look happy. His hands were shoved deep inside his jeans pockets, and his shoulders were hunched desolately.

"Where's Karen?" Wayne asked, referring to his wife.

Martha pushed off from the counter and walked toward the three men. "She ran home to get the cake. She forgot it in the rush to make it over here in time for dinner."

"Ahh, she's spoiling me rotten this birthday," Wayne announced, patting his stomach heartily. "She made me my favorite pie earlier today, and now the chocolate cake she made from scratch. I'll tell you, Jonathan, we were lucky to marry the women we did."

He and Jonathan started to talk and laugh about memories of their wives as they headed into the living room to wait for Karen, but Martha's eyes never left Clark. He still hadn't looked at her since coming inside, and she watched him follow his dad across the room reluctantly. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else at that moment, especially if he could be alone.

Martha moved across the kitchen and intercepted his path to the living room. She took his arm, causing him to look up at her questioningly. She nodded at the table. "Sit down, Clark. We need to talk."

Clark obeyed without a word, and Martha pulled out the chair next to him and sat down. She reached out to cover one of his hands with hers. "Clark, what's wrong? You've been depressed all night. I don't think you've even said a word." When he simply shrugged and continued to stare sullenly down at the table, she decided to pull out the big guns. "This wouldn't happen to be about Lois, would it?"

That got his attention. Clark's eyes flew up to hers, and she could clearly see the pained expression her question had brought. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Up until a few minutes ago, I didn't. That is, not until I got a phone call from Lois." She watched Clark's expression carefully and enjoyed seeing his eyes widen in surprise at the announcement.

"She called here?"

Martha nodded. "She said she'd been trying to get hold of you since last night, but wasn't having any luck. She said something about a fight?"

Clark sighed deeply and dropped his gaze back to the table. His tone was bitter when he answered. "I guess you could say that. Did she tell you what it was about?"

"No." She shook her head. "She made it clear she didn't want to put me in the middle. She simply asked me to relay the message that she was sorry. She also said she didn't want to lose you."

Clark's gaze drifted back up to his mother's, the faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes. "She said that?"

Martha nodded. "And I could tell she meant it. She sounded very upset. What happened, Clark? Do you feel like you could tell me?"

Letting out a troubled sigh, Clark told her about the wonderful time they'd been having together—and then how he'd found the expose written on her computer. Martha listened carefully, trying not to take anybody's side as her son vented his pent-up emotions. She found it hard to believe that the young lady who'd sounded so insecure and almost desperate not to lose her new relationship could really be planning on betraying Clark. She now understood the pause on the line when she'd thanked Lois for not exposing her son. Lois obviously hadn't been certain whether or not she'd heard from Clark about what had caused their fight.

"She kept saying she wasn't going to print the story," Clark went on. "She said she wrote it after she hadn't heard from me after going home, and figured I'd only played on her emotions to keep her from writing the story. She said she had been angry and hurt, but that after she wrote it, she knew she couldn't print it." He shook his head dismally. "But if that was the case, then why hadn't she deleted it? For all I know she could be lying, and was just waiting for the perfect time to run with it, or maybe to blackmail me with it."

Martha let out a surprised laugh. "Blackmail you! Clark, that kind of paranoia hardly sounds like you! What happened to the trusting, naive young man your father and I always worry about?" She shook her head. "I think you're really jumping the gun, here, Clark. When I talked to Lois on the phone, she sounded sincerely remorseful. She even told me to tell you how sorry she was. I realize I don't know her at all, and that I only talked to her for a few minutes, but I believe her. I don't think she ever meant to expose you with that article. She was hurt and lashing out. The important thing is, she realized in time what she was doing and made the decision not to expose you."

Clark growled in exasperation and leaned back in his chair. "Mom, who's side are you on? You don't know for sure she wasn't going to print that article! Neither do I! The bottom line is, she wrote that article and had planned on exposing me. You know how terrible that would be! What was I supposed to do, thank her?"

"No, and I can see why you would be upset," his mom soothed. "But she said herself she'd changed her mind about writing it. When you get over being so hurt and angry, I think you'll realize she's telling you the truth. The young woman I talked to sounded pretty intent on getting hold of you. If she really had been planning to turn in the story, or blackmail you with it, as you say, why would she be going to such lengths to apologize? A hard-nosed, unfeeling journalist would probably cut their losses, not care a whit if you were mad, and run with the story. She hasn't. She obviously cares deeply enough to try to make things right with you. That should tell you everything."

It was silent for a long minute as Clark contemplated her words. Finally, he sighed. "I don't know, Mom. Maybe I'm too upset to see it right now."

Martha leaned over and pulled her son into a hug. She patted him gently on the back. "I know you are. Just give yourself a couple of days, okay? And don't do anything drastic in the meantime, like throw away your chance at a relationship with Lois. I think once you get over being angry, you'll be ready to listen to what she has to say. Okay?"

Clark finally nodded. "Okay."

***

Lois sat alone in her darkened apartment, curled up in her overstuffed leather recliner next to the bay of windows. The city outside was still dark, but the hint of light lurked on the horizon. Normally the sweeping view of the city soothed her, but this morning is only gave her something to stare at blankly.

She tightened the afghan around herself more tightly and shifted further into the corner of the chair. She was still in her pajamas, having wandered out to the living room sometime around 3am, unable to sleep.

It had been two days, and Clark hadn't called. It was obvious he was still hurt, but she wondered if his silence indicated more. Maybe he never wanted to see her again. Maybe they were finished before they really got started. Maybe the more time he had to think about it, the more he realized he hadn't really liked her anyway.

The many 'maybes' made it impossible for her to think about anything else, and she reached up to rub a tired, puffy eyelid. She'd cried entirely too much the last two days. There had been times in her life when crying had made her feel better, but not this time. It only made her more miserable.

Miserable and alone.

A single tear slid down her cheek, a remnant from the storm. She'd had such high hopes that her phone conversation with Martha would convince Clark to contact her, but even that hadn't worked. As she remembered the conversation she'd had with his mom, a fresh ache filled Lois's heart. His mom had been so nice, and Lois had found herself pouring out her heart without even meaning to. She could see why Clark loved her so much. She was as easy to talk to and as caring as Clark was.

For a moment, she felt a fresh pang for the loss of her own parents. It had been so nice to talk to his mom that it made her long for her own. Agnes was wonderful, but she was getting up there in age, and Lois hated to think how she would feel when Agnes was gone. She would be all alone again. The thought made it difficult to breathe.

Her thoughts continued to swirl around in her head until her exhausted mind could no longer keep up, and she fell into a fitful sleep. A buzzing sound awakened her after what seemed like only a few minutes. Her limbs and eyelids heavy, she pulled herself into a more upright position in her chair and looked around, trying to regain her bearings. She saw the sun was starting to light up the city. Morning had come.

She struggled out of her chair and went into her bedroom to turn off her blaring alarm. Lifting her arms above her head in a stretch, she realized how tired and stiff she felt. The task of getting ready for work seemed almost insurmountable. That made her wonder—if she couldn't even get ready for work, how was she supposed to go about doing her job?

Exhausted, she turned and eyed her unmade bed. It seemed to call out to her. She only resisted for a moment before going over and climbing in. She simply didn't have the energy to go to work that day.

Uncharacteristically, she decided to call in sick. She wasn't technically sick; she simply didn't have it in her to face work that day. When she called in, she just wouldn't tell her boss the whole truth—that her heart was breaking too much to face life. At least, not that day.

She reached for the phone on her bedside table and made the call, then slid the rest of the way under the covers. She must have dozed off, because the next thing she knew there was the sound of loud knocking echoing through her apartment.

She groaned. Hoping whoever it was would go away and leave her alone to wallow in her misery, she pulled the covers up over her head to dampen the noise. When the incessant knocking continued, she yanked the covers off her face and growled up at the ceiling. She dragged herself out of bed and slipped on her robe, but didn't bother to tighten the belt as she padded down the hallway to the front door.

When she got there, she yanked it open. The sudden motion startled Agnes, who put a hand to her chest in a gesture of shock.

"My goodness, if you keep opening the door that way you're going to send me to my grave," Agnes breathed, shaking her head in dismay. Then she dropped her hand and scowled at Lois's rumpled appearance. "I take it you're not going to work today?"

Lois rolled her eyes, not in the mood for Agnes's third degree. "What, do you just sit by your door to make sure I go to work and get home every day? I don't need your permission to call in sick."

As soon as the words were out, though, Lois felt terrible. She hadn't meant to take her foul mood out on Agnes. She quickly apologized, but to her relief, Agnes didn't look offended or hurt. Instead, she looked only sympathetic.

"Your young man hasn't called, has he?" she asked quietly.

Lois's shoulders slumped. She shook her head. "No. And I even left a message for him at his parents' house, but that didn't work, either. I'm plain out of ideas."

Agnes put her hands on her hips and looked at Lois in exasperation. "You're not really sick, are you? Other than heart sick, that is."

The hint of a smile flickered across Lois's face. Her neighbor knew her too well. "No, I just couldn't bear the thought of going into work today."

"And you have some time off coming, don't you?" Agnes persisted.

Lois eyed her neighbor warily. "Yeah. Why?"

"Then what are you doing here, moping around your apartment? When I was your age, I did impulsive things just as you tend to do. But while you do them in your job, I did them for love. Go chase after that man of yours! Get on a plane and go after him. Show him how sorry you are, and that you're serious about asking for his forgiveness. I've always found it's easier to stay mad at someone you don't see. I bet he takes one look at you and all will be forgotten."

Lois sighed. "I wish it were that easy."

"How do you know if it's not that easy unless you try it? Come on, Lois." Agnes let her hands fall to her sides, a look of frustration on her face. "Use some of those savings you've been putting away all these years. I know you never spend it on expensive things or take a vacation, so money's not an issue. Go buy a plane ticket and go out there! That man's a catch, and I'm never going to forgive you if you let him get away."

Lois chuckled in spite of herself. Agnes never failed to cheer her up. What did surprise her, though, was that she found herself actually considering Agnes's idea. But could she really just drop everything and fly out there to see Clark? What if he wouldn't even talk to her there?

'At least he can't avoid you outright if you show up at the Planet and stand in front of his desk,' she reasoned.

The longer she mulled over the idea, the better it sounded. An adventurous light sparked in her eyes, dimming the lifelessness from minutes before. Finally, she nodded. "Okay, Agnes, you talked me into it. I'm going to."

"Good!" Agnes clapped her hands together excitedly. "But we've got to get you ready. You look a fright."

For the next half hour, Lois let Agnes hustle her about the apartment, helping her throw a few things into her large overnight bag. Then she called the airline and booked Lois a flight while the younger woman showered and dressed. Before she could come to her senses, Lois found herself standing in front of the elevator.

The doors opened, and it wasn't until then that Lois hesitated. "What am I doing?" She turned to Agnes, uncertainty written across her face. "What will my boss say when I don't show up for work tomorrow?"

Agnes shrugged. "Call in sick again from your cell phone. If anyone shows up here looking for you for some reason, I'll cover for you."

"But—" Her voice faltered. "But what if I get there and I find out it's definitely over between us? I don't think I could face that."

Agnes shook her head. "I don't think that will happen. But if it does, it would be a pretty good indication that he's not the one. Besides, isn't knowing better than not knowing? Now, go," Agnes ordered, giving her a little shove toward the elevator. "Go see that young man of yours. Tell him you're sorry. Grovel if you need to. But don't let love get away from you. I did once, and I've never forgiven myself for it."

Lois stopped. Agnes had let love get away from her? She hadn't known about that. She regarded her friend with renewed interest and noticed the tears of regret sparkling in Agnes's eyes. Lost love was something she'd never heard Agnes talk about, and it surprised her to see Agnes so emotional. She was usually such a rock.

"Agnes," she began, unsure of what to say. "What do you mean, you let it happen once?"

But Agnes shook her head and made a valiant effort to pull herself back together. "Right now this isn't about me. Maybe someday I'll tell you about it. Right now, you have a plane to catch."

And with that, Agnes shoved Lois into the open elevator with more force than expected from a body so seemingly frail. Then the woman smiled and wiggled her fingers at Lois. "You tell that Clark 'hello' for me, you hear?"

The elevator doors slid shut, and Lois was alone. She adjusted the leather carry-on bag on her shoulder and then crossed her arms. Agnes's words of encouragement filled her head. 'I've always found it's easier to stay mad at someone you don't see. I bet he takes one look at you and all will be forgotten.'

Lois sighed. Only time would tell. And when she got to Metropolis, she could only hope that Agnes was right.

***

Lois sat on Clark's couch, fidgeting with the pages of a Sports Illustrated she'd found on his coffee table. Even though it had been a long, yet thankfully uneventful flight from San Francisco, she still felt as tired as she did nervous.

She glanced up at the clock on Clark's wall. Six o'clock. She sighed and looked back down with disinterest at the magazine. Where was he? She'd been there for almost two hours already, hoping to meet him as he came home from work.

When she'd arrived in Metropolis that afternoon, her first thought was to go to the Planet to see him. But then she'd quickly realized how stupid that would be. Her editor knew Perry. What if Perry saw her, and mentioned to Jim Langley how surprised he'd been to see her in his newsroom that day? Jim thought she was still home, sick. If he found out where she really was, she could pretty much kiss her job goodbye. No, meeting Clark here at his apartment was definitely the better option.

"If he'd just hurry up and get here," she grumbled to herself, growing more and more impatient and nervous with each passing minute.

She glanced once more at the magazine, then tossed it onto the coffee table and leaned back against the couch. She folded her arms and let her head rest back against the couch. Maybe he'd had to do Superman duties after work. That aspect of his life was something she knew very little about. His life schedule was still very much a mystery to her.

The sound of a key in the front door's lock made her jump, and she sat up quickly. Her adrenaline pumping, she looked around, wondering where she should position herself. Should she stay there on the couch? Should she be in the kitchen, maybe attempting to cook something for dinner? What was the protocol in a situation like this?

In spite of herself, she grinned. Protocol? Somehow she doubted there was protocol for flying across the country on an impulse, then picking the lock of a boyfriend's apartment to get in to wait for him to come home from work so she could force him to talk to her. No, somehow she suspected this was a first.

Before she could dwell on it even a moment longer, the front door swung open and Clark's muscular frame filled the doorway. Her heart did a little flip. He looked as great as she remembered in his suit jacket and slacks. He was even wearing one of those colorful ties he seemed to like so much. But she couldn't help noticing the frown winkles around the corner of his mouth, or how tired he looked. It made her wonder if he'd been getting as little sleep as she had.

He took a step into the apartment and started to close the door behind him when he suddenly spotted her sitting on the couch. He froze. A mixture of surprise and delight flickered into his eyes, but just as quickly they were gone. He frowned and shook his head as he closed the door the rest of the way. Then he walked warily down the steps into the living room.

"Why do I even bother having a lock on my door?" he asked dryly, dropping his keys onto the end table.

She shrugged and smiled a little. "I don't know. To keep out the petty thieves who aren't as good as I am at picking locks?" She stood up and walked cautiously over to him. "I see you still haven't taken my advice and bought that deadbolt."

Without responding to her attempt at levity, he jammed his hands into his slacks pockets. "How did you get here?"

"I took a plane out this morning." She stopped a couple of steps away from him, uncertain how her arrival was being received. "You wouldn't return my calls, so I decided to fly out here and talk to you in person."

Clark lifted one dark eyebrow. "And your boss gave you the time off out of the goodness of his heart?"

"No." Lois shook her head. "He thinks I'm home, sick."

That brought the hint of a smile to Clark's face. "I see." Then he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be mad, and made a valiant effort to return his lips to a neutral position. He sighed again. "What do you want, Lois?"

"I want you to believe me, Clark," she began, her voice earnest and repentant. "I have no intentions of printing that story. Ever. In fact, the story is gone. I deleted it and emptied my computer's recycle bin. There's nothing there for anybody to find. But even if I hadn't, I would never print it. You mean too much to me to hurt you like that."

"But you did, Lois." His eyes met and held hers, and she could see the shimmer of tears in them. "You hurt me more than you could possibly imagine. How am I even supposed to know for sure that you weren't pretending to like me just to get me to let my guard down so you could learn more about me, then put every new detail into that article?"

"And how do I know you weren't just pretending to like me in order to keep me from *printing* that article?" she countered, the hint of frustration and anger in her voice. "That's why I vented and wrote that thing in the first place! I was feeling insecure about where I stood with you, and it's obvious you're feeling insecure about our relationship, too, or we wouldn't be having this argument."

"But how do I know—"

"Clark, stop!" Lois's anger and pent-up frustration from the week finally boiled to the surface. "I'm sorry I ever wrote that damned article, okay? What else do you want me to say? I'm sorry! I've said it a hundred times already, but apparently that's not good enough for you. I just told you I deleted it! The article is gone. Forever. But I doubt that will make you feel any better, because you obviously don't believe me when I say I would never have printed it."

Tears lurked in her eyes as her voice trailed off, and silence weighed heavily in the air around them. Clark's gaze dropped to a spot on the floor that he rubbed at with the toe of his shoe. The silence continued to drag on, but still Clark refused to look at her.

Lois's heart sank. His silence and indifference spoke more than words could ever say, and she realized she was fighting a losing battle. He obviously wanted nothing more to do with her. Her heart ached at the realization, and the moisture in her eyes finally started to spill down her cheeks.

Hoping to save what little dignity she had left, she turned and picked up her carry-on bag sitting beside the coffee table. "I'm sorry to have bothered you," she said, trying to keep her voice from wavering with emotion. "I guess I should never have come. At least no one can say I didn't try."

She threw the bag onto her shoulder, then headed for the door. She kept waiting for Clark to stop her as she climbed the stairs to the door, but he didn't. With a heavy heart, she reached for the doorknob. She paused when her fingers curled around the cool metal. With dying hope, she glanced over her shoulder once more at Clark. He hadn't moved. His hands were still shoved deep within his pockets and his eyes remained on the carpet in front of him.

A sob tightened her throat. She fought it back, refusing to let herself become any more emotional than she already was. With as much steadiness as she could muster, she whispered, "Goodbye, Clark. For what it's worth, I…I do love you."

And with that, she opened the door and slipped out into the night.

***

The sound of the doorknob clicking shut echoed through Clark's head, as loud as an explosion. He stood in shocked silence, unable to breathe.

Had she just said she loved him?

The words replayed over and over again in his mind, cutting through the arguments that had previously filled the space for the last three days.

She loved him.

His heart twisted painfully in his chest as he looked up at the closed door. She loved him. At any other time the words would have made him soar into the sky even without his power of flight. He had waited his whole life to hear those words uttered by a woman other than his mother. And finally he had. What was even more monumental, though, was the fact that they had been spoken by Lois, the woman he had come to love more than anything. That made those words seem even more glorious.

'So, what are you doing standing here like an idiot?' the voice in his head urged. 'Don't let her go! You love her, too, and you know as well as anybody that love doesn't come around every day. Go after her, before it's too late!'

The silent words seemed to jump-start his feet, and he found himself stumbling up the stairs as he chased after her. He flung the door open and hurried out into the night. He paused on the steps outside his door and pulled his glasses down his nose. With a hasty glimpse through the buildings blocking his sight, he saw her walking down the deserted sidewalk away from his apartment. He had no idea where she was planning on going, but right then it didn't matter. He rushed down the steps after her.

When he reached the sidewalk, he started jogging after her. "Lois, wait!"

Her steps slowed, and she glanced over her shoulder at him. Tears were evident on her cheeks. He was beside her in a moment, putting a hand on her shoulder to halt her progress. She looked at him expectantly, a hint of hope shining in her eyes through the pain of rejection. That look of hope gave him the courage to go on.

"Lois, please don't go."

"Why?" she asked, her tone bitter and hurt. "So I can keep making a fool out of myself by telling you over and over again that I'm sorry? I can see it's a waste of time, since you obviously don't believe me."

When he didn't say anything, Lois's jaw tightened. "Forget it," she muttered, then turned and intended to keep walking. But when his fingers tightened on her shoulder, she sighed and turned back to him again. "What?"

Clark swallowed. Then he cleared his throat. Even still, his voice was thick with emotion when he spoke. "I do believe you," he managed in a hoarse whisper. "And…I love you, too."

Lois looked surprised for a moment, then her face started to crumble. "Oh, Clark…"

In the next moment they were in each other's arms, his tears mingling with hers. He felt her shoulders start to shake as she cried tears of relief. He tightened his arms around her and pressed a kiss into her hair.

After several long moments, he pulled back and met her watery gaze. He inclined his head toward his apartment. "Can we go talk?"

She nodded, her expression one of pure relief. Clark kept one firm arm around her shoulders as they walked back and climbed the steps into the apartment. Once they were inside, Clark let his arm fall from her shoulders and he grasped her hands tightly. She looked up at him expectantly, but it was a few moments before Clark spoke.

"I'm sorry I'm so stubborn. My mom's always telling me it's my worst trait."

"I'd have to agree with her," Lois replied, only half teasing. "She seems like a wise woman."

"Oh, that's right." The hint of a smile tugged at one corner of Clark's mouth. "You've spoken."

Lois's eyebrows lifted. "She told you?"

His smile grew as he nodded. "What did you say to her? I think it's safe to say you won her over."

"I did?" Lois's face brightened. "Well, I'm just glad she didn't think I was a stalker or something. I was really worried about calling there, but your mom was really sweet about it." She frowned as her thoughts turned back to the topic at hand. "Anyway, I was just so upset when you left, and then you wouldn't return any of my calls. I was worried that I'd ruined the start of something really great…"

A leftover tear escaped and slid down her cheek. Clark lifted a hand to gently wipe it away. "You still think we have something worth pursuing?"

She nodded, her eyes bright. "I do." She paused, and her expression became cautious. "Don't you? I thought you said—"

"That I love you," he finished for her. A slight blush crept across his cheeks at the memory of his bold admission. He inclined his head slightly. "I do. I guess I wanted to make sure you still felt that way, too."

He didn't say anything else, but Lois saw the muscle working in his jaw and the pensive look on his face. It was clear he still had something more on his mind.

"Clark?" she spoke quietly. "What is it? What are you thinking?"

"I don't know," he began, breaking eye contact and sliding his hands into his slacks pockets. "I was just thinking about what you said earlier…about how we're both so insecure about where we stand with each other, and where this relationship might be going. You're right. That's exactly what I'm feeling." He shook his head and finally looked back up to meet her gaze. "I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I haven't exactly had a lot of experience in the relationship department. I've dated a little, but I've never felt comfortable going out with anybody on more than a casual basis because of who I am and what I can do. It just seemed too risky. If something slipped and that person found out about me, and decided to reveal what they knew…well, you know the consequences I'd be facing."

Lois's gaze met his, urging him to go on. After a moment, he did. "You were the first person I've wanted to take that chance with, and when I saw that article on your computer, all those fears and insecurities came to the surface. Like I said, I've never shared so much of myself with anyone before, and it's scary, no matter how many reassurances you give me that my secret is safe. In my heart I trust you, but I've spent so many years protecting and distancing myself from everyone that it's hard to let go of that instinct. I guess it's produced a lot of insecurities."

"So, what exactly are you saying, Clark?" Lois prompted.

Clark took a deep breath, trying to muster his courage to ask the question that had been on his mind since the day Lois had boarded her plane to go back to San Francisco. "What I'm saying is…I know this is pretty early to ask this question, since we've only been seeing each other a couple of weeks, but…where do you see this going, Lois? Where do we stand with each other? I mean, we just said that we loved each other. Did you really mean that? I know I did when I told you that, but—"

Lois grinned. "And you say that *I* babble," she teased as she reached for the hand he'd pulled out of his pocket. Then her expression became more serious as she took a half step closer. "Clark, I meant it," she reassured him quietly. "I do love you. Which is crazy, I know. We *have* only known each other for a few weeks, like you said, but…I feel something very strong between us, a kind of connection I've never felt with anybody else before. Not that I've dated that many people, either; I've always been kind of a loner. And to be honest, I really don't have any desire to see anybody else right now. What you and I have is more than I could have hoped for, and…well, yes. I'd like to give this a chance to see where it might go."

Clark let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Oh, Lois. I was hoping you'd say that. I feel the same way." He pulled his other hand from his pocket to hold both of hers. "Right now I can't possibly imagine feeling about anybody the way I feel about you. I agree we have a special connection, and it's so strong I don't dare let it go."

For what seemed like forever, they stood there in silence, enjoying the warmth their words had brought. Their fingers lingered on each others, touching, soothing, comforting. Finally, Lois voiced the question she knew was as much on Clark's mind as it was on hers.

"So, where do we go from here?" she asked.

Clark contemplated that for a long moment. "Like you, I'd really like to give our relationship a chance and see where it goes. If you can forgive me my insecurities, that is." He smiled wryly and was rewarded with a responding smile from Lois. "I have to be honest, though—I'm kind of struggling right now with the whole trying-to-be-two-people thing. If I seem distracted from time to time, or end up darting out on you when we're together, I hope you'll understand that it doesn't have anything to do with you; it's just me trying to find a way to make everything work."

"I understand." Lois caressed the back of his hand with her thumb. "But you don't have to do everything by yourself, you know. I've known you long enough to see that you have this real stubborn streak, and seem to think you need to do everything yourself and never ask for help. Well, those kinds of habits are going to make you unhappy in a hurry." Lois frowned at him. "You have a lot of people who care about you, and want you to be happy—especially me. If you start to feel overwhelmed or need help…or even just need somebody to talk to, ask. I know that's hard for you to do, but if we're going to make this relationship work, we need to communicate better."

Clark nodded solemnly. "I know we do. And I promise I'll do better. But could you promise me something, too?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"That you'll be honest with me about your feelings. If you feel frustrated or angry with me about something, promise me you'll let me know. I don't think I could bear to have another few days like the ones we just had, with things unresolved. I know it was my fault for flying off the handle and not listening to what you had to say, but if we communicate better, I think we can get through any rough spots down the road."

"I agree."

"But there's one more thing I need you to promise me." His tone was serious, and his brow furrowed in a slight frown. "You have to promise me you'll be careful about what you say about us to Agnes or anybody else back home. Long distance relationships are supposed to be hard, and I don't want anyone getting suspicious about our frequent visits. If someone finds out I can drop in on you at the drop of a hat, my cover would be blown, and you could be in danger. You'd be a target, just like we talked about two weeks ago."

Lois rolled her eyes at him. "Clark, I'm a big girl who can take care of herself. Don't worry so much. Besides, I won't say anything that will make anyone suspicious."

But Clark's frown deepened and he shook his head. "I don't think you're getting the gist of this," he went on. "It can be the little things that make people suspicious without even realizing we're doing them. Take last Friday night, for example. I was on my way out of the Planet after work to go home and get ready to see you when Jimmy asked me if I had a hot date." His frown relaxed a bit and he smiled at the memory. "I barely managed to stop myself from telling him I had a date with you. It's things like that that could get us in trouble. And take that tabloid reporter you ran into the other day while you were out talking to sources. What if that guy had stumbled onto your article instead of me? You would have instantly become a target. And I don't want that to happen."

"The article is gone," she reminded him firmly. "It's no longer an issue."

"I know, but I'm just using that as an example. It's too easy to slip up and think nobody's going to find out something. It's a worst case scenario, but I'm just concerned about protecting you. You're already way too impetuous for my liking." He smiled a little at that, but his eyes reflected the seriousness of his request. "Please promise me you'll be careful, both with what you tell people and what positions you put yourself in. Now that I've found you, I don't want to lose you."

Lois softened at his words. She slipped her hands out of his and placed them on his cheeks lovingly. "You're not going to lose me," she told him, gazing into his worried brown eyes. "Unless you decide to let that stubborn streak of yours get the better of you again." She made a face, and he smiled.

"I'm sorry about that," he said, reaching up to run his hands lightly along her forearms and the back of her wrists. "I promise I'll try to talk things out before flying off angry."

"Promise?"

He nodded. "I promise. And you?"

She rolled her eyes, but a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth. "Fine. I promise, too. But being impetuous is part of who I am. I can't promise I'll stop that entirely, but I will try to stop and think before rushing in from now on. Deal?"

Knowing that was as probably as much as he was going to get, he nodded. "Deal."

They didn't say anything for a moment as they stood, staring into each others' eyes. Finally, Clark grinned, his eyes mischievous. "What do you say we seal the deal with a kiss?"

Lois smiled back. "I thought you'd never ask."

Without hesitation, Clark leaned toward her and kissed her lightly, savoring the sweet touch of her lips on his. He felt her slip her arms around his neck and his heart started to pound. Even a couple of hours ago, he hadn't been certain he would ever kiss this beautiful woman again. But here they were, still very much together. And in love. He couldn't think of any place he'd rather be.

When their kiss finally ended, he leaned forward and touched his forehead to hers, feeling dazed and breathless. He grinned when he saw she had been just as affected by their kiss as he. "You're going to have to be careful," he teased. "I can get used to doing that."

She giggled softly and lifted herself up onto her toes to kiss him again lightly a couple more times. "Then maybe we need to do it a little more often to desensitize ourselves, don't you think?"

"Mmm," he mumbled in between kisses. "Somehow I don't think it works that way, but I'm game to try."

She laughed again, and their light teasing kisses continued for a few minutes. At last Lois forced herself away and she looked at him intently. "So, what happens now?"

Clark's confusion at her question was evident on his face. "What do you mean? I thought we just talked about—"

"No, I mean *now* now," she tried to clarify with a shy smile. "I mean, my boss thinks I'm home in bed, sick."

A look of sudden understanding registered on Clark's face. "Oh!" His lips curved into a broad grin. "In other words, you're finding yourself in a bind. You somehow need to get back to San Francisco, preferably before work tomorrow. And if I know you, you only bought a one-way plane ticket. Is that right?"

Lois reached out to pinch his arm. "You're enjoying rubbing this in, aren't you?"

He laughed. "Yeah, you could say that. What would have happened if I'd continued to be my usual stubborn self, and hadn't run after you when you left my apartment earlier? What would you have done then?"

"I didn't even want to consider that possibility before I came." She frowned. "I was trying to think positive."

"I see. So, now you need an alternate form of transportation home. Am I right?"

She nodded. "If that's possible. I mean…is it possible?"

Clark smiled and shrugged. "Sure. It might be a little chilly, but I can loan you a jacket or something. And it would probably take a lot longer than if I were to fly the route alone because I wouldn't want to risk hurting you."

"You mean I'd be stuck in your arms with your undivided attention for the better part of an evening? Yeah, that sounds just awful," she teased, moving in closer and putting a hand on his chest.

His heartbeat quickened, and Clark was certain she could feel the increasing beats under her hand. He reached up to tuck a strand of hair lovingly behind her ear and smiled down at her gently. "I agree. It sounds terrible. But, seeing you have no other way to get home tonight…"

She grinned and stood on her tiptoes once again to press a light kiss to his lips. "I'm glad I could talk you into it."

Clark savored the touch of his lips on hers, then took a reluctant step back. "Let me grab a jacket for you and then we can go."

He hurried off to get the warmest jacket he could find, then spun into his Superman costume in his bedroom, leaving his work clothes on the bed. He returned to the living room to find her picking up her carry-on bag from its place next to the coffee table.

"Here, let me get that for you." He took the bag from her and slid his arm through the strap. He chuckled as he did. "If you were thinking so positively by only purchasing a one-way plane ticket here, why did you bother packing an overnight bag?"

She shrugged. "I'm a girl, okay? The thought of not packing at least the barest essentials in case of emergency goes against everything I know. Besides, I planned to stay until you agreed to hear me out, even if it took an extra day."

She slipped her arms into the coat Clark held open for her, and he straightened it on her shoulders. "I hope it's warm enough," he said. "Being invulnerable, I don't exactly own the world's warmest clothes."

She snuggled into the fleece lining of the suede work jacket. "This is nice and warm. It looks like something you'd wear out on the farm."

He grinned. "It is, actually. It was a Christmas gift one year from my mom and dad's neighbor, Wayne Irig."

"That was nice of him."

"Yeah, he does things like that. He only has two daughters who have grown up and moved away, so he liked having an opportunity to spoil me when mom and dad would let him." He took a step toward her as she finished zipping up the coat. "You ready?"

She tipped her face up to see his from their close proximity. "As ready as I'll ever be."

Clark picked her up and gathered her into his arms. He smiled. "I can get used to this, too."

"Sweeping me off my feet? I'm already used to it," she breathed, straightening in his arms to treat herself to another kiss.

He groaned. "Okay, that's enough of that. You're making it impossible for me to maintain any kind of self control. If we don't leave now, I might be forced to keep you here forever. And I'm not sure your boss would like that."

She smiled and gestured to the window where she'd seen him enter his apartment during her last visit to Metropolis. "Then let's be on our way."

The trip didn't last long enough for Lois's liking. Before she was ready, they were touching down on her apartment's private balcony. Clark set her down carefully and grinned at her moan of protest. But then he frowned when he noticed how pink her cheeks were from the cold. He reached up to place his hands on her cheeks.

"Lois, you're face is freezing! Why didn't you tell me? Let's hurry in and get you warm."

She lifted her eyebrows at the innocently phrased suggestion. "And just how do you plan on doing that?" she taunted mischievously.

A blush instantly colored his cheeks. "Oh, I didn't mean…I mean, I didn't—"

Lois laughed at his obvious discomfort. "Relax, Clark, I was only teasing. You're welcome to come in—even though I'm not sure it would be a good idea. If you did, *I* might be forced to keep *you* here forever, and I know Perry wouldn't be happy about that."

Clark relaxed and chuckled at her turnabout of his previous words. "You're probably right. It is getting late—even here on the west coast—and you look exhausted." He reached up to run the pad of his thumb under one of her eyes. "It doesn't look like you've slept much the past few nights. I'm sorry about that."

"Our fight was more my fault than yours," she admitted. "If I had never written that story in the first place—"

"Shhh." He put a finger on her lips to silence her words. "Let's forget about that, okay? It's over. Let's move on."

She relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay."

Clark let his finger trace along her lower lip, and his eyes flickered down from hers to the softness of her lips. Then, unwilling to stop himself, he leaned down and kissed her one last time, reveling in the heady feeling that clouded his mind whenever he was lucky enough to find himself kissing her.

When they finally pulled apart, Clark's hand lingered on her cheek. "Goodnight, Lois. I'll call you tomorrow?"

"I'd like that." She nodded. "And if you were serious about us trying to see more of each other, I'd love to see you every chance you get—even if it's just you popping by after a rescue out west or something."

"It's a deal." He grasped her hand and gaze it a squeeze. "When I call you tomorrow, let's talk about what we can do to make this as normal a relationship as possible. I'm going to want to see a lot of you, you know."

"Good, because I want the same thing."

Clark moved past her to check the sliding glass door. When he found it unlocked, he slid it open and gestured inside. "Go in and get warm. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

She walked toward him and the door, pausing in the opening to smile at him. "Thanks for the ride home."

"It was my pleasure, Lois."

He made sure she was safely inside, then slid the door shut behind her. "Goodnight, Lois," he mouthed, then smiled as she mouthed a 'goodnight' back. With a heart lighter than it had been in days, he lifted off into the sky and headed back to Metropolis. He took his time, enjoying the sense of peace that always came from being among the dark, night sky. This time, however, he realized it was no longer the only place he could find that sense of peace. He had found it in a beautiful, energetic, impulsive young woman named Lois Lane, a woman who had told him tonight she loved him.

He breathed a happy sigh. In the past he'd always found a sense of peace and belonging in the heavens, but now, knowing the woman of his dreams loved him, he realized he had found his own piece of heaven right there on earth. And now that things were finally right between them, he couldn't imagine anything ever dragging him down again.

***

Lex shut down his laptop for the night and was turning off his desk lamp when Nigel appeared in the doorway.

"You're here late," Lex greeted him. He stood up from his chair and started putting papers in his briefcase.

"Yes, sir, but I thought you'd like to see what just came in." He walked over to Lex and handed him a sheath of papers.

Lex took them and glanced down at the papers. "What is this?"

"It's a report I managed to obtain from a source at Bureau 39."

"Bureau 39?" Lex lifted an eyebrow with interest. "That's a name I haven't heard for a while."

Nigel nodded. "We've connected with them in the past regarding other matters, but this time I think you'll be particularly interested. I received a tip yesterday that they've developed a sudden interest in Superman. What you're holding is their latest intel. They have one rather promising theory."

Lex turned his attention from his briefcase to the papers, glancing through the first couple of sheets. "Really? And what is their theory, exactly?"

"Apparently, they've been studying a piece of meteorite discovered in Kansas back in the mid '60s…near the site of a space capsule that crash landed in a farmer's field."

Lex's eyebrows crawled clear up to his hairline. "A space capsule?"

Nigel nodded. "Their working theory is that this…Superman…came to earth as an infant in the space capsule. They'd been tracking meteorite activity for a couple of weeks before the day they found the capsule, and found it had grown increasingly heavier until the time a few locals reported a flash in the sky and some UFO sightings. They went to investigate, and that's when they found a large amount of glowing meteorites, and later, the capsule buried in a nearby field."

"Intriguing." Lex pursed his lips and smiled. "And these meteorites were glowing? Were they radioactive?"

"They appeared to be, which is what caught their interest at first. When the capsule was found, the scientists surmised the two were possibly of the same origin. If that's the case, they may have something to do with Superman."

"Have these bits of meteorites been tested? Were they indeed radioactive?"

"Yes, but not strongly enough so to be harmful to humans," Nigel explained. "They do seem to contain an unknown toxin, however. These reports give the test results. Scientific opinion suggests the combination of radioactivity and toxicity could have been responsible for a planet's explosion."

"Which could explain why someone would launch a space capsule and possibly jettison a child off to another planet." Lex looked thoughtful. "And while the meteorite may not appear to be harmful to us…"

"…it might prove to have an effect on Superman," Nigel finished. "Yes, it is a possibility, sir."

Lex contemplated that for another few moments, then resumed his task of putting his papers into his briefcase. "Nigel, pay them whatever they ask for pieces of this meteorite. I think we'll do a little testing of our own…firsthand."

***

Lois frowned at the plate of food sitting on the table in front of her. She had been so careful to follow the recipe for the noodle casserole Clark had made for her when he was there. She was sure she had done it right.

So why did it taste so awful?

She poked at the lumpy mass with her fork, studying it apprehensively. With the way it looked, she wouldn't have been surprised if it suddenly moved and slithered off her plate. Sighing, she picked up the plate, walked over to the garbage can, and ceremonially dumped the contents into it.

'There's no way I'm going to eat that,' she thought grumpily, staring at the rest of the casserole sitting in the casserole dish on the counter. She frowned. It was hopeless. Cooking just wasn't one of her talents.

The ringing phone was a welcome distraction. She wiped her hands off on a dishtowel and grabbed the cordless phone from the counter. "Hello?" she answered grumpily.

"Hey, Lois. What's wrong? You sound upset."

Lois's mood brightened at the sound of Clark's voice. "Hey," she answered more cheerfully. She gave the offending casserole one last glare before walking into the living room. "No, nothing's wrong. Well, unless you count the inedible casserole I just made. Yuck."

Clark's low laughter rumbled across the line. "Do I dare ask what you tried to make?"

"Just that casserole you showed me when you were here." She sat down on the couch and curled up into the corner, tucking her feet up beneath her. "I have no idea what I did wrong, but it tastes awful. I'd rather starve than eat it."

"What exactly did you put in? Maybe I can help you figure out where you went wrong."

Lois recited the ingredients she used, and the steps she'd taken. She was almost done reciting the process when Clark stopped her.

"What about the cheese? What kind did you use?"

"All I had was the individually wrapped kind, so I put a few of those on top."

"On top? You were supposed to mix the grated kind in with the soup and milk."

Lois groaned. "Mix the soup and milk? I forgot about that."

"You didn't mix them? What did you do?"

"I just opened the cans of soup and poured them on top, then added some milk and kind of mashed everything together over the noodles."

Clark laughed again, but his tone was kind when he responded. "Lois, cooking is a process. You can't just pile everything on top of everything else and hope it turns out. It's not like making a sandwich."

Lois groaned and leaned her head back against the couch. "I'm hopeless. Why did I even bother trying?"

"Now don't get all sulky," he scolded. "It's just going to take some practice. Look at it this way. The next time you'll remember to mix the things together because you'll know what happens if you don't. The best way to learn is to keep making mistakes."

"You can keep making mistakes," she insisted stubbornly. "I'll keep going out for fast food."

He chuckled. "Not when I'm around, you won't. I'm going to see to it that you learn to cook, even if it's only simple things. You're going to die an early, unhealthy death eating all that fast food."

"At least I'll die happy."

"Lo-is." He drew the word out, his tone lightly scolding. "You're being too hard on yourself. I hate to see you discouraged."

"Oh, I'm not discouraged," she said. Then she paused and made a face. "Well, okay, maybe I am. I was just so excited at the idea of cooking dinner for myself that it was such a disappointment when it turned out to be so inedible."

"I understand. You should give yourself points for effort, at least," he said, trying to get her to look on the bright side. "A few weeks ago you wouldn't have even tried."

"I guess so."

There was a brief pause, then Clark let out a growl of aggravation. "Okay, that's it. What are your plans tonight?"

A look of confusion spread across Lois's face. "I don't have any. Why?"

"This phone thing is driving me nuts. When I hear your voice, all I want to do is be there with you, so forget this. Can I come over?"

Lois's face split into a grin. "Do you realize how funny it is to hear you say that and realize that you can?" Her heart warmed at the idea of seeing him so soon after their flight home the night before, and she found herself nodding. "Yes, come over. I'd love to see you."

She could hear the smile in his voice when he responded. "Great! I'll be there in a minute."

The phone went dead, and Lois smiled and shook her head. Having a boyfriend with super powers definitely had its advantages.

Her stomach filling with butterflies at the thought of seeing him again, she got up off the couch and looked around her living room. She hadn't cleaned up since that morning, and there was still a glass and cereal bowl on the coffee table from breakfast where she'd watched the morning news. The newspaper was also spread out along the loveseat, and her attache was still sitting on the floor next to the door.

She scurried about to clean up before Clark's arrival and was just putting the dishes into the dishwasher when she heard a knock on the sliding glass door leading out onto the patio. She peered around the corner in surprise and saw him standing there, smiling. He held a large brown bag in his arms.

She hurried over to unlock the door and slide it open. "Hey," she greeted him happily.

He took a step to come in but then stopped mere inches away from her when he realized she wasn't moving. At his look of surprise, she grinned mischievously and pressed herself up against him. Then she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him invitingly.

"Mmm," he murmured against her lips. He shifted the bag into one arm, then slipped his other arm around her waist and drew her closer. Their kiss deepened, and the intensity of it left them both breathless.

"Wow," Clark said when they finally pulled apart. "If I'd known that was waiting for me, I wouldn't have bothered to call first. I would have just shown up."

She laughed. "Then next time you'll remember."

Clark grinned and leaned in for another kiss. "I certainly will."

When they walked inside, Lois took the bag from Clark eagerly. "I see you took pity on me after hearing about my cooking fiasco. What exotic location did you visit for dinner?" She reached in and pulled out a can of cream of mushroom soup. She looked at it strangely. "What is this?"

With a smile, Clark took the bag back from her and carried it into the kitchen. "The exotic location I visited is called a grocery store. You should visit one one of these days. They have all these different kinds of foods and spices… It's pretty incredible."

"Ha-ha, very funny," she said dryly as she followed him into the kitchen. "I know what a grocery store is. But where's all that great foreign take-out you like to get?"

"Not in this bag." He set the bag on the island and started pulling out items. "Tonight we're having that same casserole you attempted, but this time you're not going to mess up." He set a block of cheese on the counter, then turned to look for a mixing bowl. He caught sight of the offending casserole congealed in the glass dish by the sink and scrunched up his nose. "I can see why you'd be discouraged."

Lois smacked his arm, making him laugh. "I'm just kidding," he assured her, taking a bowl down from the cupboard. He set it on the island next to the grocery store items, then gestured for her to step up beside him. "Come on; I want you to do this. I'm just going to supervise."

She rolled her eyes. "You're not going to let me off the hook about this, are you?"

"Nope." He shook his head. "I'm going to teach you how to do this if it's the last thing I do."

"It just might be if I burn down the apartment…and us with it."

A grin spread across his face as he leaned back against the sink and folded his arms across his chest. "Nice try, but you're not going to get out of this so easily. I'm invulnerable, remember? And I can put out any fires you may set without the help of the fire department, so you're safe, too."

"Great." Knowing she had no choice, she walked up to the cans of soup and grabbed a can opener from the drawer.

***

"This is great," Clark enthused as he put a forkful of the casserole into his mouth. "I don't know what you were worried about. You're a pro."

They were sitting next to each other at the table eating, and Lois had to admit, this second attempt was much better. She grinned and shook her head. "No I'm not, but I have to admit, at least this is edible." She put a bite into her mouth. "But don't tell Agnes. If she knew I was learning to cook, she'd quit bringing me all those wonderful leftovers."

He laughed. "It sounds like she takes good care of you."

"She does." Lois's voice grew tender as she thought about Agnes. "She was actually the one who convinced me to get on that plane yesterday morning. She may not look it, but she's a real romantic at heart."

As she said the last words, she suddenly remembered what her neighbor had said—about how she'd let love slip away once. Lois's curiosity returned at the thought of Agnes's past love. Had Agnes been as swept off her feet by her man as she, herself, had been by Clark?

"So what did you tell her?"

Clark's question jerked Lois back to the present. She blinked and looked up at him. "What?"

"What did you tell her?" he repeated. "About you and me. You had to have told her we'd had a fight if she was the one who convinced you to fly to Metropolis to talk to me. Did you tell her we were back on speaking terms?"

"Oh. No, I haven't talked to her today. I kind of tip-toed out the door to work this morning because I wasn't sure how I would explain the fact that I was already back in town."

Clark grinned. "Welcome to my life."

But Lois didn't laugh. Instead, she leaned back in her chair and regarded Clark seriously. "When I woke up this morning, the fact that Agnes was probably lurking in her living room, listening for me to come home made me feel kind of guilty. I know she cares about me and wants what's best for me, but I knew I couldn't tell her I was already home…or how I'd gotten here. It kills me to have to lie to her, even if it is only a little white lie. But it gave me a little taste of what you must have to do every day. I know you're an honest, trustworthy person, and I can imagine that all those little white lies you have to tell to maintain your cover must eat at you from time to time." Her voice grew quiet and compassionate. "Do they? Does it ever bother you?"

Clark sighed. "Yeah, I guess it does sometimes," he admitted. "But being who I am, I suppose it can't be helped. For the most part I try not to think about it. I rationalize it by telling myself that if I strive to be honest and trustworthy in all my other dealings, it will make up for the little white lies I have to tell to keep others from finding out about me."

Lois stared for a long moment into the beautiful brown eyes staring back into hers, and she found herself regarding this man in a new light. Finally, she shook her head. "I admire you, Clark. I really do. Your life is so complicated and complex, and I can't help but be impressed by how well you're adapting to everything. It's such a noble thing you're doing, and I'm just glad it's you who has those powers. Somebody else might prefer to use those for their own good, instead of helping others." She reached over and covered his hand with hers. "I'd say your parents raised a pretty amazing man."

He smiled slightly, though he looked a little embarrassed at her compliments. "Thanks," he murmured. He looked down at their joined hands for a long moment, then cleared his throat. "Oh, um, I almost forgot to tell you," he said, changing the subject. "Guess what happened to me at work today?"

Giving his hand one last squeeze, Lois took her hand off his and reached for her fork. "What?"

"I got this phone call today from this lady who was trying to get hold of Superman. She told me she couldn't figure out how to get in touch with him, so it occurred to her to call me, since I'd done the first exclusive with him…"

"Clark, you do realize you're talking about yourself in the third person," she interrupted, her eyes sparkling.

He gave her a slightly crooked and boyish smile. "Yeah, okay, it's a bad habit. But would you let me finish?"

"Sorry." She made a waving motion with her hand. "Go on."

"Thank you. Now where was I… Oh! Yeah. This woman was hoping I could get in touch with Superman to give him a message."

"What was the message?"

"She's the organizer for Toys for Tots, a Christmas charity that helps needy children and their families in Metropolis, and she was hoping Superman would do some charity publicity for them this Christmas—be kind of a spokesperson, of sorts."

"Hey, Clark, that's great!" Lois enthused. But then she hesitated. "I mean, *I* think it's great. Do you think it's great?"

He smiled and nodded. "Yeah, it is. It just surprised me and made me realize that I can help as Superman in ways I'd never thought of. Toys for Tots is a really good cause, and there are a lot of needy children in Metropolis. If I can do something to call attention to their charity, it would give me one more reason to be glad I decided to be Superman."

"I think it's great," Lois said again. "What did you tell her?"

"I told her I would try to get the message to him. Christmas is still a few months away, but I'll let you know what I hear from her." Clark leaned over his plate to take another bite. "So tell me how things went for you today."

Lois let out a long breath. "Good. Tiring. I was doing research on some companies for our investigation, and you know how wearing all that research can be."

Clark looked apologetic. "I'm sorry I haven't been much help the last week or so. Perry's had me on a couple other things, so I haven't had any free time to look into things."

"That's okay," she assured him. "Mostly I've been concentrating on a corporation back east that seems to be linked to Mesopotamia, Inc.'s board members."

"Oh, that's right." Clark turned to her with interest. "You were going to tell me about that last week before everything happened."

Lois's stomach twisted at the memory of the trouble the story about Clark on her computer had caused. But she forced herself to remember that was in the past, and she needed to move on. Collecting her thoughts, she began to tell Clark what she'd found.

"When I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere going through the companies on the San Francisco shipping company's list of customers," she began, "I decided to try going about this from your coast. I looked through Jimmy's research that you sent me and found out that the Metropolis shipping company is owned by a conglomerate that has their hands in a bunch of different kinds of businesses—power and phone companies, a few retail chains…and get this—a few art and antique galleries, one of which is in France."

Clark stared at her blankly. "I guess I'm not seeing the significance."

Lois's voice became more animated. "It's the same dealer that had the antique vase up for auction—the same vase we suspect Mesopotamia, Inc. claimed they had stolen."

"You're kidding!" Clark's eyes widened. "So you think somebody with Mesopotamia, Inc. arranged for the vase to be stolen, collected the insurance money, then had this other subsidiary company auction off the vase for them in their art house overseas?"

"I know it's all circumstantial, but it seems like an awfully big coincidence that both shipping companies seem to factor into that vase. I suspect there's a crime ring here a mile wide—stolen antiques, false insurance claims, smuggling, dealing stolen artifacts… It also seems awfully coincidental that both these companies are linked to shipping businesses on opposite coasts. Such an arrangement would give them the means to transport goods to and from anywhere in the world."

"And the diamonds," Clark contemplated. "Whoever's behind this is probably dealing in smuggled gems, as well."

"I'm sure they are. Those diamonds bring a lot of money in the U.S. market, especially if you obtain them through illegal means from another country and sell them here in the States for a pretty penny."

Clark whistled. "I have the feeling you're onto something big."

"*We're* onto something big. You say you don't feel like you've helped much, but you have. And you will. I know how busy you are, so I don't mind picking up the slack on this."

"But *I* mind." Clark's voice was firm. "We talked about this being a joint effort, so I'm going to make time. Besides, it just gives me one more excuse to spend time with you."

She raised a dark eyebrow at him. "You don't need an excuse, you know."

A smile crept across Clark's lips at the thought. "I know. And I'm glad."

It was quiet for a moment, and Clark reached for her hand. He lifted it to his lips and pressed a soft kiss onto the back of it, enjoying the look of surprise his gesture elicited. He scooted his chair closer and tugged gently on her arm. "Come here."

Setting her fork down on her empty plate, she turned slightly in her chair and leaned into Clark, snuggling up against him. He slid his arm around her and she dropped her head onto his shoulder.

"Okay, I'm never moving again," she murmured, only half joking. "This is nice."

He chuckled, and her heart warmed at the low, rumbling sound. She sighed with contentment as he began running his fingertips lightly up and down her arm. It was quiet for a long time as they sat together, enjoying the moment of closeness.

Lois found herself soothed by the rhythmic motion of Clark's fingertips moving along her forearm. She was enjoying it so much that she noticed when his fingers paused on a spot near her wrist.

"Where did you get these?"

"Hmm?" She stirred at the sudden lack of motion and lifted her head from his shoulder. With dismay, she realized he was studying the tiny scars around her wrist and the couple further up her forearm.

Her face took on a shrouded look and she self-consciously pulled her arm away. "Oh, umm… It's—it's nothing. They're no big deal." She feigned a nonchalant shrug. "Everybody has scars from one thing or another."

Clark studied her for a moment, wondering why her scars seemed to be such a touchy subject. Hoping to tease her out of her abruptly changed mood, he gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I don't," he teased.

"Yeah, well, not everybody is lucky enough to be invulnerable like you," she snapped, getting to her feet.

She picked up her plate and glass and carried them over to the sink, setting them into the basin with a clatter. She forced herself to take a deep breath as she stared out the window at the glimmering lights of the city. The room seemed suddenly cold. Was it just her? She wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed them along the raised goose flesh on her arms. Preoccupied with her thoughts, she didn't hear Clark's approach. She jumped when she felt his hands on her shoulders.

"Lois, what's wrong? I didn't mean to upset you." He turned her around to face him, noticing how pale she suddenly seemed. "You know everything about me, but I can't help feeling like you're hiding something. It hurts to think you don't trust me enough to tell me."

She licked her lips and averted her gaze. "It's not that I don't trust you. It's just too hard to talk about."

"What is?" He reached for her hands, then frowned. "Lois, you're shaking like a leaf. What is it about your scars that upset you so much?"

Lois's voice wavered with emotion as she responded. "It just…it brings back so many bad memories, that's all."

"What does?" he prompted gently.

"My scars."

Clark's brow furrowed. "Why, Lois? Why do they bring back bad memories?"

Drawing in a shaky breath, she bit her lower lip to try to stop it from quivering. "I got them in the car accident."

"What car accident?" His frown deepened as he tried to figure out what she was saying.

Her voice was a mere whisper when she answered, and if it hadn't been for his super hearing, he might not have heard her at all. "The one my parents and sister died in."

Clark's sharp intake of air was the only sound in the room. For several long moments, the announcement weighed upon his chest heavily, making it difficult to breathe. She'd told him that her parents and sister had been killed in a car accident, but she'd said nothing about being in the car with them when it had happened. Why hadn't she told him?

His struggled to bring his spinning surroundings back into focus. When he finally managed to pull himself together, he focused on the quivering woman in front of him. His voice was a hoarse whisper when he spoke.

"Lois, why didn't you say something? I had no idea…" His voice faltered, and he realized that he, himself, was close to tears. "I am so, so sorry."

She nodded wordlessly, obviously fighting to regain control. His heart went out to her. If she hadn't had a tough enough time dealing with the loss of her family in one fateful accident, she'd been forced to be a part of the dreadful experience. Even worse was the fact that the scars only served as a constant, daily reminder of what she'd been through, making it impossible to erase the memory of the tragedy from her mind.

Without hesitation, he reached out for her and took her into his arms. He felt her body shudder as her emotions threatened to overtake her, and she reached up to grasp a fistful of his shirt in her clenched fists. Pressing a feather-light kiss to her head, he hugged her tightly. "I'm here, Lois. It's okay. Go ahead and cry if you want. I won't think any less of you."

"I don't want to cry," she told him as she started to do just that. He could hardly hear her through her tears and the muffled sound of her voice against the fabric of his T-shirt. "I'm sick of crying. I'm sick of wondering why I lived and they didn't. I'm sick of wishing I'd died with them…" Her voice broke, and her shoulders started to shake as her cries turned into silent sobs.

Clark steered her over to the couch and pulled her down beside him, cradling her against him. "Shhh, it's okay," he murmured, stroking her hair soothingly.

She cried for a long time, and Clark remained silent. When her tears were finally spent, he felt her relax against him, taking comfort in the circle of his arms. After a few minutes, he began to suspect she'd fallen asleep. But then he felt her stir, and she lifted a hand to the front of his shirt, wet from her tears.

"I'm sorry," she whispered without lifting her head from his arm. "Your shirt's a little damp."

The corners of his mouth twitched. "That's okay. I don't mind getting wet for a good cause." His fingers tightened around hers, and he asked the question that was in the forefront of his mind. "So, what happened, Lois? Can you tell me about it? If you don't feel like you can, I'd understand, but I really want to understand what you went through. I want to be able to help you."

"There's really nothing you can do to help," she told him, wiping the stray tears from her cheeks. "There are just times when the memories are too fresh and too painful, even after all these years."

Clark's arm tightened around her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you remember something so difficult by asking about your scars."

"It's okay," she reassured him quietly. She breathed in deeply and let out a heavy sigh. "A lot of it is still a blur, to be honest. It happened so fast."

Clark squeezed her hand encouragingly, and his closeness gave her the strength to continue. "My sister and I were in the back seat, and my parents were both in the front, with my dad driving. We were on the highway going home after seeing a play in the city. It was late at night, and it was raining pretty hard."

Lois shuddered as the memory of that night played through the mind. Her throat grew thick with emotion as she went on, her voice barely a whisper. "The road was slick, and even though my dad was always a good driver, there was nothing he could do when the car in front of us tried to make a lane change too quickly and spun out of control. The car clipped our front fender and sent us off the road. We rolled twice on the way down the incline, then slammed into a telephone pole."

She felt herself start to shake, and Clark's arm tightened around her protectively. "I don't know how long it was until the emergency crews arrived. I was in and out of consciousness. It was my side of the car that hit the pole, and the car's metal kind of crumpled around me, trapping me inside. I was in so much pain that I don't remember much, but I could tell from the urgency with which the crew worked that it was bad."

She reached down to trace the small scars near her wrist. "There was glass everywhere. I ended up with a lot of stitches, a broken leg, a ruptured spleen, and some internal bleeding. The scar you saw on my stomach the other night was from the surgery I had the night of the accident when they tried to repair the damage. I was pretty beat up for a while there, but ironically, I was the luckiest. The doctors told me my parents died at the scene, and my sister died a short time after she got to the hospital."

"Oh, Lois, how awful," Clark murmured, his heart wrenching at the details. "How did you cope?"

"For a long time I didn't. I was a mess. I cried all the time, especially when I had to pack up my things and go live with my great aunt." She shook her head sadly. "My whole world had been turned upside down, and there were days when I honestly didn't feel like I could go on."

She took a deep breath to steady herself. "But then I managed to get into the journalism program in my new high school, and that gave me something to focus on. It was kind of a lifeline, and I found myself taken with it. That's why I ended up majoring in journalism. I think journalism is what saved me. It gave me something to take my mind off my life. It was comforting to be able to investigate other people's lives instead of focusing on my own."

"I can understand that." Clark's voice was sincere and full of sympathy. He paused for a moment before clearing his throat. "Earlier you said you admired me, and was impressed by how well I was adapting to everything. Well, I can say the same thing about you. My life hasn't been a picnic, but I've never had to go through the trauma that you have. That you pulled through it and still managed to become the incredible woman you are is simply amazing. I think you're the strongest person I've ever known."

She dropped her gaze from his as a flush colored her cheeks. "No, I'm not."

"Yes you are," he insisted. "At least I've had my parents with me all these years to help me through the rough spots. You haven't had anybody. I think that's just inspiring."

"Thanks." She looked up at him sheepishly. "That means a lot, coming from you."

A comfortable silence settled in around them as they were each lost in their own thoughts. Finally Clark stood up, pulling her up gently to stand beside him. He took in her red eyes and pale cheeks, and reached up to stroke her face with the pad of his thumb. "You look exhausted. Why don't you go to bed? I should probably be getting back, anyway. But I could come back tomorrow, if you're not busy."

Lois leaned into him, pressing her face against his chest and wrapping her arms around him. "I hate to have you go."

He hugged her back and let his cheek rest against hers. "I hate *to* go," he told her. "But you'll be around tomorrow?"

She pulled back and nodded. "Yeah, I'll be here. I'd love to have you come over."

"Great." He leaned down to press a gentle kiss to her forehead, then stepped back. "I'll tell you what. Why don't we just hang around tomorrow night, and maybe go over the notes you have on the story? And I'll bring the rest of what I have from Jimmy. Maybe together we can turn up some new information."

She smiled and nodded. "I'd like that."

He tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear before taking her by the hand. "Come on. You go on to bed, and I'll clean up in the kitchen before I leave."

Lois made a scoffing noise. "Forget it. There's no way I'm going to make you clean up in the kitchen. That's not a guest's job."

"Oh, so that's all I am now? A guest?" he taunted. Lois's eyes widened and she opened her mouth to protest. Before she could, he laughed and threw his arm around her shoulders. "Relax, Lois, I'm just kidding. And honestly, it's no problem for me to clean up. I'd be done before you could even find your dish soap. Super powers do have their advantages, you know." His eyes twinkled.

That brought the first genuine smile since their abrupt end to dinner. "I can imagine. I bet you *are* really handy around the kitchen."

"Absolutely. I'm a real catch," he joked.

Her expression grew serious and she stepped toward him. "You really are a catch, Clark. I can't tell you how grateful I am to have you in my life." She entwined her fingers through his and gave them a squeeze. "For the first time since my parents and sister died, I feel like part of me is alive again. I have you to thank for that."

Clark's heart lurched. "Oh, Lois." He gathered her once again into his arms. "You have no idea how happy that makes me, because I feel the same way about you."

After a moment he chuckled, and Lois pulled back to look up into his face. "What's so funny?"

"Us." He shook his head. "We're a mess, aren't we? Well, at least we were before we found each other. But now that we have, things just seem to fit…like maybe we were the puzzle pieces that were missing in our lives."

She smiled at that. "I think you're right."

Their gazes met and held, then Clark finally shooed her off toward the hallway again. "Okay, enough stalling. Get to bed before I have to come in there and make you."

Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "Really? How would you make me, exactly? I'd love to see."

He rolled his eyes and groaned. "Don't tempt me, Lois. I may be as strong as steel, but my control isn't iron-clad."

"Okay, okay." She grinned and gave him one last kiss. "Goodnight, Clark."

"Goodnight, Lois. I'll see you tomorrow night."

"I'll be looking forward to it."

He watched her disappear down the hallway, then heard her bedroom door shut. He smiled. "Me too, Lois," he whispered to the empty room. "Me too."

***

"Thank you, Superman!"

Clark looked down at the five-year-old boy and smiled as he reached out to tousle his thick, sandy blond hair. "Superman" had arrived on the scene a short time before when he heard that the police had received a threat of a bomb in the City Office building. As the bomb detection crews searched the site, Clark had helped evacuate the workers and citizens from the building. The little boy had been there with his mother, and was now standing outside on the sidewalk, gratefully clutching the stuffed alligator "Superman" had gone back in to retrieve for him.

The small act appeared lost on the grownups around the boy, but Clark could tell by the glow on the young boy's face that his alligator's "rescue" meant as much to him as his safety meant to his own mother.

"You're welcome," he told his adoring young fan, giving the boy's shoulder a squeeze. "You take good care of that alligator, you hear?"

The boy nodded vigorously, clearly in awe of the red and blue clad superhero standing before him. "I will."

Clark flashed a smile at the boy's mother, then hurried back into the building to see what, if anything, he might be able to do to help the bomb detection crew. Twenty minutes later, it was determined there was no bomb, and the officials began sending everyone back inside to resume their tasks. Clark shook his head angrily along with the rest of the police crews. Why would anybody want to call in a bomb threat? It seemed so malicious and pointless.

Once he was certain the area was secure, Clark decided to head back to the Planet. He passed the front entrance to the city office building and crossed through the police barricade where a large crowd of interested bystanders were standing. Just as he did, an unfamiliar, stabbing sensation shot through him. He grimaced and clutched at his stomach, then reached out for the hood of a nearby police car as his knees suddenly went weak.

'What's happening?' he asked himself as he struggled to breathe through the tightness in his chest. But before he could ponder the situation, a fresh wave of the unfamiliar emotion surged through him. He gritted his teeth against it and groaned.

A growing panic threatened to consume him. Pain. This must be pain he was feeling.

Confusion seeped through the flashes in his mind. Pain? He didn't feel pain. He was invulnerable. At least, he always had been. There had to be some other explanation.

The feeling suddenly diminished, and he found himself able to straighten a little. Confused and anxious, he barely noticed when a set of arms reached out for him. He looked up and found himself looking into the face of a concerned police officer.

"Superman? Are you okay?"

Clark glanced up at the frowning policeman and nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay," he told the man, even though he wasn't entirely sure if he really was.

He found himself breathing a sigh of relief when the pain finally diminished to a dull ache, then disappeared entirely. The weak feeling in his knees and limbs remained, however, and he struggled to compose himself as he walked through the people on the crowded sidewalk, many of them eyeing him curiously. He'd never been more grateful to escape into the privacy of an empty alley not far from the city office building.

He took advantage of the privacy to lean up against the brick wall, tipping his head back to rest wearily against it. What had just happened? In his entire life, nothing like it had ever happened. The pain was gone, but he still didn't feel like himself. He felt weak and exhausted.

And that scared him.

Lifting his head from the wall, he looked down at his hands. He clenched and unclenched them. Then he shook out his legs and arms. Other than feeling tired, everything seemed to be in working order. He decided to test his theory and bent over stiffly to pick up a brick that had fallen from the old building's wall. He squeezed. After a moment, the brick crumbled and fell in larger-than-expected pieces to the ground. Clark frowned. That was harder than it should have been. The bricks on the building were crumbling on their own. He should have been able to reduce that brick to powder.

His chest tightened. What was happening to his powers?

Ever since he was little he had known he could do things that no other person could. In a way, he had always taken his powers for granted.

Until now.

His frown deepened. He needed to get to the bottom of this. Whatever it was that had caused his pain and weakened his powers, he had to know.

For the first time in his life, he felt afraid—afraid of something other than being exposed for his differences. He was afraid for his physical health. It was a fear he'd never had before.

And he didn't like the way that felt.

***

Lex pulled the ringing cell phone from his pocket and flipped it open. "Yes?" he inquired, leaning back against the plush leather in the back seat of his chauffeured limo.

"It's me." Nigel's voice came across the line. "Our theories proved correct. The meteorite does have an effect on him."

Lex's pulse quickened. "What kind of effect?"

"It appears to be toxic to him. As soon as I pulled it from the lead container it was brought to us in, he appeared to be in great pain. It also seemed to weaken his powers. He barely managed to hobble off."

A slow smile crept across Lex's face. "No flying? Interesting. It sounds like we've got our money's worth."

"I agree, sir."

"Thank you, Nigel. Get back in touch with our contact at the lab. I want as much of that rock as you can get." Without waiting for a response, Lex snapped the phone shut, then settled back against his seat. He pursed his lips and smiled.

Unbelievable. A rock that weakened Superman. Obviously, the hero wasn't as invulnerable as he had made himself out to be.

With a sense of victory settling in around him, Lex turned and looked out the window at the city of Metropolis passing by. Once again, the world seemed alive with possibilities.

***

Lois hurried in through her apartment door, trying to catch the phone before it stopped ringing. She used her foot to shut the door behind her, then tossed her keys and attache onto the couch before making a lunge for the cordless phone on the end table.

"Hello?" she asked breathlessly.

"Lois, it's me."

"Clark!" she exclaimed, a smile settling onto her face. "What a nice surprise. I'd say that was worth charging through my apartment to get the phone."

She heard the smile in his voice when he spoke. "I hope so." There was a pause, and his tone became more serious. "How are you after last night? Do you feel any better today?"

Lois blushed at the memory. "I'm fine. I appreciated you listening last night. I'm sorry I got kind of emotional."

"Don't be. What you had to go through was really tragic. I'm just glad you finally told me."

Lois felt her heart grow warm with his words. She loved how caring and considerate he was. It made her feel lucky once again to have him in her life. Changing the subject, she asked, "So, how did your day go? What did I miss, being out here on the opposite coast?"

There was a pause. Then Clark said, "Actually, that's kind of why I called. I had the most unsettling thing happen today, and I was hoping to get your thoughts on it."

"Uh-oh." She sat up straighter on the couch and frowned. "That sounds ominous. What happened? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay, I guess."

"You guess?" Lois's frown deepened. "What does that mean? Don't you know?"

Clark filled her in on what had happened earlier that day, finishing with an account of his weakened powers. "I barely managed to fly home, Lois. It was scary. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I don't know what to think."

Lois's brow furrowed with concern. "How are you feeling now? Are you any better?"

"Yeah, I think so," he said hesitantly. "I'm still a little weak, but not nearly as bad as I was a few hours ago. I think whatever caused this is wearing off. But still it's unnerving."

"I can imagine," Lois sympathized. "Have you been feeling any different lately? Any signs of getting sick or anything?"

"I wouldn't even know what signs to look for, Lois," Clark answered, clearly frustrated. "I've never been sick. But no, I don't recall anything unusual. At least not until this afternoon. It just hit me when I was leaving the city office building to go back to the Planet."

"What was around you when you started hurting? Did you notice anything unusual?"

He thought for a minute. "No, not really. There were a lot of people around, though, so I could have missed something." He sighed. "I don't get it, Lois. All my life I've never had to worry about my health or my powers, but here I am facing that very thing. It's so frustrating. All these questions keep coming into my head: Are my weakened powers just a temporary thing? What caused this? Will it happen again?"

Lois thought for a minute. "I know that I don't have any idea how your powers work, but is it possible that you've just been overdoing things? I'm guessing that you've never used your powers this much and this often before. Maybe your body isn't used to that?"

"I suppose it's possible. I just don't know."

Lois shook her head sympathetically. "I wish I had some answers for you, Clark, but I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help beyond listening. Have you talked to your parents about this? They know your powers better than anyone; after all, they saw them develop. Maybe they would have some suggestions?"

"It's worth asking," Clark admitted. Then he sighed regretfully. "I guess this means I won't be coming out there tonight to see you."

"That's okay, Clark, I understand. I just wish I could be *there* for you."

"I appreciate it, but really, I'll be fine. I think I'll take your suggestion and call my parents. Maybe they will have some ideas for me. Anyway, thanks for listening."

"You don't have to thank me. That's what I'm here for. I just hope you can get to the bottom of it. Be sure to let me know what you find out, okay?"

"I will. And I promise I'll make tonight up to you. I promise I didn't want to cancel our date."

"Oh brother, Clark." Lois rolled her eyes. "I know that. When you're feeling back to normal—and you *will* get back to normal, I'm sure of it," she assured him matter-of-factly, "we'll get together. Until then, you take care of yourself, you hear?"

He chuckled in spite of himself. "Man, you're bossy. Okay, okay, I will. Have a good night, Lois."

"You too, Clark. Tell your mom I said hello, would you?"

He assured her he would and they hung up. Lois remained on the couch for a long time, thinking. From everything Clark had told her, he was invulnerable. Nothing could hurt him, and she realized she had found a strange sense of comfort in that. Hearing what he'd gone through today made her stomach twist up in knots.

She didn't have any answers for Clark, but she hoped they could put together some of the pieces of the puzzle soon. It had taken her a lifetime to find Clark. She didn't want to lose him now.

***

The next evening, Lois was sitting cross-legged on her living room floor, studying the paper in her hand. It was a list of holdings for Sandstone Enterprises, the conglomerate that owned the shipping company in Metropolis that had had the diamond shipment confiscated during the Customs raid.

She sighed. The list was huge, and she suspected following the paper trail of each company's ownership would take forever. She knew there had to be a paper trail to Mesopotamia, Inc. in there somewhere, though. There just had to be. But if there was, she certainly wasn't finding it.

She looked around at the dozens of stacks of paper carefully placed on the floor around her. The research was all there; she just had to go through it all. But if the hours she'd already spent on it that day—as well as the past few days—were any indication, she wasn't going to get through it anytime soon.

"Ugh, I need a break," Lois muttered, setting the paper in her hand down on the stack by her left knee. She climbed stiffly to her feet and stretched, trying to get the blood circulating back through he limbs.

Deciding she'd been sitting for too long, she took a long, lounging step over the stacks of papers, careful not to disturb her hours of work, and headed for the kitchen. She walked to the pantry in the corner and took a cookie from a bag. Automatically, she headed for the table, but then stopped. She didn't want to sit.

She glanced at the sliding glass door. The terrace. Perfect. It was a beautiful evening, and the fresh air would probably help clear her head.

Sliding the door open, she stepped out and shivered as the cement chilled her bare feet. She curled her toes slightly as she walked, trying to get used to the temperature change from the warm carpet in her apartment. When she reached the balcony railing, she popped the remainder of the cookie into her mouth and brushed the crumbs off her hands. She grasped the railing lightly and gazed out over the twinkling lights of the city. Her body instantly began to relax. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply. As it always did, the night air began to work its magic on her soul.

A breeze rustled through the leaves of her potted palms and tousled her hair, but still she didn't open her eyes. It felt too good to relax and forget the world around her. She was so deep in her meditation that an unexpected voice to her right nearly made her jump out of her skin.

"Hi, Lois."

Lois's eyes flew open and a startled gasp escaped her lips. Turning her head quickly, she sought the source of the voice and spotted "Superman" hovering just on the other side of the balcony railing.

"Oh my gosh, Clark, you scared me to death," she breathed, putting a hand to her chest. Then she laughed at her own reaction. "Next time make some noise, would you? A little sonic boom would be nice."

He chuckled as he floated over the railing and touched down beside her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"That's okay. It was worth the nice surprise." She dropped her hand to her side and looked at him with concern as he walked up to her. "I hope this little visit means you're feeling better?"

"Thankfully, I do. My powers came back gradually last night until it was as if they'd never left." He closed the distance between them until he was standing mere inches from her. Then he surprised her by slipping his arms around her waist and drawing her against him. "Hi," he murmured huskily, a flirtatious smile playing across his lips.

Lois giggled. "Hel-lo," she murmured back, drawing the word out so it sounded like two. "Not that I'm not thrilled to see you, but what are you doing way out here, three thousand miles from home?"

"I was out helping a stranded freight boat get to shore not far from here, so I decided to drop by and see you. I hope that was okay." Clark paused, looked suddenly apprehensive.

"Yeah, it's okay. It's more than okay," Lois insisted.

Clark's expression turned to one of relief. "I missed you," he said quietly.

Lois felt a warm, tingling sensation start in her heart and work its way out from there. "I missed you, too."

She tipped her face up to his invitingly, and that was all the encouragement he needed. He leaned down to kiss her softly. But soon the intensity of their kiss grew, leaving Lois breathless. She slid her arms around his waist and moved her hands lightly over the smooth spandex beneath his cape.

Clark moaned softly at her touch, letting his hand slide from her face to tangle instead in the silky curtain of hair at the nape of her neck. Their kiss continued to deepen until they finally pulled apart, both heady and dazed from the experience.

"Now that's what I call a hello." Lois grinned as she stepped back. "I can attest to the fact that cleaning up a kitchen super fast isn't your only talent."

Clark laughed. "I could compliment you about the same. So," he said, changing the subject before he lost what little control he had left and ravished her again. "What's new?"

"What's new," she echoed dryly, rolling her eyes. "Who cares what's new with me? I want to hear about you. So, you're really feeling better? Did you talk to your parents?" Her eyes reflected her genuine concern as she took his hand and threaded her fingers through his.

He tightened his hand on hers and nodded. "I called them and explained what happened, but they were as baffled as I was. They don't remember anything like that ever happening before, either."

"Hmmm," Lois murmured. Then she let out a relieved sigh. "Well, at least you're feeling better now. Let's just hope it doesn't happen again."

"Agreed." He glanced over at the spot at the railing where she'd been standing when he arrived. "What were you thinking about when I got here? You seemed pretty wrapped up in your thoughts."

She smiled sheepishly. "No, not really. I was trying to relax more than anything else. I've been going through my research, trying to find out if any of the conglomerate subsidiaries tie into Mesopotamia, Inc., but again I think I've hit a dead end."

"Would you like some help?"

Lois looked back at him and lifted one dark, shapely eyebrow in surprise. "I'd love some. Don't you have to get back, though? Some Superman duties to perform?"

He shook his head. "Nope. For the evening, I'm all yours."

"You're going to be sorry you said that," she told him with a grin as she led him inside and into the living room.

When he saw the stacks of papers and folders spread out across the living room floor, his eyes widened. "Good grief. How long have you been at this?"

She sighed. "Since I got home from work. And like I said, I think I'm at a dead end."

Clark squeezed her hand and turned to her. "I have an idea. Why don't I fly home quick and get the rest of the research Jimmy gave me? I didn't fax everything I had to you, thinking some of it was insignificant. But maybe it's not. It's worth looking over, at least, especially if you're at a dead end."

"That would be great!" Lois nodded eagerly. "I'm willing to look at anything at this point."

"Then I'll be right back."

In a whoosh he was gone, and Lois let out a squeal as the breeze from his departure sent several of the pages on the tops of the stacks fluttering about the room. She hurried after them and attempted to put them back where they belonged. She was just righting the last few pages when she heard Clark re-open the sliding glass door.

When he saw her straddling the stacks nearest the couch and studying the ones at her feet, he asked, "What are you doing?"

She glanced up at him and gave him a crooked smile. "The breeze from your little departure sent some of the papers flying. I'm trying to put them back where they went."

A blush colored Clark's cheeks and he looked sheepish as he approached. Slowly. "I'm sorry," he told her, looking like a little kid being scolded for breaking something. "I didn't realize—"

Her smile broadened and she shook her head, noticing how endearing he looked when he was apologetic. "Don't worry about it," she assured him with a wave of her hand as she set the last paper on its proper stack. "But if you decide to change out of that suit and cape, do your spin thingy in the other room or you're busted."

He laughed. "Got it."

She took the stack of papers he held out to her and flipped through them briefly. Then she sighed. "There's a lot here." She looked back up at him with a twinkle in her eye. "I just thought of something. How fast can you read?"

***

Clark sat on the floor next to Lois, both of them leaning back against the couch with their legs stretched out in front of them. Clark had gone into the other room, as ordered, to change out of the Suit, then came back in to get to work. They'd been working for a little over an hour now, and already Lois's eyes were tired from reading so many pages of information. Clark's vision had proved helpful in skimming the documents and giving her a brief account of what they said so she could put it in the system of piles she had going. Their shoulders touched as they sat, and she felt, rather than saw, Clark reach for yet another handful of peanut M&Ms from the bowl sitting between them.

She grinned and muttered, "You're going to have to let that Suit of yours out if you keep eating all that junk food."

"No, I won't." His eyes never left the paper he was studying in his hand as he popped the M&Ms into his mouth. "That's one of the benefits of being invulnerable. I can eat all the junk food I want and never gain a pound."

Lois glared at him playfully. "I hate you."

He chuckled and turned to her, his brown eyes sparkling. "No, you don't. You love me."

"Not after learning that little bit of information I don't." She pretended to be indignant as he leaned closer, his shoulder pressing against hers and his face drawing closer.

When his lips were mere inches away, his gaze flickered from her eyes to her lips, then back up again. With great effort, she forced her breathing to remain steady. She knew that Clark would be able to hear the sound of her heart's now-erratic rhythm—a fact proven by the knowing smile now spreading across his face.

"Yes, you do," he whispered. "I can tell by that increased heart rate of yours that I've managed to…distract you."

She felt her own gaze slip down to his warm mouth. Her resolve to appear indifferent wavered as she watched one corner of Clark's mouth turn up.

"I don't love you," she protested, feigning indifference. "I just think you're a good kisser."

The other corner of his mouth joined the other in a full blown grin. "Really?" He leaned closer. "That's all I am to you? A good kisser?"

When Lois felt his warm breath on her lips, she almost forgot to breathe. "Isn't that enough?" she asked, her distraction growing by the second.

"I don't know. Let's test that theory."

In the next second, his lips were on hers. Lois let the papers fall from her hand as she reached up to slip her hand behind his head. The soft, gentle kiss quickly became more passionate, and Lois shifted on her hip to move closer.

In one swift movement, Clark's strong arms went around her waist and he pulled her into his lap. She moaned into his mouth as she felt his hands slip under the back of her shirt and settle against the bare skin of the small of her back. Tightening her arms around his neck, she leaned in, forgetting everything else around them as she enjoyed the sensation of Clark's lips roaming over hers—nibbling, tasting, kissing.

When they finally pulled apart, Lois had to put her hand on Clark's chest to steady herself. He grinned, pleased to see she had been as affected by their kiss as he.

"I'm not sure that proved anything," he murmured with a smile, his hands kneading the muscles at the small of her back, "but I'm not complaining."

"Me neither," she agreed with a smile of her own. "But one thing's for certain. I'm not going to get any work done if we decide to test any more theories."

Clark chuckled, the sound deep and soothing. Tipping her head forward, Lois let her forehead rest against Clark's. Neither of them said anything for several minutes as they tried to slow their breathing, enjoying a few light kisses as they did.

Finally, Lois sat back and turned to look at the stacks of papers around them. She sighed. "Sadly, I don't think we're going to get anywhere with this tonight. Maybe we should call it a night."

"Do you want me to come back tomorrow to help? I can," he said sincerely. "Barring a certain superhero being needed, I don't have plans."

She turned back to him and smiled, then leaned in for one last, light kiss. "That would be great."

In an awkward movement, Lois attempted to stand up, but Clark tightened his grip on her. "Wait," he said simply.

Lois stilled her movements, then gasped as they started to levitate off the floor. She unconsciously slipped her arms around Clark's and stared down at the ground as they drifted across the piles of research. When they were clear of the papers, Clark righted them and drifted lower until finally Lois found herself on her feet.

She smiled up at Clark. "No matter how many times I fly with you, I think it will always take my breath away."

"Just like you do to me every time I'm with you," he murmured, reaching up to trail a finger down her cheek.

Her heart skipped a beat and she felt her entire body start to tingle. She stepped forward into Clark's arms, snuggling up against his chest. She felt his arms go around her and she sighed in contentment. "I feel the same way, Clark. I just wish we at least lived in the same city, or better yet, worked at the same newspaper. It would be so nice to spend every day with you."

He pulled back, his expression hopeful. "You know, I'd bet anything Perry would hire you at the Planet. Maybe you should quit your job at the Chronicle and come to work there."

Lois lifted an eyebrow in indignation. "Or maybe you should quit your job at the Planet and come to work at the Chronicle."

Clark's hopeful look faded. "Yeah, I guess it's not that easy, is it."

Lois shook her head. "No, it's not. You have friends in Metropolis you love, and I have fr—" She paused, then made a face. "Well, okay, maybe I don't have a lot of friends here, but I do have Agnes. And you know how important she is to me."

"Yeah, I know."

"And I've worked hard to make a name for myself the Chronicle," she went on. "I'm not sure I like the idea of starting from scratch somewhere else."

"I know," Clark repeated. "I guess it just sounded nice."

Lois sighed again. "It does sound nice. I guess I'm just not ready to think about that aspect of our relationship. Maybe we should just enjoy what we're building and go from there. If we need to, we can cross that bridge when we come to it."

"Deal." Clark smiled tenderly, then looked around the messy living room. "Do you want to leave everything where it is, or should we clean up a bit?"

Lois put her hands on her hips and looked at the stacks of paper around her living room. "I think I'll leave it. I'm going to pick up the papers I dropped, though, thanks to you." Her mouth quirked into a grin as she remembered what had caused her to drop them earlier. Clark grinned, too, and she knew he remembered exactly what she was referring to.

She walked over to pick up the scattered papers. Suddenly, she paused near one of Clark's stacks. "Wait a minute. What's this?" She grabbed the paper and straightened up, her eyes moving across the page.

Clark walked over to her. "What? What did you find?"

"It's a list of accounting for Mesopotamia, Inc.," she murmured, distracted. She didn't say anything else for a minute as she pored over the information. "I don't remember seeing this before, but apparently Mesopotamia, Inc and Sandstone Enterprises have their accounting done by the same firm here in San Francisco." She looked up to meet Clark's gaze. "That seems like an awfully big coincidence, don't you think? Especially since they're based on completely opposite coasts?"

"It does," Clark agreed, leaning over to get a better look.

In a sudden burst of inspiration, Lois stepped into the center of the stacks and looked around for one pile in particular. When she found it, she picked up the pages and started to flip through them. Then she pulled out one in particular and held it out to Clark.

"Isn't this interesting," she said with growing enthusiasm in her voice. "The shipping company here in San Francisco that was shut down for drug trafficking had their accounting done by the same firm, too."

Clark's brow furrowed. "That can't be a coincidence. I think we need to find out more about this accounting firm. I'll have Jimmy research them tomorrow and get us everything he can find."

Lois shook her head impatiently. "That takes too long. Besides, there are other ways to get the information we need."

"What do you mean?" Clark stared at her blankly. "What ways?"

A mischievous grin spread across her face. "How do you feel about a little after-hours investigating?"

Finally understand what she was suggesting, Clark's expression creased into a frown and he looked at her sternly. "Please don't tell me you're talking about breaking and entering."

"Well, of course," she stated matter-of-factly. "What did you think I meant? It's a perfectly justifiable means of getting what we want."

His frown deepened. "Lois, I can't believe you just said that. How exactly is breaking the law considered justified?"

"Clark, you're annoyingly good. We're not going to steal anything; we're just going to do a little research. That's not going to hurt anybody…well, except the bad guy's chances of staying out of jail."

She grinned, but Clark shook his head. "Lois, I can't believe you've stayed out of trouble this long. One of these days you're going to get caught by the wrong people, and it's going to get you killed."

"Yeah, well, that's the risk I'll just have to take." She straightened up and squared her shoulders. "Sometimes in this business you have to take risks. I knew that going in, and I love the thrill of the chase. Don't you?"

"Yes, but not by doing things that are illegal. Being Superman is a responsibility. I can't do something like breaking and entering. That wouldn't make me any better than the criminals I catch."

Lois rolled her eyes and smiled. "Goody two-boots."

Seeing that he wasn't convincing her, he reached for her hands and gave them a little shake. "Lois, promise me you won't do anything dangerous or illegal. I don't want to see you get hurt."

Their eyes met in a clash of wills, and after a moment, Lois gave in. "Okay, fine," she said with a frown. "I won't do anything illegal."

"Good." Clark let her hands fall and he stooped over to pick up the remaining scattered papers.

It was quiet for a moment, then Lois said, "But what if they left the door unlocked? Then that wouldn't be considered 'breaking.' Just 'entering.' And then it wouldn't be illegal, right?"

Clark stood up and let his gaze shift heavenward in a silent plea for extra patience. "Lo-is…"

"And just so you know, I never really break anything," she hurried on. When she continued, her explanation became a smooth ramble. "I can pick a lock so fast and so cleanly that it never does any damage, so really, it's not that big a deal. It's not like I ram my car into the front of the building or break a window, or anything."

"Lois, stop." Clark put his hands on her shoulders and held them firmly. "Listen to me. You are not going to break into any buildings, you hear me? Quit being so stubborn and impulsive for once. I'll talk to Jimmy about getting that research first thing in the morning and tell him it needs to be top priority. He'll get the information we need fast, so don't worry." He fixed her with a stern look. "Okay?"

"Fine," Lois said after a moment, sighing in resignation.

"You promise?"

"I promise."

"Okay, then." He released her shoulders, then turned to resume his straightening.

Lois watched him for a moment, pouting. Then she brightened. How would he know if she went ahead and did her "research" tonight? He didn't live anywhere near San Francisco. Surely he wouldn't be hovering over the city, watching her to make sure she stayed out of trouble. Besides, there wouldn't be any trouble. She'd done this kind of thing before and had never once been caught. He may not think so, but to her it was a perfectly justifiable means to an end.

That accounting firm held the answers she needed. She was sure of it. And tonight, she was going to find out what those answers were, whether Clark wanted her to or not.

***

Lois glanced at the clock on the bedroom wall. It was just after midnight. Now was a good time to set off on her "fact finding mission."

She grinned. This was going to be fun.

Climbing out of bed where she'd been watching TV and reading for the last two hours, she felt her adrenaline start pumping. This was what she lived for. Covert missions in the dead of night, locks to be picked, security cameras to be avoided… It all made her feel alive.

She hurried over to her closet and started pulling things off hangers—her black, long-sleeved turtleneck, her black jeans, her black leather jacket… It took her only a few minutes to get dressed in her "breaking and entering" clothes, then she pulled her black knit cap down over her brown hair, leaving the ends of her short hair poking out the bottom on the sides and back. She deliberated for a moment about tucking them in, but ultimately decided her dark hair would help cover her pale skin.

With a quick look at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she decided she was ready. She slid her apartment key into her jacket pocket along with her pen flashlight, then felt the inside pocket to make sure she had her lock-picking tools. Deciding she had everything, she slipped on her black leather gloves and tiptoed quietly out of her apartment and into the elevator.

In a matter of minutes, she was in the car and heading toward the accounting firm of Knutson and Lawes. She'd had to look up their location up on a map earlier that evening, but found the building easily since it was only five minutes from her apartment. It was on the ground floor of a multi-story building, and she managed to slip past the dozing guard in the front lobby.

She wound her way down the back corridor to suite 114 and stopped in front of the beautiful oak double doors with glass sidelights. A quick glance around assured her there were no security cameras. She smiled. She was home free.

She pulled her lock-pick kit from the pocket inside her coat and went to work. In only a matter of moments the lock clicked and she turned the doorknob experimentally. It opened.

Feeling very pleased with herself, she grinned. "That was even easier than picking Clark's lock," she muttered under her breath.

She looked around to make sure she was still undetected, then slipped inside the darkened offices. Pulling the penlight from her jacket, she rotated the head to turn it on. Then she made a beeline for the hall behind the reception desk and turned into the first office on her right.

Bingo. File cabinets.

The next half hour felt like five minutes as she pulled folders out of the file drawers and skimmed through each one, looking for anything that might give her more information on Mesopotamia, Inc., Sandstone Enterprises, or any of the companies linked to them.

When she opened the bottom file cabinet drawer nearest the wall, she found what she was looking for. Client lists. She flipped on the copy machine in the far corner of the room and began looking through the lists as she waited for the machine to warm up.

Her eyes paused on one name in particular, and her heart leaped. Could it be? Was she really seeing what she was seeing? With adrenaline pulsing through her veins, she realized this was it. This was exactly the connection she'd been looking for.

She quickly copied the pages, then turned off the copy machine, put the originals back in the folder, and returned the folders to the drawer. With one last look around to make sure she hadn't left anything out of place, she left the office suite and tiptoed past the dozing security guard once again. Then she was home free.

She grinned triumphantly as she climbed into her car. She had done it. Glancing down at the small stack of papers she'd set on the passenger seat, she knew her efforts hadn't been in vain. Regardless of what Clark thought, the end had justified the means.

Clark.

She grinned again and started the car. She could hardly wait to tell Clark what she found.

***

It was hard for Lois to be quiet as she stepped off the elevator and tried to hurry into her apartment. The adrenaline coursing through her body made her hand shake as she tried to slip the key into her lock, and it took two tries before she finally accomplished the task. As soon as the door opened, she rushed inside, barely remembering to shut it behind her.

She pulled the rolled up copies from her inside jacket pocket and hurried over to the stacks of research still spread out on her living room floor. She compared the names of the companies on the accounting firm's client lists with the list of company names on her own research. What she found confirmed her suspicions. This was the break she'd been looking for. She had to tell Clark.

With her heart pounding with excitement, she glanced up at the clock on her living room wall. It was a little after four a.m. on the east coast. Clark would be asleep.

She hesitated. What if he'd been out being Superman until late? Maybe he'd only been asleep for a short time, and she'd be disturbing him. But then a thought came to her. Did he even *need* to sleep? He'd already told her he didn't need to eat, so maybe it was the same for sleep.

She debated back and forth for several moments, then finally decided to go ahead and call. What she'd discovered was simply too big. He'd be as excited about it as she was, she was certain.

Her hands still shaking, she dialed his number and waited anxiously as the phone rang. Once. Twice. Three times. Just when she suspected she was going to get his answering machine, a tired, gravelly voice came across the line.

"Hullo?"

"Clark! Wake up," she told him, her voice breathless with excitement. "You won't believe what I found!"

There was a pause on his end of the line. Then came a sleepy, "Lois? Is that you?"

"Yeah, Clark, it's me." Her excitement sent her launching into babble mode as she hurried to explain. "I know it's just after four in the morning there and that you were sleeping. I'm sorry, I really am. Well, maybe I'm not, and you won't be sorry I called you either in a minute, because you'll realize what a break I made in our story and you'll forgive me for waking you up. In fact, not only are you going to forgive me, you're going to *love* me!"

She heard a sleepy and impatient sigh from the other end of the line. "Lois, your babbling isn't as endearing at four in the morning. Is there a point to all this?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed, a squeal sneaking into her voice. "I found an amazing connection. Amazing! I broke into the accounting firm and got a look at their records—"

"You what!"

Lois's excited babbling stopped abruptly at Clark's angry—and suddenly very awake—response. Her enthusiasm waned as she realized she might have approached that wrong. She hadn't meant to so blatantly admit to her wrongdoing, especially when she knew how Clark had felt about the idea in the first place.

She licked her lips and thought quickly, feeling very much like a child with her hand caught in the cookie jar. When she continued, it was more cautiously. "Umm, yeah. I know you didn't want me to, but the more I got thinking about the possible connection, the more I realized how important it was for me to take a look around."

She paused, waiting for Clark's response.

Nothing.

"Clark? Are you there?"

Just then a breeze ruffled the ends of her hair poking out from beneath her black ski cap. She whirled. Then she cringed. A very angry and intimidating-looking Superman was coming in through her unlocked sliding glass door.

She glanced down at the phone in her hand, then back at Clark. She swallowed. Suddenly very aware that she was still dressed in her black, break-in clothing and looking very much like a cat burglar, she knew it gave no doubt as to the activities she'd just been involved in.

She was in trouble. Big trouble.

She had barely placed the phone back in its cradle before Clark was stalking across the room toward her.

"Lois, what were you thinking!" Clark demanded, his eyes flashing dangerously as he stopped in front of her. "You told me you weren't going to go there tonight. You promised!"

Lois took a half step back. Then she looked down at her feet, unable to meet his angry gaze. "I know I did. I just—"

"You couldn't resist getting the story, is that it?" He let out an aggravated groan. "Lois, do you know how lucky you are that you weren't caught? You could have gone to jail! Or worse, somebody could have taken matters into their own hands and hurt you when they found out you were snooping around. Is that what you wanted to happen? Is it?"

Lois finally looked up, her eyes flashing with a hint of her usual spirit as they met his. "Geez, Clark, what are you, my father? No, that's not what I wanted to happen, and it didn't! Nobody was going to catch me. I was careful. And where do you get off storming in here and yelling at me? I can take care of myself, Clark! I've been on my own for a long time, and I don't need you hovering around me, telling me what I can and can't do. It's my life, Clark, and investigating is what I love to do. I know my methods aren't yours, but this is how *I* do my job. If you don't like it, fine! But don't yell at me and treat me like I'm stupid or something!"

Clark softened. His shoulders relaxed a bit and he sighed. "Lois, I don't think you're stupid. Impulsive and a little reckless, yes. But I just don't want to see you get hurt." He reached out for her hands and held them tightly in his own. "I care about you, and it makes me crazy when I hear about you rushing into dangerous things like this. Why do you insist on taking years off my life?"

Lois's anger dissipated and the corner of her mouth quirked into a smile. "I'm taking years off your life? I didn't think that was possible…you know, with you being Superman and all."

Clark rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Don't start with me, Lois. I'm still mad at you."

"Really? You're still mad?" Lois squeezed his hands and closed the gap between them. Then she pressed up against him, lifted herself up onto her tiptoes, and tipped her face up to his flirtatiously. "Would you still be mad if I did this?" She leaned in and closed her eyes, then gently, almost imperceptibly, touched her lips to his.

He didn't respond at first, and Lois opened her eyes to look into his. She saw his eyes flicker open, so she knew he had closed them to savor her kiss. She smiled victoriously. In a mere whisper, she quipped, "It looks like it's working."

"Lo-is," he protested, though his voice no longer sounded as angry.

Her smile broadened as she released his hands and slipped her arms around his waist beneath his hanging cape. Running her fingers along the smooth fabric of his Suit caused him to close his eyes briefly at her touch. Encouraged, Lois stood on her tiptoes again and kissed him a second time, this time more deeply.

Clark moaned. "Lois, you can't flirt your way out of this," he murmured against her lips, a tone of reprimand in his voice. "I'm still mad you took those chances."

Lois laughed as she kissed him, loving the way his reprimands sounded muffled by her kisses. "But you have to admit, they paid off," she taunted. "So it was justified."

"Mmm, I don't know about that," Clark mumbled, his lips otherwise occupied. "You still should have listened to me." He kissed her back, the last part of his sentence almost inaudible.

She grinned and pressed yet another kiss to his softening lips. "But if I had listened to you, I never would have found what I did."

His only response was a moan as their kiss deepened even further. Breathless, he finally pulled back, gripping her upper arms firmly in his hands to keep her at a distance. He looked at her sternly, but the intensity was now lacking due to the distraction.

She smiled with satisfaction. "You don't look as mad as you did a minute ago. Do I win?"

"Lo-is," he protested, still keeping her at a distance. "I don't think you're getting it. You can't win this argument, no matter how much you try to distract me."

But his consternation only made her grin broaden, and it was then that he realized he wasn't going to convince her what she did was wrong, no matter how hard he tried. He sighed and released her arms.

"Fine. We'll talk more about this later. For now, show me what you found."

Lois gave a little squeal at the mention of her successful venture and she grabbed the curled papers from the end table next to the phone. "Okay, this is what I learned." She stood next to him, her excitement returning in full force as her fingers pointed to various pieces of information on the pages. "Knutson and Lawes not only handles accounts for Mesopotamia, Inc. and their subsidiaries, and Sandstone Interprises, but they also handle the San Francisco shipping company involved in the drug bust, the conglomerate who owns Metropolis Shipping who had the shipment of diamonds confiscated, and…are you ready for this?"

She paused, letting the suspense build. "They also handle most of LexCorp's accounts."

Clark's eyebrows flew up his forehead. "You're kidding."

"No, I'm not." Her excited grin lit up her eyes, causing them to sparkle. "And what I'm really interested to research is the list of clients' names I don't recognize on their lists. I'd be very curious to see how many other clients they have that ultimately tie into LexCorp."

It was quiet for a moment as Clark digested the information. "So you think Lex Luthor might be behind all these companies? Behind Mesopotamia, Inc?"

"I don't know for sure; it's just a hunch." She shrugged. She thought for another moment, then said, "Clark, maybe this is far fetched, but do you remember when I had dinner with Lex at his penthouse?"

Clark frowned. "Yeah, I remember."

"Well, during the tour he gave me of his penthouse, he showed me his impressive gallery of antiques. One thing in particular sticks out in my mind. It was a Macedonian sword that was used by Alexander the Great to defeat Darius."

"I remember you mentioning it. So?"

She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Didn't you ever take World History in school? Alexander the Great fought Darius near the ancient city of Assyrian city of Nineveh, which had been destroyed by the Chaldeans a couple of centuries earlier. It was the last battle between them." She paused. "The name of the city was Mesopotamia."

Understanding flashed across Clark's face. "You think the name alone is enough to suggest that Lex is behind Mesopotamia, Inc.? Would Lex be that bold?"

She shrugged. "Maybe he would see it as a sort of private joke on everybody, that he didn't think anybody would be smart enough to link it back to him. But the name seems awfully coincidental for someone with an Alexander the Great fixation. Besides, if you look at Lex's rise to power, it stands to reason he got where he is today by conquering. Maybe he looks up to Alexander the Great as kind of a role model for controlling the world…only this time, that control has been gained with power and money. And if Lex is really behind all these things, he probably sees himself as untouchable, just as Alexander the Great did."

Clark shifted uneasily for a moment and looked as if there was something he was hesitant to say.

Lois furrowed her eyebrows. "Clark? What is it?"

"If what you're thinking about Luthor is true, and he sees himself as some kind of world conqueror, who do you think would be his biggest threat to his so-called kingdom?"

"I'm not sure I know what you're asking," she admitted.

"Superman," Clark stated simply. "Put yourself in someone like Luthor's position. A man arrives on the scene with some truly incredible super powers. What would you do?" When Lois didn't answer right away, Clark continued. "You'd want to test him, wouldn't you? To see what he's capable of? You'd want to know what you were up against." He paused, letting his words sink in. Then he went on. "What if it was Lex behind all those tests, and what's been happening to me?"

Lois's jaw dropped and she gasped.

"Think about it, Lois," he said, his voice gaining strength. "If he's behind all this, surely he'd want to find out everything he could about me, wouldn't he? He'd want to learn if I'm a threat to him, or capable of stopping him. Those two suicidal jumpers were employed by LexCorp. With everything you just told me, my theory makes sense."

"I wouldn't rule it out," Lois admitted. Then she bristled. "And to think I actually had dinner with that man! Maybe both your and my instincts were right about him hiding something. If all this is what he's been hiding, it's enough to put him behind bars for the rest of his life."

"All we have to do is prove it."

Lois made a face. "You make it sound so easy." She glanced down at the papers in her hand. "This is far from hard evidence of any wrongdoing, but I do think there are enough coincidences here to keep us investigating."

Clark nodded. "I agree. I'll have Jimmy get us a list of Lex's holdings and financial records. I know it won't be easy to go through all of it, but there's got to be something there to give us some more leads."

"That would be great," she said. Then she smiled. "We're going to have a lot of investigating to do. I guess that means we're going to be seeing a lot of each other over the next few weeks."

Clark leaned down to give her a quick kiss. "I can't wait." But then his expression grew more stern. "But no more late-night escapades, understand? I don't want to get another phone call from you at four in the morning, hearing how you broke into some other building. I'm under enough stress as it is."

"Okay, okay." Lois laughed. "I'll try to be good."

He sighed and shook his head. "Why don't I find that reassuring?"

***

The next day, Clark was walking down the ramp to the newsroom floor after lunch when Jimmy hurried up to him with a large stack of papers in his hands.

"CK! There you are. I've been looking all over for you."

Clark slowed his steps for Jimmy to fall in beside him. He nodded at the papers in the younger man's hands. "It looks like you've been busy. Are those for me?"

"Yeah, and I have the archives sending up everything they have on Luthor, too." Jimmy's forehead creased into a frown. "What are you working on, anyway?"

Clark took the stack of papers and thumbed through the first few. "Lois and I have some questions about Lex's…business dealings," he mumbled, distracted by the information he was skimming.

"Lois Lane?" A surprised grin flashed across Jimmy face. "You've been working with Lois Lane?"

Clark's steps faltered. Had he just said that? He couldn't believe he'd let that slip. Hadn't he just warned Lois to be careful about what she said to people regarding their relationship? With a frown, he realized it wasn't quite as easy as that.

"Yes," he said finally. "We've talked quite a few times."

Jimmy's grin spread from ear to ear. "No kidding! So…is there something to this? Are you guys an item?"

Clark sighed. How exactly was he supposed to answer that? At last he answered, "Jimmy, it's kind of hard to be an item with somebody who lives three thousand miles away."

"True," Jimmy persisted, "but it's not impossible. You guys were cute together! You should go for her. I would if I were you!"

Clark chuckled. "Thanks for the advice, Jimmy. We'll have to see how things go. In the meantime," he said, changing the subject, "what's going on with the research? Is this all of it? Except of the stuff coming up from the archives, I mean."

"Well, there's so much on Luthor and his enterprises it wouldn't fit on all the reams of paper in the building. But that's the stuff you said you wanted to look at. If you need something else, just let me know. It could take a while, given the amount of data I'd have to go through, but I'm sure I could find it."

"Thanks," Clark told him before parting ways with the younger man and heading over to his desk. Once there, he set the stack of papers down with a thump. It was definitely a lot of information to go through. It could take days to go through it all.

Then he smiled mischievously. It could take a *normal* person days. All he needed was a little "super" help.

Glancing around at the bustling newsroom, he stood up, grabbed the stack of papers, and headed into a windowless research room down the hall.

***

Lois sat with her elbow propped up on her desk and her chin in her hand, staring at her monitor. She sighed. She'd been going through the list of LexCorp's financial records, holdings, and subsidiaries for the past three hours since arriving at work, and she was getting discouraged. There was simply too much information to go through.

Just then the phone on her desk jingled. Grateful for the distraction, she picked it up and leaned back in her chair. "Lois Lane."

"Go check the fax machine." Clark's excited voice came over the line without so much as a 'hello.' "There should be a bunch of stuff on it I just sent."

Lois smiled as much from his boyish enthusiasm as she did from the pleasure of hearing from him. "Why?" she asked. "What did you find?"

"Just go get the papers. I'll wait."

She laughed softly, loving that he was so excited to share what he'd found with her. She put him on hold and pushed her chair back from her desk. Not for the first time, she found herself wishing they could be working together at the same paper. It would be so great not to have to rely on phone calls and Super visits to share their investigation reports. And today, she would have loved to have someone sitting at a table with her, poring over research. Maybe then it wouldn't seem so tedious.

Lois walked over to the fax machine across the newsroom and retrieved the dozen or so pages sitting on the machine. She thumbed through them briefly on her way back to her desk. When she was seated once again, she picked up the phone.

"Okay," she said to Clark. "I have them in front of me. What am I looking for?"

"That stack of papers is just a small portion of LexCorp's financial records," Clark explained. "But the particular portion of it you're holding is something I found interesting."

Her tone teasing, she inquired, "Do I dare ask how you went through all that information since you got to work this morning?"

"Well, I have been at work three hours longer than you with our time difference…" Clark hesitated, then admitted sheepishly, "Oh, okay, you got me. I had a little speedy help."

She laughed. "I figured as much. Who would have known you'd be such a handy research partner?" She studied the pages in front of her. "So, what is it you found so interesting?"

"I told Jimmy to also look up any donations Luthor has made to charities, organizations, and things over the past couple of years, whether personally or through LexCorp, and I've been cross- checking some things. I've been able to validate all the businesses and organizations he's made donations to over the past two years…except one. There was a sizeable contribution made a couple years ago, and then another one recently. I circled it on the last page."

Lois flipped to the last sheet. She frowned. "Bureau 39? What's that?"

"That's what I wondered, too," Clark told her, his voice gaining momentum as he launched into an explanation. "I did some digging, and I found out they're a rogue government military group. While I couldn't find any solid evidence of mission objectives, it appears that they investigate more secretive things, like UFO sightings and other phenomena. They've been doing a lot of scientific research the last twenty years or so, as well, because several of the men supposedly associated with the group are well- known scientists. Even more interesting, though, is that one of them was apparently threatening to go public with something…then turned up dead a week later."

"It sounds like someone was trying to keep him quiet," Lois murmured thoughtfully.

"That's what I thought, too. But what I found really interesting is that Bureau 39 had its funding cut about two years ago

"About the same time they started receiving rather sizeable donations from Lex Luthor," Lois finished for him, glancing down the faxed sheet at the donation amounts. "Sounds rather convenient."

"I agree. And if you'll notice, he recently made a rather sizeable 'donation' to them again."

Lois looked at the dollar figure and whistled. "Nobody makes those kinds of donations to a company out of the goodness of their hearts. He wants something they have."

"That was my assessment, too," Clark said. "I know this isn't what we set out to investigate, and it has nothing to do with the shipping company leads we've been pursuing, but it's suspicious enough to make me wonder what else he might have up his sleeve. If we find out what it is, maybe that will help us tie some things together."

"I agree," Lois said. "Let's follow this and see where it goes. Not many of our other leads have panned out at this point. How much have you been able to find out about this Bureau 39? Do you know where they are based?"

"That's just the thing. I haven't been able to find that out about them," he admitted. "They must still be operating covertly, because there's no record of a research lab location, or a headquarters, even."

"Do you know anybody who might be able to get you that information? Some ties in the military?"

Clark thought for a moment. "I do have a couple of connections, but I don't know that they'd know anything about Bureau 39. I suppose I could ask around."

Lois sat up straighter in her chair and reached for a pen. Switching the phone to her other ear, she jotted down the information he'd shared. "Okay, I'm going to ask around out here, too. Maybe together we can learn more about what this Bureau 39 is up to, and what they might be doing that Lex is interested in."

"Deal. The one who gets the information first owes the other one dinner," Clark challenged.

Lois laughed. "You're on. But I'm going to want something foreign, if you catch my drift."

"Hey," Clark exclaimed indignantly. "What makes you think you're going to win?"

"I always win." Lois leaned back in her chair and grinned. "You'd better get used to it, buddy."

His warm laughter sounded across the line. "We'll have to see about that."

There was a pause, then Clark spoke again. "On a different subject, I have something to ask you. But if you feel like I'm jumping the gun here, tell me, okay?"

"Sure, Clark. What is it?" she asked, starting to doodle on her notepad.

He exhaled loudly, sounding hesitant and uncertain. Finally, he went on. "I know we agreed to take things day by day, and this might be too much too soon to do this, but…well…my parents called this morning, and they wanted to know if I could help them with a few things out at the farm tonight and stay for dinner. I said I would, and then they asked about you, and how things were going between us, and…"

"And?" Lois prompted.

His tone grew more apprehensive. "…and they mentioned how much they'd like to meet you. They wanted to know if you'd like to come, too."

Lois's hand froze and her doodling ceased. For a long moment, she didn't respond as she tried to decide what to say. She'd loved talking to Clark's mom on the phone not long ago, and she'd seemed so nice…but was she really ready to officially meet his parents? It seemed like such a big step.

On the other hand, she realized, she didn't consider her relationship with Clark as trivial. It was a big thing in her life, and she knew Clark felt the same way. His parents were bound to want to meet the woman in their son's life.

"Lois? Are you still there?"

Clark's voice jerked her back to the present. "Oh, umm…yeah. I'm still here. Sorry, I was just thinking about it."

His disappointment was evident in his voice as he responded. "Too soon, huh? I knew it. I shouldn't have asked. I'm sorry, Lois, I didn't mean to—"

"No, Clark, it's okay," she cut him off, her tone reassuring. "You just caught me off guard, that's all. I have to admit, the idea of meeting your parents makes me nervous, but…well, as long as you're there for support…"

"You mean you'll come?" Clark's excitement caused his voice to rise a notch. "That's great! My mom will be so excited. You're all she's talked about since that night she talked to you on the phone. And you're going to love my dad—"

"Clark," Lois interjected. "Stop. You're making me more nervous." She paused and forced herself to take a deep breath to ward off her sudden case of nerves. "They're not going to give me the third degree, are they? They're not going to ask where we think our relationship's going, or what our future plans are, right? Or if we're going to give them grandchildren anytime soon? I'm not sure I could handle that this soon in our relationship."

He chuckled. "Lois, I promise they're not going to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable. They're good people. You'll like them."

She let her deep breath out slowly. "Okay. When should I be ready?"

"Well, what time are you leaving work? My mom was planning on serving dinner around seven, but that's four your time, and—"

"I can sneak out a little early. You just tell me what time and I'll meet you at my apartment. You'd better make it the balcony, though. Agnes has been hovering near her front door lately and I don't want to have to explain how you got into my apartment without using the elevator or front door."

He laughed again. "You got it."

They made arrangements, then Lois heard Perry's voice bellowing in the background. "Uh-oh," she said. "Sounds like Perry's not happy."

"No, he's not. I guess I'd better go before he realizes this call is more personal than business."

For some reason, Lois found herself missing Perry. He had seemed like such a good man when she'd met him. Turning her attention back to Clark, she said, "I'll see you in a while, then. Oh! Tell me quick what I should wear. I want to make a good impression."

His voice grew husky as he answered. "Lois, my parents will love you no matter what you wear, the same as I do. If it helps, though, I'm just planning on jeans and maybe a button-down shirt. It's a casual dinner. Don't worry about dressing up."

Perry's bellowing grew louder in the background, and Clark's voice lowered to a whisper in order to keep from being overhead. "I've gotta go; Perry's coming. I'll see you tonight, though, okay? I love you."

The words entwined themselves around her heart, making her feel warm all over. "I love you, too," she told him quickly before he hung up.

When she heard the dial tone, she hung up, a silly smile on her face. Suddenly, the idea of meeting his parents didn't sound so scary…not when Clark, the man she loved, and who loved her in return, would be at her side.

She glanced up at the clock impatiently. Tonight was going to be a long time in coming.

***

Lois paced her living room, her stomach dancing with butterflies. She hadn't even been this nervous when she'd interviewed the United States Vice President when he'd made a political tour stop in San Francisco the year before.

So what was it about meeting Clark's parents that made her such a bundle of nerves?

She swallowed past the tightness in her throat. That was easy. She cared what Clark's parents thought of her. She hadn't cared what the vice president thought of her. She had just been a reporter doing a story.

This was different. Very different.

Whether Clark wanted to believe it or not, this was a big moment. He never had to face getting the third degree from her parents; he was home free. But meeting the protective parents of the world's only superhero…

A sound on the balcony caught her attention and she spun around just in time to see Clark appear at her sliding glass door. Swallowing hard, she tried to return his smile as he slid the door open.

"Lois, you look great," he gushed, taking in her appearance.

She glanced down at her clothes—her carefully selected tan slacks, and a nice but casual form-fitting red sweater—and hoped it didn't yell "trying too hard." She'd decided to compromise by keeping her hairstyle simple, wearing her dark hair in its usual style, with the shoulder-length ends curled under slightly and barely brushing her shoulders.

She smoothed a wrinkle from the front of her sweater and glanced back up at Clark, taking some comfort in the appreciative look in his eyes. "You don't think I'm too dressed up? Or not enough?" Without waiting for a response, she shook her head in frustration. "I know, I should have worn the jeans we'd talked about…"

Clark laughed and put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her from hurrying into the bedroom to change. "Lois, you look fine. You don't need to change a thing." He moved closer imperceptibly until his face was only inches from hers. "In fact," he said, his voice husky, "you look more beautiful than ever." And with that, he leaned down to press a gentle kiss to her lips.

Lois felt her fears dwindle at the soft touch of his lips on hers, and she slid her arms around his neck. When his arms tightened around her waist, she moaned softly, losing herself in the heady experience of kissing the man she loved.

All too soon the effect diminished and the mind-numbing nervousness that had been building all day returned. She stiffened subconsciously in his arms, and the sudden change in her body didn't go unnoticed.

Clark lifted his head from hers and studied her with a look of concern. "Lois? What's wrong?" His attentive eye took in the taut look on her face and he frowned. "Are you okay? You seem…I don't know. Nervous or something."

She laughed, the sound humorless even to her own ears. "Nervous? Why should I be nervous? I'm just meeting my boyfriend's parents, that's all. No big deal."

A slow, understanding smile spread across Clark's face. He let his hands slide down her arms until he was grasping her hands gently. "Lois, you are going to be fine," he emphasized. "Really, this is no big deal. I talked to them this afternoon and told them you were coming, and they're very excited to meet you. After everything I've told them about you, they already love you."

At his words, Lois felt momentarily queasy. She knew he'd only been trying to comfort her, but it only made things worse. No pressure. Yeah, right.

She must have turned a slight shade of green because Clark's brow furrowed and he tightened his grip on her hands. "Lois? Are you okay? You don't look so good. Maybe you should sit down."

She followed obediently as he led her over to the couch. She sat, frozen, but then managed to take the couple of deep breaths Clark ordered her to.

When her color returned to normal, Clark reached up and tucked a strand of hair gently behind her ear. "What's wrong? Did I say something to make things worse?"

She nodded, her eyes both scolding and pleading. "Why did you have to tell them anything about me? Now they're going to expect me to be something great. How am I supposed to live up to those kinds of expectations? What if they hate me? I'm not exactly the easiest person to like. I always come off sounding cool or indifferent, or I say something really offensive without meaning to. And now that they're expecting me to be this incredible, amazing person you've made me out to be, I just know I'm going to make a bad impression."

"Lois." Clark scooted closer to her on the couch and slid his hand under her curtain of hair at the nape of her neck. He started to gently massage the tight muscles there. "My parents are going to love you because *I* love you. Honestly, there's no pressure here. Besides, they're not judgmental. They're good, kind, down-to-earth people. I promise you, you have nothing to worry about. At the rate you're going, you're going to make yourself sick. What fun will that be?"

Lois stared into Clark's pleading brown eyes for a long moment, then finally nodded. Feeling a little calmer, she said, "Okay. I just hope you're right."

"I am right." Clark leaned in to touch his lips to her forehead. Then he was on his feet, offering her his hand. "Come on. Let's get you a drink of water of something before we go to soothe your nerves."

Lois put her hand in his and allowed him to pull her up, then followed him into the kitchen where he filled a glass of water and refused to leave until she'd had several sips.

When she set the empty glass in the sink, he cocked an eyebrow at her. "Ready?"

She took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I guess so."

Clark smiled and helped her on with her jacket. When she was zipped up and he felt confident she would be warm enough for the trip, he lifted her into his arms and walked out onto the balcony. He scanned the landscape using his enhanced vision, looking for signs of onlookers. With the mountainous drop-off behind her apartment building, their departure was screened from prying eyes, and they took off unnoticed.

Lois felt herself relax as they started soaring through the sky, the horizon alight with hues of pinks, purples, golds, and blues stretching out behind them as far as the eye could see. She snuggled into Clark contentedly, resting her head on his shoulder. She felt grateful for the chance to recharge her enthusiasm for the evening ahead.

The sky, so alive with colors, soon turned to a dusky gray, then to a dark navy as they flew further east. Before she was ready, they were landing on the front lawn of an older, yet well-kept farmhouse with large hundred-year-old trees surrounding the structure.

Clark set her carefully on her feet, keeping an arm around her for support as she got used to the feeling of firm ground beneath her once again. She stared for a long moment at the warm, cheery lights emanating from the farmhouse. Suddenly, she didn't feel as nervous, and when Clark reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze, she was able to look up at him and smile.

"You ready for this?" he asked.

She nodded, and this time, she found that she meant it. "I think so."

Clark released her hand momentarily as he changed back into his street clothes, and Lois had to grin. Though she knew the man in the tights and cape was the same man she loved, she found it easier to relax when he was dressed as he was now, in jeans and an olive-colored, button-down oxford.

He reached for her hand again, then led the way up the steps of the farmhouse. She fell a step behind as he opened the front door, but he kept a firm grip on her hand as they went in. "Mom? Dad? We're here," he called out.

"Hi, you two! Come on in. I'm in the kitchen."

Lois immediately recognized Martha's voice, and she barely had a chance to take in the cozy, comfortable furnishings in the living room before Clark led her around the corner and into the kitchen. The woman at the sink turned at their entrance, and Lois felt herself relax at the warm smile that appeared on Martha's face.

"You made it," she exclaimed, setting the tongs in the salad bowl and coming over to give Clark a hug.

Clark hugged his mom back, then gestured at Lois standing beside him. "Mom, this is Lois. Lois, this is my mom."

Martha's smile broadened, and she surprised Lois by giving her a warm hug, as well. "Lois, it's so wonderful to finally meet you," Martha said, stepping back from their embrace and taking in the younger woman's appearance. "Well, you sure are pretty," she said sweetly.

"Thanks, Mrs. Kent," Lois answered, blushing.

"Oh, please, call me Martha."

Lois smiled gratefully. "Martha," she corrected herself.

Martha smiled her approval, then went back to the sink for the salad bowl. "Dinner's almost ready. The ham needs five more minutes, and by then Jonathan should be in from the barn."

"What's dad doing?" Clark stole a couple of carrot slices from the vegetable tray, then laughed as his mother smacked his hand.

His mom shook her head and carried the tray to the table. "He told me he wanted to unload some hay, but I tried to talk him out of it. It isn't something he really should be doing by himself. I wouldn't put it past him to be out there trying."

Clark rolled his eyes in frustration. "He knew I was coming. Why didn't he wait for me? He's going to hurt himself." He looked at Lois apologetically and jerked his thumb toward the other kitchen door that led outside. "I'm going to go help my dad. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Lois widened her eyes at him, silently pleading for him not to leave her alone. But he only smiled and squeezed her hand, then leaned down to kiss her lightly. When he pulled back, he mouthed, "You'll be fine," then disappeared out the door into the chilly fall evening.

The sound of the door shutting behind him echoed in the now silent room, and Lois felt her stomach tighten. She glanced over at Martha, who was pouring water from a pitcher into one of the glasses. It was clear from the twitching at the corner of her mouth that their little shared kiss hadn't gone unnoticed.

Feeling uncomfortable, Lois forced herself to move. She walked to the table and reached for the pitcher. "Here, Martha, I'll do that. I'm sure you have something else you want to check on."

"Thank you," Martha said, handing the pitcher to Lois. "I think that ham is ready to come out of the oven."

It was quiet for several moments as Lois finished filling the glasses and Martha pulled the ham out of the oven. The tantalizing smell filled the kitchen, making Lois's stomach grumble.

"That smells wonderful," she spoke up, hoping to break the silence. "Clark's been trying to teach me how to cook, but for all his efforts, everything I cook is generally a disaster."

Martha chuckled. "Well, don't give up just yet. I was a terrible cook when I first married Clark's father. It takes time to learn."

"Yeah, well, I think there has to be some talent involved, and I don't have any." Lois grinned sheepishly as she filled the last glass, then set the pitcher in the center of the table.

"I admit talent does play a part, but we're all talented in our own respect. Take what you and Clark do for a living," she said as she sliced the ham and arranged the slices on a serving tray. "I know I couldn't do it—chasing after leads and writing the stories that make a difference. I wouldn't even know where to start."

Lois took the serving plate Martha held out to her and carried it to the table. "I suppose you're right." She had to move the pitcher to make room for the plate, but she was glad she managed to do that without breaking or spilling anything on Martha's beautifully set table.

"I see you and Clark are back on track." Martha changed the subject as she placed the salad bowl on the table.

Lois glanced up at her and caught the mischievous sparkle in Martha's eyes. It was clear she was referring to the kiss she'd witnessed before Clark had gone outside to help his dad.

Lois felt her cheeks begin to color. "Yeah, we are."

"I'm glad. I had no idea what was bothering Clark that day he came for dinner until you phoned looking for him." Martha shook her head. "That boy is as stubborn as the day is long. If you hadn't called, I never would have figured out what was wrong. As it was, I was able to get him to talk about it."

Lois's mouth went dry. "So, um, Clark told you what we…fought about?"

Martha nodded. "He did." She paused, a look of concern flitting across her features. "Does that bother you? That he shared that information with me?"

"No, it's fine," Lois reassured her quickly. "I think it's great that Clark feels comfortable talking to you about…things." She felt her voice falter before the last word, and she wondered if Martha had heard it, too.

Feeling suddenly anxious, Lois shifted her feet and licked her dry lips. So, Clark's mom knew what their fight had been about. She knew that Lois had written a story exposing her son. But surely Clark had told his mother that it had all been a misunderstanding?

She anxiously studied Martha's expression for any signs of mistrust. She didn't see any, but still she wondered how Martha felt about that. Did she think Lois couldn't be trusted? Did she think someone like her wasn't good enough for her son, having once considered betraying him?

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she began haltingly, "Martha, I hope you believe that I could never expose your son like that. The whole article was a huge mistake that I immediately knew could never see the light of day. Clark didn't believe me at first, but I did everything I could to convince him I was telling the truth."

Martha smiled. "I know you did. He told me how you flew all the way to Metropolis and broke into his apartment to wait for him in his living room until he got home from work. That's one way to make him listen to reason." She shook her head, clearly amused. "That was a gutsy thing to do, and the fact that you did it tells me just how much you care about my son."

Lois studied Martha, trying to determine if she really meant that, or if she was just humoring her. Finally, she couldn't stand it any longer. She had to know once and for all where she stood.

"Does that mean you believe me?" she asked with a nervous shake in her voice. "That you trust me to keep Clark's secret? Because I want you to know, I would never do anything to hurt your son. He means so much to me, and—"

Martha's face deepened into a frown and she reached for Lois's arm. "Lois, honey, are you under the impression that I don't trust you? That you're here on trial?"

Lois froze. "Well…aren't I?"

Martha laughed, the tension in the air instantly relieved by the warm sound. "Heavens no! I don't know what thoughts have been running through your mind about tonight's dinner invitation, but I promise there's no agenda here." She glanced out the window and saw the figures of her son and husband in the light of the distant barn. Gesturing at the table chairs closest to them, she said, "It looks like the men will be another few minutes, so let's have a talk, shall we?"

They sat down next to each other, and Martha turned her chair toward Lois's. "Lois, the only reason we asked you here tonight was to get to know you better. We see how happy you're making Clark. In fact, he's happier than we've ever seen him. We know that's because he has you in his life." She paused to smile at Lois. "Clark goes on about you all the time, so we decided we wanted to meet you for ourselves. That's all."

Lois felt the tension drain from her body. Breathing an audible sigh of relief, she managed an embarrassed smile. "Oh, Martha, you have no idea how nice it is to hear you say that. Ever since this morning when Clark phoned me and passed along your dinner invitation, I've been a nervous wreck. I know how much Clark means to you, and how protective you are of him. I didn't want you to think I wasn't good enough for him, or that I was using him or something…"

"Oh, sweetie, I wouldn't think that," Martha said, giving Lois's arm a reassuring squeeze. "Clark trusts you, so we do, too. Besides, you make Clark happy. That means everything to us. I just hope he's making you as happy as he is."

Lois's cheeks colored again, and she smiled and nodded. "He is."

Just then the kitchen door opened, and both women looked up to see the two men coming into the room. Lois recognized Clark's father immediately from the picture she'd seen of him in Clark's apartment, and she stood to greet him. Before she could say anything, though, Clark reached for her hand and drew her to his side. Then he began the introductions.

"Lois, this is my dad. Dad, this is Lois."

Jonathan's welcoming grin spread across his face and he reached for her outstretched hand. He placed his other hand over their clasped ones and patted it enthusiastically.

"Lois, it's a pleasure to finally meet you." He gave her hand one last pat, then released it. "My son's said so many good things about you that we feel like we already know you. We're glad you could come tonight."

"Thanks for having me." The accepting gesture instantly put Lois at ease, and she found herself liking him as much as she did Martha.

Martha spoke up then, announcing that dinner was ready, and they all headed over to the table. Clark held Lois's chair out for her, eliciting a look of pleasure and surprise from her. Once they were settled at the table, the atmosphere relaxed into that of a typical family dinner, with much talking and laughter as everyone caught up with what was going on in each other's lives.

Lois answered the questions Martha and Jonathan asked about her job in San Francisco, and she ended up sharing about her love for the city by the Bay. She was surprised at how welcome she felt, and she couldn't help wondering why she'd been so nervous in the first place.

As Clark asked his parents about what had been going on in Smallville, talk turned to the recently held corn festival that had become an annual event in Metropolis. Lois smiled as Jonathan filled them in on the festival's events. It all seemed so foreign to her, to hear talk of a small town's community event after living in a big city her whole life. She found the subject fascinating, and laughed along with them as he regaled them with the festival's funny highlights.

Several times during dinner, Clark would reach for her hand beneath the table and give it a squeeze. Each time she looked over at him, he would give her a smile, one meant only for her. His gestures reminded her of how much he cared, and how thrilled he was to have her there. She couldn't remember the last time she felt so loved…and so much part of a family.

Talk of the corn festival soon turned to the upcoming winter season, and Clark assured his father he would come help him ready the farm and equipment for the snow season ahead.

Martha sighed and shook her head. "I can't believe how fast the year has gone. Soon it will be Christmas, and then the New Year."

Her comment elicited a chuckle from her husband. "You say that like you don't enjoy the holidays. Nobody makes a bigger fuss over Christmas than you."

Clark laughed, obviously in full agreement. "Dad's got a point, Mom." He turned to Lois. "All my friends wanted to come over here during Christmas break in high school because nobody baked as much as she did."

"And then there's the lights," Jonathan interjected, grinning. "If she buys any more strands of lights, the airplanes flying overhead are going to think we're a landing strip."

Everyone laughed, and Martha smiled good-naturedly at their teasing. "Okay, it's true," she admitted, her eyes twinkling. "I love Christmas. And Christmas just isn't Christmas without baking and twinkle lights." She took another bite of her dinner and turned to Lois. "What about you, dear? What holiday traditions do you and your family have?"

Lois's smile froze and her heart constricted. She heard Clark's slight intake of breath, and the room grew quiet. She caught the look of confusion that passed between Martha and Jonathan as they clearly wondered why the question hung so heavily in the air.

After a moment, Clark cleared his throat awkwardly. Lois turned to look at him and was startled to see that he looked both regretful and apologetic.

"Sorry, Lois," he said quietly, his fingers tightening around hers. "I never got around to mentioning…"

Martha looked from her son to Lois and then back. "Mentioning what?"

"Umm, maybe we should talk about something else—" he suggested, his eyes and tone full of empathy and concern. He knew the answer to that question was more painful than anybody there could understand.

But Lois shook her head slowly and gave his fingers a gentle squeeze back. "No, Clark, it's okay." She glanced around the table and forced her voice to remain steady as she explained. "My family and I were in a car accident many years ago, and they were killed. I'm pretty much on my own."

Martha's gasp was audible, and Lois saw tears of sympathy glistening in her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she said, her tone sincere as she reached over to put her hand on Lois's arm. "I had no idea…"

"That's okay," Lois hurried to add, uncomfortably aware of the awkwardness hovering in the air around them. "Really, it's in the past." She smiled tremulously, making sure to keep her tone light as she continued. "I do have some good memories of our Christmases together, though. One tradition we had was that every Christmas eve…"

Lois went on to share some of her family traditions, and the mood lightened as the conversation returned to the cheery atmosphere of before. When the subject changed once more, she glanced over at Clark to see him staring at her, a mixture of newfound respect and renewed love evident in his eyes. Her heart warmed under his gaze, and she gave his hand another squeeze.

Clark's hand never left hers the rest of the meal, and when everyone stood to help clear the table, he unashamedly leaned down to give her a light but lingering kiss. She felt uncomfortable at first, knowing they were in plain sight of his parents, but when their kiss ended, she caught the look of delight that passed between his mom and dad. It was clear they were happy to see their son in love.

Jonathan's eyes twinkled as he carried what remained of the ham to the counter. "Why don't you two go out for a walk? We're not going to have many more beautiful fall nights like this one. We can take care of the dishes."

When Lois hesitated, Martha practically shooed them out of the kitchen. "Yes, you two, get out of here. Clark can show you around the farm, Lois. Besides, you two lovebirds don't need us cramping your style."

Lois and Clark both blushed, but Clark finally nodded. "I think we will. I would like to show Lois around the place. But only if you're sure you don't need help…"

"We'll be fine," his mother assured him. "You two go on. Make sure to wear your coat, though, Lois. It's probably chilly."

Clark guided Lois out of the kitchen and helped her into her coat, then held the front door open for her. As they walked down the porch steps, Lois stared up at the indigo sky pierced with bright pinpoints of light. She took a deep breath, savoring the fresh, cool night air filling her lungs.

"It *is* beautiful out here," she said with a happy sigh, her ears attune to the songs of the crickets in the darkened yard and distant pasture. "I can see why you love it. No smog, no city lights to make it hard to see the stars…"

Clark squeezed her hand. "And now it has you. It's perfect."

She turned to look at him and caught the intensity of his gaze. After a moment, a slow grin spread across her face. "If this moment wasn't so perfect, I would think that was pretty sappy."

"Sappy?" Clark chuckled. "I wasn't trying to be sappy. I meant it."

"I know you did," she reassured him, sidling up to him and raising her face to his for a kiss. "And that's why you were able to pull it off."

He laughed against her lips, then hugged her tightly to him. They stood on the front lawn, wrapped in each others' arms for a long time, and Lois felt more content than she'd ever been in her life, snuggled up there against Clark's chest. With her ear pressed against his shirt, she was able to hear the steady beating of his heart. It was comforting to her somehow. So many times she felt like pinching herself, to make sure she wasn't dreaming. But it was times like these, as she stood wrapped in the arms of the man she loved, listening to the rhythmic beating of his heart, that she knew it was real. And she was lucky.

Clark at last released her and took a step back. "So, should I give you the grand tour?"

She smiled. "As much as can be seen in the dark, I guess."

For the next half an hour, they walked around the yard, stole kisses in the barn, and even took a quick, unobserved flight over the pastures and creek that surrounded the house. Lois marveled at the vast expanse of land, having never realized just how much land was required to make a living farming.

Their tour ended in the back yard, and they took their time walking toward the back porch. Clark stopped in front of a large, hundred-year-old tree with branches that were easily as big around as she. Clark stood at the trunk and gestured up into the large, gnarled branches above them. "This is the last thing I wanted to show you."

Lois eyed him strangely. "It's…nice. It's a tree, right?"

"Yes, it's a tree." Clark drawled back at her teasing sarcasm. "But it's a special tree. Come on, I'll show you."

He pulled her along after him as they walked around it, and it wasn't until they reached the side facing the house that Lois realized there were wooden slats nailed up the trunk creating a makeshift ladder. She looked up, and in the glow from the house's back porch light, she was able to make out a structure in the limbs above.

"Hey, it's a tree house!" she exclaimed, suddenly understanding that there was more to Clark's excitement than botany.

Clark's grin broadened, proud that he'd finally gotten the reaction he'd been seeking. "Ahh, but it's not just a tree house." He gestured to the steps. "Are you feeling adventurous?"

Her eyes sparkled in the moonlight. "Always."

She climbed up the steps, surprised that the slats were still secure after years of non-use. When she reached the top of the rungs, she spotted some faded writing on the weathered board next to the entrance. She brushed off several leaves clinging to the wood to be able to see what it said.

"The Fortress of Solitude," she read quietly, her fingers tracing over the faded red lettering.

"That's what I named this place."

The sound of Clark's voice near her ear made her gasp with surprise. She whipped her head around to see Clark hovering next to her, and he quickly put a hand on the small of her back to steady her as she teetered on the makeshift ladder.

She put a hand to her chest and tried to calm her hammering heart. "Clark, you scared me to death! Don't do that—hover all silently behind me when I'm ten feet off the ground. Give me some warning, would you?"

He laughed softly, and the low, rumbling sound wrapped around her like a warm blanket. "I would have caught you if you'd slipped."

She turned back and peered into the tree house. "I can't see a thing in there. How do I know if I'm about to crawl in something icky?"

Clark peered in with her. "You're clear. The floor's dusty and there are some branches and twigs laying around, but nothing icky, I promise."

She giggled. "It's just dawned on me that a city girl's definition of 'icky' may differ vastly from a country boy's definition," she teased as she took a leap of faith and climbed cautiously through the opening.

When she was safely inside, Clark floated up to the platform and touched down beside her in the small space. There was just enough room for the two of them, and Clark slipped past Lois to the back right corner where an overturned crate doubled as an end table.

She struggled to make her eyes adjust to the dark as she heard Clark pick up something from the makeshift table. A moment later, a flicker of light appeared, and she saw a flame growing within an old kerosene lantern that was dusty but intact. In the dim light, she couldn't help noticing there were no matches anywhere in the small space.

"I see that the lack of matches isn't an issue."

Clark's grin split the darkness, his white teeth flashing in the warm glow of the lantern he now held. "It's just one more of my special vision perks." Then he turned his attention to his surroundings and glanced around, his face taking on a look of nostalgia. "I used to love this place," he said quietly. "I called it the Fortress of Solitude because I felt like I could come here when I was little whenever things got bad, or when I just needed some time alone to think. It seemed like no matter what was wrong in my life, I could come here and feel safe."

Lois nodded in understanding. "I always wanted a place like this when I was growing up. I was always such a tomboy. My dad was always too busy to do something like this, though."

It was quiet for several moments as they found themselves lost in their memories of childhood. Then a breeze rustled the leaves in the tree around them, drawing them out of their thoughts. Clark took Lois's hand and guided her a step backwards until they were pressed against the back wall of the small space. Her look of confusion soon turned to one of understanding as she saw him blow out a breath to clear the majority of the dust and debris from the floor. Then he lowered himself onto the newly dusted wooden planks and pulled Lois down beside him.

Once seated, Lois cuddled into Clark's side, enjoying the feeling of his arm wrapped securely around her shoulders. She let her head fall against him as they stared out of the tree house opening at the dark, starlit sky in clear view from their high vantage point. She sighed contentedly.

"I can see why you would love this place," Lois whispered, afraid the sound of her voice might disturb the reverence of the moment. "I think everyone needs a special place to go to when they need to think…to regroup. I bet you had to do a lot of that growing up, with so much to think about and consider."

Clark nodded. "I guess I did. When my powers started appearing, I often got angry. I kept wondering why I couldn't just be like everyone else. There was so much about myself I had to hide. It was really a struggle sometimes, trying to remember to not use my powers, even when they seemed like second nature. I felt like I could never really be myself around my friends…around anybody. Well, expect my parents," he clarified. "I guess that's why I feel so drawn to this place—my home and my mom and dad. I could always relax and be myself here. It's been a haven."

He paused for a long moment, and his voice was hushed when he continued. "It wasn't until shortly before the launch that I decided to finally use my powers to help everyone else. I guess a part of me was tired of hiding, especially when I knew I could make a difference in the world."

"And you do it in very tight pants and a cape, no less." Lois tilted her head to smile up at him.

Clark chuckled. "Well, what can I say. It keeps my identity safe."

A companionable silence fell over them once more as they continued to stare out into the night sky, the full moon hypnotizing them with its beauty. Finally, Lois spoke, her voice thoughtful.

"Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you didn't have your powers? What you would be like? What you would be doing?"

Clark took a moment to contemplate her question. Then he nodded. "Sometimes. I don't know that I would be much different, though. My parents always taught me to be kind, respectful, and to watch out for others…things like that. I guess that worked out well, since the powers I have could have caused a lot of problems if I'd decided to use them to gain power and money." Clark gave her shoulders a squeeze. "What about you? Do you ever think how your life would be different if you hadn't lost your parents or your sister when you did?"

Lois's heart constricted, and for a moment, a thousand painful memories flashed through her mind.

Clark felt her tense up beside him and immediately regretted bringing up the painful subject. "Lois, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked that…"

"No, Clark, it's okay," she reassured him. "It's a valid question." After a long moment, with only the sound of the crickets chirping and a gentle breeze rustling the leaves in the tree, she nodded. "Yes, I used to think a lot about how my life would have been different if the accident had never happened. I'd still have my sister around to confide in and do things with, and I'd still have my parents around to pester me…"

She shook her head and chuckled, though there was a note of sadness to her voice. "I can't believe I just said that. Who wants their parents around pestering them?"

Clark smiled but remained silent, waiting for her to go on. Finally, she did.

"I do miss it, though," she admitted. "I miss having someone around to take care of me. I miss being able to pick up a phone and just check in. I know Agnes is there for me, and she's such an important person in my life, but on the deepest level, I also realize it's not the same." She paused to control the emotion she felt welling up inside her. "Anyway, I try not to dwell on it too much. Maybe I'm just so used to repressing my feelings over it that I haven't gotten upset about it for a long time. Maybe one of these days something will set me off, and bring back all those horrible emotions I had during that time in my life. For now, though, I just try to focus on my life and what I want to do, and where I want to go."

"Which is?" Clark prompted.

Lois lifted her head from his shoulder to smile at him. "Right now, nowhere. For the first time in my life, I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be."

She saw Clark's look of surprise and delight at her words and felt a rush of happiness that she'd been able to confide in him. "Maybe you'll think I'm corny to say this," she continued, "but…well, there's something about us being together, Clark. Something that just makes sense. Do you know what I mean?"

Clark nodded, his eyes moist as he leaned down and gently pressed a kiss to her lips. "I know exactly what you mean." He pulled back slightly and lifted a hand to caress her cheek. "You know how you said you missed having someone to take care of you? To be there for you?" When she nodded, he went on, his voice deep and husky. "That's my job now. I want to take care of you, Lois. I want to be that person in your life. I need to be. I love you, and I want you to understand that I'm here for you." He paused, his hand moving to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I guess what I'm saying is, you don't have to be alone anymore."

Tears welled up in Lois's eyes and a sob caught in her throat. In the next moment, she found herself in his arms with happy tears running down her cheeks. "Thank you, Clark," she whispered thickly. "And I love you, too."

They stayed in each other's arms for a long time, unwilling to disrupt the moment. When the breeze began to pick up, causing several of the smaller branches to scrape against the outer walls of the tree house, Clark straightened.

"I think it's probably time to head back to San Francisco."

Regretfully, Lois nodded, allowing Clark to pull her to her feet. She took a step toward the opening, but Clark's hand on her arm stopped her.

"Here. Allow me."

He slid his arms around her waist and floated them through the opening and then to the ground. Several fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet as they touched down, making Lois to smile.

"It's been a long time since I've heard that sound. We don't get much of a change of seasons in the Bay Area. Not piles of leaves like here, at least."

"I'll have to bring you back when they really start falling in a couple of weeks. It's beautiful."

"I'd like that."

Clark entwined his fingers with hers and they started walking back to the house. Once inside, they bid goodnight to Clark's parents, who hugged them each in turn.

"Please come back soon," Martha said as she hugged Lois tightly. "We'd love to see you every chance we get."

Lois smiled gratefully as they stepped apart. "I will. Thanks for having me."

"Oh, it was our pleasure."

"It really was," Jonathan agreed, giving her a sincere smile. He put his hand on her shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze. Then he turned to Clark. "You get her back safely, you hear?"

Clark grinned. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Soon they were on their way, with Lois bundled up in her warm coat, and Clark's arms wrapped securely around her. She snuggled into his embrace as they flew, and Clark smiled down at her. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

Lois gave him a sheepish smile. "No, it wasn't. In fact, it went better than I could have hoped for. Your parents are really great. But then, they would have had to be, to do such a great job of raising you."

A look of pleasure spread across Clark's face, and he leaned down to kiss her lightly. When they pulled apart, Clark let his cheek rest against her forehead. "Have I told you recently how much I love you?"

"Hmm," she murmured, pretending to contemplate. "It's been at least an hour. Maybe you'd better tell me again."

The sound of his low laughter rumbled in his chest. "I'll tell you as many times as you need to hear it. I love you, Lois Lane."

"And I love you, Clark Kent," she responded, reaching up to trace a finger along his firm jaw line. "I never thought I'd meet anyone like you."

He grinned. "You mean someone who flies? I'd say that's a given."

"No." She elbowed him lightly at his teasing. "What I meant was, you are such an amazing man, powers or not. I feel more comfortable with you than I ever have with anybody else. You love me for who I am—maybe in spite of who I am." She shook her head. "I can see that you really want what's best for me, and it's been a long time since I've had that."

A recent memory surfaced, and a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Do you remember that night when I phoned you to tell you that I'd broken into that accounting firm, and the next thing I knew, you were standing in my living room?"

Clark's jaw tightened. "I remember. I was furious with you for doing something so dangerous, even after I'd asked you not to."

"Well, that's exactly what I mean. I love that you're always there to share my excitements and disappointments, but I also love it that you worry about me. Even though you were pretty intimidating storming across my living room like that while I stood there with the phone still in my hand, I also felt a sense of exhilaration, knowing you'd dashed right out and flew straight over there to rake me over the coals for doing something stupid. It told me how much you cared. I loved that."

"Yeah, well…don't make me keep doing that," he said, his scolding softened by the hint of a smile. "I don't like having to swoop in and rescue you, because it means you once again jumped in without checking the water level first."

Lois's mouth dipped into a slight frown. "I know, Clark, but that's what I do. I'm impetuous. I always have been. I'd love to say that I'll never get into trouble again, or that you never have to worry about me being spontaneous, but I can't. I'll probably always do things you consider dangerous. It's just who I am." She hesitated, and a look of concern flickered into her eyes. "That…that won't make you stop loving me, will it?"

Clark looked down at her in surprise. "No!" he exclaimed. Then his voice softened. "No, it won't. And to be honest, I love that you're impulsive and spontaneous and passionate about your work." He met her gaze and smiled tenderly. "I'll just be glad when it no longer means you'll be putting yourself in the path of danger."

"Well, I can't promise you that I'll never do anything stupid," she admitted, "but I will try to think first from now on."

"That's all I ask." Clark tightened his arms around her, drawing her even closer. "It's taken me all these years to find you. I couldn't bear to lose you now."

Lois felt her eyes grow moist at the conviction behind his words, and she nestled against his chest. It felt warm and wonderful to be in love, and to know you were loved so strongly in return.

She sighed with contentment as she stared around her at the night sky. It was closer to her than she could have ever imagined it being. And in that moment, she knew. She didn't have to be heaven bound to know what it was like to have her own little piece of heaven.

***

"Sorry to interrupt, sir."

Lex looked up from his breakfast in the informal dining room— having moved his morning meal inside as the crisp, fall air made it too chilly to dine outside—and saw Nigel in the doorway, holding several papers in his hands.

"Yes, Nigel. What is it?"

"I have something you might like to see." Nigel moved across the room and dropped the papers next to his employer's plate.

With furrowed brows, Lex picked up the first glossy photo and scrutinized the picture. When he looked up, surprise and confusion had registered on his face. "What's this?"

"Those pictures were taken by the hidden security camera inside our Bay Area accounting firm. They were brought to my attention this morning. It looks like Ms. Lane paid the place a little visit."

Lex's mouth drew into a firm line. "Did she learn anything?"

"She left with a rather large sheaf of papers she'd copied. It's impossible to know what exactly she was looking for, or what she found."

"Damn, that woman." Lex's fingers tightened on the picture as the muscle twitched in his jaw. "She's as nosy as she is beautiful."

It was quiet in the room for a moment as Lex contemplated his next move. When he looked back up at Nigel, his eyes were cold and hard. "The woman's a menace. She's already ruined one of my businesses; I can't stand to have her ruin any others. Put everyone you can on her. I want to know every place she goes and everybody she talks to. Tell our man inside the Chronicle to keep tabs on everything she's researching. If it turns out she's snooping around my corporations, I want her dealt with. Permanently."

Nigel nodded. "Yes, sir."

***

Lois walked through the lobby of her apartment building, casting a brief smile at the security guard relaxing behind the desk and watching some sitcom on TV. She envied him his relaxation. After the long day at work she'd just put in, all she wanted to do was climb into a hot bubble bath and forget life for a while.

Stopping in front of the elevator, she punched the button and waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive. She was alone in the hallway, but the silence was far from comforting.

She glanced around. The feeling of being watched tickled her senses, bringing an all-too-familiar adrenaline rush. There was nobody in the hall, and the security guard was busy watching his television program.

With a quick shake of her head, she realized she was being ridiculous. She'd had the same feeling of being watched all day long, and each time she'd surveyed her surroundings, she'd found nothing out of the ordinary.

"Lois Lane, you are losing your mind," she mumbled under her breath as the elevator doors opened and she stepped inside. Soon the elevator doors opened up onto her floor, and she stepped out into the foyer.

Without realizing what she was doing, she glanced around. The hall was quiet. She breathed a sigh of relief. 'See, Lois? It's all in your head,' she thought as she reached for her keys. She had just slipped the key into the lock when she felt a hand descend upon her shoulder.

She let out a startled scream and whirled, preparing to let her Tae Kwon Do training take over. To her surprise, she found herself staring into a pair of familiar brown eyes.

"Clark!" she gasped, letting her body slump with relief. A nervous laugh escaped her lips as she took in the Clark she'd come to know and love, dressed in his typical jeans and a T-shirt. "You scared the daylights out of me. Where did you come from?"

"I was doing a couple of things along the coast and decided to come say hello." His eyes reflected his concern over her nervous reaction. "You're awfully jumpy. What's going on?"

Just then Agnes's door flew open and she appeared in the doorway, looking startled. "Lois!" Then she looked at the other figure standing next to her young neighbor. "Oh. Clark. Lois didn't say anything about you coming for a visit." She turned back to Lois in confusion. "Is everything okay? I thought I heard someone scream."

"Sorry, Agnes, that was me," Lois admitted sheepishly. "Clark snuck up on me and scared me to death. I had no idea he was here."

"I didn't hear him arrive, either." Agnes looked at Clark in confusion. "Did you just get here?"

"Ummm, a few minutes ago," Clark answered, trying to think of a good excuse to cover for the fact that he'd landed on the roof and come down the stairwell. At last he offered, "You didn't hear the elevator because I used the stairs."

"Oh." Agnes nodded, accepting his explanation, much to Clark's relief. Then she smiled. "It must be nice to have the kind of job that pays well enough to catch a flight to San Francisco whenever you'd like to make a surprise visit to your girlfriend." Agnes's eyes twinkled as she turned and winked at Lois. Then she disappeared back into her apartment.

When they were once again alone in the hallway, Lois looked back at Clark and grinned. "If she really knew what a newspaper journalist made, she could become very suspicious of your frequent visits. That was quick thinking, by the way. The stair thing, I mean."

"Well, it wasn't exactly a lie," he told her as he followed her into her apartment and shut the door behind them. "I did use the stairs. I just came down from the roof, instead of up from the lobby."

Lois laughed as she sat her attache down next to the couch, then turned back to step into his waiting arms. "Well, either way, it's nice to see you." She raised herself up on her tiptoes to kiss him deeply.

"Mmmm," Clark murmured against her lips. "I remember now. This is why I came."

"You came by just to kiss me?" she teased in between kisses. "To fulfill some physical yearning? I thought maybe you stopped by because you missed me."

Clark chuckled. "That, too. And to tell you that I still love you."

Lois grinned and pulled back so she could look into his face. "That's always nice to hear."

He smiled at her for a moment, then a slight frown marred his handsome features. "What were you so jumpy about in the hall?"

"Oh, that." She rolled her eyes and backed out of his arms. Turning, she headed into the kitchen with Clark following behind. "It seems stupid now—not even worth mentioning." She reached into the cupboard for a glass, then went to the fridge and pulled out a container of juice.

Clark leaned back against the island's countertop and crossed his arms, his expression concerned. "Tell me anyway."

She sighed. "It's nothing, really. I've just had the strangest feeling all day that I'm being watched. Then when you came out of nowhere, you scared me, that's all." She laughed a little and shrugged. "It's dumb, I know."

Clark frowned. "It's not dumb. I've learned well enough by now that you have great instincts. And at the moment, that worries me."

"Clark, there's nothing to worry about." She lifted her glass to her lips and took a long drink. "I'm sure I was just being paranoid, that's all."

"In our line of work, Lois, paranoia is what keeps a reporter alive. You know that as well as I do." He watched as she downed the rest of her juice, then set the glass in the sink. He followed her as she headed out of the kitchen and back into the living room. "Where were you those times you thought you were being watched?"

Lois groaned as she dropped onto the couch. "Clark, can't you let this go? I've just spent the entire day trying to work through the information I took from the accounting firm, not to mention trying to dig up what little I could on Bureau 39. I've also made a million phone calls and talked to a dozen sources, but they're as elusive as the connection between Lex Luthor and Mesopotamia, Inc. I'm tired and frustrated…and feeling rather foolish at the moment, now that I told you about something that was obviously all in my mind."

"Lois." Clark sat down beside her and put his hand on her forearm. "You already know I worry about you, and it's not like I'm next door and can hear you yell for help if you get in trouble. If you sensed someone watching you, it makes me wonder if somebody really was." He squeezed her arm lightly. "Will you promise me you'll be careful? If Luthor *is* behind this, and he's somehow found out we're onto him, you could be in a dangerous position. We both agree there's something about that man we don't trust. Don't push the envelope on this one, okay? If you want to look into something, call me and we'll do it together. That way I know you'll be safe."

Lois felt a touch defensive at the suggestion. "Clark, I can take care of myself. I've been doing this for a long time, remember? I'm a big girl."

"I know you are," Clark argued back softly. When he continued, he tried to pick his words carefully. "And I don't mean to make it sound like you're incompetent. In fact, you're the most amazing and resourceful journalist I know. It's just how you sometimes act on that resourcefulness that makes my stomach tighten up in knots. I love you, Lois. And now that I have you, I couldn't bear to lose you, especially for the sake of some story."

Lois softened at his words. She reached out to put her hand over his. "I'm sorry, Clark. I know you weren't trying to tell me what to do. I guess I'm just not used to having anyone so concerned for my safety. I promise I'll be careful."

"And no more breaking and entering, or walking down dark, deserted alleys to talk to some mysterious source you've never met? You'll at least call me so I can come cover your back in a suspicious situation?"

Lois looked into Clark's pleading eyes and felt herself weaken. Finally, she sighed in resignation. "Deal," she agreed.

The muscles in Clark's face visibly relaxed. "Thank you," he breathed, leaning forward to press a kiss to her forehead. "I love you too much to see you get hurt."

Lois relaxed back against the couch and decided to change the subject. "So, tell me what you found out at work today. Did you have any luck tracking down information on Bureau 39? Please tell me you didn't. I want to track those guys down first and win this dinner bet we have going."

Clark laughed. "Leave it to you to make this about winning rather than bringing the bad guys to justice."

"Hey, I want to take down the bad guys," she protested. "But if we can combine that with a free, exotic, flown-in-from-anywhere- in-the-world dinner, that's only extra incentive."

Clark shook his head and grinned. "Okay, okay, I get it. And no, I didn't learn anything new about them. Even Bobby Big Mouth hasn't heard of them. He's going to ask around for me, but it may cost me more than a couple of steak dinners this time."

"I'll chip in to cover the fee. Did he say when he was going to get back to you?"

"No, just that he'll see what he can find out."

Lois exhaled noisily. "Okay, then I guess we're on our own for now. I still have two sources I'm waiting to hear back from. Maybe they'll know something."

"Let's hope so," Clark agreed. He looked down at their joined hands and played with her fingertips as the conversation lulled.

Lois scooted closer, causing Clark to look up. Her eyes danced as she leaned in and pressed a feather-light kiss to the sensitive spot near his ear. His intake of breath told her of the effect it had, and she smiled against his cheek. "This is more fun than talking, isn't it?"

He slid his hand out of hers and slipped his arms around her back. With a soft chuckle, he murmured, "I'd have to agree."

Their lips met in a long, sweet kiss that Clark was really starting to enjoy when suddenly, Lois pulled back. Her eyes sparkled with spontaneity and a smile danced across her face.

"I have an idea," she said. "I'm starving. Let's go out to dinner. Then maybe we can walk around for a while—maybe even head down to the piers. It would be fun! What do you think?"

Clark hesitated. "It does sound fun, but…"

Lois caught the hesitation in his voice and her enthusiasm faded. "What? You can't stay?"

"It's not that," he hedged, his arms loosening from around her and sliding limply down her back. "I'm just…not sure going out is such a good idea."

Lois's face fell. "Why not?"

Clark took a moment to find the right words to explain without hurting her. "I'd love nothing more than to spend a night out on the town with you, but…"

"But…?" she prompted.

"But I don't think it's a good idea to be seen by too many people. What if we ran into somebody you knew? How would you introduce me? 'My boyfriend from Metropolis'? 'Clark Kent from the Daily Planet'? Colleagues talk to colleagues in this business, Lois. What if word got back to the Planet that Clark Kent was in San Francisco for the evening? How would I explain being back at work tomorrow? Agnes caught me and knows I'm here, but she's not a threat. She wouldn't know that I'd be back in Metropolis first thing in the morning. But a colleague with connections…" He shook his head. "Someone could get suspicious, Lois. And that's not what either of us needs right now."

Lois was quiet for a long minute, and Clark watched her face carefully, hoping to see understanding there. But there wasn't anything. Her expression remained unreadable. Finally, she stood up and walked across the room to the large windows overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. She wrapped her arms around herself as if to ward off a sudden chill.

He waited for her to say something—anything—but when she didn't speak, he rose and crossed the room to stand beside her. He lifted a hand to her shoulder and felt her flinch ever so slightly at his touch. His heart sank. He hated seeing her unhappy; but even worse, he hated her being unhappy with *him.*

He let his hand fall to his side, then swallowed past the tightness in his throat. "I'm sorry, Lois. Please don't be mad."

She sighed heavily and shook her head. "I'm not mad. I'm just…frustrated."

She turned to face him and looked up into his concerned brown eyes. A longing ache in the area around her heart reminded her of just how much she cared for this man—an ache that grew every time she thought of the miles that separated them. They were miles that not even the power of human flight seemed able to conquer completely.

"What are you frustrated about?" he asked quietly.

"It's nothing." She rolled her eyes slightly at her own melancholy mood. "I'm just being moody, that's all."

He reached for her hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. "Remember what we talked about in my apartment back when we decided to give our relationship a chance? We promised each other we'd be honest with each other about our feelings, and would tell each other if we ever felt frustrated or angry about something. So please tell me, Lois. I really want to know what you're upset about."

Lois remembered the promise she'd made and gave him a look of resignation. He was right. He did have a right to know what was troubling her.

"It's just…" Lois forced herself to take a deep breath before continuing. "I've never loved anybody as much as I love you, Clark, and I want to be with you every minute of every day. But I can't. I know that." She paused to try to control the waver of emotion creeping into her voice. "So, I've resigned myself to the fact that I just have to enjoy whatever time I can get with you, and be grateful for it. But then when you're here, we can't even go out to do anything because somebody might see us—which I understand, don't get me wrong," she hurried to clarify. "But I just hoped this could be a more normal relationship. I guess that's just not possible, though, is it?"

Clark's shoulders slumped, and she knew her words had unintentionally hurt him.

"Lois, I'm sorry…" he began, his expression pained. "Our relationship is *not* normal. *I'm* not normal. And you deserve better than that. I know how hard I am to…be with, and I'm sorry…"

"Stop saying you're sorry!" Lois cut him off, now feeling even worse when she realized just how deeply her comments had cut him. All his life he had tried to fit in, to be normal, and she had just thoughtlessly reminded him that he wasn't. She knew the distance between them was not his fault.

When he stared back at her silently, she frowned and shook her head. "No, I'm the one who should apologize, Clark. It was a thoughtless thing to say. I didn't mean to hurt you. I know this isn't your fault and that there's nothing we can do about it."

The room was quiet for a moment. Then Clark spoke, some of his earlier enthusiasm returning to his voice. "I have an idea. If you really want to go out, why don't I fly us to some exotic destination for dinner? How about that?"

Lois looked up at him and saw the hope shining in his eyes. It was obvious he wanted so much to please her, and that made her feel even more guilty.

"Thanks, Clark, but you don't have to do that. It's not the going out that's the issue; it's the distance between us that makes this whole thing so hard."

After a minute, Lois dropped into the overstuffed chair beside her and let her head fall back against the headrest in defeat. "Sometimes I just wonder if this long distance relationship thing was a good idea," she said on a sigh as she stared up at the ceiling.

She heard Clark's sharp intake of breath. "Lois…what are you saying?"

She lifted her head from the cushion and looked at him, seeing the scared look that appeared in his eyes. She sighed again and shook her head. "I'm not saying anything, Clark. I'm just frustrated and venting. It's not like I want to break things off between us. I love you too much to do that. And I'm sure we can still make this work… It just stinks, that's all."

A mixture of relief and understanding crossed Clark face, and after a moment's hesitation, he closed the distance between them and squatted down in front of her. He put a hand on her knee and rubbed his thumb across it in soothing, gentle motions.

When he finally spoke, his tone was earnest. "What can I do, Lois? I want to make you happy. How can I do that? Just tell me and I'll do it."

Her gaze lifted to his, and for a long moment she lost herself in the depths she could see of this beautiful man's soul. With all his special gifts, he had the world at his fingertips. He could do anything and go anywhere. But instead he chose to be here with her. The very thought soothed the ache and longing in her heart.

She reached for him, cupping his face in her hands. "Just knowing that you want my happiness so much makes me feel better. I just wish…"

He reached up to cover one of her hands with his. "I know, Lois. I wish too. Someday soon we'll find a way to be together every day. Something will work out. I know it will." Their gazes met and held for a long moment. Then Clark leaned forward and touched his lips to hers.

Lois closed her eyes and returned his kiss lovingly. If she couldn't be with him every day, she could at least be with him now.

When their kiss ended, Clark let his forehead rest against hers, and they were both quiet as they savored the feeling of connection that they shared.

Lois was the first to move. Trying to regain her earlier enthusiasm, she put a smile on her face. "Instead of heading out of the country to be together, how about we just make the most of our evening here? We could cuddle on the couch for a while and watch some TV."

Clark's eyes sparkled and danced as a new idea surfaced. "I can go you one better. How do you feel about pizza and a video?"

***

Clark sat at his desk the next morning, staring unseeingly at his computer screen. Ever since he'd left Lois's the night before, he'd been unable to stop thinking about what she'd said. Yes, it was hard. It was harder than he'd ever thought it would be.

Logically, he knew it was do-able. Lots of people did the long- distance thing—emails, phone calls, packages, sporadic visits. But those people didn't have to deal with a third person in their relationships like he and Lois did. Superman was an added element to complicate things. Superman had to come and go at a moment's notice, keeping an ear out for those cries for help and rushing off to rescues.

Clark felt as if he were being pulled in three different directions—doing his job at the Planet and being Clark Kent, flying around Metropolis helping where he was needed as Superman, and then keeping up with his relationship with Lois. Flying out to see her and putting in the time a growing relationship needed was difficult, but it was something just as important—if not even more so—than the other aspects of his life. He just wished the pieces would fall into place a little more easily.

He thought back to Lois's admission the night before, her words still as clear as if they'd just been spoken: 'I just hoped this could be a more normal relationship. I guess that's just not possible, though, is it?'

Her words still haunted him, and he sighed as he dropped his chin into his hand. He knew she hadn't meant to hurt him, but her words had cut him to the core. No, what they were dealing with was not normal. And she deserved better than that. More than anything, he wished he could give her the 'normal' she hoped for.

There was a part of him that kept wondering if their relationship would be so much easier with the long-distance element eliminated. Yes, he would still be Superman, but at least they could see each other much more often and have a more "normal" feel to their relationship if they had typical day-to-day contact.

He found his eyes straying to the empty desk to his left. Carma Esquevez, one of their city beat reporters, had recently accepted a job at a paper in the southwest closer to her extended family, leaving the desk vacant for almost two weeks now. Clark remembered the discussion he'd had with Lois not long ago, telling her she should come to work at the Planet—and she had pointed out the flaw in his reasoning by arguing back that he should come work at the Chronicle.

She was right, of course. Neither of them wanted to uproot themselves from their lives and their careers to move across the country and start anew, and Clark wasn't about to press the issue again. She had worked hard to get where she was today, and so had he. But still…

Clark stared longingly at the empty desk only a few feet away. He let himself imagine what it would be like to have her sitting there, working away, sharing bits of information with him on her latest story. Her eyes would be dancing with excitement as she told him what she'd learned, or how she'd managed to get her latest lead. He would bring her her favorite donut from the box in the morning, and a cup of coffee. They would talk before the morning meeting, comparing notes and arguing good-naturedly about how they would acquire their information—Lois suggesting they sneak into their latest suspects office to sneak a peak at their files, and he refusing to do anything unethical. He would be frustrated when she refused to back down—and he would love every minute of it.

Then there would be the lunch breaks, the walks home at night, the relaxing weekends simply being together at one another's apartments…

Wistfully, Clark tore his gaze from the desk. As much as he longed for that to happen, he knew it wasn't meant to be. Not at this point in their lives, at least. What the future would bring was a mystery. He only hoped it would be worth the wait and the frustration they both felt now.

Yes, it was hard. But the alternative, he realized, was that he could be back where he was a couple of months ago—lonely and alone. Choosing the worst of the two was no contest. He would rather be facing the challenges he was now, rather than going through life uncertain and alone as he was before.

And that's just what this was, he realized. A challenge. Not an impossibility.

With renewed determination, he looked up the number of a local florist and picked up the phone. If he couldn't be there every day, he could at least continue to remind her he loved her.

"Yes, hello," he said into the phone when his call was answered. "I'd like to send a dozen roses to someone in San Francisco please… Yes, that's right. I'd like them delivered to Lois Lane at the San Francisco Chronicle. The City section."

A startled sound came from somewhere behind him, and Clark looked over his shoulder. Jimmy stood only a few steps behind him with a small piece of paper in his hand, and he was grinning.

Clark groaned inwardly. There was no doubt from the surprised and delighted expression on Jimmy's face that he'd overheard Clark's end of the conversation.

Hearing a voice on the other end of the line, Clark quickly turned his attention back to his phone conversation. He gave the man his credit card information for payment, then was told they would be delivered later that morning. Clark thanked the clerk and hung up.

Turning back around, he saw that Jimmy was still standing there, grinning. "You and Lois Lane, CK? Are you two a thing?"

Clark leaned back in his chair and contemplated his answer. He'd worked hard to keep his relationship with Lois a secret up till now because it was just in its beginning stages. He didn't want to jinx things. If something went wrong, he didn't want to live with the questions, and have to keep explaining how he had failed to win the love of his life.

But now, as he stared back into Jimmy's excited face, he realized keeping his relationship with Lois quiet was no longer an option. Besides, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to admit to it at this point. They were, in fact, becoming more serious about each other. Agnes knew. Why not Jimmy and some of his closer friends? Maybe it would even keep them from offering to set him up on those ridiculous blind dates.

His mind made up, Clark finally nodded. "Okay, you caught me. Yes, Lois and I are seeing each other. Did you have something to say about that?"

Jimmy's grin broadened, but he simply shrugged. "Nope. I don't have anything to say."

"Why don't I believe that? Oh yes," Clark said, gesturing at the look on the younger man's face, "it must have something to do with that I-just-found-out-a-secret expression on your face. Now go ahead and tell me you-told-me-so, so we can get it over with."

Jimmy made a valiant effort to wipe the grin from his face and look business-like and professional. "I wouldn't say that. All I'm here to say is that I have a message for you from Bobby Bigmouth."

Clark's interest flickered in his eyes. "Oh? What did he say?"

"Just that he has some information for you on something called Bureau 30-something."

"Thirty-nine," Clark clarified, getting out of his chair and taking the message out of his hand. He studied the message, then grabbed his overcoat off the back of his chair. "I'm going to go follow up on this. Tell Perry where I went if he asks, okay?"

"Sure, CK." Jimmy nodded. Then his grin was back. "But just for the record…I did say that you and Lois would make a cute couple, and here you are, sending her flowers. So I guess I could say I told you so." Then he darted away, laughing, before Clark could retaliate.

Clark stared after Jimmy for several moments, contemplating whether or not he should hurry after him and beg him to keep his relationship with Lois a secret. But then he shook his head in resignation. 'It's no big deal,' he thought. 'He probably would have found out sooner or later. And since Lois and I are getting pretty serious, I guess it doesn't matter who knows. At least Jimmy only overheard me ordering flowers, and not talking to her about flying out to see her tonight.'

He grimaced at the thought of how disastrous that would have been. He was going to have to be more careful in the future.

Then, remembering the phone message in his hand, he slipped into his coat and hurried across the newsroom to the elevators. He had to meet with Bobby Bigmouth.

***

Clark found Bobby at his usual place—the downtown soup kitchen. This time, however, the man was wrapped in a crisp, white apron and standing behind the counter, serving several people as they moved past him in the serving line. Clark waited until the line diminished, then stepped up to the man.

"Doing the serving instead of the eating for once?"

Bobby looked up and smiled wryly when he saw Clark standing there. "Yeah, well, I figured I owed these guys some service hours in exchange for all the food I eat. I see you got my message. I figured it wouldn't be long before you were down here demanding to know what I'd learned."

"I wouldn't say 'demanding,'" Clark said. "More like 'requesting.'"

Bobby grinned again. "I see." He glanced behind him and noticed the kitchen help was beginning to clean up now that the lunch rush was over. He reached behind him and untied his apron strings. "Let me hang this up and I'll be right out. Have a seat."

When Bobby disappeared into the back, Clark found an unoccupied table in the far corner where they could talk without being disturbed. He only waited a couple of minutes before Bobby was joining him at the table.

"So, what did you learn?" Clark asked, leaning forward and resting his forearms on the table.

"Well, it wasn't easy, but I called in some favors," Bobby told him. "This Bureau 39 you're looking into? It sounds like you'd better watch your step with them. Apparently, it's some secret government group whose mission is to identify alien threats to the security of this country."

Clark's throat constricted and he found it hard to breathe. "Alien threats?" he managed tightly.

"Yep. You know…UFOs, alien invasion, that kind of stuff. Sounds to me like they've watched Independence Day too many times." He snickered at his own joke. "Anyway, their leader is some guy named Trask. From everything I heard, the guy's a loose cannon. I even managed to find out that the group's director— some guy named Thompson—is in town from D.C. investigating the guy."

"For what, exactly?"

"That, I don't know." Bobby shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't like the way Trask's handling things. Anyway, this whacko Trask apparently takes his job pretty seriously—maybe too seriously."

Clark frowned. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, my source claims that Trask thinks Superman is some sort of hostile alien sent to earth to prepare the way for an invasion. He's so determined to keep that from happening that he's hell bent on eliminating the threat."

Clark's mouth went dry and his muscles tensed. "He wants Superman dead?"

"That's what I heard."

Just then one of the men behind the counter signaled for Bobby, so the informant pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. "I hope some of that helps, Clark. You owe me something big for this. A dozen pizzas with everything on them. Including anchovies."

"You got it." Clark smiled. "Thanks, Bobby."

The man inclined his head, then hurried off into the back. Clark remained at the table for a long time, trying to digest the information. He doubted this Trask guy could really do anything to eliminate him, but still an unsettled feeling crept into his stomach. A rogue leader of some covert government agency could be capable of doing almost anything. To anyone.

Suddenly, he had new reasons to be investigating this group. A guy that crazy needed to be stopped.

Standing up from his chair, Clark left the building, renewed determination quickening his step. If what Bobby was saying was right, he had to talk to this Thompson guy. He didn't know if the man would agree to see him, but it was worth a try.

***

Clark walked into his apartment later that evening, an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He set his attache down next to the couch, then crossed the room, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar as he went. He stopped at the entrance of the kitchen and reached for the cordless phone sitting in its base. He had to call Lois. She was the only one—besides his parents—who would understand the gravity of the events that had unfolded that day.

He dialed the number he had long since committed to memory and put the phone to his ear. "Please be there," he murmured as the phone rang once, then twice. He breathed a sigh of relief when his call was picked up on the third ring, and Lois's voice came over the line.

"Lois," he said, feeling his tense body relax. "Good, you're there."

"Hey," she exclaimed happily, the smile evident in her voice. "I've tried to call you a few times today to thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful. You didn't have to do that."

He smiled against the phone pressed to his cheek. "I know, but I wanted to. I'm glad you got them. I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you."

"Just like I've been thinking about you," she told him. "So, tell me about your day. You must have been busy. You weren't even picking up your cell phone."

Clark frowned as he thought about everything that had happened that day. "I had it turned off for a while. I hardly had a minute to myself the entire day."

"Really?" Lois interest was clearly piqued. "Anything interesting?"

"You could say that. I finally got a big break in the Bureau 39 investigation."

"Yes!" Lois exclaimed, and he could picture her pumping her fist with excitement. "What did you find out?"

Clark moved over to the couch and sat down, switching the phone to his other ear. "I found out more than I'm comfortable with, I'm afraid. Bobby contacted me, saying he had some information, so I went to talk with him."

He told her what he'd learned about Bureau 39, their mission, and about how their loose-cannon leader, Jason Trask, wanted to eliminate Superman.

Lois gasped at this. "How can he possibly think you're some advance man for an alien invasion? That's crazy!"

"I agree." Clark nodded. "This guy is clearly off the deep end. When I got back to the Planet after talking to Bobby, I dug a little deeper and found out that Trask was part of something called Project Bluebook back in the 60's."

"I know that name," Lois said, sounding thoughtful. "Didn't it have something to do with UFO research?"

"It did. I found a short article and a picture of the guys involved with the project in the newspaper archives. Apparently, Project Bluebook was a UFO research group involving a dozen or so airmen. Trask was in that picture too. He supposedly 'disappeared' in 1969, which happened to be the same year the government got out of the UFO business."

"That's convenient," Lois mumbled. "What else did you find?"

"Well, also in that picture was a general named George Thompson. Bobby learned the guy was the director of Bureau 39, and that he was in town from D.C. apparently investigating Trask."

"So maybe we're not the only ones thinking this Trask guy has gone off the deep end."

"Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe everybody involved in this project is crazy. Either way, I decided to pay Thompson a visit."

"Ohh, I wish I could have been there," Lois said with longing. "I always love this part of the investigation—just when it starts to get juicy."

He grinned against the phone. "Sorry, Lois, but I wasn't about to leave the trail and come out to get you. I did manage to get in to see Thompson, but he wasn't much help. He told me he'd flown in from Washington and claimed to be some kind of government ombudsman. When I pressed him, he wouldn't say exactly what it was he was in town to do. He claimed it was classified. I asked him if it had anything to do with Jason Trask and Bureau 39, and he looked pretty shaken. I must have played my card too soon because he abruptly ended our meeting, saying he had another appointment he had to get to."

"Hmmm," Lois murmured. "The fact that he looked shaken says a lot."

"Yeah, but that's not all." Clark got up from the couch and began to pace around his living room. "Having super powers has been known to be helpful a time or two when I've been investigating, but this time I'm not sure I liked what I found."

"What did you find?"

"Just before Thompson rushed me out of his office, I noticed the briefcase on Thompson's desk. I knew my leads were dwindling, so I took a peek into his case. There were some papers in there with a title page reading "Smallville, 1966." Clark swallowed past the tightening of his throat. "Lois, that's the year my parents found me. May 17th, 1966 to be exact. Why would Thompson have papers in his briefcase if they didn't think there was some connection to that and Superman? How could they have made that connection in the first place?"

Lois sounded as shocked by this news as he was. "That must have really rattled you," she sympathized. She paused, clearly deep in thought. Then she continued, "I know this is a probably long shot, but what if these men were the ones who found your space capsule in Smallville? You told me your dad buried it, but when you went to dig it up years later, it was gone. Maybe this Project Bluebook that Trask and Thompson are involved in followed up on the meteor sightings in Kansas and tracked them to that field, and then to your buried space capsule without your knowing it."

Clark's blood ran cold. A distant memory of a conversation he'd had with his parents many years ago came to his mind.

"Clark?" Lois prompted when he didn't respond. "What is it? What's wrong?"

He tried to draw a breath in spite of the heaviness weighing on his chest. "Lois…that just made me remember something. Years ago, when my parents told me about finding me in the space capsule, they told me that a few days after, a few men showed up in town asking questions. They said they were from the space program, and that they thought some debris had come down from some kind of Russian satellite. When they asked my parents, they wanted to know if my parents had seen anything."

"What did they tell them?"

"Nothing. My mom said they didn't trust them."

"So is that what your parents thought you were?" she asked. "Some kind of Russian experiment?"

"At the time they didn't care if I was a Russian or a martian. I was theirs, and they didn't plan to give me up to anybody. They'd tried for a long time to have kids but couldn't. I was it, as far as their chances to have children."

"Which explains why they're so protective of you."

"Yes. But my point is, maybe this Bureau 39 is that same group formerly known as Project Bluebook who was asking questions about that night. Maybe they even have something to do with my spaceship disappearing."

"Or even know where it is," Lois suggested.

Clark's breath caught in his throat. That was a possibility he hadn't even considered. "Maybe," he mused. "But there was one more thing. When I was looking into his briefcase, I also saw something else."

"What?"

"A scrap of paper with an address on it. I looked it up, and apparently it's an old, abandoned warehouse on Besolo Boulevard."

"Maybe that's Bureau 39's headquarters!" Lois's voice rose in excitement. "It's possible the answers to all your questions lie inside."

Clark immediately recognized that tone in her voice. "Lo-is. You're not thinking what I think you're thinking…"

"You know me well enough by now to know exactly what I'm thinking, Clark. You've got to break into that warehouse!"

Clark shook his head. "Lois, I can't, and you know that I can't. It's illegal. If I use my powers to do something like that—"

"—then it wouldn't make you any better than the bad guys," Lois finished, echoing the argument he'd used against her reasoning long ago. "Come on, Clark! This could be our one chance to find out the answers to our questions. And who knows what else you might find out about them! Maybe there's something in their records to explain how exactly they're linked to Lex Luthor! I think that justifies the means."

"It justifies nothing, Lois." Clark's jaw tightened in firm determination. "I won't do it."

"Then come get me and I'll do it!" Lois pleaded.

He moaned in frustration. She just wasn't getting this. "Lo- is…"

"What?" she demanded. "You may not believe it, but if I've ever seen something that justifies a little breaking and entering, this is it!"

"No, it doesn't." Clark remained firm. "We'll just have to find out what we need through other means."

Lois let out a growl of aggravation. "Clark, I swear, if I didn't love you I'd hang up on you right this instant. Why do you have to be so innately good? It makes me crazy!"

Clark chuckled. "Sorry. I guess it's because *you're* not. We end up balancing each other out."

"I suppose," she grumbled. "I guess I'm not going to be able to convince you, though I wish I could. I don't think you realize what you could be missing, and how potentially dangerous this could be to you, too…as Superman. If you don't get to the bottom of Bureau 39's mission, how else are you going to defend yourself?"

The question lingered in Clark's mind long after they hung up. He continued to ponder it even as he lay in bed, staring up at his darkened bedroom ceiling.

He rolled over and pulled the covers up around his shoulders, trying to push the words from his head. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized Lois was right. But what was he supposed to do? Breaking and entering went against everything he stood for.

'But can't Superman do a little breaking and entering to save himself?' a little voice in the back of his head pressed. 'Superman saves everybody else. This time it could be *your* life at stake. Isn't that worth considering?'

With a moan of exasperation, he flipped back over on his back and stared up at the ceiling again. What *did* that warehouse hold? Did it hold computers with information that might shed some light on his arrival on this planet? What about this meteorite they claimed to be looking for? What about these "pieces of a Russian satellite" those men said they were looking for when the showed up in Smallville? The answers to these questions he'd always had in his mind could be in that warehouse.

He sighed. His conversation with Lois replayed again in his mind, and her words once again came back to haunt him.

*This could be your one chance to find out the answers to those questions! And who knows what else we might find out about them. Maybe there's something in their records to explain how exactly they're linked to Lex Luthor! I think that justifies the means.*

A tightening in his gut made him groan. As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. Besides, if his spaceship really was in that warehouse, they didn't have any right to it. It was his. All he'd be doing was retrieving his own stolen property.

Throwing off his covers, he climbed out of bed and started walking to the secret closet where he hung his Superman costume. He slid the compartment door open in the dark and started to reach for the suit. Then he stopped.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to put on the Suit. Maybe it was better if he did this in his clothes, in something nice and dark. That way, if anybody saw or caught him—though he didn't intend to be because there was too much at stake—it would be Clark Kent, investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, not Metropolis's infallible superhero.

He slid the compartment door shut and returned to his bedroom closet. He selected a pair of black jeans and a black sweatshirt he sometimes lounged around in on the weekends. He dressed quickly and started to leave his room when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He smiled.

What would Lois say if she were here now? Dressed all in black, with the intention to do a little law breaking. He couldn't help smiling a little at the irony.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he murmured, knowing what he was about to do was wrong, yet unable to stop himself.

Going over to the window overlooking the alley, he slid it open quietly, then scanned his surroundings to make sure nobody was watching. Nobody was.

Taking a deep breath, he launched himself into the night sky. There had to be something gained by intentionally breaking his first law. There just had to be.

***

It was only matter of minutes before he was flying over the warehouse, undetected and cloaked by darkness. He hovered over the metal building for a long moment, feeling more than a little unnerved by what he was about to do.

A quick glance around told him he was alone, with no threat of being detected. Using his special vision, he scanned the interior of the building. At one end, there were file cabinets, a copy machine, and a cluttered desk, all arranged into a makeshift office of sorts. The rest of the warehouse was obviously a storage area. There were dozens of objects covered with thick cloths, stacked crates in the corners, and various items tagged and scattered about on long workbenches and tables.

His careful eye searched for signs of a security system or cameras, but there appeared to be nothing that would make the casual passerby think the warehouse was anything other than deserted.

Deciding it was safe to enter, he landed behind the darkened building and reached for the padlock on the large loading doors, doors wide enough to accommodate the extra large widths of the crates he'd spotted in the storage room.

For a long moment, he stared at the lock in his hand. This was it. He was about to cross the line, the line he'd told Lois on more than one occasion he would never cross. Yet here he was, about to do just that.

But then he realized something. For the first time in his life, he felt justified crossing this line. The prospect of what he might be able to learn about himself inside this warehouse—the enemy's warehouse, he reminded himself to make the argument easier to win—made it too tempting.

He glanced around one more time to make sure his arrival was still undetected, then slipped inside, shutting the door quietly behind him. He made a beeline for the three file cabinets along the wall next to the desk and started opening drawers. The drawer was jammed full of manila file folders, some thicker than others, all containing sheaves of paper. Most of the files were labeled in some kind of alphanumeric filing system, so he had no idea what each one contained.

He pulled out one of the first folders and thumbed through it at super speed. There seemed to be nothing of value to him in it, so he replaced it and pulled out the next one. He felt a spark of hope when he saw a list of names and organizations that had apparently helped fund whatever research they'd been doing, but he didn't see any mention of Luthor or LexCorp, or any company they knew him to be affiliated with.

Clark made a face. He knew that didn't mean anything. Luthor had his hands in so many companies and lines of work that it would be impossible to connect them all.

Looking around, he spotted a copy machine near the desk. He carried the folder to it, turned it on, and copied the papers before replacing the folder back in the file cabinet. He didn't know if any of the company names would pan out in their attempt to link Bureau 39 and Mesopotamia, Inc. to Lex Luthor, but it was worth looking into.

In the next drawer down, he recognized the contents to be that of varying scientific data and reports the Bureau had gathered over the years. Most of the experiments and results contained in the reports meant nothing to him, so he moved on. In the very bottom drawer, near the back, he found something that made his heart stop.

The first page in the folder read "Smallville, Kansas, 1966." Anxiously, Clark turned the page, devouring the information typed there. From what he could gather, the Bureau's scientists had concentrated a lot of time on studying several smaller pieces of glowing meteorites. Near the end of the first report, he read the final thoughts:

"Conclusion: Meteorites found to contain unknown properties, including some degree of radioactivity which is apparently harmless to humans. Will continue to monitor soil samples taken from the site nearest the space capsule for increasing or decreasing radioactivity."

A chill ran down Clark's spine. They knew about his capsule! Lois had been dead on. Bureau 39 did indeed seem to be the same people asking around in Smallville about the meteorites and "Russian satellite" that had crash landed near there.

His excitement building, he flipped to the next report. This one seemed much newer. The pages weren't as yellowed from age as the last one was.

With apprehension, he flipped through the pages which detailed new scientific evidence that the previously studied meteorite contained an unknown toxin that, while not harmful to humans, suggested that the combination of the toxin and the radioactivity could have been responsible for a planet's explosion.

Clark's fingers trembled as he held the report. Could that have been what happened? Could his home world have exploded? Before he let himself get too caught up with his thoughts, he forced himself to read on. As he did, though, their theories listed within the report made him shake. One of the men, the report shared, had a theory that this newly arrived superhero dubbed as "Superman" could have come to earth back in 1966 as an infant in the small space capsule, crash landing in that field, surrounded by pieces of his home planet which had followed him into orbit. The report ended with a conclusion, stating there was reason to believe the meteorites found amongst the wreckage might have an affect on the occupant. That effect was reported to be determined at a later date.

That's where the report ended, leaving a cold chill running up Clark's spine. What was it they suspected about him? Had they somehow managed to make the connection between Superman and Clark Kent?

Either way, they knew too much. And it scared him. They knew he—well, someone—had arrived in a space capsule back in 1966, and had just recently surmised that Superman might have been this individual. They were already close.

Too close.

And what about this meteorite they thought might affect him? Was there any validity to their theories?

Trying to shake himself out of his stupor, Clark looked back toward the copy machine. His first thought was to make copies of the reports in his hand, but then he thought better of it. He didn't know if the folder contained the only scientific data and theories to his arrival, or if they were simply copies, but he knew it would be better if he just took what he had. With any luck, there weren't copies, and this information would never see the light of day. The men were too close to the truth.

Tucking the papers he'd copied into the folder, he slipped the folder under his arm, then turned and went to survey the rest of the warehouse as quickly as he could. His best chance at remaining undetected was to make this short and get out of there with what he had as quickly as possible.

When he entered the storage room, he spotted the dozen or so objects draped in thick cloths that he had seen from above. He took a step toward them, then paused.

A strange new feeling he could only qualify as paranoia surfaced within him. After the information he had just discovered, he felt almost afraid to see what might be hiding under those cloths. He took a deep breath to calm his jagged nerves, then walked toward the objects silently, keeping his super hearing tuned into the sounds that would alert him to the arrival of others.

The first several objects he peered at seemed to be ragged pieces of crumpled metal that meant nothing to him. He moved on. He didn't know what he was looking for, but so far these objects didn't appear to be of any worth to him.

One of the last ones he looked at had a thick tag hanging from it, reading "of foreign origin." He lifted the cover and his breath caught in his throat.

A capsule! HIS capsule!

With shaking hands, he threw the cover back the rest of the way, his heart pounding in his chest. There was lettering etched into the metal along the front and sides of the pod, and he let his fingers trace what seemed to be a foreign language. As he moved to the other side of the capsule in a kind of awe, he froze once again. In the side near a latch was his now-famous "S" shield.

Tears gathered in his eyes. If there had been any doubt before that this may not be his capsule, the familiar symbol clinched it. This was his ship, constructed for and undoubtedly linked to him and his heritage.

He put his hand on the shield, feeling a slight tingling sensation. He couldn't help wondering if the tingling he felt was from the excitement building up inside of him, or if he could literally feel the connection to his past from this piece.

He caught sight of something small wrapped in a thick cloth tucked into a little niche near the front of the capsule. He picked it up gently. With trembling fingers, he unwrapped it, revealing a large ball-shaped item, slightly larger than a softball. He cupped it in one hand and held it in front of his face, peering at the seemingly delicate object.

Just then the ball started to glow from within. Clark watched, his eyes wide, as the ball turned into a three-dimensional globe that showed off Earth's mountainous peaks and valleys. Suddenly, the familiar topography of Earth started to change. The greens and blues of the globe began to glow a reddish hue, and the continents he had viewed many times from above turned into unfamiliar peaks and valleys and huge ice caps.

This new planet was unfamiliar to him, but an unexpected word seemed to flow into his mind. "Krypton," he murmured, mesmerized by the glowing and unfamiliar planet shown on the globe he held in his hand.

His heart leapt with realization. Krypton! That was the name of the planet he was from. He didn't know how his mind seemed linked to the sphere, or how the sphere relayed the information to him, but it seemed to have the ability to speak to him.

Just then the sound of a door slamming caught his attention and he whipped around. The warehouse door was still secure. He strained to hear what had captured his attention. There was another slam, and he realized it was a car door. It didn't sound like it was right outside—rather, it sounded like it had come from further down the street. Still, he wasn't taking any chances. He'd already found more than he could have ever hoped to find, and he didn't want to risk being caught—or losing these incredibly precious items.

Quickly yet gently, he wrapped the sphere back up in the cloth, then tucked it carefully into the capsule and set the manila files in beside it. Then he re-covered the capsule and lifted the ship, taking special care to coddle his precious load as he floated it across the warehouse to the loading doors.

>From inside, he scanned the area outside to make sure he was still alone and unwatched. He was. Breathing a sigh of relief, he opened the wide door and floated his haul on through. Then he closed the door behind him and disappeared silently into the night sky.

***

Lois walked through her apartment in her boxer shorts and T-shirt, turning off the lights as she went. It was just after eleven o'clock, and she was tired. And frustrated.

What was it about Clark's defense of all things good and legal that made her want to punch him? All evening she kept thinking about their phone conversation, and how he refused to listen to reason about the information they stood to gain by breaking into that warehouse for a look around. This was a solid lead. That warehouse could very well be Bureau 39's headquarters, and that warranted a look. Clark sure didn't see it that way, though. If airplane transportation to Metropolis wasn't so lengthy and difficult, she would have paid a visit to that warehouse herself. As it was, she had to let this lead slip away, all because her boyfriend had a goody-two-shoes streak a mile wide.

She turned off the light in the kitchen, but the hallway light still shining through the doorway illuminated enough of the kitchen for her to see her way through the room. As she passed the kitchen island, the large vase of flowers that had been delivered to her at the Planet that morning caught her eye.

She stopped next to the beautiful arrangement and her grumpiness at a certain Man of Steel began to slip. Lifting a hand to the flowers, her fingertips brushed the delicate petals of the tiger lilies and lavender of the arrangement. A slow smile worked its way across her face.

The Man of Steel may be *too* innately good for her liking, but he was undeniably romantic.

Just then the sound of her phone ringing in the stillness of her apartment made her jump. She dropped her hand from the flowers and glanced up at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was a quarter after eleven. Who would be calling this late?

She walked over to the phone and picked up the handset. "Hello?"

"Lois, I'm sorry to be calling so late…"

"Clark!" she exclaimed, happy to hear his voice in spite of their phone disagreement earlier. "It's not that late here. It's only after eleven and I wasn't even in bed yet. What's up?"

"I've got so much to tell you I don't even know where to begin."

"Uh-oh. This sounds serious." She turned and leaned back against the counter in the kitchen's semi-darkness, awaiting his next words.

"Well, it started when I broke into that warehouse tonight—"

Lois pushed away from the counter so fast her muscles stung in protest. "You broke into that warehouse?" she squealed, her delight sending her into babble mode. "You, Clark Kent, actually broke into and entered a building unlawfully? I can't believe you did that! You actually listened to me. That is *so* cool! So, how did you get in? Did you break down the door, rip off some doorknobs or what? Ooh, I wish I had been there!" She paused for breath, then shook her head. "I never thought I'd live to see the day when you would come around to the dark side. There's hope for you yet, Clark Kent!"

"Will you stop and let me finish?" His tone was impatient, but she could detect a slight smile in his voice at her reaction.

She settled herself somewhat, but made no effort the wipe the broad grin from her face. "Okay, okay. But I will forever look back at this moment as a turning point in my life. I, Lois Lane, made the Man of Steel break a law."

Clark chuckled. "Okay, yes, you corrupted me. But that's not what I called to tell you. When I was there, I found something. Well, three things, to be exact. Three really *big* things."

"Clark, you've got my attention already! What did you find? A connection to Lex?"

He sighed. "No, that was something I didn't find. Not yet, anyway. But I did find a folder in a file cabinet that contained a list of companies who'd made research donations over the year. I copied those, thinking we could go through the names later and see if anything matched up. But I also found a file containing some reports on a glowing meteorite that was found in a field back in Smallville in 1966."

"The year you landed." Lois nodded in understanding. "Do they know anything about it?"

"They know a lot. The meteorite doesn't appear harmful to humans, and they believe the properties are such that it could have resulted in the destruction of a planet."

Lois felt goose bumps rise on her arms. "But not just any planet…*your* planet."

"It's possible. One of the reports even explained how they found the pieces of meteorites near the crash site of a space capsule."

Lois slapped a hand down onto her counter. "I knew it! They know about your capsule!"

"Yes, but are you ready for the really big news?" Clark's voice, while solemn, held an obvious amount of excitement. "Not only did they know about it…they had it. It was there at the warehouse."

Lois gasped. Her fingers tightened around the phone. "Are you serious? Clark, that's incredible! What did you do? What did it look like?"

"You'll have to see for yourself."

"You took it?" Lois felt her heart hammering in her chest. Then she realized what she'd just said and shook her head, rolling her eyes at herself sheepishly. "Wait a minute, of course you took it. It's *yours.* What did you do with it?"

"I took it and the folder of reports—plus one other item—to my parents' barn. It seemed like the safest place to hide everything. I had to wake my parents up, but I knew they wouldn't mind when I showed them what I found. And they didn't. In fact, my mom even cried."

Lois smiled. Of course Martha would. She knew how important it was to her son to know where he'd come from and who he was. She could only imagine how moved both his parents must have been at the discovery. Then a new thought occurred to her.

"And did you tell them how you managed to procure these items?" she teased. "I can just imagine what your parents would say when their do-gooder superhero son has to tell them he broke into a warehouse and stole them."

Clark's smile was evident in his voice when he answered. "I told them the basics—that we had been researching a story and stumbled across a group that did UFO research, and that we'd suspected they had information about Superman. I was hesitant to tell them much else, though. I didn't want them to worry about Bureau 39's agenda, or the studies they've been doing on the meteorites found in the field where I landed. Some of their findings kind of shook me up."

"What findings?" Lois's brow creased in concentration.

Clark's troubled sigh came across the line. "I'm not sure what may or may not be a serious issue, so I'd rather let you read for yourself what I found and give me your opinion. And I don't want my parents to know about this yet, either. I don't want to alarm them needlessly."

"Clark, you're scaring me." Lois's hand tightened on the phone, pushing it harder against her ear. "What about these meteorites? What did the reports say?"

"I'll show you them when we're alone. You can read through everything and tell me what you think."

Lois considered pressing him for the information, then decided to honor his request. Changing the subject, she asked, "You mentioned you'd found one other item. What was it?"

"That," Clark exclaimed, "is the main reason I'm calling. Lois, it's incredible. I want to come and get you and fly you out to Smallville so you can see it along with my parents. Please, Lois? I really want you there with me when I watch it."

Just knowing that Clark needed her and wanted to share his special discovery with her made her feel warm all over. "Of course I'll come," Lois told him with a soft smile. "I'm honored you'd want me to be there. To watch what, though? What is it?"

"You'll just have to wait and see."

Lois's smile grew. "Boy, you're full of surprises, aren't you? Sure, come and get me. I need to put some clothes on, though. I'm in my pajamas."

"Darn." Clark's tone became flirtatious. "I knew I just should have come out there instead of calling first. I'd have loved to see how cute you look in your pajamas."

Lois's jaw fell open and she gasped. Then she started laughing. "Clark! I can't believe you said that. Whatever happened to that naive, sweet, goody-two-shoes boyfriend I thought I knew?"

His chuckle came across the line. "He's gone. You corrupted him, remember? You didn't expect him to be the same after a little law-breaking, did you?"

Lois laughed again. "Okay, fine. I get it. Now get over here, would you? The suspense is killing me. I want to find out what you found, and I want to see this spaceship of yours."

"Then go get dressed and I'll be right there."

When the phone line went dead, Lois hung up the phone and hurried into the bedroom to change into jeans and a comfortable, warm sweater for the flight.

***

Lois had barely finished changing when she heard a familiar rush of wind, then the sound of her patio door sliding open and a soft voice. "Lois?"

She hurried out of her room and saw Clark standing a step inside her door, looking uncertain whether or not he should come in uninvited. She smiled and waved him in. "Hi, Clark. Come on in. I just need to grab my jacket."

He stepped the rest of the way inside and slid her patio door shut while she pulled a jacket from the closet and put it on. When she walked back to him, she eyed him standing there in his costume and grinned.

"I doubt I'll ever get over seeing you in that Suit. It's just so unlike you. Someday you'll have to explain to me how you feel comfortable in those tights and bodysuit. I even get uncomfortable wearing a leotard to the gym." She shook her head. "I suppose that's how you get away with the whole secret identity thing. Nobody would ever think Clark Kent would wear something so…revealing."

Clark blushed. He glanced down at himself and smoothed the front of his outfit. "I know. I was almost too embarrassed to even try it on when my mom made it for me. You don't think it's *too* revealing, do you? Maybe I should get something else?" A worried expression lit his eyes when he looked up at her searchingly.

"Don't you dare," she scolded. "That outfit is known worldwide. It's come to stand for truth, justice, and the American way." Then her eyes began to sparkle mischievously. "Though after tonight, maybe a black, cat burglar get-up would suit you better."

Clark groaned and rolled his eyes. "You're never going to let me live that one down, are you?"

"Nope," she told him. "Every time you get on my case about doing something illegal, I'm going to bring up this event. Just so you know."

"Great." Clark shook his head. "At least it 'justified the means,' as you like to say. Should we go? I can't wait to show you everything."

His eyes were lit up like a kid's on Christmas morning, and Lois felt a flutter of excitement in her own stomach. This was clearly big. She couldn't wait to see what he'd found.

She nodded eagerly and took a step toward the patio. "Then let's go."

On the flight to Kansas, Lois noticed Clark had grown quiet. He seemed to be deep in concentration, and she was certain it had something to do with what he'd found in the warehouse.

She shifted in his arms and peered up into his face. "So, what did you find, Clark? Aren't you at least going to prepare me for what I'm about to see?"

Clark glanced down at her, hesitating a moment before answering. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt, since my parents have already seen it." His face became more animated as he went on. "Lois, my ship is more incredible than I could have ever imagined, and I feel such a connection to home through it. There's a dialect etched in the metal around the opening that I don't understand, but I hope to one day learn what it says. Maybe the globe will tell me someday."

Lois raised her eyebrows. "What globe?"

"It's the other thing I found."

Clark's arms tightened around her, and Lois could tell from his body language and the light in his eyes that this globe obviously meant a great deal to him. She waited impatiently for him to continue. When he did, his voice was awed, reverent.

"Krypton, Lois. That's the name of the planet I'm from."

A gasp escaped her lips. "How, Clark? How did you learn that?"

He explained how he'd found the sphere-like object wrapped in canvas in his capsule, and how it had began to glow from within when he had touched it, revealing Earth's globe, then changing to a reddish hue as it revealed the image of his home planet. He also explained that the word "Krypton" was somehow spoken to his mind.

"It was amazing, Lois," he told her, his voice incredulous. "I sensed that it had more to tell me, but then I heard a noise from outside the warehouse and decided to get out of there fast. I want you to see it. Maybe it can tell us all something about who I am, and more about Krypton."

Lois shook her head in amazement. "Clark, this is so incredible. I can't even begin to imagine what this discovery must mean to you. I know you've been waiting your whole life to find out who you are and why you're here. You must be so excited."

"I am." He nodded. "But I'm also a little scared. I've wondered about things ever since my parents told me how I came to be theirs. Where did I come from? Who are my parents? Why was I sent here? Did everyone have powers like mine? Now I think I'm about to find out."

He paused, then drew a shaky breath. "What if I'm disappointed, Lois? I don't think I could bear to learn that I was some scientific experiment gone wrong, or that I didn't really belong where I came from, and that's why I was sent here. Or that I had parents who just didn't want me. I mean, what if—"

"Clark." Lois sentenced him with a finger on his lips. "I don't think any of those things are true. How could anybody not love you? You're not some science experiment, Clark. They sent you here to earth for a reason—if for no other reason than for me to love."

Clark's eyes misted with tears at her words, and a grateful smile appeared on his lips. He lowered his head and kissed her softly. "Thank you, Lois," he whispered. "Just knowing that will make whatever truth I learn easier to take."

They were quiet for a moment. Then Clark murmured, "I just hope it does have something to tell me. I mean, I sensed it did, but I don't know for sure. All I know is, I wanted you and my parents to be with me when I find out."

Lois reached up to cup his cheek in her hand. She smiled at him when their eyes met. "We'll give you whatever support you need."

The rest of the trip was taken in silence, and it wasn't long before they were touching down on the lawn in front of the Kents' farmhouse. There were lights on in the kitchen and in one upstairs room, but the house was otherwise dark. Lois glanced at her watch as Clark set her down beside him. It was very early in the morning—just after 3AM in their time zone—and she couldn't help but wonder if his parents would be dead on their feet.

Much to her surprise, Martha was in the kitchen taking a whistling tea kettle off the stove when they walked in. She was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt to take the bite off the farmhouse's early morning chill, and Jonathan was sitting at the table dressed in a pair of old jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. While they both appeared tired, they also seemed excited. Lois could tell from the light in Martha's eyes when she spotted them that she and her husband had been anxiously awaiting their arrival.

"Lois." Martha smiled and came over to give her a hug. "It's so good to see you again."

Lois hugged her back. "It's good to see you guys, too." When she pulled back, she felt a hand tighten around hers. She looked up to see Clark standing beside her, still looking a little nervous. She gave his hand a squeeze and used her other hand to rub his forearm lightly. "Clark told me about the globe. I'm excited to be here to be a part of this."

"I just hope I didn't get you out here—and you guys up," Clark addressed his parents, "for no reason."

"At the very least, we got to see your ship," Martha commented, giving his arm a squeeze. She had tears in her eyes as she continued. "It means a lot to all of us. Your father and I would have been upset with you if you hadn't woken us up to show us what you'd found."

"That's right, son." Jonathan's voice sounded from where he sat at the table. "We're glad you woke us." He then gestured to the wrapped object on the table beside his cup of tea before looking up at his son. "Shall we?"

Clark hesitated, then released Lois's hand and took a step toward the table. Anxiously, he reached out with both hands for the object and cradled it carefully. He stared at it for a long moment, then looked back up at the people around him. When his mom nodded encouragingly, he took a deep breath and removed the cloth from the globe.

The room fell silent as they looked on in awe, watching the reddish glow illuminating the unfamiliar continents, mountain peaks, valleys, and ice caps on the sphere's surface. Clark sat down in a chair at the table, and Lois lowered herself into the one beside him. When Martha sat down beside her husband, she commented on the sight before them.

"It's beautiful, Clark. And you say this is Krypton?"

Clark nodded. "The globe seemed to speak to me when I touched it." He glanced down at the cloth that still separated his hands from the sphere's cool surface. "I didn't want to try touching it again until you were all here to see whatever else it might do."

Lois put a hand on his back in a gesture of support. "Go ahead and touch it, Clark. Let's see what happens."

He nodded again and took a deep breath. "Okay. Here goes."

With shaking hands, he slid the cloth onto his lap and held the globe in his fingertips. Almost immediately, a beam of light streamed out of the sphere, and Clark gasped in surprise when the hologram of a tall man with graying hair was projected a few feet away from them.

He stared in awe at the man dressed all in white. On the man's chest was a now familiar emblem—the "S" shield he wore on his Suit. Before Clark could begin to ponder the meaning, the man in the hologram began to speak.

"My name is Jor-El. And you are Kal-El, my son. The object you hold has been attuned to you. That you now hear these words is proof that you have survived the journey in space and have reached your full maturity. Now it is time for you to learn our heritage. To that end, I will appear to you five times. Watch for the light, listen, and learn."

Clark's eyes filled with tears. This was his father. His birth father. He wasn't some science experiment after all. He hadn't been recklessly abandoned. This man loved him; the effort that it had obviously taken to get him this message told him so.

His heart hammered in his chest as he continued to watch, the image before them changing to that of a lab of some sort where his father was pushing buttons on some kind of machine. His father continued to speak.

"Time grows short and we continue to search. The immensity of space is both a blessing and a curse. In that near infinite variety there must be some place suitable. Hope and desperation drive us in equal measure."

In the lab, Clark watched a new person enter the scene, a woman with long, flowing, red hair. The next words answered his question about who this woman was.

"Lara works by my side. She is tireless and endlessly patient. Considering what is to come, this is my greatest consolation—that we are together."

He watched the room start to shake around the couple, and saw his father hug the woman protectively to his side. Then it hit him. His mother! This woman—Lara—was his mother.

His heart continued to pound as he watched the image start to fade. Then the globe dimmed, darkened, and fell silent.

There was not a noise in the room as the message ended. It wasn't until Clark felt a tear slide down his cheek that he was able to pull his gaze from the globe. He wiped at the wetness unashamedly and looked up at his loved ones around him. Each of them had tears in their own eyes.

"Clark," Lois whispered emotionally, reaching out to put a hand on his thigh. "Those were your birth parents."

He wiped away another tear and nodded. "Jor-El and Lara. Now I know."

Martha's voice reached them, also filled with emotion. "What do you think they were looking so tirelessly for? A new home? Was your world in trouble?"

Clark stared back at the lifeless globe. "I don't know. My father said this would be the first of five messages. Maybe we'll learn what they were looking for."

"How long will it take before there's another message?" Jonathan asked. "Do you think it needs to recharge or something?"

"Possibly." Clark nodded. "I guess there's nothing we can do but wait."

A feeling of frustration overcame him. Now that he'd learned a little about who he was and where he came from, he wanted to know more. How long would it take before he could? Would it be minutes? Hours? Weeks? He hoped it wouldn't be that long. He doubted he could stand the wait. He sighed.

Feeling somebody take his hand, he looked up. Lois was starting to rise from her chair, and while tears lingered in her eyes, she was smiling understandingly at him. "I know how hard it must be for you to wait who-knows-how-long for the next message, but it's not going to do much good to sit here twiddling your thumbs. How about you show me this capsule of yours? Then maybe we can come back in and check the globe to see if it'll work again."

"Yes, that's a good idea," Martha chimed in. "Why don't you two do that? I don't know about your father, but I'm too wound up to go back to sleep. I'll keep an eye on it and tell you if anything changes."

"I'll wait up with you." Jonathan put a hand on Martha's shoulder. "I won't be able to sleep, either."

Martha smiled lovingly at her husband and reached up to pat his hand. "Thanks, honey."

"Then it's settled." Lois tightened her grip on Clark's hand and pulled, urging him out of his chair. "Let's go out to the barn and you can show me your ship."

Once outside, Clark drew in a couple lungfuls of air. "I'd almost forgotten how crisp and clean the air is out here in the fall. It's wonderful, isn't it?" He gave Lois's hand a squeeze.

"It is." They walked in silence for a minute, listening to the sound of crickets and the crunch of the fallen leaves beneath their feet. "It's amazing, the things we heard tonight, isn't it?"

Clark nodded. "I've wanted to know for so long, and finally, in one night, so many pieces to the puzzle are coming together."

They reached the barn, and Clark slid the heavy door open. He took a flashlight from the shelf next to the doorway, turned it on, then led the way to the far back corner of the barn. Once there, he moved several bales of hay, revealing a large set of wooden doors leading to a root cellar.

"I hid the ship down here," he told her quietly, lifting one of the large, heavy doors. "I didn't want to take any chances of it being discovered by anybody ever again."

He handed her the flashlight, then took her hand and led her carefully down the dozen or so wooden steps. When they reached the bottom, Lois looked around. The cellar was bigger than she expected. There were wooden boxes containing potatoes and carrots, and unmarked crates lining the walls. In the far corner to her left, she spotted a large, covered object. In the light from her flashlight, she saw Clark gesture to it.

"Let me show you."

He crossed the cellar in only a few large strides, pulling her along with him. She smiled at his eagerness. It made her feel good that he was so excited to share this piece of his heritage with her. When they reached the ship, Clark released her hand and pulled off the thick canvas cloth.

Lois gasped. It was amazing! It was smaller than she expected, but certainly a good size for transporting a baby. Its metal composition seemed unusual, even to her untrained eye, and the aerodynamic structure fascinated her. The nose of the ship was pointed while the rest of the pod was smooth and round. She spotted the strange lettering Clark mentioned and stepped closer. Just as he had done when he first saw his ship, she traced the symbols reverently with her fingers. The unfamiliar metal felt cool and smooth to her touch.

She shook her head in wonder. It was hard to imagine that this very ship had traveled through galaxies and past worlds as yet undiscovered by the scientists of Earth. She walked all the way around it, taking in the shape and contours with an appreciative eye. Finally, she let her hand rest on the top of the pod where she knew Clark had ridden.

"It's incredible," she whispered, shaking her head in awe. "Your people must have been so much more technologically advanced. I can't believe you traveled through space in this."

"I can't either." He took her hand and led her to the nearby stack of crates and sat down, pulling her onto his lap. For several minutes, they simply stared at the ship in the glow of the flashlight.

Lois settled back against the wall of Clark's chest and pressed her cheek to his. "It feels right, having this back here in Smallville, and it isn't even mine." She smiled. "I can't imagine how elated you must feel."

"I am. I could sit here and stare at it for hours, just thinking about my journey. So many questions come to my mind: Was my father the one who made it, or did he simply program it? Either way, his hands were on this, and so were my mother's. It makes me feel like I'm there with them again, you know? Like I now have some connection to them that I didn't before."

"You do," she replied softly. She reached up to place her hand on his other cheek, cradling his face against hers. "And now that you have the globe, there's even more to find out about them."

They stayed that way for several minutes, enjoying each others' closeness and marveling at the importance of the metal object before them. At long length, Lois felt Clark's head turn and his body stiffened.

She titled her head up so she could look into his face. "Clark? What is it?"

He scrambled to his feet, standing Lois up beside him. "My dad's calling. His voice sounds urgent."

He hurried for the stairs, keeping one hand on the small of Lois's back to guide her safely through the dark and up the stairs. Once the cellar doors were firmly shut and a few bales of hay were again covering the entrance, they jogged out of the barn. They spotted his dad on the porch the same time he spotted them coming from the barn.

"Clark!" his dad called. "Hurry. It's glowing again!"

They ran across the graveled drive together and up the porch steps. Lois was winded by the time they stepped inside the house door. "Next time you do that hundred yard dash on your own," she teased him, working at catching her breath.

"Sorry." Clark smiled sheepishly. "I thought I was running at normal speed."

"Normal speed for who?" She laughed and shook her head. "I'm just teasing. I'm in good enough shape to keep up."

They hurried into the kitchen and found Martha holding the partially-covered, glowing globe. She looked up at their arrival, her eyes shining with excitement. "Do you think this means it's ready for the second message?"

Lois and Clark sat down in their places at the table, and Jonathan returned to his seat. "I don't know," Clark replied. "I guess we'll find out."

He took the globe from her gently, removed the cloth the rest of the way, and touched his fingertips to the smooth surface. He jumped when a ray of light flashed from the globe and projected a hologram, just as it had before to deliver the first message.

His father's voice came through loud and clear, and Clark lost himself in the message.

"This is the second of the five times I will appear. You may wonder that I speak your language and not my native Kryptonian. I don't. That is another property of the object. Unmanned Kryptonian probes have explored every corner of the galaxy and beyond. For thousands of centuries, we have received data back from those probes. I have every confidence that, given enough time, we can achieve the conversion to a manned vessel. But will we have the time?"

Clark's heart rate quickened. His capsule! Now he knew its origin. It had been converted from one of the probes his father spoke of that explored their galaxy.

Before he could think more about that, his attention was drawn back to the images before him. He watched as the lab his father and mother were in started to shake violently. His father's voice sounded more urgent as he finished the message:

"The pattern of core disintegration continues to accelerate. Even I cannot predict where it will end."

With that last ominous explanation, the globe's lights dimmed, and it fell silent once again.

Clark looked up at Lois, his face ashen. "Core disintegration. Something was happening to Krypton. Is that why they sent me away?" His gaze moved to those of his parents'. Their expressions reflected the sadness Clark felt in his heart.

They didn't have long to wait before Clark's questions were answered. About twenty minutes later, the globe began to glow a third time, then shortly after that, a fourth and fifth time. They all listened in sadness as Jor-El's haunting messages and the terrifying images of the demise of a planet and its race seared into their hearts.

"There is no longer any doubt. The chain reaction has begun. As panic spreads, the population awakens, too late, to its fate. Our future is inevitable. At last the computers have located a suitable destination: a planet physically and biologically compatible with Krypton whose inhabitants resemble ours, and whose society is based on ethical standards, which we, too, embrace in concept, if not always in deed. The inhabitants call it simply…Earth.

"We have installed the hyperlight drive and tested it best we can. So much is unknown. Contained within the sphere is the navigational computer that will guide the ship through the maze of hyperspace, as well as this account of our final days."

Clark's heart ached as he watched his father and mother set him—a small infant—in the capsule. He watched as his mother lovingly touched the glass enclosure above his smiling face—a mother struggling to part with her child. He heard a sniffling and turned to see his mother crying openly, tears streaming down her face. In that moment, he realized his mother must feel as much of a connection to his biological mother as he did. She understood the love of a child—him—and could certainly relate to the pain of losing a beloved child.

His father's voice once again broke into his thoughts:

"I try to picture where you are now as you hear this last chapter. What do you look like? Are you alone? What have you become? Lara and I will never know. But that you should live to experience this…that is enough. We are content. We give you to Earth, to a realm called America, and a place called Kansas. Remember us, and do not regret our passing. All is fate."

Then came the images somehow captured by the mysterious sphere of his world exploding around him as his capsule was launched and sent speeding away from his planet. Clark's heart ached as it never had before as he watched its demise—and ultimately the demise of his parents and his race.

The globe finally dimmed and then went dark for the final time that night. Nobody spoke a word, for their emotions made it too hard to speak.

Clark looked up at Lois and his parents. "I wasn't abandoned by my parents. I was saved. They knew Krypton was in trouble and they did everything they could to get me away safely."

Martha had tears in her eyes as she spoke. "But why couldn't they save themselves?"

"I don't know." Clark's voice shook with emotion. "Maybe this globe does. Maybe it will tell me someday."

Martha put her hand on Clark's arm sympathetically just as Jonathan reached across the table to do the same. When Clark turned to look at Lois, he saw tears streaming down her cheeks. The images of his parents'—and his world's—demise had affected her just as deeply as it had him.

She gave him a tremulous smile and leaned over to rest her cheek against his shoulder, comforting them both with their closeness. "Maybe it will," she agreed in a teary whisper. "Maybe it will."

***

The first signs of dawn were appearing on the horizon when Lois and Clark left the farmhouse. His parents had finally gone back to bed for what little time they had left, and all was quiet.

They held hands as they crossed the graveled drive, and Clark slipped into the barn to hide the wrapped globe in the root cellar with his capsule. He returned to Lois's side a minute later.

"Will it be safe there?" Lois asked, crossing her arms in an effort to ward off the early morning chill.

"I think so. I can't think of anywhere safer to hide it." He glanced through the open barn door and noticed the beginnings of dawn hovering along the horizon. Turning back to her, he asked, "You ready to go?"

She nodded, and soon she was in his arms, flying above the landscape as they headed west. It was a solemn, quiet ride, as they were each lost in their own thoughts, the night's events replaying in their minds.

When they finally touched down on Lois's darkened balcony, Lois was relieved. She was tired, chilled, and her head was starting to ache from the amount of information she was trying to process. Clark followed her into her apartment, grateful that, because of the time zone change, it was still the middle of the night here, and they were able to arrive unnoticed.

He noticed Lois shiver as he shut the sliding glass door behind them. A look of concern crossed his face. "Are you cold?"

When she nodded, he walked over and wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled up against him and pressed her face into his chest. With a sigh, he rested his chin on the top of her head. "Thank you for being with me tonight. It meant more to me than you could ever know."

She hugged him tightly. "Thank you for wanting me to be there." After a minute, she pulled back, just enough to look up at him. "So, how are you doing? This has been a pretty emotional night."

Clark smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'm okay."

Lois cocked an eyebrow at him, and with that knowing gesture, his brave facade wavered. "All right, I'm pretty shaken," he finally admitted, the muscle working in his jaw against the surge of emotion. He stepped out of her arms and pushed a hand raggedly through his hair. "I've wanted to know who I was and where I came from all my life, but now that I know… After all the images we've seen tonight…"

His voice broke, and Lois could tell he was struggling to hold back his tears. She reached for one of his hands and tightened her fingers around his. "And now that you know your parents' fate, it's too painful to comprehend."

He nodded, a single tear escaping and trailing down his cheek. He reached up to brush it away. "My parents saved me, Lois. When their world was crumbling down around them, all they could think about was saving me. They lost their lives…"

A sob caught in his throat. Lois took a step toward him and reached for him once again. A moment later, he was clinging to her desperately, his breathing ragged.

"Yes, they did," she murmured. "They obviously loved you very much."

"But why, Lois?" he whispered thickly as the tears he'd tried so desperately to hold back started to stream down his cheeks. "Why couldn't they save themselves?"

"Maybe that wasn't as important to them as saving you." Lois tightened her arms around him. After a minute, she pulled back and looked up at his tear-streaked face. "Every time you go out as Superman, you save people's lives. Do you ever stop to think about what's at stake for you? Every time you go out there as Superman, you're risking your anonymity and exposing yourself to the criminal element. Does that ever cross your mind as you're rushing off to help somebody?"

Clark's breath caught as he understood the point she was making. "No," he whispered. "All I think about is saving that person."

"And that's exactly what your parents did, but they had the added emotion of saving their child. Think how much stronger that desire to protect their own flesh and blood must have been than the desire you have to protect a perfect stranger. I've never been a mom before, but I can see how protective your mom here is of you. Wouldn't you think Jonathan and Martha Kent would do anything—*anything*—to protect their only son…a son who they found in a space capsule in a neighbor's field?"

Clark reached up to wipe the tears from his cheeks and nodded. "They would."

"Just like your birth parents did," she said. "Your safety was obviously the most important thing in their life. And they succeeded. Because of their selfless act of love, you're here, Clark. You're here on Earth making an amazing contribution to the people of this world. I know they would be so proud of what you've become."

Another sob escaped Clark's throat, and he stepped back into her arms, holding her so tightly it made it hard to breathe. "Thank you, Lois," he murmured emotionally. "Thank you."

Lois felt tears on her own cheeks as they stood there holding each other. When he finally released her, she drew in a lungful of air and smiled at Clark's sheepish look. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. And so will you," she emphasized, putting a hand on his arm. Her expression became sympathetic once again. "The best thing you can do right now, Clark, is to let yourself grieve. You've wondered about your parents all your life, and now you know a little about them and their fate. It's only natural to want to grieve. Let yourself go through that process. It will give you closure."

Clark's teary gaze met Lois's solemn one. "Is that what you did? Did you let yourself grieve for your parents?"

Lois stiffened. "I—I'd rather not make this about what happened with me, Clark, okay? The point I was trying to make is, you need to let yourself grieve. Can you do that so you can have that closure and move on with your life, knowing that *your* life is the one they wanted to save?"

After a long minute, Clark finally nodded. "I think I can."

"Good." After a pause, Lois looked around the room and spotted the clock. She sighed. "There's still a chance we can catch a few hours of sleep before work tomorrow. I guess I should turn in, and you should, too."

"I guess we should," Clark said, sounding as reluctant as she felt.

Neither of them moved, and an awkwardness settled in around them. Finally, Lois took a step toward Clark, closing the distance between them. Standing on tiptoe, she touched her lips lightly to his. He hesitated at first, but then slid his arms around her waist and kissed her back deeply, his lips moving over hers in a desperation she'd never felt from him before. She sensed a longing in him that had never been there before, and it puzzled her.

When they pulled apart at last, he averted his gaze. "Well, um…I guess I should be going."

"Yeah, I guess you should," she replied, a myriad of emotions surging through her. She put a hand lightly on his arm, concern for him evident on her face. "Goodnight, Clark. Get a good night's sleep, okay? It looks like you really need it. And I promise…everything will feel better in the morning."

He nodded, but his eyes never left the ground. "You get some sleep, too. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Okay."

There was another awkward moment when neither of them moved. At last Clark turned and walked to the sliding glass door. When he reached it, he lifted his hand to the handle…then paused.

With his back still to her, he spoke, his voice hesitant. "Lois?"

"Yeah?" she answered quietly, her expression puzzled.

After a long minute, he turned back to face her, his gaze finally flickering up to hers. She caught the pain and anguish clearly written there, and her heart lurched.

"Maybe this is too forward of me to ask, but do you think…?" He faltered, then drew a deep breath to steady himself and tried again. "I mean, after the night we've just had, and all the emotions I'm struggling with, I hate the idea of going back to my apartment and being alone. Would it be okay if…?"

"You slept here tonight?" Lois finished for him. When he nodded, she walked over and took his hand, giving it a sympathetic squeeze. "I would love it if you would."

A look of relief washed over Clark's face. But then uncertainty took its place and he started to stammer. "Lois, if you don't think it's a good idea, I'd understand. I wouldn't want to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable, or put you in an awkward position—"

"Clark." She silenced him with a gentle kiss. "Stay. I want you to."

His tense muscles relaxed and he closed his eyes with relief. Drawing her to him, he pressed a kiss into her hair. "Thank you," he whispered.

Lois hugged him back and felt him relax against her, his exhaustion evident in his response. "Come on," she told him gently, stepping back and taking his hand. "Let's get some sleep."

He let her lead him across the kitchen, but when they turned toward the bedroom instead of the living room, Clark hesitated. "Lois, I'm not kicking you out of your bed. I can sleep on the couch."

"Clark, I'm not leaving you alone tonight." She glanced back at the darkened living room, then up at him. "Sleep with me. After everything you've just been through and discovered about your past, about your parents, about your arrival here, you need somebody to hold you. I'd love nothing more than to do that."

"But Lois…" He paused. "Sleeping together… Are we…ready for that?"

Lois smiled and gave his hand a squeeze. "Clark, we'll be *sleeping* together. Nothing more. Besides, I don't think either one of us could even manage the physical activity you're implying. We're both dead on our feet. It's been a long, emotional night, and more than anything, we could both really use the comfort of being in each others' arms."

Their gazes met and held, and finally Clark nodded. "I'd like that."

"Good." Lois smiled softly. With that settled, she relaxed her grip on his hand and led him the rest of the way down the hall and into her bedroom.

As Clark stood looking awkwardly around her room, Lois went to her dresser and pulled the large T-shirt and boxer shorts he'd worn once before out of her bottom drawer. She handed them to him.

"Feel free to shower if you'd like." She gestured to the master bathroom behind her. "Maybe the hot water would help you relax."

He hesitated, but she could see him wavering. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"

Lois smiled and rolled her eyes, moving back to the dresser to pull her own sleep clothes from her drawer. "Clark. If you want one, take one. I'll change out here while you do."

He nodded. "Okay, then maybe I will." He took a couple of steps toward the bathroom, then turned back, his gaze lingering on hers. Unexpectedly, he changed direction and came back to her with large, determined strides. When he reached her, he pulled her into his arms and pressed a long, loving kiss to her lips.

Lois was breathless when they pulled apart. "Wow," she murmured, her eyelids flickering open to see his eyes smiling down into hers. "What was that for?"

"For loving me so much." He reached up to trail his fingertips along her cheek. "For loving me as much as I love you."

Her heart melted. "Oh, Clark." She stood on tiptoes to give him one more kiss. "I do love you, and I feel so lucky to have you in my life. You are an amazing man."

Their gazes held for a long moment. Then Lois smiled and gave him a shove. "Now go shower and change. And no super speed, or else you'll come back in here too soon and I won't be done changing."

"Got it." He grinned and nodded.

After he went into the bathroom and shut the door, Lois changed out of her clothes and into conservative sleepwear—a pair of printed flannel lounge pants and a sleep tank-top. She found herself listening to the sound of the shower running as she crossed the room to her closet. Just knowing there was a man in her shower— not just any man, but the man she loved—made her feel giddy inside. She pulled down an extra pillow from her closet shelf and sat it on the bed.

Just then she heard the shower turn off. She felt a flutter in her stomach at the prospect of Clark finishing, and she tried to distract herself by moving the various throw pillows on her bed to the floor, and turning down the blankets. Moments later, she heard the doorknob turn. The door opened a crack, and she heard Clark's voice.

"Lois? Are you decent?"

She grinned. Always the gentleman. "Yeah, Clark, come on in."

The door opened the rest of the way, and he stepped into the room. When he spotted her trying to turn down the blankets, he hurried over to the other side of the bed. "Here, let me help."

He followed her lead and tossed the remaining decorative pillows on the floor, then helped her with the blankets. When the task was done, he looked up at her. A slow smile played across his lips as he looked her up and down.

"What?" Lois asked self-consciously, glancing down at her sleepwear. She'd thought she dressed conservatively enough, but maybe she was missing something.

"Nothing," Clark quickly amended, that same smile still tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You just look…"

She put her hands on her hips and shot him a look, daring him to criticize. "What?" she demanded.

"…incredible," he finished huskily.

Lois felt her body relax. The appreciative look in his eyes chased away any doubts to his words' truthfulness. This time, when she glanced back down at her apparel, she blushed. "Thanks," she murmured, suddenly feel nervous.

Avoiding his gaze, she made an awkward gesture at the bed. "Um…how do you want to work this? Do you have a side preference?" Her sudden attack of nerves kept her mouth moving, and she started to babble. "I mean, I don't really prefer one side over the other, though I do usually sleep on this side, but only because I have my alarm clock on this nightstand. But if you prefer to sleep on this side, the other side's okay with me. I just wanted to make sure—"

"Lois." Before she even realized it, Clark was beside her, taking her hands in his. His voice halted her nervous babbling, and she looked up to meet his anxious gaze. When their eyes met, he continued gently. "If this makes you nervous, I'd be just fine out on the couch. When I asked to stay here, I didn't expect you to…you know…share your bed with me."

The tense muscles in her face relaxed and her gaze softened. "No, Clark, I want you to. I'm sorry. Just ignore me. You know how I am; I just babble incessantly until I embarrass myself. Like now." She cringed as she turned away, blushing, then climbed into bed, quickly pulling the covers up over herself.

Clark smiled. She may have been embarrassed at her babbling, but he secretly loved it. It was just one of the many little quirks about her he'd grown to love. Watching her settle her head onto her pillow, he walked over and switched off the light. The bedroom was suddenly drenched in darkness, illuminated only by a stream of moonlight filtering in through the filmy curtains covering the windows.

He padded across the carpeted floor to the other side of the bed and hesitated only a moment before pulling back the covers and slipping beneath them. He let his head fall onto the pillow and stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he turned to glance at Lois. Her gaze met his and he smiled. "Hi."

That seemed to break the ice. Lois smiled and scooted over, snuggling into his side and resting her head on his shoulder as he put his arm around her. Clark breathed a contented sigh as he tightened his arm around her, drawing her closer still.

"This is nice," she murmured into the darkness. She felt her eyelids droop, her eyes feeling gritty behind them because of her aching tiredness.

"Mmm-hmmm," Clark replied, pressing a feather-light kiss onto her forehead.

It was quiet for several minutes as they let the events of the night wash over them and fill their minds. Lois had almost drifted off to sleep when she heard Clark speak, his voice soft, yet solemn. "Lois?"

She roused herself slightly from her sleepy state. "Yeah?"

"About what you said earlier. Do you think my parents really would be?"

"Would be what?"

Another pause. When his voice finally came once again through the darkness, it was thick with emotion. "Proud of me."

Lois's heart lurched at the haunting pain she heard there. She tilted her head up to look at him, and for the first time since they climbed into bed, she noticed there were tears on his cheeks.

"Oh, Clark, of course they would be," she reassured him softly. "Just as your parents here have told you many times, you've given them a lot of reasons to be proud. You've taken this gift of yours and have done something truly amazing with it. You help people all over the world and give them hope. There isn't a more wonderful gift you could give to humanity."

Reaching up to wipe away his tears with her fingertips, she nodded, her eyes shining with tears of her own. "Yes," she told him, her voice filled with emotion. "Your parents would be very proud if they were here to see you today."

A grateful sob escaped his throat, and his tears started to come in earnest. Lois rolled over to face him and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him close. He nestled his face in the hollow of her neck and cried, letting the grieving process begin. He cried for a long time—for the loss of his parents, for the loss of his world…but most of all, he cried with relief that he finally knew.

Lois rode the wave of tears, stroking his hair back from his face in a gesture of love and comfort until he finally fell asleep in her arms, both physically and emotionally exhausted. Only then did she shift her position, rolling onto her side away from him and spooning back against him. His arm automatically went around her waist, and she sighed contentedly, drawing her own comfort from his sleeping form pressed up against her.

Only then did she let sleep come.

***

Lois stirred. Her eyelids felt heavy, and she struggled to open them. Even as she tried, she noticed that something seemed different. She started to roll over…then realized what that something was.

She wasn't in bed alone.

All at once the night before came rushing back to her. Smallville. The globe. Clark staying over.

Her eyes opened a little easier and she noticed the room was still dark, though the beginnings of dawn were evident outside her window. She had time. The day was not yet upon her.

Resting her arm along the masculine one that was draped across her waist, she spooned back against Clark's solid form and let her legs tangle with his. She breathed a contented sigh. Waking up next to Clark was definitely something she could get used to.

Just then she felt Clark stir, and she rolled over slightly. When she did, she was surprised to see two beautiful brown eyes staring back into hers.

Clark's arm tightened around her and he smiled sleepily. "Good morning."

"Morning." She smiled back at him and rolled over the rest of the way. Her movement put their faces only inches apart, and Lois felt a funny flutter in her stomach at the feeling of intimacy that came from being so close to him in her bed. The flutter increased when Clark's face moved imperceptibly closer to hers until their lips met his in a delicious, lingering kiss that made her tingle clear down to her toes.

When their kiss ended, Lois settled back onto her pillow and took a minute to study his face. She decided he looked better than he had the night before. "How are you feeling?"

"Better." He paused, then ducked his head and fingered a loose thread on the blanket covering them. "Thank you for last night," he said quietly. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there. I'm a little embarrassed that I broke down like that…"

"You have nothing to be embarrassed about," Lois assured him. "You had a traumatic night, and you needed to grieve to give yourself closure. It's a process. One that's not fun, but one that you have to go through."

His eyes flickered back up to hers, and she saw that her words had driven the embarrassment from them. Instead, the look in his eyes was replaced by a look of adoration. He lifted a hand to her face and lovingly brushed back a strand of her tousled hair.

"I love you, Lois," he said quietly, his fingers lingering on her face. "I don't know how I've made it this far in life without you."

Tears filled her eyes as his words entwined their way around her heart. "I love you, too, Clark," she said, her voice an emotional whisper. "I don't know how I've made it without you, either. You're the man I never thought I'd find."

With a tender smile, Clark leaned toward her and his lips found hers once again. Their sweet, gentle kiss soon deepened, and Lois felt light-headed as it became more passionate.

Clark's arm left her face and went around her waist, his fingers kneading at the small of her back. Feeling intoxicated by his touch, Lois shifted onto her back and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him with her. Their lips briefly lost contact as Clark propped himself up on his elbow and reached across her with his other arm, placing it on the bed near her shoulder to support his weight. Then his lips met hers again as he leaned across her, their kisses growing even more passionate.

Lois moaned softly into his mouth as unfamiliar sensations of longing coursed through her body. Following her impulse, she slipped her arms from his neck and trailed them along his sides to his waist. He groaned at her touch, and she found herself spurred on by the guttural noise of pleasure. Her hands lingered at his waist only another moment before she took a fistful of T-shirt there and pulled, urging him on top of her.

He responded without hesitation, moving on top her and letting his fingers tangle in her hair. Lois gasped for breath as his lips left hers and began moving down her neck and to the base of her throat. The fiery hot kisses he pressed to the sensitive skin near the hollow of her throat weakened her resolve even further. Her hands worked at his waist once again, this time fumbling with the hem of his shirt. She slid her hands beneath the fabric to rest them on the bare skin at the small of his back.

Moaning again at her touch, Clark lifted his head from her throat and looked down at Lois, noting that her eyes were as clouded with passion as he was sure his own were. He studied her expression, looking for any sign of hesitation, for any indication that she didn't want this as badly as he did. When he saw none, he lowered his face to hers once again.

Following his instincts, his hand found the skin beneath her tank top and he started tracing his knuckles along her side and stomach. She flinched beneath his fingers, and he smiled as he realized she was ticklish. Moving on, he trailed his fingers lower until they slipped beneath her waistband.

Her sharp intake of breath stopped his explorations. He lifted his head and looked at her with concerned. "Lois?" he asked breathlessly, noticing he wasn't the only one struggling to control his breathing. "Is this too much? Should we stop?"

She shook her head and reached up to cup his cheek in her hand. "No, Clark. I want this as much as you do."

They stared into each others' eyes for several long moments. Then Lois reached for the hem of his shirt, and Clark sat up slightly, allowing her to pull it off his back. She tossed it aside and trailed her fingers lightly down his sides, making his heart pound.

"Are you sure about this?" he asked, stroking her hair back from her face.

She nodded and smiled softly. "I'm sure."

When she reached for the hem of her own shirt, they both knew there was no going back.

***

The passion of their lovemaking finally spent, Lois and Clark were at last lulled into a deep sleep, circled in the comfort of each others' arms.

Neither of them stirred until hours later, when Lois awoke to the sounds of birds chirping outside her window, and sunlight streaming in through the curtains.

Sunlight!

Lois gasped and bolted upright. She turned to look at the alarm clock on her nightstand, her movements rousing Clark from his sleep. She barely noticed as he propped himself up on one elbow in concern as she studied the numbers on the clock. The numbers told her it was after nine. A groan escaped her throat.

"I am so late! Jim is going to be furious. And so is Perry! You're even later than I am! It's almost lunchtime in Metropolis!" She started to get up, but Clark's arm snaked around her waist, pulling her back up against him.

She gasped in surprise. "Clark, what are you doing? We're late!"

He chuckled as he wrapped his arms around her and pressed a kiss to her bare shoulder, then to her neck. "Mmm," he murmured, ignoring the puzzled look on her face. "For the first time in my life, I don't care how late I am. I just spent an amazing morning in bed with the most beautiful woman in the world. I'm going to be selfish for once and enjoy the moment."

Lois smiled and relaxed against him. She turned in his arms and then leaned into him to return his kiss. "Well, when you put it *that* way…"

Their kiss deepened, and soon Lois found herself lying on top of him. For what seemed like an eternity, she continued to stare down at the beautiful man in bed with her. Her love for him nearly burst through her chest as she thought about what they had shared that morning.

When Clark lifted a hand to tangle his fingers in the curtain of hair hanging down around her shoulders, she sighed contentedly. "Oh, Clark," she breathed, dropping her head to his shoulder. "I could stay here like this for the rest of my life."

He slid his arms around her bare waist and hugged her tightly. "I could, too. This was even more wonderful than I'd dreamed it would be."

Touched by his admission, Lois lifted her head from his shoulder and looked at him searchingly. "Really? It was?" When he nodded, a soft smile touched her lips. "You've really dreamed about making love with me?"

"Many times," he admitted in a quiet, vulnerable voice. "I hoped it would happen one day, but I didn't know for sure. I mean, we've been through so much, and I could feel our bond growing stronger each day…but I didn't know how you felt about taking this next step."

Lois's smile broadened into a grin. "Well, I guess this morning answers that question. And just so you know," her voice softened, "I've thought about it, too."

Clark's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "You have?"

Looking sheepish at the admission, she nodded. "On more than one occasion, actually."

"Really?" Clark echoed her exclamation of surprise of moments before. His expression told her he was flattered by her admission. "You thought about making love to me, too?"

"Of course." A slow blush started to creep across her cheeks, and she ducked her head to hide it. "Besides," she continued, a mischievous, teasing tone slipping into her voice, "what woman doesn't dream about it after seeing you in that skin tight Suit?"

Clark's deep laughter filled the room. He pulled her head down to his and pressed a loving, passionate kiss to his lips.

"Well, you don't have to worry," he told her with a broad smile when their kiss ended. "All those women will just have to keep on dreaming. I've only ever been with one woman, and if I'm lucky enough to hold onto her, she'll be the only woman I'll keep sharing myself with for the rest of my life."

He smoothed a strand of hair away from her face, but his smile faded when he saw the look of shock on Lois's face. His brow furrowed in concern. "What? What's wrong?"

Lois propped herself up on one arm and stared down at him, stunned. "I'm the only woman you've ever…made love with? Before this morning, you were a…?" Her voice trailed off, and she was unable to finish the last word.

Clark closed his eyes and let out a soft groan. How had that come out? It hadn't been something he'd planned to just blurt out. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes to find Lois still watching him intently.

"Okay, no, I've never been with anyone before," he admitted sheepishly. "But you have to understand that I didn't want to be. There was too much at stake. What happened if that person woke up beside me and found me floating in my sleep—which, yes, is something I've been known to do from time to time," he admitted. Much to his chagrin, she grinned at that little piece of information, the corners of her eyes crinkling in amusement. He rolled his eyes. "You can tease me about that later. But my point is, I've waited because I wanted my first time to be with somebody special…somebody I could spend the rest of my life with."

A warm feeling started in Lois's heart and worked its way out from there. Blinking back tears, she asked, "Clark, do you really mean that? You feel like I'm the person you want to spend the rest of your life with?"

He nodded, and Lois leaned down to kiss him once more. "I love you," she murmured against his lips.

Knowing that one more hurdle had been cleared, he breathed a sigh of relief and kissed her back. "I love you, too, Lois."

They enjoyed the comforting circle of each others' arms for several more minutes until Lois groaned reluctantly and sat up. "As much as I hate to say this, we really should get going. I might be able to fudge and tell Jim I've been out working on leads, but I don't know what you're going to tell Perry."

Clark slid out of bed with Lois and squeezed her fingers. "Don't worry. I can get by with telling Perry the same thing. It'll be okay this once."

Lois laughed. "You're breaking all kinds of rules and justifying it lately."

"Well, I'm learning from the master." He grinned and ducked away as Lois made a move to smack his arm.

For the next twenty minutes, they hurried to get ready—Lois for work, and for Clark to head back to Metropolis. They showered, then laughingly battled over the sink and counter space. When they were finally ready, Lois retrieved her briefcase from the coffee table and made sure she had everything she needed. Clark followed her reluctantly across the living room, his long cape flowing out behind him.

"I wish I could fly you to work to get you there faster, but I don't want people to start associating you with Superman, and put you in more danger than you already put yourself in."

She saw the mischievous glint in his eyes and knew he was teasing her. "Yeah, well, I promised I would work on that, and I will," she told him with a sheepish smile. "I'll be fine getting to work, though. Now that it's late, the traffic won't be too unmanageable."

"Good." He nodded. There was a comfortable silence, one which Clark finally broke when he closed the distance between them and reached for her hands, entwining his fingers with hers. "Thank you for last night in Smallville, Lois. And for this morning." He smiled softly, making Lois's heart skip a beat.

She moved even closer, pressing herself against his front and tipping her face up to his. "The pleasure was all mine."

Their lips met in a sweet, lingering kiss that Lois wished could last forever. They pulled apart reluctantly, and Lois took a step toward the front door while Clark moved toward the balcony.

"I'll call you later?" He voiced it as a question, and she nodded.

"I may stay at work a little later this evening to make up for being late, but I'll be coming straight home," she told him.

He smiled. "Great. I'll talk to you then."

She nodded, then watched as he opened the sliding glass and closed it behind him, then rocketed into the mid-morning sky.

***

Lois found it hard to concentrate on work that afternoon. Jim had bought her story about getting in to work late because she'd been out chasing leads, but she still felt guilty about lying to him. In order to absolve her guilt, she worked hard on the story he'd requested by deadline, even though it was proving to be a formidable challenge. She simply couldn't concentrate.

With a sigh, she glanced over at the phone on her desk. More than ever she felt the urge to hear Clark's voice. She wanted to hear how he'd fared with his excuse to Perry regarding his late arrival, but most of all, she just wanted to talk to him and hear how he was doing.

He'd seemed fine when he'd left her apartment that morning, his grief of the previous night at least momentarily quelled. But he had proven to her on more than one occasion that he tended to bottle up his emotions and his concerns, worrying about imposing on others rather than shedding his doubts. And the information they'd gleaned from the globe was definitely worthy of some deep pondering. She only hoped he would turn to her if he was feeling troubled and wanted to talk about the things he'd learned about his parents and his heritage.

A small smile touched her lips as she thought about how he'd obtained the globe. More than anything, she felt like saying, "I told you so." Breaking into that warehouse was the best thing he could have ever done. The globe, his capsule, and the files he'd discovered made her certain of that.

Her smile faded.

The meteorites.

With all the excitement over his other two discoveries, she'd almost forgotten about the information he'd found in the files in the warehouse. On the phone before he'd come to pick her up to take her to Smallville, Clark had said something about some reports he'd found in the Bureau 39 file cabinets regarding the meteorites found at his crash site. He'd also said their findings had shaken him. He'd promised to let her read them, but with all the excitement with the globe, she'd forgotten all about them. Apparently, so had he.

Flooded with a sudden urge to learn more about these reports, she picked up her phone and dialed. There was no way she was going to be able to concentrate on her story now, anyway; not with thoughts of Clark and the meteorites running through her mind.

When there was no answer at Clark's work phone, she hung up and tried his cellular. He answered on the second ring. "Clark Kent."

The sound of his deep, familiar voice sent a chill of pleasure through her. She opened her mouth to speak…then froze. Just seconds before she'd been excited at the prospect of talking to him, but now that his husky, rich voice came across the line, a whole new sensation sent her stomach fluttering. It was a feeling she'd never expected to have when talking to Clark.

She was nervous.

After everything they had shared that morning, an intimacy that let nothing be held back, she felt nervous. She tried to remind herself that this was still simply Clark, the man she'd grown to love over the past several months, but she still felt anxious and exposed.

She swallowed to steady her nerves and tried to sound casual as she responded. "Hi, Clark, it's me."

"Lois!" His voice shed no doubt as to how happy he was to hear from her. "I'm glad you called."

"You are?" The nervous fluttering in her stomach increased. She put a hand to her stomach and applied some pressure, hoping to regain some control over her unjustified nerves. "I was sitting here working on something—okay, not working on something; I can't seem to focus on work right now, but don't tell Jim that because he's expecting this story by deadline—and I suddenly remembered something you said last night, and I just had to call and ask you about it."

Clark chuckled. "I love it when you call and babble at me."

Lois groaned inwardly and dropped her forehead into her hand. He was right. She *was* babbling. "Sorry," she told him sheepishly. "I know. I babble when 'm nervous. And after this morning…well, I guess I kind of feel nervous talking to you."

"What? Why?" Clark's response was immediate. "Why should you feel nervous talking to me?"

She let out a long breath and glanced around to make sure no one was listening. No one was, but she lowered her voice anyway. "I don't know. I know it's silly, but…well…" She sighed. "I guess you could just chalk it up to the morning-after jitters, I suppose. Though I know it's not technically the morning-*after* jitters, since we didn't actually have…well, you know…until this morning…"

She stopped abruptly when she realized she was babbling again and digging herself into an even deeper pit of embarrassment. She felt a blush spread across her cheeks, and for once she was glad Clark wasn't there, so he couldn't see her face. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Never mind," she said on a low groan. "This is going badly. I'm hanging up now."

"Lois, wait!" Clark's urgent voice came across the line before she could decide if she really wanted to hang up or not. "Don't hang up."

There was a pause, and Lois seriously considered hanging up in spite of his plea in order to save herself further embarrassment. But the hand clutching the phone to her ear never moved.

After a moment, Clark asked, his voice anxious, "Lois, are you still there?"

"Yeah," she muttered, her cheeks still burning from embarrassment.

She heard his sigh of relief. "Good." Then his voice lowered to a husky whisper. "Lois, I don't want you to feel nervous talking to me. This morning was amazing, and I love you more today than I ever have. But nothing's really changed between us. I'm still me, and you're still you. We're still us. Only better."

Her embarrassment faded, and a shy smile slipped onto her face. "Thanks, Clark," she said quietly. "You have no idea how much better you just made me feel."

"Good, I'm glad. And you're welcome."

A comfortable silence fell upon them, and Lois could feel the electricity between them even from three thousand miles away. Finally, Clark broke the silence.

"You said you remembered something you wanted to ask me?"

Clark's question jarred Lois's memory and she sat up straighter at her desk. "Oh, yeah. When you called me last night, you mentioned the reports you'd found about the meteorites at the crash site."

"Oh my gosh, I completely forgot!" Clark exclaimed. "The papers are still with the other things. I'll see if I can retrieve them tonight and get them to you." His voice grew low and solemn. "I have to admit, the stuff in there was a little disturbing."

Lois caught the hint of anxiety in Clark's voice. "What did they say?" she asked with a frown.

"There's so much I don't know that I could go into it all over the phone," he admitted with a sigh. "Besides, I'm outside of the courthouse right now waiting for a press conference to start. I'd start explaining and then have to go in a minute."

"I understand." Lois leaned back in her chair and stretched her legs out in front of her. "What about the other stuff you looked at in the warehouse? You mentioned something about making some copies of some companies who'd made research donations to Bureau 39. We know Luthor made a rather sizeable contribution to them. Why didn't he show up on the list? And what exactly is he after?"

"I don't know, but there's got to be something," he agreed. "I only glanced down through the names, so maybe we'll turn up something when we give the list a closer look."

"I hope it's a link to Bureau 39, Mesopotamia, Inc., *and* Lex Luthor," she said with determination. "There has to be a connection. We are *so* close, Clark. I can taste it. Luthor has got to be behind Mesopotamia, Inc., and I think this connection to Jason Trask and Bureau 39 might be the key."

"I think you're right. Jimmy's still doing some digging for me on Bureau 39 and Jason Trask, but I think I've already exhausted our research avenues. You never know, though, I guess."

"True." Lois nodded. Just then she felt something crash into the back of her chair. Startled, she whirled around to see the janitor trying to maneuver the supplies cart behind her in the aisle.

"Hey, watch it!" she exclaimed.

"Sorry, ma'am."

Lois frowned as she watched the tall, burly janitor move on past. Clark's voice came across the line, bringing her attention back to him.

"Lois? Are you there?"

"Yeah, sorry. I was almost taken out by the janitor's cart, that's all."

Suddenly, Lois heard a commotion from Clark's end of the line. "Lois, I've got to go." Clark sounded apologetic. "The mayor just arrived and the press conference is going to start."

"Okay. Let me know if Jimmy turns up anything new about Trask or Bureau 39 or Luthor's connection to all of this before we find time to get together."

"You got it," Clark said, then said a quick goodbye.

Lois sighed as she hung up the phone. Well, at least they weren't spinning their wheels anymore. Thanks to Clark's snooping around in the warehouse, they would hopefully have some new leads to follow. And hopefully some of those would lead to Lex Luthor and Mesopotamia, Inc.

With renewed hope and a clearer mind, Lois scooted back up to her desk and turned her attention back to the story in front of her. There were only a few hours left until deadline, and she didn't want to get back in Jim's doghouse.

***

Smith gripped the janitorial cart's handle a little tighter and stopped near the service elevators. Lois Lane's conversation had been interesting, to say the least. He'd only caught snippets of it, but he knew those little snippets were not going to please his boss.

Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, he punched in a number, then looked around to make sure nobody was listening as the call connected.

A familiar voice answered. "Yeah. What do you have?"

"Apparently, Ms. Lane's asking a lot of questions about Luthor, Trask, and Bureau 39," Smith said in hushed tones, "and she seems to know something about the donations being made to the group."

"How did you learn this? Have you managed to tap her phone lines yet?"

He shook his head. "We've run into a problem with that. We can't put a tap on her line here at work because there are always so many people around. And every time we've tried to get into her apartment to tap her home line, her nosy neighbor comes rushing out of her apartment to see who's in the hall. That old lady seems to live to find out about each and every person who passes by her door. That's not helping us get into Lane's apartment to get the job done."

"Be creative and get it done," the voice growled impatiently. "Make her home line your top priority. Our people inside the Chronicle can at least keep an eye on her while she's at work, but we need to be able to monitor her phone conversations at home. Luthor says she's a workaholic, so she's likely doing a lot of research from there. In the meantime, do you know if she has any evidence that Luthor's involved?"

"It doesn't sound like it. She's still researching."

There was silence for a moment. Then came the response, "Warn her. Memorably. Tell her to back off…or else."

"You got it." Smith clicked the phone shut, then tucked it back into his pocket.

He glanced at his watch. All he had to do now was bide his time and wait for his opportunity.

***

Lois realized how right she'd been when she'd told Clark that morning she might end up staying late to make up for her late morning arrival. It was almost seven when she finally shut down her computer and gathered up her things.

Feeling a renewed determination to find out everything she could about Clark's meteorites, UFO sightings, Project Bluebook's members, as well as Trask and his Bureau 39, she had printed every piece of research she could find and downloaded the things too long to print onto discs. She managed to fit some of the research into her attache, but her arms were still loaded with paperwork as she boarded the elevator and used her elbow to punch the button for the parking garage.

Not surprising considering the hour, she rode the elevator alone and stepped out into the near vacant underground parking garage. The couple dozen cars that remained belonged to the night shift employees, but the garage was definitely quiet compared to the morning and daytime bustle of the comings and goings of staff.

She headed for row "C" where she always parked, but she'd only gone a few steps when a noise somewhere off to her left startled her. She jumped, nearly dropping the stack of papers balanced in her arms. With practiced eyes, she took in her surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

Nothing.

She strained to listen for any unusual sounds that would alert her to possible danger. Still there was nothing.

Smiling and shaking her head at her paranoia, she moved on. But a few steps later, a familiar chill went down her spine. The sensation was undeniable. Somebody was watching her.

Turning her head to look behind her, she still didn't see anybody, but she quickened her step anyway. She had just barreled around the corner of the garage to reach the "C" aisle when she crashed into somebody. She let out a startled cry, and papers flew everywhere. Her instincts readied her to run, but when she looked up, her tense muscles relaxed. She was looking into the surprised and puzzled face of Jim Langley.

"Chief," she breathed on a sigh of relief. Then she looked down at the mess of papers around her and groaned. "I'm sorry," she murmured as she bent down to pick them up. "I didn't mean to crash into you like that. Anyway, I thought you'd left a long time ago."

"I did, but I got partway home before I realized I'd left some paperwork here that I needed to go over tonight. Where were you going in such a hurry?" He joined her in a squat and began to help her gather her papers, chuckling at the immense amount of research he was collecting from the floor of the garage. "What in the world are you working on? There's enough research here to keep you busy at home for a month."

"I know. It's something I believe is linked to that Mesopotamia, Inc. investigation I'm working on."

Jim nodded gruffly as they finished collected the papers, and he handed her his stack. "Having any luck with that?"

"A little. I'm still working on the connections and a few other things."

"I see."

They stood up, and Jim reached for her attache as she struggled to get it back on her shoulder without upsetting the papers in her arms. "Here, let me help you to your car with all this."

"Thanks," Lois breathed gratefully. They walked the short distance to where her BMW was parked. She set everything on the passenger seat, then smiled her thanks at her editor. "I appreciate your help."

"No problem." He smiled, his dark skin crinkling around his eyes. Then he grew more serious and shook a finger at her. "But just don't let this research overtake the other stories you're currently working on for me, you hear? I expect some great page- one news from my star reporter this week."

She smiled. "Got it, Chief."

He nodded at her, then turned toward the elevator. "'Night, Lois. See you back here in the morning."

"'Night, Chief."

When he disappeared around the corner, Lois breathed a sigh of relief and got into her car. The eerie feeling of being watched before was now gone, but still she found herself peering in the rearview mirror as she drove out of the parking garage.

Somebody had been watching her. She was sure of it. She'd been in this business long enough to recognize the feeling and to respect it. But why would somebody have been watching her?

She shivered. Maybe Clark was right. Maybe she was going to have to start being more careful.

Lois was relieved when she finally stepped into her apartment that evening. She locked the door behind her, then glanced around. Everything was as she had left it that morning.

She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and smiled sheepishly. Of course everything was as she'd left it. Why wouldn't it be?

Shaking her head, she set her attache down on the couch and the stack of papers on her coffee table. She'd just flipped on the light switch in the kitchen when the loud screeching of the building's fire alarm made her jump. She glanced around. There was no sign of smoke in her apartment, so she hurried to the front door and felt for warmth. Nothing felt out of the ordinary, so she cautiously opened the door.

A couple of her neighbors were talking anxiously as they hurried past her door to the stairwell at the far end of the hall as per building protocol.

"What's going on?" she called to one of them.

"We have no idea." The middle-aged woman passing by with her husband shrugged, but the casual gesture didn't belay the worry in their eyes.

They kept walking, but the man muttered, "I sure hope the building isn't really on fire."

Lois's eyes widened. She looked up and down the hall, but she still didn't see any sign of smoke. She decided to air on the side of caution, however, and follow evacuation procedures by heading down to the ground floor.

She was just about to knock on Agnes's door to see if she might still be in her apartment when her neighbor's door opened. Agnes's eyes were wide with apprehension, and she clutched Princess tightly in her arms.

"Is that really the fire alarm?" she asked.

Lois nodded. "Yes, but nobody knows if there's really a fire. It's best to play it safe, though, and head outside. Come on. I'll help you down the stairs. I'm not sure the elevator's safe."

With great care, she helped her elderly neighbor down the flights of stairs to the lobby while Agnes concentrated on keeping Princess from squirming out of her arms. Once there, they joined the rest of the building's tenants as they filed out of the building. A large crowd was congregating on the sidewalk under the streetlights and on the small lawn area in front of the building, grateful for the feeling of security the lights gave them in the darkness. Lois steered Agnes with her little dog toward them and merged with the crowd.

In the distance, a fire engine's siren wailed, signaling its approach. She waited anxiously with the crowd for its arrival. The siren grew louder, and it took Lois several moments to realize her cell phone was ringing. She fumbled for it in her slacks pocket, now glad she hadn't had the time to take it out and set it in the charger when she'd arrived home.

She flipped the phone open and pressed it to her ear. "Hello?" she spoke loudly, covering her other ear with the palm of her hand to block out the sound of the siren.

"Lois," Clark's voice came across the line. "I thought I might reach you on your cell. I tried to call your apartment a couple of times, but you weren't there." His voice trailed off for a moment. "Where are you? I hear sirens."

She sighed and glanced around at the chaos. "I'm standing outside my apartment building. The fire alarms went off. We've just been evacuated, and the fire department's on its way."

She turned to see the first red fire engine screech to a halt a short distance from her the same time she heard a click on the phone line. "Clark?" she asked, turning her attention back to her phone conversation and straining to hear his voice on the line. "Clark, are you there?"

Deciding she'd either lost the connection or simply couldn't hear him over the din, she snapped the phone shut and slipped it back into her pocket. She looked over at the fire crew hurrying down from the fire truck, then turned to Agnes. "I'm going to go talk to the fire chief."

"Shouldn't you just stay out of their way?" Agnes called after her as she started heading for the fire personnel.

Lois shook her head and called back over her shoulder, "You don't get where I am in my business by staying out of people's way."

She strode over to the tall, stocky man standing near the front of the fire engine who was barking out directions. He glanced at her as she stopped beside him.

"I'm Lois Lane from the San Francisco Chronicle," she said in a business-like voice. "I also live in this building. Can you tell me what's going on? Is there really a fire?"

"At this point, we don't know." The fire chief turned to call out a few more instructions at the men filing past him, then turned back to her. "We're simply responding to the alarm. We'll know soon enough if there's a fire or if it's just a false alarm."

Just then a familiar sonic boom sounded overhead. A moment later, Clark, in his now-famous Superman suit, landed in front of the building. Her heart immediately started to pound.

Gasps of, "It's Superman!" and "Superman's here!" filled the air, but Clark seemed oblivious to the cries as his intense gaze searched the crowd. Then his eyes met hers, and a look of relief washed over his face. He hurried over to where she stood beside the fire chief, the concern for her evident in his eyes.

"Lo—" he began, then quickly caught himself. "Miss Lane." Seeing that the fire chief next to her had turned to bark out more orders at his crew, Clark leaned forward and whispered, "Are you all right?"

Lois felt a blush rising to her cheeks. Even after his reassurances during their phone conversation earlier that she shouldn't be nervous around him, she still felt her stomach dance, knowing that this was the man she had made love with just that morning.

A murmur in the crowd pulled her out of her thoughts. She glanced around, noticing that they were very much the center of attention. A different feeling of nervousness fluttered into her stomach as she realized the superhero's concern for her seemed…maybe a little too obvious for a place teeming with onlookers and activity. As often as he'd warned her about being careful not to let the public make a romantic connection between them, he certainly wasn't being very discreet himself.

A slow smile worked its way across her face. She felt flattered to have the kind of effect on him that made him forget where he was and how he was supposed to be acting. She was just about to tease him about it when an insistent yapping sounded just behind her.

Turning, she saw that Agnes had come to stand behind her and was gaping at the red-and-blue clad superhero standing a few feet away while struggling to hold her yapping poodle at bay in her arms. Lois bit back a smile. Princess was clearly unimpressed by the world famous superhero—or maybe the little dog simply wasn't fooled by his disguise as the rest of them were.

Noticing that people were still watching them, Lois cleared her throat and spoke loud enough for the people immediately around her to hear. "Superman! Yes, we're fine. I don't know if there's really a fire, but I guess the fire department will find out soon enough."

A sheepish look flickered through Clark's eyes at her words, and she realized he understood the hidden meaning behind her words— that he was wearing his heart for her on his sleeve. The realization seemed to jog Clark's awareness, and he managed to veil his expression and put on a more business-like face.

"Right," he said, putting his hands on his hips and doing his best to look very superhero-ish for the onlooking crowd. He turned to the fire chief still standing nearby and explained, "I was handling an emergency not far from here and heard the sirens. Can I help?"

The fire chief nodded, knowing the job would get done much faster with the superhero's help. "We'd love your help. If you could go in with a few of my guys…"

The rest of the fire chief's instructions were lost to Lois as he and Superman walked toward the building and out of ear shot, leaving Lois—and the crowd of people around them—staring after him. Lois felt Agnes brush up against her, and she turned to see the elderly woman smiling up at her as she stroked her now-quieted dog.

"I don't think Princess cares for him much, but he's quite handsome in person, don't you think?" Agnes's twinkled. But then she seemed to realize what she'd said and quickly backtracked. "But not as handsome as your Clark, though. Nobody's that handsome." Then she winked, and turned her attention to another elderly woman who had joined them.

Lois smiled to herself as she turned back to watch Clark in action. Superman had quickly become one of the crew, going in and out of the building and checking each floor to make sure the building was safe. Finally, the fire chief called the all-clear.

Agnes and her elderly friend joined the other tenants as they started returning to their apartments, but Lois hung back on the sidewalk a distance from the entrance, hoping to find Clark. At last she spotted him walking out of the building through the thinning crowd. Their eyes met, and a myriad of emotions played across his face.

He glanced around at the few remaining people outside, then turned and started to walk across the lawn toward the right side of the building. Curiously, she watched him, uncertain whether she should approach him and possibly create speculation about their involvement after their earlier scene, or simply stay where she was.

Her gaze followed his movements as he reached the corner of the building. Just as he was about to turn the corner, he inclined his head for her to follow in an almost unnoticeable gesture. Then he opened the side door of the building marked "emergency exit only' and disappeared inside.

Lois waited several beats, then looked around to make sure nobody was watching. When she was sure nobody was, she crossed the lawn discreetly and went around the corner of the building where he'd disappeared moments before. She opened the emergency exit door and slipped inside. Clark—still dressed as Superman—was waiting for her in the stairwell.

She glanced around to make sure they were alone before speaking. "So, what happened?" she asked with concern. "What set off the—"

Before she could finish her sentence, Clark surprised her by grabbing her around the waist and pushing up against the stairwell wall. Her startled yelp turned into a giggle as he captured her lips hungrily and pressed his body up against hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lost herself in the deliciousness of his kiss.

After a couple of minutes of intense kissing, they finally pulled apart, breathless. She looked up at him with a grin. "And hello to you, too."

He chuckled and tightened his arms around her waist. "I missed you today."

"And I missed you." She leaned in for another kiss, then snuggled up against the firm wall of his chest. After a few moments, she pulled back and gave him a stern look. "As happy as I am to see you, what were you thinking, coming here like that? You're always drilling it into my head that we need to be careful not to allow anyone to make a romantic connection between us, but you swoop onto the scene and come rushing over to me. That wasn't exactly discreet."

He looked sufficiently chastised as he dropped his hands to his side. "I know. When I heard the sirens on the phone and heard you say the word 'fire,' I just reacted without thinking. I'm sorry."

She softened at the boy-caught-with-his-hand-in-the-cookie-jar look on his face. A slow smile replaced her stern expression. "Well, I'm willing to forgive you if you'll let the record show that I'm not the only one rushing recklessly into certain situations. I reserve the right to refer to this incident the next time you scold me for being impetuous."

"Okay, fine." He rolled his eyes and grinned sheepishly. "I suppose I have that coming."

Lois stood on tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips in a sign of forgiveness, then turned back to the reason for his arrival. "So, what happened? Was there a fire anywhere?"

He shook his head. "No. We checked everywhere for hot spots, but there was nothing. They think one of the detectors on the third floor had shorted out, making the system think there was a fire in the building."

She breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good to hear. I'm glad there was no real danger." Then a mischievous look sparkled in her eyes as she reached up to trace a finger along his well- defined chest. "And just so you know, Agnes thinks Superman is very handsome in person."

Clark threw his head back and laughed. "Well, you'll have to tell her I'm already spoken for."

The thought of Clark being involved with her elderly neighbor made Lois cringe, and the intimacy of their stolen moment together was gone.

Clark glanced at the stairs, then turned back to her. "Since Agnes is probably waiting for you upstairs, why don't you go on up and I'll meet you there in a minute? You're right that we need to be more careful."

"And showing up at my apartment in that Suit isn't going to raise some suspicions?" she challenged with a twinkle in her eye.

"Not if I'm mingling around with the fire crew and look like I'm making sure the building is safe before I leave. Then when nobody is looking, you can let me into your apartment."

She crossed her arms and flashed him a teasing grin. "Who says I want to let you into my apartment?"

"Lo-is." He put his hands on his hips. "Are you through tormenting me?" Then his voice changed to a low growl as he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. "Besides, you can't tell me that a few more minutes of intense kissing before I go doesn't sound appealing." He dipped his head to press a stream of hot kisses down her neck, as if tempting her with what he had in store for her.

Lois's eyes fluttered closed and she tilted her head, allowing him better access to the sensitive skin near the base of her throat.

"Mmm," she murmured, allowing herself the luxury of his intimate gesture for another few moments. Then she managed to push herself away, trying not to be seduced right then and there by the intense passion she saw in his eyes. "You talked me into it," she told him with a grin. "Meet me upstairs in five minutes."

Clark's face creased into a smile, and he watched as she started up the stairs, giving him one last, flirtatious look over her shoulder.

He shook his head when she was gone. She was really something. But she was also right. After everything they had shared last night—and then this morning—he wasn't being as successful as he'd like about hiding his feelings for her. He was going to have to be more careful.

'Just as you're always telling her,' the little voice in the back of his head chastised.

Clark grimaced. He was going to have to find a way to maintain a business-like appearance when he was around her. But he knew that wasn't going to be easy. She did things to his insides whenever she was near, and all he wanted to do was take her into his arms and revel in her closeness. But he couldn't. Not as Superman, anyway.

Sighing at how complicated the whole situation was becoming, he headed back out the emergency exit and walked around to the front of the building.

He stopped in the lobby and offered to join up with several members of the fire crew who were performing their final inspections of the building. They searched each floor, taking one last look to make sure everything was safe. There was nothing out of the ordinary. But when he and two other firemen reached the fifth floor, a feeling of uneasiness settled around Clark as the elevators doors opened onto a disturbing scene.

Lois, Agnes, and three other tenants were gathered in the hall outside Lois's apartment door, looking frightened and chattering nervously to one of the firemen. He could hear Princess's hysterical yapping coming from the other side of Agnes's apartment door.

The fireman nodded at something the one neighbor said, then he took off running down the hall. His eyes darted around at the apartment entrances and alcoves as he went, and it was clear he was looking for somebody.

Clark's gaze flew back to Lois's and he was surprised to see a look of fear in her eyes. As his heart began to pound, his previous resolve to hide his feelings for her when they were around other people fell by the wayside. He was at her side in an instant. "Lois, what's wrong? What happened?"

Agnes spoke before Lois could. "There was a man in Lois's apartment. He came barreling out as soon as we came out of the elevator. He was dressed in a gray janitor-looking uniform with lots of pockets. I think he had some kinds of tools hanging in a tool belt, too."

Clark's eyes widened and his face paled. "Just now? You saw him coming out?"

Agnes nodded vigorously. "Steve and I did." She nodded at the middle-aged man standing beside her.

"Yeah, I saw the guy," Steve chimed in, "and he definitely wasn't the building's janitor. I know Hal, and it wasn't him. The guy took off runnin' when he saw we'd spotted him."

With his heart in his throat, Clark looked at the other fireman still waiting with the group. "Watch her," he directed with a nod at Lois, his tone firm and authoritative. "Don't let anyone go into the apartment until I get back to check it out." And with that, he became of blur of red and blue as he shot down the hallway to assist the other fireman in the search for the intruder.

When he returned a few minutes later, the small crowd was waiting for him anxiously.

"Did you find him?" Lois asked, her eyes hopeful.

He frowned and shook his head. "There's no sign of anyone fitting that description. We gave a statement to one of the police officers downstairs, but they also want to talk to you, Steve." He nodded at the neighbor who had witnessed the crime. "And you, too, Agnes. They're waiting for you both in the lobby."

He watched as Lois took in the worried look on Agnes's face and then reach for her neighbor's arm. "I'll go with you, Agnes," she offered, guiding her toward the elevator.

Lois glanced back over her shoulder at him as they neared the open doors, uncertainty evident in her eyes.

"I'll search your apartment while you're gone, Miss Lane," he said, trying to keep his tone as business-like as possible this time. "I'll be waiting right here for you when you get back."

With a nod, Lois turned back to her elderly friend. "Don't worry about talking to the police, Agnes. I talk to them all the time. There's nothing to it."

Agnes smiled at that. "I'll bet you do, dear. It's just a wonder one of them hasn't caught you in the middle of one of those reckless acts of yours yet."

Lois gasped, then looked back at Clark. He took one look at the surprise in her eyes and he couldn't help himself. He laughed. Apparently, he wasn't the only person who thought Lois lived dangerously.

Throwing Clark a glare that silenced his laughter, Lois turned back to her friend. "Agnes! What exactly are you saying?"

Agnes patted Lois's hand and chuckled. "Dear, I may be old, but I'm not blind. Do you think I don't know how you manage to get all those scoops of yours? I doubt it's by following the rules— something you never seem to live by, anyway."

Clark bit back another laugh as he watched Lois's jaw drop open. "Agnes, I can't believe you're accusing me of—"

"Of what, dear? Breaking a few laws here and there? I know you too well, sweetie. You live for danger." Then Agnes turned to look at him, taking in the blue suit, flowing red cape, and tall boots, all a symbol of the superhero the world had come to know. She winked at him. "You seem to be such a fine, upstanding young man, Superman. Maybe you could teach my Lois, here, a thing or two about keeping the rules, seeing that you stand for truth and justice and everything, and would never dream of breaking the law."

A burst of laughter escaped Lois's lips this time. "Yeah, right," she snorted, but then quickly clamped her mouth shut as everyone turned to look at her. She glanced at Clark, giving him a 'we- both-know-better-don't-we?' look. The hint of a mischievous smile continued to tug at the corner of her mouth.

"What?" Agnes asked, looking back and forth between them, her expression puzzled.

Shaking her head and smiling, Lois took Agnes by the arm and led her toward the elevator. "Agnes, my friend, don't even get me started."

***

When Lois returned with Agnes to the fifth floor after giving the police their statement, she helped Agnes into her apartment, then went into hers. "Superman" was waiting inside for her.

"Is it safe?" she asked as she took a tentative step into the room.

When Clark nodded, she came the rest of the way in, making sure the door was shut and locked behind her. "So?" she asked.

Clark shrugged and looked around the room. "I can't find anything, Lois. No explosive devices, no threatening notes…nothing."

She breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good news. If that guy wasn't trying to kill me, then what was he doing in my apartment?"

Clark frowned at her. "Don't say things like that, Lois."

"What? The part about him trying to kill me?" She rolled her eyes and went over to sit down on the couch. "Clark, something like that isn't exactly news. People have tried to kill me before. It's part of the job."

Clark felt a chill go through him. "Well, I don't want it to be part of the job," he growled. "Not anymore. Not when you're talking about the woman I love getting hurt. Or worse."

Lois looked up at him and smiled. "Clark, I'll be fine. I've already promised you I'd be more careful. What else do you want from me? I can't exactly move to some unpopulated island for the rest of my life. This is a big city; break-ins happen. That guy probably heard the fire alarms and decided to take advantage of an evacuated building. Maybe he wasn't just in my apartment; maybe he was in dozens looking for things to steal."

Realizing that made sense, Clark let himself relax. "Yeah, maybe." He came over to sit beside her. "I'd like to think this break-in was just some random occurrence, but we don't know that for sure. Let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary, would you?"

"I will," Lois promised.

Clark sat beside her on the couch, worry still nagging at his heart. "Maybe I should stay here tonight," he suggested anxiously. "To make sure you're okay."

"Clark, you can't spend every waking minute hovering around and protecting me," she said, lifting a hand to his cheek. "Besides, I'm sure the guy's long gone. And you didn't find anything out of place here, so I'm sure it's safe." She leaned in to kiss him, her lips lingering on his. When she pulled back, her eyes crinkled into a smile. "Unless you want to stay for a different reason." She slid a hand down his chest provocatively, giving him no doubt what she was suggesting.

A moan escaped Clark's lips as she leaned in to kiss him once more. The blissful, heady feeling he'd experienced that morning returned, and he lost himself in her kiss. The passion between them continued to build over several minutes of intense kissing. When things finally reached the point of no return, Clark groaned in frustration and stilled Lois's movements. He caught the look of disappointment in her eyes as he pulled back.

"As much as I would love to stay, Perry's got me up against a deadline," he told her reluctantly as he traced her kiss-reddened lips with the pad of his thumb. "He put me on a story that he wants finished first thing in the morning."

Still tracing the firm chest muscles evident through his blue spandex, Lois groaned in protest. "But you've got super speed on your side. Can't you stay at least a little while? I'm sure I could make it worth your while." Her hands dipped and began to explore elsewhere.

Clark gasped at her touch, and what little control he'd managed to hold onto slipped away entirely. When she smiled and leaned in to rain kisses along his sensitive earlobe, he knew she realized she had won.

"Well, maybe just for a little while," he surrendered.

She giggled as she pressed her lips to his. "I knew you'd see it my way."

***

Clark breathed a heady sigh. As he lay between the sheets of Lois's bed, he glanced down at Lois nestled into the crook of his arm, her tousled, dark hair splayed across his bare shoulder and chest, and he knew he'd never been happier. What this magnificent woman was doing with a flawed person like him, he didn't know, but he was glad.

Tightening his arm around her, he pressed a kiss to her forehead, rousing her from her relaxed state. She lifted her chin to meet his gaze.

She smiled up at him and said breathlessly, "That was…"

"Incredible," he finished for her with a grin. "Yeah, it was." He pulled his arm out from beneath her and propped himself up on his elbow so he could stare at her. He drank in the picture of her lying on the pillow next to him, her flushed cheeks brightening her countenance. Lifting his hand, he tucked a long strand of her dark hair behind her ear. "You are so beautiful."

She smiled shyly and ducked her head. "No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are," Clark insisted, his tone firm. Then his voice softened. "Every time I look at you, I find myself thinking, 'What on earth is a woman like this doing with a guy like me?'"

Lois trailed a finger along his arm. "Clark, you don't give yourself enough credit. I keep asking myself the same thing about you." She lifted a hand to his bare chest and drew lazy circles along the smooth skin. "Every guy I've ever gone out with pales in comparison to you."

Clark's breath caught and held in his throat, and a new worry burrowed its way into his heart. Did she mean they paled in comparison only because he was "extraordinary"? All his life he'd been painfully aware that he was different. Now that he'd finally found that special person in his life, he wanted nothing more than to have a relationship that was "normal"…to be thought of as "normal." He simply wanted to be loved for himself, and not because he was anything out of the ordinary.

Well, that wasn't entirely true, he amended to himself. He wanted to be thought of as extraordinary…but only in the way a person deeply in love with him would find him to be.

For a fleeting moment, Clark wondered if she'd thought the previous men in her life "paled in comparison" to the ones before. The thought brought on a stab of jealousy and made him feel oddly vulnerable. In a way he'd never anticipated, he also found himself feeling woefully inadequate. Clearly, he had not been Lois's "first," as she had been his. How did he compare, not having been as practiced as her other lovers might have been? Had it been obvious to her that he wasn't exactly experienced?

Unaware of his sudden feelings of torment, Lois raised herself up on one arm and leaned toward him to press a gentle kiss to his lips. She slid her hand lower on his arm, then trailed her fingers down his side.

Clark closed his eyes for a moment, unable to stop himself from losing himself in the pleasure of her touch. But then the thought of her sharing this pleasure with somebody else—no matter who or how long ago—sent another stabbing pain of jealousy through his heart.

Without realizing what he was doing, Clark drew in a sharp breath and put his hand over hers to still its movements as he tried to reconcile his thoughts.

Lois pulled back in surprise. As she studied his tense expression and the muscle twitching anxiously in his jaw, she caught the unreadable emotion lurking in his eyes. "Clark? What's wrong?"

He swallowed hard and looked down at the bed, unable to meet her gaze. "Nothing," he finally murmured, giving his head a quick shake. "It's…no, it's nothing."

"Clark."

Lois's warning tone caused him to look up, and he saw her frowning in concern. He sighed deeply and pushed a hand through his hair. "I don't know," he muttered. "I guess I'm just being…"

"What?" Lois prompted, cocking an eyebrow at him.

He took a deep breath and decided to go for it. "I guess what I want to know is, did all those guys make you feel as good in bed as you make me feel?"

Lois's frown deepened and she raised herself up further on her elbow. "Clark, what are you talking about?"

"All those other guys you mentioned." The muscle in his jaw twitched again. "Did you think that bringing them up would make me feel better? Because right now, it just makes me feel rather inadequate."

"Inadequate?" Her eyes widened in surprise. "Why?"

"How did you think I would feel, Lois?" Clark blurted, his jealousy coming out in the form of anger. "To know that you're…experienced, and I'm not. Don't you think it makes me wonder how I compare? Or that I like hearing that you've shared this before with somebody else?"

Lois's jaw fell open, and she stared at him in shocked silence. When she was finally able to pull herself back together, she closed her gaping mouth and shook her head slowly. "Clark…I'm sorry, I had no idea…" Her voice trailed off and she found herself at a loss for words. She put her hand on his arm and tried again, her tone reassuring. "All I meant was that they paled in comparison to you because you're so kind and loving, and you always feel special when I'm with you because you make me feel that I am."

When Lois saw that hurt still lurked in his eyes, she sighed in frustration and opened her mouth to reassure him again. But then it hit her, the reason why he was being so defensive. "Clark, are you jealous?" she asked quietly.

"No, I'm not jealous," Clark protested, but he realized how fake his denial sounded, even to him. "Forget it," he mumbled as he dropped back onto his pillow and stared gloomily at the ceiling.

Lois scooted closer to his side and looked down into his troubled face, concerned. "You *are* jealous," she said as she realized the truth. "What I want to know is…why? Have I ever given you a reason to be?"

He heaved a loud sigh and shook his head. "No."

Neither of them said anything for a long minute. Then Lois spoke again, her voice quiet and sincere. "Clark, tell me what's going on inside that head of yours. I'm not going to understand this until you do."

Finally, Clark turned his head slightly on the pillow to meet her gaze. "I guess I just don't like to think of you with other guys, Lois. I like to think of you as only mine."

"And I am," she reassured him, leaning down to touch her lips to his once more. "And if it helps, I don't exactly have a wide range of experience to compare this to."

That caught his attention. He shifted his gaze from the ceiling to meet hers. "You don't?"

She smiled. "No."

It was quiet for a minute before Clark's voice came, sounding hesitant and unsure. "Lois, can I ask you something?"

"Are you about to ask me how many guys I've slept with?" She raised her eyebrows at him.

"I guess I am," he responded, his voice tentative. "Is that too personal?"

Lois shook her head. "Considering how 'personal' we've been today…twice…" She smiled softly, her eyes meeting his. "I'd say it's a fair question." She paused, then lowered her gaze to the bed. "One," she finally answered, licking her lips nervously. She brushed at something imperceptible on the sheet as she considered her next words. "His name was Claude. He was in my journalism class my freshman year in college." She frowned, and it was a minute before she continued. "It hadn't been that long since my parents' and sister's deaths, and I guess I was just looking for love and acceptance in the wrong place."

She shook her head, and Clark noticed the pained expression crease her brow. He had the urge to reach out and smooth away the frown lines, but instead he kept his hands where they were and let her continue undistracted.

"Anyway," she finally went on, "I always thought he was so handsome and charming. He'd immigrated to America from France with his parents the year before, and he had this really incredible accent." She smiled at the memory, but it was a haunted smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Then I got a tip that one of the admission officers was denying applications based on race, and I made the mistake of telling Claude about the evidence I'd gathered and had on a disc at home." She rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise. "Needless to say, he wasn't as charming the next morning when I climbed out of bed and found my research gone. He won n collegiate journalism award for that piece. He didn't even thank me for my 'input.'" She shook her head.

After several long moments, she sighed. "The bottom line is, I got burned. The experience left me wary of men, and I've only gone out with a handful of guys since then, and never past a first or second date."

When she looked back up and met his gaze, Clark could see tears of regret shining in her eyes. "So, you asked…did he make you feel as good in bed as you make me feel?" She shook her head in disgust. "I don't think I even need to answer that after what I just told you. But if you really want me to, I will." She drew in a deep breath and let it out. "Claude couldn't hold a candle to you, Clark. In bed or otherwise. With you, I feel loved. Respected. Treasured. I love how gentle you are with me—the way you stroke my face, or the way you hold me close and run your fingertips up and down my arm when we're lying here together afterward. You make me feel safe in a way nobody ever has, like you'll always be there to protect me. Claude never made me feel any of those things. And like I said, it was my first time, so it's not like I had a lot to compare the experience to. But after being with you…well, now I know how special it can really be. How special it *should* be. We're sharing something amazing, Clark…something that brings two people closer in a way nothing else can. And afterwards, instead of feeling hurt and used, I only love you more."

Clark's shoulders slumped and he tipped his head, gazing at her tenderly. The touch of jealousy he felt before disappeared entirely. "I feel the same way, Lois," he whispered, putting his hand under her chin and tipping it up so he could kiss her lightly. "I'm sorry if I overreacted. I don't know why I keep feeling so insecure about things." He frowned and shook his head, feeling disgusted with himself that his insecurities had forced her to revisit such a painful experience.

"Probably because this is so new to you…to us," Lois admitted. "I feel insecure about us sometimes, too."

"Then let's agree to stop feeling so insecure about us," Clark said with determination.

Lois laughed softly. "Just like that, huh? I had no idea getting rid of an insecurity could be so easy."

Clark chuckled and leaned forward on his elbow to kiss her lightly. "Maybe the key to it is distraction," he murmured against her lips.

"You think?" Lois giggled as she lay back on the bed under his gentle pressure, and he moved on top of her.

As he pressed gentle kisses to her neck just below her jaw, she felt his mouth curve into a smile against her skin when he responded.

"I think we need to try and see."

***

An hour passed before Clark finally managed to convince himself he needed to get home. Lois moaned in protest as he slipped from beneath the covers, and he laughed as she refused to let go of his hand. He turned back and entwined his fingers through hers. Lifting her hand to his lips, he gave it a gentle kiss.

"I've really got to go," he said reluctantly. "I've got to get that story done for Perry by morning."

"I know," she said on a sigh, at last letting him go.

All too soon, he was dressed in his Superman suit and ready to head back to Metropolis. He joined Lois in the living room where she sat on the couch in her robe, her hair still damp from their shower, thumbing through the stack of paperwork in front of her on the coffee table.

He bent down to kiss her longingly. "It looks like you brought home some work, too," he observed as he stood back up and eyed the huge stack of papers before her. Then he smiled. "Okay, a *lot* of work."

Lois nodded. "Yeah, it is. It's everything I could find on Trask, Project Bluebook, and UFO and meteorite sightings in 1966. I keep hoping to find something to tie this all into Lex."

Clark hesitated. "I'd like to stay to help you with it, but…"

"Go." Lois gave him a friendly push. "Do you think you should go out the front, since that's the way you came in? We wouldn't want anyone linking Superman to Lois Lane's window."

Chuckling at the twinkle in her eye, he held out his hand to help her up. "Nobody saw me come in after all the excitement died down. I'll be fine leaving from your patio." He enveloped her once more in his arms, burying his face in her hair and breathing deeply, savoring the clean, strawberry scent of her shampoo. Every time he had to leave her he found it harder than the last time. He knew there would probably come a day when he simply wouldn't be able to.

With a sigh, he let those unresolved thoughts of the future slip into the back of his mind once again and leaned down to give her one last kiss. "G'night," he whispered. "I'll call you tomorrow night, okay?"

She nodded. "Sounds great."

Then, with one last, lingering look, he was gone.

Lois sighed when she was alone once more, and her mind began to turn back to the events of the evening. She glanced apprehensively around her apartment. First, there had been the eerie feeling of being watched in the parking garage tonight, and then the fire alarm and the man breaking into her apartment.

She shook her head. Things were definitely getting weird around here.

With great effort, she forced her thoughts away from the day's events and turned back to the large stack of research awaiting her on the coffee table. After all, she had work to do.

***

Lois was too busy the next day to even remember Clark hadn't yet produced the reports on the meteorites he'd promised to show her from Bureau 39's warehouse.

News had leaked out about a scandal in the governor's office, with one of the governor's aides claiming he knew of several bribery attempts that had been made to get a bill passed. Nobody could prove the allegations as of yet, but one thing Lois knew for certain. Nothing excited the media more that the possibility of a scandal.

She joined the hundreds of other reporters and news crews on site, all clamoring to get the story. By the end of the day, she was thrilled that she'd been able to call in some favors and interview the governor exclusively. She had interviewed him before, and a tentative level of trust had previously been established, so she felt confident by the end of the interview that he really was telling her the truth that he wasn't involved, as the aide claimed.

He'd given her some names of staff he suspected might be involved or had ulterior motives, and she'd managed to follow those leads, narrowing down the lists of suspects. By the evening edition, Lois had enough put together for a solid, riveting, front-page story with the information she'd gathered. Because she'd gotten the exclusive interview with the governor, the San Francisco Chronicle had information no other news source had.

And Jim Langley was ecstatic.

His hard-earned words of praise motivated her to continue working past quitting time. She was eager to get down her thoughts for the follow-up story Jim had requested for the next day, and outline some ideas of who might also be tied into the scandal. If anybody could get to the bottom of this, she could. And there was no way she was going to let a night's sleep wipe the thoughts from her mind.

It wasn't until almost nine that Lois finally turned off her computer, gathered up her attache, and slipped into her overcoat. As tired as she was from the fast-paced day, she found herself in a heady daze. It was days like these that she was glad she became a journalist. She, Lois Lane, was a force to be reckoned with, and it felt great to be making a difference in the world.

Her feet barely touched the ground as she stepped off the elevator in the Chronicle's parking garage and practically floated to her car. She was so wrapped up in her moment of glory that she didn't notice the dark car parked down the aisle from hers, or the large, burly man that stepped out of the shadows as she passed.

Without warning, the man was upon her, clamping a hand over her mouth to silence her startled scream. Before she had time to react, she felt herself being dragged around the corner and was thrown backwards, her head connecting with the concrete retaining wall.

Lois felt the world dip and swim around her, and she thought for a moment she was going to lose consciousness. But then her mind cleared, and she glanced up at her assailant's stockinged face just as he grabbed her by the throat and hefted her to her feet. The next thing she knew, the hard metal of a gun's barrel was being pressed to her temple.

She struggled for breath and grabbed for the man's hands on her throat, but the man's grip only tightened more firmly around her windpipe. He shoved her back against the wall once more and loomed closer, his disguised face only inches from hers.

His voice was deep and menacing as he relayed his message. "I hear you've been investigating Bureau 39 and Mesopotamia's corporation. My boss doesn't appreciate pesky reporters like you. You're bad for business. So back off your investigation. Or else."

His last threat sent chills up Lois's spine, and she knew without a doubt that the men behind his message were serious.

She felt the man lower his gun from her temple and she quickly took advantage of it. Letting her self defense training take over, she brought a knee up forcefully and connected with his groin. He let out a strangled cry and doubled over, and Lois brought her knee up hard, connecting with his face.

The man grabbed for his nose as red started to appear on his gray mask, and Lois turned to run. Before she get out of reach, her assailant lifted the butt of his gun, and in one fast, angry motion, brought it down hard, connecting with the side of her head.

Instantly, the world started to ebb and sway around her, and her vision blurred as she slumped to the ground. Through her haze, she heard the sound of retreating footsteps and knew her assailant was gone.

For several moments, Lois laid still, the cold concrete of the parking garage floor pressing against her cheek. Before long, her vision started to clear and the feeling of nausea began to dissipate.

She sat up shakily, using her arms to stabilize herself as the garage swayed precariously around her. Hoping somebody had noticed her attack, she listened for sounds of approaching help, but heard nothing. Not even the sound of a passing car. It was late, and the day staff had already gone, and the night staff had already arrived.

Deciding to call for help, she reached her cell phone—only to realize she'd left it in her desk upstairs. She swore under her breath. Great. This was just great.

Feeling a little stronger, she half-crawled, half-pulled herself the few steps to the retaining wall and used it to struggle to her feet. The wooziness instantly returned as she stood, and she grasped at the metal railing along the top with trembling hands to steady herself. A wetness on the side of her cheek startled her, and she reached up to touch it. When she drew her hand back, she gasped when she saw the thick, dark red substance on her fingertips.

Blood. She was bleeding. And bleeding heavily, from the looks of it.

Lois tried not to panic. She reminded herself that head wounds tended to bleed a lot, and she was probably fine.

She pressed her hand to her head to try to stop the bleeding, and found herself facing a moment of indecision. She glanced back toward the elevators, but realized they were clear across the parking lot. She wasn't sure she felt up to walking all that way, only to have some night staffer run around in a panic when she appeared in the newsroom in her condition. Turning to her right, she noticed she was only a few yards away from her car.

It was then that she made her decision. The car, and then home. Her apartment was only a few blocks from the Chronicle, and at this time of night, the traffic would be light. She'd be home sooner than she'd be able to make her way shuffling across the parking lot to the elevators.

But as soon as she made the decision, common sense filtered in and she wondered if it would be smart to try to drive herself home in the condition she was in. Was it safe? What if she blacked out?

Deciding to listen to her body for her answer, she let go of the metal bar and took a test step forward. She was surprised to discover the wooziness was subsiding, and she actually felt more stable. With careful steps, she continued to walk to her car, relieved to discover she felt a little better with each step. By the time she was at her car door, she decided she would be okay. She would drive.

Fumbling for the key in her overcoat pocket, she finally managed to pull it free and unlock the door. Then she climbed in, and her hand shook as she inserted the key and started the car.

She kept her free hand pressed to the side of her head where she thought the bleeding was coming from as she steered the car carefully through the empty parking lot and out onto the street. Fortunately, she'd been right about the traffic being light, and she managed to get home without incident. She found herself breathing a sigh of relief when she pulled into her apartment's underground parking lot.

She was here. All she had to do was make it up to her apartment and everything would be okay.

She stepped into the elevator and hesitated, staring at the lighted control panel of buttons. She considered stopping at the ground floor to see if the nighttime security guard could help her, but then she changed her mind and punched the button for her floor. At that moment, the only person she wanted was Clark.

The elevator began to rise, and the sudden upward movement caused the nausea and wooziness to return. She grabbed for the compartment's handle to steady herself and put a hand to her mouth to try to keep from being sick. Tears blurred her vision as she silently prayed for the elevator to hurry.

When the doors finally opened, she was relieved to discover the hall was empty. Explanations for her appearance were the last thing she wanted to give right then. Fumbling again with her keys, she at last found the one to her apartment and let herself in.

On unsteady feet, she shuffled into the kitchen and grabbed a hand towel sitting on the island. She turned slowly and opened the freezer, extracting several ice cubes and placing them in the towel. She winced as she pressed the roughly constructed ice pack to her temple. The pressure made the room spin around her for a moment, and she reached out for the island's counter top to steady herself until the spinning finally slowed.

Tears of pain and helplessness began to course down her cheeks and blur her vision. She wiped them away as she turned gingerly and reached for the cordless phone on the counter behind her. Then, holding back a sob, she punched in the number she had long since committed to memory.

***

Clark touched down inside his apartment, having just returned from a flight over the city. A frown marred his handsome features. He'd been busy that day, but no matter how busy he kept himself, he simply couldn't shake the discomforting feeling that something was wrong.

All evening he'd had a sense of dread, prompting him two different times to fly over the city to see if he could spot anything out of the ordinary. But nothing was. It wasn't until he was on his way home that it dawned on him that maybe something was wrong with Lois.

The unsettled feeling returned with force, and he found himself hurrying into the kitchen to get to the phone. He dialed her apartment first, but there was no answer. He hung up, then dialed her cell number. Still no answer.

He glanced at his watch. It was almost nine her time. He'd told her he'd call tonight. Where was she? Surely she wouldn't still be working. He knew she was a workaholic, but he'd knew she usually left work at a decent hour, then worked from home the rest of the evening. So why wasn't she answering either of her phones?

The silent hand of fear clenched at his heart as he remembered the intruder in her apartment the night before. Was something wrong? Was she in some kind of trouble?

Clark tried both her phone numbers again, his brow furrowing when he still received no answer. He set the phone down roughly onto the counter in frustration, then stood there for a minute, trying to decide what to do.

He didn't want her to think he didn't trust her enough to take care of herself. She already knew he worried about her, and he wasn't sure she would appreciate him swooping into the city and trying to track her down. What if she was just out for a bite to eat with friends?

But then that sense of fear seeped back into his soul. Yes, maybe she was just out running errands or having dinner. But what if she wasn't? What if something *had* happened?

He'd just about made up his mind to fly out there to track her down, regardless of whatever lecture she may give him on his suffocating behavior, when the ringing of his phone stopped him in his tracks. His breath caught in his throat as he picked up the phone and stared down at the Caller ID screen on the handset.

It was Lois.

Heaving a sigh of relief, he clicked the phone on. "Lois!" he answered without bothering with 'hello.' "I was worried about you. Where have you been?"

When he didn't hear anything from her end of the line, he frowned. "Lois? Are you there?"

After a moment, he thought he detected a muffled noise. His brow furrowed in concentration. Finally, he heard her voice.

"Clark—" she began, and instantly he could tell she was crying.

His heart tightened in his chest. "Lois?" he asked, his tone urgent. "What's wrong? What happened?"

He heard her try again. "I—I need you. Can you come over? I got hurt…"

Clark's stomach lurched, and he struggled to breathe as he said his next words. "Lois, don't move. I'll be right there." He barely managed to put the phone down before he flew out his window, glad he hadn't yet changed out of the Suit. It wasn't even a minute later, though it felt like an eternity, when he was landing on her terrace and opening the sliding glass door.

"Lois?" he called, stepping into her dark apartment. He looked around, but even with his enhanced vision he didn't detect any movement. "Lois?" he repeated.

Just then he heard something in the kitchen, and he followed the sound. Sudden motion near the floor off to his right caught his eye. When he turned, he spotted Lois sitting on the floor with her back up against the fridge. He let out an involuntary gasp when he saw that she was holding a makeshift ice pack to her temple, and rivulets of blood had dried along the side of her face. Her eyes were red and puffy, and he could tell she'd been crying.

"Lois!" His heart lurched as he rushed toward her, not bothering to shut the glass door behind him. "What happened?"

Tears glistened in her eyes as she looked up at him. "There was this guy in the parking garage," she explained, her voice choked with emotion. "He grabbed me and shoved me up against the wall and put a gun to my head. He told me to back off the investigation…or else."

The muscle in Clark's jaw twitched, and his anger was evident in his eyes as he lowered himself to the floor beside her. The thing he had feared the most had happened. Lois had gotten hurt, and there had been nothing he could do about it. Trying to push the almost overwhelming feelings of guilt aside, he set his focus to her.

"Someone thinks we're getting too close," he mumbled in disgust. He reached for the ice pack. "How bad is this? Let me take a look."

She released her grip on the towel and let him lift the ice pack from her temple. What he saw made him queasy. There was a large gash about two inches long near her temple, and the surrounding skin was already beginning to color. She was going to have an awful bruise. But at least it looked like the bleeding had stopped for the time being.

With gentle fingers, he touched the area around the cut softly, trying to see how deep it was and determine whether or not she was going to need stitches. She flinched at his probing, and he immediately jerked his hand back.

"Sorry," he murmured, his voice gentle and reassuring. In an effort to distract her as he continued to examine the cut, he asked, "So how did this happen? Did you hit your head on the wall when the guy threw you?"

Lois shook her head, then stopped quickly when she realized it only made the throbbing in her head increase. "He was choking me, and as soon as he loosened his grip, I used my self defense training and kicked him. He let me go, but it must have pissed him off because he hit me with his gun before he took off running."

"You kicked him?!" Clark exclaimed, his gaze shifting to her face. "What, in the shin or something?"

In spite of herself, the memory brought the hint of a smile to Lois's lips. "No, I kicked him in the groin, then kneed him in the face while he was bent over."

As hard as he tried not to, Clark let a laugh slip out. Yeah, what she'd done was stupid, but somehow he wasn't surprised. It seemed like a very Lois thing to do.

But then he managed to pull himself back together and gave her a stern look. "As much as I would have loved to be there to see you take this guy out, Lois, what if he had shot you?"

Lois rolled her eyes and pressed the ice pack Clark had abandoned back to her temple. She winced at the pressure. "He wasn't going to kill me or he would have done that in the first place," she muttered, closing her eyes to stem the fresh pain. "Whoever hired him just told him to scare me, that's all."

His heart aching for what she'd been through, Clark put his hand on her arm. "I'm sorry, Lois. I should have been there. If I had, this would have never happened."

Lois opened her eyes and studied his guilt-filled expression. "Clark, this isn't your fault," she told him firmly. "You can't be with me every second of every day. We have our own lives to lead, and even if we lived in the same city, this could have happened. You can't blame yourself."

Tears gathered in Clark's eyes at her words, but only a portion of his guilt fled. "But this is getting too dangerous, Lois. Somebody knows we're getting close, and I don't want to see you get hurt again. Maybe you should let this go and let me get to the bottom of this one."

Lois's eyes flashed angrily at the suggestion. "Don't you dare tell me to back down from this investigation, Clark. It's *ours*. And the fact that somebody did this to me tells me we *are* getting close. Besides, if we back down, they've won. Is that what you want?"

"No." Clark shook his head. "But I worry you're going to get killed one of these days. If you don't get yourself killed, you're going to kill me from all the worrying I do about you."

Lois's anger faded at his tender declaration. She didn't know how to respond to that, so she didn't say anything.

Finally, Clark sighed and reached again for her ice pack. He frowned as he looked at the cut again, studying the depth. He knew she wouldn't like it, but he needed to take her to the hospital. It looked deep enough to warrant stitches.

She suddenly moved under his hand, shifting her position on the hard tile, and he glanced down at her face. He noticed with dismay that she was starting to look a little pale. "Lois, are you okay? You suddenly don't look so good."

"Gee, thanks," she murmured with only a hint of her usual sarcasm, letting her heavy eyelids fall shut. She pressed her arm across her stomach. "I'll be okay. I just feel a little sick to my stomach, that's all."

Clark's frown deepened. "Do you feel dizzy, too?" When she nodded without bothering to open her eyes, he asked, "How long have you felt this way?"

"Since that guy hit me."

An invisible hand clenched around Clark's heart. Too many things pointed to the possibility of a concussion. And he knew that concussions weren't something to be messed with.

He put a hand on her arm lightly, hoping his worry for her didn't show so clearly in his eyes. "Lois, I think we should get you to a hospital. They can take a look at you and determine if you have a concussion, and whether or not this gash of yours is going to need some stitches."

Lois's response was immediate. Her eyes flew open and a panicked look flashed across her face. "No!" she exclaimed with even more vehemence than he'd expected. "I'm not going to a hospital. I'm okay, really. Anybody's head would hurt if they'd been hit with the butt of a gun, right? Besides, I'm sure you've taken first aid classes. Just help me put a butterfly bandage on and I'll be fine."

Clark's brow furrowed as he considered her reaction. He assumed she'd be stubborn about seeing a doctor, but he hadn't expected her to practically panic. Shoving the thought aside for the moment, he focused on convincing her, keeping his tone soft yet firm. "But you're dizzy and feeling sick to your stomach. What if you have a concussion?"

She gritted her teeth and shook her head, her expression determined. "Clark, I am not going to the hospital."

Clark studied her for a long moment in silence. He had no idea what this case of hospital phobia was all about, but this was one battle he wasn't going to lose. Even if he had to bring out the big guns.

"Okay, fine," he said, a quiet note of determination in his voice. "Then I think this calls for a second opinion—a tiebreaker of sorts. Let me go get Agnes."

When he started to rise to his feet, Lois's eyes widened even further and she grabbed his arm. "No! Clark, Agnes worries about me enough as it is. She'll be furious when she finds out when happened, and launch into her usual speech about how dangerous it is for a woman in the city, and how I shouldn't have gone into that parking garage alone. She's always telling me I'm too stubborn to consider those things."

The muscle twitched in Clark's jaw. "That makes two of us."

Lois glared at him, but Clark wasn't about to be intimidated. He squatted back down beside her and put his hand on her leg. "Lois, if you don't want both Agnes and me ganging up on you, just say you'll let me take you to the hospital to get looked at. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you don't have a concussion. Maybe you don't need stitches. But wouldn't it be better to be safe than sorry?"

He watched Lois's face intently as she appeared to be weighing out his argument in her mind. Finally, a look of resignation appeared in her eyes and she sighed and nodded. "Fine, let's go. But just so you know, I'm not happy about this."

***

Two hours later, Clark touched down on Lois's terrace. He glanced down at Lois as he cradled her in his arms. A large, white bandage covered her temple, and the medication they had given her had made her groggy and sleepy. She barely opened her eyes as he shifted her in his arms to open the sliding glass door.

He floated her to her bedroom in an effort to keep from jarring her, then set her down gently on her bed without bothering to turn on the lights. Concern for the woman he loved so deeply threatened to consume him as he stared down at her, studying the pallor to her cheeks in the stream of moonlight filtering in through the curtains.

Lifting a hand to her face, he traced his fingertips along her cheekbone, careful not to touch the large bandage covering her newly acquired stitches. Twelve stitches, to be exact. And his suspicions had been correct. She had a concussion, as well.

Clark had changed out of his Suit upon arrival at the ER and stayed with her as one of the doctors examined her. When the doctor determined she did indeed have a concussion, he had wanted to keep her overnight for observation, but Lois wouldn't hear of it. No amount of coaxing on his or the doctor's part had been enough to convince her to stay, so the doctor had given Clark strict instructions that she not be left alone for the next twenty-four hours, and that she get lots of rest.

Knowing that he could afford a sick day, and that Superman's duties could be put off a day or two for the woman he loved, Clark volunteered to oversee her care at home. Only then had Lois relaxed.

He thought back to how she'd reacted as she'd sat on the ER table when they'd first arrived, waiting for care. Solemnly, he noticed that every small beep from a monitor or message sounding from the intercom made her jump. She'd seemed even more nauseated sitting there in the ER than she'd been back at her apartment—and he didn't think it had much to do with her injuries. It hadn't been hard to put two-and-two together and realize she was most likely thinking about the last time she'd been in a hospital. If her obvious hospital phobia was any indication, that last time had been the night she'd lost the three most important people in her life.

As he looked down at her now, almost asleep on her bed, her face pale against the white of her pillowcase, his heart clenched painfully. After seeing how anxious she'd been at the hospital, he had no doubt that the death of her family must have been even more traumatic than she'd let on in their brief conversations about her loss.

He let his hand slip from her cheek and reached for the blanket folded at the foot of her bed. With a flip of his wrists, he unfolded it and spread it gently over her. He hated to leave her in her clothes, but he hated the thought of jostling her to change her into pajamas even more. She needed to sleep. And that was exactly what he was going to let her do.

Crossing the darkened room, he found the shorts and T-shirt Lois had loaned him before and changed quietly in the dark. Then he tiptoed back to the bed and slipped under the blanket beside her. He scooted closer to her and slid his arm around her waist. She snuggled back against him, and he tightened his grip around her protectively.

He hadn't been able to be there for her earlier to stop her attack, but he was able to be here now. And he would do everything in his power to make sure she got better.

***

Lois stirred a couple hours later, her mind foggy and her head throbbing. She tried to open her heavy eyelids, but the grogginess seemed to weigh down upon her, making even the simplest of tasks seem impossible.

She finally managed to open her eyes and glance around the darkened room. In a flash, the recent events came rushing back. Tears filled her eyes as she raised her hand to her head, her fingertips brushing against the thick bandage at her temple. She could still feel the prick of the needle the doctor had used in spite of the numbing medication she'd been given, and each tug of the doctor's thread brought back the memory of another night she wished she could forget.

The beeping of the machines and the urgent voices of the ER had made her blood run cold, and if she'd felt able, she would have leapt down from the table and run out of the cold, sterile, white room without ever looking back.

Clark had no way of knowing, but he had taken her to the very hospital she'd been in after her accident…the accident that had claimed the lives of all the members of her family. She had vowed to never set foot inside those doors again, yet there she was, sitting in the very ER she'd been taken to that fateful night.

She'd kept hoping that the pain medication they'd given her would take effect quickly, and numb both her body and her mind, but still the images came flooding back. When the pain medication had at last sent her into a drugged sleep, she embraced the darkness, knowing that in sleep came peace.

As she tried to remember how she'd gotten home, remnants of images came to her mind. She remembered Clark gathering her into his arms outside the hospital, and she remembered the feel of the cold night air on her face as he flew her home. After that, she remembered nothing.

Thankfully, she'd been able to lose herself in a few hours of drugged sleep, but now the pounding and throbbing was back with a vengeance, and she had to swallow hard to force back the nausea that threatened.

She rolled over in bed, wincing as even that simple movement sent a stabbing pain through her skull. For what seemed like forever, she lay motionless on her side, forcing back the nausea and praying for the throbbing in her head to subside. But it didn't. It only grew worse.

Realizing she was never going to get back to sleep with the encompassing pain, she struggled to remember if they had filled the pain medication prescription the doctor had written her before they left. She frowned in concentration. Had they stopped at the hospital pharmacy to fill it? Or was the fogginess in her mind simply making her remember something they hadn't done?

If they had filled the prescription, she assumed Clark would have put it in the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. She shifted slightly to eye the bathroom door. It seemed miles away. But finally she decided her head hurt enough to go look, so she rolled over and started to sit up.

She immediately regretted the action. Another sharp, stabbing pain shot through her head, sending a flood of unwanted memories rushing to her brain. She'd had a concussion once before—on the night of the accident. But it had been overshadowed by the pain of a rough ambulance ride, surgery, and the loss of her parents and sister. This time, though, the pain in her head was only rivaled by the pain in her heart as her visit to the hospital where she'd lost her family sent memories crashing down around her.

Images began to assault her: her parents' lifeless bodies being pulled from the wreckage and covered by black tarps beside the car; her sister lying so still in the hospital bed; the doctor coming to tell her the next morning after her anesthesia had worn off from surgery that her sister had succumbed to her injuries during the night.

A sob caught in her throat. She hurried to stifle it, very much aware of Clark sleeping in the bed next to her. She lifted a shaking hand to cover her mouth, but realized she couldn't stop the tears from coming. Moving stiffly to the edge of the bed, she reached out for the nightstand to steady herself as she rose to her feet. As quiet as she tried to be, Clark still stirred.

"Lois?" he asked sleepily, his tone concerned.

Making sure she kept her tear-streaked face turned away, she mumbled something about having to go to the bathroom, then hurried across her bedroom and into the bathroom. She shut the door quietly, then flipped on the light, immediately regretting it as the bright lights sent a thousand stabbing needles into her skull.

The flow of tears increased as she squinted against the light and crossed over to the medicine cabinet. She rummaged through the vitamin jars and miscellaneous over-the-counter pain reliever medications on the shelves, but she didn't see a prescription pain medication there.

Not caring what kind of pain medication she took at this point, she reached for the jar of ibuprofen and fumbled with the lid. The tears flowed faster as she fought with the safety lid, unable to focus her bleary eyes enough to align the arrows. Finally she gave up, slamming the bottle down in frustration on the sink.

Her shoulders slumped as she started to weep openly. It was all just too much. She sat down on the closed toilet lid beside the sink and dropped her forehead onto her crossed arms resting on the counter, then started to sob quietly.

Moments later there was a quiet knock on the door. Then came Clark's worried voice. "Lois? Are you okay?"

Lois swallowed hard, trying to quiet the sob in her throat. She didn't bother to lift her head from her arms, knowing he'd be able to hear her soft response. "I'm fine," she murmured. "Just give me a minute."

There was silence from the other side of the bathroom door, and Lois wondered if Clark had gone back to bed. But then she heard the more urgent tone in his voice as he spoke through the door again. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Angered by his persistence during a moment she preferred to keep private, she lifted her head from her arms and glared through her tears at the door. "I'm fine, okay? Just leave me alone." The sob she'd been trying to hold back slipped out, and she dropped her head back onto her arms. "Just leave me alone," she repeated on a whisper as the sobs came once again.

She barely heard Clark's firm declaration of "I'm coming in" before she felt his hands on her back and arm. Sensing his sympathy through his gentle touch, her shoulders started to shake as her sobs increased, and she felt him pull her against the soothing wall of his chest.

Suddenly grateful for the strong arms around her, she slipped her arms around his waist and clung to him tightly, afraid that if she let him go she might lose him, too. She sobbed for what felt like hours—for herself and her pain, for the death of her sister, for the death of her parents. For a night that had altered her life so dramatically that she doubted she would ever fully recover.

When her sobs finally subsided into gentle hiccups, she lifted her cheek from Clark's chest and wiped at her tears self-consciously. "I'm sorry," she muttered, embarrassed. "This is such a girl thing to do."

"What is?" He looked down at her in confusion. "Crying?"

She nodded.

"No, it's not," he consoled, slipping his hand beneath her curtain of hair and massaging her neck. "You've just been through a scary experience, and you're hurt. Nobody's going to think any less of you for crying, let alone me."

She put a hand to her throbbing forehead. "I feel awful," she told him miserably. "I came in here to get something for the pain, but I couldn't get the stupid lid off the bottle…" She gestured helplessly at the jar on the counter.

"Then why didn't you ask?" came Clark's gentle rebuke. "That's what I'm here for."

"To open Advil bottles?" she muttered.

He smiled softly and wiped the stray tears from her cheek with his thumb. "That, too, but mostly just to be here for you." He leaned down to press a loving kiss to the top of her head. "We filled your pain medication prescription before we left the hospital. It's still in the kitchen where I set it down. Let's get you back to bed and I'll get you a couple pills."

Too worn out to argue, she let Clark help her back to bed. He left the room and was back a minute later with two pills and a glass of water. He helped her sit up a bit so she could swallow the medication. Then he took the empty glass from her and helped her lie back down.

When she was situated, he went around to the other side of the bed and climbed in. She rolled over and snuggled into his chest, the grogginess already beginning to set back in.

"This evening has all been too much," she whispered through another set of oncoming tears. "That guy in the garage…the hospital…"

Her voice broke, and it was then that Clark knew her tears in the bathroom were not simply from her inability to open a bottle of pain medication. He tightened his arms around her protectively and kissed her forehead. "I understand," he murmured gently.

And in that moment, Lois realized he did. She stayed in the comforting circle of Clark's arms for a long time, knowing she didn't have to explain her tender emotions. Finally, sleep came, and with it, a welcome reprieve from the haunting memories.

***

Clark stirred early the next morning, the first rays of the morning sun outside Lois's bedroom window rousing him from his sleep. He rolled onto his side and studied Lois's sleeping form as she lay facing him. His heart overflowing with love for her, he lifted a hand to brush back the dark hair shielding her face from him. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was even as he stared at her for a long time, taking in every perfect feature.

The sound of birds outside her window finally pulled him from his thoughts. With a sigh, he realized he'd better get up. It was three hours later in Metropolis, and he needed to let Perry know he wouldn't be in today. But he didn't dare do that from Lois's phone. In this day of technology, it was too easy for somebody to find out he wasn't calling from home—or even from the eastern United States.

Deciding to take a quick trip home and call from there, he left Lois a note on her end table explaining where he'd gone in case she woke up. Then he donned the famous Suit and slipped silently through the sliding glass door onto the terrace.

In only a few minutes he was back, a bag clutched in his hands. Knowing Lois, she didn't have much in the way of food in her kitchen, and he wanted to make sure she would get all the nourishment she needed for at least the next few days. He went into her room to check on her and was glad to see she was still fast asleep.

Smiling tenderly at her sleeping form, he tiptoed back into the kitchen and unloaded the contents from the bag into her cupboards and fridge. Whole grain cereal. Herbal tea. A loaf of bread. Eggs and some fresh fruit and vegetables. Even her favorite yogurt.

When he was done, he rummaged through the cupboards and found her tea kettle. It was still early, but he wanted to have some herbal tea ready and waiting for her when she woke up.

He added hot water to the kettle and brought it to a boil. When the pot started to whistle a few minutes later, he quickly tried to silence it, but wasn't quick enough. His hearing picked up the sounds of motion in the bedroom.

Moving the kettle from the burner, he went down the hall and peeked in through Lois's partially closed bedroom door. She was trying to sit up, easing her upper body slowly up off the mattress. He hurried in.

"Wait, Lois, let me help you," he said as he moved to her side.

She smiled up at him gratefully as he propped a couple of pillows behind her back. He couldn't help noticing the color had returned to her cheeks and her strength seemed to be returning.

"Thanks, Clark," she said as she settled back against the pillows.

He drew her blanket up over her lap and then sat down beside her. "You look like you're feeling better this morning."

"I think I am. My head still feels a little fuzzy, and the throbbing is starting to come back, but it's not as bad as it was last night."

He reached out to squeeze her thigh and gave her a relieved smile. "I am so glad to hear that. Are you hungry? How about some toast and herbal tea? My mom always made her special tea for me whenever I was feeling down, and it always made me feel better."

Lois smiled. "I'd love some. And maybe just some plain toast? I'm not sure my stomach is up for much else yet."

"You got it." Clark rose from the bed and started to turn. He caught sight of the note he'd left her earlier on her nightstand and picked it up since he didn't need it anymore.

"What's that?" Lois asked, nodding at the paper.

"You never miss a thing, do you?" Clark grinned and shook his head. Then he explained, "I left you this note earlier in case you woke up while I was gone. I flew back to Metropolis to call in sick so nobody would wonder why I was calling from San Francisco. Not that I'm sure anybody would have noticed, but I didn't want to take any chances."

"Can I see it?" She held out her hand, her eyes twinkling.

Clark looked at her strangely. "Why? I'm back."

"Because it's the first note you've ever left me, and I'd kind of like to see it."

Clark laughed. "Oh, no. Lois Lane is sentimental. Alert the press."

"Don't you dare." She laughed along with him as she snatched the paper from his hand. "I'd lose the nickname my colleagues gave me."

"Your colleagues gave you a nickname?" Clark's eyes lit with interest. "What is it?"

She shook her head and grinned. "Uh-uh. Not a chance. You'd just hold it over me and tease me every chance you got."

"No, I wouldn't. I promise."

"Hah! I know you too well, Clark Kent. Forget it. Wild horses couldn't drag it from me."

Clark feigned a pout and stood back up. "One of these days I'll find out what it is. I promise you that."

"We'll just have to see about that," she teased, skimming the words of the note in her hand. Then she looked back up at him, concern in her eyes. "Perry wasn't angry about you taking a day off on such short notice, was he?"

Shaking his head reassuringly, he said, "No, everything's fine. I just told him I had something of an emergency come up and that I wouldn't be in that day. He understood. The stories he assigned me are finished anyway. The stuff I'm working on now isn't too pressing."

She was visibly relieved when he finished. "I'm glad. I guess I need to call my boss, too. It's still pretty early, but I bet he's there." She turned slightly toward the nightstand, but realized the phone was still out of reach.

Clark picked up on her reluctance to move around too much and retrieved the cordless phone for her. "You make your call, but stay in bed," he told her. "I want to get some herbal tea and toast in you before you get up and about. I'll be right back." He gave her shoulder a squeeze, then turned toward the door.

"Thanks, Clark," she called after his retreating form.

He smiled at her over his shoulder. "Don't mention it."

When he reached the kitchen, he finished fixing the tea, then slipped two slices of bread in the toaster. He could hear her on the phone talking to her boss, and he did his best not to eavesdrop. Finally, her breakfast was ready, and he set the cup of tea and her plain toast on a breakfast tray he found in one of the lower cabinets. He carried the tray in to her and was rewarded with a grateful smile.

"I feel guilty about making you go to so much trouble," she admitted as he settled the tray onto her lap.

He rolled his eyes as he went around to his side of the bed and climbed back under the covers beside her. "Oh brother, Lois. It's no trouble. I stayed so I could take care of you. I love doing that."

She gave him a shy smile as she picked up a piece of toast and nibbled on the corner. "You do?"

"Of course I do." He scooted closer to her, being careful not to upset her tea. Then he leaned over to kiss her lightly. "It's what I live for. Well…not just taking care of you," he amended. "But being with you."

She gave him a tender smile. "I love being with you too." Then she shook her head and sighed. "I just wish it could be under better circumstances this time."

"Me too," he said, his tone solemn. "But you're feeling better? Do you need some more pain medication or anything?"

She nodded. "I'd like that, but maybe I'll finish my toast first so I don't have to take it on an empty stomach."

As she took a sip of her tea, Clark got more comfortable on the bed, propping himself up on his pillow so he could watch her more fully. "So, what did your boss say when you called?"

Lois swallowed her tea carefully, the hot liquid feeling good on her throat. "When I explained what happened, he was mortified. He rambled on, apologizing profusely, blaming incompetent security guards, and assuring me the Chronicle would pay for all my medical expenses. I can tell he felt terrible, but I kept telling him it wasn't his fault. In some respects, he thinks a lot like you." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled.

Clark gave her a sheepish look, and Lois hurried on. "Anyway, he was feeling guilty enough about the incident that he told me to take a week off. He didn't even let me argue with him."

"Good for him," Clark said with a chuckle. "I'm glad he insisted. You could use the time to recover."

"It will be nice," Lois agreed with a relieved sigh. "I'm not sure I feel well enough to go back in yet. Before I hung up, though, he reminded me about the upcoming gala the Chronicle hosts every year. There's always a bunch of media moguls and big wigs there, including the senator and a lot of other government officials. Jim said he needs to send in his request for employee tickets today and wanted to know if he should set aside some tickets for me."

She looked apprehensive as she continued. "Would you, umm…would you like to go? With me, I mean? I don't even know if you like that scene, rubbing elbows with the big wigs and dancing and stuff, but I told him to put me down for two tickets just in case. If you don't want to go, and I don't use the tickets, that's no problem, but I just thought—"

Clark's smile brought her babbling to a halt. "Lois, I'd love to go with you. When is it?"

When she told him the date, he nodded eagerly. "I can't think of anything I have going on then. We can just tell everybody I flew in to attend, and I'll take a couple days off to make it look like I'm flying out here. By plane, I mean." He grinned. "I'm assuming this is a black tie event?"

She nodded. "Is that okay? I mean, if you don't have a tux, you could rent one, and…"

"Lois, it's fine," he assured her, reaching for her hand. "I would love to go. And we've never been anywhere fancy together. It will be fun."

Lois's shoulders sagged with relief. "Oh, I'm so glad. I wondered if you'd be frustrated with me that I'd commit to tickets without asking you first. I mean, I didn't know what Superman had planned, or if you had something more important to do…"

Clark smiled softly and trailed his fingers down her cheek. "Nothing's more important to me than you," he said, his voice husky. "Whatever makes you happy makes me happy. Besides, I can't wait to see you all dressed up. I just know you'll look amazing."

"I don't know about that," she said, blushing at his comment.

As Lois turned back to her breakfast, Clark looked around her room. He'd been in there several times, and even stayed the night twice. But he'd never really taken everything in. The way she'd decorated it was no fuss, no frills, just as he'd expected it would be. Everything was in its place, and her furniture had clean, classic lines. It wasn't until he spotted the chest of drawers in the corner next to her night stand that he found himself smiling.

Lois followed his gaze to her dresser, then looked back at him, puzzled. "What are you smiling at?"

He pointed to the stuffed elephant sitting atop the dresser. It was about the size of a basketball and had full, rather droopy ears, short white tusks, large dark plastic eyes, and dingy, graying white fur that made the stuffed animal look well-loved.

"It's not exactly what I expected to see in a hard-nosed reporter's room," Clark told her with amusement.

Lois followed his gaze and smiled nostalgically. "Lucy and I won it at a carnival the summer before she…" Her voice broke off, and she cleared her throat. Finally, she continued. "Lucy had been flirting with this cute guy running the carnival game—you know that one where you throw those stupid little ping pong balls into the fish bowls?"

Clark nodded. "I loved that game when I was growing up."

"I stunk at it, but I liked it, too," Lois admitted, memories of her youth bringing a light to her eyes. "Anyway, we stuck around that booth all afternoon as my sister flirted with the guy until we finally won him." She nodded at the stuffed elephant.

"I thought you usually won the fish whose bowl you tossed the ball into doing that game," Clark wondered aloud.

"You do, but if you win enough of them, they let you upgrade your prize to one of the stuffed animals hanging above. It took us two hours and almost fifty dollars, but we won him."

"Fifty dollars!" Clark exclaimed. "That was kind of a lot for a little stuffed elephant, wasn't it?"

"Not when it meant my sister finally got up the nerve to ask the guy out. His name was Steve. They went on a bunch of rides once his shift was over, and she had such a great time. She told me later that he kissed her at the end of the day. It was her first real kiss." She smiled at the memory. But then her smile faded and a haunting sadness filled her eyes.

Clark knew she was thinking about all she'd lost. His heart going out to her, he reached over and clasped her hand gently. She pulled her eyes from the elephant and met his gaze.

"Anyway," she told him with a tremulous smile, managing to rally her emotions, "Tusky has always brought back good memories, and I like to think of him as lucky."

"Tusky, huh?" Another smile touched Clark's lips. At last he nodded. "Thanks for sharing that with me."

Lois finished her toast and tea, and Clark took her empty tray back to the kitchen. When he returned, he saw that Lois was getting slowly to her feet, looking a little unstable.

"Lois, what are you doing?" He rushed to her side. "You shouldn't be up."

"Clark, I'm not made of glass," she argued, but the uncertainty in her voice diminished the weight of her statement. "I was thinking that a hot shower would be nice, but I'm feeling a little stiffer than I expected."

"And a little unsteady, from the looks of it," Clark commented as he reached for her arm. "How's your head?"

She smiled. "It's still there. That's a good thing, right?"

He frowned at her attempt at levity. "Lois, I'm serious. You have a concussion. It's bound to throw things off for a bit."

"Clark, I'm fine," she said on an impatient sigh. "I just need to stand here for a minute so I can get my bearings. When I do, can you help me to the bathroom?"

"Lois, I'm not sure that's such a good idea—"

She glared at him, the fiery determination in her eyes silencing his argument. Finally, he gave in. "Fine, but take a quick shower so you can get right back in bed, okay? You need your rest."

She agreed, and Clark left her at the bathroom door, making her promise she'd call him if she started feeling shaky or needed help. Then he lurked outside the door for the entire time he heard the shower run, waiting anxiously and listening for any signs that she needed him. But she emerged from the bathroom a short time later, looking tired but no worse for the wear.

He helped her back into bed, and she sank gratefully onto her backrest of pillows. "Thanks," she murmured as he drew the blanket up over her lap. "The shower felt good, but now I'm worn out."

Clark tucked the blankets more firmly around her. "Then why don't I get out of here and let you get some rest. You holler if you need anything, okay?"

"Wait, Clark, don't go," she said as he started to leave the room. "There's a TV in my armoire." She pointed to the large, sturdy piece of furniture against the wall a few feet from the end of her bed. "You can stay in here with me and watch some TV while I doze. I'd actually rest better with you here."

He looked at her skeptically. "I don't know, Lois. How could you sleep with the TV on?"

"I do it all the time," she admitted with a smile. "Sometimes the apartment's too quiet at night and I leave the TV on for company." She shrugged, then looked up at him with pleading brown eyes. "Please?"

It was then that he knew he was doomed. And not just over this issue. He was doomed over any issue that might ever come up between them when she used those brown eyes as she was, so filled with sincerity and pleading. He knew he'd never be able to deny her anything.

A look of resignation moved across his face. "Okay, Lois. But if I start to bother you, promise me you'll say something."

She flashed him a triumphant smile and nodded. "Deal."

He climbed into bed beside her and accepted the remote she handed him from her nightstand drawer. As he turned the TV on, she snuggled up in the crook of his arm, and he carefully rested his cheek on the top of her head. She sighed contentedly, and it was all he could do to keep himself from doing the same.

Lois was almost asleep a short time later when a knock sounded on her apartment door. She lifted her head from his shoulder sleepily. "Who could that be?" she murmured, sitting up slightly.

But Clark put a hand on her shoulder to stop her motion. "I'll go and see," he reassured her, patting her leg gently as he got up and left the room.

He went down the hall and started to cross the living room. Feeling a little apprehensive about an unexpected visitor during the time when Lois was normally at work, he lowered his glasses and took a quick look out into the hall. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was Agnes. But then he paused. Was it a problem for Agnes to know that he was there? He shook his head. No, there was nothing suspicious to be gleaned from his presence. He didn't think it would appear too unusual that an out-of-town boyfriend would fly in to visit his girlfriend. Surely that's all it would seem to Agnes.

Deciding it was okay to answer the door for her, he started for it…and then stopped again. He glanced down at himself. Uh-oh. Clothes were definitely going to be an issue. The large, white T- shirt and boxer shorts Lois had lent him weren't exactly greeting- company clothes. But what alternative did he have? The only other clothes he had was his Superman suit. Putting that on to answer the door was *definitely* a problem.

Sighing, he realized he had no choice but to answer the door in what he was wearing. When he reached the door, he swung it open and smiled at Agnes. The first thing he noticed was that her little dog was surprisingly absent from her arms.

"Hi, Agnes. I see you don't have that brute of a dog with you this morning." His eyes were teasing as he opened the door further and invited her in.

Agnes chuckled. "Yes, well, my 'brute,' as you call her, has been a little squirrelly since the false alarm with that building fire and intruder the other night. Can't say that I blame her." She glanced around, a look of concern in her eyes. "Is Lois around? I noticed she didn't leave for work this morning and I came by to make sure she was okay."

Clark's eyebrows lifted. "How did you know she didn't go to work?"

She waved off his question with a quick motion of her hand. "Oh, I know everything that goes on around here. But it's not like Lois to miss work. Is she okay?"

Before Clark could consider Agnes's answer, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and spotted Lois ambling into the living room the same time Agnes did.

"Hi, Agnes," Lois said with a tired smile. "I heard voices out here and came to investigate."

The elderly woman beside him let out a gasp at Lois's appearance and hurried over to Lois, surprising them both with her nimbleness. She took Lois by the arm and guided her to a couch.

"Lois, sit down," she mothered. "It doesn't look like you should be up and about. What happened?"

"Lois, you should be sleeping," Clark reprimanded before Lois could answer Agnes's question.

"I'm okay, Clark. I can take a nap in a few minutes." She explained what had happened in the parking garage at work, but Clark noticed she left out most of the scary details. He could tell she didn't want to upset her neighbor who she clearly thought of as a surrogate mother.

"Anyway, the guy hit me with the butt of his gun and then ran off," Lois finished. "I got some stitches and a concussion, but I'm going to be okay."

Agnes made a tsk-tsk sound with her tongue. "Lois, you really need to be more careful. This city is not safe for a woman at night. No big city is." She turned to Clark. "Can't you talk her into getting a cushy desk job somewhere? Heaven knows I've tried and am getting nowhere."

Clark grinned. "Somehow I doubt my luck would be any better than yours."

Agnes shook her head, a slightly defeated look in her eyes. She leaned over to clasp Lois's hands in hers. "Just take things easy the next few days, would you? I'm sure you'll be fine with your young man here to look after you, but let me know if you need anything, you hear?"

"I will." Lois nodded with a grateful smile.

Agnes stood up to leave, but when Lois got up and started to follow, Agnes put her hand up to stop her. With a firm tone and a stern look, she pointed to the hall leading to the bedroom with a wrinkled, gnarled finger. "Don't you dare walk me to the door, young lady. You need your rest, and I'm not moving from this spot until you get back to bed. Understand?"

Lois grinned and looked appropriately submissive. "Yes, ma'am. Thanks, Agnes. I'll talk to you soon."

Agnes was true to her word and didn't move until Lois had disappeared down the hall. When her charge had gone, Agnes turned back to Clark with a twinkle in her eye. "That girl needs to be handled with a firm hand."

Clark laughed. "Don't I know it." He followed Agnes to the door and opened it for her.

"Thanks, dear," she told him, patting his arm in an affectionate gesture. She started to step out into the hall, but then paused and looked back up at him. He was surprised to see a sheen of tears in her eyes. "Thank you for taking such good care of that young lady in there," she said, a waver to her voice. "She's pretty special to me, and I don't think I have to tell you what a rough time she's had. But I can tell by that glow about her that you're making her happy. She deserves a nice young man like you."

Clark blushed at the compliment, feeling incredibly touched at Agnes's acceptance of him in Lois's life. He smiled. "Thanks, Agnes. And I promise I'll always do my best to make Lois happy."

Agnes returned his smile and nodded. "I know you will, dear. You make sure she calls if she needs anything."

"I promise."

When she was gone, and Clark had shut the door behind her, his heart felt light. He knew some time ago he'd never have to face the challenge of meeting Lois's parents' and winning their approval, but earning Agnes's approval meant just as much. And now he had it.

With a warm heart, Clark headed back into the bedroom to where Lois was waiting.

***

Lois improved quickly that day, and by that evening, Clark felt confident that she would make a full and speedy recovery. Other than being tired and achy and a little foggy-minded, her spirits were good. They talked about it and decided if she still felt well the next morning, he would leave early enough to make it back to Metropolis and get to work.

And that's just what happened. Lois spent a restful night, and Clark didn't even bother waking her up before he left. He scrawled her a note telling her he loved her and would call her at lunch to check on her, and again later that evening. He also left strict instructions to call him—or Agnes, if she couldn't get hold of him—if she needed anything at all. Then, smiling, he left the note on her night stand as he had the morning before, imagining the sentimental smile it would bring to Lois's face.

When he checked on her at lunch, she was feeling much better and starting to get restless. She told him that Agnes had been over to check on her already, and when she'd reported that Clark had had to take the red-eye flight back to Metropolis, Agnes had insisted she spend the afternoon with her, playing cards and watching old movies on TV—not so Agnes could keep an eye on her, but "to keep an old lady company," Lois had laughingly quoted.

Clark was relieved when he hung up, knowing that Lois was well on her way to recovering and in good hands. With that reassurance, he was able to focus on his work the rest of the day without worrying about her, and Perry had been so happy with the mood piece he finished on the razing of an old theater on 42nd Street that Perry decided it would be the perfect tribute for that evening's city section.

As he walked home that evening, Clark found himself thinking about the meteorite reports that he hadn't yet had a chance to show to Lois. So much had happened in the last few days that he hadn't given the ominous findings much thought. But now that things were settling back to normal, he hoped he could go over them with Lois and get her help drawing some conclusions.

When he got home, he put his work on the table, changed into the Suit, and headed for Smallville. With any luck, his mom was just finishing supper.

***

Clark had been right about supper. She was just setting a roast and vegetables on the table when he walked into the house.

"Good to see you, son," Jonathan said as Clark joined them at the dinner table. "How've you been? How's Lois?"

"Yes, how is Lois doing?" Martha chimed in, handing Clark a plate and some silverware.

Clark had forgotten he hadn't told his parents about their trip to the emergency room. "Actually, she's doing better now, but things got a little scary a couple of days ago," he admitted.

Jonathan looked up from spooning some potatoes onto his plate, his face creased with concern. "What happened?"

Explaining about the attack, Clark filled them in on her injuries and told them that she was on her way to recovery.

Martha frowned and shook her head when he finished. "That's just awful! Poor Lois. I'm so glad she's okay."

"I know. But to honest, I wasn't all that surprised." Clark's jaw tightened as he thought of the way she seemed to have no fear. "She continues to put herself right in the middle of these situations. I know this attack wasn't her fault, but she's always breaking and entering or snatching some little piece of evidence from a crime scene she's working. She never thinks twice about jumping into the pool without checking the water level first. As hard as I work to convince her of the danger, she never seems to realize just how dangerous the situations are. I'm scared to death she's going to get herself killed one of these days."

"She does seem to be headstrong and fearless, that girl," Martha said with an affectionate smile.

Clark nodded. "She is, but that just makes me worry about her all the more. That guy in her apartment the other night during that false fire alarm, for instance. I worried that maybe this guy was threatening her life and she just blew it off, saying it was all part of the job. She never seems to take the threats against her life seriously. Sometimes she is just so…frustrating!"

He looked down at the fork in his hand and saw that it was starting to bend. He released it sheepishly and shook his head. "I just wish I could be there to stop her from doing anything dangerous or impulsive, but I'm so far away. It makes it really hard."

Jonathan reached over to put a comforting hand on his son's arm. "I understand it's tough, you two living so far apart. And I know you're worried about her. But you can't run her life and tell her what to do and what not to do. She has to make her own choices."

"Even if those choices involve breaking and entering, and getting beaten up by thugs in a parking garage?"

Jonathan frowned. "I see your point."

"Clark, maybe the solution isn't to tell her how to do her job," his mom said, "but to help her see that she needs to be more careful in how she does it."

"That's exactly what I've been trying to do, but of course, she doesn't listen to me."

Martha laughed. "I'm not surprised. She's got a mind of her own, that's for sure. It kind of reminds me of someone else I know." She smiled meaningfully at Clark, and he rolled his eyes. Then she continued. "Truthfully, I love that about Lois."

The worry lines around Clark's eyes softened. "Yeah, so do I. She's so full of passion and life. I love that she's impulsive and spontaneous. But I don't like seeing her hurt, either. I couldn't handle it if anything happened to her."

"We know, son." Jonathan clapped him on the shoulder, then turned back to his meal. "We love her, too."

"The next time you see her, pass along our love, would you?" Martha said. "When *do* you see her next, by the way?"

"Since I just left there this morning, I'm not sure. But I'm planning to call her tonight. I had some information I wanted to discuss with her."

"Something for a story you're working on?"

Clark hesitated. He hadn't told his parents about the reports on the meteorites, and he didn't know if he wanted to. He didn't want to worry them needlessly. Finally, he shrugged. "It's sort of related to a story investigation, yes. It's kind of complicated."

His parents didn't press, and Clark breathed a sigh of relief when the subject moved on to other things. Soon they were finished with dinner, and Clark stood to help clean up. With a little super speed it didn't take long, and his mom was smiling at him when he finished blurring about the room, leaving it spotless.

"Thanks, dear. I need to have you here more often."

He laughed. "It was the least I could do after dropping in on you unexpectedly. I guess I should go, though. Thanks for the dinner, mom. It was great." He gave her a quick kiss on her cheek.

She smiled as she pulled him into a hug. "You're welcome. We love seeing you. Be sure to give our love to Lois."

"I will. I'm going to get something from the barn and then head out. Bye, Dad!" he called into the living room where his dad had settled into his favorite recliner to read the newspaper.

"Bye, son," came the response from the living room. "You take care."

With one last smile at his mom, he went out through the kitchen door and crossed the yard to the barn. Once inside, he breathed in deeply. The smell of hay and warm animals always triggered memories of his childhood. Giving a couple of the horses a pat as he walked past, he moved the bales of hay covering the cellar entrance and headed down into the darkness.

He had no trouble seeing, and he made his way over to the covered ship. He pulled back the tarp and briefly ran his fingers along the symbols etched into the craft. He still didn't know what words the symbols formed, but they held more meaning to him now that he'd watched the message from his father. If nothing else, the ship was a connection to his parents and the love they'd had for him.

Letting the tarp fall back over the ship, he located the manila folder he'd abandoned on a shelf near the globe and tucked the papers under his arm for the flight home.

It only took a few minutes to get to his apartment, and he made a beeline for the phone as soon as he came in through the loft window. More than anything, he wanted to get Lois's thoughts on the reports. Just the fact that somebody thought the meteorites could be linked to his home planet, and that they might have an effect of some kind on him, was enough to tighten his stomach.

Clark dialed her number and then waited. She picked up on the fourth ring, and he felt an unwarranted sense of relief. Her cheery 'hello' let him know just how much better she was feeling.

"Clark! Hi," she answered a little breathlessly when she heard his voice. "Now I'm glad I ran for the phone. I was out in the hall talking to Agnes when I heard it ring. I was hoping it would be you."

"Should you be running for the phone like that?" he asked with concern. "You're not overexerting yourself, are you?"

"One of these days you're going to have to quit worrying so much, you know," she scolded lightly. "You're going to give yourself an ulcer. Well, okay, maybe not." He could hear the grin in her voice and knew she was referring to his invulnerability. "Really, I'm fine," she went on. "I had a long nap this afternoon and I feel so much better tonight. My head's still a little sore, but nothing like it was yesterday."

Clark let himself relax. "I'm glad to hear it." He was about to say more, but a series of clicks came across the line. "It sounds like your other line is ringing," he told her. "Go ahead and answer it. I'll wait."

There was a brief pause. "I don't have call waiting," she said finally, sounding confused. "I thought that was your other line."

Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't have call waiting either. It must be a problem with the connection."

Just then he heard another short series of clicks and he froze. That wasn't static. And if neither of them had call waiting…

Clark's blood ran cold.

The phone line. Could that have been what Lois's apartment intruder had been messing with? It sounded suspiciously like the line had been tapped.

If that's what the man had done, Clark knew he needed to get rid of the tap. Now, before anything could be said that might comprise his duel identity, or their relationship.

Managing to keep his tone calm and collected, he said, "Hey, Lois, I just remembered something I promised to do for somebody. Can I call you back in a few minutes?"

She sounded a little puzzled, but she didn't question him. "Sure, Clark. No problem. I'll talk to you in a bit."

Barely remembering to say 'goodbye,' he hung up and shot out of his apartment, speeding toward the west coast. When he landed on Lois's terrace, he tried to stay in the shadows as he floated toward her sliding glass door. If there was a tap on her line, what guarantee did he have that other devices hadn't been planted throughout her apartment, like cameras or other miscellaneous listening devices?

He peeked in through the glass door and saw Lois walking past from the living room into the kitchen. Trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, he tapped on the glass. Lois paused and look around the room, puzzled. Then she turned and started toward the front door.

He tapped again, this time louder. She stopped and turned back. Her eyes squinted into the darkness outside the sliding glass door, then he saw her shoulders relax and a slow smile crossed her face. She knew only one person who would knock on her sliding glass door.

When she reached the door and slid it open, she peered out onto the dark terrace. "Clark?" she whispered. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me," he stage-whispered back. "I'm over here."

She finally spotted him in the back left corner next to a planted palm. She looked puzzled as she took a step toward him. "What are you do—"

Clark put a finger to his lips and waved her over. She frowned as she approached. "What's going on?"

"I'll tell you in a minute," he reassured her in a whisper. "Stay right here out of sight of your sliding door while I go check something. Don't move until I say so."

Her puzzled expression became a concerned frown. "Why? What's wrong?"

He held up a finger, belaying his explanation, then supersped into her apartment. She heard a series of whooshes, and a minute later, Clark was calling out the all clear.

Her brow furrowed in confusion, she stepped out of the shadows and walked in through the door. She spotted Clark standing by the phone in her living room, a look of worry and concern etched into his face.

"So what was that all about?" she asked as she approached him tentatively.

"This." He held out something in his hand and she stepped closer to take a look.

He held some crumbled plastic and a couple of tiny wires in his hand. She looked up at him in confusion. "What is it?"

A frown darkened his features. "A phone tap."

She let out a little gasp. "My line was tapped?"

He nodded solemnly. "I suspected so when we were talking on the phone and heard the clicks. I wanted to get you out on the patio, though, so I could sweep your apartment to make sure there weren't any cameras or other listening devices. There weren't any when I checked after your building's false fire alarm the other night, and I didn't find anything now. It's just the tapped phone line."

He shook his head and tightened his hand angrily around the crushed plastic he still held. "This must have been what that guy was doing in your apartment that night. He was tapping your phone line. I didn't even think to check for phone taps when I did my initial sweep." He swore quietly under his breath and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Lois. I should have checked—"

"Clark, this isn't your fault." She stepped forward and touched his clenched hand. "Besides, if that guy planted the device just a couple of days ago, I don't think we have anything to worry about. We've hardly talked on the phone since then because you've been here. Whoever was listening in on my phone conversations wouldn't have heard anything compromising. I'm sure your secret's still safe."

Clark let out a growl of aggravation. "Lois, I don't care about that! I care about *you*!" His eyes flashed as he stalked over to the kitchen garbage and tossed the crumbled plastic into it. "Don't you realize what this means? Somebody is worried enough about what you—we," he amended, "are doing that they'll stalk you, attack you in the garage, and sneak into your apartment to tap your phone line. Who knows what else these guys are planning? If Lex really is behind all this, he's a man of exceptional power and resources. It's obvious he'll stop at nothing to get to you. I'm not leaving you here."

His last words hovered in the air, weighing down heavily upon Lois. She crossed her arms and stared at him, her defiant eyes meeting his stubborn ones. "And what exactly do you plan to do, Clark? Whisk me off to some secluded island where nobody can find me? Leave me there until you can track down the bad guys and lock them all away?"

She shook her head and forced herself to take a deep breath. Her hands fell back to her sides and her tone softened. "There's always going to be a bad guy, Clark. You can't protect me from everybody. Our job is dangerous, but we make a difference. That's what I like about what we do. I can't live my life worrying about what's behind every corner. I won't."

Clark's expression remained firm. "I'm not telling you to. And I know I can't protect you from every bad guy out there, but I can protect you from this one." He paused, then closed the distance between them and put his hands on her shoulders. "Please, Lois, let me take you to Metropolis for a few days where I know I can keep you safe. Jim gave you the rest of the week off. Come with me. You'd be bored stiff inside of two days around here anyway."

When she didn't say anything right away, Clark tried again. "Please?"

Finally, she sighed and rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. But just so you know, I'm not going because you're telling me I should. I'm only going because I know you're right about me being bored if I stick around here."

Clark quickly extinguished the smile that threatened to break loose, and he pressed his lips into a straight, neutral line. "Of course, of course," he said, nodding. "I know that."

She stared at him for a moment, as if waiting for some show of smugness. When his expression remained neutral, she lifted her chin defiantly as she walked past. "It's not."

"I know." He nodded again quickly, watching her pass.

"Let me just go pack a few things and we can go."

When she disappeared into her bedroom, he let the smile break out across his face and he laughed softly. Stubborn. It was the only word for her.

Stubborn or not, though, he knew he'd won the argument, and just knowing that she'd be in Metropolis for the next few days where he could better keep an eye on her made him feel better.

He sat down on the couch to wait, not wanting to provoke her wrath by being underfoot as she packed. She appeared ten minutes later carrying a large carry-on type bag. He was on his feet and at her side a moment later, taking the bag and shouldering it himself.

"That was fast," he commented, noticing she'd changed into jeans and a loose, comfortable red sweater. It brought out the color in her cheeks and complimented her complexion perfectly. He still couldn't get over how beautiful she was, even in baggy casual wear.

Her bag relinquished, she walked back into the kitchen and opened the drawers nearest the phone. She drew out a pad of paper and a pen and started to write.

Curious, he walked into the kitchen and stopped beside her. "What are you doing?"

"Leaving a note for Agnes," she answered without lifting her eyes for her scribblings. "I'm telling her that I'm going to spend the rest of my week off with you in Metropolis so she doesn't worry about where I went." She finished what she was writing, then glanced up at Clark. "Is it okay if I leave her your number in case of emergency?"

"Of course." He nodded. "No problem."

She turned her attention back to her note, her pen moving across the paper for another minute. Then she set the pen down and rummaged through the drawer again, pulling out an envelope. She folded the note, slipped it inside, and scrawled Agnes's name across the front.

"Let me go slip this under Agnes's door and then we can go."

Clark looked at her in confusion. "You already know she's not home?"

"Yeah. This is the night she plays poker with some of the older ladies in the building."

"Poker?" Clark's eyebrows flew up his forehead.

Lois laughed. "Does that surprise you?"

"I guess I just didn't think—"

"That an elderly woman would play a hard game of cards?" Lois's eyes twinkled. "Well, she does, and she's good at it. Better than me. And before you ask, yes, I join them sometimes."

Grinning at his look of surprise, she opened the front door and stepped out in the hall. She returned moments later and gave Clark's arm a playful slap as she walked past him toward the terrace.

"Come on," she urged without looking over her shoulder, "before I change my mind and refuse to leave with you just to spite you."

***

The night air grew colder the further east they flew, and by the time Clark set Lois down inside his apartment, she was shivering. He set her bag on the floor next to her and held up a finger, urging her to be quiet for a minute. Then he became a blur as he flew around his apartment and in and out of the various rooms. When he stopped in front of her, the relief was evident on his face.

"There are no bugs or cameras anywhere here. We're safe."

"Thank goodness," she breathed. "Can you imagine if someone had *your* place wired for cameras? They'd learn a whole lot more than they expected."

Clark nodded grimly. "I know. Now let's see about getting you warmed up."

He took a step backward, then held up a hand in a gesture for her to hold still. She did, and she watched curiously as he lowered his chin and seemed to concentrate as he stared at her. A moment later, she felt a warmth radiating through her, and she realized Clark's special vision was the source.

When his chin finally lifted and he gave her a shy smile, she knew he was done. She smiled and took a step toward him, rubbing her hands along her arms experimentally and marveling that her chills were gone.

"You *are* handy to have around," she told him as she slid her arms around his waist and raised herself up on her tiptoes to give him a kiss.

He chuckled and kissed her back. "I'm so glad you think so." He moved away to grab the afghan from the couch, then returned. "Let's wrap this around you for a few minutes. I don't want to take any chances," he said, wrapping it around her securely.

"Thanks." She smiled and adjusted the heavy blanket higher on her neck. "I guess winter's coming, isn't it? You can sure feel it out here, a lot more than you can in the Bay Area."

Clark agreed, and Lois let him guide her over to the couch with a hand on the small of her back. He sat down beside her and drew her close in an effort to warm her further.

Content to be in the arms of the man she loved, Lois dropped her head onto Clark's shoulder as a comfortable silence settled between them. But then Lois spotted a manila folder on the coffee table in front of them and her curiosity got the better of her. She lifted her head from his shoulder and nodded at the thick folder.

"What are you working on?"

"Oh!" Clark sat up straighter and reached for the file. "I almost forgot. I flew out to Smallville tonight to pick up these papers. They're the reports I found in the warehouse."

Lois frowned. "The ones that worried you?"

Clark nodded, and she took the file from him. When she flipped open the cover and the words 'Smallville, Kansas, 1966' leaped off the first page, her frown deepened. She turned the page.

With Clark reading over her shoulder, Lois pored through the scientific data and reports, her concern mounting with each page. She read what the scientists had learned about the meteorites, about how they contained a degree of radioactivity that was harmless to humans, but when combined with a level of toxicity, could have resulted in the destruction of a planet.

Lois's eyes widened, and she looked up from the reports to meet Clark's gaze. "They think the toxins and radioactivity in these meteorites could have been possible for a Planet's—your Planet's—explosion? On one of the globe's holograms, your father mentioned Krypton's core disintegration. Do you think this is what caused it? The combination of elements contained in these meteorites?"

His expression was solemn. "I suppose it's possible."

"And these scientists think these meteorites are actually part of your home world that followed you into orbit?"

"It looks that way, doesn't it?"

Lois's eyes dropped back to the reports in front of her, and she continued to read. When she came across the one scientist's theory that "Superman" could have arrived on earth in 1966 in the capsule that had crashed into a farmer's field in Smallville, Kansas, accompanied by outcroppings of meteorites, she gasped.

"Clark!" she exclaimed, her eyes flying up to his.

"I know." Clark nodded, sharing her fear. "It scared me, too, to realize how close they are to the truth. They haven't made the connection between Clark Kent and Superman, but they pretty much nailed the rest."

Anxious to learn what else the scientists had learned, Lois turned back to the reports. She read about the tests they'd conducted on the meteorites found at the site, and how, while apparently not harmful to humans, they might be to Superman.

A shiver went up her spine. When the last page had been read, she closed the file. She sat silently for several minutes as she pondered everything she'd read. At last she looked over to see Clark watching her expectantly.

She shook her head. "But I don't get it. How could a piece of your planet be potentially harmful to you?"

"Maybe the same way it was instrumental in my planet's destruction." Clark shrugged. "The data states the toxin isn't harmful to humans, but maybe it *is* harmful to Kryptonians. To me."

"But we don't know that for sure," Lois said, seeing the anxious expression on his face. "All we have here is a lot of theories by a bunch of scientists. They haven't drawn any conclusions as yet. They'd have to test it—"

Her voice broke off and she suddenly paled.

"Lois?" Clark asked with concern. "What is it?"

Her voice was a scared whisper when she answered. "Clark, what if they already *have* tested it?"

He frowned and looked at her in confusion. "What do you mean?"

Lois hesitated for a moment, considering. But the more she thought about it, the more it all made sense. Shifting on the couch so she could face Clark, she ran a hand through her hair. "Okay, hear me out. Luthor made those two rather sizeable donations to Bureau 39—one a couple of years ago, and one just a couple of months ago, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, if Luthor had some business with Bureau 39 in the past, he could have been privy to their information. What if he found out about these meteorites, read the reports, and decided this scientist's theory about the meteorite possibly being harmful to Superman had some merit?"

"Okay," he said, nodding to indicate he was following so far.

"Well, you've already theorized that Luthor was behind those 'tests.' What if he found out that this meteorite could have an effect on Superman, and decided to add it to his list of tests?"

"To see what kind of effect it would have on me?" he asked, his brow furrowing.

Lois nodded, and her next words were ominous. "And maybe he already has."

Clark's blood ran cold. For a long moment he didn't speak. When he did, his voice was a hoarse whisper. "That day I lost my powers."

Lois nodded again. "How hard would it have been to stage an emergency, like that bomb threat in the Carlin building, and plant some of this meteorite on one of his people in that crowd of spectators? Then when you walked by, he'd find out what kind of reaction he'd get."

"And it took my powers away."

Lois's heart clenched painfully as she thought back to that frightening day. "And that was only short term exposure," she pointed out ominously. "How long were you out with the crowd before you felt so awful? A couple minutes? I hate to sound pessimistic, but what kind of effect could long-term exposure have on you?"

Clark paled. "I don't know. And I sure don't want to find out."

"Me either." Lois reached out for one of Clark's hands, hoping to comfort him—as well as herself. "But we have to face facts. With this information in Luthor's hands, it could tip the scales in his favor."

They were silent for several minutes as they contemplated that frightening theory. But then Clark spoke, a note of hope returning to his voice.

"Wait a minute, Lois. Maybe we're jumping the gun here. What if it was somebody from Bureau 39 that tested it, and Luthor doesn't know anything about it?"

Lois frowned and shook her head. "Men like Luthor don't make sizeable contributions to covert government groups without expecting something in return. He wanted something from them. And a rock from another planet with theoretical applications for harming his new nemesis would be worth some serious coin. He's the third richest man in the world. Money is no object. But you—Superman—are clearly a threat to whatever illegal business dealings he's involved in. He wouldn't think twice about shelling out his money for a meteorite that could harm Superman."

Clark's face fell, his hopes dashed. "You're right. I hate to admit it, but you're right." He was quiet for a moment. Then a look of renewed determ