Long Strange Trip

By L <lkfanfic@gmail.com>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: January 2006

Summary: Alt-Clark never imagined that *his* Lois had been forced into an alternate world by Tempus years ago. Thanks to the benevolent intervention of Herb Wells, Lois returns home, much changed. Years of suffering at the hands of Clark's dark doppelganger — Lord Kal-El — have left their mark. Can she ever overcome her trauma to recognize her soulmate wearing the face and form of her tormentor, or will she succeed in destroying his standing amongst humanity definitively?

Author's Note:

The text between << >> indicate the thoughts of the characters.

The text after ** refers to telepathic communication.

The text is flashbacks.

***

He returned wearily from the intense rescue mission, desperately in need of someone to talk to. The hardest part about this aspect of his life was that it took so much out of him emotionally and he had no place to go find solace. He felt the familiar lonely pull of depression suck him into its depths. He knew it wasn't a clinical disorder, but rather the stark realization that he really was alone in this world.

Knowing what his counterpart had only made it harder. It was one thing to be lonely and alone and to have some vague hope of meeting that right person someday. There was no such hope for him. The one woman who would make him complete was nowhere to be found. He had searched for her extensively in vain and had finally begun to admit that Lois Lane was dead. For all his super-strength and fantastic powers, the knowledge that she was *nowhere* made him feel vulnerable and raw.

His sense of isolation was exacerbated by the fact that he was the last of his kind. His was an ironic lot. People adored Superman. They admired him deeply and clustered around him whenever he appeared. But for all his admirers, there were others who feared and mistrusted him. Often times he came smack up against those feelings and the experiences left him completely unnerved.

One thing was true. Nowhere in the conflicting miasma of emotional response did he ever find a feeling that he could even remotely call "home". He'd only felt that once, but it was a skewed reflection of a love that belonged to someone else.

Awash in self-pity, he found himself thinking angrily of the events that lead him to this particular point in his life. On the one hand, it had been an astounding experience, heady and exhilarating in many ways. And on the other hand, it left him with a huge blank hole in his life. Knowing that his own counterpart had everything that he had ever yearned for made him feel empty and angry at times.

Wells! He thought angrily. If only Wells had just stayed out of his life.

As if his very thoughts had summoned the man, a time machine suddenly appeared in his living room. A very flustered and winded H.G. Wells stepped out of the machine.

Clark instantly put his feelings of self pity and anger behind him. Wells would only have come if there were good reasons.

"Is everything okay? Is Lois in danger … is Clark? Do you need my help?"

Herbert looked at him for a long moment as if trying to decide what to say next.

"Actually… I… I… I have… something… that is… someone… with me…"

Brimming with agitation, Wells fiddled with the controls on his machine and lifted the passenger hood.

Time stood completely still as Clark saw who that someone was.

Lois Lane. She was unconscious and badly bruised, wearing an outfit that even under the most generous of descriptions could only be called skimpy. Clark moved in closer. Was she dead? His fine senses detected a heartbeat and he felt a surge of relief. Not dead. But badly harmed. His hands curled into fists as he struggled to control his growing rage.

"Who did this to her?" His voice was deceptively calm.

<<If Clark did this I'll kill him.>>

"I'll tell you, but you need to know that this isn't the Lois Lane that you know," Wells said hastily.

"She's from yet another universe?"

"Well… in a matter of speaking," he said. "This Lois Lane is the one from your universe."

"What? But… but that's impossible. I looked everywhere for her. Everywhere! There is no possible way that she could have escaped my notice… I… where did you find her? What happened to her?"

"You have to promise to stay calm," Wells said nervously.

"Calm? You've just conjured — out of thin air, I might add — the one person who can make my life complete! I thought she was dead! I scoured the entire planet looking for her. I used every super sense at my disposal — even doing some really unpleasant graveyard checks … and nothing! Then you show up with her, unconscious and badly beaten, and you expect me to remain calm?"

"I hesitate to continue until you get yourself under control," Wells replied gingerly. "This situation will require careful handling."

"But —"

"Clark. Please. I'm sorry — I know this is hard for you. It's hard for me too. Her condition — her disappearance — both are completely my fault. I was trying to make sure Utopia happened, and in doing so, managed to consign this woman into a living hell. I —"

"Okay. Look. I Promise. I'll stay calm. But tell me now. What happened to her? Where was she?"

Wells looked away, and with a heavy sigh sat down on the edge of the sofa. He motioned for the younger man to sit as well. Clark obliged in hopes that his compliance would bring about a quicker conclusion to this mystery.

Wells heaved another heavy sigh. "Tempus took Lois out of this universe three years ago and brought her into an alternate one. He left her there with absolutely no means to get home. This particular alternate universe was… unpleasant… to say the least."

"Unpleasant how?"

"Kryptonians had overtaken the Earth. In that other universe your counterpart never came to Earth. He was sent to a world called New Krypton and raised with his own kind. He has become a cruel and heartless tyrant. He is the ruler of his people, and he engineered the takeover of Earth. He is rumored to have killed the Lois Lane in his world — she was a resistance fighter who caught his eye. I guessing I don't need to tell you how he dealt with her before killing her."

Clark grew horrified. How could that even be? He wasn't capable of this kind of brutality. How could any variant of him be like this? What's more — how could any variant of him kill a variant of her?

"That's… that's… horrifying…"

"Well — it gets worse," continued Wells grimly. "Lois … this Lois… caught his eye. He had been obsessed with the other one and regretted his hasty decision to kill her. Perhaps, in some sick way, it was the lure of their soul connection. Not all soul connections are benevolent, by the way. Her arrival into his world gave him a second chance…as it were. It wasn't really all that hard for him to capture her… I mean, if you think about it — if you put your mind to it — nobody could really stop you from doing anything… anything at all." Wells trailed off, eyeing Clark with vague uneasiness. After witnessing first-hand the doppelganger's actions, he was inclined to deal with Clark with a little more caution.

"But — no! That isn't true! What about Kryptonite? Why didn't they just -"

"They don't know about it." He interrupted bleakly. He held up a pre-emptive hand. "And I'm not allowed to interfere at that grand scale. Once I found out about what Tempus had done, of course, I immediately went and got her. However, she has been in that universe for a long time. Three years in hell is an eternity. Three years of being at that madman's mercy. And mercy is not exactly what he offered her."

"All those bruises on her face… are his doing?" he asked, his heart sinking. The answer was, of course, obvious.

"Yes. He knew how much force to exert to hurt her without … permanently damaging her. He's a very sick and twisted man. He enjoys hurting people. Does it for kicks…" He paused uneasily. "I suspect it isn't just her face with the bruises, and perhaps if you did an x-ray on her, you would find a … historical report of the abuses she has suffered."

Clark was shaking his head agitatedly. He got up and started pacing the apartment.

"I — I … *have* to go put an end to this. Take me to his world!! Please — I'm begging you — let me … let me put it right. I … have to put this right!!"

"My boy — there are many Kryptonians in that world and only one of you. Even if you could persuade me to do this… you would need the other Clark's help."

"Then let's do it! I … why are you shaking your head?"

"I'm supposed to abide by certain rules. I brought her here because she belongs in this world. But this kind of interference is forbidden -"

"You've interfered before. What difference can one more time make?"

"Call it a … well… a prime directive, of sorts." Wells replied cautiously. "You see — Tempus and I are not the only time travelers in the multi-verse. In fact — there exists a group of individuals dedicated to protecting the integrity of the time stream. Their ultimate goal is to use time travel for observation only. Interference is vastly frowned upon."

"Okay… but as I just said — you have interfered. Why hasn't anyone stopped you or Tempus?"

"Tempus is a very crafty fellow. The time … corps, if you will… have actually tried to subdue his efforts, but have only managed to make things worse. I think it suits them to have me chase around after him and concentrate my efforts on repairing his damage. Since his obsession is with you and Miss Lane, and since I also have made you two a priority, it makes sense in a twisted kind of way. I think the time corps thinks I'm as much a nuisance as Tempus."

"Forgive me for saying this…but if that were the case, why don't they just incarcerate you?"

"Believe me, my boy, that thought has often crossed my mind. The only thing I can think of is that somehow our interference efforts are regarded as part of the 'normal flow of things'. I don't profess to really understand the paradoxical nature of time travel. I just act in a way that feels right. I have to believe that by following my instincts, I am somehow causing the correct 'course of things' to take effect. I realize this is irrational, but it feels right to foil Tempus's attempts -and on the same token, it doesn't feel right for me to do what you have asked." He concluded wearily, knowing full well that his explanation was far from satisfying.

"I don't agree with you Herb, and this isn't the last you've heard from me on the subject," Clark replied firmly. "However, we have more pressing concerns right now. Like… where do we go from here?"

"Ah. Well yes. That will require some careful consideration. I… uh… drugged her by slipping a strong sedative into her food. She will continue to be unconscious for a few hours yet. You see — Lois wasn't likely to trust me, nor was she likely to go quietly. I don't need to tell you, I think, how formidable an opponent she can be. With her fighting skills, I'd probably be dead if I had tried to do this with her conscious."

"I'm glad to hear she's still a fighter. I mean. After all he did to her."

"Kal-El did not succeed in breaking her spirit completely. Oh, she learned the tricks that enabled her to survive. Kal-El is a brutal man, and often struck out at her unpredictably — but there were certain predictable events which would made things even worse… making eye contact, venomous comments… she learned to play a certain role with him, and she learned to internalize much of what she felt. Honestly Clark, I have to say that I doubt you two will even be able to forge even a casual friendship in this lifetime, let alone anything… else."

Clark looked compassionately at the woman lying in the time machine.

"All that matters is that she's back home, safe. I don't want to make her uncomfortable… much as it pains me to even think it… I'll just have to keep my distance."

"Well, for now, I agree with you," Wells said briskly. "In fact… she shouldn't be here in your apartment when she regains consciousness."

Hours later, Lois woke up.

She bleakly and carefully opened her eyes just enough to let the light in.

<<Quiet as a mouse, and don't even hint that you are awake>>

Her surroundings confused her. Where was she? In a flash of recollection, she recognized the interior of the Metropolis hotel — having done several work-related stakeouts in rooms just like this one.

<<How is this possible?>>

"A-hem," Wells coughed nervously as he noticed the telltale change of her body as she transitioned from asleep to awake.

Lois jerked upright. In an instant she was out of the bed, wincing as the pain lanced through her body.

Sitting across the bed was an incongruous older man. His clothing made him appear as if he had stepped out of the 19th century. He was an anachronism, but … he didn't appear to be a threat in any way.

She eyed him with growing trepidation and decided that her best stance was an offensive one.

"Who are you, and where the hell are we?" Her tone was clipped and angry. Unconsciously her body rearranged itself in a self- defensive stance.

Wells regarded her with an equal amount of trepidation.

"I'm…well, my name is Herb," he answered hurriedly. "And… I assure you, Miss Lane, I mean you absolutely no harm. You are most assuredly safe here."

"I'll be the judge of that," she informed him flatly. "Where are we? Why am I here? And other than being *Herb*… who are you?"

"I'm… a writer, and an inter-dimensional time traveler. I… I've brought you home, Miss Lane."

Back at his apartment, Clark sat back on his sofa, stunned. Conflicting emotions bombarded him from every direction. He didn't know what to think.

He was terrified! While she had lain senseless in the time machine, he kept his eyes glued on her. He was terrified that if he looked away, she would vanish into thin air. Vanish. Cease to exist. Like she had before.

He was full of self recrimination over his failure to consider that she might have been abducted by Tempus. Seeing how he couldn't find a single trace of her, and seeing how Tempus had already pulled this very same stunt with the other Lois, he suddenly felt as if the answer had been staring him in the face. He had just been too stupid to see it.

He was elated! He leapt to his feet in frustrated emotion. She was *alive*! First and foremost, he felt an intense and boundless joy at the realization that she was alive — alive and … after all these years… finally back in his world. He wanted to skywrite love sonnets… he wanted… he wanted to see her again! Desperately! Achingly! He felt himself elevate off the ground, as he thought of her endless beauty, both inner and outer. He wanted to be near her always… to drink in her beauty and spirit, and … to offer himself up as her most willing slave.

Rage and shame returned with a vengeance at this thought. Slave. Concubine. That's what she had been. He sobered up a bit as returned to the dark and ugly side to this situation. Yes, Lois was alive — but she wasn't exactly *well*. In fact, she was shattered. The ordeal and victimization she had undergone had surely left indelible scars on her psyche.

It was horrible for him to even think, for even a moment, that they could ever have any kind of friendly relationship. Shame engulfed him from all sides as he imagined himself approaching her romantically.

Likely she would always loathe and fear him. How could she not? His doppelganger, from the sounds of it, had done a thorough job of making her despise and fear all Kryptonians. To be faced with a man wearing the same name, face and powers as her tormentor would be too much for her to overcome. He absolutely owed it to her to stay out of her way.

He felt the ground hit his feet, and he stumbled at the unexpectedness of his landing. His dark thoughts had brought about his descent unconsciously. The idea of never holding her hand, never gazing into those gorgeous brown eyes, never arguing about a story, or about her cooking, or even HIS cooking… it hurt too much.

And yet — what right did he have to expect ANY of those things from her? He had failed her in every way by not rescuing her from that other world.

His thoughts suddenly turned to his dark twin. More than anything he wanted to go and liberate that world. He knew he'd be badly outnumbered, even if Alt-Lois gave Alt-Clark permission to help, but he didn't care! The thought of this world living under the ruthless domination of his own doppelganger tore at his conscience. He felt that there had to be something he could do. The only way he'd ever get the chance would be if Wells changed his mind. He would have to work on that later.

As Clark battered himself with his tortured ruminations, across town, Lois gaped H.G. Wells with an expression of hopeful shock and angry defensiveness.

She was staggered at what she had just heard. She was home?

The logical reporter part of her brain was screaming at her that it was all a trap or sick game… but her body and spirit knew the truth. The air felt … well… it felt right. It smoothed over her body like a warm and comforting embrace, rather than irritating her with its bumpy edges like it did in that other world.

In short, she felt like she belonged. She hadn't felt this way in three very long years. She just knew that somehow this odd little man was telling her the truth. She was home, and she was home to stay. No more Kal-El.

The thought of never having to look at that cruel face was almost more than she could bear. She felt her body slip out of its defensive stance, and she collapsed weakly to sit on the bed — her body trembling violently, as she broke down into a cacophony of uncontrolled crying. After keeping herself in check for so long, she was overcome with the onslaught of feeling.

Wells stood his ground resolutely. There was no hope for him offering her comfort, and he knew instinctively that she would shy away from any supporting touch. He waited in silence, respecting her need to purge herself of some of her more immediate emotions… and he had no doubt in his mind that she would spend a lot of time over the coming months just like this — a helpless captive to the tidal wave of reaction that would repeatedly rear up to consume her.

She felt like she would break — her sobs racked her body with such an intense force. But eventually, after long moments, she finally managed to regain a semblance of control. Her sobs receded and she futilely wiped at the tears that had dripped down her face. Standing tall once again she faced this quiet man, loving him in that instant for the very simple fact that he had brought her home. Whoever he was, and whatever his agenda. Suddenly her reporter brain kicked in again and asked … what was his agenda? She eyed him, not as suspiciously as before, but curiously, and asked the question out loud.

"Why am I here? And what role did you have in my initial abduction?" She kept her voice level, trying to treat this as an objective interview.

"Ah … well… it is a long story. You were abducted by a man named Tempus and brought to a different universe. Tempus comes from the future… we can travel through time and dimension with a machine which I invented. Tempus is a criminally minded individual, but he lives in a time where humanity has embraced a utopian lifestyle… free of crime and suffering. He believes you had a lot to do with the development of that society and wanted to prevent you from creating it in this universe."

"How could anyone be so foolish as to suspect me of creating a Utopia? I don't *create* things! I can't cook! I can't even grow plants… I… I'm certainly not an idealist… never have been… and never will be. Not after all I've been through or seen," she trailed off disbelievingly.

"I can't really address that Miss Lane. I can't give away knowledge I have of your potential future, or the nature of your contributions to this noble end. But what I can tell you is that Tempus regards you as a serious threat to his preferred lifestyle and decided that this would be a fitting way of dealing with things."

"Where is this 'Tempus' person?" Her ire was increasing again. "And how do I know he won't bring me back there again? I can't go back! I can't! I'd die first. I'd… I can't live like that — not ever again!"

"Tempus is currently under control… but that is always a… dynamic situation. Uh… and there are as many of him as there are alternate Lois Lanes. But we are getting better at detecting and detaining him. I assure you, he would find it incredibly difficult, bordering on impossible, to take you again. And… well… there … well, there is someone in this world who would prevent that from happening. Who would be on the alert for Tempus's interference in this time line and universe, and for any signs of you being in danger?"

"And this someone is… you?"

"No," he paused uneasily. He had to tell her. It wasn't as if the world didn't know about Kal-El or Clark Kent. Hidden identity wasn't an option in this universe, and it was better she find out now than be confronted by it later. It would be less of a shock this way.

"Miss Lane. I don't wish to alarm you in any way. But you need to know this. Kal-El exists in this world. He lives on Earth after having been sent here as a baby. Loving and gentle humans raised him and instilled in him a loving heart and a desire to help others. His human name is Clark Kent… and he works as a reporter for the Daily Planet."

Time froze. Almost instantly she felt the familiar veil of panic and despair settle on her like a very heavy cloak. Her skin was suddenly crawling and she felt that unpleasant and familiar wave of dread-induced nausea overtake her. Her skin became clammy as a fine sheen of sweat covered her body. Her limbs begin to tremble uncontrollably.

<<My fault! I let my guard down! I shouldn't have done that! I know better. I was *taught* to know better. How could I actually let myself believe I was free?>>

She felt like she had been dealt a physical blow, a sensation with which she was all too familiar.

"Miss Lane," Wells continued urgently, "I assure you — this man is nothing like the man you knew. He is as different from the other Kal-El as you can imagine. He would never hurt you or anyone else. It simply isn't in his nature. He was raised by very loving parents, and he is a kind, caring and compassionate man who puts the well being of other people over his own needs. In fact, he acts as a protector of sorts — he takes care of people, he rescues them from danger."

Lies. He's telling me lies! I have to get out of here! I have to get away from this man. He works for Kal-El — somehow he works for Kal-El. This Kal-El must have known I was in that other world — and he wanted me brought back her for his own… amusement. As these thoughts trickled through her mind, she started to believe them. She knew that the other Kal-El had held some twisted and bizarre fascination with her. She didn't understand it, but she knew that it was what had enabled her to survive his cruelty.

"You… you stay back!" Her voice held mounting panic. She was no longer able to hold her emotions in check. In blind terror, she took several panicked steps backward.

"Miss Lane … really — this is all terribly unnecessary. You have nothing to fear — especially from me!"

"I … What did you get out of this, Herb… if that really is your name? Are you even human? If so … you're the worst kind of human. You've betrayed your own kind, pandering to that madman. It might serve you to be his minion now, but in the end… he'll destroy you like he destroys everything and everyone that crosses his path!"

Wells stared at her helplessly. For once, he was dumbfounded. He had no idea where to go from here.

Her expression showed the depths of her despair and betrayal. Unable to hold back her emotions, she started to cry. "I … I trusted you," she whispered, her voice low and ragged. "Is this how you get your kicks? Do you know what it meant to me to think I was free of him? Do you know how it feels to now know that I never will be?"

Lois watched in a confused daze as the strange man named Herb turned slowly and regretfully away from her and walked out the door.

She sat heavily down on the bed. She waited many tense moments waiting for him to reappear, but he never did. She shook violently, her teeth chattering. She felt cold and very sick.

<<I can't stay here! I have to get out of here! This is the first place he'll think to look>>

She tore out of the room unheeding of the picture she presented. Her clothing was very outlandish … she still wore the flimsy garment of a concubine… garments he forced her to wear — and her face was all banged up. None of this mattered to her. She just had to get out of that room. If Herb was working for Kal-El, Kal- El would know where she was. The sooner she got out of there the better. Bitterly, she realized that if Kal-El did know where she was, he was likely playing a cat and mouse game with her. She was no stranger to his twisted tricks. However, her survival instinct refused to allow her to sit there waiting for him to show up. Galvanized by these thoughts she stood up and took flight.

<<Hurry! Hurry!! Get out of here! I have to get out of here! I have to escape! >>

The devil was on her heels as she dashed out of the hotel, shoving aside people in her blind and frantic haste.

Once outside she stopped short. She stood still, breathing heavily from the exertion and panic. People gazed curiously at her but she ignored them completely. Instead she remained transfixed — awed by the sight before her.

She took a deep long shuddering breath. Metropolis! Before her lay glorious, wondrous Metropolis and all its masses of denizens. All human. Going about their lives, rushing, swearing and carelessly talking on their cell phones. Not a single sign of Kryptonian influence. The buildings were all as she remembered, and as she stared, blinded by the suns reflection off the surrounding skyscrapers, she broke down into helpless tears.

Still caught up in the euphoric sensation of being home and surrounded by her own kind, she dropped into a crouch and ran her fingernails across the pavement as if to make sure that this wasn't some sick illusion. Her fingernails rasped roughly over the concrete and she looked at their jagged edges in bewildered joy. The sheer terror of a moment ago had made way for this new sensation and she stood for a long moment just soaking it all in.

Slowly she returned to Earth gradually becoming aware of stares and the whispers. She looked down and realized that she looked a sight.

<<I can't go out like this>>

She turned around and eyed the hotel doors uncertainly. It was actually pretty unlikely for Kal-El to come looking for her here. It was too public and too open. If he was laying low with his true intentions, surely an abduction from such a public place would be imprudent. Warily, she made her way back into the hotel.

She wandered towards the stairs, preferring to avoid elevators… for the rest of her life if possible. Since her incarceration, tight enclosed spaces held absolutely no appeal for her.

"Ma'am. Excuse me!"

A uniformed hotel employee approached her and handed her a thick envelope.

"You're friend asked that we give you this envelope."

"My friend?"

"Yes. The… gentleman that … uh… you came in here with?" The attendant smiled nastily. She hated having prostitutes use this hotel for their business.

<<Oh great. She thinks I'm a prostitute.>>

Lois smiled icily at the attendant. "Thanks," she snapped, grabbing the envelope out of her hand. She walked slowly up the three flights of stairs that she had so recently run down. As hoped her door was still open — the way she had left it. Gingerly she stepped inside and looked in all the closets and other assorted hiding places. She was alone. On the bed was a casual change of clothes as well as comfortable footwear.

<<He thought of everything.>>

She opened the envelope curiously. Inside was her birth certificate, passport and an ATM card. She shook her head in amazement. She didn't want to know how he had this stuff or how he knew her size. She fervently hoped that Kal-El had nothing to do with this. She shook her head of that thought — she didn't have time for it right now. Now — it was time to take a very long and hot shower.

Two hours later she stood once more outside the hotel doors far less conspicuously than before. She waited there for a few moments feeling lost and bewildered. Where would she go? What should she do first? Should she seek out her parents first? Lucy? She just wasn't ready to deal with the intensity of their response nor was she ready to answer questions about where she had been and what she had endured.

Perry? Yes. Perry! Of all these people, she wanted to see him the most.

Her heart sank. She couldn't go see him! He worked at the Daily Planet, along with that monster, Kal-El. She shook her head in disbelief. How could anyone believe that he was here for benevolent reasons? No doubt his stint as a reporter was part of his plan to delude the human race into thinking he wanted to be "one of them". She inhaled wearily. She had a very dangerous and difficult task ahead of her. Exposing the alien's true intentions could cost her credibility, and even her life. But she knew that she couldn't live with herself without at least trying. The world had to know. Kal-El was not to be trusted. She only hoped that there were other human beings out there who felt as she did… humans who had enough influence and power to make a difference. If they existed, she would find them.

"Hey lady! Where too?" The taxi driver sounded impatient and irritated.

"Uh… well… Does… would you happen to know if Perry White is still the editor of the Daily Planet?"

"Perry White is Mayor of Metropolis."

Her heart skipped a beat in excitement. Perry was accessible to her now! She instructed the cab driver to take her to see the mayor, and settled back to compose her racing thoughts.

Once the cab was underway, Lois ventured to ask the cab driver some questions.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Shoot!" Wayne rarely liked to talk to his fares, but this woman was hot. Yea… her face was all banged up, but it was obvious that underneath it all she was a babe.

"What do you think of Ka- uh… Clark Kent? You know… the — the alien?" She tried to sound casually interested.

"Clark? Oh —you mean Superman? Aw — man… he's great. He's a real good guy. He rode in my cab a few times — you know… before he became famous."

<<Superman? My god! The man is an egomaniac! Superman?? Didn't anyone see the inherent and dangerous arrogance in calling oneself 'Superman'?>>

"Is that what he calls himself?" She struggled to keep the disbelief out of her tone.

"Yah — everyone knows that. But I guess you're from outta town — not knowing about Mayor White and all that…"

"Yes. That's exactly it. I have been out of the country in fact." It wasn't exactly a lie, she reasoned. Out of the universe meant being out of the country as well.

"Superman is a really cool guy. He's an ordinary guy — ya know? He doesn't act all high and mighty just because he can fly or bend steel … he's like a normal human being. And he uses his powers to help everyone, so that's pretty cool. The crime rate in Metropolis is lower than ever. This city is becoming the safest place to live!"

"That's… that's really great. Do most people like him? Nobody finds him threatening in any way?"

"Why would anyone find him threatening?"

"Well — he could easily destroy the planet with those powers if he wanted to."

"He'd never do that. He's definitely a friendly alien. You know — like Mr. Spock."

"Well… Mr. Spock was a fictional character. In real life power corrupts."

"Not Superman. He's incorruptible. Is that even a word? Non- corruptible?"

She blew out her breath in exasperation. This wasn't getting her very far.

"What about the Mayor — does he like Superman? Or does he think that Superman oversteps his boundaries at times? Does Superman try to… make the laws, or change them in any way… you know — for the overall good of humanity?"

"See that's the really cool thing about Superman. He doesn't break any laws and he doesn't make any laws. The police and the mayor have kind of … deputized him. When he catches criminals, he doesn't put them in jail — he calls the cops and they take care of the rest — you know —reading them their rights, putting 'em in jail — that sort of thing."

<<He's good. Real good. He really knows what he's doing. Get them eating out of his hand… and then crush them. The question, though, is — why bother? With his powers, he doesn't need to lull us into complacency. Does he feel outnumbered? Does he somehow feel threatened by the lack of fellow Kryptonians? And where do I fit into all this… surely he knows that I won't be fooled by his act. Does he really know I'm even back — or did I seriously misjudge Herb? And if not, what will he do when he finds out I'm back? Wait. Can't panic now. I guess the more people that see me, the better. The harder it will be for me to just … disappear.>>

She pondered Kal-El's possible motives in silence. Her determination to see Perry grew. If she could sway Perry to her side, she felt as if she would gain a valuable ally. One that could help her to expose this dormant threat.

"Does… does he have a girlfriend?" She didn't know why she was asking this. Maybe if she knew that he had a normal girlfriend in a normal relationship she would feel less … threatened. Of course — Kal-El's marriage to Zara didn't stop him from keeping her as his concubine. Didn't stop him from brutally and repeatedly forcing himself on her! She gasped suddenly as the horrible memories threatened to surface. Resolutely she pushed them aside.

<< I can't … I can't face that just now. I have to be strong. Just a little while longer. I have to be strong. >>

"No. Well… maybe. I don't know. He doesn't talk about his private life at all. Even to his friends… coz his friends are all reporters, and if he did say something — it would definitely end up in the papers. He was engaged, but that broke up when he … well… came out of the alien closet. Hey — maybe he's gay. That would certainly explain the tights and cape. Ah — doesn't bother me… well — as long as he doesn't get a crush on me — if you know what I mean!"

"I… don't think he's gay," she said absently. So Kal-El had been engaged. Why had it ended? Had he done something to scare her off? Had he revealed his cruelty in the privacy of the bedroom? She would have to dig up more on this ex-fiancée and maybe see if she would be useful in her cause.

"You interested?"

"No… not interested. Just curious." She shuddered violently at the thought.

"Nah — you're interested. All the chicks are. Maybe that's why he broke up his engagement. Why stick with one, when you can have them all! He's like a rock star."

"I… wouldn't think I'd like getting involved with someone who can leave fingerprints in concrete," she said in a vain attempt at humor.

"His fiancée didn't look any worse for the wear. She was pretty hot so I'm sure they were doing it." He stopped when he saw her flinch. "Sorry, sometimes I forget myself."

"No — actually… I'm curious about this. I… well… I'm a newspaper reporter myself."

"Ah yea? What's your name?"

"Uh… Linda King."

"Oh. Well — I don't think I've read your stuff."

"I'm new in town," she rebutted hastily, as the cab drove up to the curb. "Thanks… how much do I owe you?"

She paid the driver and then exited the car. She slammed the cab door shut. Suddenly a violent wave of panic-induced nausea hit her and she reeled under its attack. She hadn't really been aware of it, but while inside the vehicle, she had actually felt safe… cloistered and anonymous. She let out a mirthless laugh at that thought. It had been a false sense of security for sure. She knew he was out there… just watching and waiting — seeing and hearing everything he chose to see and hear. It was a sick cat-mouse game that she knew all too well. As she pondered this an ugly memory surfaced.

It had been in the very early days of her captivity. Reeling from the horror of her new captivity she was determined to escape. She optimistically believed that if she could only find the alleged resistance fighters she would somehow be able to enlist their help in getting back home safely. After an unpleasant and horrifying 'visit' from her captor she had been left alone. She knew he was likely to leave her alone for at least several hours based on previous patterns of behavior. Weak and hurt, she summoned her strength and her will to attempt escape.

It had seemed so easy — although she observed many Kryptonians from her various hiding places, none of them stopped her. Refusing to think that there was a logical reason for that, she preferred instead to think that her movements were furtive enough to go undetected. She had gone for hours — darting between one hiding place and the next… just trying to get herself to the "shuttle bay" so she could commandeer a shuttle and get back earthbound. How exactly she was going to do that was still unplanned… but it was better than remaining where she was. Anything was better than that. As she approached the shuttle bay she heard a low chuckle. Her flesh crept as the hair on the back of her neck stood up in sickened anticipation. She knew that laugh — knew it all too well. Knew and loathed it. Dread churned in her stomach.

Kal-El floated down from where he had been hovering and watching her. She watched in stunned shock as he landed and slowly sauntered towards her. His movements were unhurried and deliberate and he had a very unpleasant smile on his face. He stood there and arranged his features so that he appeared sadly regretful.

He shook his head as if admonishing a recalcitrant child for stealing a cookie. She held her breath, her eyes glued to his feet … she had learned by now not to make eye contact unless he demanded it. Failure to abide by his rules always resulted in harsh retaliation. As a result, because she wasn't watching him, she wasn't able to prepare herself for the blow. He had struck her effortlessly — a mere flick of his hand. Had he had been a human it would have felt like a gentle brushing. From him it felt like someone had hurled a pile of bricks at her. She staggered back under the blow and slammed her head on the wall before falling to the ground.

"Look at me, human," he commanded in a deceptively calm voice. When she didn't comply right away he followed his command with a menacing qualifier. "Now."

Unwillingly and gingerly, she craned her head up to meet his gaze- fearful of what would come next.

He shook his head again in mock regret. "Did you really think you would succeed? Don't you know that you can never escape? I am Lord Kal-El. Ruler of Krypton and Earth. I could rule the whole universe if I wanted… and in time, I probably will. Did you think I wouldn't notice? I notice everything about you slave and I would never let a slave of mine escape. You will be here for my amusement until you no longer amuse me…and I kill you. So, you'd better just make sure you continue to please me. I might be persuaded to release you once you get too ugly and old for me to be interested… but you have quite a few years before getting to that point. You will never escape me, slave. I see everything you do. I hear everything that you say. You won't even be able to die without my permission," he chided her gently.

Lois had remained perfectly still — silently enduring the cruelty and truth behind his words. She hated herself for adding to his amusement by breaking down and crying. Her sense of despair was too great and her hope of ever escaping had dwindled to nothing. Her escape attempt had appeared successful only because he had wanted her to try to escape. Physical cruelty was only a small piece of the pie for him — psychological cruelty turned him on as well. Despairingly, she had turned her eyes away from him, seeking instead, the solace of the inanimate floor.

"You may now tell me that you understand completely."

She had hesitated too long and he kicked her effortlessly in the ribs. It actually hadn't hurt — only because he had intended for it to be a reminder and foreboding of possible pain.

"Tell me," he had commanded her firmly.

"I… understand…completely," she had answered, her voice low and defeated.

"Now, that wasn't very respectful… was it? You need to answer in an appropriate tone when speaking to your lord and master. I won't punish you for it now, but I really do expect you to remember these things." His had voice kept its even and calm modulation. "Again. Tell me you understand," he had urged her, crouching, so his face was close to hers.

"I understand completely … my lord." Her voice had held a trace of venom that she couldn't quite excise, but she was doing her best. She would do whatever she had to in order to survive… but… no one broke Lois Lane.

Things had gone from bad to worse when he …

Lois shook her head violently to banish the memory, unable and unwilling to deal with where it would lead.

<< I can't think about this right now! I need to be calm and collected when I go up to see Perry. He can't find out what's happened. Not yet… I need time… time to figure out my next move. >>

She took several long deep breaths and smoothed out her jeans. Not exactly the best outfit for going to see the Mayor, but the Mayor was, after all, like a father to her. She wasn't here to impress him… or at least not yet. She couldn't do or say anything that would mar her credibility — she would need it when she later tried to awaken him to the dormant Kryptonian threat.

Resolutely she turned towards the building and entered. She looked on the map for the location of Perry's office. Third floor. She briefly eyed the elevator, and then shook her head with a shudder. That would make her a very vulnerable sitting duck. Despite his immense power, this particular version of Kal- El appeared to be trying to appear benevolent. While she remained in full sight of others she was likely to be safe…an elevator would trap her in isolation and give him ample opportunity to take her.

<<No more traps>>

She heaved a sigh and entered the stairwell.

The stairwell was deserted and dread settled on her like a very familiar and oppressive cloak. She ran very fast up the stairs — terrified that he would materialize at any moment. Her eyes cast anxiously in all directions fearing that she would find him hovering above somewhere… like before … taking his amusement in her feeble and futile resistance.

She blew her breath out in relief and exertion as she reached the top stair. Her fingers were trembling violently and they fumbled clumsily on the doorknob as she frantically worked to get out of that deserted and creepy stairwell. She opened the door and stepped into the nicely manicured hallway.

Depressed a little by the enormity of the task ahead of her, she slowly walked to Perry's office. Now that she was actually here, she felt almost shy and sheepish about just walking in and announcing herself to be alive. What would she tell him? How could she possibly explain her absence?

She knew that she had to keep her "other universe with the big bad Kryptonians" story quiet for now. Although Perry knew her to be a very intelligent and credible woman, that story would surely be too fantastic for him to swallow at first. Likely he would think she had developed some kind of psychosis that not only caused her to disappear… but also caused her to spout crazy nonsense about a man everyone seemed to idolize. Perhaps she could claim amnesia. Even better — she would say that a recent accident had blocked her memory of where she had been. Her battered and bruised exterior would certainly lend credence to that story.

Taking a huge calming breath she turned the door knob and walked in.

"I'd like to see Perry White," she informed the secretary in a tone that would brook no nonsense. It amazed her that after all these years of submissiveness she was still able to fall into her old pattern of assertiveness. It gave her hope for her own future.

<< I am never broken.>>

"And you have an appointment?"

"Just tell him that Lois Lane is here to see him. He will want to see me."

The secretary looked at her scornfully. "You'll have to do better than that. Lois Lane is widely known to be dead."

"Rumors of my death have been wildly exaggerated," she snapped icily. "Let me assure you that if you turn me away and Perry later finds out… you'll be out on your butt so fast you won't know what hit you."

"Whoever you are. The mayor is a very busy man. If you want to see him, you will have to make an appointment- hey! I told you! I'm going to call security!" The secretary was flustered and angry as Lois impatiently stalked past her. As she got up to make pursuit, Lois turned and said in a deadly tone, "I'm a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. If you try to stop me I can't be sure I won't kill you."

Her tone was so intense and her stance so threatening that the secretary stepped back. "I'm going to call security."

"Do that." Lois turned the knob to Perry's inner sanctum and stepped in.

"Gladys, I told you —," Perry snapped at the interruption. His expression changed from mild irritation to complete and total shock. He froze, staring at her in disbelief, unable to really comprehend that she was actually standing there.

"Well… aren't you going to say anything?" Her tone held false bravado and sauciness.

"Lois? Darlin? Is… can it possibly be you? Is it really you this time?"

She processed that response, and filed aside her confusion in regards to the 'this time' comment. All could be explained later. For now… she was finally …

<< Home. I hear you call my name… and it feels like home. >>

"Oh! Oh! Mayor White! I've called Security… so don't worry! They'll remove this… person… from the premises as soon as they get here," Gladys said excitedly looking at Lois smugly, relieved to see that Perry wasn't in any immediate danger.

"All right, All right Gladys, calm down. I'd like you to meet Lois Lane," Perry said with a smile in his voice, enjoying his very annoying secretary's discomfiture.

"Lois… Lane? But … but… she's dead!" Her voice was high and shrill. She hated being wrong.

"I don't feel dead," Lois muttered, feeling punchy. There was something so empowering about being able to say just about anything without fear of a swift and brutal reprisal. For that matter, just being referred to as Lois was music to hear ears after all those long years of being called 'Slave'.

"Gladys? Don't you think you ought to call Security, and cancel your request?"

"I'll… go wait for them at my desk… and let them know it was a false alarm." Grudgingly she turned and walked haughtily out the door.

"Told you so!" Lois's voice sang out playfully as she delivered her final salvo.

Gladys stiffly continued to her desk ignoring that last outburst.

"Now, Lois," said Perry affectionately. "Please don't make me have to find a new secretary!"

"I'm sorry … I just couldn't seem to help myself!" She smiled mischievously.

"Are… are you really Lois Lane?" He gasped out wonderingly.

"I really am Lois Lane," she said softly, "And I love hearing you say my name. Music to my ears."

"Lois, Darlin. I thought you were dead. I honestly thought you were dead. We had no reason to keep searching — there wasn't a stone left unturned." His voice was filled with remorse.

"I know. Perry — I know. You did all you could," she hastily reassured him. He would never have been able to find her and she had to make him believe that without revealing her full story.

"No — I need you to hear… you have to know! You… Superman — you know about him? He searched the world over — many times over. I had to…finally ask him to stop searching. I … couldn't let him keep going after the impossible. Lois — what… what is it?" He stopped talking as he witnessed the color drain rapidly out of her face. Her cheerful façade faded, and she was left standing there, pale and trembling. "What did I say?"

"Nothing… Nothing — I… I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed."

"Lois, please — what did happen? Where have you been?"

"I… just… <<I can't lie to him>> I…can't tell you what happened to me, not yet. I beg you to help me with a little prevarication. I'd like the world to believe that I just don't remember the last three years. Please… support me in this. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't really important." Her voice was intense and passionate as she pleaded her case. She was also desperately trying to draw his attention away from her violent reaction at the news that Kal-El had actually spent time searching for her.

<<What the hell is going on here? Why did he search for me? Is he stalking me?>>

"Lois … I … don't know what to say here. You can't tell me where you were?"

"Not…not yet," she answered quietly.

"What about … why are you all bruised? Were you in an accident?"

"I'm looking rather hideous, aren't I?"

"Hideous nothing! You remain the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he said gallantly.

"Oh go on," she replied, forcing her tone to be teasing and light.

"Oh Lois!" Perry got up out of his chair and rushed at her, intending to grab her into a big, welcoming embrace.

In a flash she flinched violently away from him. Before she could check herself, she had taken several faltering and jerky steps backwards and was cringing with her hands raised protectively above her head. Her body language clearly said 'Please don't hurt me!'

Perry stepped back, horrified. The Lois Lane he knew never flinched or cowered from anyone or anything. In fact, she was the most fearless and intrepid person that he had ever known. Although not prone to pointless reckless behavior, Lois had always been willing to sacrifice her personal safety for the greater truth. Silence hung between them for a very long moment.

"God, Lois," he breathed in horror.

"I… I — oh — I'm sorry, Perry. Ugh… I feel so ashamed!!!" It was a plaintive cry.

<<Ashamed. I'm ashamed about so many things. Did you know I was a slave? Not much more than a nameless harem girl? Did you know I was submissive and cowed? Did you know how I begged for him to show me mercy? I … begged. I never beg! >>

"I… I… Lois. What happened?"

She stared at him in dismay for another heartbreakingly long moment. And then she decided. Perry needed the truth. Or some variant of the truth.

"Perry. I was … held prisoner… these three years. Very bad things happened." She delivered her statement calmly and without rancor. She was trying hard to keep his emotional response under control. She felt she could maintain control only as long as he did. If he broke down… she would too.

"You… you're serious?" His voice held amazement.

"Yes."

"Lois — there is no question of my not believing you. But I just need to ask you again: There really was no accident? And you are really serious about this?"

She sighed. "Yes."

"Well — uh… I… I'm sorry for … scaring you like that. You know — I'm … you are like a daughter to me… in every sense of that word… and my feelings for you are fatherly. I… would never -" he trailed off awkwardly. He was never comfortable talking about this sort of thing, but he had to make it clear to her that of all the men in the world, he was one that she could turn to without hesitation.

"Perry. I … it was an instinctive reaction. Nothing else. I am not afraid of you, nor do I ever think you could pose a threat to any woman. Let alone me. I have always thought of you as a father."

He nodded uncomfortably. "Who did this to you?" His tone was firmer and no-nonsense as he moved into his protective mode.

"I can't tell you."

"What? Why not? I'll make sure he never sees the light of day again. This guy will be in prison until the day he dies," he responded hotly. Anger at what had happened was starting to grow at an alarming rate.

She smiled at that while she shook her head. "You couldn't touch them with a ten foot pole. Look — Perry — I only told you this because I … well… I just can't lie to you. You are far too clever and you know me too well. I do intend to lie to my family and everyone else, and all I am asking from you, all I need right now, is for you to support me in that lie. …will you do it?"

"I… Ok. I guess you have your reasons. I am sensing some serious 'Lane' stubbornness — and I've come up against that in the past. You are like a steel wall," he said with a quick laugh. "You really need to meet Superman. Man of steel, meet woman of …" he trailed off again, as once again, the color drained from her face. Twice that had happened … both times just after he mentioned Superman.

"What is it?"

"I'm… well — I'm sorry. This whole… Superman thing… just makes me uncomfortable." She smiled openly, trying to dispel any of his fears.

Perry looked at her surprised. Xenophobia. Clark had actually mentioned to him that he had occasionally run up against people who hated and/or feared him for being an alien. Perry had found that difficult to fathom, and yet, the human race certainly had a history of trying to kill or cage that which it didn't understand. As bizarre as it was, people did fear Superman and he knew that it tore Clark apart.

It did surprise him to hear Lois spout such sentiments. She was the most open-minded person in the world when it came to things like this. Then he realized that her admission of what had happened could very well have changed her somewhat. She had been victimized and he supposed that he could see how the idea of a super powered and unstoppable man might make her a little leery.

"You… have you met him?"

"No! No… just heard the stories."

"Lois. I know the man very well. He's … well… I guess I kind of think of him as a son. He's a fine reporter, and a very good man. He devotes a great deal of his time to helping the fight against crime."

"Great. A super-human vigilante. Just what this city needs," she said, masking her fear with sarcasm.

"He's not a vigilante, Lois. He works with the police… he helps them apprehend criminals, and he stops crime as it happens… Muggings, murders…ra- … you know… violent crimes. When others just turn a deaf ear, he's always there, making the city a safer place to be — and he never violates anyone's rights. Recently he ran into a problem where he tried to stop a man from battering his wife, and the wife threatened to press charges against him if he ever interfered again. It tore Clark apart to not respond to future incidents between the two of them — but he had to respect her wishes. To give him credit, he went after it in another perfectly legitimate way… he called the department of social services and begged them to get involved. Last I heard the husband had a restraining order not to go within 500 feet of his wife."

"So he really didn't respect her needs —"

"He did exactly what YOU would have done," interrupted Perry forcefully as if daring her to deny it.

Not being able to deny it… Lois certainly had been known to force her way into situations for the greater good, she picked up another bone to chew.

"Well — what about the name… Superman. That implies a very superior attitude. He doesn't consider himself one of his — he is superior. Better. And therefore he could easily convince himself that we need his leadership. His rule. Leading to his tyranny." Her voice became increasingly bitter as she continued down this path.

<<Damn. I didn't mean to get into this so quickly.>>

"Uh, actually he was given that name by … a woman we all thought was you."

"What?"

"Before the world found out about his alien origins, a woman claiming to be you came into our lives. She looked exactly like you and had us all convinced. She was somehow involved in Clark revealing his alien origins. I don't think he meant for people to know that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same." He held up a preemptive hand. "I know. You're thinking that indicates a deceptive nature, but you are wrong. Clark's life has never been the same since people found out. He can't go anywhere without being mobbed by people. He doesn't even have the basic privilege of privacy that we all deserve." He paused to catch his breath.

<<Privacy? What the hell does he know about lack of privacy — he with his x-ray vision, telepathy and super-hearing? How dare he expect privacy… when did I ever get privacy? My every thought, my every movement — always monitored by his people. By him! Well, okay, not him exactly — but someone very much like him!! He wants privacy? Hah! And what the hell is Perry talking about? Another Lois Lane? Is he delusional? Is everyone caught up in some mass hallucination surrounding this guy? >>

Perry caught the intensity of her expression and only partially decoded it. "I'm not crazy, Lois. This really did happen. This woman acted like she knew us all. She… well… she became fast friends with Clark, and it actually caused him to lose his fiancée. Not a big loss, if you ask me. Lana was really shrill and hostile. A man should be allowed to be who he is… he shouldn't have to hide it just to please a woman."

"No one should have to subvert who they are just to please someone else," she agreed hotly.

"No. No — I agree with you," he trailed off suddenly. Is that how it had been for her all these years?

"Well, so what happened to this imposter of mine?" She was impatient to hear the rest of this story.

"She… just disappeared. Clark said to me later that she went 'home'. He said he wasn't at liberty to explain further but he said that she wasn't a force for evil, or anything."

"That's convenient," she snapped sarcastically. "For all you know, he killed her. Maybe she was a clone or something. Maybe his people are creating duplicates of human beings and replacing them. Didn't it occur to you that something sinister might be going on?"

<<Is this why I was taken away? Is Herb just full of garbage with that whole weird Utopia story? This just doesn't fit! Is the problem with the puzzle, or the pieces?>>

"Why… why did he look for me? You said…"

"He… felt a connection with this other woman. He felt like somehow you two were 'supposed' to meet and it didn't happen because things had just gone wrong. He felt that … he … well… wanted to meet you."

"Is that why he works at the Planet? Has he been… stalking me?"

"No! He never even really knew much about you… until your double showed up. He was already a reporter at the Planet, and… then he found out all about you. He… he felt that if you were alive — he owed it to you to find you. He searched many times over — searched the whole world — and never really was willing to accept that you might be dead. But then… then… he finally accepted that you were…permanently gone. Your parents and I both approached him and asked him to stop. As long as he kept up his search, we couldn't let you go. It was just too painful to watch." Perry stopped and sat down wearily on one of his office chairs. "Lois — if I hadn't done that… he might have found you. I'm — I'm SO glad you are alive… but the idea that I short-circuited Clark's search makes me feel responsible for what you went through."

"Ka-Clark would never have been able to find me," she said determinedly. "I … was very well hidden."

"Lois — he even checked recent graves in locations you were likely to have been. And by recent… well, I mean anything younger than three years. A man who was willing to do that would have done most anything… with the exception of hurting innocents — to get to you."

<<This doesn't make any sense. Perry — he's been blinded… taken in. There is something very fishy and sinister going on. And more than ever, it's obvious that Kal-El is somehow after me. >>

"Perry… I don't … trust this man. Please… if I disappear… like that other Lois… please … remember what I've said. I… don't think someone with this kind of power can be trusted. He's… he's like a god, for crying out loud. Like of the Greek gods. Toying with our lives — like a game. Surely … surely you see that trusting someone so powerful is a folly which could mean… well…a complete loss of our freedom. Of our way of life as we know it."

"Lois… I've heard these allegations before and I'm not buying it. There are many folks out there who think that he can't possibly be as benevolent as he appears. Many who feel that he is the first wave of a much greater invasion. But why bother pretending to be our friend? What purpose would a race of supermen have in falsely trying to be nice? It doesn't add up! He alone could enslave us all —" he stopped short, as she gasped.

"Is… is that it? You were… kept captive… and… just can't trust anyone who has the physical strength to …hold you captive again? I assure you — he … you would never need to fear unwelcome attention from this man."

"You ASSURE me," she said caustically. Her strength lay in her anger and although she hated herself for unleashing it on her very good friend, she didn't feel she had a choice. Greater things were at stake than one man's feelings.

"So if he did try anything… untoward… you would protect me? Stand up to his great strength? His heat-vision? Do you know what that would feel like? Being burned alive? Do you know how easily he could reduce you to a pile of ashes or broken bones? You know how your hand hurts when you punch someone hard? For him… it would be a mere hint of a movement, and you would be lying there dead. That kind of careless power should terrify you! What happened to the Perry White that I knew? You've been completely taken in by a charismatic alien. Oh sure — he's handsome, and speaks a good story. 'I come in peace! Let me prove it by saving your life a few times.' Oh please! It's all a ruse — a ruse to draw us all in until he loses interest in his little game. He's trifling with us! He's having fun with us! When it's over he'll start playing a different and more deadly game! And it will be too late to do anything about! Now is the time to build up our defenses… to find his weaknesses!" She was fully out of control at this point, all but shouting at her former boss.

Perry stared at her in astonishment. Where had all this vituperative emotion come from? Why did she channel it all towards Clark? A dark and ugly suspicion formed in his mind. Before brushing it impatiently away, it burned itself into his neurons — taking root amidst all of Perry's good will towards the man.

<<What if it really is a ruse? Could Superman have set up that whole search as a decoy? Was he behind her disappearance? Did he do this to her? Kidnap, hold her prisoner, and rape her? Are there others like him? Was she kidnapped by aliens??? Was she cloned… is that who that other Lois was? And… was that clone destroyed when she ceased to be useful? Is THIS Lois a clone?>>

Perry gasped under the onslaught of dark suspicions.

<<Pull yourself together! You have always trusted this man and he has always been a good friend. >>

"Perry?" she started to ask in a small voice. "I — I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things to you. You're … my best friend and I never meant to be hurtful."

"Lois — I know… I know you never meant to hurt me. I- I just… I don't know what to say — or think. Honestly, it would help if you told me the details of where you've been. Was… Clark involved?" He held his breath, waiting for her answer. An answer that could change the world.

She hesitated a long moment. Here was her chance. She could blame Clark for everything. Expose him for the vicious and sadistic brute that he surely must be. Say that 'yes', he kidnapped her, and raped her, and beat her… and… and no. She couldn't do it. He wasn't the man who did these things to her. Although she believed him to be just like his counterpart, her conscience wouldn't let her falsely accuse him.

"I've never met him," she answered truthfully, "but I've been at the mercy of powerful men and I know that power corrupts."

"Lois," he shook his head sadly, "I have to disagree with you there. There are good people out there with power. Superman happens to be one of those people. I wish — well…I wish I could convince you of that. However, I know you too well — you will have to come to your conclusions independently. I hope that you will one day see that this man is without compare — he is a good man, one that we never will need to fear. I'd stake my life on that."

"Perry… I'm afraid you just did." Her voice held bitterness and resignation. Her support would not come from this camp, but she would continue to fight what she considered to be the good fight.

Lois walked past Gladys without even pausing to give her the time of day. The woman really irritated her and she saw no reason to be civil.

<<I never have to be nice to people I don't like. Never again.>>

She had parted with Perry on friendly terms despite their heated discussion. Leaving him with a promise to be in touch soon, she went to reacquaint herself with her family.

The reunion was heart-stoppingly wonderful. Her parents had been absolutely overwhelmed with joy once she had convinced them that she was really their daughter. Lucy had just broken down into helpless tears. Lois hedged about her whereabouts, trying out her amnesia story on them. Her mother seemed inclined to believe what she said, and so did Lucy. Her father had given her an odd and suspicious look- but hadn't really pressed her for a more plausible explanation. Instead he had let her know that she could turn to him if she needed to talk with anyone, and of course, the whole family suggested therapy to get her memory back. She promised she was working with doctors to that end, and that all would be well.

She hadn't tried to plant seeds of suspicion against Superman because she knew that would be futile — they were staunch Superman-supporters, especially as he had searched so extensively for Lois. In their eyes he could do no wrong. They had even wanted to yell out the window for him, but she rapidly nipped that in the bud saying that when she met him, she wanted to look her best.

She left her family feeling more centered. They would never really know how truly happy she was to see them again. For three long years, she lived without love or even friendship. The outpouring of both had threatened to break through her very tough defenses. Her family had misinterpreted her reaction and had just assumed her tears were an expression of her relief and joy at being reunited.

She had a place to stay… until she was back on her feet, she would live with Lucy. That made a lot of sense. For one thing, she was terrified to be alone. Alone, her memories would come and entomb her… dragging her back to that living nightmare. Her tormentor might be a universe away, but as long as she could summon him into her thoughts, he would always be with her. Additionally, she was afraid that this universe's version of Kal- El was just waiting for an opportunity to do something nefarious to her. As long as she stayed in a crowd… even a crowd of two… she was probably in no immediate danger. She was counting on his need to appear benevolent.

Meanwhile, Perry sat back in his office feeling staggered and drained. He had no idea what to believe or what to do with the information gleaned from Lois about her whereabouts. He sat for a long while trying to figure out whether Superman could somehow have been involved in all this — and in the end, decided that it was impossible. He decided to call Superman over and let him know that Lois was back. The man had sacrificed a lot of time and energy looking for her, and he deserved to know that she was alive.

He picked up the phone and dialed Clark's extension at the Daily Planet. Due to Clark's celebrity status his direct line was a privately held secret — but Perry was one of the 'in crowd' who were able to contact him without going through a very tough receptionist first.

"Kent here," Clark answered in a friendly tone. He just knew it was Perry and he figured that Lois had probably reacquainted herself with Perry by now.

"Hi Clark! Perry White. Listen… I hate to do this, but I really need to talk to you. Can you come by my office as soon as possible? I know you're busy — I wouldn't ask if it weren't really important."

"Yea — sure," Clark said amiably. He knew what Perry had to tell him but he didn't want to say so over the phone. "Uh… door or window?" This was his way of asking in what capacity Perry needed him. Did he want Clark or Superman?

"Your choice."

"Window, then. It's quicker."

Seconds later he was hovering outside Perry's office. Perry had just gotten up to open the window.

"You are incredibly fast. I keep getting caught off guard by that!" Perry smiled at the younger man.

"Well… you did say that it was really important," he grinned, "I could learn to fly a bit slower — if that would make you feel better!"

"No, No. I'm not complaining — not by a long shot. Your speed has saved my tail a time or two. Come — sit down…"

"One sec…" Superman whirled into Clark, using a trick he'd learned from his "brother". "I feel more comfortable like this, and if Gladys walks in I don't want her to get all tongue tied."

"Well… you know, it's that suit, Clark… women… well, I don't think they can help themselves."

"Very funny. Now what did you want me here for, that was so important," he asked, changing the subject from his physical attributes. As public a figure as he was, he really hated close personal attention. It made him nervous. Old habits were very hard to break and after hiding his origins for so long, he was still kind of daunted with the reality of everyone knowing about him.

All those eyes on him made him feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable. Yes, the suit was revealing, but the whole point behind that was to make a dramatic distinction between the Man and the Superman. Unfortunately, due to Tempus's interference, this distinction had proved unnecessary. Still, it was useful to have people perceive him differently when he was in his Clark persona. It was hard for people to talk to him in his role as 'reporter' if they were focusing on his being this larger-than- life superhero/alien.

"I — have some very astounding news for you. Lois Lane is alive and I just saw her."

"I… I know."

"How the hell… oh — did you… did you see her in here — or hear us talking?"

"No! And if I did, I hope you'd tell me off. That would be pretty unforgivable. Perry, I -" Clark stated agitatedly, hurt by Perry's assumption.

"Clark — You don't spy… I know. I'm sorry. That was low handed of me. So, uh- how did you know?"

Clark sat back quietly. He didn't really want to tell any lies… and yet, he didn't really know what else he could do.

"Well… I saw her after she returned."

"Did she see you?"

"No."

"Oh. Well… she doesn't want to reveal where she's been, but she told me in confidence that she had been kidnapped and held prisoner for all these years. She said 'bad things' happened, which to me points to some pretty ugly conclusions." Perry paused. "Look — this is confidential, right? She'll kill me if she knows I told you. I'm only telling you because … I know you can help me get to the bottom of this."

"Of — of course. Did she say any more than that?" Clark was stalling for time. What would he say? He started to feel a mild sense of panic — like he was somehow under a great microscope. Perry was a very sharp and observant man. He hadn't been a crack reporter all those years for nothing!

"No — she was very vague about the whole thing. She did seem to have an aversion to you, however — and I didn't really understand that." Perry delivered this news apologetically. He felt guilty about introducing it this way but Clark's reaction would end up revealing a host of important information.

"Oh?"

"Do … do you know anything about her disappearance or her whereabouts? I know you looked hard for her — but… it seems… you just seem unsurprised to hear that she's alive," Perry relentlessly stuck to his point.

"You are a little too observant," Clark complained. "It — I can't really talk to you about this because … it's her… it's not what she would want."

"Did you rescue her?"

"No. Until yesterday, I had no idea where she was."

"But now you do."

"Well… yes."

"And…"

"Look — I'm really sorry. I just — I can't say anything." Clark was beginning to get really uncomfortable. His honesty would be the death of him. It was time he cut this meeting short.

"You know, she … seems to fear you quite a bit," he said apologetically, still digging for information.

Clark sighed. "Yes. I know, and I'm actually — well … I'm planning on leaving the Daily Planet. It was hers before… and I don't want her to feel awkwardly about going back there."

"I'm… really sorry to hear that. But…why would she even have a reason to feel that way about you?"

"Perry. I can't talk to you about this."

"You won't even tell me how you knew she was back?"

"I can't."

"Is this related somehow to that other Lois?"

"Loosely."

"Clark… was Lois kidnapped by aliens?"

Since Tempus was human, Clark was able to answer truthfully. "No."

"Was she held captive by aliens?"

Clark stared at him in wonder. No wonder this guy was so widely respected. He was one of the most intelligent men Clark had ever met, despite all the Elvis references and predispositions to wearing ugly suits.

"Well…"

"She was held captive by aliens?"

"You know, it's a good thing she isn't interested in talking to me, because she would certainly kill me for this," Clark sighed in frustration.

"What kind of aliens —"

"Perry — I have to leave. This line of conversation is going to force me to reveal things that Lois clearly doesn't want you to know." His tone was very firm and clipped, and he spun back into his suit and made for the window. "But for what it's worth, I didn't have anything to do with her disappearance. I didn't kidnap her or do any of those other terrible things."

"Wait… son! I — I don't doubt you, and I wasn't trying to accuse you of anything —"

"I know — I know," he said hastily, "but you are trying to push me into saying more than I can say right now. I understand — you love this woman — she is very special to you. You want to protect her and possibly to avenge what happened. I actually understand that more than you know. However, I can't oppose her wishes on this matter. I can tell you this: she has been through hell. She's been treated like garbage and her wishes have been violated non-stop for the last three years. We owe it to her to respect her feelings and to let her set the pace."

Perry watched the younger man in admiration and frustration. One thing was for sure — he knew Clark was telling the truth. He knew that Superman had not hurt Lois in any way, and yet — he couldn't figure out how the pieces all fit together. He didn't like not knowing the full story. His every molecule urged him to investigate and dig out the truth — but he knew that Superman was correct. Lois needed time and space, and if he truly loved her, he would give her what she needed.

After Superman left, Perry sat down and pondered some more. He might not be able to dig out the truth, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.

Superman had all but admitted that Lois had been captured by aliens. What exactly had they done to her? He blew out his breath out in aggravation. Then another scary thought occurred to him.

<<What if the aliens were from the same world as Superman? More Kryptonians? Kidnapping earthlings? Doing god knows what to them. But wouldn't Superman warn the world if this were true. For that matter, if any aliens were kidnapping earthlings, wouldn't Superman stop them? Is this why he couldn't find her — she wasn't anywhere on earth? How did he find out where she was, or that she was back? He said he found out yesterday —what happened yesterday? Oh Lois — why can't you just tell me?>>

Lois began researching Superman by looking up information about him on the Internet. The sheer volume of websites was daunting, but she was relieved to find a reasonably proportional number of anti-superman sites in the mix.

<< He hasn't fooled everyone. >>

She came across pictures of young Clark and his parents — cute shots of a popular farm couple and their nice young son. He looked… happy. He was a normal, human-like, happy boy. Guilt trickled in and she tamped it back ferociously.

<<Okay — so what? So he was seemingly nice little boy. I know that Kryptonians don't get their powers until puberty. He might not have even known what his ultimate mission was at that point. Probably so — who would entrust a child with information you wanted kept secret? And didn't his parents die? He probably killed them. >>

As if on cue she clicked on a link which showed her a picture taken a few years after the one with the family. It was a funeral shot. The boy stood there, forlorn, lost and devastated. The camera had caught his face in a tight close-up, and there was really no mistaking the anguish and confusion — that painful realization that he was alone in the world.

Against her wishes, her heart went out to this boy of long ago. Her parents had had enough rocky roads to give her the memories of some deeply lonely and scary times. But at least she had had parents. Hard as she willed her heart to be, she found it increasingly hard to convince herself that the young Clark had murdered his parents. They had died in a tragic car crash — he wasn't even in the car. He was only 13 at the time, and from what she knew of the young Kryptonians born on Earth, 13 would have been too young an age for him to have been able to hurt them in the car from a distance. No, it was likely that his parents had really died accidentally.

<<Unless, the other Kryptonians killed them! How easy would that have been? A little heat vision from above severing a brake cable, and presto… instant car accident! >>

Her heart raced at this exciting new line of thought. She could be on to something really, really important.

She sat back and pondered.

<< Okay. Assume that Kryptonians did kill the Kents. Why would they do that? Introduce Kal-El into the ranks of humanity so that humans grow to trust and like him. He gains the respect and love of small town people, which later will be useful to him in gaining the trust of others. The boy's powers start manifesting and growing. Rather than dealing with the possibility of the Kent's revealing his oddity to others, or worse, trying to eliminate the boy for being an agent of Satan — because, let's face it… we all know how kooky small town folks are, they kill the Kents — silencing them forever. This is doubly useful, because not only are they able to easily reclaim the boy and teach him about his heritage and 'duty', they also turn him into the one thing the human race seems unable to resist: a pathetic orphan. >>

Fortified by her discovery, Lois decided she needed some air. Once outside, she immersed herself happily in the sensory experience of the city. The other world had been so devoid of humanity that she absolutely craved this chaos. In that other world — the other humans she encountered had been broken-down slaves like herself.

Additionally it had been impossible to forge relationships because she was the only female slave that survived more than a few months. She remembered the first time a fellow slave in the 'harem' had disappeared. It took her days to summon the courage to ask what had happened. Another slave had told her in hushed tones that Lord Nor had used too much force with her — killing her unwittingly.

The contrast here was startling. The eyes of her fellow slaves had been haunted and desolate, while these people showed such a huge variety of emotions — running the entire gamut. People weren't afraid! Although there were haunted and broken people in this world, they didn't dominate the landscape.

As she pondered the contrasts, she noticed a sudden change in the crowd around her. People had stopped in their tracks and were talking excitedly while pointing at the sky. Dread trickled down her spine as she craned her neck skyward. It was this so- called Superman — flying overhead in the sky — high above the humans he would one day control.

She fought back waves of nausea and forced herself to remain where she was. She refused to distinguish herself from this oh-so safe and anonymous crowd of humanity and draw unwanted attention to herself. As she stood there, she pondered the spell he appeared to have on the rest of the people around her.

<<What the hell is wrong with these people? How is it that nobody here sees the inherent superiority in his behavior? Flying high in the sky… too good to hang with us mere mortals! He goes by the name Superman — for crying out loud. >>

While her familiar thoughts were rolling through her brain, another meeker 'voice' joined in.

<<But… to be fair… why wouldn't he fly? It makes sense that he would use flight to get from one spot to another. And he actually does hang around with mere mortals — he's a reporter… he is accountable to a human boss. Doesn't that say anything in support of his being a different kind of man from Kal-El?>>

Lois frowned in disgust at this new little voice. This was just what she didn't need. Self-doubt was a dangerous thing — especially in an investigation. You could find yourself running around in circles… thrashing… unable to make any progress. Suspicion started to grow in her mind. Kryptonians were telepaths… could he be planting these thoughts in her head? Maybe that is how he was controlling the rest of these people.

<<If that were true, why wouldn't he be controlling me completely?>>

Above her, Superman furtively watched the object of his long-time obsession. His soul-mate. She was breathtaking. He felt an incredible pull towards her — a strong yearning to meet her face to face. But that could never happen. She hated him and feared him. Likely she would try to discredit and destroy him. He sighed inwardly.

<<I can't do this. I can't forget myself. She isn't anyone I can ever be with — I should stop hoping. I have to forget her — she's home and safe, and that is all that matters. >>

To her untrained eye he seemed to be slowing down. Did he know that she was down here? Was he watching her? Panicking suddenly, it occurred to her that he really could take her away with him, right here in broad daylight. Who would even think anything odd was going on? They might just think she was a friend and he was giving her a lift. There was so much city related noise — would anyone hear her screams of protest?

Weren't people were kidnapped in broad daylight all the time? The world started to spin and her panic intensified. She could not endure this kind of captivity again. Having tasted freedom she knew she could never go back — it would be the death of her. She turned abruptly and blindly pushed forward — hoping somehow to get lost in the crowd. Unseeing and unheeding, she headed into the oncoming traffic. Horns blared at her — but she was senseless of them — lost once more in her memories of another time when she wandered through the streets of Metropolis.

She had been confused and disoriented after Tempus had brought her to that world, and she walked the deserted city streets, wondering what the hell had happened to her town. The strangest thing was that there was an ominous and deadly silence in a city that was NEVER quiet and deserted. Where were all the people? She felt a hand grab her arm tightly. She turned angrily to the source, and saw a grim looking man in a black bodysuit. He had spoken to her in strangely-accented English.

"My lord and master demands that we take you to him. I… I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about? Who are you? Who the hell is your Lord and Master, and what does he want with me?"

"My Lord seeks you as his concubine. I have to comply."

"A what?" Her voice was laced with disbelief. "Is this some kind of hoax? Who are you? And LET GO OF MY ARM!"

"My name is Ching," he said. "I … I am oath-sworn to Lord Kal-El and Lady Zara." His grip on her arm was unbreakable.

"Who or what is Lord Kal-El?" Her voice was icy and contemptuous. She was afraid…very afraid, and it was in these times that her venomous façade was most useful.

"We are Kryptonians. My lord has… conquered this world. He commands your presence."

Her struggles futile against his unbelievable strength. He pushed her into a flyer shuttle and secured the doors.

Ignoring her demands for freedom, Ching resolutely refused to even look at her. Instead, he concentrated on manipulating this strange machine. Shortly, the shuttle docked in a very large spaceship. Lois could not believe she was being kidnapped by aliens. As yet, she still did not really understand the true dangerous nature of this situation.

Moments later, she had found herself in the presence of one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. Tall and imposing, he sat in a chair on a high platform. There was a cruelty in his eyes that made her heart sink. She had met some implacable foes in her time — but none had frightened her as much as this man.

"My Lord. This is the woman." Ching was humble before this strange man. "Does she please you?"

"She does. Have her taken and made ready for me."

"Who the hell are you?" She was furious, and her voice held venom. "If you don't let me go, I promise you, there will be hell to pay. I'll rip your throat out. I'll rip your… hey! Let me go!"

As easy as she had been brought to his presence, the man called Ching dragged her away.

"I'm sorry. I have no wish to see this happen, but if I disobey, I will be tried for treason. I have to protect the Lady Zara, and as long as she remains by his side, I have to do the same. It will be in your best interests to learn to be humble in his presence. He … he is a cruel master and never brooks disobedience. The sooner you learn that, the better off you will be."

She had stared at him in shock, unable to even believe that this was really happening.

Later, she was taken to a luxurious room to await her evil captor. When he had finally arrived, he had —

She was shocked out of her dark and unwilling reminisces by the sounds of cars honking and tires screeching. She realized in shock that she had wandered out into the street in her panic to escape his notice. Dimly she saw a truck headed right at her honking furiously. The stopping distance was such that she didn't stand a chance. Suddenly she felt a rush of wind, and he was there.

Superman had stopped the truck and was standing no more than two feet away from her. She kept her eyes glued to the ground, terrified to make eye contact. Kal-El had always been brutal with her when she looked into his face without his permission. She had learned early only to do so when commanded.

Clark looked at her uneasily. His heart had nearly stopped when he saw that big truck headed her way.

<< I'll just ask if she's all right. That can't hurt. Right?>>

"Are… are you okay?"

He was talking to her! She could feel her heartbeat quicken and she battled with herself as to whether or not she should look up at him.

"Miss? Are you okay?"

Supposing that could pass as a command, she gingerly raised her head and made eye contact with him. Her expression was anxious and fearful and she stared at him for what seemed like an eternity.

<< Oh God. Him. Kal-El. This is him. No mistaking it — he has the same face — the same … body… the body which — no- I can't think of that! Not now — he'll win if I do! Go away! Please — please go away — and don't hurt me! >>

Unable to maintain eye contact any longer, she looked down again.

<<Safer, if I don't see him. Oh — oh god, but he didn't say I could look away — he — >>

"Do you require any further assistance?" He was all but begging her to reply.

One reply — and then he could be off. This unpleasant confrontation could be over. Her panic was infectious and he was starting to feel it as if it were his own.

** Please answer, he begged mentally. I know you're scared… and I understand — but I can't go away until you look, and tell me that you're fine. **

She was startled to hear his thoughts. He was actually communicating with her telepathically — and it didn't give her the searing headache that communicating with Kal-El this way had given her. She shook her head — this was clearly some weird trick of his and she knew better than to fall prey to it. Emboldened by the crowd, she raised her eyes once again. It was unlikely he would lash out at her here.

<<I don't feel like he means me any harm. I can't let that influence my actions. He is dangerous, he just doesn't want me to think he is.>>

"I …I'm fine." Her voice and her gaze were even, but she knew her heart was beating too fast for normal — and that he was well aware of it. She noticed vaguely that his eyes were not anything like Kal-El's. While he looked and sounded a lot like that other man, his eyes were devoid of cruelty and burned into hers a naked plea. She felt as if he was trying to open his soul to her with a single look.

"Glad to hear it." He nodded formally at her in farewell and took off. A huge crowd had gathered around, but they weren't paying her much attention — it was Superman who commanded their attention. She gazed up at the sky, deep in thought.

<< He's different from Kal-El. Kal-El used to carry himself with a deliberate and cruel… grace. This man's body language was completely non-threatening. And his voice… it's the same — but so different. He doesn't sound cruel. He just doesn't look cruel. But he isn't different. He can't be. He's just really good at playing this role. >>

After saving Lois from her near-death encounter Clark flew home in a daze. Foremost, he was reeling from the impact of her very palpable terror — terror that had been directed at him. It horrified him to his core to see how afraid she was to even make eye contact with him, and when she did, her eyes clearly showed that she expected some kind of violent retribution.

He had seen victims of abuse before, and he knew that after being so completely broken down, abuse victims were often unable to do the things most people take for granted like initiate a conversation, make eye contact or even express an opinion. Three years she had been tortured by his exact double.

<< No wonder she was terrified. And I made it worse… I pretty much forced her to talk to me. Did I come across as imperious? I just — I just wanted to see if she was okay. I'm such a liar. I wanted her to look at me, to talk to me… to really see me. I just wanted to be able to look into those beautiful eyes. Because I love her. >>

Somewhere in the core of his soul he felt the truth. He loved her and he was finally able to see that what he had felt for that other Lois was merely a reflection of this truer feeling. He cared deeply for alt-Lois, but his romantic love for her had disappeared and transferred to this other woman in an instant.

<<How can I love her? That doesn't make sense — I don't know her! But… maybe I do. I've met her family, her friends, talked in detail with them in hopes of getting clues of her whereabouts. Most importantly, I've read her work — and she poured her very soul into her work. >>

He felt a surge of regret. Regardless of his feelings — she would never reciprocate them. It was all too likely she would spend the rest of her life hoping never to see him again. How could she ever look at him and not see that other Kal-El layered on top of him? How could she hear his voice, without hearing the other's cruel commands and jeers? How could he ever hope to touch her, without her remembering that other brutal and sadistic touch? Hell, it was unlikely she wanted to be near ANY man right now, other than her father and Perry… but even if she was ever able to heal from that dreadful ordeal, she wouldn't be so foolish as to choose her tormentor's doppelganger for her lover.

<<I have to be strong — strong for us both. I can't ever let her know my feelings. I can't ever even hint at them or show any signs of jealousy when she ends up involved with someone else. Maybe in the next lifetime, but this time around… it just isn't meant to be. >>

Those thoughts made him want to break down and cry. He hadn't felt so desolate, lonely and empty since his parents died. The departure of the other Lois had left him feeling pretty low — but he had still held out hope that he might find the Lois from this world. Now that he had, he felt a deep hopelessness.

<< She will never love me>>

Lois headed back to Lucy's apartment as fast as she could. She was very shaken up from her encounter with Superman, and all she wanted to do was go home, huddle in a corner, and have a nervous breakdown.

<<Please, oh please, oh please — let Lucy not be home! I need… I need to just have a breakdown right now without having to explain why. Please… let her not be home! >>

She opened the door to Lucy and her apartment and her heart sank as she saw her sister busily in the kitchen mixing up a salad. Lucy looked up brightly and smiled at her in relief.

"Lois," Lucy breathed out frantically, "I … I'm so glad to see you. For a while — I thought I had imagined that you had returned… I was getting ready to call Mom and Dad to see if maybe it was just some wonderful dream. I-I'm so glad to see you!"

"I — I'm sorry. I guess I should have told you where I was going."

"No — you aren't accountable to anyone," Lucy said lightly. "I was just being stupid. I've missed you so much. I guess I just can't believe you're back."

Her words touched a chord in Lois, who found it difficult to maintain her composure. This kind of love, so lightly given and expected, was unknown in that other world. Suddenly she was grateful that Lucy was there. She hadn't really wanted to be alone after all.

Lucy came around to give her a hug and Lois steeled herself not to flinch or withdraw from the personal contact. She hated being touched, but reacting in such a way would make Lucy suspicious.

"Listen, Lois — did you hear the news?"

"What news?" Her heart skipped. Was this about her near accident? She hoped dearly that this kind of incident was so commonplace that she wouldn't end up plastered on the front pages.

<<I don't want to be the news. I just want to report it! >>

"News about Superman! He … he's taken a leave of absence from the Daily Planet. Isn't that bizarre?"

"Well, I wouldn't know — I don't know the guy." She hoped her voice sounded disinterested.

"Well — everyone's shocked. He said that he needed to devote more time towards helping the Government with some outer-space endeavors. He's giving up his job so he can help the government — and he doesn't expect things in return. He's really too good to be true."

"I don't know. If someone is too good to be true — then usually they aren't. Doesn't anyone find it suspicious that anyone would be that selfless and devoted to public service —without expecting any reward?"

"Lots of people do that sort of thing… Doctors, firemen, policemen, soldiers —"

"They do it for the money!"

"Being a police officer isn't exactly the path to riches."

"And it isn't a guarantee of sainthood. You know as well as I do that there are plenty of corrupt police officers out there!"

"There are also a lot of decent ones who put their lives on the line in the hopes of making the world a better place to live. That's also what Superman does! He's a great guy, Lois — and I'll bet he'd love to meet you… I'm guessing he knows you're alive by now. How about I call him!" Lucy went to the phone, intending to make use of the phone number that she had — one that she had never used.

The color drained from Lois's face as she rushed over to her sister and jerked the phone roughly out of her hand.

"Ow! What — what did you do that for?" Lucy cried out in annoyance and pain.

"I don't want you calling Superman."

"You could have just asked nicely. You hurt my hand!" It was the plaintive wail of the baby sister. Lois was sure Lucy didn't whine this much with other people… there was something about the dynamic between these two where Lucy felt like she could slip into long-forgotten behavior patterns. In fact, that was what made their relationship so endearing. No matter how old they were, Lois would always be the protective older sister and Lucy would be the sensitive baby sister. However, right now, Lois wanted to bash her little sister upside the head.

"I'm sorry I hurt your hand." Her reply was delivered through gritted teeth. "I do NOT want that man coming here. Not now — not ever."

Lucy was startled by the vehemence in her sister's tone. "You act as if you hate him. Why?"

"Hate is a strong word — I don't know the man. But I do know power corrupts — Lucy, I've been doing hard news for years… I don't have any naïve illusions about this guy — I've met others like him — powerful men who turn out rotten to the core. This man's power can destroy the Earth in an instant and we can't afford to be caught napping."

"You don't know him, you aren't even giving him a chance, and yet you are ready to vilify him. He was out there searching for you for six months, Lois — and he did it tirelessly and without a single complaint. He didn't even do it at our prompting — we would eventually have built up the nerve to ask him — but he approached us — asked us for information about you so he could better isolate his search area."

"He started stalking me, in other words." She pointed out acidly. "Allow me to thank you all for helping him out."

"Where is this anger coming from? We — we just wanted you back … I — I don't understand your reaction."

"I… forget it. It's not important. Just… don't call him. Okay? I don't want him coming here."

"You know I can't just let this go, Lois. Why do you hate him? I mean — that other Lois seemed awfully — what?" Lucy stopped talking as she saw her sister's face turn pale once again.

"I'd forgotten about her. What do you know about her?"

"Well — Superman told us who she was because he didn't want us holding out hope that she was really you. But it's… kind of supposed to be a secret."

"Can't you tell me?"

"Yea — I mean… you know about her, and it would be stupid not to. But this is totally off the record," Lucy said leaning forward eagerly.

"Off the record — I promise!"

"Okay… now this is a really weird story, and I don't want you thinking I'm on drugs or anything… Superman told us this story, and this woman vouched for him."

"Okay — Okay! Get on with it!"

"Apparently this Lois came from… yeah… this is going to sound insane… you just aren't going to believe it…"

"Lucy!" Her tone was growing in exasperation and impatience.

"Okay — I just feel foolish saying this out loud. It sounds so — twilight-zone."

Lois felt a sick sensation in her stomach as she had a sudden foreboding of what Lucy was about to say.

"Lois, this woman — she was from … another universe. Before you say anything — hear me out — let me finish!"

"Go right ahead."

Lucy winced. "Believe it or not… She was you. She was Lois Lane! She was kidnapped out of her world and brought here by some nasty time traveler from another dimension."

Lois's world turned upside down. Is this why she had been removed from this world? To balance out the arrival of the other Lois? Did Superman have something to do with her disappearance? Did he engineer it with Tempus?

"Go on," she whispered shakily.

"Well — okay… this Lois was … good … friends… with the Superman and Clark in her world and she wanted to get back there… to him — So she asked our Superman for help."

Lois shuddered at the implication behind her sister's words.

"Are…are you okay?" Lucy was concerned by her strange reaction.

"Please, just go on."

"Anyway — she approached Clark, told him she knew his secret and urged him to use his powers to help others in a more public way. Apparently in her world, nobody knows Clark and Superman are the same guy — which strikes me as really strange. I mean — they look the same, they sound the same, they are both the same height, and — they are both amazingly good looking. If he was plain, you might not really look hard enough to notice… but…"

"Can… can you please stay on track?"

"Sorry. Anyways — it all kind of blew up — this evil guy was here in our world, and managed to expose Clark's double identity. It all kind of worked out in the end, the evil guy was taken back to jail by H.G. Wells — and —"

"H.G. Wells? You've lost me here…"

"Yes. Herbert G. Wells… I know that part is hard to believe… but he invented the time machine in the first place."

"Herb…" her voice trailed silently away as she realized who her rescuer was.

"Lois ended up going back home — and I think that tore Clark apart. It looked like he had some real strong feelings for her, but she was in love with a different Clark and needed to be with him. I think — on some level — that's why he looked for you. Nobody outside the family knows all this, and we didn't begrudge him his reasons. If you didn't show an interest, he would never force himself on you — what?!"

Her words had caused Lois to start trembling out of control. Her teeth were chattering, and she found herself unable to care about hiding the truth.

"I — did it ever occur to you… that I was… also kidnapped by this evil dimension traveler?"

"You WERE? You said you didn't remember — you —"

"I lied. This is also off the record, Lucy. The man who kidnapped me was named Tempus." She stopped and waited for her sister's reaction.

"Oh my GOD! That was his name — he — he kidnapped you? Did he take you to the other Lois's world?"

"No — Not that world. A different one."

"Oh god — how did you get back?"

"Herb — H.G.Wells came for me."

"Was Superman with him?"

"No."

"Well… why didn't you tell us the truth?"

"It — it's too strange a story. Besides… I … don't want to have to talk to Mom and Dad about what happened. I'll tell you briefly, but please don't ask me to provide details — it — it was a world enslaved by aliens."

"Aliens? Like — like Superman? So — he didn't exist there? If he did — he would have stopped them…"

"He… was the ring leader, Lucy. I was his slave," Lois answered grimly.

Silence hung heavily in the air between then while Lucy processed this staggering information.

"I — I … are you … serious?"

<<Please, please let this be some kind of Joke! Lois always did have a quirky sense of humor >>

"No. April Fools!! Yes, of course — I'm serious… and — I'm quite sane, as well," Lois replied caustically.

"I — I wasn't doubting your sanity," Lucy said uncertainly.

"But — you will. Look — I can describe my kidnapper if it would lend credence to my story."

"No — I — I believe you — Lois — after meeting that other Lois — I know other universes exist. I realize that there are lots of them out there — an infinite number. In fact, it doesn't really surprise me that there are evil versions of people in the different universes. I guess… we're lucky to have a good version of Superman… it hadn't even occurred to me that evil versions of him might exist."

"An evil one could very well exist here," said Lois carefully.

<<I have to get her to see the truth — but I can't come across to strongly. I can't afford to have her think I'm delusional. >>

"What do you mean?"

"Well — have you considered that he might not be the hero he makes himself out to be?"

"Uh — well, I know that at first, we were all kind of intimidated by the idea of a super-powered alien living amongst us — but… he's proven his loyalties — and his good intentions."

"Well — that may appear to be so — but appearances can be deceiving you know."

"Well — sure. But what would he have to gain? If he wanted to … take over … then — he could. He doesn't need any backup — or allies — he's invincible — and could easily destroy the entire world if he wanted to." Lucy felt a growing sense of unease. Was her sister crazy? Or, worse yet, was she right?

"Well maybe he isn't exactly like the other one. Maybe he doesn't want to preside over a world full of trembling and fearful slaves. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to rule us. I think he's biding his time. I don't believe he's the only one of his kind — the planet blew up in that other universe as well and there was an entire colony of his people — they came in one big wave. I think in this case, they sent him here as the 'first wave' — or maybe the others are here … and are just in hiding. In time, they will make themselves known — and they will either summarily take over, or they might just start doing it gradually — showing us pathetic humans a better way to live until we wake up one day and realize that we are little more than docile slaves."

"Do — do you have any evidence of this?" Lucy was very nervous by what her sister had said. She really liked Superman — but she had to admit — there was a certain element of… sense in what Lois was saying. At the same time, if you really listened hard, it seemed that maybe Lois was just a bit paranoid. Could that be the result of her three years in this horrible alternate world?

"No — not yet. But I've only been back a short while. In time, I'll get all the evidence I need. I'm betting that it's all there in black and white, and that someone — like myself — needs to just sit down and correlate all the available information."

"Well — if Superman IS deceiving us, wouldn't he want his deceit to continue undiscovered? Isn't this dangerous — to you?"

"After what I've lived through — I'd prefer death before slavery. I will die," Lois said passionately, "before I let this world become like that world. Before I ever hear that hateful voice call me slave again."

"God, Lois. What… what did he do to you?" Lucy's voice was barely above a whisper.

Lois felt her heart skip in panic.

<<I can't talk about this! I can't let those memories in. If I start to talk about it, I will start to cry — and scream — and — I'll never ever stop. They'll have to lock me away.>>

At the sight of her haunted face, Lucy moved forward to comfort her — and Lois lurched back — unable to deal with any affection or emotion that might crack the nice safe shell she was trying to construct.

"I — I'm not ready to talk about that — I'm — I don't want your pity — or your … look — it's hard for me to talk about this — I'm just not ready."

"I think — at some point — you are going to have to talk to someone," whispered Lucy. "You can't have been unaffected by all this — Lois — you've been the victim of repeated violent treatment — that needs to come out!"

"Well — I will talk to someone… after I …"

"After you what? I mean — what is your ultimate goal?"

"I'm not sure. But I'll do whatever it takes to … help unearth any weaknesses he may have. I seem to think that there is one. The Kryptonians had some kind of substance they were able to use to subdue other Kryptonians… the ones who defected against their own sadistic rulers and tried to help humanity. I don't know what that substance is — or how to get a hold of it — but I know it existed there, and I'm sure it does here."

"Lois… what are you saying? Are you saying… you would kill him?" Lucy was horrified. "He — he may not be what you suspect — I don't believe he is here for evil purposes. He's a nice guy — we know him — he tried to find you — and —"

"Of course I wouldn't try to kill him —if he is as innocent as everyone believes. But even if he does turn out to be one of the good guys — at least… well —if he did go — crazy — we'd have a way of stopping him before any damage was done."

"I — I don't like this, Lois — I think… I think somehow you are going to bring about the destruction of a good man."

"Listen. I have had much more exposure to Kryptonians than you have had. I know Kal-El better than any other human can know him. I would be willing, at this point, to stake my life on the fact that there is more to him than meets the eye. I also would be willing to stake my life on the fact that what lies hidden is sinister and menacing. I feel it every time I hear his name or see his face!" Lois was angry now, and barely able to keep herself under control.

"Are — couldn't you be projecting what you felt for the other Kal-El onto him?" Lucy's persistence was born from an instinctive desire to prevent her sister from doing anything tragic.

"I — don't know — no! I do know! I can't start doubting myself — surely you see that Luce! My instincts have never failed me before."

"But …you've been through a horrible ordeal. Isn't it possible that you… you aren't exactly the same Lois you were before? Maybe you've been surrounded by cruelty so long, that your ability to discern between a good man and a bad man is — well — damaged?"

<<She's right, you know. This could be a fool's errand — a dangerous one at that. If my investigation unearths something that can kill this man, surely there are unscrupulous people who will use it against him. I could be condemning an innocent man to death>>

Lois sighed in irritation. Her repeated attempts at quashing her self-doubts were becoming less and less effective.

"Lucy — I … I just don't know. Look — I promise I won't do anything until I'm sure. Okay? I'll share my information with you and you can give me your best judgment — I won't do anything on my own."

"I — that's something, but … to be honest, I wish you'd talk with Perry White about this. If anyone can offer you an objective —"

"Objective? He thinks of that man as a son! He won't be objective — of course he'll defend him!"

"But… he thinks of you as a daughter."

"He did," she spat out bitterly, her anger roused once again. "He thought of me as a daughter, and the best damn reporter to ever work with him. And then I disappeared and I was quickly replaced by that — that — usurper. He stole my life, Lucy. For all I know — even that was part of his plan- maybe he needed me out of the way so that I wouldn't discover his true intentions. He couldn't have me working by his side, and he needed that job at the Planet to array himself in the best position to influence the greatest amount of people. A reporter! A sojourner of truth and justice. It all seems so perfect, when you think about it!"

"Or crazy," Lucy muttered under her breath.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing — look… we aren't going to agree on this. But Lois — I trust you to do the right thing. I think Perry loves and respects you very much, and that if ever you needed an ally, he would be the one. He also knows Superman better than any other human alive — and he could give you a perspective that would help you … figure things out. But — you know better than I about investigating people, and I won't — get in your way. However, I will take you up on your offer — you promise you won't take any damaging steps towards discrediting or … harming Superman without running all your data my way? I know I'm not as bright as you, but I can help. I promise to be objective about it."

"Oh Lucy!" Lois reached forward and gave her a quick hug. As much as she hated the feeling of skin against her own skin, she couldn't resist the urge to comfort her baby sister. In time, she hoped that these feelings of aversion would go away.

<<Yes, Einstein. That's why we need therapy? You think?>>

Lois released her sister, and sprang up from the couch in a quick tense movement.

"I can't talk about this anymore. Not right now. I think… a shower and then sleep."

"Okay! I can understand that. But… I'm always here if you want to talk — about anything — you know? Any time — wake me up in the middle of the night if the need to talk, scream or cry hits you."

"Thanks," she smiled. "I'll be okay."

Lois made good on her promise to herself — she took a very long and hot shower.

<< If I stand under here long enough — I'll be clean — I'll be purified. The water will cleanse it all away. Like a baptism — I'll be clean and free of everything that happened. Oh god — please don't let me be wrong here. Please don't let me hurt someone innocent. He can't be innocent — he just can't be. No one is that good a person — he is too good to really be true! But what about that other Lois? She trusted him — and she had apparently loved the Kal-El in her world. Could she be evil too? Or just taken in — taken in like everyone here? She didn't have my experiences to give her my perspective. That has to be it — it — it just can't be what everyone says. He has an ulterior motive, and I'm not hurting him — I'm just trying to figure out whether or not there's any danger. It — it's the responsible thing for me to do! And — well — even if he does get hurt, and is innocent — so what? I was innocent — and I wasn't shown any mercy. Not one tiny iota. >>

Feeling less than refreshed, she stepped out of the shower. As she exited, she caught a glimpse of her back in the mirror. Starkly contrasting with the white of her skin was an ugly burn mark that identified her as property. His property. She remembered how she got this burn. It was after he had arrived in his chambers — that fateful first day. He had stood there, watching her idly for what seemed to be an eternity.

"You know, there's something about you — that just isn't right," he spoke in flawless English. His voice was calm and conversational, but she heard the menace just the same. There was no mistaking his ultimate intentions. "What can it be?" He took several slow steps forward in her direction as he spoke.

She backed away from him hesitantly. Should she answer? What was he talking about?

"Hmmm… now let's see… you're wearing the correct garb for a slave," he said, reaching forward and running his fingers lightly over the filmy outfit that she wore. She jerked back at that hint of a touch.

He laughed at her resistance, and then continued his idle conversation. "You know, you don't know the proper submissive stance for a slave, but you'll learn — I promise — I'll be sure to teach you everything you need to know. After all — it's for your own good. I'd hate to get really angry — that didn't really work out too well for the other … the other slave that I kept — and now I know what's wrong! You don't wear my mark yet."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she snapped angrily. Anger was always her best defense. "I honestly don't care. If you think I'm just going to —" she was abruptly silenced as he effortlessly cuffed her, sending her staggering several feet until she collided with the wall. She groaned in pain as her head made contact with that unforgiving wall.

"I didn't say you could talk," he said idly, "and I suggest you learn your first lesson which is — you don't get to speak until you're spoken too. As I was saying… I mark all my property to make sure the other Lords don't take it upon themselves to 'accidentally' sample what's mine. Believe me, slave, you will be better off that way. Some of my cohorts aren't as gentle as I am. None of them can keep a slave longer than a few weeks without … unfortunate results."

"Your — your mark?"

"There you go again," he shook his head in sorrow. "You keep violating the rules. But you're new here — so I'll go easy on you — just this once." He approached her huddled form, ignoring her frantic attempt to stand up and stagger away from him. He grabbed her arm, and roughly jerked her around so that her back was facing him. "Don't struggle — I want this to be unmistakably my mark." His voice was now hard and steely.

"You're mad! What — what are you —" her words were once again cut off, this time, by her own loud cries — as Kal-El burned his mark of ownership into her shoulder. He let her go — and she staggered away from him and fell to the floor — completely undone by what he had just done to her.

He watched her silently for a few moments and then said graciously, "You may speak."

"You — you branded me? How? Why?"

"With this," he said as he shot a beam of heat vision at one of the many plants decorating the room. The plant burst into flames. "So be careful. Next time, it could be YOU instead of that plant."

"This can't be happening," she whispered, "it's — all a bad dream — it has to be."

"No. Your old life is the dream — this is your life now. You will find that life here will be far less unpleasant if you can just accept that from now on, you belong to me."

Lois ran her finger over that hated mark, glad for the first time that it was there. Whenever that weak-willed inner voice of hers started spewing its unproductive thoughts, she would be able to find the anger and strength that she needed just by looking at this mark. Once a badge of shame, it would move on to be a symbol of the battle ahead. After she had … ousted… the alien, she would see about having surgery to fix this part of her body.

<< Although — what difference does it make if I'm ugly or not? No one else will EVER see it. Not if I can help it. >>

She toweled dry and changed into some bulky sweats. Sweats made her feel safe because they were as far removed from her 'costume' in that other world as anything could be.

She listened to the sound of Lucy moving about in the outer rooms with pleasure. She was amazed now by her former aversion to finding Lucy at home. She was so glad that her sister had been there — not only was she somewhat safe with her here, she had also had a chance to tell her sister the truth. She had known that keeping the truth from her while living under the same roof would have proven impossible over time. At least this way, Lucy wouldn't be angry — she had told her as soon as she could. Not telling their parents made sense to both sisters. She yawned suddenly, aware of a deep weariness in her bones. A long nap now, and then she could continue her research.

Lois was trapped — trapped in a horrible existence, a living nightmare that would never end. All hope at ever seeing her beloved home again was lost. Somehow she had fallen into the twilight zone and reality as she had known it had been horribly altered. She couldn't cry out loud — she had to keep it all inside and while she maintained a submissive exterior, her mind cried out for freedom.

<< What does he want from me? Why won't he let me go? Why won't he just let me go? What can he possibly gain from keeping me like this? Oh god! Why won't anyone help me? All these super-powerful people who could stand up to him — and-nobody will even help me! Somebody help! Please — somebody help! >>

Clark bolted awake from what had been a very fitful sleep. The panicked cries of someone in distress echoed in his head. Agitated, he stayed still for a moment, hoping to hear it again. He wasn't disappointed — seconds after awakening he once again heard the screams. Someone was in very grave danger and instantly he shot out of his window — a streak of red and blue. He paused in mid-air trying very hard to determine the source and direction of the sound.

<<Help me! Oh god — why won't anybody step forward? >>

Increasing in agitation, Clark looked around frantically. He couldn't get a fix on this cry for help — had his brain become so jumbled with thoughts of Lois that he was no longer able to concentrate on his most important tasks? Why couldn't he concentrate — where was this call coming from? There was an urgent need for his help, and he couldn't even find the victim!

<<There's nobody out there! I'm alone and trapped! I need help! Why won't anyone help? >>

Clark froze. With a shock of clarity he realized that he was hearing this all in his mind. Had he gone mad? How was this possible? Someone was sending him a telepathic message. Lois! She was in trouble! Horrified at the seconds wasted trying to find the source of the call, he set his course in determination and sped there as fast as he could.

As he approached Lucy's apartment, he started to feel a growing and clawing sense of panic. His throat had tightened up and his stomach felt uneasy and acidic. He felt menaced in a way that he hadn't felt since he was a young boy, terrified to go downstairs to the basement all by himself — certain of the presence of ghosts and monsters lying in wait. It was a blind and unreasoning fear, and he hovered outside her apartment trying desperately to get himself under control.

Fighting back the very palpable urge to flee and hide somewhere, he used his enhanced vision to see what kind of danger she was in. Lois lay on her bed, drenched in perspiration. She was sleeping — if it could be called that — and she tossed and turned fretfully in her bed. She wasn't in danger! It was someone else!

<<Oh no! I was wrong — it wasn't her — there's someone out there who needs my help — and… all I can think of is Lois! What use am I to anyone if I just obsess about the one person in the world who wishes I wouldn't notice her at all? What am I going to do? I can't find the person who needs me- she or he could die! It would be my fault! I'm going crazy here! >>

Suddenly a wave of panic hit him again. Unfamiliar thoughts and sensations once again erupted along his neural pathways.

<<Oh god! I'm trapped! Trapped and there's no way out! I can't breathe — there's something pressing me against a wall — against the floor. Something is out to get me — something is going to hurt me — there's no way out! I'm trapped here — and I'll be trapped here forever. There's no hope! No chance of ever going home!>>

As Clark hovered there, tormented by his conscience and this other strange sense of despair and menace, a thread of rationality managed to leak through his through his frantic thought processes.

<<She's broadcasting this to me! She's having a nightmare… I heard her in my head, but it wasn't genuine danger… just a nightmare. She was dreaming about that other place — that other him. She's somehow causing me to experience her own feelings! Is this how she always feels? Oh god — how does she stand it? How does she even get out of bed — how did she live through these feelings for three years? I must radiate nightmares to her — how can she stand to even look at me? I — No! No — he's coming — he's going to hurt me — he's angry with me and I can sense it — he's letting me feel his displeasure before he even gets here — it's a warning — it's a game… it's always a game with him — I thought I was home! How could I have let myself think I was home? >>

As her thoughts forced their way into his, he came to a decision. This link had to be two-way. From what she was 'telling' him, he was pretty sure that Kal-El had used some kind of telepathic connection to heighten her fear. She must have learned how to communicate this way after all those time that Kal-El invaded her mind. Maybe he was even able to read her thoughts — and if that were the case — she hadn't had even a moment of privacy or ease of mind since her abduction.

<<I can help her! I can send her a feeling of well-being — I can remind her that she's home. No — I can't do that — if I go in her mind — I'm no better than the other Kal-El. I'm forcing myself where I'm not welcome and I can't do that… it would be a violation all over again for her. But — she needs help! She's lost in those nightmares — lost, panicked and hopeless. She thinks this homecoming was all a dream — that she was never rescued, and she's giving up her will to live. Can people die from dreams? What if she wills herself to death — if anyone can do it — it would be Lois. I have to help her — I can't let her feel this way! >>

As he debated with these thoughts, Lucy saw his motionless figure hovering near Lois's room window. He used to be such a welcome sight, but this time — she felt a sudden shock of panic run through her.

<<Why is he here? Is — did he hear our conversation? Oh no — is he here to put a stop to her now? Was she right? Is… is he really an enemy in disguise? What am I going to do? I can't call the police — I can't… maybe I could call the Mayor — he might be able to talk some sense into him… but it would be too late — he can kill her in an instant — and — but… he's not making a move to get in here — or even do anything. He's just watching her and he looks like he's in such pain. What IS he doing?>>

She very carefully sat down where she could continue to observe him, and waited nervously for something to happen.

He took a deep fortifying breath. He had to help her — it was as simple as that. He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax — tried to banish the vestigial feelings of fear and despair from his mind.

**Home. Home — you are home, it's a bad dream, and you really are home. He can't hurt you —just tell him to go away!

**I can't! It was an answering wail of anguish. He — that's what he wants- defiance, and he will hurt me all the more for it! I can't — oh god — he's coming! He's here- can't you see him? He's right in front of me — he's advancing — he's coming for me! The wall — it's right here — behind my back and I can't go any further! I'm trapped — I can't get out!

He felt like he was there with her — trapped and terrified. All at once a horrible image came into his mind — a man surrounded by the deadliest of auras. The man stood there with the poise of a leopard — strong, implacable, deadly and cruel. His mouth was curved into a very deliberate smirk — the bastard was enjoying the fear he evoked — he was savoring it — getting off on it. Clark was torn between the equally warring desires to get the hell out of there, and to fly at him with all the fury and strength he was capable of mustering. Suddenly he saw himself apart from Lois- he could see her too… she was pale, and frightened and looked very weak and fragile — standing against the wall, cringing in terror.

<< This must be how she sees herself. A weak and helpless victim — not the strong face that she shows the rest of the world.>>

** Lois — Lois- you can fight him. You aren't alone — we are all with you — people from your own world. Perry, Lucy, your parents — it was all real — you are home, and we are with you — ready to help you fight this guy off! Tell him to go away! He will, if you tell him forcefully enough!

**I guess it can't make much of a difference.

This answering thought was filled with a sense of despair. Kal-El would hurt her no matter what she did — so she might as well try … just try to see if this was a dream. She mustered up all her rage, all her fear and all her hope — and suddenly the image of her changed. She was magnificent in her fury — her eyes were flashing and her face was flushed with life and anger. She stood up tall — had she grown a few inches? Her hands, which were raised defensively in front of her, suddenly clenched into fists and her stance shifted. She was ready for a fight. GO AWAY! Her voice rang clear and strong. The image of Kal-El remained and continued to advance.

**Again — again — you can do it — I'm here — I'll help you — I won't let him hurt you!

**Bastard! You lousy bastard — go away! I'll kill you if you come any closer! You aren't wanted here — you aren't real! Go away!

He saw the image of Kal-El disintegrate in his mind, and before he could really process anything more, his link with her was broken. The dream was over — he could go now. He remained watching her a long moment as he tried to get his feelings under control. This link with her was the most intense contact he had ever shared with anyone. What a powerful and wonderful thing this could be between two people — if it wasn't used with hate or cruelty. He imagined that the link would intensify the other kinds of intimacy that could be shared, and was once again staggered by the beauty and loss of the road that could never be taken.

Regretfully, he turned in the air and flew away before he revealed his presence to her. She needed to feel safe and among friends. A friend was something he would never be to her, and she clearly didn't and couldn't feel safe in his presence. He shuddered at the remembrance of the feelings she had sent his way — of her perception of that other Kal-El.

<<Is that was she sees when she looks at me? A sadistic cruel man? An aggressor? Does she see me at all, or does his image superimpose itself on mine? How can she even stand the fact that I'm here — I've usurped so many areas of her life! Her closest friend — Perry White — is also my closest friend in this world. And then there's the Daily Planet. Sure —I've left … but can she ever go there, knowing my close link to the place? Knowing that everyone there will be regretting my departure? She probably hates me as much as the other… is she even able to make the distinction? >>

Before he flew off, he saw Lucy watching him from the living room window. Her face was pale and worried, and he realized in a flash of insight that she knew where Lois had been. Casting one last glance towards Lois's room, he assured himself that she was still asleep — and then he flew towards the balcony of Lucy's apartment.

Lucy watched his actions in deep trepidation.

<<Oh no! He sees me! How could I forget about that blasted vision of his! He's coming … act normal! I have to act normal! >>

She opened her balcony door and stepped aside in a wordless invitation, a hesitant smile of welcome on her face.

He flew down and stood several feet away from her. If he was any judge of people's emotions, he would say that for the first time ever, Lucy was actually afraid of him.

<<This is what will happen whenever anyone hears Lois's story. They will fear me. How can they avoid doing so? What could be worse than an evil super-powered being? >>

"Lucy — I guess you're wondering why I'm here?"

"No — uh — of course not — I understand that you — sometimes… check in on people — make sure they're okay," she said rapidly, trying to hide her nervousness.

"I actually never use my abilities to … check in on people like this, Lucy. So you have every right to question why I'm … spying on your sister."

<<Oh god. He's admitting it. What is he going to do next? >>

"I … um… spying?"

"Lucy — she told you, didn't she? She told you everything —uh… about what happened to her?"

Lucy looked away for a moment, thinking wildly that she might lie. As long as she could continue the charade, they might actually be safe.

<<What am I doing? Do I think he's dangerous now? I don't know what to think anymore? If he HAS made a decision to harm Lois or … or me… then there's not much I can do about it, now —so I might as well tell him the truth. >>

"Yes," she whispered, her voice suddenly dry. "She told me everything."

He gazed at her with an inscrutable expression for a long moment. She tried very hard not to shift nervously under his gaze while she braced herself for some unknown retribution. Would he use fire? Ice? How would he do it?

"Lucy — you don't have to be afraid. I- well — I know you are — and I understand why… but I'm not here to hurt you — or her. I —" he stopped short, unsure as to how much he wanted to tell her about what had just happened.

"I'm… not afraid of you," she said, suddenly realizing that she wasn't. "I just… this is kind of awkward. I don't know what to say to you."

Her frankness helped him make his decision. He would be equally frank.

"She… she was having a nightmare," he said. "It — uh — I heard her… in my mind. It woke me up. I — I thought she was in trouble."

"You heard her in your mind?"

"I think my race might be telepathic. I never knew this before… but she — ah — well — she seems to have a way of getting into my head. This isn't the first time she's done it since returning. Its…very disconcerting."

"Yeah — I'll bet," she whispered, "how bad a nightmare was it?"

"She was dreaming of him… of my counterpart in that world. And- I thought she was in trouble. I came here and — well — I did violate her privacy," he looked down uncomfortably.

"How?"

"I — reached into her mind," he said once again ashamed. "I know that was wrong, Lucy — but I didn't know what else to do. I hope you can forgive me. I doubt she'll know what I did — but someday… I'll confess it to her — someday if she can ever stand to hold a conversation with me, that is."

"Well — what did you do?"

"I told her that she was only dreaming it. That it was over, and that she could banish any bad dreams just by telling them to go away."

"Then — I think you did the right thing."

"Thanks — thanks for that. Look — I'm not asking you to keep anything from her. You can tell her I was here, and you can tell her what I did. I think it's better not to tell her… but it's your decision, and I'll respect it either way. She needs you, Lucy. I feel a lot better about her, knowing that she has you to talk to."

"Well — well thanks!" Lucy felt awkwardly pleased by his praise. She knew that Superman wasn't one to say things just to be polite. If he said it, he meant it. "That means a lot. You mean a lot to our family, Superman, you did a lot for us when you looked for her and we will never forget that. I'd hate to lose … well — I don't want you to feel like we hate you, or fear you. I — It's hard not to pick up on her negativity towards you — I know I'm having trouble sorting it all out. But the man who did this wasn't you. He was a different man altogether."

"And yet… it haunts me to know that someone out there could be me and still do this. What makes us different? Do we share a soul somehow? How does this work? At what point along our development were we the same man? What turned him into a monster, and how do I know that it won't ever happen to me?"

She stared at him aghast. He in turn could not believe he had just voiced these fears out loud. A deep and dreadful silence passed for a long moment and then he spoke once again.

"Look — I'm sorry — I shouldn't have said that — I —"

"No — no. You — you also need someone to talk to… Superman — this has to be eating you up inside. If it's any consolation — I don't think you could become that way now. Whatever happened to make him this way obviously happened during his entire life. You don't just stop being a decent man! I can't believe that people can suddenly switch from being good to being evil. That… well — that never happens! I know one thing — you could never kill."

<<Oh, but I could. I could kill him. But I can't tell you or any other human that! I could kill him easily for what he did to her. For hurting her, violating her, forcing her to lose all hope. Oh yes — I could easily end his life. And hopefully someday, I'll get the chance.>>

For the first time ever, he felt a murderous rage towards another person. Granted — this person was a twisted mirror image of himself — but still — murderous rage in a super-powered being was not something you wanted to see. It was unsettling and chilling. Forcing these thoughts to remain unsaid, he smiled at her mirthlessly.

"Thanks, Lucy. Take care of yourself, and call me if you ever need me." He quickly lifted off again with a brief wave, and flew wearily home.

As consciousness slowly swept over her, Lois lay motionless in the bed. She was afraid to open her eyes — her dream had been so real to her that she wondered if she really had dreamt her homecoming.

<<Which was the dream? Am I home, or am I back… there? Did I really defy Lord Kal-El, and if so — why didn't he hurt me for it? Surely if it really happened he has something in store for me. Oh god — what if — what if he's sitting in this room — waiting for me to wake up? He could be right there — he could be inches away from me — waiting for me to show signs of being awake. I have to open my eyes very slowly — just a tiny amount — so I can see where I am! I'm scared — I don't want to do this! What if I just dreamt I was home? No. It wasn't a dream. It had to have been real — I am home — I couldn't have possibly dreamed something so vivid and realistic. All I need to do is just open my eyes. That's it — open my eyes, and I'll see Lucy's guest bedroom with the flowered wallpaper. Open — let's open these eyes…>>

She opened her eyes the minutest amount, and then opened them fully as she took in her surroundings with a sigh of relief.

<<Oh thank god! Home! Home! I'm really home! What a strange dream — it felt like there was someone else in my head. >>

She got up and stumbled groggily out into the living room and saw Lucy in the adjoining kitchen brewing up coffee. It was morning — she had slept through the latter part of the evening and through the whole night.

"Morning, Luce," she yawned. "Sorry to sleep in so late."

"Hey! I'm glad you got some rest!" Lucy looked at her sister guiltily.

<<Do I tell her Superman was here? What about the whole dream thing? I don't think she'll take it too well… I don't want her to flip out on me, but … I don't want to lie to her either! What do I do? >>

"Um… did… did I — talk in my sleep or anything?" Lois asked casually, hoping beyond hope that her nightmares hadn't been obvious to her sister.

"Uh… no," said Lucy nervously, "um… why do you ask?"

"Nothing — nothing. I — I had some rather bad dreams, and I … well, I'd hate to think I disturbed your rest."

"Oh — no! I didn't hear a thing from you all night," she said truthfully.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes! Why do you ask?"

"You seem kind of jumpy this morning — heck, I thought I was the jumpy one these days." Lois smiled at her feeble attempt at humor.

"Well — you know — some of the stuff you told me — kind of…"

"Yea — got you worried too? I'm glad," Lois nodded approvingly. "It's good to talk to someone who has an ounce of sense in their body. Don't worry — I'm sure you're safe for now. I'd be willing to bet he doesn't try anything overt at this point. You know — after all this time of trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, he isn't going to suddenly play out all his cards."

"Well — that — I wasn't really —"

"Is that coffee? I could really use some — and then I'm going to go get dressed and find myself a job."

"Oh! You mean at the Planet?" Lucy was grateful to have a change of subject.

"Not — not exactly. LNN."

"Why would you even consider taking a job anywhere but the Planet? The Planet is the best news organization in the world — I —"

"It WAS the best. It's now a biased load of sycophantic fools," Lois spat bitterly. "Or have you NOT been reading about their ongoing love affair with 'Superman'?"

"Well Lois — he's saved their lives — countless of lives — and —"

"And he works there. Or worked there — and don't think for a minute that he quit to make me feel any better. I just couldn't work for a paper where they were afraid or unwilling to really pursue the truth. The Planet used to be an institution for truth and justice, but I've lost faith in them. All those articles — ugh! It makes me sick to think of the Planet being used in such an utterly revolting fashion."

"Okay — okay! Don't get angry — I get it. I get it. So — LNN? I'll bet you get that job. I know Luthor has had a thing for you for years."

Lois gave a quick shudder at the thought. "If I get the job, it will be based on my merit as a journalist, not my attractiveness as a woman."

"Of course — you are one of the best reporters in the world —" Lucy began to placate her sister once again.

"Was. I've been out for a long time… but I'll get back on top."

"Um — so — great. Here's your coffee," Lucy said, unwilling to carry on this conversation any longer. It seemed that no matter how she tried to avoid the topic of Superman, Lois was just too obsessed to talk about anything else.

"Thanks — you are such a great sister!"

"Thanks — listen… Lois? Uh… about… about Superman?" Lucy started to reveal what happened to her sister, her guilt at keeping it a secret outweighing her common sense.

"Look — Luce — I don't want to argue this right now. I promise you — I'll try to be objective here. I won't do anything that I'll regret — I promise."

"No — but — well —"

"And if this is about meeting him — I don't want to meet up with him. Please- just try to keep from calling him — unless you are in deep danger. I don't think I'd feel safe here, if I knew he was still coming by."

"Uh — well — its not like he came by that often before — but he — well —"

"You're worried he'll think it's odd that you haven't called him to meet me? Don't — I think he knows about what happened… Even if he is harmless and there isn't any secrecy about his intentions, if he knows — he knows why I don't want to meet up with him."

"O-okay, Lois. I promise I won't call him here. If he shows up — it won't be because I called him."

"Thanks — thanks a lot. I promise, I'll get to the bottom of this one way or the other. Look at it this way — if he IS a benevolent alien, then my research will make sure everyone knows that — it will actually make his life easier, if that's the case. He only has something to lose if he's hiding malicious intent… and in that case, we'd want him to be — uh — stopped."

"Lois," Lucy sighed wearily, "I can't stop you from doing what you are going to do. Just remember — you are playing with lives here — at least one life — the life of what could be the most special person in the entire world. Really be sure of things before taking any steps."

"As if I ever would do otherwise? I didn't get to be the top reporter at the Planet by playing on bad hunches!"

Later, as Lois rode the cab to the LNN offices, she felt a simmering anger.

<<He's taken everything from me. My life, my job, my friends, and even my family. Lucy is obviously star-struck, and isn't likely to ever sanction any of my findings. Oh who cares what she thinks! What does she know anyway? I was always the smarter one and she's not the best judges of character either. Look at all those creeps she's dated. Oh, that isn't fair! Lucy is just trying to prevent me from hurting an innocent man. I wouldn't do that… would I? I'm on the side of justice and truth —I don't want anyone innocent getting hurt! >>

She stepped out of the cab and paid the driver and made her way through the formidable entrance to the LNN Offices. Summoning up her best haughty attitude, she informed the guard she was there to see Lex Luthor. Well — why not? Might as well start at the top — that was the only way to really get things done.

"Do you have an appointment?"

"No. Tell him Lois Lane is here to see him. He'll see me."

The guard looked at her skeptically, but he lifted the phone. Moments later, he looked back up at her with an expression of supreme surprise. "Uh — he's coming down to meet you!"

"Hmm. I guess he wants to see for himself if it's really me."

"He doesn't come down for anyone," the guard said in awe.

"Lois!" Lex called out happily as he stepped out of the executive-only elevator car. "I thought you were dead!"

"Rumors of my reappearance haven't reached you yet? Who keeps you informed? You should fire them, and hire me!" Lois felt a surge of revulsion at the sight of Luthor, and she didn't know why. As far as she knew, he wasn't a threat to her — but yet — something about him made her feel ill.

"I'd love to hire you — is that what you're here for," he asked companionably as they walked towards the elevator.

Lois fought her inward urge to flee. The idea of getting into an elevator with him — or anyone — was repugnant. However, she stood her ground knowing that of all people he was most likely to see her side of things.

As they rode up towards the penthouse, Luthor looked at Lois questioningly. "So, my dear — where on earth have you been?"

<<Should I tell him? NO! God — no. This man should NOT know about other universes. That kind of knowledge in the wrong hands can be deadly! But why are his hands the wrong hands? Why does he disturb me so much? He never did before. It must be my reaction to all men, after what Kal-El did to me. It makes sense that a powerful man like Luthor would bother me. It isn't more than some primitive response. But all the same — I think I'll keep quiet about where I've been! >>

"I was in an accident recently, Lex — and I have some kind of weird temporary amnesia. The last thing I remember was being in Metropolis. Three years ago… so … as you can see — I can't really answer that right now," she said charming him with her best smile.

They exited the elevator and went into his spacious office. She watched with her heart in her throat as he locked the doors behind them. She was alone up here and completely vulnerable to his whim — she was sure this place was sound-proofed and that Luthor wouldn't get any interference from his employees even if it weren't. She would just have to rely upon his being a professional and a gentleman. Why did he bother her so much? And then suddenly it hit her.

<<Oh god. He reminds me of Kal-El! How can that be? He seems more like Kal-El than Superman does. That doesn't make any sense at all? But somehow — he has Kal-El's… body language — that same languid grace, and casual and deadly air. As if he's toying with us all. Is Lex a dangerous man? Surely that can't be? He's widely known for his humanitarian activities — and surely if he were dangerous, I'd have caught wind of it long before now. >>

"I see," he smiled at her — the smile of a predator eyeing its prey.

"I — uh — I," she started nervously.

<<Drat, girl! Stop stuttering and acting like a child! Tell him what you want, and tell him he's going to hire you! Confidence!!>>

"I want you to hire me."

"On or off camera?" he asked smoothly

"Uh — off — of course," she responded startled at his question.

<<Is it really this easy? And if so — is it because of what Lucy said? No — of course not! I'm just one of the best, and Lex knows this. He's been trying to get me to work for him forever >>

"Fine. Let's discuss the terms over lunch!"

"Before we do this — I'd like to know how you feel about Superman?"

"Superman has done a lot for the planet Earth and for Metropolis specifically. He's quite the hero."

"Well… but what is LNN's stance on Superman? I noticed that unlike the Planet you don't seem to print a lot of … pro-superman articles — nor do you run a lot of pro-superman segments and editorials."

"Well, I believe we should report the truth and not let gratitude impede us from doing that."

"I … I completely agree with you. I just — well — if I were to find some — negative — things about Superman — would I be allowed to follow through with them here?"

"Lois, as long as you follow ethical means and ways, and as long as your stories and contacts can be corroborated and verified, you can print whatever you want."

She was speechless with joy. This was easier than she had thought. While Lex didn't seem to overtly dislike Superman, he clearly wasn't taken in. He was as cautious as she knew he would be.

"I think I'm really going to like it here," she said on impulse, forcing her uncomfortable feelings aside for now.

He smiled, and once again, she felt threatened. "Lois, my dear — this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship."

"Son, I do believe she's out to get you."

Clark looked up and met the piercing gaze of the man who had become his best friend. "I know," he sighed. He realized that Perry wasn't likely to let him leave without getting an explanation — and while he could, of course, leave whenever he chose, he didn't like to treat his friend so cavalierly. Perhaps it was time to let him in on what was going on.

"Now, what I'd like to know is … why? Why has she been working for Luthor these last three weeks, and why has she been consistently publishing those clever pieces — you know — the ones where she doesn't actually slander you, but where she does manage to imply that you are someone that the human race should be very wary of?" His eyes were quizzical as they regarded the young man.

<<Come on Clark! Spill! I know you know! You have nothing to hide, nothing to fear — just spill! >>

"I… know why," he grudgingly admitted, giving Perry a look that signaled his defeat on this matter. "And I'm willing to tell you because I don't know what else to do — or where else to turn. I'm scared, Perry. Scared for Lois. She's working with Luthor, and as we both know — he's a very dangerous man. I'm afraid of what her working for him will do to her — where it will lead her!"

"Why do you care so much about it? She's a stranger to you — despite that 'other' Lois — and I really wish you'd explain that too."

"I'll explain it all. Now. But you have to… well … suspend your disbelief for a while — if you can."

"Seeing as how I'm sitting in a room with a man who can fly and bend steel, an alien who looks just like a human being…"

"Well, that last part isn't really as strange as you might think."

"Why not?" Perry accepted this momentary diversion because he was intrigued. This had always niggled at him — the odds of there being two species in the universe so completely alike seemed staggering and pointed to religious explanations which he had always found impossible to swallow.

"Well — life did not originate on Krypton, and it has been long postulated that life was brought there by some outside force — some other race — perhaps as an experiment One such postulation is that Earth is origin of Kryptonians as well, and the reason for the yellow sun effect is because the Kryptonian body had to mutate over time to exist in the harsh red-sun environment. It is even possible that this mutation was the result of actual surgical alteration or tinkering with our genes. We — I — have the same number of chromosome pairs as do humans, and it is even possible that I could have children with an earth woman… well… almost possible — there are other things that could get in the way of that," he trailed off uncomfortably

"Like what?"

"Uh — well… my genetic material could just… destroy a woman's egg— so a fertilized egg could never really be a possibility. Kind of like a …well — microscopic gang-rape," he finished even more uncomfortably as he drew the obvious parallels between what he was discussing and what Lois had gone through.

"This is fascinating! Have you ever… oh — well — I guess I'm overstepping the boundaries of polite," he stopped slightly embarrassed by the direction of his questions. Normally he could ask hard-hitting questions, but there was something very innocent about this man that made him feel badly about probing at this level.

"No —no, I haven't. But… compatibility with humans has always been of deep interest to me. I AM a human being — not by birth, but by upbringing. Despite what Lois has printed, I do not hold myself above others."

"Ah. You're referring to her "What if god was one of us" article. I thought that might rankle."

"It did. Despite some of the very strange — uh — fan clubs devoted to … well… to me. I never considered myself a god-like figure, nor would I ever. Who would WANT to be worshipped and idolized like that? I just want to do my thing, and be allowed to live a reasonably normal life!"

"Which kind of brings us full circle. Why do you think she feels this way about you? Lois isn't one for irrationality. I would expect her to approach you with a grain of salt —she isn't one to be taken in by anything or anyone until she has the facts, and of course — she is a rather suspicious person by nature — probably due to her father's — um — indiscretions… but she isn't the kind to initiate a massacre either unless she was 100% sure of the rightness of her purpose."

"Well — after what I tell you, you may concede that she has rightness of purpose," he said, his eyes cast slightly to the side.

<<How do I tell you this without making you hate and fear me? How do I stop the world from hating me and fearing me? Where would I go if that became the case? Who could I turn to? >>

Perry blew out his breath. "I hope you aren't saying what I think you're saying," he said nervously. "I'd hate to think —"

<<Breathe. Breathe and stay calm. There has to be a reasonable explanation for all this. Just wait for it.>>

"No. I had nothing to do with any of this. Well. Not directly anyway, and most certainly not wittingly."

"Well, son — why not start at the beginning…"

"There's no easy way to say something this crazy. But the gist of it is that Lois was kidnapped by Tempus, who you no doubt remember, and was taken into an alternate universe. Tempus has a time machine."

Clark paused hesitantly, watching the older man carefully. When Perry's features remained impassive, he continued.

"She — uh — well — this other world… was overrun by aliens, and she was… kidnapped and held prisoner by these aliens. The rub is — these aliens were Kryptonians." Clark stopped at Perry's sudden indrawn hiss of breath.

Perry put his head in his hands wearily and held this pose for some time. When he raised his head, he looked at Clark with an expression that could only be called shell-shocked. "This is all true, isn't it?"

"You … you're willing to believe this? So easily?"

"Like I said — if you can exist — then anything is possible. Not to mention — this explains that other Lois, doesn't it. She was from an alternate universe, wasn't she?"

"Yes — a universe where she is married to my counterpart."

"So I guess that universe isn't one with an alien invasion."

"No," he said horrified, "Her relationship with the Clark in her world is completely consensual. When I said married, I meant it. They worked together for years and then ended up marrying. He keeps his identity as an alien a secret — and that is what Lois was trying to get me to do. You see — his parents never died, and under their guidance, he took on the guise of 'Superman' and managed to keep Clark and 'Superman' separate. Lois was taken to this universe by Tempus — again in an attempt to screw things up between them, and her way of solving the problem was to get to me, and get my help in getting home. She couldn't leave well enough alone," he smiled in the memory, "and worked her hardest to get me to be like her husband… well — not really like her husband — she didn't want — well — not me — but she wanted —"

"I understand," said Perry in an attempt to rescue the young man from his verbal floundering. "So she really was Lois — just not — OUR Lois."

"Yes."

"That is a huge relief. I've been trying really hard to construct a scenario where all this, including Lois's antipathy towards you — makes sense, and I haven't been able to do so. Knowing the truth makes dealing with the current reality much easier."

"I'm sorry, Perry," said Clark regretfully, "I had reasons for keeping this all a secret. First of all — Lois didn't want you to know what she had gone through, and I … felt like I would be betraying her if I told you her secret. Which I guess I've done — but I kind of feel like she's forced my hand."

"I can see why you would feel that way. So… her feelings towards Kryptonians makes sense to her — the only Kryptonians she's met were completely unlike you. What happened to you in that world? Did you never make it to earth? Did they kill you when they arrived?"

"Uh… well — funny thing about that — well — not really funny. Odd, strange and disturbing maybe —"

"Clark, you're babbling. I'm used to that from Lois — but never really from you!"

"My counterpart in that world was the leader of the Kryptonian invasion. The leader of the Kryptonians in fact, AND the one who held her hostage — and did… bad things… to her," Clark said glumly.

Perry sat staring at the young man in horror for what seemed like an eternity.

<<Clark…evil. Clark as an evil dictator. A ruthless ruler of worlds who hurts and abuses women like Lois for his own pleasure. A tyrant. A monster. I remember the venom in her voice as she spoke of you — and of our all being taken in. How horrible for her — to come back to the warm and safe world that is home to her, only to have to share it with her worst nightmare. Worse yet, to see that you are loved and accepted in a way that even she never was. This kind man, this gentle man — this good friend. My virtual son. A cruel and heartless monster in the fun-house mirror. Worse yet — what did it take to make that distortion? What possible force could be applied to a young child to yield the monster instead of the good man standing here?>>

"Please… say something," begged Clark.

"I… well — I — don't really know what to say…"

"You're just staring at me — are you… trying to picture it? Him?"

"I guess I was. It's nearly impossible for me to look at you and imagine you as what you've described."

"Well — I don't think he'd look exactly like me. The years of brutality and cruelty would have left its mark on his features — I'm sure that anybody in his presence would immediately be able to discern his true character. At least I hope — god I hope… my biggest fear is that he will somehow find out about alternate worlds and find a way to come here — or to others like this one."

Perry took another deep and exhausted breath. "That… would be… bad. But — I- one last question. Why would he have taken her in the first place- this Tempus guy? What does he have to gain by doing this to her?"

"He blames Lois and I for creating a utopian like environment in the future. He somehow thinks that we help influence society in such a way that the world becomes crime-free. He says it's unbearable and that there's no place for a 'brilliant criminal mind' such as his. So he and his counterparts spend an inordinate amount of time trying to drive a wedge between Lois and I. In this case… it appears to have worked."

"How in the world do the two of you achieve this lofty goal? It seems unbelievable."

"I thought you said anything was possible!"

"Uh — except world peace and happiness… I know the human race too well… you forget how long I've been in this business."

"I'm not really sure — exactly. I think it has to do with our producing — descendants."

"Well — it isn't like that's going to happen — so Tempus can leave her alone, at the very least, in this universe. I mean — no offense, Son — but the chances of her ever wanting to be with you that way are pretty much nil. Of course I'm sure after all her articles, you're not terribly keen on —" Perry stopped short and watched as a hollow and anguished expression entered the young mans eyes.

"Oh my god — you… you're in love with her!"

Clark looked up at the older man startled, the truth of his observation reflecting clearly in his eyes.

"How… do you figure that?" he hedged.

"You just get this … this look when you talk about her. It's… well — if you'll forgive me for saying so, it's a bleak and lonely kind of look," Perry said with a regretful wince.

Clark sighed deeply. "Yes. I — I do love her." The admission felt cathartic.

"But… I mean — you don't really know her, son — so are you sure about this? Maybe you love the OTHER Lois — which is the woman that our Lois might have become, had she not been kidnapped."

"That other Lois was extraordinary — I'll give you that — but it goes deeper than that. Lois and I are … well — I guess this is going to sound kind of crazy to you, but how much crazier than anything else I've told you today… we're soul mates, she and I."

"Soul mates."

"Yes — I know it sounds inane, and sappy and ridiculous, but I know it to be true. The man who invented the machine which was used to kidnap Lois also invented this soul-tracer device and managed to identify that Lois and I are current incarnations of this soul-pairing that keeps getting foiled, life-time after life-time."

"Oh. Well — in that case — I guess it makes sense then."

"You don't believe me," he said, crestfallen.

"No — it isn't that. It's just — I don't even know that I believe in souls, you know? So what you're telling me — kind of challenges some assumptions I've made — assumptions I'm not sure I want challenged."

"This doesn't really endorse any particular religions teachings — for all we know — any and all stories that have been put forth about afterlife are just bunk."

"But I kind of like the idea of … it all ending when I die."

"And for all intents and purposes, it might. A soul could be without any kind of self awareness until it inhabits a living body… you know? It may not even have any affect on the personality of the being it inhabits —"

"It just… well, it bugs me — I'll leave it at that. I can let it go though… mainly because I have to, in order to maintain my sanity. I don't want to wonder if Alice is really my soul mate, for example."

"Ah — yes. I see your point. This kind of information can drive you batty. I guess that's what bothers me. If Lois IS my soul- mate, and I know this to be true … then that doesn't speak too well for my future."

"Yea… the chances of her ever wanting to enter into a romantic relationship with you are pretty — well — dim… I'm sorry, Clark. This has to be tearing you apart."

"I keep trying to tell myself that it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's alive and well, and that she somehow finds a way to have a happy life. But … well, it really does matter. I can't deny that — I see her and I just lose focus of everything rational. I just want to be near her — I want to talk to her — and have her talk back — and laugh and smile. She thinks I'm a monster though, and that isn't likely to change any time soon."

"I'd like to lie to you son, and tell you I thought otherwise, but you probably look enough like him that she wouldn't be able to ever stop seeing him instead of you." He sighed heavily. "I don't know what to say to you."

"Just… letting me tell you all this — that means everything. I hope you know that this all has to be off the record — I know you aren't a newspaperman these days — but…"

"I know. First — people would think we were both certifiably insane if we ever discussed any of this publicly, and second — I'd hate to think of what would happen if a man like Luthor found out about alternate universes. I used to think the man was a philanthropist — a good and caring person, but after becoming Mayor, and fielding his many attempts at … getting me into his pocket — I realize now that he's not to be trusted. I worry about Lois and her affiliation with him. He's always been attracted to her… and Lex isn't the kind of man to take no for an answer."

"He had better be willing to take no for an answer," said Clark in an ominous and grim tone. "She may hate me — but I'm not going to stand back idly and let that man do anything harmful to her — not if I can stop it. He lays one unwelcome hand on her, and I'll be there to put a stop to it."

Perry looked up at the young man admiringly. "You would, too. That's the thing I really like about you, Son. She's going all out, trying to turn public opinion against you, and you would come to her aid in an instant. If she were doing this to Luthor, he'd probably have a contract put out on her."

"I don't work that way. People are entitled to their opinions — I don't have the right to force people into liking me."

"True — but… well let's just say that others in your position might act differently."

"Right — like my double. In that other world."

A glum silence followed that, as both men considered the horrible possibilities that existed in that other world.

"Perry — I've taken up enough of your time. I think I'm going to go and see if all is well in the city."

"Yea — sorry to have kept you. Listen — we'd love to see you sometime for dinner… Alice has been worrying about you ever since Lois went on her reign of terror."

"I'm okay — please thank her for me — but I'm okay." He sighed wearily. "Look — I appreciate it — but these days — I kind of like just kind of being on my own. I don't want to speculate with anyone about why Lois feels as she does — even Alice… I know too much about it — and I always feel like I'm lying when I have conversations with people about it. Just give me a little while to see if this blows over — you know — after it becomes yesterday's news… and then I'd love to get together. Is that okay with you?"

"Yea — I just — well — you can talk to us — or me any time you want!"

"I know! That's why I'm here today!" He got up and quickly spun into his suit. "Take care, my best to Alice!"

Perry stared at the open window and spoke aloud in the now-empty room. "Soul mates… that poor guy."

Lois looked uncertainly at the word document waiting patiently on her laptop screen, and read back some of what she had written.

<<The consequences of trusting Superman too quickly and easily and without any kind of boundaries at all is that we leave ourselves completely open to attack. And while it is possibly true that actions do, indeed speak for themselves, and that we are in no immediate or future danger, can we afford to really take that risk? Ought we not be wary of super-powered extra- terrestrials bearing friendship? The likelihood of someone possessing great power and not wanting to use it to control others is staggeringly low>>

She sighed in troubled consternation.

<<Why does this bug me so much. Why does it seem so bigoted? >>

She allowed her troubled mind to reflect back on the last three months of Superman activity. During this time, the man had done absolutely nothing which could even remotely be construed as threatening. In fact — the opposite was quite true — he had performed some major acts of heroism.

She first reflected back on a recent spate of fires in the city — all which seemed to flare up around the same time. The result of which was that Superman had to be in 4 different places at once. He did his very best — and very few people had died — but Lois was haunted by the look on his face and in his eyes as he talked with TV reporters about the lives he hadn't been able to save. There was one poignant picture that showed him holding a young child who had suffered major amounts of smoke inhalation. He had been able to save that child's life by quick action, but it was obvious from the video and the photographs that the man was deeply affected by the suffering around him.

<<And of course, that's how he's drawn them all in. Now he's drawing me in, despite what I know. I need to be careful! I know better! >>

Other equally tragic events had seemingly taken their toll on the Man of Steel. Earthquakes, tidal waves, and of course — the evils that men do to one another. Not once did this powerful man ever use his strength and powers to harm another, even when the 'other' was a child pornographer. He had been grim and angry in the interviews after that incident, but never violent — he always stayed well within the law.

She heaved a heavy sigh. It was getting harder and harder to stay focused. He still frightened her greatly — whenever she was physically near him, she felt that same stab of fear and dread — the same urge to run and hide — an urge she had to suppress — she was a reporter and he was usually the biggest thing in the news. She let her cohorts ask him all the questions, but she had to be there to at least record the answers. Eye contact had been made between them on many occasions — and not once did he show anything other than polite recognition. She kept expecting an angry visit or at the very least an occasional reproachful glance… but it just hadn't happened. She had managed at least to avoid any one-on-one conversations, and for that she was grateful — because despite what his counterpart had done, she was beginning to feel a great deal of guilt about the articles she had been writing.

<<But this will all be justified, won't it? He is evil — and he is planning to do us some kind of harm. He just plays a really good hero — it's all acting. Kal-El was very good at that sort of thing — manipulation — it was his forte. Granted, he never tried to play the hero — but he enjoyed toying with minds — leaving people guessing what his true intentions were. But then — his intentions could be good. He could, in fact, be well-meaning. And I'm trashing him left and right — subtly enough to avoid a libel lawsuit, but enough to turn the tide of popular opinion. And it's working — I see the change in how he's treated — many still love him — but others seem to look at him with new suspicion in their eyes. He's gracious and kind to everyone he interacts with, but — he has to know what's going on. Even if he isn't using his telepathy — it's kind of obvious from their body language. >>

Lois shook her head rapidly in an attempt to shake her conscience out of her head. There was one other thing troubling her and she forced herself to face it head on. Luthor. He gave her the creeps — it was a simple as that. And in the past, she had learned to trust that creep-o-meter that she had. It was always important for a woman to trust her creep-o-meter and she had known that since she was a teenager. Luthor kept making annoying and underhanded compliments and suggestions that made her want to throw up — but hadn't acted on any of them. She had managed to deflect any and all of his dinner invitations, but she could tell his patience was wearing thin. More importantly, she could tell that Luthor, out of patience, would be a dangerous man.

<<Like Kal-El. Oh god — where did that come from? Why does he remind me so much of Kal-El? There's something implacable about this man — something cruel— he doesn't like to lose. Just like Kal-El — and… what's his — stays his. I can see that. I just hope he knows that I am not his. I may work for him — but I belong to me. I just hope he knows that. And why is he so quick to approve of my campaign against Clark? I thought he was a neutral party, which made it okay to do this… I wasn't feeding into anyone else's personal agenda — but now, I'm not so sure. It seems almost as if he's egging me on. As if he's using me as a tool for Clark's destruction. The only reason I can see him doing that is that he either knows something about Clark's intentions, or he wants to be top-dog. If it's the former, then I'm happy to help — but the latter? I'm just feeding into his own power trip and that could have deadly consequences for lots of people, including Clark. >>

Lois inhaled deeply in frustration.

<<I can't do this right now. I need a break.>>

She packed up her laptop and made ready to go take a long walk in the park.

She returned from her walk feeling weary and unsatisfied. She had hoped the fresh air would help clear her clouded mind, but while walking her conflicting thoughts just kept battering at her conscience.

Prior to her disappearance, Lois had had a reputation for being somewhat of a 'mad-dog'. She hated that particular metaphor because it always brought up the image of something wildly out of control. If there was one thing that described her professionally, it was 'controlled'. Lois never ever let emotion cloud her judgment when following a story. She pursued the truth relentlessly and with integrity — because that was what she wanted. The Kerth awards were a nice bonus, but her key goal as a journalist was to expose the truth and try to help seek justice for those who could not seek it themselves. She never submitted stories that she didn't believe in completely.

As she reflected on this, she twisted her mouth in distaste. Try as she might, she could not banish her nagging inner voice any longer. Her earlier deep conviction that Kal-El was a dangerous man was no longer so deep nor so convincing. Having been back long enough to really see this man in action, she couldn't find one shred of evidence that he meant any harm. The only people who really seemed to think that Superman posed any kind of problem were either crazy or criminal.

And then… there was Lex. She didn't think he was crazy. Is it possible that he was a criminal? He was a very wealthy man and Lois was not in the slightest bit naïve. She knew that great wealth and power could not really be amassed without a few rules being broken along the way. Breaking rules was one thing, but she was really starting to get the unpleasant conviction that more had been broken along Luthor's path. Hearts? Most certainly. Luthor was quite a playboy. But even more insidious was the conviction that Luthor had left a trail of broken lives and possibly even dead bodies in his wake. Perhaps it was he who deserved the keen gaze of her journalistic microscope.

She shook her head as she paced her apartment.

<<It used to be so clear. I could see it — right there in front of me and it was so obvious that everyone else was just living in happy delusion. But now something has changed. He scares the hell out of me — I won't say that's changed. I look at his face, and my blood runs cold. Could it be that I'm just projecting my feelings about the other Kal-El onto this man? Is it as simple as that?>>

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she was losing conviction in her own beliefs. The man she was vilifying was not living up to the reputation she was trying to assign him, and the man she worked for was giving her more and more cause for concern. In addition to the dubious nature of his business practices, his not-so-disguised advances made her feel even more disgusted — both with him and with herself, even though she logically knew that she was not doing anything to lead him on.

Facing and acknowledging her doubts to herself made her feel worse. She could not continue down a path of destroying an innocent man's reputation, and yet, part of her clung to the idea that if he was evil she was doing the right thing. But that big if had become a small if, and could she justify her actions any longer based on a shrinking probability that her path was the right path?

Could she live with herself if she succeeded in her goal of turning the tide of human opinion against him, especially if it resulted in causing an innocent and good man a great deal of unnecessary pain? Earth was all he had for a home, and he had no kinsmen around, or so it was believed. Where would he go? Live in seclusion if the world cast him out? He was alone in the world, he had no family. To whom did he go for counsel or comfort? Were her articles hurtful to him? Who helped him to deal with that hurt? Who —

<< I need to stop this. I really can't let myself care about his feelings. I owe my readers a duty to stick to the truth. Ah, but that's the problem. The truth. Just what is the truth here? What if he's just manipulating my mind telepathically? Why would he do it? I guess if he were doing it, it would be to amuse himself… if he could turn me to his side — that would be quite the little victory. But that sounds like a lame scenario to even me. I can't even make myself believe that.>>

She decided she needed to share these thoughts with someone else, and she knew that someone else had to be Lucy. Perry would work overtime trying to convince her to follow these new doubts… and although Lucy might try as well, but she knew that she would have more strength spurning Lucy's opinion that in spurning Perry's. After all, Lucy had been her baby sister for many years, and it was easy to just scoff at what she had to say, even if deep down she valued her opinions.

She sighed heavily. How did I get myself into this mess?

<<Aha! See?!? You admit this is a mess. You admit you might have been wrong all along. >>

She cursed her inner voice. Why couldn't it be on her side for once?

<<I am on your side. You just don't know what side you are on yet. Have I ever been wrong? I'm not asking you to like the guy… but he's never done anything to you and you're destroying his reputation. He's an orphan. Alone in the universe, and you are taking away his peaceful existence. If he is innocent and truly means well, what you've done is reprehensible. You are turning people against him, forcing him to pay for the crimes of another man.>>

Guilt and remorse assailing her, she went out to see her sister.

"Lucy. I really need to talk to you." She was relieved to find her at home, and alone.

"Lois. I don't know whether or not I should even be talking to you. I'm really mad at you."

"I know… and rightfully so."

"Don't try to sweet talk me out of it — you were supposed to — you just agreed with me, didn't you? If you knew I'd be angry, why did you blow me off like that? Remember… we had an agreement."

Lois took in a deep securing breath. She was about to admit something out loud that she never thought she would admit. By admitting this, she felt that she was going to be committing to a very different course of action… one that had some very nerve- wracking implications down the line.

"I was afraid… that you might get me to change my mind. I didn't want that."

"Don't give me that garbage. I've never been able to convince you of anything that you already hadn't already convinced yourself… oh —"

Her voice trailed off as she realized the import of what Lois was saying. "So you know… you know you've made a mistake."

"Not so fast, not nearly so fast… I'm not saying that I'm wrong about Kal-El. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that… I'm not so sure I'm right anymore either." She sighed in frustration. "You see — it was all so easy when I came back. I knew he was evil. I knew he had malicious intent. I knew he intended harm. But the more time I've spend back… Lucy — you know me. You know I'm not some crackpot claiming that the world is going to end. I'm reasonably levelheaded when it comes to my investigations. I never let my own personal feelings cloud the truth behind a story."

"Lois," Lucy interrupted. "Please just get to the point."

"I guess it's been hard for me to avoid seeing that — I'm not saying that I like him. I don't. I'm not saying that he doesn't give me the cold shakes whenever he's anywhere remotely near where I am. He does. I'm just starting to doubt that it's his fault that he makes me react that way. I used to trust my instinctive reaction to people, but now I don't know what to believe. I feel like my own mind is betraying me. You can't possibly know how awful that is — to not be able to trust yourself. I feel that somehow my effectiveness as a reporter is gone. How can I continue to investigate the truth when my own instincts have become so unusable?"

"They aren't unusable. You aren't a bad reporter. I imagine it must be incredibly hard to distinguish between two identical men. They are counterparts across universes — so in an odd sense, they are the same person. I don't blame you at all for ignoring the evidence before you and sticking to your guns. But in another sense, they are completely different people. Lois, if your instincts kept telling you he was evil, then you wouldn't be feeling any guilt here. Obviously some part of you is working as it ever did, and that part is asserting itself and making you crazy. You just have to learn to trust that particular instinct and try not to trust your immediate reaction to the guy. I wish you had someone to talk to about this. Someone professional — but how do you tell someone your story without having them write you off as crazy?"

"Talking to you helps. It helps enormously. I'm just not sure it will be enough."

"I'm always here for you though, I hope you know that. You make me really angry sometimes… but that doesn't surprise me. After all, we're sisters."

Lois hugged her sister appreciatively. Lucy was a real big help — unloading her feelings of ambivalence had helped her in a small way to sort out how she really felt about things. It calmed and soothed her… and made her feel less like she was alone in the world.

Much later, after she returned to her own apartment, she turned and contemplated her laptop sitting there all alone on the table. Until she had a better sense of what her next move should be she would stop the articles. Her relationship with Luthor would end.

Luthor would not be pleased.

She took a deep and calming breath. It was better to let Luthor know now rather than delay it any further. She picked up her cell phone and called his private number. She flinched in disgust as she heard his voice on the other end.

"Lex."

"Lois, my dear, how my I help you? Is something wrong?"

"Lex… we need to talk. Is now a good time for you to see me?

"Anytime is a good time for me to see you. I hope I haven't left you in any doubt of that." His voice had taken on a slightly sexual edge to it.

"I'll be at your office in -"

"No, I'm not at my office. I'm on the road right now. I'll have David drive out to your place around 7 pm and pick you up for dinner."

"I don't —" she started to protest, but then she heard the telltale silence that meant the call had ended. The bastard had hung up before giving her a chance to refuse his invitation. She could call him again, but she knew that Lex did not like to hear refusals, and as she was about to end their relationship, it behooved her to not start the conversation out over hard feelings. Luthor was a powerful, and as she had recently begun to think, dangerous man. She felt instinctively that it would be better to break this news in as friendly a way as possible. That having been decided, she realized that she had better start thinking about what to wear.

Hours later, Lex's chauffeur showed up at her apartment. She was dressed elegantly in a long sleeveless black dress that was neither dowdy nor overtly sexual. It was a dress suitable for an elegant dinner with a platonic business associate. She wanted him to be aware on no uncertain terms that this was not a date, nor was it a prelude to something more. It was a dress that she had bought years ago, and back then it fitted her like it had been made for her. Now it hung on her frame loosely, emphasizing her fragile and wraithlike figure.

She was dismayed to see the car pull up in front of Lex's home. When he had invited her to dinner, she was sure that they were going to dine in a restaurant. The idea of being trapped here in his own… lair…made her current course of action seem ridiculously suicidal. Her feelings of being menaced increased tenfold

<<Nobody will hear me scream here. And if they do… they won't do anything about it. >>

She sat there, not getting out even after David had opened her door.

<< Run! Run away!! >>

She sighed in frustration. Was her inner voice betraying her? Or should she heed it and do the unthinkable — hijack this car… or worse, much, much worse, call for Superman's help?

"Ah, Lois! Let me help you out." Luthor had come down to the door of the car after waiting impatiently for her to exit the vehicle on her own volition.

<<Too late! Too late! No… Not too late. Superman will come if you call. There's always Superman. No. I can't call him. That's ridiculous. Frying pan and fire, after all. >>

Quelling her thoughts in frustration, she decided she had no choice but to go through with this dinner. She forced the appearance of calm indifference and held out her hand for assistance out of the car.

As they walked towards the house she kept a decent distance between them. His encroachment on her person space would not be tolerated lightly.

"Lois, I hope you like Lobster?"

"Lex, I like it just fine. But really — you shouldn't have gone to all this trouble. We would have had this talk without all this. Or we could have had it in a restaurant."

"This is much cozier, don't you think?"

<<Too cozy. >>

"You seem troubled, my dear."

"Lex. I'd really appreciate it if you called me 'Lois.'"

"Why yes, of course," he said, surprise in his tone. "I had no idea you were offended by my style of address."

<<Liar. You are deliberately trying to keep me off-center.>>

Her antagonism towards him was increasing every second. She was amazed he couldn't feel it emanating of her skin. She felt all prickly and stiff.

They went inside, and after they had gotten settled with drinks — his a snifter of fine brandy, and hers a tall glass of ice water, she burst out with her news.

"Lex. I've decided to make some changes in my life."

"Oh?"

"I'm… taking a break from reporting for a while. I don't want to continue my current series of articles about Clark Kent, and I don't want to work for Luthor news anymore… At least now for now." She threw in the last as some kind of bone in hopes of appeasing him. But she knew he wasn't much of anybody's fool.

"Oh. I see." His voice and manner were pleasant and cordial but she could feel a dangerous undercurrent that wasn't there before.

"I hope you understand. This has nothing at all to do with you. I just need to take some time off and… get grounded again. My amnesia and my disappearance have taken a real toll on me and I just want to feel like Lois Lane again. It's hard to explain — I know if someone had said something like this to me three years ago, I'd have been pretty scornful. I've never been much on the whole 'finding oneself' way of thinking."

"I do understand, My — Lois. I know that whatever you've been through, it's been hard on you, and you've been working so feverishly on this series of articles. It's been an all-consuming passion for you. I have been worried about the level of intensity that you have given this project. It almost feels like you had some kind of vendetta against poor Clark, and I just didn't know what to do, or how to react. I'm glad you're taking a step back."

What a snake. "I'm glad you see it that way," she said with a forced smile. "I'm really glad there are no hard feelings, as I'd hate to see this affect our friendship."

"In fact, I think this is good for our friendship."

"Sure — I guess since I won't be working for you anymore, we won't have that awkward imbalance of … of…" She trailed off, at a loss for a word.

"Power? Exactly. You see, I knew that you were keeping me at arms length because I was your boss. You didn't want to feel… well, I guess… owned."

Violent nausea struck her, and she had to take several moments to fight it back. Encouraged by her silence, he pressed on.

"Lois, I think this is a perfect opportunity to deepen our friendship." He got up suddenly and moved to where she was sitting. She stood up in shock and backed away a few steps.

"Lex, I think you've misunder-"

"Lois, I know — I know — you need to find yourself. Go on and do that, find yourself — but let me help — let me be there to be your guide! I only want to be able to share in your life, don't deny me that!" He grasped her hand persuasively.

"Lex, let me go. I'm not interested in that kind of relationship with you." She had to fight the urge to sink into sheer panic, but she instinctively knew that panic would only lead to a more forceful offensive on his part. "I think I'd better be leaving."

"Lois, I really do expect better manners from my guests. Please remember whom you're talking to. You don't have to play these games with me. I know you were interested in me before you disappeared. In fact, you were very friendly and flirtatious."

"I'm not being friendly or flirtatious now. Lex. I want you to let me go. Now."

"And I want you to stay for dinner. Then you can go." His grip on her tightened fractionally.

"No!" Her panic was rising. He wasn't going to let her leave. "I said I want to leave now."

"My cook will be offended. He went to a great deal of trouble to prepare your favorite dessert."

"No! I can't sta—" she was preparing to make use of her vast knowledge of martial-arts to release her wrist from his grasp, but even so — her confidence in her ability to escape this situation wasn't very high. She was in enemy territory. No allies here. Nausea struck her with full-force and she started to hear a loud buzzing in her ears.

Suddenly, she heard a disturbingly familiar voice behind her. "Luthor! Catch!"

A book came sailing through the air, and reflexively, Luthor reached up and caught it. He looked down at it, and then looked up in surprise at the person who threw it at him.

"A dictionary? Why a dictionary, and, oh, by the way, why are you trespassing in my home? I hope I don't have to call the police."

"The word 'No' can be found under the letter 'N'."

Lois turned hesitantly towards the voice, already knowing that it was Clark. She braced herself for the sight of him. To her great dismay, he stood there in his Superman red and blues, and she felt like she had been delivered a great blow. Standing there, looking all grim and resolute, she felt like she was once again back in that other world, cowering before an angry Kal-El.

That Clark was angry was glaringly obvious. She could almost see his hands curling into fists, and she could feel rage emanating from him in hot searing waves. He was very angry and all she could think was that he was angry at her. Kal-El had always blamed her when one of his fellow lords had touched or looked at her in a way that triggered Kal-El's jealousy. Was Clark through with any pretence he may have been playing? Was he angry to see Luthor touching her because he felt that she belonged to him? Was he about to make a hostile move? He looked and sounded so utterly like the other, that she was frozen in her horror.

"Clark. You are embarrassing my guest," Luthor smiled genially. "Come now — can't a fellow have a nice dinner with a friend without being ordered about by super-powered beings?"

"It's a free country, Lex. Much as you would wish otherwise. Ms. Lane has indicated rather vehemently that she wishes to leave, and you are attempting to force her to stay here against her own will. Sorry old boy, but I can't just stand back and let you treat people like that." Clark's reply was equally as genial; he would meet Luthor on his own ground.

Luthor looked affronted. "Why — I was only concerned about my cook's feelings. I saw no reason for us to end this meeting of friends without partaking of a delightful meal made especially for Ms. Lane here. I'm sure it's been a while since anyone really took the time to pamper her. Beyond that I meant no offense, and she is, of course, free to leave. My car is completely at her disposal." He turned to look at her expectantly.

His action and words triggered her out of her panic. Dimly, through the haze of frightened thoughts, she realized that Superman had just, once again, come to her rescue. His anger had been leveled at Lex — not because Lex was encroaching on her territory, but because he wasn't getting her message. At least she hoped that was what was making him seem so utterly stern. Emboldened by this realization she was able to respond to Lex.

"I'm leaving, Lex. Extend my apologies to your cook. I'm not hungry anymore."

"Of course not. How else would you manage to keep that delightfully lean figure of yours? Well then, of course, you may leave. I'm sorry if I came on so strongly. I was just overcome by the shame of wasting such a nice dinner. Superman, you wouldn't care to stay for dinner, would you, old friend?"

"No thanks, Lex. I'm not feeling particularly hungry either."

"Ah. But then — do you ever really feel hunger? Don't you get all your energy from the sun?"

Clark remained silent. He refused to rise to the bait. Luthor was trying to point out explicitly that Clark was an oddity. A freak. An alien. One question such as this would no doubt lead to more embarrassing and probing questions about his 'bodily functions', and Clark was in no mood to play this game.

"Ms. Lane," he said turning to Lois, who was having trouble meeting his gaze. She looked so frail and vulnerable and miserable. Her dress hung on her loosely emphasizing her current state of frailty. "I urge you to take Lex's offer of a ride home, as I'm sure it doesn't involve his being in the car with you. But please be assured that I am at your service as well, and will come to your aid if you should require it." Although normally he might offer to fly someone to a position of safety, he was astute enough to know that she couldn't possibly surrender herself completely into his power like that.

Lois was startled — she had expected an offer to fly her home, and she felt a sudden sense of gratitude towards him — she felt as if he had deliberately avoided making an offer to avoid putting her in an awkward position of refusing him. She looked up at him suddenly, causing a brief startled look to appear on his face. It satisfied her to see a break in the remote-cool armor he was wearing, although she didn't really know why.

"Thank you," she said, her voice low but strong. "I will be fine and I appreciate your offer of assistance."

Superman stuck around while she got into the car, and as the car drove off, he turned to Luthor with determination.

"I'd advise you to leave her alone."

"Or you'll beat me up after school?" Taunted Luthor

"Well. She might, if you push her hard enough."

"She was almost mine before she disappeared. Did you know that?"

"Somehow I doubt it."

"We had gone on a few dates together, and I could tell she really enjoyed my company. She was attracted to me. I know it. I don't know what's changed, but I'm not going to let it stop me. Don't think for a moment she's interested in you. She'd be crazy to let an alien come near her. It was clear to me that you make her sick. How does it feel to make someone sick just by being in the same room with them?"

"Just keep that dictionary handy in case you forget the meaning of the word 'No' again. I'd hate to see you end up behind bars."

Before Luthor could answer, he flew off. He knew that the man's impotence at being able to follow him and get in that last word infuriated me, and he reveled in it. He felt a bit of shame at that, but Luthor really rubbed him the wrong way.

As he flew into the night, he realized that something had to be done. Lois had shown herself to be averse to being in Luthor's company in a personal setting, but she was working with him, which indicated some level of faulty judgment. He needed to make an offensive strike against Luthor, one that would terminate Lois's relationship with the man once and for all. He hated to do it, because he felt that he was taking unfair advantage. He pushed aside the guilty feelings resolutely. Fire had to be fought with fire. He flew quickly home, and gathered what he needed into a briefcase, taking a few seconds to change into a less conspicuous outfit.

Lois jumped suddenly as she heard a knock on her door. Fearing that she would see Luthor's smug face, she looked in the peephole with trepidation. She was utterly shocked to see Clark Kent standing there clad as any casual, youngish human male would be. He was carrying a briefcase.

Her heart started pounding rapidly. Her mind was a jumble of panic. Her first instinct was to open the door and just run as far away as she could, but she knew that would be a fruitless maneuver.

A million thoughts raced through her troubled mind. He was here to hurt her. Rape her. Kill her. To wreak vengeance on her for being in the company of another man. But then, if that were all true, wouldn't he just break in and do it? Or what if he were here to confront her about her articles. As sick as that thought made her, it was something she could handle. She'd been accused of libel before, and she would be again… It was part of the territory of her job. Maybe he came to persuade her of his innocence and goodness and to beg her to stop writing her series. That thought troubled her. She didn't want him to beg for her mercy — it was too raw for her to cope with at this point.

He knocked again. Surely he must know she was there, standing so close to the door. Her heart was beating so loud that she felt that anyone could hear it, let alone, a man with super sensitive hearing. Resolving to be as brave as she could, she closed her eyes, counted to three, and then flung open the door defiantly.

<<I will show no fear, and I will never beg for mercy.>>

He started in surprise at the violence of the door opening. He had just given up hope that she would ever answer the door. For a long and awkward pause, they stood there uncomfortably sharing the same space.

Although she had buffeted her courage up before opening the door, it failed her when she saw him. Her fear response was immediate and intense, and she had to work very hard at not grabbing onto the door for support as she felt her whole body get weak. She looked at his shoulder, afraid to meet his gaze.

<<But are you afraid of being punished for looking him in the eye, or are you afraid of seeing an innocent man? One that you have harmed? >>

He took in her response and vowed to take up as little of her time as he could.

"I guess you are probably wondering why I'm here. And… I know I'm not exactly a welcome visitor. I won't take up much of your time… I just want to give you this."

She stared at it suspiciously. "What- what is it?"

"It's information. Information that we have been compiling against Luthor."

"W-we?"

"Perry White. And me. You see — we've been unable to pin any of the things he's been doing on him. He's very good at covering his own involvement in any of his schemes. But we know — and he's all but admitted it to me — that he's been behind a great number of disasters, thefts and murders. Luthor is a very dangerous and evil person, but he's impossible to implicate. His wealth protects him. It's his invulnerability."

"But you said — this is information — is it proof?"

A look of frustration came over his face. "No. And that's the part that's really aggravating. We can't make it stick. We just keep amassing this information in hopes that eventually we'll be able to piece something together that lands him where he belongs. In prison for life."

She was silent. It sounded awfully like her campaign against Clark.

"You know… maybe if you can't find anything to stick on him, it's because there isn't anything. It… He could be innocent." Even as she said it, she didn't believe it. She couldn't believe she was able to talk to Clark like this either. He disarmed her, and that took her by surprise. She was talking to him almost as if they were colleagues. She snuck a direct look at his eyes, feeling now that he would not lash out at her for the eye contact. She saw a brief glint of humor there as he responded to her last statement.

"Ms. Lane. Do you really believe that?" He took an unconscious step forward.

She suddenly felt the return of her fear. It washed over her like a big ocean wave. "No! I — I can't! I just can't! I —" she backed away, her fear increasing as she felt strongly menaced. She was hardly aware of what she was doing as she slammed the door before he could enter. She backed away from the door, fully expecting him to knock it down. She rushed to her window, but then didn't know what to do. And then she realized he could just as easily come through the window. She rushed to the door again and looked fearfully out the peephole. He was gone. She whirled to look at the window, to see if he had entered there, but he hadn't. There was no trace of him. He had just gone. Gone. She had slammed the door in his face, and if she had done that to Kal-El, he'd have killed her. If she'd done it to Luthor, he'd probably have stuck his foot in the door and forced his way in. But Clark had just left. She stood bemused and confused for a few minutes, not knowing what to do next. Wearily, she decided the best course of action was to go to bed, and she made her way to her bedroom, her thoughts and feelings swirling in a violent storm.

Sleep would not be hers tonight.

After she had slammed the door in his face, Clark cursed himself for taking that step forward. What was he thinking?

<<Stupid, Stupid, Stupid! You idiot — she was ready to take the information and you just sent her running. Way to go, genius! You'll never get her to believe you now! >>

He stood there for a few seconds, not knowing what to do and then he decided that the only choice at this point was to beat a strategic retreat. He had sent her into hiding again, and he would have to wait for her to come out before trying again. He hoped fervently that his actions wouldn't have the opposite desired effect of pushing her into Luthor's arms. He walked home, preferring to take the slow way home. The darkness of night gave him anonymity, and a slow steady pace gave him time to reflect on the night's events.

<<She was listening to you, you idiot. And then you just messed it all up.>>

After leaving her apartment, Clark went quickly home to return the briefcase. After securing it safely, he flew over to Perry's house. He walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. <<Please be home! Please be alone!>> He was relieved to see his good friend open the door.

"Clark!! I didn't expect to see you tonight!"

"I know — I should have called first —"

"Nonsense! Come in — Alice isn't home yet — but perhaps I can give her a call on her cell-phone and —"

Clark interrupted hastily. "Actually… I'm not really here to socialize. I know — I'm sorry — I just need to talk to you about something that happened tonight. With Lois."

"What happened?"

"Well, the short story is — I decided to go talk to her about Luthor."

"Oh no! Please tell me that you didn't try to give her the —"

"Yea. I did. Stupid. I know."

"What happened?"

"In a nutshell, I freaked her out. It ended with her slamming her door in my face in sheer panic."

Perry winced. "That's rough," he said sympathetically. "But maybe it isn't so bad after all. You did leave the information, right? So maybe when she's cooled off a bit —"

"Uh… no… I didn't."

"What? Why in the name of Elvis not?" Perry was incredulous.

He winced in self-recrimination. "I don't know. I — I wasn't thinking clearly — I — I didn't want her to think I was pushing my opinion on her. I didn't want her to resent me for that. I also guess I was worried that if Luthor showed up at her door that night, he would find it there, and think that somehow she was betraying him."

"Yes — I suppose I can see your point," Perry said slowly.

"Well — so now you know. I really messed things up."

"Clark, you need to stop being so hard on yourself. Your actions were a bit — headstrong — but you have to admit to yourself that where Lois is concerned, you aren't exactly the most levelheaded person in the universe. Love makes us do some pretty bizarre things." Perry paused, unsure as to whether he should proceed. After brief reflection, he decided to ahead with his observation. "You know… Clark… maybe you have another motive for trying to break off her relationship with Luthor."

"You think I'm doing it out of jealousy? Yeah — you probably have a point. But Perry — I promise you — I'm not turning into a stalker. I really do want her to have a normal and happy life — even if it means I can't be a part of it. But — but — not with Luthor. You know? Tell me you understand that!" Clark looked at his friend with a plea in his eyes. He needed for Perry to understand.

"Yes. I know. And I know you aren't becoming a stalker. It can't be easy reading her articles, and seeing her with the man. But you don't need to worry — if there's one thing I know about Lois — it's that she's too smart a woman to ever end up Luthor's dupe. She's going to figure him out, and when she does, he's better run for cover.

"You really think so?"

"Yes. Lois is one of the best reporters out there. Trust me, okay?"

"Okay. Okay. Maybe… maybe I just need to get some sleep!"

Across town, Lois grappled with nightmares and her own restless sleep. At one point, suspended in that twilight space between awake and sleeping, she was absolutely sure she could see a tall male shape standing at her bedside. Her body had been gripped with the paralysis of deep sleep, and yet it seemed as if she were actually awake.

Frantically, and with and increasing sense of panic, she focused all her energies on moving her finger. If she could move one little part of her body, she would force her body awake, dispelling the paralysis. To her great relief, it worked, and the male shape vanished. She was completely alone.

She sat up and looked around warily. Had there actually been someone here, or was it just something her sub-conscious had churned up?

<<I should get up and look around.>>

She desperately did not want to get up to look, but she knew that if there was someone there, staying in bed wasn't going to make her any safer.

<<What if it's Kal-El, or Tempus? What if they've come to take me back there? Oh god! How could I ever stop them? >>

Fueled by these awful thoughts, she jumped out of bed agitatedly and grabbed the hammer she had taken to leaving under her pillow. A hammer would be of little use against a Kryptonian, but she could probably disable Tempus or Luthor with it. Her heart pounding hard in her throat, she turned the lights on and started to investigate every square inch of her apartment. Methodically she went through the place, grateful for the fact that she had deliberately chosen a small apartment.

Across town, Clark was also awake. He kept having nightmares that Luthor had abducted Lois. In each of these dreams he was surrounded by all kinds of horrible disasters and was unable to come to her rescue. He kept calling out to her that he would be there soon, but in the end, he kept failing to save her. When the disasters were over, he found that he was unable to find her, no matter how hard he looked. It was horrible and frustrating, and even worse — he feared that these dreams might somehow be prophetic. Luthor was a very dangerous man, and he was never more dangerous than just after being crossed. Luthor would not handle Lois's rejection lightly. Surely Lois wouldn't continue her professional relationship with Luthor. She must see how dangerous that would be.

Plagued by these thoughts, Clark fell back into restless sleep — his physical body didn't need nightly sleep, but his conscious mind needed the downtime in order to stay in peak condition.

Once again, he found himself hearing her cries in his sleep. He dreamt that he flew over to her apartment, and that he entered her room where she lay sleeping. He dreamt that he stood over her bed, watching her to make sure she was okay — a superhuman bodyguard. The dream was particularly vivid. Oddly, he felt as if he was looking at her bedroom from her vantage point. In his dream, she started to stir awake, and he suddenly woke up.

He sat up feeling unsettled. Was it possible that he was actually in her room? That didn't really make any sense — there were no open windows that indicated that he had left his bedroom at all that night.

<<Maybe telepathically?>>

He considered that thought. Whenever he had discovered new powers as a youth, he had to work hard at controlling them. Was it possible that like a sleep-walker, he was sleep-projecting? If that were true, he had a big problem on his hands. It was unthinkable to go around invading people's thoughts.

Lois sat down on her couch after ensuring that her apartment was empty except for herself. She let out a deep sigh of relief as she sat on the couch. She turned on the television in order to numb her brain into a calmer sleep. It worked like a charm. Watching a mindless infomercial, Lois finally fell into a dreamless sleep.

Across town Clark decided to start his day. The last thing he wanted was to end up in her head again. He decided instead that he would go out flying and see if anyone needed his help.

<<These days, I need the brownie points.>>

Although people weren't overtly showing any signs of antagonism towards him, the general climate had changed since Lois began her series of articles. When he saved lives, the people he saved were always overcome with joy and gratitude, but often times when he was wandering around as Clark, he felt that there was more mistrust and wariness than ever before.

<<And who can blame them? You would feel the same way if roles were reversed. Still, a little hero action might tip the scales back in my favor.>>

The next morning, Lois woke up. She turned on the news and began to stretch her cramped muscles. She was surprised to hear that Superman had been unusually active last night, saving a few lives and preventing a few muggings.

<<I guess he had trouble sleeping too.>>

She wandered cautiously over to the door and checked out the peephole. She then went to the window and looked carefully to see if there were any suspicious people or cars nearby.

<<Shouldn't you be looking up into the sky? >>

With a start, she realized she wasn't looking for Clark — it was Luthor she was looking for. Luthor was not a man who liked to be foiled, and she was absolutely certain that he would somehow get revenge for what had happened. She had gained a new enemy last night, and he was nearly as formidable as Kal-El — of that she was sure.

She regretted not taking the briefcase, but that couldn't be helped now. When he had moved forward like that, she had been absolutely sure that he was coming at her with malicious intent. In the cold light of day, she had to admit to herself that it was unlikely he was trying to force is way into her apartment. He probably hadn't even been aware that he had taken a step forward.

<<Not until you panicked and acted like a complete idiot. Damn. I wish he'd left the briefcase. I wonder why he didn't, if it was so important to him that I see his research. He said he was working with Perry on this. I'll bet Perry has his own copies of whatever Clark has, and will be more than willing to share it with me once I tell him that I've quit working with Luthor. >>

20 minutes later, she knocked on the door of the White household.

"Lois!" Perry looked at her, feigning surprise. "What brings you here so early in the morning?"

"I really needed to talk to you, and I didn't want anyone to see us together."

"Okay…"

She wandered into his house and looked around agitatedly.

"Alice isn't here right now — but she left breakfast. Are you hungry? Want some coffee?"

"No — look, Perry — I just want to cut to the chase here. I'm sorry — we can socialize later."

"This sounds really serious."

"Last night, I broke off my — I quit my job."

Perry was speechless. Maybe Clark's actions had done some good.

"Aren't you going to say anything?"

"Well… you know how I feel about the man…" he began warily.

"Yes. You've never left me in any doubt of that."

"Why did you do it?"

"I just didn't feel like it was the right thing to be doing. The more I worked with the man, the more I kept seeing what you wanted me to see. I simply couldn't ignore my convictions anymore — my convictions that Luthor is not the man he seems to be."

"That's my Lois!" Perry looked at her in admiration.

His words jarred at her and she looked up at him sharply. "I'm not anybody's Lois," she snapped. "I belong to myself!" Immediately as the words were said, she regretted them. "I'm sorry — I don't know why I said that. I — things have just been really hard for me."

"Lois. Please! I understand," he said compassionately.

She looked at him suspiciously reading the knowledge and awareness in his eyes and voice.

"Okay. So what do you know," she asked him angrily? "What exactly has Clark Kent told you about me?"

"He told me everything, Lois. Everything that he knew." He braced himself for what surely would be an explosive reaction.

She closed her eyes in disbelief. She could feel herself getting angry and her first instinct was to try to beat those feelings back. Kal-El had never tolerated anger from his 'slaves'. Fear was the only real emotion he permitted, and quite frankly, it was never all that difficult to oblige him that.

"I —I just don't know what to say." She shook her head in confusion, at a complete loss for words.

"Well… I guess I can understand if you're angry."

Perry's words suddenly pierced through the haze of shock surrounding her thoughts. With great clarity she felt an immense surge of fury.

"Angry? You don't know — he had NO right to tell you what happened. What was he thinking? What was his motive? And You? Why didn't you tell me that you knew? I'll tell you why! You didn't tell me because Clark is too important to you now. He's taken my place as far as you're concerned. God, Perry — I thought I could trust you! Knowing that you two have been talking about me behind my back — ugh! I feel so betrayed — and — and violated! What else have you two been talking about? Did he tell you all the pretty details?"

"Okay. You need to calm down for a minute so we can talk this out. I know you must feel —"

"Oh —" She interrupted him angrily. "I'm so glad you know how I feel. That really is reassuring. A weight off of my shoulders, in fact. Do tell me, Perry, how exactly do I feel?" Her voice dripped with bitter sarcasm.

"Lois — please!"

Fueled by her anger, she continued scathingly. "He had no right to tell you. None! This was none of his business. If I didn't tell you myself, he should have guessed that I didn't want you to know just yet. You know — and here's the really funny thing — I was actually starting to think that maybe, just maybe, I had misjudged him. But now I see that he's just like any other lousy Kryptonian. The sheer arrogance of the man — he didn't care how I felt about this at all — he just went ahead with his own agenda — stepping all over my feelings. Did he even stop to think how I would feel about this? Of course not! That would be asking too much out of a bullying, arrogant Kryptonian!"

"Okay — now — hold on just a moment." Perry had to raise his voice to even get her attention. "You need to give me a chance to start talking here. He's not the bad guy in this story."

"Defending him, Perry? What a monumental surprise!"

"Just… just please. Give me a chance here. Okay? I can't defend my actions, or even hope to explain his, if you keep yelling at me. Please, Lois. Please?"

She sat silently, giving him an impatient look that said all too clearly: Well? Go Ahead, already!

"You have every right to be angry with me, Lois — but Clark did NOT want to tell me about what happened. He tried to keep it a secret."

"I'll just bet he did," she said scathingly. "Why wouldn't he? Why would he want to tell you about a world where he was a vicious and sadistic ruler? —"

"Oh come on — you can't have it both ways. Either he's damned for not telling me, in which case he's trying to hide some horrible truth about himself… or he's damned because he did- in which case he's spilling your secrets. Which is it?"

"I — I — well — he had no right to tell you. And you really should have told me you knew. You can't deny that," she added hotly, regaining her ground.

"Look — I know you won't believe this, but I really did drag the truth out of him — and he wasn't so thrilled about having to tell me. He knew you'd be angry."

"Oh, he did, did he? He knows me that well, does he?"

"Will you please let me finish?"

She took a deep frustrated breath, and then she nodded. She knew she was behaving badly, but she just couldn't seem to stop herself.

"I'm the one who called him into my office to tell him you had returned. He told me that he knew. Something in his manner led me to believe he knew more, and I kept poking at him to tell me. It kept sounding more and more like he had something to do with your disappearance, and after I suggested that to him… well, he finally gave in."

"So then — faced with keeping my story to himself or saving his own reputation, he sacrificed me to save himself. What a hero."

"It wasn't like that. He really didn't want to tell me. He felt that you deliberately didn't tell me what had happened because you didn't want me to know, and he felt really badly about doing it."

"It didn't stop him though."

"Come on, Lois — you surely have to see that he had no other choice. What would you have honestly done in his place?"

<<The same>>

"I don't know."

<<Liar>>

"Lois — whatever you may be feeling — I'm sorry. I understand that it —"

"No, Perry — you can't possibly understand."

"Okay. Okay — you're right. I can't. I have no idea what it was like for you." His voice and manner softened. "I'm torn in pieces about what you went through. It hurts and angers me more than I can ever explain to know that you were in this horrible place being treated in such a terrible way. I'm sorry. If I'd known — I'd have moved mountains to get you back."

Disarmed by his change in manner, she felt her anger start to cool.

"Perry — I know — you couldn't have done anything."

"I feel like I should have. For what it's worth, Clark feels the same way."

"Why? Why should he even give the slightest bit of a damn about me?"

"You don't know him. He cares about everyone — well — mostly everyone. But he bonded with —" he stopped short.

"Bonded with… Oh. Yes. My doppelganger."

"How much do you know about the other Lois Lane? She was all over the papers when she arrived, so I'm guessing you know about her existence."

"I know enough," she said shortly.

"Do you know where she came from?"

"Yes — I know she was forced into this universe by the same psycho who took me into that other hellish world."

"We thought she was you." Perry stopped talking suddenly and wandered over to the couch. He sat down next to her and very gingerly took her hands into his hands. To her great surprise, she didn't feel any discomfort at the contact. "Lois, I can't begin to put into words how happy we were. Your parents were so overcome by your return. You have no idea — you don't have children, and you can't possibly understand how much it hurts a parent to lose a child —"

She pulled her hands roughly out of his. Her voice was bitter as she responded.

"No. I guess I won't ever understand that — children aren't going to be part of my future. Not anymore. Thanks to Kal-El."

"I — I'm sorry. I didn't mean to —" Perry's expression was stricken.

"No, I'm sorry." Her voice was soft. Her anger was impossible in the face of his open and naked concern. Hearing how her 'death' had affected him was very moving.

"I was beside myself, Lois. Clark was curious, and happy — but he didn't have any personal stake in the matter. He liked you — her — a lot, but he was in love with someone else. He was going to marry Lana Lang."

"Yes, and somehow this other Lois managed to mess that all up for him?" Her interest was increasing.

"Lois didn't waste much time in telling Clark she knew his secret because she needed his help getting home. This caused huge problems with Lana. Lana didn't want Clark's secret exposed either, but Lois convinced him to become Superman. In the end it ended badly for Clark. Lana left him, and his secret was out. He had hoped to keep his alien origins a secret, like the other Clark, but Tempus messed that all up for him. So, at the end of the day, Clark was left alone and lonely — lonely and missing a woman who didn't even exist anymore. I think that he felt that if he could find you — maybe then he'd find that missing person in his life."

She shuddered involuntarily. "Never — ever — ever —"

"No — no, and he knows that, he really does. He has no intention of ever —"

She turned away, agitated. "I — fine. Fine. I don't want to talk about that."

"Okay. But… can I ask you something?"

"What," she answered warily.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

She looked at him in long silence.

"The story… well — it's just so weird, you know? And… god, Perry — I was a slave — it was humiliating — I didn't want you to see me like that — a slave — a victim."

"It wasn't your fault — my god — there was nothing you could have done…"

"Rationally, I know that," she interrupted fretfully. "But in my heart — well — how would you feel, being victimized — wouldn't you feel kind of — weakened and lessened by it?"

"Yes. I see your point. You weren't… but of course you would feel that way — it's part of who you are. You and I are a lot alike in many ways."

"I guess there's more to it, if I really am going to be honest here. I think I felt that if I told you, you would work overtime in convincing me that Kal-El and Clark were nothing alike. I didn't want you to do that. I didn't want you to take the wind out of my sails. Even if I was wrong, I wanted to pursue my course of action."

"And… now? How do you feel about it now? About him?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think — maybe I'm all wrong. But what makes the two men so different? How could two counterparts be so different? What if all his alternates are really cruel and sadistic underneath their veneer. At the very least don't we need some kind of backup plan in case he does 'go evil' on us?"

"I — well — I don't see that ever happening"

"If you had seen what I have seen — and been through what I've been through, I'm sure you would see the possibility."

"What it comes down to is — are you going to continue with your article series now that you've severed your ties with Luthor?"

"I don't know," she answered truthfully. "I feel like there's still so much to learn about the man — so many areas to investigate. I've had phone calls from a guy named Jason Trask who seems awfully eager to meet with me. He works with the federal government. And then, there's Lana Lang. I can't help but feel she would be a valuable source of information because she has intimate knowledge of the man— what… what is it?" She stopped talking as she saw the look of disappointment in his eyes.

"I guess… I'd hoped… I thought that maybe your increased awareness of what Luthor was all about might also be accompanied by a lessening of your antipathy towards Clark."

"It doesn't work that way," she said bitterly, feeling a wave of hurt feelings. "You don't just get to wave a magic wand and have it all get better. Clark still bothers me greatly. I can't change that."

"Well, I really worry about you working with the government on this. I think there are a lot of people in power who would like to see Clark lifeless in a test tube somewhere. I just don't trust them."

"And yet, here you are — a representative of our fine government."

"Being a city Mayor is vastly different from being some federal employee investigating extraterrestrial life. You know as well as I do that if Clark didn't have the powers that he had, he'd have been dissected long ago."

She winced.

"I'm glad to see that thought bothers you," he said grimly.

Her anger and hurt reared up again. "You know — I'm not the evil one here. I'm not the bad guy."

"I never said —"

'I'm really tired of it — people whom I love and trust always defending him. I feel like I've lost my friends and … even my family — my parents and Lucy — they all defend him against me — trying to get big-bad mad-dog Lane to stand down. Frankly, I'm really sick of it — sick and hurt. I don't understand why you all keep giving me such a hard time about this. Why don't my feelings and fears have any legitimacy with you all?"

"They do, Lois. They do — it isn't that we don't think you have a point, or that you are somehow not quite right in the mind. We just know the guy — we know him really well. He's our friend, and we've come to love and trust him on a personal level. This isn't a case of blind trust and faith. If only you could get to know him —"

She shuddered violently. "I will never get that close with the man. I can't ever imagine a scenario where we end up as friends."

<<Or lovers.>>

She flinched mentally at that thought.

"Maybe — maybe if we had some answers? You know — maybe if you explained a little of what the other man was like — or why you think the two men have anything in common — beyond of course, their DNA… maybe… I just can't go on your feelings alone. I can't help but be convinced that your feelings are just projected from the one man to another. And rightly so — if you put me in a universe where Luthor was a good man, I'd have a really hard time believing it. I know. What we are asking of you is probably impossible."

"And I guess it's impossible for me to expect you to… side with me. I just wish you would stop trying to change my mind about him."

"You are hurting my friend. It's hard to see someone I love hurt someone else I love. It hurts me to see this. I'm sorry… maybe if you talked to me about it — it would help — give me some of what you feel when you see him?"

"Trust me when I say — you don't want to know."

"No — I know I probably don't. But I also think I need to know. Maybe — maybe then it would bother me less to see you on this particular path."

She took a deep frustrated breath. "I'm just not ready to talk about any of this — I've been trying to push it away from my own thoughts. You know? If I let myself think about it — I'll be back there- back… trapped and lost. I'll have broken whatever magic spell has me here. That my return won't be real after all? Sounds crazy, eh? I'm afraid to attract the evil spirits."

"Not crazy — not by a long shot. Very understandable, Lois." His voice and manner were deeply sympathetic.

"But… if answers will help — then I suppose — what — what do you want to know?" She was wary — wary that he would ask her ugly questions that would lead to even uglier remembrances.

"Just… just this. Were… are they so very much alike?"

As soon as the words left his mouth he found himself regretting his question. The last thing he wanted to do was cause her more pain, and yet here he was — inviting her to reflect upon the nature of someone who had caused her unimaginable pain.

"If — if you'd rather not answer the question… I mean —" He faltered, unable to think of what to say next. A condition unfamiliar to the seasoned reporter, editor and politician.

"No — no — it isn't that. It's just — well, I guess I'm not really sure how to answer. Yes. I won't lie to you — I don't want to talk about it — I don't want to talk about him. But — if I expect you to see my point of view, I understand that I have to be willing to let you look at things through my viewfinder — you know?"

He nodded mutely.

She took a deep preparatory breath.

"When I first came back… the first time I saw him, I was shocked. It was — it was just horrible. The two men are physically identical — it was like seeing him again — in the flesh. But — but that impression only lasted a few moments. It didn't take very long for me to see that while they looked a lot a like, it would be very easy to distinguish between the two of them if they were standing right next to each other."

"How so?"

She pondered this for a few moments, her face twisted in an expression of distaste as she tried to focus on what the other Kal-El was like. She shook her head distractedly and let out a short mirthless laugh. "You know — I shouldn't be telling you any of this. It just lends further credence to what you've been telling me all along." As he opened his mouth to speak, she held up an arresting hand. "I'm — I'm just kidding. I really do want to be honest, and to talk to someone about how I feel about Clark. I just can't help but think that it's kind of… not so black and white anymore. So many shades of gray."

"Most things in life are…"

"Kal-El was a stern and forbidding man. He carried himself with authority, and in that way — he is very much like Superman. Larger than life — tall, imposing, powerful. Both have a distance about them — but the source of that distance differs. Superman seems remote — as if he's trying to somehow shield himself from the onslaught of emotion that his presence evokes. It's almost as if he hides behind the name and the costume. And… Kal-El was … tyrannical. He carried himself with cruelty — and it was clear that he thought of humans as mere toys — to use and then to discard. I never get that feeling from Superman, truthfully speaking. But — I warn you — that doesn't mean I concede that he isn't a threat and that his motives are genuinely pure… it just means that on the face of it, the two aren't as alike as you might expect."

"Honestly — I don't expect that they are much alike."

"No," her mouth twisted into a wry smile. "You wouldn't. You are a good and loyal friend. He's a lucky man." She said this last statement with an unconscious wistfulness.

"You know — Lois — you are also very important to me. You —"

"I know — I know — I wasn't trying to make you feel badly. Or — well, at least, I don't think I was." She smiled a bit impishly causing him to relax slightly.

"It's good to see you smile."

"I guess I don't do it often enough anymore."

"Give it time. You'll be okay in the end, you know? You're a strong woman."

"I know — I know I am. I had to be — to make it home alive." She took a deep breath. "I'm not really finished. I said that Superman kind of reminded me of Kal-El in many ways. The thing is — Clark hardly reminds me of him at all. Does that seem weird to you?"

"No — he works hard at making his Superman persona different."

"Isn't that odd to you? I mean — doesn't that strike you as bizarre? Kind of schizophrenic, almost?"

"No —not if you really know the guy. You see, he didn't want this kind of publicity. His parents drilled into him as a child that he should keep his strange arrival a secret — that if people ever found out about it, he could end up on someone's dissection table."

"That's awful!"

"Yet… true. I think that's why I've been worrying about the kinds of connections you are planning on making. I don't want to see some rabid government guy working on your fears to help … eliminate Clark."

"I am not about to become someone's unwitting pawn, Perry," she said irritably.

"No — I know that. I didn't mean to offend you, and — I — why don't you go on with what you were saying about Clark."

"Well … he just seems so normal. Like a nice normal person. A very nice person. And that is what keeps throwing me for a loop."

"Sometimes the simplest answer is the answer. If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a —"

"Oh — Perry! Please!"

"In any case — I agree with your assessment about Clark. He is a nice guy, Lois… but even before I knew him all that well, he drew me in — he has a certain something…"

"It's that damned telepathy, I'll wager. I'm guessing that's what keeps people from knowing he is in that other universe. You can't expect me to believe that a pair of glasses and a slight alteration of hairstyle and a garish costume are enough to fool the entire human race! Especially the people he works with… they're trained reporters for crying out loud."

"Uh… telepathy?"

"Yes — you know — he's telepathic. He can read your mind, and talk to you in your head."

"Really?"

"You… you didn't know that?"

"No…" Perry's voice had taken on a distracted quality as he stared worriedly at a point beyond her ear.

"Doesn't… I mean — doesn't that strike you as strange? You two are such good friends and he never told you about it?"

"Actually… it does. I mean — he told me a lot about himself — I thought he had kind of given me the entire scoop — sort of as an expression of good-faith… so … it — are you sure?"

She winced. "Very sure. Definitely sure about Kal-El, and I am pretty sure that this Clark has actually talked to me telepathically at our handful of encounters. I'm not sure he did it on purpose, but I did get the feeling that he broadcasted to me."

"Was he… threatening?"

"No — no."

<<Reassuring, actually.>>

"What did he say?"

"It — it wasn't so much that he was talking to me…"

<<Liar!>>

"It was more like a feeling."

"Huh!"

"So he never told you?"

"No."

"Seems kind of odd. Almost kind of sinister when you think about it. I hate to sing the same song again, but that is a pretty invasive ability, and I would expect him to come clean about it if he really wanted to show you good faith."

"Maybe… maybe he felt that if I knew about it, I would be guarded around him…"

"Even so — you had the right to know, didn't you? I'd feel better if he had told you, and then promised not to — <<violate you>> — read your mind."

Perry pondered this with a furrowed brow for a few moments, and then he seemed to rally back his loyal feelings.

"Darlin' if he didn't tell me, I'm sure he had a really rock- solid reason as to why. I'll ask him when I see him next."

"You can't do that," she exclaimed in agitation. "He'll know that I — that I told you!"

"Lois — I have to talk to him about this. Now that I know — it would hang over our friendship. How do you propose I deal with it? And come on! He knows we are close, he has to know that we would, at some point, talk about him to each other."

She looked troubled and unconvinced. "I don't… I don't feel comfortable with him knowing — no — you know — you're right. And for all you know, he's hearing this conversation right now…"

"Do you really believe that?"

"I don't know what to believe anymore. I guess that's where it stands. I do plan on talking with some other folks — and yes — the government contacts as well as people who know him on a more personal level, but I promise not to end up killing the guy without your express permission."

"Glad to see you haven't lost your sarcastic wit."

She smiled at him with a mixture of amusement and irritation.

"I've taken up enough of your time. It's time for me to face the day. Perry — thanks — thanks for hearing me out."

"Anytime. And thanks for talking about things that you'd rather not talk about. I know it was really hard for you. I'm always here for you — and what you've said has given me some food for thought. Listen. I do trust you. I know you won't do anything crazy and that you will follow your own sense of right. It's never led you astray. For whatever my opinion is worth these days!"

"A lot. It's worth quite a lot. Give my best to Alice, okay?" She pressed his arm briefly, unable to stand the close contact of a full bodied hug. "We'll get together soon."

After she left, Perry sat down heavily and put his forehead in his hands.

<<Can this really be true? If he has telepathic abilities, why wouldn't he tell me? He told me that he had told me everything he knew about his abilities. He said he felt that people would probably feel threatened by his presence, and that knowledge would empower them. So — if he really intended to tell me everything — why did he hold back on this? This is major — this isn't some trifling little power that he forgot about. Being able to read minds! To influence others telepathically! That is ultimate power! Could Lois be right? Is there a darker reason behind his failure to tell me about it? Or is it something simple? And should I ask him? What if he doesn't want anyone to know? If I tell him I know- what will he do — if Lois is right? Would he kill me? Okay — hold on. What am I talking about? He's my best friend. He wouldn't hurt me or anyone else, for that matter. Except maybe for that bastard who hurt Lois so badly. I know he has a good reason for not telling me… I just have to find out what it is. I guess the only way to do that is to ask him point-blank.>>

Perry stood up pulled his cell phone off his belt clip. He dialed Clark's private number.

"Hello — Clark! I'm glad to reach you. No —no —nothing — no emergency. Look — I really need to talk to you. Can you — great. I'll see you in a few moments."

As he hit the off button, he heard the familiar sound of his friend flying up to his deck door. He hurried over to the glass door and let the superhero in. He had hoped he would arrive as Clark — as Lois said, it was easier to interact with Clark… Superman just seemed so unreal sometimes.

"What's up, Perry?"

"Lois was just here."

"I figured as much."

"Wh — how did you know?"

"After yesterday… you know — I thought she might want to talk to a trusted friend about the man."

"The man?"

"Luthor."

"Oh — oh yes. Yea — she did. She did. But — listen. Look, I have a question to ask you- and — I'm not quite sure how to ask."

"Just … ask." He braced himself slightly, sensing a new wariness from his closest friend in the world.

"Lois — said — well — she said you were telepathic — and — well — well you know — you never told me about it — and —"

Perry stopped stammering and looked at the young man levelly.

"I wanted to know why you never told me. This seems at odds with your earlier resolve to be very open and honest with revealing the extent and limits of your abilities."

Clark couldn't help it — he smiled in relief. He thought that Lois somehow had managed to turn Perry against him by horror stories of what the other Kal-El had done to her. Quite frankly, he wasn't sure that even he wouldn't be filled with self-loathing himself if he ever found out the details.

"This isn't the reaction I expected." Perry's voice was bland and even, belying the turmoil he felt inside.

"No — no — it's just — well — I didn't tell you about it because I didn't know about it."

"You didn't know you were telepathic."

"My powers don't just turn on — there may be many other things I can do that I don't know about. Somehow or another Lois has the ability to broadcast her emotions into my head and I have the ability to send to her. I think it's because she spent so much time around — my people."

"Hardly your people — they're from another universe."

"You know what I mean.'

"And you know what I mean. You shouldn't start identifying with them. You aren't him — you didn't do those things."

"And yet, just moments ago, you were willing to —"

"What?"

"I sensed a lot of distrust from you. Fear even. And no — I'm not reading your mind. Just your body language. I am a reporter you know — I'm trained to read body language."

"How would you have felt in my shoes?"

"Much the same."

"Well, okay then." He smiled at the younger man. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions."

"I don't think you did. And I can see how this would bother you. Telepathy is a big thing to withhold. It wouldn't be a huge reach to read some kind of nefarious intent into it all."

"Except — I know you. I know you very well and I do trust you. But it is a relief none-the-less to have it out in the open. Lois, needless to say, didn't want me to talk to you about it, so please don't mention it to her."

"Uh — we hardly have conversations. Usually I make her panic and bolt."

"I know — I — I'm sorry about that, son."

He shook his head. "I can't do anything about it. I'll just have to live with it. But I don't want to lose your good will — so please promise that you will always do what you've done now? Ask me directly anything that worries you about me?"

"I promise. Just as I expect you to continue your friendship with me. Just — stay out of my head, okay? I don't even let my wife and kids in there."

He shook his head. "It's hard enough being in my own head. I wouldn't ever — although …" he trailed off feeling troubled by his recent invasions of Lois's mind.

"Although?"

"I've… been in Lois's mind — and she doesn't know it —"

"No — she said she heard you in —"

"No — she doesn't know about this time. She was having a horrible nightmare — and — she was broadcasting all her terror into my head. I couldn't — it was horrible — I could hardly breathe. I ended up going into her head and talking her into a calmer state. I — I know it was wrong — but I just kind of acted on impulse. I won't do it again. I — and someday — I promise… I'll tell her. I just don't know how to do it right now."

"No — no — I wouldn't advise it right now. " Perry sighed heavily. "This is a tough one. I — I know you told me this in confidence, so I won't tell her, but you have to promise me not to do it again."

"I promise. Scouts honor."

"You were never a scout, I'll bet… but I know you are a man of your word. Go on — do your hero thing, and I'll see you soon. Hopefully under more social circumstances."

"Hint taken. I promise to be more socially available. I'm just — not feeling up to it these days. I hope you understand."

"I do. I do son. You wear your heart on your sleeve — and Alice with her third degree would be able to read your mind without the aid of super-powers. I'm sure you aren't up to that these days. The invitation stands open when you are ready to receive it."

With a brief smile and nod, Superman turned and flew out the window.

Locked in a furious inner conflict, Lois battled herself over what her next immediate step should be. On the one hand, contacting this Trask guy was an intriguing next step. Likely, he knew a lot about Superman and he might be able to open some doors for her. On the other hand, he could turn out to be an overly zealous kook who found the idea of any extra-terrestrial life intrinsically threatening.

<< Maybe I'll investigate him before I open that can of worms. >>

The last thing she wanted was to make contact with someone that might prove to be difficult to jettison from her life. Additionally, meeting a strange man in what would likely be a secluded spot did not appeal to her at all.

Viewed in that light, Lana seemed like a safer choice. She was a seemingly heterosexual female, and thus unlikely to make any sexual advances towards Lois. She wasn't with the government and she was once engaged to marry Clark Kent.

<< Exactly how do I explain my role in all this? Surely she blames me for what happened between her and Clark. I'm guessing she won't even want to give me the time of day. >>

Lois had no real desire to explain to Lana about the existences of multiple universes. In addition to being relatively sure that Lana would think she was a raving lunatic, she also knew first hand how this knowledge could be exceedingly dangerous in the wrong hands. And yet, despite these obvious difficulties, Lois felt a driving need to talk to Lana. Lana had been intimate with Clark her entire life — both as a friend, and then later on as a lover. If anyone would know the true nature of the man, it would be her.

She picked up the phone to dial Lana's number, which she had managed to unearth as a result of working for Luthor — a man for who most doors opened. Lana was not an easy woman to locate — her association with Clark had turned her into an unwilling public figure. Indeed, from what she had learned about the break-up of their relationship — Lana had ceased to want anything to do with Clark after he had gone public with his true nature.

<<How shallow. No. Not shallow. You can't blame her. This kind of life wouldn't be for every one. But imagine — holding back a hero just so you can have a peaceful easy life. Selfish. If he truly is a good man, then it would have been an immeasurable disservice to everyone if he had stayed in the shadows and avoided ever using his powers. I would never have asked that of — what am I thinking? I'd never have gotten involved with him like that in the first place. Even without my experiences with Kal-El — a super-powered being is not someone you play house with.>>

She shook her head sharply — the thought of anyone willingly entering into a physical relationship with the man disturbed her greatly. Even if his nature was as it seems — he had super- powered strength. Who would put themselves literally in the hands of someone who could crush you like an insect without even thinking about it?

<<She doesn't look any worse for the wear. >>

Lois brought her knuckles up to the sides of her heads and pressed hard as if to force these thoughts out of her mind.

<<I — I don't want to think about this! Another voice meekly answered. You do. You want to know. You want to know that they were lovers, and that he made her happy. That he didn't hurt her — that he could be like that and not break her to pieces. You want to know that it didn't have to be like it was — for you — ugly and horrible. How else can you ever really stop seeing him as a monster? But what if I don't want to stop seeing him as a monster? You do. You know you do. Deep down. You want to know that your life could have been so much more than this, if you hadn't been taken into that hell world. >>

"Yes — I'm finally starting to lose it!" She spoke aloud in frustration. "Even my inner voices are starting to disagree."

Later that day, she sat nervously waiting for Lana to show up for their lunch meeting. She wasn't afraid of Lana at all — rather, she feared what the end-result would be for her after having this conversation. Would it bring up ugly memories that she couldn't hold back? Would she feel more sympathetically conflicted towards Clark — so sympathetic that she dropped her investigation prematurely? Would she feel even more animosity and suspicion? And how would she explain that she wasn't the same woman who Lana imagined to be in love with the man? Before she could start seriously obsessing, Lana pulled back the chair opposite to her, and sat down briskly.

"So! Lois Lane. We meet again." Her voice had a distinctly sarcastic edge to it.

"Thank you for taking the time to meet me. I know talking to reporters isn't high on your list of things to do these days."

"No. No. Thanks to my ex-fiancé, and to you, the term 'private life' no longer applies to me." Her voice was caustic and sarcastic. It was clear she was bearing a huge grudge against Lois, but Lois didn't sense any personal threat from the woman. She just seemed to need to vent some of the anger she was harboring.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Lois decided that defending herself at this point would be a bad idea. "So … why did you decide to meet with me, then?"

"I'm curious actually," she said in a deceptively friendly and conversational tone. "The last time I saw you, you were clearly heading towards some kind of romantic coupling with a man to whom I was engaged. So — what really eats away at me now is — why would a woman who was so gung-ho on exposing him as an alien so that he could publicly help those in need — why would you end up mounting an anti-superman campaign. You created him — and now you want to destroy him? It — confounds me, to be perfectly frank."

<<It angers you too.>>

"Do — do you still care for him?"

Lana barked a short humorless laugh. "My feelings aren't as fickle as yours appear to be, Lois. I knew him for many years, and that kind of connection doesn't go away. Yes — a woman scorned — yadda yadda yadda… but we were friends as children. Great friends. And despite what he did to me at the end, I don't think he ever intentionally meant to hurt me. I honestly believe that in the end, his desire to help people with his powers would have torn us apart. So I guess that lets you off that hook. It really —" she stopped suddenly, at a loss for words as her emotional response started to get the better of her. "Yes! It really makes me angry to see you betray him like that. What happened? Did he cheat on you? Are you, in fact, the woman scorned? Despite everything that happened between him, and me, and you— it seems awfully out of character for Clark to do that."

Lois sat back surprised. For some reason, she hadn't quite expected this response — and yet, in retrospect, it seemed like the most natural response for the woman to have. She had loved a man — and lost him — to Lois, or so she thought. And maybe she could have dealt with that — knowing in her heart that she wasn't right for the man, and he wasn't right for her… but to then see the 'other woman' turn around and treat him in a way that seemed shabby and nasty — well — she could see why Lana was so angry at her.

"I," she stopped, at a complete loss of what to say next. How could she possibly explain any of her actions? Her current actions seemed to be completely opposite to how the other Lois reacted to Clark. As Lana had said, Lois had created Superman. And now — now she was trying to destroy him. She decided to forgo the explanation. "He seems to evoke a lot of loyalty and… protectiveness from you."

"Yes, well — those of us who actually have souls tend to feel that way about people who matter to us."

"Look. I don't blame you for your anger —"

"Here's what I think. I think that you showed up on the scene and set the whole thing up so you could engineer your little expose. You forced him into the limelight by pretending to be his friend, and now you turn around and use him to kick your career into overdrive. Nice work, if you can get it. If you happen to not have a conscience."

"Obviously I don't have much of one," she agreed mildly. "Would a woman of conscience have broken up a happily engaged couple?"

"You're a real piece of work," Lana was starting to get agitated. She looked at her with utter disbelief in her eyes. "The amazing thing is — up until recently, you actually seemed like a decent person. My radar on people is generally pretty accurate — you seemed … honest in your love for him — now that's interesting. Why did you just flinch?"

"I didn't ask you here to talk about me." Lois deliberately kept her tone clipped and calm, deciding that the conversation was going in a very useful direction. She hated to do it — deceive the woman and cause her so much pain — but the alternative was to reveal the truth, and there was very little chance that the truth would be believed in this particular situation.

"And I didn't come here to tell you anything for your dirty little campaign," she spat out angrily. "I just wanted to see — face to face — this woman who could be so amazingly two-faced. I don't like it when people hurt my friends, Lois, and despite what happened to my plans of marital bliss, I still consider him to be a very dear friend. He may be super-strong, but he's got a heart, and that heart can be broken. It seems to me that he fell in love with you instantly— and I honestly don't think our love was ever like that — the 'in-love' kind of love. So it just really rankles to see that he gave you his heart — and his trust — and you betrayed it on such a grandiose scale. What is wrong with you? Don't you have any conscience?"

"I have my reasons for doing what I'm doing. I really meant no ill will towards him — I just don't think the world should be so ready to accept someone with the power to crush us all — not without at least critically examining the situation. Blind trust in powerful people can lead to disaster."

Lana narrowed her eyes in disbelief. She shook her head slowly. "You aren't making any sense. Why urge him to don that ridiculous outfit and start becoming a hero, if you were only going to do this in the end?"

"Maybe I thought it would be better if the world knew what was in their midst."

"You mean 'who'."

"Okay then. Who."

"You should have asked me, then. I could have told you who. A good, kind and decent man who really wants to help people out. One of the few true nice-guys out there." She shook her head disbelievingly with a look of confused disgust on her face. "I — just — I can't get you." She shook her head sharply again, closing her eyes. "No. No — this doesn't make sense to me. I want the truth here. I am never wrong about people — so how could you have deceived me so thoroughly. What's really going on here?"

"Lana —"

"Lois. When we met — I hated you. I hated you for a long time. But I also was struck with how I kind of liked you too. There was something about you — something kindred. And now… it's like you're an entirely different person. I don't get that. And even now — looking at you- what you're telling me doesn't ring true. You still don't seem like the poisonous snake that your actions make you out to be."

<<She's too clever. Too observant. I hadn't counted on this. I guess I expected someone more down-on-the farm.>>

"Maybe because I'm not what you think. Lana — my only reason for acting as I've done is to make sure that we aren't unconsciously laying ourselves vulnerable to an attack."

"What — what happened between you two? How — what could have happened to make you hate him so much?"

"I — I don't… hate him."

<<I hate his doppelganger. Yes. And my articles reflect that. Reflected hate. No wonder she's confused. >>

"Did he cheat on you?"

"No — no — that isn't it."

"Was he a disappointment between the sheets? Were you hoping for — something out of this world?"

Lois turned away, shaking a little at the image this painted in her head. "It — no — nothing — nothing like that."

"Then what? What could he have possibly done to make you this angry?" Her tone had changed. Her anger and sarcasm vanished in the face of a much deeper emotional response. Lana had thrown aside the idea that Lois was evil incarnate and was really interested in finding out what happened. Maybe somehow she could help turn things around.

"I — I can't talk — about — I don't — nothing. He didn't do anything. It isn't anything he did."

"Then who?"

"What?"

"You emphasized the word he, as if it wasn't something he did, but rather something someone else did. Was it Luthor? Did he somehow sucker you in? Did you fall in love with him or something?"

She barely repressed a physical shudder at this question. "No — I — look. I didn't ask you here talk about me."

"And I didn't come here to talk about me. You're hiding something. Some strange secret — something big. Something that made you turn on someone like Clark. I don't believe you intended this all along, somehow you've been brainwashed. Something is wrong here — something doesn't fit, and I — I want some answers."

<<She sounds so much like me. We could have been friends. >>

Willing herself to be as calm and poised as possible, she answered Lana coolly. "I have nothing to hide and I have nothing to say. I'm sorry you don't like my article series, but I believe in searching for the truth. I think this interview is over." She stood up and pushed her chair back, but in her frantic urgency to get away, she stumbled a bit while doing it.

"A crack in your cool armor," murmured Lana.

"What?"

"You're hiding something. I will find it out. It's only a matter of time. I'll see you around, Lois."

She stood up as well, and smoothly pushed aside her chair. She started to walk off, and then stopped to turn around one last time. "Lois, I expect you're picking up the tab, right? After all, I was here at your invitation." She smiled an empty smile and turned once more to walk away.

<<That was a huge disaster.>>

Lois sat back down heavily, waiting for the waiter to come back so she could settle the check.

<<Who would have expected her to still like him? And who would have thought she would be so damned smart?>>

Lana picked up her pace as soon as she was out of sight. She snapped open her cell phone and dialed Clark's private number.

"Clark? It's Lana. I really need to talk to you. No — no — I'm not in trouble — this isn't a 'help superman' call. I need to talk to you. Yes — now… it's about Lois Lane."

The air around her seemed to pick up a strong breeze, and suddenly her former fiancé was there dressed casually as Clark.

She shook her head sharply. "I'd have never gotten used to that." She smiled at him apologetically.

"No — I guess … I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

"Come on — before everyone suddenly realizes that their beloved superhero and his former fiancé are standing right here in broad daylight. Let's get some privacy. Come in my car, okay?"

"I have a better idea! Come on!" He lightly put his arm around her waist like so many times in the past, and guiding them both into an alley, lifted off into the sky. Despite Lana's dislike of a public display of super-powers, she always enjoyed a good flight.

"Ah — I've missed this," she said wistfully as he landed them on a beautiful warm beach. "Just being able to really get away from it all — in a blink of an eye."

"Well — if I traveled that fast — it wouldn't make you terribly happy with me — but close enough. I just don't feel like covering the pages of the gossip rags, and I know you don't want that either." He paused, and looked at her with an unreadable expression. "How are you, Lana?"

She nodded. "Well- I'm — I've been well."

"Good — I — I've felt… are you — happy? Are you -"

<<Did you move on? Did you end up happy?>>

"Are you seeing anyone?"

She smiled and looked off into the distance. "Yes — yes." Her smile broadened for a moment. "Yes — I'm seeing someone — and — I'm happy …"

"That — that's good to hear."

"Look — I know — I know things ended badly — and I've felt badly about it. Things I said. Things I did. I was angry and hurt. But now when I look back at it, I realize that we — we never really loved each other, did we? I mean — we did love each other — as old friends do… but —"

"But … we were about to make a huge mistake?"

"Yea. You — I'm sure you feel that way too?"

He looked at her with a regretful smile. "I do. And it's not — it wasn't you…"

"Come on — I was always badgering you about your powers and hiding them."

"Who could blame you? I mean — you had some good reasons. Our life would have always been a public display. Your life would have been constantly in danger with all the really freaky criminals out there trying to gain a point. Killing 'superman's' wife. A feather in some psycho's cap." He shuddered at the thought.

"It would have been worth all that, if we had really been in love," she said quietly. "I just want you to know — I'm sorry. For all the nasty things I said."

"And I'm sorry too. For hurting you with — with Lois."

"I wanted to hate her — I wanted to blame her. But in the end- it wasn't her fault that you — you — fell in love with her." Her voice broke a little as she said this. "It was then I realized that what we had wasn't really love. I desperately wanted it to be love — on both our sides. But it wasn't. If it was — I'd have hurt for much longer than I did. And if it was on your side — Lois wouldn't have made a difference… even if you were somehow magically meant to be with her."

He looked at her admiringly. "You are so," he shook his head. "I don't know. Just — thank you. That means a lot to me — not having you hate me — and knowing that you're happy."

She took a deep troubled breath. "This is why — I want to talk to you."

"So you said…" His tone was encouraging, but wary.

"I met your — I met Lois Lane today."

"How did that happen?"

"She called me — somehow our intrepid lady-reporter managed to find my phone number… And she asked me to meet her at Ralph's for lunch."

"Why did you meet up with her? I thought you were avoiding the press."

"I am. But… I wanted to know why she was mounting her anti- superman campaign." She turned to catch his expression as she said those last words. Bingo. Hurt flashed through his eyes.

"Did — what did she —"

"Say? Oh. Nothing. Nothing and everything. At first, she tried to act as if she had planned this all along — she was trying to make out like she never really cared for you. But that didn't make a lot of sense to me. I know people — I just do. I am never wrong about my first impressions — and even though I hated her for a long time after what happened… at the same time, I admired and respected her. She seemed a good person — albeit a little too sanguine for my tastes. So this sudden switch into being a Benedict-Arnold didn't make a lot of sense to me. You know? So I called her on it — the only thing I could think of is that you somehow made her so angry that she's doing this from the perspective of a woman scorned. Did you? You know — did you jilt her? She did seem to disappear so suddenly out of your life, after all." Briefly she turned her face to face his.

Uncharacteristically, he refused to return her eye contact.

"Clark. This is me. What happened? You didn't jilt her, did you? You didn't cheat on her?" Her questions were more like assertions. She was challenging him to refute what she knew to be true.

"No. I didn't."

"Then — then what? She — it didn't make sense at all. I kept getting the sense she was putting on an act. Hiding something. The only time I really got an honest reaction out of her was when I —"

"What?"

She reflected silently for a few moments, not sure how to ask the newer questions that popped into her mind.

"Clark… promise not to get angry — or … hurt?"

"Lana — just — just say it. What are you thinking?"

"You know — we never — we were never lovers. Not my idea — as you'll recall… but I — I understood — you — you felt it was right to wait, and I also know you were kind of nervous about the whole thing. You were afraid of your strength. I guess — well — I know I razzed you about it a lot. I think it was easy to take the opposing view — gave me something to argue about… But I guess I had that question too — at the back of my mind? Would your control over your powers work under those particular conditions?"

"Oh god, Lana. I never — never knew you felt —" Clark broke off, mortified. "I never wanted you to be afraid of me. I —"

"No — don't worry — it wasn't a huge fear or worry. And maybe if you hadn't worried about it, I wouldn't have either. But knowing that you weren't sure about it made me feel like I should worry about it. After all — you knew your own control better than anyone."

"I never said anything to you about it — how did you —"

"In your behavior — in your actions. It was obvious. At least it was to me."

"You aren't easily fooled, are you?"

"Clark. Did you end up — getting intimate with Lois? And — did you — was it -"

"Oh my god, Lana. What are you thinking?"

"The only thing that would explain her behavior — and her reactions — to — uh — some taunting jibes that I made…"

"No! No — first — we never — and — uh — so … No."

"No — you never." She breathed out a sigh of relief. "I was so worried that you … and that would have been so sad — for you — for her. I'm so glad to hear that —"

"Lana…"

"I know — I hurt you just now with that — but Clark — have pity on me, here. I'm trying to figure this all out. None of it makes sense. That was the only theory that had any chance of bringing all the pieces together. Was it — was it your desire to wait? Did that make her angry? Did it make her feel rejected?"

He took a deep breath. "No. Not that either."

"Then — then what?"

"Lois isn't — I can't tell you, Lana. She wouldn't — it isn't my story to tell."

"But —"

"Can you trust me here? I didn't hurt her. I didn't do anything to her. But — she has good reasons for doing what she's doing."

"I do trust you — but I need answers. Clark. I concede our getting engaged was wrong — wrong for us both. But I still went through a boatload of hurt when it ended, and part of me can't help but blame Lois for what happened — for what I went through. I'm sorry —"

"No — I'm sorry. I know what we did was terrible — and —"

"No! That's the thing. It wasn't terrible. It was a beautiful thing! Two people who obviously belonged together managed to meet, and managed to end up together — despite obstacles — like… like myself. I am past that — past that anger, and that hurt, and it's okay. But it — really bothers me that it didn't end up like it should have. I need to know why. I deserve to know why!" Her voice was impassioned. "You don't owe me much, but you do owe me this!"

He looked at her gravely for a long moment. And then slowly he nodded. "Yes. I suppose I do."

"She just disappeared — and I wonder… you'll have to excuse my impertinence once more. Clark — I don't think you would ever act like this — because you never seemed the jealous type… but did — did she not really return your affections — did you … well — you didn't turn into stalker-boy, did you? Forcing her to lay low just to get you out of her life?"

Despite himself, he let out a chuckle. "Stalker boy? Where do you get your idioms from? Have you been hanging out with teenagers or something?"

"Come on — Clark. Please — I know — and I know it's a ridiculous question — but it would answer the puzzle. It would explain why she disappeared, and why she is now mounting this campaign against you. It just wouldn't fit with your personality — but then — I have no idea how you would react with someone you were madly in love with. Please — don't be offended — I just — maybe I could help — if this were the case… you know — talk to her —"

He took a deep breath. "No. I never ever hurt her or gave her cause to be afraid of me. Never. And I can see you aren't going to let this rest until you know, and I understand why you need to know. Because of her entry into our lives, the course of our lives altered in a very huge way. And now you are faced with this bizarre mystery: why would a woman who seemed to be in love with me turn around and act as if she thought I was the worst thing to come along since Hitler."

"Well- something like that."

"So — I guess you leave me no choice. I'll tell you the truth — but you have to promise to keep it to yourself. You also have to promise you will try to believe what I'm telling you — because it will sound extremely unbelievable." He paused, and then took a deep fortifying breath. "All right. So here it is. The woman you had lunch with… she's not the same woman you met last year."

"Clearly! I mean — something's happened to alter — is that it? Did she have some kind of brain injury? Or —"

"No. No brain injury. She's a different woman. Physically a different woman. Kind of like twins."

"Twins? Both named Lois?"

He smiled at that, and chuckled. "No. Both women were Lois Lane. But both women were separate women."

"Clones?"

"Even more bizarre. The Lois you met was from an alternate universe."

She stared at him a long time with an impassive expression.

"Can you please say something," he begged after the silence became deafening.

"I — have no idea what to say. I guess — I know you aren't trying to make a fool of me or insult my intelligence. If you say she's from another universe, there are two choices here — either you're insane, which you don't appear to be… or — well, I guess three choices. Insane. Gullible. Or Lois is really not the same woman that I met — and that woman was from another universe."

"Right…"

"So — why was she here?"

"You're acceptance of this is —"

"Well — I learned to suspend my disbelief that time you showed me you could fly. Since then — nothing seems out of the realm of possibility."

He sighed heavily. "I guess I can see that. Well — yes — Lois was here against her will. A criminal from the future named Tempus brought her here in order to prevent her and the Clark in her universe from getting married, having descendants, and helping to create a utopian future world that this criminal found unbearably boring."

"You — haven't been taking hallucinogenics have you?"

"No."

"Okay then. I guess — I guess this makes as much sense as any of my theories. So this woman isn't the same woman — so why did she let me say all those things to her —"

"Likely because she didn't want to tell you about what had happened. This information is dangerous in the wrong hands."

"It's safe with me — I promise not to tell anyone. I don't want to end up in a rubber room."

"Wise… anyway — the woman you met today? She was also taken from this world and forced to live three years of her life in an alternate world. For the same reason — to prevent her and I from ever having descendants."

"Where was she?"

"An alternate earth. Like this one. Only — only —"

"Only?"

He looked at her with a regretful expression on his face. "I hate to say this — but — it was a world dominated by — aliens. My people. Me. My counterpart — he was the leader of the invasion — of the domination."

"You can't be serious? That's — that's ridiculous. I would expect you — I mean — the other Lois wasn't all that different from this one-"

"No," he said glumly. "I think she believes that too… that the man she encountered can't be all that different from me."

"But obviously — obviously you both are poles apart — you would never take over the world!! You've never sought out that kind of power over people!"

"I know. And — I'm glad you — you still feel that way — after what I told you."

"Oh — poor Clark! Did you think I'd start to think like she does?" She squeezed his arm compassionately.

He smiled humorlessly. "Sometimes — it's even hard for me — to — I wonder. I think — what could have happened to him along the way to turn him so far from who I am. Could it — could it ever happen to me? I think that it couldn't — but how well do we even know ourselves? What can turn a good person into an evil one? What triggers exist — because it does happen. People lose it all the time. They go about their lives and then something happens — and suddenly — their whole perspective shifts."

"Do you really think that's the difference between the man she knew and you? A difference in perspective? Did he enjoy his role as world-dominator?"

"Actually — yeah — he did. From what I can guess, he enjoyed hurting people — making them fearful of him. That — I know for a fact — that is not something I would ever enjoy seeing. And so — I have to say that I don't think our paths could ever — align. But — it doesn't matter so much what I think. Lois thinks that he and I aren't so very different. And nothing I can do will ever change that."

"You fell in love with her counterpart and now — she's gone. And the woman that you look at as being 'the one' can't stand you. She fears you. She hates you. I'm sorry." Her voice was horrified and dropped to a tender whisper. "I'm so sorry."

He forced a smile on his face. "Ah — well — you know — it might not have worked out between us anyway —"

She shook her head pityingly. "You know it would have. I could break this Tempus guy's neck."

"A lot of people feel that way. He's tried stunts like this before in that alternate world. He even tried to kill my counterpart in her universe when he was a baby."

"That's just sick!"

"Yes. Lois and her Clark ended up traveling back in time and preventing it. Thanks to another time/dimension hopper named Herb."

"And this Herb guy isn't evil?"

"No — although he did invent the machine that gave Tempus his ability to make all this mischief. Herb's a decent guy. Once he figured out what had happened to Lois, he did bring her home. But — she's deeply scarred. She — suffered greatly in that other world. Thanks to my counterpart."

"Oh — so she met him? Did he know she was from another universe?"

"I don't know if he knew that — but he had — uh — killed the other Lois from his world." He stopped, unable to go on.

"Oh … god."

"And — so he must have known something strange was going on. Whether he knew she was from another universe — I don't know. I hope not. I really hope not. The idea of him trying to track her down — or just trying to extend his domination to other universes — it's horrifying."

"Why would he try to track her down?"

"I think — I think he was obsessed with her."

"Oh — oh no. So did he — oh — oh god —" she stopped at his bleak expression. "So it's that bad. Wow. Really bad. And- oh! I — said some awful things to her. I — I — god — I feel awful."

"You didn't know. She didn't tell you. And — and yes- it is that bad."

"So — Tempus achieved his goals. No descendants — at least not in this world. But then — maybe — maybe there's hope."

"Hope? Come on — could you ever love someone who looked exactly like the one person you hated most in the universe?"

"Maybe — maybe if that someone went and kicked that other person's butt for me."

"What are you suggesting?"

"Just this. Clark, you need to go into that world and stop him — defeat him — kill him if necessary. That may be the only way to … shift her perspective."

He stared at her blankly for a moment, and then his face broke out into a broad smile.

"You're kidding, right?"

Annoyed, she shook her head.

"Arr! I hate when you do that! No. I'm not kidding. What's wrong with my idea? I thought it was a perfectly valid idea!"

"I — you hate when I do what?"

"Act so … like my idea is funny —it has to be a joke — your reaction is kind of insulting. Condescending."

"I just — it was way out of character for you —"

"How do you know what's — well… okay —I guess —we've known each other all our lives — so you would know what's in character. I'm sorry. Old anger. Old habits of bickering… and now is hardly the time to pitch a fit. Look — I really thought it was a good idea. If you showed her that you were her — prince… I guess — riding in on your white horse —"

"She's not looking for that — and that isn't who I am either. I'm not going to seek revenge for her. I'm not going to go beat up the big bully who hurt her just to score points. Do you — remember that cat?"

"Cat? What the hell are you talking about," Lana asked bluntly, confused by his seeming non-sequitor.

"Lana. When we were kids — remember that barn cat? The calico one?"

A smile came to her face. "Checkers. Yes. What a funny little sweet cat she was!"

"Yes — a barn kitten who ended up falling madly in love with you. And remember how she left all those dead birds, moles and mice at your front door? You hated that!"

"Yes. It was disgusting — I stepped — bare foot — on half a mole once. That is an experience that you never ever want to repeat, I can tell you that much!"

"Right. But — look at it from her perspective — you never hunted for your food — you didn't even know how to fight or pounce. She had adopted you — and decided to care for you since you couldn't care for yourself. She was leaving all those dead and half-dead creatures at your doorstep because she thought that was how she should care for you — provide you food so you didn't starve. But you were disgusted — because to you it was gross — seeing all those corpses at your door."

"Oh — I get it — an analogy. How English-major of you." Her voice was gently sarcastic.

"Yes — an analogy. Lana — I might actually think that he deserves to be — well — brought to justice in some way. But my going out to some other universe and being the bringer of that justice isn't going to make her happy. If anything, it would horrify her even more — I would be showing a similar level of violence and brutality as my doppelganger."

"But — it's also the right thing to do, isn't it, Mr. Hero? This world — this other earth — is in peril — and you could free it — not for her — but just — just because you know it's happening — and you could do something about it!"

"I would — if I could — if I could get there — and also have the right backup — because remember — there are more of them than there are of me. If I went in there alone, I'd get killed pretty quickly. I do think that universe's Earth needs to be liberated, and I've plead my cause already… but I can't let that cause get mixed up in my relationship with Lois. I can't go do something like that just to get a woman to like me. Don't you see that?"

"I guess… I guess I see," she said grudgingly.

"But — but it was a good idea —"

"Oh — stop patronizing me!" She smiled to soften her words. "I know you don't think it was a good idea! But — what are you going to do? How will you … get her to stop hating you?"

"Nothing…"

"Nothing? At all? Nothing?"

"Lana — I won't lie to you — I want things to be different. But this is how they are — I can't change things just by wishing. I — just want to take it — one day at a time."

"But — that's — that's wrong! You had a connection with her counterpart — which means — in some bizarre way that you were meant for her — meant to be with her. Isn't — doesn't it seem that way to you? Your destiny! I could feel the connection between you- you're telling me — you're just going to roll over and play dead? Live out a lifetime of regret and loneliness?"

"Sounds pretty lousy, doesn't it?" His voice and expression were bleak.

"Then — then you have to do something?"

"The only thing that can do anything is time. Time can work its healing magic and let her lead a less emotionally-troubled life than the one she currently lives. I guess I can stay out of her way — let her heal without the pain of seeing me. Oh sure — I can help her out when she needs it… but otherwise — I can stay out of her way… maybe we are destined to be together, and maybe someday — after her memories of that other world have dimmed a bit — she might be able to call me friend. I can't count on that though — I can't live my life around that hope."

"But — is friendship enough?"

"It could never be more. Think about it Lana — in your shoes — could you love someone who was identical — physically identical — to your worst nightmare?"

"Sure! If he were a good and kind man —"

"You hate Lex Luthor, right?"

"Intensely. But I could — if his double showed up with — with a personality like yours… I — I guess it isn't so easy — is it?"

"No. Just think how it is for her. It has to be awful for her — seeing me everywhere — same face — same body — same voice, different… soul? I don't know — it has to be really tough. That's why I've kept a really low public profile on my feelings about her article series. She has good reason for writing what she has written."

"And her message is so potent. She — well — I'll admit, she's even made me think at times… and then I catch myself — and say — what the heck am I thinking? I know you — and know none of her dire warnings could ever come to pass."

"She's speaking from experience. There's a lot of passion and anger behind her words. It's hard not to get pulled in. I hope you do know however… I really am not a threat — not to you — not to her — and really not to anyone… well… maybe people who are trying to commit crimes… I guess I threaten their plans and their freedom by turning them over to the police."

She nodded. "Anyone who knows you also knows you aren't a danger. I just wish you could somehow get her to see that."

"And so it circles around. I know — I know — I feel like this all the time. Lost — and desolate — when I imagine a lifetime without her — knowing deep down she's the one. It's awful."

They both paused in sad silence.

"Listen Lana — I — thank you for this talk… I'm really glad we're friends again. I've felt awful about how we just broke apart like that. I felt really badly about how I acted…"

"You really didn't do anything wrong. We were just wrong, and that whole incident brought that out to light. I'm glad you're still my friend, and what's more, I'm glad you went public with your abilities. The world needs a superhero — it needs you. You give us hope — you know … hope that things can be better. Hope — because we know someone cares — cares enough to be selfless — to help without asking anything in return. To keep helping no matter how frustrating and repetitive it can get."

"Wow. I'm speechless that you think that way— well — not really — but — you know what I mean. Thanks. It's good to hear that. I'm — it's not a big sacrifice — really — I have these powers, it's just as easy to use them as it is to drop a check in the mail to some deserving charity. It's not like human heroes who actually risk their lives to help other s out."

"Well — I appreciate it."

"You are very welcome. Do you want me to take you home now? I'm sure you've got more interesting things to do with your time than hang out here with me."

"Well- yes — I need to get home soon… but this has been great. I'm glad we did this, and I hope I see more of you now — now that we've hurdled the threshold of our failed relationship. We were once very good friends…"

"Absolutely! I would love that."

He put his arm around her waist, and warned her not to look down.

"I know you get sick … so — uh — just — keep your eyes fixed on something."

"Afraid I'll mess up your costume?"

"Suit! Not costume! Although I may look like one, I'm not a circus performer!"

"Okay — okay. And I won't get sick."

They flew quickly back to civilization.

"Where do you live? I'll take you home."

"Oh — cool! I live at 125 Newbury St. You know where it is? Apartment 609."

"Yes — I know the way. Hang on!"

He flew them down to the balcony, and she unlocked her porch door.

"Hey — come in for a moment."

"Okay — just one second," he said as he spun into his Clark persona. "Okay — now…"

He walked in behind her, and surveyed the place.

"Nice — you've really made this place look like a home."

"Coming from you, that's quite the compliment."

"No — really. You have — it looks … inviting. Warm."

"I figure — a place where you spend so much of your time ought to be comfortable and inviting. You should come through those doors, relax and think — I'm home. I'm complete. I'm happy."

"Yea. Complete…" his voice trailed off, distracted and melancholy.

Swiftly she looked up at him, and saw the sadness in his eyes.

"Well, score one for Lana. Look — I'm sorry — I didn't mean anything by it —"

"No — no! Don't — don't apologize to me — you can't walk on eggshells — you can't worry about sounding happy just because you know I'm… well — not in the happiest place at this time in my life. If your apartment is reflecting your inner state, then I'm really glad for you. You deserve to be happy and to be complete."

The doorbell rang and she moved to the door to see who it was.

"Hold that thought — I'll just see who that is."

Cautiously she opened her door a few inches, not undoing the chain-latch. Lana was utterly baffled and surprised to see Lois standing there holding Lana's Hermes scarf.

"Oh! Oh — my scarf!" Lana squealed in excitement, and before she had a chance to think about the wisdom of her actions, she unchained the door and flung it open.

"Come in! Oh — I had no idea I'd dropped that — thank you for returning it to me — I —it cost a fortune as -" her voice trailed off as she realized that the air in the room had suddenly solidified. She followed Lois's frozen stare to where Clark stood, and then followed it back to Lois.

"Oh boy," she said with a sigh.

The silence was deafening.

<<Somebody speak. Move. Breathe! Anything!>>

Lana shifted uncomfortably not knowing how to proceed. Her innate 'fix-it' attitude was thrown for a loop as she realized, with a shock, how unfixable things were. The fear was radiating from Lois like a beacon. Her face was frozen in this mask of confusion, dismay, and terror as she beheld the man standing a few paces behind Lana. The look on Clark's face could only be called stricken.

Lois's fear was a palpable thing with a life of its own. It seemed to fly off of her and settle all over the room — infecting and infesting everyone within with a feeling of panic and misery. It was at that moment that Lana realized just how bad the situation truly was. This was no mere thing that Clark could overcome by playing the handsome-hero, nor was it something Lois could easily recover from. Whatever she had been through in that other world, it defied the healing power of friendship and love.

<<How foolish it all seems — the things I said he should do. No wonder he feels it's hopeless.>>

Although it seemed an eternity that the three stood frozen in time, it really was only a brief moment on the clock. The painful emotions vanished from Lois's face to be replaced by a cool and remote mask. As quickly as she had turned towards Clark, she turned back to Lana and proffered the scarf.

"You left this. I thought you would want it back." Her voice was not as remote as her face — it held a slight tremor that betrayed her inner turmoil.

<<Why is he here? Oh god! I never thought he would be here — I thought — they had a bad breakup! Why are they still friends? She told him everything. He told her everything! I have to get out of here! >>

"Oh thank you," gushed Lana, trying to overcompensate for the awkwardness. "I would have been so upset once I realized what I'd done — this thing cost me a regular fortune!"

<<Idiot. She thinks I'm a shallow idiot. Concerned about a stupid scarf — she's been through this really horrible thing and complaining about a lost accessory. A lost scarf is meaningless compared to what she's been through!>>

"No problem. I — uh — sorry to — um — you know — drop in on you unannounced. I — just — well — figured you would want this, and didn't want you to worry about it. Obviously it's expensive. Well — I —"

"Do — do you want to come in — I —" Lana desperately searched for words to finish her sentence. On the one hand, she wanted this awkward moment to end — and fast! But on the other hand — it seemed rude not to invite her in, and also — she wanted a chance to apologize for being so rude."

<<What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? >>

"Oh — No… I — I can't. I have to — um — to go —" Lois looked at her blankly as she tried to come up with a good rejection of the offer. "I — I have a million things to do — I — so — I'll just be going."

Very consciously avoiding locking gaze with Clark, she turned and walked as quickly as she could down the hall to the stairwell. Lana watched her surreptitiously through a partly open door, and only shut the door after the stairwell door closed.

Breathing out in a relieved exhalation, she only then realized she had been holding her breath. She turned to Clark and her heart jumped a bit at the expression there.

"That was phenomenally awful," she offered in sympathy. "You were right when you said that …"

"That it was hopeless," he finished bleakly.

Ruefully she nodded her head. "I — really had convinced myself you were overreacting — but — my god — the look on her face. And it was like I could almost feel what she was feeling?"

"Yes — she has this amazing way of broadcasting it, doesn't she? I thought I was the only one who could pick up on it — because- I guess my people actually have telepathic abilities."

"You do? You can read minds? Hell — I didn't know that?! Hey — have you —"

"No — no — calm down — I haven't read yours. I didn't even know I could do it until she came back. She seems to be able to project her thoughts into my head. I think the telepathy is something humans can do too — but maybe aren't — aware of it."

"So — like all those 1-900 people might be real?"

"Telepathic. Not psychic."

"Oh — oh yeah. Sorry. Sorry. I'm kind of distracted. I — wow. Just … just wow."

"So I guess you see now."

"Yes." She stood silently for a few moments. And then said in a small and sad voice, "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I — I wish —"

He smiled at her. "Don't worry — I'll be fine… it's just that — I — I stay out of her way — not just for her sake. Her reaction hurts like hell. The less I'm around her, the better it is for me, in some twisted way. But in time, her reaction may be less severe. And in time, maybe I'll love her less."

She looked at him with a dubious expression on her face. "O- kay…"

"Enough of this — I have to go anyway — and I'm sure you've got stuff to do."

She rushed over to him and gave him a quick and fierce hug.

"You take care of yourself! And keep in touch — anytime you need someone to talk to — about this or anything else-"

"I know — I will. Thanks." He kissed her cheek, stood back and spun into his suit.

"Wow! That's — so spectacular!"

"It's just a parlor trick," he smiled in self-deprecation. "Anyway — see you soon, okay?"

After he took off, she stood for a few minutes wracked with indecision. What she really wanted to do was go talk to Lois — but she didn't want to upset Clark.

<<I really need to talk to her. I know — he'll hate it if I do- but I said some things to her that she didn't deserve. But maybe it will hurt her more if I go see her? I can't just not see her. This is too big. She knows I know — she knows I've talked to Clark. I just want things to be out in the open. I'm going to talk to her!>>

Making the resolution, she grabbed a light jacket and sailed out the door.

Meanwhile, the object of her attentions was cursing herself roundly for having delivered the scarf in person.

<<I knew it was a bad idea! I knew I should have just mailed the damned thing.>>

In truth, her reluctance to see Lana had not been out of a fear that she would run into Clark, but rather a fear of resuming the conversation they had had. It had been awful and awkward at the time, and she had no desire to pick up where they had left off.

<<This is even worse! She knows! She knows — and he knows I talked to her. God, they were talking about me behind my back. Who knows what he told her — what they were saying. This is awful. Worse than I had imagined.>>

But as she continued her bitter reflections, she started to wonder if it really was such a bad thing. First, it let her off the hook with Lana — which, having met the woman and seen how tenacious she was — was a good thing. Second, it gave her a deeper insight into the kind of man Clark probably was. The fact that he and Lana were still friends spoke well for him.

<<I should hate that. That just pushes my theories father and father into the realm of the improbable. But why should I hate that? That's a good thing — isn't it?>>

A knock on the door jerked her out of her reverie. Cautiously she looked through the peep-hole in the door.

<<Give me a break today. Please don't let this be Luthor. Oh. Great. Lana. Thanks for the break. You think maybe once in a while things might go my way. Maybe I shouldn't open the door. She doesn't know I'm here. No. I'm just going to be delaying the inevitable. If she wants to talk to me, she'll hound me until I finally agree to it. I can tell. She's like me. She doesn't give up.>>

Lois opened the door and looked at her uninvited guest with wary eyes. "Lana."

"Hi," she said smiling nervously. "Look — I know I'm — I know you didn't invite me over, and yes, it's really rude that I dropped by unannounced — not that you were rude earlier — I mean — you were just returning something to me — but I'm not here to return something — I'm really here to take up some of your valuable time —and so I'm sorry, in advance — for —"

"It's okay. Why don't you come in?" Her voice was resigned.

<<Ye gods. She babbles more than I do.>>

Lana walked in nervously. Her courage had failed her as she stood at Lois's door. It had been one thing to think about all the great things she would say to the woman on the ride over, but now that she found herself faced with the situation, she felt funny about coming here. Why would Lois want to talk about any of this with her, of all people?

She sighed heavily and opened with an apology. "Lois. I guess I came here to apologize to you. I said some things to you that in hindsight were extremely unwarranted and unfounded."

"So. You know."

"Yes."

"He told you? What did he tell you?"

"Well — he told me what he knew. I mean — he wasn't there — he doesn't —"

"No — I know he doesn't have the disgusting details," she interrupted sharply. "Is that why you came? You want to know it all?"

"I came — because — I wanted to apologize —"

"Oh come on, Lana. At least be honest — honest about why you are here. I mean — you had to have figured that I'd understand your feelings of anger and confusion earlier. It didn't bother me that you thought I was some vicious two-timing bitch. I knew you had me mixed up with the other Lois, and therefore, I knew why you felt that way. Of course it would look odd if I had been her — and then suddenly switched camps like this."

"Nevertheless, I'd like to apologize."

"Okay. Apology accepted — and frankly — not even needed. So why are you here?"

"Can — can I sit down?"

"Go ahead."

Lana sat down on a couch and Lois reluctantly sat in a chair facing her.

"I'm here — because — well — I don't know. You and I — we are a lot alike in many ways, and we both have this person in our life — that we have in common — and —"

"Are you here to plead his cause?" Her tone was incredulous.

"No! No — not that- I — I don't know why I'm here," she said honestly.

"Lana — we can't be friends." Lois was quietly blunt.

"I — why not?"

"Your ex-fiancé and old childhood friend happens to be someone that I am investigating. It wouldn't be right. And — and I don't think I could handle the connection." She blew out her breath in a frustrated sigh. "Listen, I have enough people telling me what a great guy he is. I don't need to add to the list."

"If so many people think he's a great guy — shouldn't you —"

"No. That isn't enough for me."

"What does your own heart tell you? You've been back long enough to have seen him in action quite a few times — have you ever seen him act in a way that seemed contrary to how everyone sees him?"

"Well… no," she admitted. "I haven't. And — for what it's worth — I've stopped writing my articles. I don't really have enough to justify continuing writing them — but I haven't stopped investigating him — I won't until I'm satisfied."

"And when will that be? In a year? Two years? Ever?"

"Why does it matter? Who gets hurt by this — as long as I'm not publishing the articles any more, the only person who is really hurt by this is me. It's my time and energy after all."

"You don't think our conversation earlier hurt me? It hurt to talk to you about him — to talk to the woman I thought you were."

"I'm sorry — I didn't want to cause you pain."

"No. I imagine you didn't. But don't you see — your obsession with trying to turn him into the bad-guy that you left behind — that's going to wear you down and eventually be the death of you. You won't lead a productive life if you spend it trying to … turn him into that other man."

"I'm not trying to turn him into Lord Kal-El," she said icily. "You have no idea what you are talking about, and it really isn't any of your business how I choose to live my life. I was a slave for three years, Lana. A slave to creatures who could kill me without even lifting a finger — a mere blast of that heat vision, and I would have been a pile of dust. I had to watch what I said, to whom I said it, and I could never make eye contact for fear of reprisal. Never again. I am my own mistress, and I don't intend on letting anyone — not you — not Perry, not my family and most certainly not Superman — tell me what to do."

Lana took a deep breath. Three years. She hadn't realized Lois had been there that long.

"I'm sorry, Lois." She stopped, unable to think of what to say next. "Obviously you've been through hell — and yes, you're right — I can't understand it. But — maybe I can tell you about Clark — as I see him — maybe I can help you to see him from my perspective."

"I'm — I'm not —" Lois shook her head rapidly. "I'm not ready to have this conversation. I don't want to know."

<<You do! You do!>>

"I wasn't going to go into … intimate detail — if that was what you were worried about."

Lois sprang up like a nervous tigress. She paced and prowled a few moments before whirling to glare at her visitor. "You can't just heal me — or help me — not like this. I — I don't want to talk to you — and I don't want to know — and I don't want to tell you about what I went through. If you are looking for the prurient details, you'll have to be disappointed. I survived it — and I'm back home — and that's all that matters at this point."

"Is — is that really why you think I'm here? To hear the ugly details?"

"I don't know. Are you?"

"I — I think he cares for you, and I guess — I wanted you to know that."

"You must be crazy. And mistaken."

<<Please. Let her be wrong.>>

"He told me — well — I guessed at it… but he didn't deny it."

"He told you what?"

<<Don't say he loves me. Please don't say he loves me!>>

"That he's drawn to you. Like he was to her. I think he believes that — maybe — if you hadn't gone into that world—you two would have met, and things would have happened differently."

Lois looked away from her penetrating eyes. She shuddered suddenly as if cold.

"Lois — I — know that — bothers you —but I just wanted you to know — that — that your obsession with bringing him down really is painful to him — even if you don't write those articles."

"I can't do anything about that. I'm sorry."

"Can't you see that he's really a good man?"

"All I see when I look at him is a powerful being who could easily destroy the Earth."

<<Liar.>>

Lana shook her head, sadly. "He would never do that. He —"

"Okay — so you did come here to plead his cause after all?"

"He doesn't know I'm here."

"Right."

"He really doesn't know I'm here. Really." Her voice and expression were solemn and sincere.

"Great. Whatever. I think it's time you left."

Lana stood up reluctantly. "I — I'm sorry. I — I —"

"Just — leave. Please. Just leave."

She nodded and walked silently to the door. Lois trailed close behind. She opened the door to let her out.

"I'm sorry, Lana. I really am."

Lana turned and looked at her for a long moment. Then she nodded, averting her gaze, and she turned and walked out the door.

Lois shut it behind her, and stood there a long while.

After Lana left, Lois sat down heavily on her couch and sat there in a weary daze for a long while. She was jerked out of her reverie by the shrill ringing of her telephone. As was her habit, she let the answering machine pick it up.

"Lois? Lois — this is Lex — I've been trying to reach you for quite some time now. Please. Just pick up the phone."

There was a long pause.

"Come on Lois, I know you're there. Please — pick up the phone. I want to apologize for my behavior the other evening — I know it was unpardonable, and I just wanted to have a chance to put things right. Please. I promise, I won't take up much of your time."

Lois watched the answering machine nervously, as if magically, he might spring out of it. Dizzily she reflected that she had seen stranger things happen.

"All right. I guess you aren't ready to talk to me yet. Please — please call me as soon as you can. I really want to talk to you. I promise, I won't call you again if you tell me not to — but I need to talk to you just one last time."

The click that signaled the end of the call filled Lois with relief. Lex had been leaving her messages for some time now, and she just wished he'd get the picture. She didn't want to hear anything he had to say — she just wanted him out of her life, permanently. His persistence left her with an unpleasant sensation of being stalked.

<<Why did he think I was at home?>>

Lois sprang up nervously as she realized that the other times he had called, he hadn't asked her to pick up the phone. Indeed she hadn't been home all the other times he had called — and the one time she was home, he seemed to know it.

<<Did he put surveillance equipment in my apartment? Oh god — I wouldn't put it past him. How would I ever know? There must be someone I can call about this sort of thing. Perry would know. I'll call Perry.>>

She picked up the phone and dialed Perry's private number. Instantly, he picked it up.

"Hello? Clark!?" His voice had the sound of someone expecting a phone call.

<<Clark again.>>

"Perry! No — It's Lois. Sorry — uh — if you were expecting someone else."

"Lois — it's always a pleasure. Is something wrong? You sound upset?"

"Can I come and see you?"

"Yes — but what's —"

"Not now. I'll be there as soon as I can."

She hung up the phone, and quickly made her way down to her car, feeling menaced all the way.

<<I don't know anymore. I feel like I'm always afraid of someone or something. What kind of a life is this? There's never any peace for me. This can't go on much longer. >>

She drove to Perry's office with a heightened feeling of urgency. She flew past his secretary without even noticing her and walked straight into Perry's office.

"Lois! What's wrong? You look — well — you look really upset! Has something happened?"

Now that she was here, she felt a bit sheepish about her earlier fears. She had no real reason to believe he was bugging her apartment, and yet — while she had been there — she had been gripped with an intense paranoia.

<<Of course, it might not be paranoia. They really might all be out to get me.>>

"Look, Perry — I know this is going to probably sound tedious, repetitious and strange… but — I," she paused briefly, casting her eyes nervously around the room. "I — think someone might be watching me."

Something akin to dismay filled Perry's eyes. "Lois — please — please tell me you don't think Clark is spying on you —"

"No! No… not Clark." She barked out a short mirthless laugh. "How about that? For once, I'm not here to talk about Clark."

Perry's face cleared in an instance.

"You can talk about Clark, you know — I'm sorry — sorry if I seemed… it's just-"

"You get caught in the middle. I know, and I — well — that's a subject for another discussion. I think that …"

She broke off and put her head in her hands and laughed tiredly. "Listen to me. I'm crazy- I've just — finally lost my grip."

"No. No, you haven't. Remember — you have good instincts, and they've saved your life before. Who do you think might be watching you? Do — could it be any of those jerks from that other world, or the man who took you out of this world in the first place?"

"Although that is a constant fear of mine… I don't get any Lord Kal-El vibes… nor do I think that Tempus is hanging around… the truth is, Perry, I think Lex Luthor is —"

Perry immediately interrupted her hotly. "Now that would not come as a big surprise!"

"I know you don't like or trust him. But do you think he'd be capable of — bugging my apartment?"

"You think your apartment is bugged?"

"Yes. I don't know — I just have a strange feeling — he's been calling me a lot — trying to get in touch with me — and — well — he just left a message while I was at home — and it seemed like he knew I was there."

"Well — sometimes — when you're trying to get a hold of someone who you think might be avoiding you, you assume that maybe they're home and screening your call — so you might ask them to pick up the phone — just on the off chance that it … somehow guilts them into doing that. I remember when tracking down unwilling sources for stories, I would try that tactic and sometimes it would work."

"Yes — yes — I know — but all the other times he called, he didn't think I was there — and now — he did — coincidence? Maybe. But then, maybe not. I am not sure anymore whether I would put it past him to do something like this."

"I certainly wouldn't," answered Perry heavily. "That man — well — he's as rotten as they come. I'm sorry — I know you worked for him — and all that — but —"

She shook her head wearily. "I know — I know. My judgment when I came back was kind of flawed. I was so eager to find someone to jump on my 'bring down Superman' bandwagon that I formed an alliance with him without thinking it through carefully. But after working with him, I've pretty much come to the conclusion that Luthor is not the man I thought he was. In addition to being a shady dealer, Lex had — an unprofessional interest in me — and at one point, didn't seem so inclined to take no for an answer. I'm through with him."

"I'm so glad to hear you say that. We were so scared — so worried for you."

"We?"

"Uh — Alice and I." Perry lied.

"Right. Alice." liar. Her voice was very sarcastic.

"Okay — okay. You know — Alice was worried — but not as much as Clark. But I know you don't want to talk about that. And that's not why you came here."

<<I guess you're tired of hearing me talk about it, Perry. I'll spare you this time. You deserve a break.>>

"Can you help me?"

"Yes. Of course I can! You know — Clark could check your apartment out in seconds. You would also get the benefit of Lex not being able to figure out what was going on — if surveillance detection experts come in, he's bound to know you've caught him out. That might make him act in a more desperate manner in the future — if he really is stalking you."

She made a face. "I can't ask Clark to do this. I wouldn't even want to — I don't want — I don't want him in my life either. Perry — it's too hard — and I know we've been over this over and over — and I don't want to rehash it. But he makes me uncomfortable."

Her voice rose in agitation as she tried to figure out how to disabuse him of this current notion.

"Okay — okay. I had to throw it out there — but — I understand why you wouldn't want him to do this for you. I'll take care of it. I can have someone over there in a few hours. In the meantime, why don't you stay at my place, or -"

"No — I think I'm going to go to the Daily Planet."

"The Planet?"

"Yes. I need a job."

His face broke out into a huge grin. "Oh — that's just fantastic. I'm so glad to hear it. You belong there, you know — you are a part of the Planet, and it's a part of you."

She smiled, despite herself. "I know — I know — I — I've felt incomplete — and I think that the Planet will help me — ease back into myself. You know — sometimes I almost think that I'll be myself again someday. But only in some ways. Not — of course — in all ways." She finished the thought glumly.

Perry had been ecstatic to see the smile, but the quick departure back to her depressed state made him feel melancholy. It seemed like nothing would ever help shake her back into a more normal state of being. Not that he could blame her. She had been enslaved. Her body and soul had taken a great deal of abuse.

<<But she didn't break. She's still standing. >>

"Please — don't feel sorry for me," she said astutely reading his thoughts.

"I'm not — I just —"

"Wish I were normal again. You know — they didn't break me. I'm a survivor, and I survived it. I'm still here, and -"

"Lois. Can I ask you something?"

"Uh — okay."

"Are you reading my mind?" His voice was vaguely suspicious.

She looked at him for a few moments, and then burst into laughter.

"Are you serious?"

"You seem — sometimes — to be — taking my thoughts right out of my head."

She sobered up and took a deep breath as she seriously contemplated the question. Shaking her head in distracted confusion she answered as best as she could.

"I don't know. I feel like — sometimes I feel that — maybe I — it's like they infected me somehow," she said shuddering. "I sometimes hear … people… talking to me in my head, and I— somehow they may have turned me into a telepath. Is that strange to you?"

"Well — not really — okay — yes. It is strange. But no stranger than the existence of a man who can fly, or people from another universe, or time travelers?"

"Do you think it's possible?"

"Possible that you are a telepath now? Yes — yes — I guess I do. It's possible that we all have this ability- that it's something that you just have to learn to do. Look at the way athletes can maneuver their bodies in ways that normal people can't. Ballet dancers can spend a lot of time on their toes — and gymnasts can contort themselves in the most bizarre configurations and do amazing feats of skill and strength. They have to learn this — we aren't born with the innate knowledge. Then again- who knows — maybe babies have a telepathic sense and lose it as they get older. Just like we lose our heightened sense of smell and hearing."

"And this concludes this edition of Scientific Oddities…"

"Lois."

"Okay — I know — I'm just — I don't want to be a freak, you know? And yet- I guess I am. The freaky human who can't stand Superman. The freaky woman who spent three years in a different universe. The freaky woman who thinks everyone is out to get her."

"You aren't a freak. You are just different — different from what you once were."

"I want to go back — back to who I was. Is that too much to ask?"

"Yes. Yes it is — Lois — none of us are who we were three years ago. Everything that happens to us alters us. It's called being alive. The only way to stop it from happening is to — die."

"Not what I was hoping for."

"I can't tell you fairy-tales. You will find some kind of center again — some way of being that will seem normal to you — that you may even enjoy. You will learn to find some joy in life. I am confident you will."

"Yeah, well anyway — wish me luck. The folks at the Planet may not be so eager to have me come on board after my anti-Superman stance."

"Want me to call —"

"No! No! I do this on my own. Understand?"

"Understood. Good luck then."

A few days later, Lois sat nervously while interviewing with the Daily Planet's editor.

"So — why do you want to work for the Daily Planet?"

The question took her by surprise because of its simplicity and triteness. Straight out of Interviewing, 101. And yet — the question, despite it all, was one she found very difficult to answer. She could offer up some ridiculous tripe about how the Planet was the best paper in the world. And it was — but Lois couldn't just say that. Managing editor Elena Lutz would know for sure that Lois was handing it over on a golden shovel.

<<How can I tell her? I want to go home? I want to be home. >>

"I belong here." She said this with quiet resolve, meeting Elena's clear gaze with her own.

"I'm — not so sure about that."

Startled by this, Lois started to defend her suitability. "Look — you know I'm a great —"

"Yes. You were a great reporter. I'm not arguing that. Honestly, Lois — I can't figure you out. If you were — if you had come to the Planet after you resurfaced and asked for a job, I'd have handed you one on a silver platter. I'd have been a fool not to. You are practically a legend — and for someone of your age, that is quite unusual. But frankly — you're time with LNN really casts some doubt as to whether you haven't lost your edge."

"Lost my edge?" Lois began to get irritated

"Or maybe your integrity. Your article series on Superman —"

"Wasn't true journalism." Lois finished the sentence for her. She was too astute to assume that Elena was holding a grudge against Lois because she had painted a not-so-friendly picture of a man that Elena had once worked with so closely.

"You surprise me! You admit it then?"

"Yes. I know what I wrote was pure speculation. No fact. No basis for truth."

"Then why did you do it? Was it all for Lex Luthor? It concerns me that you would — pander to Luthor in such a way — that you would lay down your own principals to further his agenda. You must know that he loathes Superman."

"Elena, you may not believe me — but my motive for writing the article series had nothing at all to do with pleasing Luthor. I went to Lex, because I knew he would let me print the series. I knew that I wouldn't get any argument from him whatsoever. He furthered my agenda by offering me a job."

"Why? What were you after? Fame? You had it! You were a household name before you disappeared, and I'm sure you'd have regained that status rapidly on the basis of your own merit. So why did you launch this unfounded attack on Clark?"

She took a deep breath. Her eyes flicked away from the uncomfortable intensity that Elena's gaze held. The woman seemed to be trying to look into her very soul — to try to grab out the facts and data that would make this puzzle fit together nicely. Those darned missing pieces. Reluctantly, she dragged her eyes back.

"At the time — at the time — I thought I was doing the right thing."

"You're telling me that you believed in your premise?"

"Yes." Lois gazed evenly back at the woman, letting her decide for herself whether there was even an ounce of veracity in what she was saying.

Elena stared back for a long moment.

"I can't have that kind of journalism in my paper."

"No. I understand that. I -" Lois started to gather her things, in preparation for her imminent rejection and departure.

"So I trust you won't be submitting any stories along this line without adequate evidence that you are reporting the truth and not just your own opinion?"

"Are you saying that I have the job?"

"If you want it — it's yours. I have all the details drawn up for you here — compensation, benefits…"

"You were planning to hire me all along?" Her voice had a dangerous edge to it. Lois did not like to be toyed with.

"Contingent on how you answered the questions about your article series. I want real journalists on my paper. No hacks. That's how the Planet remains the best paper in the world."

"Okay. That's fair. I've … put my series into hiatus. I — don't really feel the same way about it — as I did when I first started writing it."

"I'm glad to hear that. What… if I may ask — what changed your mind — about Superman?"

"I haven't really changed my mind — I'm still wary of the man. I still feel pretty strongly that absolute power is corruptive, and that nobody can really be as powerful as he is without losing himself in the thrill of wielding that power. I don't know — it's possible that he's just a time bomb waiting to go off. But … the actual evidence says otherwise. It's a conflict I can't resolve, so it doesn't seem right to keep on writing things that I can no longer justify writing.

"Lois — I admire that. It takes a special kind of person to admit that they could be wrong — even when they really feel like they ought to be right. Listen — if Clark ever gives us a reason to distrust him — or to investigate him — believe me — I'll be the first person to do it. But he hasn't — and so I don't want to be the instrument of causing him any further pain. Okay?"

"Okay."

<<Further pain? Did my articles hurt him? Did he talk to her about it? Did he talk to Perry? Why does that bother me? It bothers me to think of him being hurt by what I've written, and yet — didn't I want to hurt him? Shouldn't I feel good about that? Even if he didn't hurt me, shouldn't it feel good to get a little payback in? Just a little? >>

Elena broke into her reverie by asking her when she could start.

"Immediately. I'm raring to go."

<<Good gods. I'm home! I can't believe I'm finally here. Maybe everything will be all right in the end. And maybe pigs will — oh. Right. Never mind. >>

Lois left the Daily Planet with a feeling of lightness that she hadn't felt since she had been abducted. Elena had told her to come to work the next day, as they needed to submit all the necessary paperwork before she could be an official Planet employee. She decided that she would first head home for lunch, and then head out and do some shopping.

As she came through her front door, the unwelcome sight of the flashing light on her answering machine filled her with a mix of dread and annoyance. Perry's surveillance experts had done a thorough check of her apartment several times over without finding a trace of any equipment. Although this left her feeling relatively sure that her apartment was not currently bugged, she still had a sneaking hunch that it had, at one point, been bugged, and that Lex had managed to get the bugs removed before Perry's team went into action.

The problem was, Luthor still called her with a relative frequency. The calls came about once a week now. She continued to refuse to respond to them, hoping that if she ignored him, he would eventually just go away.

<<When will he get the clue? I don't want to talk to him. Not now. Not soon. Not ever!>>

Sighing heavily, she pressed the play button, bracing herself to hear his voice.

"Um. Hi. Miss Lane — Lois? This is — uh — this is Clark. Clark Kent."

Panic-stricken, she reached out and smashed desperately at the stop button.

<<Oh my god! Why is he calling me? I can't believe he's calling me!!>>

She stared for a long nervous while at the machine, her heart pounding hard in her chest.

<<He's going to say something about my articles. Or my meeting with Lana. Or — or something! I don't want to know. I could just hit the erase button! Yes! Erasing it — make it go away!>>

Her finger hovered over the erase button for long agonizing seconds.

<<No! Erase it, and you won't ever know what he wanted. Just hit play, and hear him out. >>

Sighing again in defeat, she hit the play button, wincing a bit at the expected message.

"Um. Hi. Miss Lane — Lois? This is — uh — this is Clark. Clark Kent. Look — I realize I'm the last person you want to have calling you — and — well — uh — I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't really have to — And frankly — I'm glad you aren't home — because — it's easier for me to ask you this on your machine. It's — actually it's about your father. He's — well — to put it bluntly — he thinks you've lied to him about having no memory of where you've been the last three years, and he came to me for more information. I don't mean to be obnoxious about this — but — it… it isn't up to me to resolve this between the two of you — and I can't exactly lie to the guy. <Long pause> I'm sorry to have to — burden you with this, but I didn't know what else to do. Take care. Bye."

Staggered by this bizarre turn of events, Lois stood staring at her machine in disbelief. A million thoughts raced through her head at once.

<<I can't tell my dad what happened? No way! And why would he ask Clark? Why didn't he come to me first? And — and Clark sounded so -uncomfortable. Nervous. Embarrassed and awkward. So — so different from Lord Kal-El! I better call Lucy. Yes. Lucy is the one I should talk to.>>

After calling Lucy and summoning her post-haste, Lois passed the time by repeatedly playing back the message. She strained her ears to hear in his voice the voice of the man she had hated and feared for so long. Although the voice was similar, the manner of speaking was so different that had she not known that Clark was Kal-El's counterpart, she would never have connected the two just by hearing them speak.

A loud knock on her door startled her back into reality. Lucy was here. Thank god.

She flung open the door after checking through the peephole that it was her younger sister.

"What took you so long?!" Her tone was agitated.

"Long? You have tough standards, sis. I got here as fast as I could. No human could have gotten here faster without transporter technology. And besides, considering you've been avoiding me, you should feel lucky I showed up at all." Lucy looked at her sister with a mixture of annoyance and curiosity.

"Can we get into that later? I need you to hear something — and then I need to talk to you about stuff."

"Is anything wrong?" Her voice switched from bantering-annoyed to concerned.

"Well. You listen and then tell me what you think."

She played back the message for her sister, and stood watching her to gauge her reaction.

As Lucy listened to the message, her expression rapidly changed from mild-annoyance into astonishment. She waited until the message ended, and then turned to Lois agitatedly.

"Oh. My. God."

"Yea. that's kind of what I thought."

"You … he called you. I can't believe that!"

"I know!"

"And did you hear how he sounded? Totally nervous. I'm betting he was really happy to have guessed right about your not being home."

"Mmm. I'm not sure he wouldn't have just hung up if I'd picked up the phone."

"I doubt it. He always comes across as someone who is willing to face adversity if necessary. But wow! Oh wow!"

"What's stranger, is that Dad knows that I'm lying. That he went to Clark about it, and not to, say… you! I mean — you'd think that he'd ask you before anyone else, given how close we are."

"Uh. Yeah. Strange," Lucy said unconvincingly.

"Lucy."

"Lois — I didn't want to upset you. Yes. He came to me first — but — I fended him off."

"And of course, you lie ever so convincingly."

"Well, obviously I lie about as well as you do," she retorted snippily. "Remember, it was your own failure to lie convincingly that made him suspicious in the first place."

Lois sighed with weariness. "Whatever. Lucy — what am I going to do?"

"I think — you're just going to have to tell him the truth."

"I can't do that!" Her voice sounded like a wail.

"Why not? What's holding you back? I don't understand…"

Lois ran her hands through her hair in frustration as she turned away from her sister.

"How could you understand? You haven't gone through it! I don't want to tell him — tell him any of it. It's ugly. It's horrible, and it's shameful!"

"Shameful?! The people who hurt you should be ashamed, but you shouldn't be!"

Lois shook her head in denial.

"Lucy. You just don't understand."

"You're right, and I admit that. But you need to explain it to me — I don't understand why you can't tell him. I am sure once you do, Clark would be willing to corroborate."

"Oh, now that's just a really pleasant scenario!"

"Lois…"

"Lucy. I was a slave. For three years. A slave!" She was shouting now.

"I know. I know. I'm sorry — I know," Lucy responded quietly.

Lois scrunched her face up in dismay. "I was owned! I was — violated — and I — had no dignity whatsoever. Do you see that? Can you even begin to grasp how you might feel about telling people about it? I allowed -"

"Not allowed! Jeez, Lois! Hardly seeing that you had a choice in any of it -"

"Even more humiliating. A weak and pathetic creature. That's what I was. At their whim and at their mercy. Owned. Used. No hint of mad-dog Lane anywhere! I was victimized — made into a victim. And daddy — oh god — daddy would never look at me the same."

"How can you say that?"

"Do you look at me the same? Once upon a time you looked up at me — I was your big sister. Fearless and strong. Not afraid to do or try anything, as long as it wasn't totally stupid or suicidal. And now — now, I'm a cowering weak little creature, hiding out behind her articles, afraid to live in the real world. Don't you see that? I'm pathetic, and useless. Weak and -"

"You are NONE of those things, Lois! You have been to hell and back, and you survived it! Most people wouldn't have! You survived it with your sanity! If it had been me, I'd never leave my apartment! But you do! You go out there and you continue to do what you've been doing your whole adult life — champion for truth and justice with the power of your words! You inspire me, and you amaze me! More so now than ever! So yes… I do see you differently. I admire you more now than I ever did!"

"Oh … oh, Luce!" She started to cry. "Damn it! I didn't want to cry!"

"I — I'm sorry -"

"No — no — don't be." She smiled despite her emotional state. "Thank you. Thank you for saying that."

"Feel better about talking to Dad?"

She shook her head. "I have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like I'm about to show him a bad report card."

Lucy barked out a laugh. "Like you know what that's like!"

"Maybe you could tell me how you handled it?"

"Ha! Honestly, Lois — he's not going to think badly of you."

"Lucy. Look me in the eye and tell me that you could tell him — if it had happened to you."

"I could."

"You could tell him — tell him that you had been victimized. Knowing as you know that in his heart of heart, Dad was always disappointed in us."

Lucy looked away uncomfortably. Her eyes rested on the ground near Lois's feet. "Okay. There is that. But Lois. He's changed."

"He obviously won't hate me. But he will be… I will be diminished in his eyes."

"I just don't believe that."

"I hope you're right. Lucy. I really hope you're right."

Sam and Lois had had a rocky relationship. Sam had always wanted a son. And in the early years of her life, he felt the disappointment of losing that dream not once, but twice, keenly. Little children are very perceptive, and Lois was able to pick up on the disappointment — she just didn't understand its origins. Lois thought that she was somehow failing to live up to his expectations, and carried around with her the feeling that she was screwing things up all the time.

Her father and mother's relationship had also been turbulent, and Lois felt that it was her fault. If she had been a better daughter, they would have been happy. Lost in the very self- centric world of a small child, Lois didn't notice that Sam treated Lucy in the same way. In her eyes, she felt that Lucy was his second chance at a perfect child, and so Lois worked very hard to show Sam that she was better, stronger and smarter. This early competitive streak helped drive a wedge between the sisters. Lucy transitioned from the blind adoration an infant has towards its older sibling to a kind of resentment at not being able to live up to her example.

Things had obviously changed. Sam and Ellen seemed to really love each other, and their relationship seemed stronger than it ever had before. Maybe it really was me, all along. But Lois really didn't think that. She had a hunch that it was the pain of losing their eldest daughter that brought the two feuding parents together. Neither could blame the other for what had happened to her, and so they sought comfort in each other.

"I understand you've been talking with Clark," Lois said after seating her father down with coffee and some snacks.

"He called you, did he? I had figured he might — he seemed awfully uncomfortable about talking about you with me."

"Is that why you did it? You hoped he'd ask me to talk to you?"

"Yes. Your sister refused to tell me anything — I had no choice."

"You think I'm lying to you?"

"Well — aren't you? Come on, Lois. I've known you all your life. I've always known when you've lied to me — I just haven't always called you on it. I know that kids sometimes feel they have to lie to their parents, I was young once. But this — this is different. This is a big lie, and the only reason you would tell a big lie —one that would be hard to maintain — is because you think the truth is much harder to tell."

"It is."

"So you aren't denying it."

"No. No point. If you know that I'm lying — then — why bother."

"Lois. Where have you been?" He looked right at her, his expression inscrutable.

"Daddy. You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Honey — don't be so sure. One of my pet theories is that you were kidnapped by aliens."

Lois's face went pale white at this statement. Without thinking, she backed away from him a little — backing away from the impact of his carelessly true guess.

"Oh god. Then you were? It's true?" Sam was incredulous.

Her eyes darted all around the room, refusing to rest back on his.

"Come on! Meet me halfway. Please? Please?"

"Dad," she trailed off desperately. "I can't —"

"You have to! I — I have to know! Lois! You have no idea —" his voice broke, and her eyes flew back to his in surprise. He was crying? Sam Lane? Crying?

"Dad." Her voice held a tenderness that she was unused to sharing with this man.

"Lois — you don't have children. You have no idea. There is this certain cry that children have when they are young. It is a very honest cry — a cry that says — I'm scared. I'm hurt. I'm lonely. I'm sad. And I need my mother, or my father — to make it all right again. There is a certain innocence — an expectation of comfort. An expectation that you won't let anything bad happen to them. After — after you disappeared — I kept hearing you cry — like that. I kept seeing your little-girl face looking at me — with those big brown eyes — the humor and silliness — and love — and insecurity — all of it — looking at me — expecting that I would never let you fall off the horse, or get lost in a crowd. But I — I failed you — I let you get lost in the crowd. And — it tore me apart. When — when we had to let go — and give you up for dead — I thought — nothing could ever hurt that bad.

But then you came back — and we were so happy — so elated — only you disappeared again… and so I was wrong — because it hurt so much more to lose you again. Clark told us that it wasn't you — that she was from another world… but it didn't make t hurt any less. It felt like we had lost you all over again — the pain was new and fresh.

And now — against all odds, you've come back home — and this time it really is you. But — you've been through some awful hell — it's in your eyes. You don't trust me anymore to take care of you. You don't trust that there is good in this world — I can see that. You can't even let yourself believe that Superman is truly what he appears to be. Something happened to you — and you don't think that you can trust us with the knowledge of what happened. I guess I want you to know that you can. That no matter what — the fact that you are back — that is all that matters to us. You can tell us what happened — even if you spent the last three yeas on a serial-killing spree — it wouldn't change how we feel about you."

Lois stared at him in astonishment. She had never seen him cry, nor had she ever expected to. With a growing awareness, she realized that her father had really loved her all along. He may not have been the perfect parent, but then — again — who really was. With sudden clarity of thought, she realized that Sam wouldn't think less of her if she told him the truth. All she had to do was just tell him. And she would be free of one more burden — the burden of carrying around the guilt of lying to her family. Okay. I'll do it. I'll tell him the truth.

"Dad. God — Dad, I'm so sorry. I had no idea."

"When — when it happens to you — when you have a child — you'll understand —"

"Dad — I won't be having any children." Her voice was sadly resolute.

"Lois?"

"Dad. I was kidnapped and brought into an alternate universe. A different Earth that had been overtaken by aliens. Kryptonians. I was forced into … slavery… by these Kryptonians. And — it wasn't a good time. Not by a long shot. So that's where I've been, and that's why … I can't trust Superman. His counterpart in that world was a cruel and vicious man."

"Please —please tell me you're still lying to me."

"You know I'm not."

"How did you get out?"

"I was rescued by a dimension-hopper. He claimed that he didn't know I'd been taken into that other world, or he'd have come sooner."

"Was it Clark?"

"No — it was a very strange man named Herb. But he seems to know Clark."

"Herb? This sounds like a load of baloney!"

"Truth can be stranger than fiction. Come on — we live in a world where a man regularly defies gravity."

"Well, he isn't defying it — he's applying upward propulsion that enables him to escape its effects."

"Okay — whatever r-it's still pretty strange."

"I'll grant you that. Lois — my god. This is just so — I guess I can understand why you thought it would be simpler to just lie."

"I guess I should tell Mom, shouldn't I?"

"I wish you would. I don't want to lie to her — there have been far too many lies between us in the past. We are trying to live out the rest of our lives together as honestly as we can."

"Okay. I'll talk to her."

"Lois — did Clark — did Superman know where you were —all that time?"

"No. He didn't. His search for me was honest."

"You really believe that?"

"Much as I hate to admit it. Yes. I do."

"But you still hate him?"

"No. Hate is too strong a word. I just can't get past it — you know — he's the same man as the man who — who —"

"Who what? What did that jerk do to you?"

"Dad. Trust me when I say this. You don't want to know, and I'm not going to tell you. I'm sorry. I just can't talk about my experience in that world in this level of detail. I'm not ready to face it right now, and honestly — you aren't the person I want to talk to about this. I hope you will respect and understand that. I need you to back off."

Sam buried his head in his hands. "Oh god." His voice was muffled. "It's as bad as that?"

She gently laid her hand on his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, Dad. At some point little children grow up and their parents have to let them go. You can't protect me from the world — from the universe — or from other universes — I don't look to you for that anymore. I need you for other things — like support — and love."

"You have that. You always did. But — there's nobody tangible I can go beat into a bloody pulp for hurting my little girl."

"No. You can't attack Clark because it wasn't him. And you can't attack his double — because he is a super-powered alien being who happens to live in a universe apart from this one."

"It makes sense now. Your series of articles about Clark… it all makes sense now. And here we've been supporting him and asking you to stop writing those things… you must have felt so betrayed — all along having good reason to feel the way you felt, and having your own family support —"

"I won't deny that I've felt hurt and betrayed by it all, but I can see now that you couldn't possibly understand why I was doing what I was doing without knowing what I'd been through. For what it's worth, I've stopped writing about it for now —because I've lost faith in my own initiative. I've also taken a job with the Daily Planet… my brief stint with LNN is at an end."

"I can't even tell you how happy that makes me. You belong at the Planet. And Luthor gives me the creeps. I don't like the way he looks."

"Dad! You can't judge a man by his looks."

"No — the way he looks out of those eyes of his. He's oily, and he's always hiding something."

"How come I'm the only one who didn't see that?"

"Didn't you?"

"Okay. I guess maybe I did. I just didn't want to admit it."

"Listen — as long as we're being honest with each other, I have something that I need to tell you too."

"Uh-oh. Please don't let this be about you and mom."

"No. Lois. Please. This is serious. Deadly serious. But it has to stay off the record. I only know about this because of my level of clearance. I'm telling you this because — because we may not have a lot of time ahead of us, and I want to make sure we make the most of what time we have left."

"My god. Dad? Are you sick? Are you dying? What -?" Lois stared at her father, aghast.

He shut his eyes briefly and shook his head. "If only it were that simple. Lois. It's possible that the world might be about to end real soon."

"Say what?"

"There's an asteroid — a rather large one — heading straight at the earth."

Sam regarded Lois carefully after he had dropped his bombshell. He watched, amused, despite the gravity of the nature, because a whole array of emotions played over her face. The expression that finally settled into her features was one of utter confusion. Narrowing her eyes, she stared at him as if he had just grown another head. Expectantly, he waited for her verbal response.

"You're kidding. This is some kind of practical joke."

"You know me better than that. I am not prone to practical jokes, Lois."

"But… this is just too crazy. Too science fictiony. Come on! It's a 1970's disaster movie, for Pete's sake!"

"They're calling it Nightfall. Nightfall is over seventeen miles across and is traveling nearly thirty thousand miles per hour. There's probably a week before this thing will collide with Earth, and it's going to cause some major devastation. The human race could be facing its own end."

"Are they sure? The entire human race? Gone? It's just an asteroid — we should be able to recover — at least partly… it can't wipe out the whole planet at once!"

"Well — Nightfall could change the Earth's orbit, knock it off its axis — and then there's the whole dust cloud issue. Nightfall could cause another ice age. Yes — it's possible that humanity could survive — but we are talking a very remote possibility. Will there be life on earth? Maybe — but it won't be us."

She sat there staring at him with her mouth agape. This was too much to process.

<<No! The world can't end!! I was just getting my life back!>>

"There has to be a way! We have to try! Missiles! Unmanned space shuttles set on an interception course! Anything!"

"Yes. Well — of course — EPRAD has a plan A. And a plan B, in case plan A doesn't work."

"Well! Don't keep me in suspense here!"

"Remember, honey, this is all still off the record."

"I know — I know — just spill already. Daddy — is there a chance? Superman — can he help?"

"He's plan A."

"Oh. So plan B —"

"A rocket carrying nuclear missiles. But due to fuel constraints, they will have to wait until the asteroid is very close to the Earth to try that."

"Won't that pollute the Earth's atmosphere with nuclear fallout? And even if the rocket does fire successfully and break apart the asteroid — won't the pieces still hit Earth? What kind of damage will that do? What if the rocket misses its target? Guidance systems are only as good as the humans who program and design them."

"Well — yes. That's why this is plan B. Plan A involves Superman going into space and basically moving the asteroid so that it won't impact with the earth. It's possible he might have to smash it into pieces — but he can then move the pieces. Sounds insane, but it's the best chance that we have. Hell, we're lucky to even have that chance. A decade or two ago — I shudder to think."

"Has he ever done anything like this before?" Lois was stunned. Was he that powerful? It seemed impossible that even someone who could do all the things that she had seen Kryptonians do could actually move asteroids and planets out of their orbits. "Can he survive in space like that? Has he tried it before?"

Sam took a deep breath. "You know, Lois — when I talked to him about this… he actually asked me if I was planning on talking to you — about… where you'd really been. I told him that I was, and then he asked me to ask you if you thought he could do it. At the time, I thought it was a very strange question — and he seemed really uncomfortable about asking it. He emphasized that if you didn't want to answer it, he totally understood — but under the circumstances, any information would be helpful. It's funny — I couldn't even begin to understand why you might have any information that he could use. I know you've done your research into the guy — but anything you would know he would also know. It wasn't until you told me the truth that it dawned on me. You are the only one who has experience with other Kryptonians. I'm sorry," he stopped short as she flinched. "I'm sorry. I don't — the last thing I ever want to do is remind you of bad times or cause you any unnecessary pain."

"It's really okay. Look — dad — I obviously want to help in any way I can. I don't have much to add. I don't know whether a Kryptonian could do something like this — survive in space or actually successfully move a large celestial object. I've never seen them do anything even remotely like that. I never saw any limits to their power — but never really saw them test it on large objects… like an asteroid. Mostly they used their powers to subjugate humans — and that didn't require much of an effort at all." Her face twisted in distaste as she remembered just exactly how they had used their powers.

Sam listened in silence. It was obvious talking about this was causing her pain, and he was afraid to provoke any more pain by asking questions.

<<Lois. What did they do to you?>>

The query burned in his mind — he would forever be haunted — wanting to know what had happened to her specifically — but he couldn't bring himself to ask her. Not yet. Not while it was so raw and painful.

"Okay. Okay, Lois. Thank you."

"I'm sorry. Please — please tell Clark — that … I'm sorry."

<<For what? For not having any answers? For tormenting him? For slandering him? For making his life hell? For not loving him?>>

Her mind twisted uneasily away from that last thought.

Sam read the depth of meaning and confusion in her words and demeanor. After a brief silence, he nodded.

"I will."

"When is he going?"

"As soon as he can. The scientists are fitting him with breathing apparatus and gear to help him stay in touch with us."

"Is he going to take any missiles with him?"

"No. Too risky."

"Well — wouldn't missiles have a greater chance of success than him colliding with the thing? Is he worried about becoming radioactive?"

"I'm sure he's worried about a lot of things from a personal harm point of view. The man has offered to fly out into outer space and stop an asteroid. That has to be a scary proposition. But you're thinking that maybe if he hurled missiles at the thing, he would have better success — I don't know. The scientists still think that the asteroid is close enough that the nuclear fallout would be an issue. They have determined that if he were to hit it, it would be at about a 50 megaton force — which they think is enough to break this thing apart without the missiles."

<<That's a lot of force>> She shuddered suddenly at the image.

"But — what will happen to him?"

"God only knows. And you know where I stand on that issue." Sam had always been an affirmed agnostic.

Lois nodded grimly. "This plan sounds borderline crazy."

"It's the best one we have right now, Lois. It's really our best shot."

She exhaled forcefully as she shook her head. "I just can't believe this."

"You know — the family should be together — you know — if something happens. I guess what I'm saying is — if I have to face the end of the world, I'd like my last moments to be with the people I love with me."

"Daddy. I — we still have a chance. Remember? Superman will do his best, and so far that's worked out really well. So let's not think about that right now."

"Just… promise me — if you can — be with us … if the worst comes to pass. Okay?"

"Okay."

"I know — you're a solitary person — and you like to face your demons alone. But — please — for my sake?"

"Daddy. If this thing collides with the Earth, I promise to be with you, Mom and Lucy. I promise — I'll make my best effort."

His face cleared, and she could see how tense he had been at the prospect of her facing this alone.

"Am I that distant?" she asked in a small voice.

"Well-"

"Okay. Don't answer that. I'll — I'll try Dad. If we — survive this — I will try harder. You've been trying really hard, I guess it's the least I can do — to meet you halfway?"

"Thanks, Lois."

Later that afternoon, Lois was wolfing down a home-made chocolate sundae. If the world was going to end the calories wouldn't make much of a difference — might as well go out happy. Or as close to happy as she was likely to get. Which these days, wasn't all that much.

<<Stop your whining. You had a better life than most people get. At least… until… >>

Her reverie was interrupted by the doorbell. She got up to answer it — and was so distracted by all she had been told that she didn't look to see who it was before opening the door. As soon as she caught sight of her visitor, she wanted to slam the door back in his face — but her sense of manners refused to allow it.

"Lois Lane. I thought I'd never see you again."

"Lex. What brings you here?"

"Lois — you've been avoiding me."

"Yes."

<<Like the plague, you idiot, and yet you still won't get the hint.>>

"I know I behaved very badly and I've come to apologize. Won't you grant me even the littlest bit of the benefit of the doubt?" His smile was intended to be disarming, but all she could think in her mind was one word: Predator.

"Okay. You've apologized. Apology accepted. Now you can go on with a clear conscience."

"Lois — I was hoping for more than that."

Holding in her fear — a fear she had felt as soon as she had seen him standing there in her doorway, she affected an air of boredom. "What is it, Lex?"

"Lois — I have some news — news which you won't believe — but it — it dramatically changes things — and -"

Guessing that he knew about nightfall, she decided to steal his thunder.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with an asteroid, would it?"

If Luthor was surprised or disappointed by her knowing the news, he didn't show it. He was far too effective an actor for that. "So you know. You know — if the world is going to end, there really is no need to be enemies."

"We aren't enemies. We just aren't friends either."

"I'd like that to change."

"Then — you shouldn't have -"

"I know. I know. I've apologized — and I've been trying to apologize for a long time. You just don't want to hear it."

"I just don't believe it. Your behavior was very -"

"I know. Way over the line. I'm sorry, Lois. I was desperate, I guess — desperate because I knew I didn't stand a chance. I'm asking you to give me an hour or two of your time — and come and see … my alternative plan to dying a horrible and ugly death."

"I'm not going anywhere with you, Lex."

"You can come in your own car. I promise — I won't try to detain you — I won't lay a hand on you."

"You realize if you do, I can just call for Superman to come help me."

"And he'll be there. Red, blue, yellow — the shining hero. I don't really understand why — you've been maligning him left and right — and yet he still seems to be at your beck and call."

"He's hardly at my beck and call."

<<Could he be right? Is Clark at my beck and call? Does Clark have feelings for me? I can't even begin to think about that possibility. Not now. Not ever. Should I go with Lex? What if this is a trap?>>

"If I didn't know better, I'd say the boy was in love with you," he said carefully gauging her reaction.

She shook her head violently. "He's not in love with me. We don't even know each other. Please, Lex. Let's not talk about this — I'm just telling you that I would have no compunction for calling the man for help, and I believe he'd respond. So don't try anything, okay?"

"Does that mean you're going to come with me?"

"In my car. Yes. I'll come see what you have to show me. I'm sure it's newsworthy."

Thirty minutes later, Lois got out of her car and walked over to where Lex was standing near his car."

"Now, I'm afraid you'll have to trust me just a little — but remember -you can always invoke your 'get out of Lex's presence card', and freedom will be yours."

Lois flinched at his words.

<<Freedom. Yes. Freedom is mine, and I won't give it up again. Not to you, not to anyone!>>

"Where are we going?"

"Just — follow me," Luthor said with an enigmatic smile.

She followed him into a building and they boarded an elevator. Several of Luthor's people came on with her, and that made her feel more comfortable. The more people, the better. Especially female people. After a seeming-eternity, the elevator stopped. Lois and Lex stepped out, leaving his entourage behind.

"Aren't they…"

"I had them come along to make you feel more at ease. I figured you wouldn't want to be alone with me in an elevator. I understand I have to work at regaining your trust. But I want to show you this in private. Don't worry — Superman can still hear you down here." His voice was slightly mocking.

"Where are we?"

"We are in my ark! We are 500 meters below street level. The ark is walled with sixteen inch reinforced concrete and can accommodate over 200 people. It's stocked with enough supplies to sustain all the 'passengers' for over three years. In addition, it has agricultural and manufacturing capabilities which will enable us to stay on the arc for a longer period of times."

With furrowed brows, she turned to him, forgetting her antagonism and fear for a brief moment. "This is just stupendous. I can't even believe it- but I guess — it makes sense that with your resources you would have concocted a plan B for yourself… did you invite me here to write about this? If so — thank you! Even if the world ends — this will make one heck of a story!"

"Lois — I'm surprised at you. What point would there be in publicizing this to the world. Wouldn't it just be a case of my rubbing my good fortune in the face of everyone else's misery? That would be so cruel — don't you think?"

"Then why am I here?" Her suspicion and fear returned with a vengeance as an idea began to take form in her mind.

<<Oh god, no. He couldn't..>>.

"I'm offering you a place — a place amongst the few, the elite, the remnants of what was once a noble race. The forebearers of a new and more glorious human race."

<<Oh god. He could.>>

"Lex… I don't know what to say to that."

"You would have your privacy. See — this is the place I had in mind for you." He opened a door with a flourish and watched her carefully as she beheld an exact copy of her own apartment, down to the finest detail.

"You… you -"

"I know — this is very presumptuous. But — Lois — you are on of the human races finest members, and it would be a huge shame for you to be lost in all this mess. I thought it would be easier for you to live like this if you had a home that… was — was home."

"How — how did you… okay — first — why me? I don't even like you all that much — why would you want me to be one of the only 200 humans left?"

"Well… I like you. A lot. I know — that makes you uncomfortable… but I'm hoping in time you'll change your mind. Maybe I'm just an acquired taste — maybe over time, you might … feel something similar for me."

She worked very hard at keeping her disgusted reaction from displaying on her features. "You're hoping I'll… be some kind of companion?"

"At my side — Eve to my Adam. But — but of course, only if you want it," he added hastily, astutely picking up her reaction.

"That's…"

"Look — just think about it. Obviously you don't have a lot of time to deliberate on this decision, but -"

"No. Lex. I don't want to lead you on. The answer is — can only be — no. If the world is going to end, I have to be up there to see it. To report it. That's what I do — that's what I am — a reporter. This is the biggest story to ever hit… bigger than Superman."

<<Never mind that you're a disturbed and sick jerk for doing this. Were you in my apartment? How did you ever duplicate it like this without having spent a great deal of time in there? You did bug my place, and you probably have been there without my knowledge and consent. You lousy stinking creep. Violating my space like that, now I'll have to move. I can't live there anymore knowing you've been in there like this. >>

"Please… please give it more thought."

"No. I said — No." Her voice rose in irritation, and he detected the edge. Wisely he retreated.

"Well then — I'm sorry. Sorry that you won't be there at humanity's rebirth."

"I think Superman will stop this thing," she said with false confidence.

"I wouldn't give him more than a thirty percent chance."

"How could you possibly even know — the fact that nothing on Earth has ever proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to the man should tell you something about his abilities. He's flown through tornados unscathed. I think he can do it."

Luthor smiled. "With such delightful support, how can he fail?"

<<Bite me, Luthor.>>

"Let's go back up, Lex. This place makes me feel claustrophobic."

Later that day, Lois sat alone in her apartment.

<<This place reminds me of Lex. I shouldn't be here.>>

She was once again digging deep into a carton of double-chocolate fudge ice cream.

<<If the world doesn't end. I'm in deep trouble. I'm going to have to hit the gym double-time.?>>

In reality, Lois knew that she was more than a little under- weight from her experiences in that other world. A few thousand calories wouldn't do her any damage at this point. Lois had bigger things to worry about. Luthor had an unhealthy fixation for her, and if the world didn't end, she was going to have to deal with that. The fact that he had been in her apartment and studied it to the level of detail where he had replicated it so perfectly gave her an immeasurable sense of menace. Did he have all her clothes duplicated? Down to her underwear? How often had he, or his minions, been in her apartment? How did he get it so right? And how could he not see how twisted and disturbed his actions were?

How long had he known about this threat to the Earth, that he was able to get that bunker put together? Had he already had the bunker in place, complete with her apartment-replica even before knowing about the threat? Had he planned to abduct her and force her to live with him there even before? Did he have anything to do with the current threat? Could he have somehow managed, with his vast resources, to cause some kind of explosion in outer space that would put this asteroid on a direct trajectory to earth?

<<Oh great. So now I'm transferring all my conspiracy/threat theories to Lex. Why do I have to do this? Why can't I just let it all rest? Come on inner voice. Tell me that I'm crazy. Tell me that I have nothing to fear from Lex Luthor.>>

Her inner voice was disturbingly silent.

<<Fine. Fail me now, in my hour of greatest need. How come you've been chattering away at me when I was investigating Clark… but now you won't even lie to me — give me some modicum of reassurance about Lex?>>

She waited, listening deep within her — but still… silence.

<<Well — maybe the world will end, and I won't have to worry about him. There's some small comfort. Maybe Clark will fail.>>

At that thought, she began to turn her thoughts towards Clark and his seemingly suicidal mission. He was going to hurtle himself towards an asteroid in hopes of altering its trajectory or reducing it to a smaller pile of rubble that would do no harm.

<<That's lunacy. The man is a lunatic. He's insane if he thinks that he can do this and survive. I guess — maybe he isn't really crazy. Just desperate. Aren't we all? Desperately hoping that the Earth survives. That he succeeds? Does he think he'll survive this, or is he resigned to dying in the attempt? How does that feel — to embark on a mission like this — knowing full well that it will hurt? That it will hurt badly. And that it will end. Once and for all — it will end — for him. How would it feel to encounter a huge burning fireball in space, and then hurtle towards it with all your speed and might? Could I rush into a burning building even? Men and women do it all the time. Animals even do — to save loved ones… but to do it out there — in the cold and empty spaces of the universe? Terrifying. Terrifying and lonely. How can he even think of doing that?>>

Grimly she stood up and threw the carton of ice cream back into the freezer. Suddenly she had lost her appetite. The idea that he was going to do this thing left her feeling very depressed and unsettled. She had a lot of unresolved guilt over her treatment of the man. She knew that she had started out her investigations with the best of intentions. She truly had believed in her agenda. But over time, she had lost faith in what she was doing — and yet — she continued to do it for a while longer.

She continued because of the momentum and because of another more sinister reason: a burning desire to get some revenge for what Kal-El had done. She wanted to hurt him — hurt him because of the way she had been hurt. She was angry, and he bore the brunt of it. Her whipping boy. But eventually even these feelings had died down. Yes, she hated Kal-El with all her being, and if she could she would tear him apart — willingly — without any remorse or hesitation. But she couldn't deliberately hurt this other. This gentle doppelganger who seemingly was the exact opposite of the man she had hated and feared for so long. Never in her time back in this world had he ever hurt or threatened her in any way. He had never hurt anyone else either. His entire purpose seemed to be to offer help where he could. Even prior to becoming a superhero, he had exhibited these characteristics throughout his youth and early career. She could no longer stomach what she had done, and that's why she had finally laid her article series to rest.

A niggling voice inside her told her that she owed the man an apology — that the noble thing for her to do was to go see him before he hurtled himself outward into the embrace of almost certain death — and tell him that she was sorry. Not for his forgiveness, that she didn't need — but to alleviate some portion of the pain he must have felt at her attack. She knew that he had feelings for her doppelganger, and so it must have been painful to have her turn on him like that. Perhaps if she went and told him that she was sorry, it would give him some peace of mind. He could at least die without having that on his mind. But even as she thought about these things, she knew she would never be able to do that. He would have to go into the unknown without her benediction.

The sound of her cell-phone ringing disrupted her thoughts. After a few minutes spent on the phone, she gathered her things to leave for the press conference that she had been directed to cover. The asteroid would be made public.

The press conference had gone as expected. The politicians (Perry, et. al), the military and the scientists all stood together grimly and delivered the devastating news. Reactions of the public were also as expected — shock, disbelief, despair.

At the end of the conference, the crowd stood soberly — observing an unintended moment of silence. Such a silence was very uncharacteristic for the media, but uncharacteristic was a word that would also describe the news. There might be a morning edition on the next day, or a late night edition on this day… but soon — the printing presses would grind to a final halt. Even if any part of humanity's toil survived the fiery impact, these machines of human industry would merely serve as tools for future visitors and inhabitants to try to piece together the way we live now. It was a vastly sobering thought.

"And now," said Perry, breaking the awkward silence, which in fact had only spanned about 20-30 seconds, "I'm turning over the floor to Superman. Everybody — please welcome Clark Kent."

Clark moved his way through the crowd of politicians, military folk and scientists, and for the first time, she realized he had been there all along. He was dressed as Clark — and blended into the crowd just like any other man would. But here, in front of them all, all eyes turned to him — rapt with hope and desperation. Clark was the only one standing between them and annihilation.

"As you have all been briefed — I am going to go try to stop this asteroid. I wanted to reassure you all that I will give it my best effort and I won't come back until the job is done."

"Clark — Clark!"

"Yes?"

"Leyna Lovely — High Happenings."

"Yes. Ms Lovely?" Clark beamed a high-wattage smile at her that would have possibly raised the eyebrows of any on looking gossip columnists. What they didn't know was that Leyna and Clark were good friends — from even before his exposure as Superman. His smile was meant to be both approachable and to signal a 'hello' to an old friend. The gossip columnist would however have just seen that a very eligible and handsome superhero had given a very beautiful and eligible female reporter a smile that most women would kill for.

Lois seethed. Leyna had been a long-time rival of hers. In addition to being an excellent reporter, she was also intensely beautiful and came from a very wealthy family with powerful connections. The fact that the fates had decreed that she would be born with a surname that in her case was also an apt description just added to Lois's pique. But why was she feeling anger? What difference did it make to her if Clark and Leyna were an item?

<<Just look at her. Dripping with superficial ooze. Stupid little … damsel in distress. Oh please! Lay your cape across a puddle! Don't want to get my Via Spaga shoes all dirty. And look at him. Eating it up. Why doesn't she tell him what big muscles he has? Why do I care? This is ludicrous. I don't want him — why can't she have him?>>

Lois then cursed herself for the fact that despite the gravity of the fact that an asteroid was hurtling, practically unstoppable, towards her only home, she was obsessing over something this banal.

<<Good lord, I'm messed up. I'm a mess. The world is coming to an end, and all I can do is be jealous… no — wait! I'm not jealous! How could I ever be jealous? Ok. I admit that I've always envied her… she has it all. But my life isn't so shabby — or at least, it wasn't. I'm not awfully hard on the eyes either, and although I don't come from wealth, I have a fantastic family. So what is it? Why do I feel this way? Am I transferring my feelings about the asteroid? Do I need something stupid to focus on so I don't need to face the greater peril at hand? Or what? I don't want him — I can't — how could I. He's just like Kal-El. Physically at least… even on the odd chance that I ever want to be intimate with a man… and I can't even contemplate that ever happening after… no — not that. I can't go there. I won't let those thoughts in. He looks just like Kal-El. He's built just like Kal-El. He has Kal-El's power. He would literally be the last man in this universe that I could ever be with. So why? Why do I feel this way? Is… it that I know he and I are together in a world so much like this one? What if … what if he's the one? My one and only. My soul mate. If… if the world doesn't get destroyed and he ends up with someone else… and he and I were intended to be together… where does that leave me? Out for the count for this lifetime? What the hell am I talking about? I don't believe in soul mates. I'm not sure I believe in souls. I certainly don't believe in reincarnation or predestination.>>

Lois took in a deep and frustrated breath, loud enough that it turned several curious eyes upon her. One set belonging to Clark.

Clark quickly turned away as soon as he made eye contact with her because he knew he made her nervous. But why was she so agitated by this particular exchange? She had made that sound as soon as he smiled at Leyna. Could she be jealous?

<<In your dreams, boy. She isn't remotely interested in me … she's just probably upset about the whole asteroid thing. Yea — who wouldn't be? Better focus on Leyna's question.>>

"When are you going out to stop this thing?"

"Within the hour." His voice and expression were grim.

This drew a collective gasp of shock from the crowd.

Lois stood staring at him with a stricken expression on her face.

<<Oh god. Within the hour? He's standing there, all calm and collected, and he's about to go meet his doom within the hour. 60 minutes. 3600 seconds. How can he be so calm about it? And the rest of us? We'll know our fate soon enough. >>

Remembering her duty, she summoned up her courage and called out to him.

"Superman. Lois Lane — Daily Planet."

"Yes, Ms Lane?" He smiled, but it wasn't the same smile he had given to Leyna.

<<Stop it, already, Lois.>>

She mentally scolded herself and then asked him: "Are you ready for this? Aren't you taking any gear with you? Air to breathe? A communication system? And — have you done any kind of physical preparation for the rigors ahead?"

"Yes. I will be taking about six hours worth of air with me, and gear which will enable me to keep contact with the folks here — or hopefully keep contact. But as far as preparation — there really isn't a lot of time. My best bet is to get this thing before it gets any closer. We're worried that if it gets too close, the pieces that come apart as a result of my efforts may collide with Earth before I can stop them. I don't want any part of this asteroid connecting with Earth."

"Do you think you'll be successful?"

"I have to be. There's no other choice." His eyes seemed to bore right into her soul as he said these words.

She looked back at him. For the first time, not afraid of the extended eye contact. Her expression, unbeknownst to her transmitted a wealth of regret and meaning his way.

<<I'm sorry. So sorry.>>

In her imagination, she felt that he heard her. Maybe he did — maybe they did broadcast to each other. She heard his reply — imagined or real:

<<I know. I am too.>>

He reluctantly broke off the eye contact and turned to answer other questions.

"Superman — what if you determine that you can't stop this thing… after seeing it? What are your plans then? Are you going to return to Earth? Or…"

<<He wants to know if I'm going to abandon Earth to its fate.>>

"This asteroid is going to stay on its trajectory… over my dead body."

That stopped the press conference cold. Everyone stood and looked at him soberly soaking in the impact of his words. He would give up his own life to save theirs. They had no reason to really think he was just talking big, or even that he was lying. His past heroic efforts had shown them quite clearly that he was willing to go into unknown danger no matter what the cause. He took this opportunity to end the press conference.

"I think our time is up now. You all have stories to report, and I have to get ready to go fly out and stop Nightfall. I believe wholeheartedly that I can stop this thing, and I want to thank you for all the support you've given me — both on this issue and on every other. It has never ceased to amaze me how wonderfully accepting the human race was towards me after it became known that I was from another planet. You should all be proud of that — I don't know that my own species would have been that open minded."

Lois heard these words with a stab of guilt.

<<Right. Everyone accepted you until I came along>>

Her discussions with Perry, and her observations of things around her had shown her how effective her article series was. She had succeeded in raising a significant amount of paranoia about the man of steel's true purposes, and she was sure he had felt the effects.

The interview now over, Leyna walked purposefully over to Clark with a mischievous smile on her face. The crowd of reporters didn't intrude on the tête-à-têtes, bound by some obscure rules of the trade and by the desire to afford the Man of Steel some last moments of rare privacy. Lois witnessed it with a sour feeling in her stomach.

<<What is she up to? Are they having an affair? How come I didn't unearth anything about that when I was investigating him? Anyway, I thought I heard that she was gay. >>

"Clark, do you have just a few seconds to spare?"

"Just a few. Time isn't exactly on our side. But sure — what's up?"

"I just wanted to say 'Good Luck'." She smiled, touching his arm suggestively.

"Leyna, what exactly are you up to?" Clark was amused by her attentions. "Last I remember, you weren't exactly interested in men."

"Well, last I remember, you aren't exactly a man," she said, smiling winsomely up at him. She had stepped in very close, making it seem to any outside observer that she was very close to giving him a good luck kiss.

He raised his eyebrows at her in amusement. "Excuse me?"

"You're a superman, darling. That's intriguing enough to make a girl switch camps for a night."

"Are you hitting on me?" He smiled at her, knowing full well that she wasn't. "Because you know — your timing is awfully bad. And I thought you were in a committed and happy relationship."

"I am," she said lightly. "I just wanted to yank Lois Lane's chain."

"What?"

"She makes me so mad! Ever since she resurfaced, she has made it her business to bring you down. It just infuriates me the way she's treated you. And then, what's worse is — now she's acting like none of it ever happened. What's up with that? I saw her reaction to me when I asked my question — she put on that sour- faced expression that she's so good at. I figured maybe she was nursing some kind of unrequited thing for you — and that's why she went on the warpath. In any case — it seems to be working — she's trying to act like she doesn't care that we're talking — but clearly — it's bothering her."

"Leyna. Please leave her alone. Promise me — you'll leave her alone. She isn't in your league — not anymore."

"What do you mean by that?"

"She's had a rough time of it lately. I can't talk about it, but she has good reason to fear and distrust powerful people. I never did anything to her, in case you were wondering… but her feelings towards me aren't all that strange, if you knew her history. She's not trying to win a Pulitzer or a Kerth — she wrote her articles because she believed that the Earth was in danger… from me. I think she feels differently now."

"Well, she'd BETTER. You're about to risk your life for the Earth. That should count for something."

"I'm not doing it to get gratitude — not from her -not from you — not from anyone. This thing is heading towards my home. It isn't even a heroic gesture, if you think about it. I'm desperate. I want to live. I want a home. I've already had one planet go and blow up right under my feet… or nearly so… and I don't want to have it happen again."

"Why do you do that? Downplay your heroism?"

"Because in this case it isn't heroism. It's sheer selfish survival."

"With a dash of nobility thrown in. Don't argue it, we all know what kind of a man you are. Well — everybody except for Lois Lane."

"Please. For me. I'm asking. Leave her alone — please?"

"How can I resist when the most powerful man in the world begs. I guess I owe you one or two favors. So okay. I'll lay off. But someday I want to know what happened to her."

"That isn't my story to tell. Just give her a break. She really deserves one."

"Well, I think she's really feeling jealous about our conversation here."

"She's not jealous. Trust me. Lois Lane has no romantic aspirations where I'm concerned. None. Zero. Nada."

"You sound… kind of sad when you say that. Do you have feelings for her?"

"I said I only had a few seconds. I have to go now, this thing isn't going to go away on its own."

"And so the answer is a big resounding yes. All right, Clark — good luck. I mean it. I mean obviously I do — but — don't get yourself killed, okay? The Earth needs you. We need you." Her voice caught on the last words.

"I won't. I promise. I'll be back." He squeezed her arm gently in a gesture of friendly affection.

Lois watched the interchange with a burning sense of curiosity. There was nothing that she wanted more at this point than to be equipped with super-hearing so she could hear what they said. A few times Leyna had boldly looked directly at her during her conversation with the Man of Steel.

<<They're talking about me. Oh, whatever. Who cares? What difference does it make, the world's going to end anyway.>>

Clark followed the scientists into the building, only to resurface a few minutes later dressed in his more conspicuous togs. He was geared up and ready to go.

"I'll see you all soon!" His voice was cheerful and optimistic, belying the intense feelings of doubt and fear that had plagued him ever since he first learned that he would have to undertake this mission. He stepped away and lifted off into the sky — trying desperately not to let his feelings get the better of him.

<<What am I doing? I'm going to go into outer space and fly into an asteroid. Am I crazy? How do I even know that this is possible? Maybe I'll die before I even get there. How could I leave them with all that hope when I myself feel that this is a no-win situation? I wish… I wish this thing wasn't heading towards Earth. I wish — I had said goodbye to Lois — that she had said goodbye to me. I wish things had been different. >>

As he flew off, Lois stood watching, her eyes cast upward, following his rapidly receding figure.

<<Good luck, Superman. Good luck — and goodbye. I'm sorry — for everything, and I really hope you make it. I really hope you survive this. Good luck! >>

After he had disappeared from view, she felt a sting of tears in her eyes.

<<Why am I crying? Probably because the world's about to end. Yea. That's probably it. It's enough to make anyone cry. But I feel badly for him. He must be so scared — he must feel so alone and so terrified. How could he not feel scared? He's never done anything like this before, he has no reason to think that he will succeed. He might succeed in knocking it off course — but how could he ever survive that? What if he runs out of air? I wish I'd never … but it's too late for that, now. I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. Goodbye, Superman. I hope for your sake that there is an afterlife and it's a better place than this.>>

Later, Lois sat drinking coffee with Lucy in the comfort of Lucy's apartment. She was too nervous to do much else, and she didn't want to spend the rest of her life in an apartment that now reminded her of Lex Luthor.

"So — he had your apartment duplicated? Down to the last detail? What a creep!"

"Yea."

"You don't sound very angry? Come on — this has to have you all upset!"

"It did… it does. But — come on Lucy — the asteroid?"

"It's hard… you know — to believe it — to realize it's real. It's so ridiculous — and — it doesn't look like we're in any danger. It isn't visible yet to the naked eye. I wonder what that will be like. Seeing it there — angry and glowing and huge in the sky. Knowing that it's going to impact and kill us all."

"It isn't going to do that. We aren't ever going to know what that's like!"

"You really think he can do it? Did — did you ever — did anything like this ever —"

"No. No — funny you should ask. Dad asked me too — I guess Clark had asked him if he would."

"Wow. That must have been weird for you."

"Yes — it was. But would have been far worse if he had asked me himself."

"Lois. How did your talk with Daddy go?"

"You know — it went — it went well." Lois answered the question with a smile on her face. "I feel like we connected. I feel like we're closer now than we have been in a long time. And… I guess — if I'm going to meet with fiery death… that's kind of a good thing to have closure on."

"I thought… you said that we weren't going to die."

"Oh — Lucy. I don't know. I just don't know. Can he stop this? How can anybody know? But he has never come up against the limits of his strength and power — not that I've ever seen — here or there — or anywhere. I have to believe he can do this. It seems — well … destined that he would be able to do this."

"Destined? Lois — you aren't suddenly finding religion are you? I mean —"

"No. Wouldn't that be a hypocritical hoot. No. I …I'm not — but that guy Tempus pulled me into that other world so that I couldn't help turn this one into a better place — a peaceful place. If that's supposed to happen — then an asteroid can't destroy humanity. Right?"

"Right, but… what if Tempus was from another universe? He might have just started trying to prevent this utopian world in all the alternate worlds — just out of spite. Right? Or are there an infinite number of tempus doppelgangers too? All evil?"

She sighed heavily. "This is giving me a headache. I just don't know. You know? I just don't know."

"Then why are you so sure? You seem so sure," her tone was wistful.

"Lucy… I just don't want to start thinking in terms of dying until I have a stronger sense of that being probable. He's out there, and he's committed to stopping this thing — and until we know for a fact that he… has failed… then I need to believe he's going to succeed. Otherwise — what's the point in anything? Let's go on a huge shopping spree and eat all the chocolate we can."

"Eat, drink, be merry…"

"Exactly. That's giving up — and I can't… I won't do that."

"Okay. Then neither will I! But, can I ask you something?"

"Sure…" her voice was guarded. Lucy surely wasn't going to start asking her about her experiences in that other world.

"Your perspective on Clark seems to have changed… do you — you don't think he's really dangerous anymore, do you?"

"I think it is inherently dangerous to have a super powered alien living amongst us. But it's more dangerous having a large asteroid hurtling directly at the Earth. I don't think he's… lying to us anymore. I guess I haven't thought that for quite some time — but now — well — this whole thing with Nightfall has sort of forced me to finally admit it to myself… and to others. I think that he is what he appears to be — and if you only knew how hard that was for me to say."

"I know," she said quietly.

"Thanks," she smiled briefly at her, before continuing. "I am admitting that I was wrong — I was wrong on two counts — well — more than two counts. I was wrong about him, wrong about Luthor — but mostly — I was wrong to keep the series alive even after I had doubts. That is the one thing I really feel badly about."

"Oh, Lois — you had good reason to think the way you did —"

"I know — but I was writing against what the facts were showing. I was hurting Clark because I wanted to hurt Kal-El. I still do want to hurt Kal-El — that will never go away — but I don't want to hurt Clark anymore. I guess I see them as two separate people. Finally."

"Do — do you think you two could ever be friends? You know — if he stops the world from ending?"

Lois took a deep sigh, and looked her sister directly in the eyes. "I don't know. I don't think so. He may not be Kal-El — but he will always look just like him. Sometimes — it's in his voice, his mannerisms, his body language — and it horrifies me — I can go from being somewhat at ease to completely terrified in seconds. All it takes is for him to just trigger that. No friendship could be based on that kind of shaky foundation. And if — if you're right —and he had… a thing for her, wouldn't he then transfer some of that to me? What kind of relationship is it where one person occasionally is disgusted and terrified by the other, and the other person occasionally has strong romantic inclinations. It couldn't work. No amount of time or healing could make that work. Not that I can see."

"I guess you're right," Lucy answered sadly, "but remember — there was a time where we all thought that mom and dad could never make it work — get beyond all the anger and the pain that they had caused each other. But they did… and now — they're together, and they are happy together. Especially now that you're back."

"But it took something drastic and awful to make this happen — losing their child. Me. Losing me. Clark and I — we don't have anything in common that could drive us together — in friendship that is. Anything further? Never — not with him, not with any man. Not ever again!" Her voice rose in agitation as she finished her sentence.

"I know. I can understand that. And — for what it's worth, I don't think Clark ever thinks anything like that is possible."

"God, no — he doesn't. But Lex sure does. Between Lex and I — and that's far more disturbing than even contemplating a … relationship … with Clark." She shuddered involuntarily. "If ever there was a Kal-El-like person in this world, it would have to be Lex."

"Clark won't let Lex hurt you," Lucy said emphatically.

"You know — I think you're right. Hey. What do you know about Leyna Lovely?"

"Um. What… what do you mean?"

"Is she having an affair with Clark? Or did she? Is there anything between them?"

"Lois —she's gay. That's pretty well known."

"I know that, but maybe she's bisexual?"

"Why do you ask?"

"They were flirting at the press conference," she said rather sourly.

"Flirting? That seems way out of character for Clark."

"Well — mostly she was flirting. He was just being himself ."

"Oh. Well — I don't think so — I don't… I really doubt it. I think they are old friends — colleagues, you know. But — I don't think he thinks of her like that. I've never heard anything or seen them on the cover of the tabloids."

"Oh."

"Why? Does it… matter to you?"

"It shouldn't!"

"But it does?"

"Kind of." Her voice was small, and she couldn't meet Lucy's gaze with her own.

"But you just said —"

"I know — I know what I said, I know what I feel — but still — I don't want her to have him. Is that crazy, or what? She and I have been … rivals — for a long time — and it would seem like she had… somehow… trumped me in some way. You know? I know it's crazy."

"It's human, Lois."

"I know I can't have him — I don't want him — I know I don't — it would be ludicrous for me to want to be with him — or any man for that matter — but especially him — but why does it bother me so much — the idea that — those two together?"

"Because — deep down, maybe — you know that if Tempus hadn't taken you away — you and he might have been together in the end."

"Damn you for being so perceptive."

"Lois, you've never been dog-in-the-mangerly. I know you feel a rivalry towards her, and seeing her hook up with the world's most eligible bachelor would afford her an enviable amount of fame and glamour. But your rivalry towards her has for the most part been limited to the professional realm. I don't believe you would begrudge her or anyone else due happiness. I really think that it's about some part of you knowing that he's… yours."

"He isn't mine. And I certainly am not his. I will never belong to anyone else. I belong only to myself!"

"I didn't mean it that way. Not anything like that"

"No. I know — but -" the ringing of her phone interrupted her. "Lane here. What? Okay. Is there a possibility that his communications gear was damaged? <Long Pause> Okay. Okay. Thanks. I'm on it."

Lois put down her phone and sat glumly in silence for a long while.

"Lois?"

Lois looked at her with haunted eyes. Her voice was hoarse and thick with emotion when she finally did answer.

"Lucy. They've lost contact with Clark. The scientists say that Nightfall has been impacted and is much smaller now. A smaller chunk is headed at Earth, the rest will miss us by quite a wide margin. But Clark… Clark is missing, and feared to be dead."

Stunned, Lucy stared at her sister, her mouth agape

"How can that be? It can't be! There must be some mistake — there… are they sure?"

"I don't know. Lucy — I have to go — go and find out the truth. I can't even begin to speculate on what really is going on. I have to go, Lucy. Are you going to be all right?" Lois spoke urgently.

"I — yes! Of course — go — go and do what needs to be done. Get the news — get the truth. But … Lois?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Tell me first. Okay? Don't let me find out the hard way. I don't want to hear it on the news or read it in the paper. Tell me first."

"Yes. Of course." She hugged her shell-shocked sister. "I will tell you — and mom and dad — everything I know before calling in any story. I promise."

"He can't be… can't be dead."

"No. No — he can't be. It… I won't believe it until I see a body — or evidence of a body. Lucy — we have to hang on to hope. We can't let our fear get the better of it. We have to master it, or it will master us. Trust me — I've lived where there was no hope — and found that the only way to stay sane was to refuse to ever give up that last shred of hope."

"Okay — but it's not going to be easy — I mean — come on — the world — the world is at stake here. In a few short days…"

"It might be all over. Yes. That's true — but maybe not. I have to go — I hate to leave you like this — but I need answers."

"Go — go. I'll be okay. Just…"

"You first. I promise."

Lois rushed out the door and headed back to the site of the earlier press conference where another one was due to begin shortly.

Half an hour lately she was in possession of the latest facts as they were known. Superman was missing. The asteroid had been impacted. The very likely scenario was that he had somehow connected with it — either with his entire body — or with a bolt of heat vision or some such other power. He had managed to reduce the size of the object that was in a direct line with Earth, and the other pieces seemed to be on non-intersecting trajectories. But there was still a sizeable amount headed towards earth, and it would soon be close enough to see with the naked eye.

EPRAD was planning to use a rocket to eliminate the rest of the threat, but as they had said before, it was unknown whether or not pieces would still hit the Earth — assuming that the rocket was able to hit the object. They had decided to send the rocket up while the asteroid was at its present location rather than waiting until it got closer to balance out the risk of missing the asteroid with the danger of radiation and of stray pieces landing on populated areas. The rocket would be sent out within 12 hours, as it had already been prepared as a stand-by measure.

Of Superman, there was no good news. He was missing. Pure and simple. He had had plenty of time to get back to Earth, or to regroup and try to pummel the rest of the asteroid into smaller rubble, or to move the remaining chunk out of a path with Earth, and yet, he had yet to do any of these things. He was either dead, badly hurt, flung out so far that it was going to take him a very long time to return, or… or he had abandoned humanity to its fate. But no matter how you looked at it, it seemed very probably that humanity was on its collective own.

<<There's never a Superman around when you need him. Sure, he's around to save a kitten out of a tree, but when there's a big old asteroid heading towards the Earth. Where is he? Nowhere to be found, that's where. No. That's not fair. He obviously did something — and … and in all reality he's either dead or hurt. I don't believe he abandoned Earth, and I think if he had been flung far away, he could return. He travels very fast. He's gone. We can't count on him. I only hope that his end came quickly — without pain. I should go talk to Perry. He's probably feeling very devastated. And how do I feel? Funny — I feel really bad about it. Not so much the asteroid part, although I'm sure that will change after we try the rocket plan. If that fails, I'm sure I'll start to see this as a real threat to my own person. But I feel bad for Clark. He died alone up there. And that had to have been really awful. I hope he knew how many people loved him and how many people will mourn him for whatever time we have left. It's all just so depressing.>>

With a heavy heart, she started making a mental list of things to do. Mostly, she was in stand-by until the rocket was sent out to do its duty. She needed to stick close to the story so she would have to suspend any visits to family and friends until later.

<<It can all wait. It can wait until we know it's the end. Then… then… I just don't know.>>

Perversely, she started thinking about Luthor. What was he thinking about all this? Was he gloating about his Ark? Was he envisioning himself a modern day Noah? Someone who magnanimously would be doing the will of some deity — keeping a select group of humanity alive to be the roots of a whole new race of humans? She shuddered in revulsion.

<<He thought I would be his Eve. God — I'd rather the asteroid struck me full on in the head than ever go live with him in that horrible bunker. Death would be preferable to Luthor.>>

As she thought about Luthor, she realized that now there was nobody out there to protect her from him. Even though she hadn't really trusted Clark for a very long time- she suddenly realized that he had played a very strong role in her not being hurt by Luthor that night he had tried to force her to stay for dinner. Who knows what else he would have tried to force upon her — and who knows whether he would have succeeded. In fact, if Superman hadn't been a factor, would she be a prisoner in Lex's ark? Did she then have cause to worry now? She should definitely keep herself out of solitary situations where she was a potential abducted.

<<But really — with all the havoc and rioting that should start happening, won't we descend into lawlessness? There is nobody out there who could really protect me from someone as powerful as Lex.>>

Even if the Earth did survive — if the rocket hit its target and deflected the threat, they would still be without Superman. Lex would have no obstacles in his way and he would be able to resume his pursuit and harassment of Lois without any fear of impunity. She had a bad feeling that he was holding himself in check because he knew that Superman had taken an interest in protecting her. Now — with nothing staying his hand, what would he do?

The only real solution was to fight back. She would have to fight the only way she knew how. With the power of the pen. That meant that she would have to go dig the dirt on Luthor. Suddenly she realized that there was a wealth of resources at her fingertips. She had only to go and retrieve it.

<<The briefcase. At Clark's apartment!>>

She knew what she had to do — she was going to break into Clark Kent's apartment.

When she arrived at his apartment, she was surprised to find out that she was on the list of people granted access to his apartment.

"Are you sure? Lois Lane… can you double-check?" She wasn't sure why she was contesting this, but it just amazed her that he would have trusted her to have this level of access after all she had said and done.

"Yes —Lois Lane. That's you — so you can go on up. He said especially that if you came when he wasn't here — or if he had… gotten killed… that you were to have access."

"Not Lana Lang. Lois Lane."

"Ma'am. I'm not an idiot. It says Lois Lane. You're Lois Lane. Now do you want access or not?"

"Fine — fine — I'm just surprised."

The look on the guard's face said that he too was surprised, but he kept his professional demeanor and refused to comment on that point. "Do you need an escort or can you find it on your own?"

"Do I need an escort — or am I allowed up there on my own?"

"Clark said to give you complete access if you asked."

"Then… I'm asking."

"Go right ahead up, then."

She took the elevator up to where he lived, and she used the key given to her by the guard to let herself into his apartment. Looking around, she felt a twinge of sadness. His apartment seemed like such an extension of his personality — it was warm and inviting and friendly. She felt a rush of new guilt about how she had treated him since she had been back home. She knew that she had hurt him, and it hurt her to think about this — now that he was gone. There had always been that look in his eyes when she had dared to look at him directly. A look that told her that no matter how strong and physically invulnerable he may have seemed, he was also very vulnerable to being hurt… by her. Seeing the remnants of his life just hit it all home even more for her.

There were pictures —pictures of his parents, pictures of his good friends. It was clear he was very integrated tightly into the lives of others — he was a man who chose to live connected to those around him. That was in contrast to her tendency to try to isolate herself — not wishing to be hurt by rejection, she often chose to not rely on people. Even before her awful experience, trust never came easily for her. He, on the other hand, was an open book with those he trusted. After his alien origins became known, he had to be much more careful about who he could trust — there were so many people out there who wanted to hurt or exploit him — but it was obvious that he had developed some very close ties to people like Perry and Alice White, and the Daily Planet team.

She picked up one picture — a picture of him as a child — standing with his parents — a beautiful smile on his boyish face. He looked so happy — so loved. He was close to the age at which he had lost his parents. A lump grew in her throat as she thought of his youthful innocence — his unawareness that his life was going to change in such a devastatingly sad way. And then she thought of all those pictures she had seen of him after their deaths — the bleak and lost look in his eyes. She ached anew as she thought of the pain he had felt, and then of how she had sought to give him even more pain.

<<He didn't deserve it. He wasn't Kal-El — I had no right.>>

And yet, through her guilt, she knew that in the early days she had felt that what she was doing was right. And she felt that he knew it too — and that he understood, despite the pain it must have caused him.

<<Rest in peace, Clark. I hope so much that you're with your parents — both sets — and that you are at peace.>>

<<Now, I have to focus. I'm here to find that briefcase, and that's what I'm going to do. I think Clark obviously wanted me to find this — to come here — in the case of his death — otherwise, why would he have taken the trouble to give me access to his apartment. Trying to protect me from Lex. Always the hero — I guess — to the very end — and even in death. Well — Clark — help me out! Where did you put it? How can I possibly make use of this information if I can't find it?>>

She went into what appeared to be a den, and started looking through file cabinets. Surely he had hidden it somewhere that wasn't too obvious.

She gingerly exited the den after her search turned up empty, and contemplated the closed door of his bedroom. Steeling herself for the onslaught of terrible memories, her hand closed on the doorknob and started to turn it. She stopped suddenly as she heard the sound of movement within.

<<Oh god — there's someone here!>>

Fearing that Lex had beaten her to the punch, she decided to turn tail and get out of there as fast as she could. She rushed to the door. Before she could escape her arm was captured by a viselike grip. Before she could even think, another hand came firmly up against her mouth muting any sound she might make. She couldn't free herself from the grip and her struggles were useless.

<<Lex! Oh god! It's Lex — he's here — he's — >>

"You aren't going anywhere."

That voice. She knew that voice. It wasn't Lex. It was… it was… Kal-El!

<<No! No — not him! Not now — there's nobody to help me — nobody to save me! Superman! Help! Where are you? I need you now, I need you now! Help! Oh god — there's nobody to help me — nobody — I won't go back! I won't go back there! He'll have to kill me first! I won't go back! How did he get here? Why is he here in Clark's apartment? I won't go back! How can I stop him from taking me back? I can't — oh god, I can't — I can't take it — this just isn't happening! No! I can't go back to that! I can't! If I fight — he might kill me — that's my only chance — oblivion is preferable — I was going to die anyway, so what difference does it really make how? I have to make him kill me. So fight back already. Come on — yell at him. Fight — struggle. Tell him he's a nothing. Make him mad… But… but I don't want to die — and I definitely don't want to die in any way he would choose to kill me. I'd rather die because of Nightfall — not being burned to death by heat vision, or beaten to death. Or… any number of other ways he could think of to kill me. He's not the nothing. I am. I'm just a slave. A nothing. A nobody. A nameless nobody. >>

Stricken with despair, her entire body sagged in defeat, and she gave into the rush of emotion that overtook her. Her cries were that of someone who had lost everything and had nothing left to lose.

<<She's crying? Why is she crying? I understand that I scared her — but she broke into my apartment. At least, I think this is my apartment. It seems that my instincts were right — there are all these pictures with me in them. I don't see any indications that a woman lives here too — and if we both lived here together she wouldn't be so frightened. Was she behind what happened to me? Is she reacting this way because her plan to kill me failed? I should be angry. I should feel threatened, but all I want to do is make her feel better.>>

Fighting back a very strong urge to somehow try to soothe her fears, he removed his hand from her mouth and turned her to face him. Her eyes were screwed tightly shut, and it was clear that her fear and emotion were genuine. She was shaking violently, and her head was bowed. She was acting like someone who clearly expected to be hurt or killed.

"Please… open your eyes," he spoke softly. Despite all his suspicions and misgivings, her behavior was wringing out a painful and protective response in him. He felt oddly drawn to her and driven to protect her — to comfort her — to end her current state of distress.

She stiffened even further.

<<Please? Kal-El never says please. Or did he? Did he ever say please? To taunt me? To torment me by reminding me even further that I never had a choice? What kind of game is he playing? No — no — don't open those eyes. Don't look at him.>>

"I need you to look at me."

That sounded more like a directive. A command. Her heart beating very hard and painfully, she conditioned herself to open her eyes — to cast her gaze on a face that she hated more than anything else in the world. As she thought that, it struck her how she didn't feel that way looking at Clark. It was amazing how a man's personality could so shape his face into something to be feared or something to be admired. Not that she had ever admired his face, but she knew that many women did, and for good reason. He had been a good-looking man with a kindly demeanor. As she thought of Clark, likely spinning dead in space, new tears threatened. He was the only one who could have saved her, and now he was dead. It was hopeless… hopeless.

He sighed in impatience. Maybe this was a game — he didn't know — but it wasn't amusing, and he wasn't getting anywhere. Without even realizing it, he tightened his already painful grip on her arms, causing her to cry out a strangled sound of pain.

"Please," she cried out as she felt the pressure on her arms increase. "Please — I — I'll do what you say — please — don't!"

<<Don't what? Am I hurting her? How can I be hurting her? I'm hardly exerting any pressure at all — just enough to keep her from escaping. Unless I don't know my own strength — but I'm hardly — I'm not even exerting any effort!>>

"Open your eyes." He repeated his request again. Maybe if she looked at him, he would get his memory back — he would know who she was, why she was here and why she — or someone else — had tried to kill him.

Once again. A command. An imperative. Coldly delivered. Her heart pounding hard in her throat, she fought back the waves of terror and nausea and forced her recalcitrant eyes to do as he asked.

<<Comply. I have to comply. Otherwise… he'll hurt me. I have to do this. >>

Very gingerly, she opened her eyes and focused fearfully on the man in front of her. She inhaled sharply as she saw him there — not just there — there and in a complete state of undress.

<<No! Not that! Not that — not ever again!>>

Some fierce and primeval instinct took control of her body and forced her to act. She had to get away from him. Now… Immediately, she started to pull away from him — his grip was too strong for her to escape, but she strained against it with all her might. She strained so hard, she thought her arms would break or that her shoulders would pop out of their sockets. She buckled at the waist, trying to twist down and out of his grasp, and her breath was coming in short and panicked gasps.

"No! No!" It was a frantic cry — all pleading gone. She was acting on pure instinct and adrenaline at this point.

Clark was shocked and stunned by her behavior. What had happened to catapult her to this level of terror? Briefly he looked down and realized with a start that he hadn't had a chance to throw on clothes after the shower he had taken. He had heard the noises she was making and had come out to apprehend the intruder without even giving his nudity a second thought. But she was giving it a second thought. It obviously terrified her. Was it possible — was he the intruder? Did she think he was a rapist? It didn't make sense — all evidence pointed to this being his apartment.

<<Did — did she try to kill me because I hurt her in the past? Am I a bad guy? Why would she come here then? What was she looking for? Do I have something of hers? I need to get some clothes on, and quick! Then — I need some answers.>>

"Look — look — would you calm down?" His voice was quieter and more soothing. But it was to no avail — she didn't even seem to hear him. "I'm not going to hurt you — I'm not going to do anything to you — I just want answers! I — oh — the heck with it!"

In exasperation at his inability to break through her haze of terror, he let go of one of her arms and with his hand still holding her other arm, pulled her towards the direction of his bedroom where his clothes were. He couldn't leave her alone — alone to escape — not before he had some badly needed answers. His actions had the effect of spurring her on into a more furious struggle with him, and she began to beg.

"Just — just kill me! Kill me- I — I won't ever go back there — never again! You'll have to kill me! I won't go back! I won't go through that again — not again — no! Don't do this to me!"

Badly shaken by her behavior, he dragged her into his room and shut the door. He stood there for a few seconds, trying to get his own tumultuous emotions under control all the while, listening to her beg. Right now he was feeling very guilty and also very scared. Something very bad was going on — and he had no idea how he found himself in the middle of it. What had he ever done to this woman here to make her act like this? Or… was it someone else who had hurt her? Had she been badly hurt by another man, and was this bringing it all back for her?

<<But this is my home. I'm not an intruder here — why would she break in to someone's apartment if she wasn't ready to deal with running into that person?>>

He tried to reason with her through her frantic please. "Look — I — it's not what you think — I just need to get some clothes!"

She continued to plead unheedingly… it was as if nothing he said made any difference. Nothing he said could penetrate the thick layers of fear that surrounded her mind. He looked around frantically for some way to keep her from escaping while he threw on clothes, and then he saw the bathroom door. It seemed an ideal location as there were no windows leading outside — she couldn't leave the bathroom without him knowing it. He pulled her towards the bathroom and gently pushed her through the doorway. Then he let go of her arm, and shut the door.

"I'll — I'll just throw on some clothes! Please calm down. I'm not going to hurt you, you have to calm down!" His voice was desperate now — he was working hard to keep himself from having a breakdown.

<<What the hell is going on here? >>

Very quickly he threw on some clothes and then rushed over to the bathroom door and opened it. She was furiously hunting through the drawers, and he watched her, mesmerized by curiosity for a few moments.

"What…what are you looking for?" He asked worriedly.

She whirled around holding a utility blade. She held it up to her throat, and he felt time suddenly stand still.

<<Oh god. She's going to kill herself! But why? Why? What… what is going on with her? Is she on drugs? Did she come here looking for drugs?>>

"Please — please — don't do that!" His voice was frantic and urgent.

"I'll die before I go back!" She screamed at him in fear and rage, her eyes glazed with the combination of fear and bravado. She was trembling violently.

"Go back… where?" He tried to key off of what she was saying to get her to focus on what he was saying.

"Back — there! To your world — to that place — to —"

She stopped talking as she really focused on him for the first time since she had opened her eyes.

<<This isn't him! It's not Kal-El. Why does he look like Clark? Can it be? Can it be Clark? But why — why is he here? Pretending to be dead? I don't get this? Is this Kal-El? Or Clark?>>

For a long, long moment the two stood staring at each other. He could hear her labored breathing slowly ease into a more comfortable cadence, and saw some of the wild-animal fear leave her eyes.

<<That's strange. Even if she thought I was going to rape her — would putting on my clothes really make her suddenly stop thinking that? >>

"Clark?" Her voice was tentative, and very small.

Remembering that he had to get some answers from her, he tried to adopt a more stern demeanor. "What are you doing in my apartment," he asked aggressively.

He needed to maintain the upper hand, even if it meant acting in a menacing fashion. He quickly stifled down his rising sense of guilt as he saw the renewed fear in her eyes.

<<Why is he acting like this? Is this Kal-El? It can't be — this isn't his apartment? Is this a joke? A nightmare? The twilight zone? Oh god — what if this is another universe — different even from the other two.>>

Cursing himself silently, he grasped her shoulders once again, forcing himself to ignore her frightened gasp and her instinctive shrinking-away. At least he hoped it was fear and not pain. His grip wasn't very tight — so he surely wasn't hurting her.

"Answer the question!" He shook her briefly, using as little force as possible, but it had the effect of making her cry out again.

"You're — hurting me — please… please let go!" She was gambling furiously that this wasn't Kal-El. Kal-El would have struck her now for daring to presume to tell him what to do.

"I need answers. You're in my apartment — you're clearly an intruder — I'm not letting you go until you answer my questions. What are you doing here?" His voice was cold and angry.

"I — you really — you're really hurting me… you're going to break my arms — please!"

"I'm hardly holding you at all," he scoffed at her attempt at gaining sympathy. "I'm not playing your game, Miss — I don't know what you're doing here, but I'm going to find out. And until I do — you aren't going anywhere."

Despite his words, he loosened his hold until he saw the look of pain ease from her face. Maybe he had hurt her — maybe she was just overly frail or sensitive.

"I won't…" her voice trailed off.

<<Miss? Did he call me 'Miss'?>>

"Don't you know… who I am?"

"I want to know why you're here. You still haven't answered that."

<<Damn it! I slipped up! She knows now — or at least -suspects — that something's wrong with me.>>

"I — I came for the briefcase," she said warily.

<<Please let me go, please let me go, please let me go! I can't stand being touched — please let me go!>>

"And you decided to break in? Wait until you thought nobody was here?"

"No! I — I — I didn't expect to find you here -but — the guard said that I was on the list — that it was okay to come up here — he gave me the key. I didn't break in!"

<<Although, that was my original intent! But please let me go!>>

He looked at her in confusion, his brows knitted together as he tried to extract a single iota of sense out of her words. From the sounds of it, it seemed as if she was here with his permission. Then why was she acting all terrified? It didn't add up. If they were friends or allies of some sort, wouldn't she have been relieved that the man who grabbed her turned out to be him?

"I don't believe you. Try again." He watched her carefully to see if her physical response to his statement would reveal if she were really lying.

She stared at him for a long while. The truth of the situation slowly dawning.

"You don't know who I am," she whispered in shock. "You probably don't even know who you are."

He looked away for a moment, torn. And then he turned back, resigned now to telling her everything.

"Okay. You're right. I don't. I don't know who you are. All I know is that someone tried to kill me — and then I get to the place that I think is my home — that all the evidence points to as being my home — and there's an intruder that comes into my home. A woman who doesn't live here, and from the looks of it, isn't exactly too thrilled to have found me at home. I'm pretty sure that you aren't my girlfriend or my wife by your reactions."

She shook her head violently. "No. Not that. But not your enemy either! Please — you can let me go. I won't … I won't run away. Please." Her voice was intense, and she forced herself to look him right in the eye.

<<Please let me go. I can't bear it — I can't stand it — it's bringing it all back — the pain, the fear, the horror — I can't — I can't cope with it! Please just let me go!>>

They locked gazes for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, he let out an exasperated exhalation and released her. "I have pretty fast reflexes. I'm pretty sure I can stop you from leaving." His voice was cold and full of warning.

"I — I know."

<<Believe me. I know. More than I could ever tell you — I know. I'm not leaving until you let me leave.>>

She rubbed her arms as soon as he released her. He noted her reaction and felt another stab of remorse.

<<I hurt her. I must have hurt her. She wasn't lying. At least about that.>>

"Did… did I really hurt you? I- I'm sorry — I didn't think I was holding you that tightly."

"Yes," she said quietly. "You did. You are much stronger than you know. I have… a lot to tell you. But you might find it unbelievable. First, and most importantly — nobody tried to kill you."

"Oh — so I just happened to trip and fall into this huge molten crater, pass out, and lose my memory?" His expression held scorn and disbelief.

<<Miss whoever you are. I'm not an idiot.>>

She stared at him, stupefied. He had fallen to the Earth like a meteor, burrowing deep into the ground. He had survived that. He must have impacted with the asteroid and been flung back home by the force. But he survived that. And if he survived it, it meant that there was a plan C — if she could get him to remember what he could do — he could go out and stop the rest of the asteroid… a much smaller piece. If could handle the big asteroid without getting killed, surely he could handle the smaller piece! And this time, they would know to look for him on Earth if he lost contact with EPRAD.

"Hello? Earth to… what *is* your name, anyway?"

"Uh — Lois. Lois Lane. Does… does that ring any bells?" Her voice was hopeful.

"None. None at all," he answered in frustration.

"Okay. I… I know what happened to you. It wasn't… it wasn't an attempt on your life. But you — you have to tell me — do you know anything about yourself? Anything at all?"

"Other than the fact that my name is Clark, and that I live here … nothing."

"Can… I turn on the TV? I want… I want to show you something. I'm thinking you're far more likely to believe what you see on the news than you to believe it if I tell you."

"Okay." Suspiciously and guardedly he watched as she gingerly stepped over to the television and turned it on. There was a special report underway on just about every channel — talking about the asteroid and the missing hero.

He watched the news in silence never betraying any hint of what he must have been feeling on his face. He still didn't trust her. If she wasn't an enemy, why did she make him feel so jumpy and unsettled? Although he wasn't really feeling all that jumpy now — his feelings of being menaced seemed to have peaked during her panic attacks. Maybe he was just feeding off of her fear.

"Uh… thoughts?" She interrupted his silent reverie.

"That man. The one they are looking for — the … the one who can fly. That's… that's me?" His voice held a tone of disbelief.

"Yes."

"I'm … not human? I'm an extra-terrestrial?"

"Yes."

"And I can fly?"

"Yes."

"I… I flew out into space and did something that broke the asteroid into smaller pieces?"

"It appears so. I think that's what sent you hurtling back to Earth. You must have hit that thing with an amazing amount of force — and — and…" she stopped talking, as she realized that he wasn't really listening to her anymore. He seemed to have forgotten to be wary around her, and he had wandered away from her, looking lost.

"Then I'm an alien? A … freak…who…" his voice trailed off. He stood silently for a long while, clearly distressed by the revelation.

"You're a hero — a superhero — who tried to save the Earth," she said softly. "Whatever else you may feel you are — I don't think freak really describes it."

"And I have these powers? This strength? This unbelievable strength, which let me break an asteroid into pieces." He turned to her, remorse deeply etched into his stricken face. "I really was hurting you, wasn't I? It wasn't an act… I almost… I almost broke your arms. You probably have bruises…"

"Please… it isn't important right now." She spoke hastily, fearing he would try to look for those bruises. She simply couldn't bear it right now if he touched her again. Without even realizing it, she had hastily backed away a few steps.

<<Right. Not important. Yet — she's terrified of me. I hurt her, and she's terrified. What kind of a man… no — not a man. What kind of alien am I that I would trigger this kind of reaction in her? I can't be a very benevolent one. Why do they call me a hero, if people like Lois are terrified of me?>>

"It's okay," he said softly. Trying to be as reassuring as possible. "I — promise not to hurt you again."

"I know that. You didn't know. It makes sense that you wouldn't know," she said hastily, her eyes no longer in contact with his.

<<Okay. I get it. Change the subject. Will do. >>

"There are six hours until the launch of the rocket. I think — that it's a dangerous plan. The asteroid is close enough that the nuclear fallout could be dangerous — at least that's what the scientist said. In addition — there will definitely be a problem with the pieces of the broken asteroid hitting the Earth. I need to get my memory back so that I can stop this thing safely."

"Can — do you really need you memory back? Can't you just… do it? You seem to still have your powers."

"But — I don't know how to fly. I don't. I keep trying to will myself to float up to the ceiling, but I can't seem to make it happen. I think it has to be some kind of conscious act… and since I don't really remember being this Superman, I don't know how to do certain things. Kind of like a mental block."

"So — we have to get you your memory back," she mused.

"And I have a strange feeling that you are a key factor in that happening," he said regretfully, having fully picked up on her reluctance to being anywhere near him.

"That means…"

"Until I get my memory back… you and I are going to have to … stick together. I … hope that's okay with you."

As his words sank in, she felt an immediate inward shrinking from the duty ahead of her.

<<How can I possibly do this? Spend so much time with him? Be with him? Talk to him? Act normal around him? And the price of my failure is the end of the world? Yea. Right. No pressure there. Am I just supremely unlucky, or are the fates really just out to get me? He says that we're stuck together. What would happen if I tried to leave? Would he force me to stay? Am I a prisoner? His prisoner? >>

Worriedly, he watched her. She hadn't spoken for a few minutes and he was getting nervous.

<<Well? What are you going to do? I know the answer lies in you. I don't know how I know, but I am getting a very strong vibe off of you — I know you can help me, and I doubt anyone else can. Something very strange is going on between us, and until I know what it is, I'm afraid I'll never know who I am. I can't afford that luxury — I need to get back to being me so that I can stop this thing from destroying the world. From destroying us all. But what if you say 'no'? What do I do then? >>

Unable to take it anymore, he finally prompted her for an answer.

"Uh — so … do you… agree? To …uh… stay with me and help me figure this out?"

The nervousness and humility in his tone caught her completely off guard. Startled, she looked up at him in undisguised disbelief.

"You … mean … I have a choice," she asked in a small and frightened voice. Even as the words left her lips, she cursed herself for asking them.

"Of course you do! Why would… Yeah. Look. I'm sorry. I know … I scared you earlier. I didn't let you leave, and I … hurt you."

<<Of course she thinks you would force her to stay. You stupid oaf. She has the bruises to prove that her being here is completely against her will.>>

She looked away abruptly. "No — no — it's okay — really -"

<<Let's not talk about that. Please?>>

<<Why does it bother her to talk about this?>>

"Lois… I just wanted to say that I won't do it again. Hold you back… or — uh — hurt you in any way. If you want to leave, you really are free to go. Honestly. But — I do have to say that I don't think I can get my memories back without your help. Something tells me that it has to be you. I don't understand why I feel that way, but given the urgency of the situation… at this point, I'm not willing to go second guess my gut feelings. If you say no…I'll obviously have to go get help elsewhere."

"No. No — that isn't necessary. I'll — I'll stay," she answered him quietly, unwillingly forcing herself to give him a quick flash of eye contact.

Relief washed over him in waves. "Oh, thank god. No. Thank you. Thank you so much."

"It's okay. Really. No big deal — it's not like you've asked me to go fly out there and stop this thing. You're the one doing the whole personal sacrifice — life-on-the-line thing. I'm just along to help. I'm sorry if I've seemed reluctant. I'm just a little shaken up by what's going on here… uh — you know — the world about to end. That's enough to upset anyone, right?"

<<But that isn't really why you're so nervous around me, is it?>>

"Yea. It sure is. How do you think we should proceed?"

She lapsed back into silence, thinking over his question. How should they proceed? The task ahead of her seemed so daunting and insurmountable. How could she handle this — this monumental responsibility coupled with her intense desire to be as far away from him as possible.

<<Oh god. What if I can't do this? What if I can't?>>

"I think… I think you can. I think that we can," he responded quickly to what he thought was her fear of failure. Startled, she looked up at him, her eyes confused and frightened.

"What?"

"You… you said — you asked … what if you couldn't … what… what is it?" He looked at her in genuine confusion. Her expression was equally confused — did he imagine that she had said something?

"I… I didn't… say that."

"You didn't? What did you say?"

"I didn't say anything. Well… I guess… one of your powers, you know — it's uh — it's telepathy." She couldn't meet his gaze. Telepathy had been used by his doppelganger to torment her on many occasions. It was impossible to talk about this with him without letting her feelings of fear and repulsion show in her face.

"Telepathy? Yikes. Well — at least it's working. That's kind of a good sign. Though — I haven't been picking up your other thoughts… funny how that one came through. It did sound like you had been speaking in my head, now that I think about it. Wow — that's not exactly a way to win friends, is it? I mean — talk about invasion of privacy. Doesn't it bother people …knowing that I have the ability to read their innermost thoughts?"

"Uh … not too many people know about it."

"Really?"

"Yea. About a handful."

"Including you…"

"Yea. So uh — how about we — uh — go into the living room. It's kind of … claustrophobic in here."

Looking around briefly, he remembered that they were standing in his bedroom. The events of the evening flickered guiltily through his brain, and another apology bubbled to the surface. He had dragged her in here, kicking and screaming — and she had clearly feared the worse. She was willing to die rather than… What had happened to change her perspective so quickly? Who had she thought he was? Did he have a twin brother, maybe? An evil one? She didn't seem terribly eager to discuss this, nor did she even want to hear his apologies. Valiantly, he suppressed the urge to apologize, and offered her a disarming and somewhat sheepish grin.

"That sounds like a good idea." He turned quickly and headed to the door, opening it and letting her get out ahead of him. "Listen. Are you hungry? How about some coffee?"

"Um. Sure. Where do you keep your coffee stuff — I can -"

"No — no! How rude would that be- I didn't mean to ask you to make it for me! I'll get it — you… uh… relax…"

"No — really — I'll — I don't want you to go to any trouble —"

"Please. I'm at your service. What do you want to eat — I seem to think I can cook, and there is a stocked kitchen here. I'm completely at your command. Your willing slave."

Her face went pale white and she backed away a few steps. She reeled with the onslaught of memories tugging at the edges of her mind.

<<No. Not yet. Not yet — not now. He needs me. I need me. We need to get through this. Not yet!>>

"Did… did I say something wrong?" His voice was worried. Her reaction had been so unexpected and stark.

<<What did I say?>>

"No! No. I'm sorry. Shock — I guess. You know — end of the world? I'm just not feeling very well. I'll just sit here — and wait for the coffee. I'm not really all that hungry." She gave him a brief smile that failed to even reach her eyes. Her expression was deeply troubled and haunted. She seemed to be begging him, with her eyes, to just move on past her momentary lapse in 'normal' behavior.

"Okay — I'll bring out the coffee and if you want anything to eat, you can just let me know. Please — I don't want you to be uncomfortable or hungry — so just tell me."

"I will. Thanks."

His thoughts ran furiously through his mind as he got some much- needed space from the tension in the other room. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make the pieces fit properly. Her reactions were erratic and bizarre. It seemed like the oddest thing would set her off, and he had no idea why that was. Wearily, he played over the events from earlier in the day in his mind. She had been completely terrified when he first made his presence known to her.

<<But you were rough. Angry. And you wouldn't let her leave. She was at the mercy of a really ticked-off super-being. Wouldn't that scare anyone? But if I were supposedly this decent guy who occasionally saves lives…why would she think that I would hurt her? Maybe she figured I didn't know my own strength and that I would hurt her unwittingly. And that might account for her initial fear… but then, why didn't she just tell me who I was? And later, why did she think I was going to rape her? I'm sure that's what she thought. How could she think that? Even without my memory, I wouldn't suddenly turn into someone else. Would I? Does that happen? Even then — why didn't she tell me? And how come she reacted so differently when she came out? Was it the fact that by putting on my clothes, I had indicated that I wasn't going to hurt her? But it seemed as though she finally… I don't know — she finally recognized me. It's as if she thought I was someone else. It keeps coming back to that. Who did she think I was? Why would putting on clothes suddenly change who she thought I was? It doesn't add up? Well… coffee's ready. I'd better go out there and start trying to figure it all out.>>

"Here's your coffee," he said in a tone which he hoped was completely non-threatening. "I hate to sound like a broken record, but if you want anything else — you'll tell me? Please?"

"Yes. Yes… I will. I promise."

He smiled at her. "I'm going to hold you to that." His voice was gently teasing.

<<Why does he have to be so nice?>>

"Okay! So… I thought we could start with my telling you about who you are. Do you think that's a good idea?"

"Yes. A decent way to start off."

Encouraged, she started in on the story of his life as she knew it. She felt a sense of irony that she was an expert in his life due to her earlier mission to expose him for the threat she had felt him to be. She had started her project with the intent of hurting him, and now she was using the spoils of that work to help him. To help herself. To save the world. She kept her voice as steady and even as possible and tried not to put in any of their interpersonal history into her tale. It seemed unnecessary to her to go into that kind of detail. He interrupted a few times to ask some specific questions in reaction to things that she had said, but for the most part, was a quiet and attentive listener.

She was surprised at how easy it was to talk to him about this. Her initial nervousness and unwillingness to meet his eyes diminished as she got further into her recital. Dressed as he was, he seemed as far from Kal-El at this moment as he could be. Additionally, she could tell he was trying very hard not to spook her in any way. His movements were slow and careful, and he gave her plenty of personal space. He didn't try to touch her in any way at all.

When she was done with her narrative she finished by asking if he had anymore questions. He shook his head, as if to clear out some of his whirling thoughts.

"That's… quite a … story."

"Yes. It is a bit hard to believe, isn't it? But it's true. This is who you are. This is… well — what you are."

"An alien. A freak … a misfit."

"Yes. But also… A hero. A man willing to stop an asteroid with his own body to save a planet. You probably could have found a way to escape the Earth's fate. Instead, you chose to put your own life on the line. If that makes you a freak and a misfit, then that's a good way to be freakish, I guess."

"I just… I guess… I wish… it —"

"Go on," she spoke softly and encouragingly, drawn in by his wistful demeanor.

"I wish I wasn't all alone in the world. I'm an orphan twice over. I know — sounds pathetic. I'm an adult, I can take care of myself… but I guess — I feel like I was close to my earth parents. I get the sense that family means a lot to me. I wish that — well — at the very least — that my first family — my people — hadn't died like that. I wish I weren't the last of my kind. Maybe I wish others like me had been sent here. So I wouldn't be so alone."

She fought to keep her reaction from her face.

<<Thank GOD you are the last of your kind. >>

"Then again," he continued his musings, not noticing anything odd about her reaction, "maybe it's a good thing I was sent here alone. My parents must have been remarkable people to give me the values that would prevent me from abusing the powers that I have. Unstoppable power can be dangerous, and if others had been sent here as well — maybe they might not have gotten as lucky as I did. If someone with less than stellar values had found me, or any other foundling Kryptonian child, they could have raised a monster."

She was unable to stop herself from reacting, and so she got up quickly and turned away from him.

"Uh — I'll be right back. Um. Too — too much coffee!"

"Oh! Sure. No problem."

"One moment. I won't be long."

She rushed as fast as she could without appearing indecorous.

<<Keep your cool. Don't wig out now. Come on. I have to do this. Get through this. Survive this. I'm a survivor. I've survived far worse. A lot of people… a lot of women… would be lining up to be here, in my place, spending so much time with him. But I can't… how can I — how can we do this? He's treading on dangerous ground, and if he doesn't stop, I'm going to explode. It won't be pretty, and I don't know what I'll do or say. I don't want that to happen. No. Not now, and not ever. I can't lose control! I can't let those memories, those feelings — I can't let them in. They will consume me! Control me — and if they do — I don't know if I'll ever be sane again. I don't want to slip into madness! I've tried so hard not to — to lose control! And what use am I to him, if I turn into a gibbering idiot? The world will end if I can't get it together!>>

She forced herself to take care of business and return back to her place on the couch. She had a job to do, and she meant to do it.

"Did… did I say something…"

<<What scared you — what made you run away?>>

"No. Really. Uh- you were talking about…"

"Nothing. I was just feeling sorry for myself. Not a worthwhile way to spend our valuable time."

A rush of pity enveloped her. She remembered the grief on his young features in many of the photographs she had seen of him as a child. Losing the Kents had devastated him, and likely he had never really gotten over it.

"I'm… sorry. I know it had to have hurt to lose your parents. It has to be … just awful… knowing you'll never see your loved ones again."

<<Careful. Getting too hot in here.>>

"You sound like you've been there. Are your parents…"

"Oh. No! They're still alive. I — I've never lost anyone like that. I guess I was just imagining how I would feel. And of course, the other thing — surviving the death of your home world. That — well — it just defies all imagination. I'm sorry."

"Oh. It's okay. I mean — I don't remember the Kents, and I don't remember my Kryptonian parents. I feel sorry for them — for dying — and maybe I feel sorry for who I was before I lost m memories. But I'm okay in the here-and-now."

"Did… did anything I say make you remember anything? Any flashes? Hints? Nudges?"

"No. Not even the tiniest of memories. God!" He exclaimed in irritation as he stood up restlessly. "This is so aggravating!"

His sudden movements had startled her but she managed to restrain her response.

"Maybe… I have an idea. Maybe you could look at the internet. Look up yourself in a search engine and do some web-surfing."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"You don't remember the internet?"

"No, and I don' think right now is a good time to go surfing."

"I didn't mean on the waves — oh. You're joking. But you don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

"No."

"The internet is a world-wide connection of computers. Web- surfing refers to a specific way of using the internet to find information. At least — that's the layperson's view. I'm sure a techie could give you a more accurate definition."

"No need for that. So I can use the computer to find information out about myself? Stuff people have stored on their computers?"

"Yes."

"Will I find anything useful? Is there anything out there beyond what you've told me?"

"Believe me. There is plenty. You'll see. Do you have a computer?"

"I don't know."

"Hmmm. Maybe… um…"

<<Damn it! I'll bet it's in the bedroom. >>

She turned in the direction of his bedroom door and tried to peer into the darkness to see if she could find his computer.

"I can bring it out here," he said, following her gaze and figuring she didn't want to go back in there with him.

"No! No — that's just a big waste of time. Come on, I'll show you how to get started." Lois.

<<Get a grip on yourself. He needs your help. You can do this.>>

He looked at her carefully, trying not to be too obvious about the fact that he was desperately trying to read her expression.

"What? What is it?" She asked the question before she could stop herself from speaking. He had been looking at her oddly, and she had been driven by curiosity to know what he was thinking.

"I… can… can I ask you a question?"

"Uh…sure. Of course. Anything."

"You… you and I. What… are we … were we… We were friends?"

Relief surged through her. She had been sure that the final word was going to be lovers. She didn't know how she would have possibly been able to keep the distaste and fear from her face had he said that.

"Well. Not… not really."

His face fell and she felt an absurd urge to revoke her words and assure him that they had been the best of friends. What was it about this man that made her feel… loathe to hurt his feelings? Writing those articles had been easy because she didn't have to see him face to face. Now that they were in such close quarters, she was beginning to see where all the loyalty and protectiveness that his friends showed him had come from. He was open and honest, and he seemed to wear a lot of his heart on his sleeve. It made her uncomfortably aware of the many times Perry had hinted that he had been hurt by her articles.

"Oh."

His tone was bleak and it tugged at her conscience.

<<Damn you, Clark! Stop making me feel badly about this!>>

Startled he looked up at her. "Did… did you say something?"

Equally startled, she shook her head rapidly.

<<Dear god. I forgot about the whole telepathy thing. How could I ever have forgotten that?>>

"I thought … well — never mind. Can you show me how to use the computer now?"

"Wait!"

He stopped his forward motion towards the bedroom, and turned to look at her quizzically.

<<Not Kal-El. He's looking at me with that not-Kal-El expression of his. Deer in the headlights. Damn him for being so unlike Kal- El. >>

"I'm… I — we aren't friends — because we hardly know each other. We aren't… rivals or enemies. Just two people who don't really know each other."

His brow crinkled in confusion as he took in her words. She seemed to be holding something back, but her gaze was level, indicating that it wasn't an outright lie.

<<Not enemies, at least. That's something. Isn't it?>>

She took in a deep and resolute breath and let it out in a weary exhalation. "I'm also a reporter. And I work for the Daily Planet."

"Where I used to work."

"Yes. You stopped working there before I went back. I used to work there- before you even came to Metropolis. But then… I went away for a while. And when I came back… well — that's when I met you. We haven't really spent a lot of time in each other's company."

<<Because I usually act like a complete ninny whenever you're around.>>

"We have a lot of friends in common though. My mentor and closest friend considers you to be another son."

"So we're kind of like brother and sister then," he said, trying to be lighthearted. "If he's your mentor, likely he thinks of you as a daughter."

She smiled. "Yea. And maybe I've been a bit jealous about it. Dad seems to be giving you more of his attention these days."

"I'm sorry." He said the words with deep sincerity, making her feel further like a heel.

<<You really are, aren't you?>>

"It's okay. I'm a big girl. Anything… anything else? Uh — you still seem to have something that you want to ask me."

<<Lois! Leave it alone, already! Don't encourage him.>>

"Well… I guess… There's something about you. Something… you … being with you somehow… it feels right. You know — when you were talking to me earlier about who I am — I felt — well — I felt this sense of peace. That if the world were going to end, it was almost okay — that I was maybe going to die — but at least I was with someone that I… I … I don't know — you just make me feel a sense of rightness. It doesn't make sense. I don't even know what I'm saying. I guess — I thought maybe we had been friends. Maybe that's why you felt so …right… to me."

<<What is he saying? Is he in love with me? >>

"You… thought I was behind some grand plot to kill you — uh — earlier."

"Yea. I — I feel kind of like an idiot about that now," he said sheepishly dropping his gaze from hers. Her words brought back his embarrassment, his shame and remorse at his behavior. "I — I'm sorry —"

"No. I wasn't asking for an apology. I just wanted to — you know — it doesn't matter. I guess — I was trying to point out that — it was an incongruity."

"Well… I didn't know who I was, who you were, and I guess your initial reaction just made me think you were a potential enemy. But I did back down from that belief pretty quickly. I think I sensed in you something … good… something right. And I guess I wasn't sure why I would feel so strongly like that if we weren't friends. Odd to feel that way about a stranger. Also — you know about my telepathy, and you said it wasn't public knowledge."

"Well, I am a really good reporter," she prevaricated, feeling guilty at the deliberate mendacity in her implication.

"Yeah. I guess that's it."

"Come on. I'll show you how to get on the internet."

They entered his bedroom and she very quickly showed him how to pull up a browser window and start searching.

"I think I can take it from here," he said, picking up on her tension vibes from being in his bedroom.

<<Something very bad has happened to this woman. She's afraid of me — but maybe its just men that she's afraid of, and so she's afraid of me, because I'm a man. Her reaction to being in my room… somebody has hurt her — in a very ugly and horrible way. Whoever it is, he had just better hope I never get my hands on him. I wouldn't kill a human — but I would make sure that he never hurt anyone again.>>

Without being aware of it, his jaw had set at a rigid angle and his fists had clenched in anger.

Right before her very eyes, his easy going expressions seemed to alchemically reform themselves into Lord Kal-El's visage. It was as if he was standing here… somehow switching places with Clark. His expression was suddenly dark, rigid and angry, and his hands had curled into fists. Very powerful fists that could bring a great deal of pain. Unaware that she was even moving, she began to back away from him in startled fear. Noting her sudden movements, he transformed back into Clark. The monster was gone… at least … for now.

<<Damn it! I've scared her again.>>

"I'm sorry… I'm just frustrated. I'm just going to poke around here for a while… give me about 20-30 minutes. Is that okay?"

"O — Okay. I'll — I'll just be out there. I have some calls to make."

"Are you going to tell anyone I'm back?"

"No. Not now. Not yet. Not unless you want me to. If you think we need outside help… but otherwise, it would only result in people coming down here to see you."

"Good. It may come to that yet, but my instincts tell me it's the wrong thing to do."

"Then — I won't do it."

Left alone in his room, he started poking away at the search engine. He found a lot of information — too much information, in fact. It was overwhelming. There was so much out there, it was impossible to separate the garbage from the gold. There were cults out there convinced he was some kind of avatar of a higher being. There were a lot of pornography-oriented sites which he quickly passed over, not wanting to read about any place he might have in the sexual fantasies of others. There were also hundreds of news articles written by himself.

He perused many of these news articles with a notable lack of enthusiasm when it finally occurred to him that he should look for articles written by Lois Lane. That might give him some insights into what kind of history he had had with this woman because although she had said that they didn't really have a relationship, it seemed to be burning at the edges of his memories that there was something very real between them. Maybe not a friendship — but — there had to be something. Why else would he consider her to be the key to unlocking his memories?

Feeling guilty about what he was about to do, he typed in: + "Lois Lane" +Superman into the search box, and then he hit the search button.

<<Bingo. Articles — all written by Lois. About me… let's look at this one. >>

Eagerly he opened the document and began to read through it. His eagerness faded into dismay as he digested the intent behind her article.

<<My god. This… she… hates me. She thinks I'm some kind of super- threat. >>

He clicked on the rest of the links and skimmed them as well. Every single article was filled with anti-Superman sentiments. She fervently forwarded the idea that having a super-powered being around could only lead to the subjugation of the human race. She feared him. Distrusted him. Detested him.

<<So why… why hasn't she said… when she told me about who I was — and the things I did — she made out like I was a hero — a valuable part of the human race… but now… why didn't she … of course… she just wants me to get my memory back, so that I can stop the asteroid. Why would she tell me about her true feelings when it wouldn't help. But… there's something…something there — I can feel it — tugging at the edges of my memory. I need more answers, I need to know why she feels this way. Only then can I — will I — remember who I am. But how do I ask her to explain. She's already on edge. She fears me and if I tell her I know how she really feels, she's likely to turn tail and run. And, I'll have to follow her, and stop her from leaving. Even though I said I wouldn't. Because she is the answer, and I need her. >>

The words she wrote burned deeply into his mind. Shell-shocked, he sat back in his chair running an agitated hand through his hair.

<<Why did she write those things? Why does she hate me so … so desperately? >>

It actually made sense to him that there would be sensible and sane people out there who would initially have questioned his loyalties and ulterior motives. In fact, had he been human, he probably would have also felt an initial suspicion towards a benevolent-seeming super-being. Likely, he would have needed a great deal of proof before letting down his guard. And it also made sense to him that intelligent and reasonable people would be trying to find ways to stop him, should he ever turn against the human race. It wasn't out of the realm of reasonable to imagine that happening.

However, her articles didn't convey a sensible level of caution. Rather, they were laced with an urgent panic, terrible fear… and even… bitter hatred. Her earlier articles were filled with contempt towards those who would welcome him without a single ounce of hesitation. She was writing from the point of view of someone trying to warn a ship from crashing into the rocks.

<<Fear. Urgency. Panic. Hate. Why?>>

Even odder was the fact that her later articles seemed to lose that edge… she still wrote the articles, but it was clear that her heart wasn't in it as it was in the beginning.

<<What changed her mind? Did she really ever change her mind? Why did she stop writing the articles? Did someone make her stop writing them? Did someone threaten her? Was it me?>>

<<It doesn't make any sense.>>

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make the pieces fit together. Her articles spoke of a deep-seated terror and anger towards him. But those feelings seemed to become more blunt over time. Then again, her behavior with him today started out with the same stark terror he had sensed from her articles.

<<She had been absolutely blind with terror when she first saw me, and then suddenly — her attitude changed. It was all triggered by my putting on clothes. >>

He could see why a woman would be afraid of being accosted by a completely naked man — especially one that she had at one point, at least, been wary of. In some of her earlier writings, she had painted possible future scenarios… scenarios in which he enslaved humanity, forcing women into a horrifying sexual slavery.

<<Did she really believe I could do that? Does she still believe it? Is that why she reacted so violently earlier when I was naked? Did she think I was going to harm her? I guess my behavior at that time didn't really help. I hurt her. I was rough with her, and angry. But why did she change so suddenly after she saw me with clothes on? Did she figure that meant I wasn't going to hurt her? But it was the way she reacted that puzzles me. She acted as if she suddenly recognized me. How could she not have recognized me before? Was she blind in her fear at encountering a naked man, where she had expected none to be? Did she think I was some random stranger? >>

He reflected soberly on those early moments together. She had avoided making eye contact during those earlier moments, but she had had a chance to see his face. On further reflection, he felt certain that she had been able to see him long enough to know who he was.

Did she not know who he was even after she saw his face? Who did she think he was, then? Did he have a brother? A clone? If he had some kind of evil twin, it would put the pieces into place. She might have mistaken him for his evil twin, and then, seeing him in his own clothes, realized that he was Clark, a man that she didn't have as much reason to fear. But evil twins were something out of a fiction writer's pen. It made no sense to him that he would have an evil twin, and she would have failed to mention it. In fact, he had found no mention on the internet of there being anyone else from his planet on Earth besides himself.

<<I have to find out. I have to ask her>>

He watched her surreptitiously from his darkened room for a few long moments, and then with a weary sense of foreboding, stood up and walked to the doorway.

"Lois?"

She had been pacing slowly, but at the sound of him calling her name, stopped in her tracks, her eyes anxiously moving to meet his. He was relieved to see that the look in her eyes was devoid of any of her earlier panic.

"Did — do you … do you remember anything?" Hope was threaded in her voice, a hope which died quickly at the bleak look on his face.

"What? What… what is it? You look… like — you look upset?"

"I don't remember anything," he said regretfully. "And it's… well — it's kind of demoralizing."

"Well — you know — we have time yet … we — we can't — you know — we can't give up — not yet. Not — not that I'm implying that you — you're giving up — but —"

"Lois? I — I did find something. Something that I need to talk to you about."

"Okay — okay, sure. Anything I can help with — I — that's why I'm here."

"Yeah. Yeah. Why you're here. Listen… there's no real good way to say this… I … I … did a search on… you. I did a search on you, and I can understand if you're angry about it — but I was curious. I mean — you're a reporter, and I was looking for articles written about me…" He trailed off as he saw the comprehension dawn in her eyes.

She felt frozen in time as she listened to him speak.

<<My articles. He found my articles>>

She looked at him fearfully, trying to see any signs of incipient anger. She found none, but she also noted uneasily that his expression was oddly unreadable.

<<Like Kal-El. I never knew if he was angry. I never knew when to expect the blows.>>

Her thoughts skittered uncomfortably away from the reminiscence. The mask he wore slipped, and suddenly she saw a wealth of confusion, worry, and discomfort in his eyes. Oddly, it comforted her.

"Listen," he said uncomfortably. "I know — I know you… you haven't wanted to talk about it. But… but there's this thing. This strange thing between us. You say we aren't friends, and I'd have to agree with that. But, you kind of want me to believe that we are just casual acquaintances. Two people who haven't yet had a chance to become friends. And I was really trying to believe that, despite the signs to the contrary. But… I can't do that anymore. I have to know the truth. I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you — I don't want to cause you any distress — but I have to have some answers. And you're the only one who can provide them."

She flinched at his words, especially the part about not wanting to hurt her. She couldn't help the brief and bitter flashback that went through her mind at those words. A flash of being thrown viciously into a wall by a man who looked just like the one standing here. She felt the old fear come back, as well as the bitter taste of anger. Valiantly she fought to keep those feelings from displaying on her far-too-expressive face. She was failing in that attempt, because she saw his startled reaction. He took a step towards her, and she frantically backed up a few steps. Cursing herself for her reaction, she turned away from him, half expecting to hear him yell at her for it.

///Don't turn your back on me. Don't EVER turn your back on me.///

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, dispelling the image that had popped into her head.

"Lois? It's this — you know? This reaction? You're… you're afraid of… of me. I know you don't want to talk about it — but the way you reacted to me earlier… I know — I know — I was a jerk. I know I acted badly… but you … you just seemed so sure that… that I was going to hurt you. You were ready to kill yourself. Lois — I think you thought I was going to rape —"

"Stop it!" She shouted out the words before she could hold them in. "Stop it! I don't want to talk about it!"

///That was very disrespectful. Very insolent. I'll not be spoken to like that — not by a slave like you. I'm going to have to teach you a lesson. You force me to do it, you know? I wouldn't hurt you half as much if you didn't ask for it. You never learn. When will you figure out that you are nothing? Nobody. You're just a slave///

"No!" It was a strangled whisper, a cry to a man who was merely a ghost in her mind. "No. I'm not!"

"Not what? What are you talking about?"

She turned her head swiftly to meet his gaze, an expression of extreme distress and confusion on her face.

"I'm… uh — I'm not afraid that… that … you would…" She couldn't say it. Couldn't bring herself to vocalize it out loud. It was a dark magic word. An incantation that would summon demons to her doorsteps. Demons of the past, and nothing could save her then.

"But… but you were. Back then. Earlier." He seemed to know that he shouldn't use the word again. He wore an expression of sheepish remorse on his face. He was sorry to contradict her and sorry to force her to face this thing she was trying to avoid. But he had no choice. It really was a matter of life or death.

"I didn't expect to find you here — I thought — I thought you were an intruder — and you — and you had no clothes on…"

"You thought I was an intruder — even after seeing my face? I'm sorry, Lois — but I think you're lying."

///You're lying. I can tell. I can always tell when you aren't telling me the truth. But that's okay. I don't mind. It just gives me a -reason to teach you not to lie to me. And, I have to be honest… I do enjoy teaching you these lessons.///

"No — no ! I'm not — I'm not lying — I — I-"

She broke off, flustered. Her voice and manner were pleading and frantic.

"Lois — it's okay," he said as soothingly as he could, unaware that she was being assailed with memories from the past. "I — mean — it's okay … but it's not okay. It's okay that you've lied… but you can't keep doing it — we are running out of time. Running out of options. Please — I'm begging you — I'm pleading with you… hell, I'll even get down on my knees —"

///You don't want me to do this? You aren't being very convincing. Get down on your knees, slave. Beg for mercy. Maybe then, just maybe, I'll be amused enough by it to reward you — to do as you ask. Come on — plead for mercy. Amuse me.///

"No!"

"Okay — no begging. I was kind of speaking figuratively anyway. Please, Lois — just tell me what's going on."

"I — I can't!" Her voice was a pleading wail.

<<Don't make me. Please… Please don't make me.>>

Lois no longer was sure who she was talking to.

"Why not?!" His tone was getting agitated and frustrated. "Why can't you just come out and say it!! Lois — the world is at stake! This is bigger… bigger than anything!"

<<He's angry. He's angry at me. >>

"Please…"

"I don't have a choice! What is it that's so awful — so ugly — that you would risk the entire safety of your home planet to avoid facing? What did I do? What did I do to you? Why do you hate me so much?" His voice became louder with every question, until he finally shouted out the last one. He cursed himself silently as he saw her flinch from his anger.

He buried his head in his hands for a moment, as he worked to get his feelings under control. He counted silently to ten and then he spoke again in a quieter and more measured way.

"Don't you see? I have to do this."

///Don't you see? I have to do this. I have to make you know your place. You'll be much happier once you have accepted that you belong to me — that you will always belong to me, and that the entire purpose of your existence is to please me. You keep fighting that… and as long as you fight against it, you will force me to punish you. Not that I mind so much, but you could make it easier on yourself. To be honest — I'm glad of it.///

Her eyes widened in horror at the exact echoing of his dark doppelganger's words. She took an unconscious step back.

<<What is wrong with her? What is making her so afraid?>>

"Lois. Please. Please help me. I need your help. Desperately."

His words were like ice water, bringing her back to the moment.

"I — I want to help. I want you to get your memories back. I want you to stop the asteroid." Her voice was anguished.

"Then —"

"I don't see how talking about this will help you! Why do we have to talk about this? It's irrelevant — what does it really matter why I act the way I act?"

"It matters because you matter!"

"No! I don't — I'm nothing — I'm nobody — I'm just a —"

"A what? A reporter? An acquaintance? A what? It does matter. You matter! I've had a feeling the entire time we've been together that you hold the key. That's why I asked you to stay here with me. And I think you know that. I think you believe it too — otherwise, why would you have agreed? If you didn't believe it, you might have tried to convince me to go see some of the other people in my life who might be able to help. But you didn't — because you know as well as I do that this thing between us is what counts!" His voice was rising in passion as he tried to urge her to admit this.

"Look," she said desperately, "I stopped writing those articles! You can see for yourself that the last one is dated months ago. I stopped — surely that means something to you?"

"It isn't about how I feel about the articles. I feel like I'm wandering around a maze blindfolded and that you have the map — you know how I can get out — but you won't tell me. I don't know why you keep holding back. No matter what it is that's between us — is it really more important than the continued existence of the Earth? Of the human race? Lois — this is bigger than both of us — we have to put our own needs aside and think of that — the greater good. The imminent threat!"

"I just can't!! I can't! You keep asking me to — but if I do, then I lose it all! I lose everything! Ever since I — I — ever since… I've been holding it all in — holding it all at bay. I won't … I won't be able to live, if it comes back. I won't be able to function! I'll be a gibbering idiot — they'll have to lock me up in a mental institution, and I won't be locked up — not again! I won't give up my freedom!"

"You were locked up before? You were — were you in jail? I don't —"

"No! I don't want to talk about myself — or anything — or anywhere that I've been. You're… you're trying to trick me!" She spoke rapidly, her eyes deliberately evading his as she talked to a spot behind his head. "I can't see how I'm any use here at all — and I think we should go get help."

She moved towards the door, but his hand shot out and grasped her arm, forcing her to stay where she was.

"You — you said I was free to go," her voice was shocked and frightened. "You — you promised! You said — I was free…"

"Not anymore," his voice was grim and determined. "You can't go anywhere. I can't let you go anywhere. I'm sorry. But I'm — I can feel it — crowding in at the edges of my mind. There's something here — memories — and they just need the push — the push that only you can give them. Give them that push, Lois! Come on! Level with me — please!"

"Let me go!" her voice was a frantic sound. "Let me go — please! You promised!! You said I wasn't a prisoner. You can't just do this! I can't go through it again! I won't — won't be a prisoner! Not again — not ever again!"

"Did I — did I imprison you? Did I … did I treat you badly in the past? Did I ever hurt you? What kind of a man am I then, that would do this?"

"No — no — not you — not you — it wasn't you — not you!"

"Someone else? Someone hurt you? Someone held you prisoner?"

She didn't respond, and in that clarifying instance, he realized he had hit on the truth.

"Please. Just me go — just let go of me!"

He looked at her intently for a long moment, trying desperately to decipher her mysteries.

"I'll let go of you… but I can't let you go." Gingerly, he released his hold on her. He knew he could stop her from leaving, but he didn't want it to come to that. She wasn't going to be much good to him if he managed to drive her further into a panic fit.

She rubbed her arm absently as she stared at him, her breath labored and her expression hunted. Haunted.

Immediately, he felt contrite.

<<Did I hurt her? Did I hold her too tightly? >>

His face showed his remorse as he mutely pleaded with her to meet him halfway.

"No… no — you didn't hurt me. Not much, anyway."

"Did… did you… did you read my mind?"

"No. I just… guessed at what you were wondering. It was written on your face."

<<He always watched to see if he had hurt me, too. Only he wanted to see it in my face, in my eyes. It gave him pleasure.>>

"If you know that — then you know that I'd never want to hurt you. But… you have trouble believing that. You have been hurt, right?" His gaze was intent again, as he tried to draw her into revealing her secrets. "Right?"

She broke the gaze, looking away, her arms around her in an unconscious protective hug. "Who hasn't?" Her voice was bitter and quiet.

"Okay — that's true… being hurt comes part and parcel with being alive. I grant you that. But… you've been hurt in a way that isn't… usual. You've been badly hurt. The question is — by whom, and what do I have to do with it? What role do I play in your fears — that's the part I don't get. But I think — no. I know. I know that there's something between us. And I think I can't remember anything about who I am because on some strange level, I don't want to know — I don't want to have the knowledge of what has happened to you — of who hurt you. I don't want to be connected with it." He shook his head, confused. "It doesn't make any sense!"

"Okay — yes! Okay? I've been hurt. I've been hurt badly. By someone powerful — and — you know — you're pretty powerful — so it's not … outside the realm of credibility that I might transfer some of my feelings about that onto you — that you might be standing in proxy —"

"Damn it, Lois! I can tell that you're… you're holding something back — you're trying to appease me with half-truths! That isn't going to be enough to save us when that asteroid hits! You have to stop playing games here!"

His outburst took her by surprise, and she felt her heart clench in dread.

<<Be careful about making him angry. They always hurt you more when they're angry.>>

"I — I — I am telling you the truth."

"Parts of it. Bits of it. I need the whole thing. What role did I play in your ordeal? Who hurt you?"

"I — I —"

"Damn it!! Who hurt you? Come on. It's a question — it has an answer — which you know — tell me! Who hurt you?"

"Stop — stop —"

"I can't — I have to know! Who hurt you? What did they do to you? What does it have to do with me?"

"I have to go — I can't — I can't be here. I can't be here with you." She turned quickly and made for the door.

"You aren't going anywhere!" He rushed with a speed that astonished even himself and made it to the door before she could get there. He leaned against door, blocking her only exit "You aren't going to leave."

///You aren't going to leave. You aren't going to go home. This is your home now — this is who you are — and what you are. You belong to me, now, and you wear my mark to prove it. Better get used to this, slave, because the sooner you do, the easier it will be on you.///

His voice rang in her head. Silken, smooth and cruel.

She buried her head in her hands to dispel the memory. "No!"

///I know everything you're thinking. I know everything you're doing. I see everything, hear everything. Even your thoughts are mine —there is nothing you can call your own. Not your body. Not your mind. You belong to me and you will spend the rest of your life belonging to me. But don't worry — that won't last too long. Once your youthful charms elude you, I'll grant you the final mercy and have you killed. Maybe I'll even do it myself. You humans have an interesting turn of phrase that I find highly appropriate: Ashes to ashes.///

"No! No! No!" Lois cried out in denial. In denial of his words and the truths within them. She never would be free. Never, not as long as he lived in her mind. She felt the walls she had carefully erected around her memories tumble down as the memories forced their way into the conscious parts of her mind. She could feel his hands upon her — his brutal hands. She tasted her own blood again, as he forced his mouth so hard up against hers that her own teeth cut the tender inner skin of her mouth.

She could smell once again the smell of burning flesh as he branded her that first day there. She felt the searing pain, like no other, of her skin being burned. She felt again the harsh contact of the wall as he threw her casually across the room, or the blinding force of his hand against the side of her face. She felt once again the brutal invasion of her body, and also of her mind. The present was lost to her, as the past assailed her. Her entire sensory experience was filled with impressions and images of Kal-El and his brutality.

Clark watched, horror-struck, as the woman in front of him shrank in on herself. She wrapped her arms completely around her head, as if to ward off a blow, and sank to the floor in a sobbing heap.

<<Dear god. I've… I've broken her. >>

<<Kal-El. She's with Kal-El. She's back in that other world. I've forced her to go back to Kal-El. >>

The moment he thought it, it was like he had never forgotten it. One moment his memories were a big blank, and the next moment he knew it all. His synapses rapidly firing, he was overwhelmed by images… images of every encounter he had had with her since her return. He saw her lying in the dimension-travel machine, bruised, battered and unconscious. He saw her reacting fearfully when he saved her from getting killed. He saw her trying to fend off Lex Luthor, and later saw her wary-mistrust turn into abject- terror as he tried to hand her the briefcase.

<<It's back. My memory is back. But at what cost. Her sanity? She said she'd be unable to come back out of it. Dear god, I hope that isn't true. Let it not be true. >>

"Lois! Lois? Please — please … Lois?" He approached her hesitantly, but he was unwilling to touch her. Unwilling to do anything that would prod her deeper into her own private hell. When she ignored him, he realized the futility in trying to reach her right now.

She had to work through the memories on her own, and he had an asteroid to stop. Giving her one last baleful look, he wandered over to the television and turned it on. As he had suspected, the rocket mission had failed just ten minutes previously. It was entirely up to him at this point to stop the asteroid. Grimly, he walked back over to her huddled form."

"Lois. I don't know if you can hear me… but… but… you did it. You helped me get my memory back — for whatever small consolation that may give you. I'm… I'm so sorry… I never wanted to — I never meant to…"

<<hurt her? Yeah. Why don't you just go and say that.>>

"… I have to go now. I have to go stop the asteroid, and this time, I promise — I promise, I'll do it. If… if you can hear me — please…please stay here as long as you need to — you don't have to leave, okay? If … if you're here when I get back — I'll go someplace else. Just take the time you need."

Feeling heavy with guilt, he reluctantly strode to the balcony.

<<Duty first. First and foremost. An apology is useless if her world crumbles around her. Literally.>>

He spun into his suit, and opened the doors to start on his journey. Then he backtracked, and went into his bedroom. He came back out towards her body with a thick and colorful knitted afghan — one of the many that his mother had made. He draped it gently around her non-responsive shoulders, and then went back to the window. Giving her one last regretful glance, he flew off into the night.

As he streaked through space, he found himself unable to focus on the life-or-death task at hand. Although he kept rigidly trying to keep his thoughts from occluding his purpose, he was unable to stop thinking about Lois, and all that had happened that day.

<<I can't believe I said those things. I can't believe I did those things. My god! I actually grabbed her — I pulled her into my bedroom, for crying out loud. I pulled her into my bedroom roughly, and I wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. No wonder she was terrified. She must have thought that I was him — that he had come to bring her back there. God, she was ready to kill herself rather than go back. >>

<<She was really starting to ease back on her negative feelings about me. I know she was still afraid to be near me, but she wasn't writing her articles anymore. She even said as much — said that she no longer believed in them. She was learning to live a normal life again — to put it behind her — and I brought it all back. I made it all real to her again. I showed her that her initial instincts about me weren't as far off as she may have thought. I turned into Kal-El — at least for a while there. I wouldn't let her leave. I held her prisoner — against her will. I'm sure she thought I was going to… rape her… when I pulled her into my room. I can't even bear to think about that. I can't believe I did those things or said those things. She asked me to let her go — she told me that I was hurting her, and I didn't even believe her. What kind of jerk doesn't believe a woman when she says he's hurting her? My god — is that what I'm really like, underneath it all? What if I'm just like him — what if that's inside me? All it took was a blow to the head — to forget who I am, and sink into unspeakable behavior? >>

<<Ok. Maybe I'm being a little dramatic. I didn't try to … I wasn't going to… but I did use my abilities to hold her there against her will. I sacrificed her needs for the needs of the world — for my needs — my desire to live — to continue to have the companionship of the human race and a home on the Earth. I put my own needs over hers — even when faced with the obvious reality that her needs were being ignored. I drove her into that … that breakdown… I can't deny that. I can't sugarcoat it. I did what I did — ostensibly to save the world — but I did it at her expense. And on some level, doesn't that make me a little like him? >>

<<If she ever comes out of it — and…please — god — let her come out of it — let her be okay… But if she ever does, she won't come near me without a ten-foot kryptonite pole. Of course — she knows nothing about kryptonite. I should send her some, anonymously — let her know it will protect her from me. That way she might feel safe again. Don't I owe her that much? I owe her that and more. But of course, I can't do that — can't expose my weakness. I can't risk a creep like Luthor having that kind of power over me. So once again, I choose myself over her. Some hero. But how could I have done things differently? I don't know… I don't know… it just doesn't feel right — thinking back on how things went, I just feel awful. I hurt her, I may even have broken her, and I need to take responsibility for that. She didn't want to talk about it, and I pushed her into it. I bullied her into it. I sent her back into his world.>>

Hours later, he returned, drained from his mission. Drained, but successful. The asteroid was no longer a threat. He had managed to destroy it without putting earth at any risk of fallout. He briefly paid a visit to EPRAD and gave them a quick sketch of what he had done. Deflecting the press had not been easy, but he begged off giving a press conference on account of being exhausted.

As he approached his apartment, he used his x-ray vision to see if Lois was still in his apartment. To his great relief, she was fast asleep. His relief faded fast as he registered the fact that she was asleep on the floor.

<<Oh man! Why is she asleep on the floor? I can't let her sleep on the floor! It's too uncomfortable. I'm dead tired myself but I can't go sleep on a comfortable bed knowing she's out here on the floor. It has to be hard and cold. So what do I do? If I move her, she might wake up. And if she's still in the same state she was when I left her… well, she's better off asleep. And I'm sure she needs the sleep. She must be beyond exhausted after what I put her through. But…I can't let her stay like that — I wouldn't be able to sleep, knowing she's out here like this. What kind of jerk goes off and makes himself comfortable while someone else is sleeping on the floor in his apartment. No. I have to move her — and hope very hard that I don't wake her up.>>

Nervously he crouched next to her sleeping form, trying to figure out the best way to get her on the couch without waking her up. She was lying on her front, her head cradled in her arms, turned to the side. He stared down at her intently, trying to gauge how deeply she was sleeping, when he noticed that her shirt had slipped a bit off her shoulder, leaving some of her upper back and shoulder exposed. His eyes were drawn to an oddly shaped mark on her upper shoulder.

<<What's that on her back? A tattoo? >>

His breath caught sharply as he took in the sight of the scar that Kal-El's branding had left her. The symbol on her back was odd and foreign looking and reminded him somewhat of the one he wore. It was unmistakably Kryptonian, and not a random birth- mark.

<<Dear god! He marked her — he burned his mark into her! >>

Fury rose fast and furious in his heart as the impact of what had been done to her washed over him. The bastard used his heat vision on her.

<<He burned a goddamned symbol into her back. A mark of ownership! I can't even imagine doing that to a — a — cockroach, let alone a human being. What kind of monster does that to another living being?>>

Desperately, he wanted to reach out and offer comfort, to somehow sooth the mark away, but he knew that his touch would be far from comforting. He was three years too late to offer up any soothing for the damage that had been done.

<<Someday — someday I'll go to that world. And I'll… I'll… what? Kill him? I couldn't do that- then I'd become him — a killer. A monster. But … how else could he be stopped? What other recourse could there be? I don't know — but I have to do something. He can't be allowed to keep doing this to people. Anyway — it's all moot right now. Herb is going to be a hard one to convince. Unless I … what? Use force? Again — don't want to be like Kal-El. The ends — do they really justify the means if the means are themselves tyrannical? >>

He inhaled slowly, trying to regain a semblance of calm.

<<First things first. Solve this problem first. I have to get her onto the couch without waking her up. Then I can go get some sleep. Maybe she won't even know I'm here. Ok. Here goes. >>

He very gently slipped his arms under her and tried to stand up without jarring her. Once he was standing with her in his arms he allowed himself to let out the very tense breath that he had been holding.

<<So far so good. Now — to get her to the couch without waking her up. >>

He walked to the couch, feeling fortunate that his super strength enabled him to do so without jostling her out of her sleep. He crouched down low and placed her very carefully on the couch, intending to then slide his arms out from where they were holding her. As he moved to perform this final maneuver, he felt her stiffen. Her slow breathing had suddenly quickened, and he realized that he had failed.

She came awake suddenly and felt a complete sense of disorientation. Instantly she realized that she wasn't alone. Someone was right there — someone was holding her. Her body felt stiff and sore, and she remembered sleeping on an uncomfortable surface. Like back in that world. Was she still there? Had she never left at all?

<<It couldn't have been a dream! >>

Her spirit wailed at the idea that she could still be back in that hellish existence.

<<Kal-El? Oh god, is this Kal-El?>>

Her breathing became shallow and panicked as she tried to force herself to imitate sleep.

<<Maybe if he thinks I'm asleep — maybe — maybe he'll leave me alone.>>

He registered her panic, and knew he had to act fast.

"Lois. I — I'm sorry. I … I didn't mean to wake you up. I … I just wanted to — help you be more comfortable."

<<Oh god. It wasn't a dream. Not Kal-El. I'm not back there!>>

The feeling of relief nearly overpowered her in its intensity.

He released her all the way onto the couch, breaking off the contact that he knew must be distasteful to her, and he stood up, leaning over to turn on the lamp. She blinked against the sudden light, feeling disoriented and exhausted. She looked up at him, taking in his appearance, much worse for the wear.

<<Relax! Relax. This isn't Kal-El. Say something. Anything. >>

"The… the asteroid?" Her voice came out as a hoarse croak from all the crying she had done the night before.

"Gone. Smithereens."

"Oh," she winced, feeling vaguely unsettled at the image his word evoked.

<<The asteroid was no match for his fists. All that power… I was once at the mercy of all that power.>>

"Uh… good. Thanks."

<<What did I… oh — right — bad choice of words. Damn — why do I keep doing that to her?>>

"No — no problem. I — well — you know — I had to do it."

They shared a moment of awkward silence, and then she stood up off the couch, looking to dispel the tension. She felt deeply embarrassed by her earlier behavior and actions, and seeing him in front of her dressed as Superman only added to her discomfort. He always seemed more threatening this way — more Kryptonian, and though she intellectually knew that he wasn't going to hurt her, she had difficulty controlling her fear responses. It seemed especially difficult now because the specter of Kal-El was looming large in her mind.

<<What do I do? What do I say?>>

"You… you look tired."

<<Right. Score one for Lois in the witty repartee department.>>

"Uh … yeah," he smiled wearily. "Just a little."

She looked more closely at him, seeing for the first time since she had awoken the deep exhaustion in his eyes. She pondered quickly that this man had faced an asteroid — faced it… possibly head on. The asteroid had almost killed him after his first encounter, and yet he willingly and unflaggingly went out again to stop it. He must have been terrified — and the experience must have been harrowing.

"Do… do you want to talk about it?" The words just fell out of her mouth.

Again he favored her with a tired, but friendly smile. "Um. Yes… yes, I do — but… not now."

<<Of course. And not with me. Why would he pick me to talk about this? And of course, I probably sounded like I was going after the story. >>

"Right — right — I'm sorry. Of course —"

"I'm just really tired."

"Oh, I'm sure! And — I … I'm just — you must want to be alone so you can sleep. I — I'll be leaving now —"

"I didn't mean to imply — or — you know — you don't have to leave — if you need to catch more sleep — or — if you — do you want breakfast? I can cook pretty well, and I — well — you've had my coffee…"

"No. No — you don't need to be taking care of me right now," she said with a firmness that surprised her. "What you need is sleep," her voice was almost stern.

Biting back the urge to say 'Yes, mom', he smiled at her, this time, not as wearily.

"I really do want to talk about it. I don't — I hate… writing about myself — things I've done. I feel kind of strange doing that. But this is a big story — one that should be told — and one that people are eager to hear, I'm sure… I'd…" he hesitated, feeling a bit embarrassed about continuing.

<<He's trying to tell me that he doesn't want to tell me this story. I understand, it's not like I've given him reason to want to share this — or any other story — with me. >>

"It's okay — there are plenty of reporters out there that you know who can give this the justice it deserves — hopefully at the Daily Planet?"

"I was actually hoping you would write it."

"Really?" She had trouble holding back her excitement. Whatever they had been through, this was an extraordinary opportunity. But it was more than that — she had this odd desire to be the one he shared this with — to be his confidant. To somehow offer him the chance to unburden his soul, and to share his fears. She didn't understand where these feelings were coming from, but she suspected that it had something to do with the fact that they had both shared such an intense experience.

"Really. I just felt kind of funny asking. You know- it sounds kind of… arrogant — and —"

<<No. Not a good word. I'm sure Kal-El was arrogant!>>

"You're offering me an exclusive on the one story that every reporter would give a kidney to get. I really appreciate it."

"You — you deserve it. I couldn't have done it without you," he said quietly.

"Well… I don't know about that… but — yes. Yes — I'd like to — be the… one."

<<Oh — you are. The one. The only. >>

"Great! But…"

"But… but later. I know you're tired — you have to be exhausted from what you went through. And — to tell the truth — I am too. I want to go home — I need to talk to my parents — I — my phone died a while back, and I'm sure they are frantic. They had asked me to spend the 'last moments' with them, if it came to that, and I think I let them down."

<<Only because I wouldn't let you leave. >>

"Right." His remorse showed in his eyes, but he was unable to voice his apologies just yet, afraid of bringing back those nightmarish memories for her.

"I don't know that I would have made good on my promise regardless… being with them, in such a stark and painful way — I don't know that I could have dealt with their emotions, you know?"

"Yeah. I do."

"Can I tell them…"

"Absolutely — tell them anything — everything."

"Just… you know — the part that matters."

"Are… do you need my help getting there?"

<<God, no! I'm not ready for that.>>

"No — no — my car — it's — I have my car."

"Where is it?"

"Down a few blocks, that-a-way."

He looked in the direction she pointed and used his super-vision to ensure that her car hadn't been touched by rioting crowds. It looked to be in good shape and there wasn't anybody hiding inside.

"Are you going to be okay? People — well — people got pretty crazy for a while there. I think emotions are still running pretty high."

Immediately she felt defensive and unsure. The Kryptonians in that other world had always mocked humans for their excessively sloppy emotionalism. "Well — well — it's understandable… I think — under these circumstances — you know — people — they were afraid — afraid that there wouldn't be a tomorrow —"

"I know — and I wasn't — I wasn't criticizing. I'm sorry — I didn't realize… sometimes I forget," he smiled self- deprecatingly. "I forget that I'm not human — that I'm perceived as not human. I feel like I'm human, part of the human race, so when I make a statement like that — I don't see myself as someone on the outside making judgment calls on everyone else."

<<I'm such a jerk.>>

"I — shouldn't have gotten so defensive. I'm sorry. I guess I still have some things to work through." She said this quietly, hoping desperately that he wouldn't pursue this avenue of discussion.

<<I'm not ready to talk about it.>>

"No need to apologize."

"Neither do you."

"So — so do you need … an escort? I feel like I should walk you to your car or something."

"No. No — don't worry… I'll be…" her voice trailed off, as she thought of Luthor.

"Lois?"

"Can… can I change my mind?"

"Of course!"

"It's just — well — as you said — people — acting crazy."

<<She's… she's holding something back. She's not really afraid of rioting crowds. There's something or someone else. >>

"Lois? Are… is there someone who —"

"No — no — well… kind of. You know — you warned me about him."

"Luthor."

She flinched at his name. "Yes."

"Oh — you want that briefcase, right?"

She blushed, thinking of how she had broken into his apartment for that very prize. "Uh… yeah… I kind of do."

"I'll get it — just one moment — and then -"

"Are — are you going to change?"

<<Lois, shut up! Where did that come from?>>

"Uh — yeah — I suppose — I'd get mobbed by people dressed like this. At least, as Clark I'm a little more inconspicuous."

"Not much, I'd wager. You should get some sleep — I'll be okay, getting to my car."

"I'd feel better if you let me accompany you. No pressure — if you don't feel — if you don't want me to — I won't — but —"

"Maybe you could follow me by air — make sure I get there okay? That way nobody would see you."

He was disappointed in the plan because it meant he wouldn't be with her, but he had to admit, it made a lot of sense.

"Okay. Sounds like a good compromise. Here's the briefcase." He held it out to her.

"Thank you. Thank you very much."

"What brought on the change of heart?"

"I…" she trailed off, not really wanting to talk about Lex.

"Did he do anything? Did he —" Clark broke off, not wanting to upset her, especially as he could feel himself becoming agitated and angry at Luthor. He didn't want to scare her with a show of anger.

"Yes —" she started to say, but then she broke off when she saw how his hands suddenly curled into fists and his body became tense.

Fear washed over her so suddenly it made her dizzy and nauseous. She abruptly found herself unable to look into his eyes. Furiously she commanded herself to stop acting like a ninny. It took all her force of will to get her to bring her eyes back to his face. She didn't want him to see her response, to give her that look of remorse and understanding.

"Lois, what did he —" he checked himself as he registered her panic. Her fear. Of him. He realized his stance was now somewhat on the belligerent side, and that his voice was angry.

<<Stay calm. If he had raped her, she wouldn't be … very coherent. Not after what she's been through. >>

"It's kind of stupid. I don't — I don't really want to talk about it — if — it that's okay." Her voice was anxious as she fretted she had offended him by refusing to talk about it.

"Well — of course — it has to be okay — but Lois — if he — if you ever feel threatened — by him, or by anyone else —"

"Call you."

"Right. I'll be there — right away — you just have to call my name."

"And you'll be there…"

"With bells on. Or… well — just a cape and boots."

The minute the words were out, he flinched at their double meaning.

<<Just a cape and boots? And nothing else? Like a goddamned exotic dancer. Nice job, Clark — once again, your foot — or rather — boot — is back in your mouth. >>

His feelings showed a bit on his face, and he saw the answering look of amusement begin to dawn on hers.

<<Okay — not a catastrophe. I've amused her. That's better than disgusting her, or scaring her — by a long shot. Being a clown beats being a monster.>>

"Did I just say what I think I said," he asked in dismay. "I'm hoping you'll give me a little leeway here as far as verbal blunders. I really am kind of tired."

She smiled more fully, unable to help it — despite the disturbing imagery his words had given her, the fact that he immediately had winced from his words had nearly given her a fit of the giggles. She knew those moments — when words hung out in the air, tantalizing you with your inability to unsay them.

"Okay — I guess you deserve a bit of leeway. And yes," she continued, more seriously, "it's clear, just from looking at you, how tired you are. I feel guilty —"

"Don't!"

<<Oh god. That sounded like a command.>>

"I — I mean — please — please don't. Just… I feel better seeing you safely to your car, at least … and I wouldn't be able to get any rest unless I knew you were okay. So — don't feel guilty. Please. Not on my account. Deal?"

"Deal."

Later, as she arrived at her parents, she felt sudden trepidation. Her dad and Lucy knew all about what had happened to her and she was guessing her mother knew too. She didn't want to face their emotion — their grief, anger, rage… she just wanted to be normal — for them to be normal… and to be strong and self- assured again. She felt weak as a result of what she had gone though, and although she knew that it was irrational, she felt diminished by having once been so victimized.

Lois had always prided herself in being the strong, capable and competent one… defender of justice, willing and unafraid to face her enemies, and now, she felt like a porcelain doll that had been broken, and then carefully reconstructed. If you looked too closely, you would see the gaps and cracks. Although you would still be happy to have the doll intact, you probably wouldn't put it up to display anymore. It had lost something that it would never be able to regain.

Bracing herself for their responses, she got out of her car. No sooner had she done so, than her mother came tearing down the drive.

"Thank god, Lois! We thought you were — god — we didn't know what to think! You were supposed to be with us — you never came, and — and — we couldn't reach you — we didn't know what to think! I thought — I thought I'd lost you again!"

She heard the panic in her voice and realized how deeply her mother had been affected… not just by this recent event, but by all the events in Lois's life that made her life so dangerous. She had never given her mother's perspective much thought before, and it occurred to her that being a mother to a daughter like Lois must surely be a terrifying thing. She hoped never to know what that was like. Uncharacteristically, she didn't launch into a frustrated response of how she was okay — how she always was okay — how she was an adult who didn't need supervising… instead — she just opened her arms, and stepped into her mother's embrace, reveling for the first time in a long time, in that feeling of being cherished so intensely.

"Mom. I'm sorry. It's okay. Everything is okay."

Her mother stepped back and regarded her closely. "Lois?"

She smiled. "Yes. In the flesh. Not a pod person."

"I — I was worried."

"I gathered," she said lightly, trying to deflect her mother from exposing her feelings any further. It was too painful to do this right now. This level — this showing — this was enough for now. "Listen. I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to… abandon you all… at this very difficult time. But I think when you hear where I've been, you'll understand. And… uh — my phone — yeah — it ran out of battery juice — and I didn't really notice."

"Lois — since when don't you notice a thing like that?"

"I had… more important things to worry about."

"What? Is everything all right? Are you okay? Were you okay?"

"Let's go back into the house — I'll explain everything… okay?"

Later, after she had been greeted by the other two members of her relieved family, and after the coffee had been made, she sat with them in the living room, and dropped her bomb.

"I was with Clark."

"You mean Superman? Just…just now? You — did you get the story —"

"Yes, Yes and No. I was with him just now — but also — for the last day. I — ran into him — soon after his first attempt failed."

"You did? He was on Earth all this time? Lois! The entire world was looking for him — why didn't he call EPRAD? What was he thinking? Why didn't you call and tell someone -"

"I'm trying to tell you the story — you need to let me finish," she chided her father gently for his interruption.

"Sorry, sorry —" he muttered. "Go on — please."

"Okay… to make a long story short — he had amnesia, and after I filled him in on who he was and what he still needed to do, he asked me for my help in getting his memories back. We spent a lot of time together trying to do just that… and finally — we were successful. Once he got his memories back, he was able to go and stop the asteroid."

"Uh — Lois — can you make the short story longer," asked Lucy, perplexed. "Where did you meet up with him? How come you were the only one who saw him? I'm sure he was pretty conspicuous — his suit must have been all tattered and burned from the —" she stopped speaking, as she saw the flush appear on Lois's face.

<<His suit would have burned cleanly off. Oh my god. There's a major story behind this story, but she's not about to tell the parents. >>

"I… well — I broke into his apartment, and I ran into him there. He seemed to just know that that was his home."

"Lois! What were you doing breaking into his apartment — was this about your article series, because, honestly —"

"Mom — it wasn't about that," she said quietly. "Clark had some information on Luthor, and I was afraid that if Clark was dead, that Luthor would rise to even more levels of …"

"Evil." Her father's voice was emphatic.

"Um — okay — evil. So I ran into him there. He was a little … startled at find me there, but in the end, I convinced him who he was, who I was… and that he had just plummeted to Earth after colliding with an asteroid. Once that happened, it was just a long road to getting his memories back — I told him what I knew about him — showed him how to use the internet to surf for information about him… and finally — it all just clicked."

"So he wasn't injured — it wasn't a brain injury that caused the memory loss? It was something else, maybe hysterical amnesia —"

"Dad — I'm not a doctor — I don't know."

"Why didn't he go for help — why ask you? You'd think he'd want to know who his friends were, so he could surround himself with them — and maximize his chances of getting his memories back."

"Dad — I know — but that isn't what he wanted to do. I think he was afraid that he would be bombarded by people wanting answers — and that it would take away from his ability to get answers of his own. We were on a deadline, you know."

"Well exactly — a deadline — so why not give yourself an even greater chance by calling in someone like Perry White? You could have done that without attracting a lot of media attention — you know how to avoid media attention, being in the business yourself."

"I suggested it — but he … he just didn't want to do it."

"And, hell," interjected Lucy, trying to help her sister out, "if a super-powered man of steel doesn't want to do something…" she faded out as she realized what she was saying.

<<Nice going, Lucy.>>

She looked apologetically at her sister, only to be surprised by Lois's grateful smile.

"So what finally trigged his memory," Eleanor asked.

"Uh — I don't… know — really — but… boy, whatever it was, it really did happen just in time."

Sam looked at her suspiciously. His expression said plainly:

<<You're lying.>>

"So the asteroid isn't a threat — all of it is gone?"

"Yes."

"Did you get the story? Are you going to —"

"Not yet — although he offered me the exclusive — sort of as thanks — for helping him out. I mean — really — he doesn't need to thank me — he saved the world from possible destruction. But I'm not an idiot — I'll take the exclusive on the biggest story in my career."

"Oh really? So you're meeting up with him later?" Lucy's voice held a wealth of curiosity.

"Yes. After… he's really tired. I guess — who wouldn't be. So he asked me if we could do it later on."

"Lois…"

"Mom."

"Are… are you sure that's a good idea? It couldn't have been easy for you — spending so much time with him… Lois — I know — your dad told me —"

"Right — right. I know he did. I figured he would. Look mom — yes — it wasn't easy — but it had to be done, and in the end — well — I think — it's good I did spend that time with him. He doesn't — freak me out as much anymore."

"Oh. Well — that is good to hear, but —"

"And this other thing — this exclusive — this is what I do. I am not going to turn away the best story to ever come my way just because I might find the interviewee a little intimidating."

"Okay — you know best. I just -"

"Worry. I know. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be snappish. It's just — a good reporter doesn't let personal feelings affect how she handles a story. I never have, and I never will."

"When are you meeting him?"

"Tonight."

"Where," asked Lucy.

"We haven't really nailed down that detail. Why all the questions?" Her voice was irritated.

"Sorry. I was just curious."

"I — I just don't know. Look — can we talk about something else now? I'm tired — tired of the asteroid, and tired of talking about myself. I just want to think about something else for a while — okay?"

Later on, when she found her sister alone, Lois came over and sat beside her on the sofa.

"How are you doing, Lucy? I know these last days have been very stressful."

"I'm doing okay. A lot to think about — a lot to recover from — but — doing okay. Are you okay?"

"Yes. I think I — I think I am."

Something in her voice made Lucy sit up and take closer notice.

"What… are — are you willing to talk about what happened with me? Now that mom and dad aren't here?"

She twisted her lips in a mirthless smile. "Only some of it, I think. I do need someone to talk to."

"I'm listening."

"I broke into his apartment, because I was afraid of Lex Luthor. I was afraid that without Clark there to come to the rescue, Luthor might… I have reason to believe that Luthor is stalking me."

"Lois!"

"And that he would… do me harm … if the asteroid hit — and the world changed… and the laws we live by — fell by the wayside … I felt certain that Luthor, if alive, would not hesitate to… well — enslave me — if he could."

"Oh my god."

"He's made it clear that he wants me, and I've come to believe that Luthor is a dangerous man — a man who seeks to control…to dominate and possess… he doesn't want me at his side — he wants to… own me."

"He's horrible."

"He made a pass at me once… when I was really at his mercy. Superman intervened. I'm not sure what would have happened if he hadn't."

"Lois! That's awful — you — you never told me."

"I didn't want to talk about it, it was too — awful — and ugly — I didn't want to relive it in the retelling. I didn't want to relive other things either. The associations were … it's hard to explain."

"No — no — I understand. But talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Luthor trying to make a move, and Superman there to help you. You probably felt -"

She let out a sharp breath. "It was pretty awful. I was still very wary about Clark and his motives, and so — the whole …encounter… was pretty bad. Clark actually tried to give me a briefcase full of evidence that he and Perry had amassed against Luthor, but I kind of freaked out on him…"

"Freaked out…?"

"Had a major panic attack. Right in front of him. Ugh. It was pretty bad. The short of it is — I didn't get the briefcase, and didn't realize until later, how much I wanted it."

"So you broke into his apartment, figuring he was either dead, or way out in space-"

"Figuring he was no longer there to help keep Luthor away from me. I knew that it was now up to me to stop Luthor- and this was the best line of defense that I had."

"So what happened?"

"He was there — in his apartment — he had just arrived, I think."

"Yikes. So did he think you were an intruder?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, he did. And even worse — he thought I had something to do with his current state of amnesia. He had assumed that someone had tried to kill him, and when I broke in, he thought that I somehow must have had something to do with it. He was pretty angry at first, and — he — he wouldn't let me leave." She winced a little at the memory.

"Oh my god! Lois — that must have been terrifying for you."

"Major understatement," she said emphatically. "I finally managed to convince him of what was really going on — the television helped in that regard — and then — he asked me to help him get his memories back. He — uh — he seemed pretty convinced that I could do it. It's like he … almost like his memories were being suppressed because of me."

"What do you mean?"'

"It's almost as if he didn't want to know — know what had happened to me- what his involvement was…"

"But — he wasn't involved. He would have saved you in an instant if he could have — if he had known —"

"I think — because I link him to… the other… it may have been less difficult for him to — to just let it all go. Who knows how much my articles have hurt him, or how much my reaction hurts him? Did he ever talk to you about it?"

"Not in so many words," she hedged, "but, I do think you are on to something."

"Right — because he is in love with my doppelganger, so it must have been really painful for him to have me treat him that way — like he's a monster. Just like it's been really hard for me to see him as anything but a monster."

"I'm not sure he's in love with her… but I do think he — valued her a lot — and that… yeah — it did hurt him lot to know that you would always think of him as…"

"Lord Kal-El," she said venomously.

"Right."

"Well — so maybe that, along with whatever physical trauma, was what caused him to not know who he was. Anyway — he seemed absolutely certain that I was somehow the key — that somehow I could help him. I didn't want to — but I felt like I had no choice. The asteroid was bigger than my fear of him. So…I agreed to help him out.

"How did that go?"

She grimaced. "Not — so well. I was trying really hard to hide the fact that he scared the hell out of me, but he picked up on it… my reaction when I first saw him wasn't so good. I panicked when I first saw him and I think that just stuck in his mind. He kept trying to ask me about it — but I didn't want to talk about it. I was afraid that if I did, those memories would take over, and I'd be… I'd be lost."

"That's understandable," Lucy said gently.

"I finally pointed him to the internet — which turned out to be… well — I guess a good move, in the end. But he found my articles. I didn't think about that possibility. He found my articles…"

"Was he angry? Oh — Lois —"

"No! No — he was confused. And the articles just pushed him into direct confrontation with me. He had been willing to walk on eggshells when it came to my refusal to talk about why I had reacted so badly upon first seeing him, but after he saw the articles, it was too clear to him that I had negative feelings towards him. I think he thought I was hiding some awful truth about him — and he just needed to get the answers. It kind of got a little bad at that point. I tried to leave — I was willing to leave — to let the asteroid collide with the earth, rather than face my past."

"Lois — you can't blame yourself — you were in an emotional state, I'm sure, and you were afraid- I can understand that — because if you got lost in those memories — then it would be like going back to that world — it makes sense —"

"It's still… it was selfish, Lucy. He even tried to tell me that —"

"He did WHAT?"

"Don't — don't get all outraged on my behalf. I think he feels really badly about it now, but at the time, he didn't know what I'd been through. How could he have known, when I wouldn't talk about it? So he — he pushed. I tried to leave — and he — he wouldn't let me."

"He wouldn't let you leave?"

"No."

"Oh — oh — god — it must have been so hard for you — like being back there- to be held against your will."

She smiled mirthlessly. "Yes. Precisely. But again — he didn't know. After that… well… it didn't take long for those memories to just … to win. Before I knew it — they were on me —I was — bombarded. All those awful — awful — deep and dark and ugly memories — they just flooded through my mind — and stole all sense of reality and reason. I had a … well — a breakdown — I guess. I just lost control. And that's what did it… it triggered his memories… and he was able to stop the asteroid."

"He just left you like that?"

"He didn't want to — Lucy — he had to."

"So… so then what happened? How did you come out of it?"

"I just did — it was like a flashback — you know — like when war veterans have them — it never was the case that it would consume me. I just had feared it would, but when it was all over, I was … still me. I was still here, and aware that I was here. I think if I hadn't spent all this time pushing it all away, it might have not been so bad — but because I had, it was like a tidal wave. But…I'm still standing."

"So…"

"So I was extremely fatigued by what had happened, and I just fell asleep where I had dropped… which is what I did when I had the attack — I just kind of fell to the floor —"

"So he left you — on the floor-"

"Lucy — he gave me this afghan."

"As a parting gift — I don't understand?"

"No, silly. He covered me with it, while I was having my… episode. So when I came back to reality, I just kind of fell asleep — covered in a comforter that his mom must have made."

"That's… really… sweet."

"When he came back, he actually tried to move me to the couch without waking me up — but I did — and after a brief and rather awkward conversation, I left."

"Wow…"

"Yeah."

"So — how do you feel about him now?"

"Well — I guess you can say 'I told you so', because I don't think he's anything like Kal-El. But… don't start weaving a fairy tale for us. I'm not about to suddenly see him as Prince Charming either. I doubt very much if I'll ever see any man that way again. But… I won't be writing my negative article series any more… and I'll probably be able to deal with him in much calmer way. We're colleagues — maybe we can even work together in trying to bring Luthor down."

"Hmmm."

"What does that mean?"

"Just — Hmmm."

"Lucy…" her tone was warning. Before she could continue, her phone rang. Looking down at the caller-id, she saw that it was Clark.

Hours later, she was pacing the floor of her living room.

Nervously she waited for him to show up.

<<I should have asked if he was going to fly here or come to the door.>>

She eyed both her balcony door and her front door with equal trepidation.

<<Why am I so nervous? Scratch that… of course — I'm nervous — but everything will be okay. The truth is, I'm safer with him here than I am at any other time. >>

She took a deep, ragged, steadying breath, and started to drink down her second glass of merlot. I shouldn't be drinking alone. Images of her mother haunted her with each sip.

<<But don't I have the right — don't I have every reason? This isn't alcoholism — this is just …courage. I don't have a problem, and I won't have a problem. But isn't that how mom looked at it? Oh god — what if it is hereditary. What if I'm setting myself up to become like the way she was? >>

A knock on the door startled her out of her thoughts. Her hand trembled uncontrollably as she set the wine glass down, and clenching her fists to get them under control, she forced herself to go to the door. She looked out the peephole and saw that it was him. He was dressed like any normal man would be, and he was carrying a bottle of wine. A mirthless laugh rose up in her throat at the sight of the bottle.

<<Oh great. Lead me not into temptation — I can find it myself. Maybe he's nervous too. I wonder if alcohol affects him? I'm hoping not… I don't want to deal with an inebriated Kryptonian.>>

She forced herself to clasp the doorknob, and turn the handle as she undid the deadbolt.

<<One step at a time. Just remember to inhale, and then exhale. Repeat as needed.>>

The door was open, and she looked at her visitor with what she hoped was a welcoming smile. She didn't feel welcoming. In fact, she felt sick — her body felt about 10 degrees warmer, and she was almost certain that her eyeballs were now perspiring. She was trembling, and that just added to her nerves — she so desperately wanted to get that trembling under control.

<<Stop it!! Stop it this instant!>>

"You… you didn't fly?"

"Well, actually, I did. But I figured you'd prefer me to arrive this way —rather than coming to your window."

<<I do. And that was insightful of you.>>

"Oh — it would have been six of one, half dozen of the other," she lied, feeling shame at the blatancy of her falsehood. "Why- why don't you come in."

Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to step away from the door, opening up the space so he could come into her apartment. Her heartbeat seemed to double in its rate, and she felt dizzy, and heard a ringing in her ears.

<<Dear god. Do not let me faint. Why am I panicking? I was fine when I last saw him — so why this reaction now? It's almost like I need to be around him for a while before I can act even remotely normal in his presence. I have no immunity, and every time I see him, the feelings of menace… they're so fresh. Will I ever be able to overcome that? >>

He took a few steps in, and stopped once he had cleared the door way. He waited nervously for her next move, unwilling to be the one who closed the door. He didn't want to feel like he was locking her in with him. A stab of guilt ran through him as he remembered that he had, in fact, locked her in with him just one day ago. His reaction was obvious to her, and she knew that she hadn't fooled him with her ill-achieved attempt at 'acting casual'.

"I'm okay —" she said abruptly, forestalling any attempts on his part to ask how she was doing.

"Okay…"

"No. Really. I'm okay. I'm glad you're here." Her voice was firm, as if she was trying to convince herself of the veracity of her words.

"It's — uh — it's good to be here. Here," he thrust the bottle of wine awkwardly towards her and she took it automatically.

"Thanks… you know — you didn't have to —"

"I know. This is an interview — and normally, I wouldn't — but after yesterday — I feel kind of like we've known each other for a million years, and it seemed like it would be the right thing — the polite thing — you know?"

"Wine… wine is good. Actually — I —"

<<I started without you.>>

"I have a bottle already open. Um — it's breathing. I wasn't sure if you drank or not — but …"

<<I needed the strength to face you.>>

"Well — I don't drink much, only because I never know when I will have to go and …"

"Stop an asteroid from hitting a planet?"

"Yeah — or — you know — get a cat out of a tree," he said, lightly, trying to keep up the light banter.

<<She's trying so hard to be normal. Best I can do is play along.>>

"Does … does alcohol affect you at all?"

"Don't —"

He stopped short. Horribly, he found himself on the verge of asking her 'Don't you know?'

"I don't know. I — never tried to find out."

A flush rose on her face as she realized what he had been about to say.

<<Of course. Which one of us here knows the most about his species?>>

She turned to put the bottle down, using that maneuver as a chance to get out of this awkward turn of conversation.

"Did you manage to get the sleep you need?"

"Enough …"

"Do — do you want to postpone this? I mean — if you're still exhausted —"

"No — no, I'm fine. Thanks. You know how you just get to a point where, no matter how tired you are you just can't rest anymore? That's how I feel right now."

"Right. Well… do you want to get started? Do… did you want a glass of wine?"

<<Yes.>>

"Well — not to be rude — but I think I'll pass… I am tired, and with my luck, a single glass would be enough to make it worse."

"Coffee?"

"Sure!"

"Okay — one moment —" she wandered to the kitchen, feeling relieved to be able to put some distance between them.

<<Calm down. I can do this. He's not a threat, so why do I feel so threatened?>>

She poured the coffee that she had made earlier and brought it out.

"Hope you like it —" she offered him a mug. "Yours was really good and I'm not sure mine comes close."

"Thanks!! I'm not sure about caffeine, if it's physiological or psychological with me — but it really does seem to help."

"Helps me too. I can't tell you how many times my stories were written in a caffeine induced high."

"This is great coffee."

"Thanks."

Another horrible thought hit him. Did she have to cook for him?

<<What if she made him coffee? What if her life depended on how good it was? Does this make her think of that? Of him? Of serving him? I shouldn't have said yes to the coffee — I should have brought her coffee — or made it for her. But that would have been strange — it's her apartment… so I should have brought it. Would have been less intimate than a bottle of wine. I wish I could do this over again. >>

He lifted his eyes from his mug, and looked at her carefully. To his great surprise, she had been studying him intently. The moment their eyes met, she looked away, once again — her startle/fear response took over.

"Did… did you have any questions in mind or did you just want me to tell you about it?"

"I think… maybe you could just tell me about it, and then I could ask more specific questions."

"Okay."

A while later, he finished his story by saying, "And then, I flew back home. The rest of it is pretty standard stuff."

"Standard, if flying through space is standard for you."

"Well — right. I guess I can tell you that the Earth looks really beautiful from space. Not that it isn't beautiful from Earth — but the sight of it from space is the stuff dreams are made from."

"I've always wondered what that would be like — seeing the earth from the perspective of the astronauts."

"It's spectacular."

<<I wish I could show it to you.>>

"Were… were you scared?"

"Oh, definitely."

"Not just for Earth — were you afraid for yourself? What did it feel like, facing that asteroid — seeing it in all its rage and fury?"

<<Now, why did I have to choose those words? Now I'm thinking about Kal-El again. Great job, Lois.>>

He saw her flinch at her own choice of words, and hastily answered her question, to try to take her mind of her grimmer thoughts. "Yes — yes, I was afraid — afraid for myself. The first attempt was scarier than the second. The first time around, I had no idea if I could survive an encounter with the thing… I didn't really know if I would feel the pain of collision, or if I would get burned —" he stopped talking, knowing that this line of conversation must be bothering her. "Uh… and then the second time, I guess I was more worried that I would fail like I had the first time."

She was silent for a few long seconds, trying to break free from some of the memories that his words had dredged up.

<<Say something. You have to say something. Now. What did he just say? He failed the first time? >>

"What did you do differently — why didn't you … fail — the second time?"

"Well — I used a different strategy. The first time, I basically tried to fly into the thing. The second time out, I was dealing with smaller pieces of the asteroid, for one thing — but also — I knew that colliding into it would very likely knock me out again, so I decided to try using my heat vision to make it explode."

She winced at the image.

<<Heat vision. Oh cripes. Why did I have to mention my heat vision? She has a very real reminder of the kind of damage heat vision can do — and I probably just reminded her of that. >>

Before he could stop himself, he found himself apologizing.

Startled, she looked directly into his eyes.

"No — you don't have to be sorry. I asked you the questions — you're just giving me the answers I was seeking."

"But… I'm sure this is painful to hear."

<<What am I doing? She doesn't want to talk about this — especially with me!>>

"I'll be okay," she said nervously, her eyes sliding away from his once again.

"I just … I feel … really badly —"

"Well, I do too," she said hastily. "I'm — I'm sorry. I interrupted you — I — I —"

<<She's getting agitated again.>>

"That's okay. No problem. Please… go on. Um — if you want to, that is."

"I — I —"

She felt like a vise had suddenly tightened around her lungs, heart and stomach. The old and very familiar attack of dread resurfaced. She hated how her body could suddenly feel so terrible. She hated being at the mercy of her emotions and memories the way she was.

"I have something I want to say to you," she blurted out before she could stop herself.

He waited in silence, knowing that this entire conversation was a struggle for her.

"I wanted to tell you… how … sorry I am, about what happened. I feel really… really badly about how I behaved."

"You — you don't have any reason to — you didn't … you didn't do anything wrong."

<<It was all me, Lois. I'm the one who should apologize.>>

She turned back to face him, but spoke to his shoes. "I … almost … the asteroid nearly — you kept asking me to help you — and I refused. You managed to save us all, but not through any help from me. If anything, I hindered your efforts."

"Lois — come on — you — had every good reason to not want to talk about it. You were… you were afraid of what it would do to you."

"No — please — let me finish. You — you were absolutely right when you said that I was … putting my own needs ahead of those of the world. I can't believe I acted that way. You knew that I was the key, that the truths I was hiding were key to unlocking your memories, and yet — I refused to even consider the possibility. And you were right, and the worst part is- I think I knew that you were right — at the time, and I still wouldn't do it — wouldn't tell you — wouldn't talk about it. I felt that if I did, I'd get lost and never find my way back. And I decided that it would be better to die — hell — to let the whole world die — than to go back into that place… and that really is unforgivable."

"I don't think so. I honestly believe you thought we could get my memories back without going down that path. And I don't blame you for feeling how you did about it. Dear god — who wouldn't want to avoid getting lost in those memories. You've been through something horrifying, and anyone would do pretty much anything to avoid getting stuck back there —even if it was being stuck there via your memories. I don't see you as culpable at all. I am the one who owes you the big apology."

"Well… I don't think —"

"Lois," he said softly. "I … I wouldn't let you leave." He paused, and she could see the pain in his eyes at the recollection. "How… how different from him am I really if I would use my strength and abilities to hold you here against your will. I disregarded what you wanted — what you needed. I did it by being a bully. I — I can't forgive myself that."

<<Are we really going to do this? Talk about this? Shouldn't I back off from this?>>

"I don't —"

"I know — I'm sorry — you probably don't want to talk about it — I don't want to make things worse for you, but I just —"

"No — I mean — I don't blame you. You were desperate to get your memories back so you could save the world. You did the right thing."

Her answer took him off guard. "But —"

"I am not going to lie to you and say that parts of our time together weren't… really bad for me. But I understand why you felt that you had to act as you did."

"I acted pretty badly even before I knew about the imminent threat."

"Clark — you were afraid — you were afraid of me. That's a first… but… understandable too. You felt menaced, and I was an intruder. Please — you have to forgive yourself for that. I do — I don't feel like you —" she paused, and then took a deep and shaky breath. "You aren't anything like Lord Kal-El."

After a long and uncomfortable silence, she spoke again, this time, her voice unsure.

"Uh — sorry. That was … that was kind of a dumb thing to say, wasn't it? Of course — you aren't like him — you know — you *know* who you are — and what you are like — you don't need my validation, of all things…"

"No! No — please — please don't take my… my silence for anything more than what it really is. I'm — well — I'm kind of shell-shocked at this point, to be honest."

"Shell-shocked?"

"Since you came… since I first met you — well — it's not like we've been friends or anything — but this topic — this whole thing has kind of been hanging in the air between us. We never — we never talk about it -" He stopped and looked at her apologetically. "Well — not until I kept haranguing you to talk about it."

"Please, Clark — I told you — I'm not upset about that -"

"I know — I know — that's very — generous of you. But I still feel like I should be avoiding the whole thing — pretending like we are two regular and ordinary people who know each other, have friends in common — you know the drill."

"And … I've shocked you by blurting out — blurting out his name, I guess -"

"Making him real. Something that we can talk about… *are* talking about."

"Well — to be truthful," she said, looking at him apologetically, "I'm not really ready to talk about it. Baby steps, I think… I -" she stopped, and shook her head as if to dislodge the ugly memories. "I just can't. I — I — I -"

She was unable to continue. She could hear herself talking, and desperately wanted to stop.

<<Stop the noise. Stop all that… emoting. Stop>>

She exhaled roughly and then wearily placed her head in her hands as she massaged closed eyelids with her fingertips. It was a universal gesture of weariness.

<<I'm drunk.>>

This thought came hazily into her minds-view. Since he had arrived, she had battled the encroaching sensation of being disconnected with her body, but the feeling kept growing, almost in direct proportion to the effort she put into suppressing it.

"Lois — It's okay. It really is — you can talk about things — or not. It's entirely up to you. You control that — you are in control of what you say and do."

She looked up at him and stared for a long moment into his face, and then barked out a short and mirthless laugh.

"God — anything but. I've… I had a little wine before you came over."

He fought back a smile at the vast understatement. He had seen the level of alcohol left in that uncorked bottle, and he knew that she had to be feeling pretty buzzed by now.

"Why don't I let you sleep it off."

"No — no — please — don't feel you have to leave because — " she faltered uncertainly. Why don't I want him to leave?

He looked at her closely.

"Do you *not* want me to leave?"

Her eyes flickered uneasily to his face, and then flickered away again. I don't know what I want.

"I … I just don't know."

"Are you afraid to be alone? Has — has Luthor been bothering you again?"

"Oh — no — no — he hasn't."

"You do know that if you need my help — anytime at all — all you really have to do is call. I don't even mean by phone — just call for help and if it's possible, I'll be here as fast as I can. The only thing that would stop me would be some other pressing disaster — and it would have to be life-threatening -you know? Otherwise, I'd be here. You don't have to worry about false alarms, either. I trust your instincts — if you feel you're in danger, call me. Please."

<<A little too eager, there? At least I shouldn't make it sound like an imperative.>>

"Thank you. Thank you very much. How do you do that? Hear a cry for help over all the other stuff — do you listen that closely all the time?"

"God no — that would kill me. Too much information, and it's kind of a respect/privacy thing. I'd hate to hear things that aren't meant to be heard."

"Then — well — isn't there a chance that if — say — I was in trouble — and I called -how would you hear it."

<<Oh great. Cast doubts over his sincerity or his capabilities. Way to make friends, Lois.>>

"What if you called for help mentally? I … I don't want to upset you here, but you seem to have the ability to transmit your distress to me — I've heard it before."

"Oh -that. Yeah. That. Well — let me try it…" She concentrated hard on screaming for help in his head, and saw him recoil in shock. Abruptly she stopped her broadcast and immediately apologized.

"No — no — it's okay — but… whoa. That's just the freakiest thing," he said, unthinkingly, looking at her in stunned amazement.

His words stung. She wasn't a freak — just the victim of circumstance.

"You're calling me a freak? Which one of us is the 'Strange visitor from another planet?"

As soon as the words left her lips she regretted them. She had been unforgivably rude to someone who had only been trying to help her. The alcohol had dropped her inhibitions to an extent, but she didn't want them so far dropped that she unleashed her anger against Kal-El and his ilk on this man who had never done anything to deserve it. The instant she said what she said, she saw his expression change — she saw a flash of hurt, and then, a more shuttered, impassive expression take its place.

"So you've heard that phrase. Makes a good media sound-bite."

"I didn't mean — I'm sorry. I'm … I'm just sorry."

"It's okay. I'm kind of used to it anyway."

"See — now that just makes me feel worse."

He smiled sheepishly. "I think I knew it would. Look — I really mean it — no need to be sorry."

"Has… has it been strange for you? Being here — an alien surrounded by humans?"

<<I can't believe I just asked him that.>>

"At times. It was a lot easier before I revealed my true origins. It was hard growing up with it and living with it — and it certainly put a damper in my relationship with Lana — but… in the end- I'd have to say that it got a lot harder once everyone knew."

"Why did you decide to tell people?"

"Off or on the record…"

"Off — completely off."

"She came here. You know — she — your counterpart, and she needed my help. She was so accepting of my abilities — so… well — she talked a really good game. Made it sound like the noble thing to do. I got caught up in it all — in her acceptance of me — heck, more than that — it was as if she appreciated me all the more for it — not because of the power or the fame — but because of the ability to make people's lives better — she made me see that being open with my abilities would enable me to help so many more people."

"People… Men… have done similar things for … for a woman. Look at the Taj Mahal"

"It wasn't … it was more than that. She made me feel like I belonged, and nothing had ever made me feel that way before. Nothing and no-one."

<<Did you love her? Oh god. Don't ask that. Don't — shut up -just don't ask that question.>>

"So you trusted her — her vision."

"Well — she did tell me that I could have a secret identity. That it worked for him — that people didn't recognize that Superman and Clark were the same guy."

"Did he wear a mask, or -"

"Just glasses."

"That's it? I mean — how … you'd have to be pretty blind — or… stupid -"

"Well don't tell her that!"

"She didn't know?"

"No — not for a few years… and wow — she was mad when she found out. But it ended up that she forgave him, and they worked through it."

"So… what happened?"

"Uh — well… Tempus happened."

"Oh."

"I'm sorry — I'm sure you don't want to talk about -"

"No — I asked. It's okay. So — Tempus screwed up your best-laid plans, and you ended up with the big scarlet letter — A for alien — and I guess — you've felt more isolated than ever before."

"You're pretty darned perceptive."

"I'm a reporter — it comes with the territory."

"Yes — well -that's exactly how I felt. And then — she left — went back home."

<<I won't tell you that I asked her to stay. Begged her.>>

"And that feeling of belonging, well — it went back with her."

<<And that's why you looked for me. You wanted to see if you could feel it again — with me.>>

"Are you sorry? Do you wish you'd stayed incognito?"

"You know — many times I've thought about it… but in the end, despite the random moments of regret and even resentment, I am overall pretty glad that things turned out as they did."

"Resentment? You resent…her?"

"Sometimes. And him too."

"Do you still resent her? Do… do you resent me — for not — for not being her? Or anything like her?"

"You are very much like her."

<<Careful. Careful there, boy.>>

<<What does he mean by that?>>

"I — well — I mean — like — how she made you feel like you belonged. I think I've done the exact opposite."

"Oh — well — yeah -that's different. No — I don't resent you — not one bit. I despise Tempus and all those other people who hurt you the way they did… but I don't bear you any ill will. I hope you believe me when I say that."

"I — I do. I admit — for a while — I was kind of worried about that… especially in light of my articles… but since being back as long as I have, I've finally come to see that you are really the last person I have to worry about."

<<Those words were hard for you to say. I appreciate them. >>

"I'm really glad to hear that." He stood up, and said with some amount of regret — "I think I really do need to go now. If you are okay with that — of course."

"Yes — yes — of course." She stood up too, swaying uncertainly as she did.

"Are — are you okay?" His voice was full of concern.

"Nothing that bed won't cure." As soon as she said the words, she flushed scarlet at the double meaning.

<<No comment! >>

"Do… do you mind if I leave -" He gestured at the balcony.

"No! By all means — please — feel free."

He walked over and then paused to look back at her.

"Can I ask you something," she blurted out.

"Sure."

"Are you… are you seeing someone?"

<<Now why did I ask him that?>>

"Uh…"

"I'm sorry. It's just… I wanted to know if my coming back didn't … make things strange. I mean — you — your relationship with Lana broke up because of Lois -the other Lois — and -"

He smiled at her reassuringly. "I'm not. Really. Not. Not since Lana — Lana and I — we were going to be married. Lois didn't wreck that — it was already a bad relationship. Lana hated the fact that I was different, and it wouldn't have been a good time for either one of us again — I'd have ended up resenting her for constantly trying to put limits on the amount of help I could give people, and she would have resented me for not putting her feelings on the matter first."

"And… and you love her? This other Lois? Is this why you haven't gotten involved with anyone else?"

"I'm not in love with her. Not romantically. I thought I was… but it turned out to be a kind of reflected glory sort of thing."

"Oh."

<<Besides. I love you >>

"Is it okay with you if I …"

"Yes — by all means!"

He suddenly vanished into a swirl of colors, and just as quickly as he had vanished, he reappeared, or rather, Superman did.

The breath caught in her throat, and she felt as if someone had struck her hard. She struggled to remain standing and to keep her feelings from her face. She couldn't help herself. Seeing him like that always made her feel like she was in the presence of Kal-El — despite the complete difference in demeanor and stance — he seemed so alien like that — and she felt so vulnerable and at his mercy.

<<He could kill me. With just a glance.>>

"Oh," she breathed out in shock. "That's… that's — that's quite a party trick," she said, her eyes refusing to meet his.

<<I should have taken the door. It's like a magical spell — turn into Superman and watch her lose all her poise and confidence.>>

Her reaction broke his heart. It was terrible to see her turn into this frightened person — especially when she had been much more at ease with him just seconds before. Desperately he sought away to bring back the sense of camaraderie that had been there earlier.

"You know… I feel kind of like a circus performer when I'm dressed like this. It… it wasn't really my first choice."

"Oh. Uh — um — did… did she…"

"She said that his mother designed this… god only knows why. I can't imagine my mother thinking this would be something anyone should wear in public — but… well — there you have it. It took a while for me to be able to go out like this, and not completely feel like an idiot. What people must think? I can only imagine — I just try not to think about it too much."

"Well… it is conspicuous."

"She said that it was part of what made it easy for him to keep his lives separate — people kind of get blind, I guess by all this color." He smiled, clearly making a joke.

She found herself smiling back in response. "Right — there is that."

<<Also — it's very form fitting. >>

"Well — bye — and take good care of yourself. Let me know if you need me for anything… you know — Luthor, or just moving furniture…"

She smiled again. "I promise not to call you for the latter — you have more important things going on in your life. But thank you very much — for everything — and for this interview."

He nodded, and then turned and disappeared out the window, into the night.

The next day, she decided to go see Perry and fill him in on her change of heart as far as Clark was concerned. It seemed to her that she owed him that, given the long hours she had bent his ears trying to convince him that Clark had a nefarious ulterior motive.

She breezed past his secretary, ignoring her feeble protests, and burst into Perry's office, feeling more energized than she had in years. The wind was abruptly taken out of her sails when she saw who was in his office.

It was Clark, and his expression was a mixture of grim impatience and anger. The combination caught her off guard — looking like that, he reminded her very much of Kal-El. Her eyes were frozen to his face, and for a seemingly eternal moment, she felt as if she should start somehow begging his forgiveness — a pointless exercise whenever she had tried it, back in that other world.

<<What have I done, to make you so angry? >>

He was in the middle of a frustrating conversation with Perry about their mutual enemy, Lex. Lex, it seemed had struck again, perpetuating more dirty work without getting a drop of grime on his own well-manicured hands. Clark hated the feeling of helplessness that assailed him whenever he came up against any of Luthor's rotten schemes.

But then, she was there, and standing right in front of him. It seemed a dream — how could have possibly have gotten so lucky as to see her again so soon after the last time? Joy suffused through him, and before he could stop himself, a broad grin spread across his face.

<<It's you! I'm here with you! I'm so happy to see you again!>>

She registered the change in expression with a mixture of shock and pleasure. The nascent feelings of dread and panic gave way, to a different feeling, one that she hardly recognized.

Pleasure. She felt a wholly unexpected burst of joy at seeing that big and beautiful smile on his face. Kal-El had certainly never looked like that — when Clark did that, smiled so brightly and beneficently, it was as if there was no resemblance at all between the two men.

<<That smile. Look at that smile — it lights up the whole room. And it's meant for me! He makes me feel so welcome with that smile — as if — as if I… belonged! That's the word — like he said she made him feel — that's how I feel now. How is that possible — especially when I felt so panic-stricken moments before? What is it about this man that he can bring me from one extreme to another?>>

Perry looked at the two of them in confusion. He cleared his throat.

"Someone want to fill me in here?"

Lois turned, and looked at him, still slightly awestruck by that feeling seeing Clark had given her.

"Perry -"

"When did you two become friends?" He prompted after her abbreviated greeting.

"Well — we aren't exactly friends," said Clark. He regretted the words as soon as he said them, when he saw the look of stung hurt appear and then disappear from her eyes. "Well — what I mean to say is — we are … on the way to becoming friends — wouldn't you say so, Lois?"

"Yeah," she said, her voice still vaguely bemused.

"Okay — but last time I heard…" Perry trailed off delicately, not wanting to stir things up, yet burning with curiosity.

"Can't a top-notch reporter make mistakes once in a while?"

"What happened?" Perry's voice was quiet, and insistent.

<<Enough games, you two.>>

"Can… can I tell him?" Her eyes darted back to Clark's, unsure of how to proceed.

"Lois — of course — you can say whatever you want about the matter. But aren't you afraid he might scoop you on the asteroid story?" Clark was trying to keep the mood light — he knew that she had been uncomfortable at his earlier show of anger, and he didn't want to do anything to trigger any negative feelings. He was rewarded by a small smile.

<<Not as amazing as that earlier smile, but it will do. It'll do just fine.>>

"It's a long story, Perry — so I hope you have some free time."

"I have all the time in the world, for you two."

"Well, it all started when I broke into his apartment."

"Why doesn't this surprise me," asked Perry rhetorically.

"He was presumed dead, and I had reason to believe that Luthor was an imminent personal threat," her voice got serious and her expression darkened at the thought.

"Lois — what did he do?"

"He… he's been watching me. Stalking me. He had a complete replica of my apartment made — down to the very tiniest detail — in this creepy bunker of his — and he wanted me to live with him there, as his … ugh — I can't even say it — as… his -"

"Concubine," offered Perry.

Her head whipped up and she looked at him, staggered and shocked.

"Uh… what did I say?"

"I'm sorry … that's… that was the euphemism for… for us… slaves," she said bitterly.

"Oh. Oh. I'm sorry. I'm -" He looked over at Clark to gauge the other man's reaction and noticed that Clark's hands were now clenched. Fists of rage. Deadly fists of rage.

Lois noticed it to, and in an instant she stiffened, her eyes on his fists, mesmerized.

<<I remember those fists. >>

"Son," said Perry, "Maybe you should — ah — relax a bit," he muttered in a very low voice intended only for Clark to hear.

Clark was startled out of his impending anger by Perry's words and Lois's reaction.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry -"

She inhaled and then exhaled forcefully.

"Concubine — I guess that's a good word for what he wanted. I — I haven't felt so … menaced… since — well, in a long time. Anyway, I … wanted that briefcase that Clark had offered — and that I had so unceremoniously refused. And — thinking that Clark was dead," she looked over at him ruefully, "I broke in to his apartment, hoping to get the briefcase before it was lost to me forever. I thought the briefcase would contain enough information to neutralize Luthor's threat in the off-chance that we weren't all killed by the asteroid."

"So then what happened?"

"Clark — do you want to tell this part?"

He winced, "All of it?"

She flushed," Whatever you want to tell." Her expression clearly said please, leave out the details.

"I was at my apartment. I had crash-landed to Earth and had no idea who I was, or what had happened. At first… when I saw her there — I thought that Lois was somehow part of some plot to kill me." He stopped talking and looked over at her, in embarrassed recollection.

She blushed in return, remembering her reaction, feeling ashamed of its intensity. "I — well it was kind of understandable, under the circumstances. Anyway — I managed to convince him that I wasn't there to do him any harm and that he wasn't the victim of foul play. I showed him the news, and showed him that he was really this missing superhero who had to go out and stop the asteroid."

"I asked her to help me get my memories back, and after spending some time together, and after a while, it all kind of fell back into place," he paused, looking at her uncertainly. She nodded quickly, failing to notice Perry's narrowing eyes at this interchange. "And — that's the story in a nutshell. I figured, the least I owed her for putting her to so much … trouble… was the exclusive."

"Have… have you called it in yet?"

"Not yet. I wanted to talk to you first, so you wouldn't be surprised that I was the one to report it."

"You do realize there will be a great deal of resentment amongst our guild — you've been blasting him for so long, and that's already made a lot of people… angry at you… and now — you get the best story… well — since he revealed his alien origins."

"I know. But that's not enough to stop me."

"No — I didn't think so."

"Okay — well — I guess I'll be going now — I need to get my story in."

Clark tried to hide the disappointment from his expression. It had been so unexpectedly wonderful to see her again. He watched in silence as she gave Perry a quick hug. She looked up at him as she turned to walk towards the door, and smiled hesitantly.

"I'll see you. You take care."

"You too, Lois."

<<Maybe someday we'll be on hugging terms.>>

After she walked out the door, Perry turned to Clark with an 'I mean business' look on his face. Clark had to resist the urge to step back a few paces at the older man's determination.

"Okay. Son — now that she's gone. What really happened between you two?"

"Uh…

"There was enough under-current here to sink a ship. What really happened? I have to ask — when you thought she was part of a plot to kill you — did you behave… well — did you behave yourself?"

"Exactly what are you asking?"

"You didn't know you were an alien — a man with super powers. You were probably scared, and … confused. Did — did you hurt her at all?" Perry hated to ask the question, but he felt like he had to.

Clark looked away, his face flushing red, he couldn't face the man while revealing the truth. After a long moment, he said, still talking to the wall: "Yes."

"Yes? Yes — as in — yes, you hurt her?"

"I … I grabbed her arms, kind of shook her a little, and — even though she told her I was hurting her, I didn't really ease up much. Did you notice that she was kind of rubbing her arms? I think they were hurting her — I'm sure I left bruises."

"Oh Clark."

"And… and… I wouldn't let her leave."

"Oh no."

"Yea. I — pretty much fouled things up pretty badly."

"And she — how did she react?"

"Badly."

"Not a big surprise."

"I felt awful about it — it's been eating me up since I got my memories back. I apologized, to her, even…"

"And… did she accept?"

"More so — she thought that she owed me one — for being so evasive about…" he trailed off, not wanting to reveal too much about what else had happened.

"About what?"

"Well… I kind of got it into my head that she was hiding something — some bit of information that was tied to my memories — that would bring them back."

"And…"

"And I bullied her into telling me — she didn't want to — she tried hard to avoid doing so — but I badgered her and harassed her until she finally …"

"Gave in?"

"Lost it."

"Lost it?"

His face was bleak as he turned back to face Perry. "Perry, it was the most afraid I've been since she got back. She just — lost it. Slipped into memory hell — started crying and … begging… — it was as if she had gone back into that world. I pushed her -" he said, his voice dripping with self-recrimination. "I made her go back. I triggered the memories, and she was so absolutely lost. And horribly enough, it was her reactions which trigged my memories into returning. I had to leave… leave her like that — a huddled heap on my floor." He winced at the memory.

"Oh my god."

"When … when I got back home, she was asleep. But I managed to foul that up too by trying to move her to the couch. Of course, I woke her up."

"And then?"

"And oddly — she was … she ended up okay. The really strange thing is — I think it kind of broke through a barrier for her — regarding me. I still scare her — no doubt about it, but I scare her less when I'm dressed like a normal human, and as long as I keep my emotions even and friendly, it's almost like we are two normal people who get along reasonably well."

"That must… feel good."

"More than I can say."

"You do realize, son, that feeling vaguely comfortable around you is a far cry from…"

"I know -"

"I just don't think you should — um — push for anything more. You know — it might scare her off."

"Perry — please, the last thing I need to do is freak her out in the Luthor way. She doesn't need that. I know that."

"Can you deal with that?"

"I don't really see that I have a choice."

"So does it mean that you've given up hope — or that you're just biding your time?"

"You don't mince words, do you?"

"She's like a daughter, Clark — and you're like a son — I feel like I have the right. If I'm wrong, tell me, and I'll apologize."

"No — no — you have the right… I don't know — I guess I do feel some level of hope. It seems if she can be 'normal' around me, that sometimes I don't remind her of him — and that's pretty astounding."

"Maybe you two don't really look a lot alike, given that you are so different natured. It would be easy, I'm sure to tell you apart."

"Maybe so. But I still mostly don't think I stand a chance… and yet — I can't really give up hope. It's strange. I feel like we belong together, and somehow that alone will be enough to make things work out in the end. That doesn't mean I don't get caught up sometimes in the hopelessness of it all — but I'd rather have her here, in this world, and not anywhere remotely interested in being involved with me — than not having her here at all. Having her as a friend means more than I can say."

"Well — I'm glad that she's finally started to see you for who you are and not who he was."

"Me too."

Later that afternoon, Lois opened her door to welcome Perry into her apartment.

"Perry — to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

"I just wanted to talk to you about what happened between you and Clark."

"I figured as much."

"Clark told me a bit more about what happened."

"Yeah — I guessed he would."

"Are you okay with that? I — we didn't intend on gossiping or anything — but —"

"You were worried. No big deal — Perry, I'm fine with it."

"And… are you okay? It sounds like it was pretty…"

"Yea. It was. I won't lie to you — it was a very painful time for me — when he confronted me like that — I really — at first — I was sure he was Kal-El — that he had somehow come back for me. I don't know — I guess it doesn't make sense, but I was so sure that Clark was dead, so it was the only answer that made sense.

"He said he was pretty suspicious about you too."

"Yes. That was pretty bad too. He was angry, and very confrontational. He wouldn't let me leave," she recalled the events as calmly as she could, but she couldn't help a quick shudder at the memory. So much fear. She had been ready to die.

"He feels pretty badly about it — you know — he's convinced you were rubbing your arms — there — like that — because you have bruises. Bruises that hurt."

"He's pretty perceptive. Well — to be fair to him… I did break in, and he was afraid — afraid of me, as strange as that sounds — and he had a right to those feelings. He didn't know he was super-strong either, so I guess I'm lucky that he didn't break my arms."

"How can you be so calm about it?"

She took in a deep breath and then let it out. "I guess I've had time to think back over it. It was awful at the time. Horrible. Nightmarish. And then… when all those memories came back — after I had worked so hard at keeping them at bay — I thought I'd never be free of them. But — I was — and I was better off for it. I thought I was keeping myself sane by trying not to remember, but all I did was drive myself crazy."

"Lois — I'll say it again — you need to talk to someone about this."

"It's too crazy — who would believe it — you can't go into therapy with lies — it just doesn't work. Believe me, I know — I've been in enough therapy."

"Isn't there anyone — anyone you can trust with this story?"

"Actually, I have been thinking about it — you know — Lana Lang?"

"Clark's former fiancé."

"Right. She's a degreed psychologist."

"But not practicing?"

"Not anymore. But…"

"But doesn't she hold you responsible for -"

"No — actually, she and Clark are friends, and she knows the truth about me and where I've been. He told her — it's a long story — I tried to use her for my article series, and she ended up coming down very hard on me for it. She couldn't understand why I would launch such a hostile attack on someone that had …feelings for me. Clark ended up telling her the truth, and after that, I think she felt pretty badly. The truth is — I don't know if she'll want to talk to me — or offer up her services, but it seems like she's the most likely candidate for this. Furthermore, I'm not sure I want to talk to her. You know — she's his ex fiancée, and… it might be awkward to talk about the way I feel — the way I feel about Kal-El, and how I've been fearing and hating Clark."

"Past tense. But — not anymore?"

"Sometimes. But not always. It's like I walk around with this gun to my head — a pull of the trigger sends me into this awful and frightened state. Sometimes I'm normal, and things are great, but all it takes is … well — you saw — my reaction to Clark when he got visibly angry when I mentioned that other world. Even though he was angry for me, it felt like he was angry at me, and he was going to hurt me. It's hard for me — to get past that, because… it embarrasses me to feel that way. I feel —so weak — and stupid."

"But — you know you aren't either of those things — intellectually —"

"Didn't I just say 'stupid'? It kind of precludes intellectual surmises."

"Anyone who uses the word surmise in a sentence can't be all that stupid."

She smiled, "Well… okay. I guess you have me there."

"Lois — if talking with Lana can bring you to a better place, mentally, I think it's worth the risk of you feeling silly or embarrassed about it. Do you think she'd be willing to help?"

"Yes."

"Then you just have to go for it."

Superman was in high demand. Saving the Earth from impending doom had done a lot in the way of repairing the damage that her article series had set into place. It seemed as if everyone wanted to talk to him — and he was getting invitations from influential people all over the world to come celebrate with them. He indulged the bulk of these requests, not wanting to seem unmoved by their feelings of gratitude and relief. He also wanted to share in those feelings. Earth was the only home he had, and he had been terrified that he would lose it.

Lois fretted.

<<It's been two months, and no Superman sightings. Doesn't he realize that Metropolis will revert to being a hotbed of crime if he's not around to save the day? Not that it's really happened — it seems as if people are really trying to put their best face forward in wake of what nearly happened. A little too close to meeting our maker, I guess. Or maybe something different. Maybe they were inspired by his sacrifice and his near death. >>

She had reported it that way. Giving her readers a glimpse into the mind of this superhero that no one really knew. Telling them of his own personal fear — fear for his safety, and fear of failure. A desperate need to save the Earth, his home, his family.

<<Maybe this is how we end up moving towards Utopia. This is a common bonding experience — we all nearly died together. Maybe it will give us a second lease on life. >>

She was still feeling depressed. It bothered her knowing that he was nowhere around. Once, I would have reveled in that. He was gone, and although he wasn't really more than a scream away, she didn't feel like she could call for him unless she actually needed help.

<<Why am I bothered by this? It's not like I fuss when any of my other friends go away. Why this one particular friend? Hardly friends at all — just a new friendship starting? Why do I miss him so much? >>

She also felt a vague sense of unease whenever she saw pictures of him often in the company of the world's rich, powerful and beautiful. For wherever he was, they were sure to flock. The paparazzi had been having a field day, getting pictures of him with beautiful super-models flocking around him, and various rumors of various love affairs had been beginning to surface. Worse yet, some of these women weren't really denying their veracity. Whether they enjoyed having the tag of "Superman's girlfriend" or whether they really were dating him — who was to know? He wasn't encumbered in any committed relationship, so what would really stop him from taking what was likely so freely and joyfully offered?

<<It's not like I ever offered him anything.>>

<<He isn't mine.>>

That thought skittered through her mind, and she was surprised at the stab of hurt that went along with it. She had been getting used to the idea that he would always have time for her. Truth be told, he probably was in constant demand, not able to give more of himself than a few minutes here and a few minutes there. In truth, he belonged to the world.

<<No. He belongs to himself>>.

That was true, of course — he wasn't a slave to humanity, no more than he had enslaved humanity. But he seemed to be resigned to the idea that his destiny lay in helping those he could help, and that was becoming a full time job

<<So those times together — those were rare. I can't expect to get more of his time than anyone else. He doesn't… he isn't mine. He belongs to the world. >>

Reflecting further on that brought her additional pangs of hurt.

<<I shouldn't care. Why do I care? What do I want from him, anyway? What is it about him that makes me want to spend more time with him? It's not like I — I couldn't… because — I'm — there's just no way. He's identical to a man who abused me horribly — so… of course — it's not his body and face that make me long for his company… it's him — who he is — his kindness, and his generosity of spirit. Oh god. I can't be falling in love with him, because that would be just too strange. Too disturbing. And then there's that whole sex thing — how could I ever be with a Kryptonian again? I can't even imagine being with a human man, let alone someone who looks exactly like Kal-El. His body… surely there are no differences there — how could I ever look at his body and not have horrible recollections?>>

She expelled a frustrated breath, and began to pace. She had been seeing Lana for six weeks now and she didn't feel like she was making any progress. Sure, it was nice having Lana to talk to, and she felt like her mind was easier in many ways, but she wasn't any closer to being the person she once was. Maybe this was something that she should talk to Lana about. She picked up the phone to call her, and was able to make an arrangement to meet later that afternoon.

A few hours later, she was seated in Lana's living room, bending her ear once more.

"I just want to be normal," she wailed. "And it's taking too long."

"Think about what you went through, and how long you went through it. If this had happened to someone else, would you feel that they were taking too long to achieve some rather ill-defined state of normalcy?"

"It's different," she said, heaving a frustrated sigh.

"Different how?"

"I'm supposed to be strong. I have this reputation — I don't — I don't frighten easily — or at least — I didn't. I don't break easily."

"Break. But he never did break you. You never really completely submitted to his will."

"No…" Her voice was uncertain as she agreed. Had she been broken? She wasn't really sure anymore.

"Many people would have been driven mad. Many people have been, for less. You went through this thing, came home, and jumped back into your life — doesn't that count for something?"

"I… I guess I did. But I made some terrible mistakes. Like that article series."

"Okay. So going back to that time when you came back — what was the first thing you felt when you found out Kal-El was here?"

"You mean Clark."

"Well — his Kryptonian name is Kal-El, isn't it?"

Lois flinched. She hadn't really thought of that.

"Lois — that's how you perceived him when you came here. As a Kryptonian. Certainly not as a human being. So what did you feel when you first found out?"

"Extreme terror. Followed quickly by despair. Panic. Desperation. Rage."

"Rage."

"He… he had taken my place! He had — he had my job — my friends… my life! I felt that somehow he was responsible for what happened to me — and that he had engineered it on purpose so he could just slip into a life already made. My parents even. My sister. He took them all."

"Do you still feel that way?"

"No."

"Not at all?"

"No — not at all."

"So you feel no anger towards him — no resentment?"

"No — not anymore."

"Did you stop resenting him when you realized that you were wrong about him or did it take longer?"

"Truthfully? I wrote those last articles not really believing in what I was writing. Isn't that awful? It's terrible. Everyone tells me that I shouldn't feel badly — even Clark has said this… that I was justified in writing those articles because I was driven by mown experiences to distrust his motives — to see danger, even where there was none. But there did come a point where it was obvious to me that I was on the wrong track. I still wrote the articles."

"Why?"

"Because… laziness, I guess."

"That doesn't sound like you. You are anything, if … lazy."

"I… guess I just wanted to hurt him."

"Kal-El?"

"And Clark."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Maybe because he wasn't Kal-El. Or that Kal-El. By not being anything like Kal-El, he took away my purpose. I guess I kind of was angry about that- and I was angry about being wrong, and angry that Lucy and Perry and everyone else were right."

"Understandable."

"Is it? I don't think so."

"So what made you stop?"

"There was this voice — and she kept telling me that I was wrong. I finally had to give in to it. That, and Lex Luthor. It became glaringly evident that Luthor was the man to be feared, and any campaign that had his full endorsement must be suspect in some way."

"I can't argue with that."

"And so here I am — kind of dealing with all those long months of going down the wrong path — I was so completely wrapped up — I wasted so much time — I didn't really rejoin the world — I just tried to change it."

"So you feel like you never truly reintegrated with society."

"I'm trying. I'm trying hard."

"I can see that. Finding someone who you could talk to — that's an excellent first step."

"I hate those words."

"Which ones?"

"First step. It implies that there are so many more."

"And why do you hate that? Isn't life a journey? Aren't we always taking first steps? It's really the last steps that are kind of sad, aren't they? The end of that journey?"

"I just want to be normal again."

"Normal? What is normal?"

"Who I was before this happened."

"Do you really think you'll ever get there?"

She sighed out in frustration. "I don't know."

"Do you feel like you are getting any closer?"

"No. No — no — no. Every time I've thought that I've found my… I don't know — the rhythm of my old life — I end up having nightmares, or a ridiculous panic attack and I realize that I'm nowhere near who I used to be."

"So would it be so bad if you never got there?"

"Where?"

"To where you once were."

She sighed again. "Yes. No. I don't know."

"Is it possible that maybe you need to redefine what normal means? Experience and time are transformers. You never really go back to who you were."

"So what — this is who I am?"

"This is who you are — now. And in 5 years — who knows — we can't predict the future… but you will be changed — again — by the passage of time and experiences… or maybe by death — who knows."

"You're a real cheer bringer, you know that?"

"I'm just saying that if you spend all this time trying to get back to who you were, you might just be setting yourself up for repeated frustration and self-loathing."

"So what do I do?"

"Maybe try to look forward at who you want to be, and who you can become? Maybe try to describe yourself as you are now, and then describe yourself as you would like to be."

"Okay… as I am now. Tired. Frightened. Easily prone to panic. Frigid — beyond frigid — incredibly fearful of any kind of physical intimacy. Cautious. Lonely. Empty. Weak. Pathetic."

"Okay. And where would you like to be?"

"Anywhere but here. No — I don't mean here with you — but anywhere — or anyone but who I am now."

"Really? Because the woman I see is also strong, brave and compassionate."

"Where do you get that?"

"You are strong because you are here today, and not locked in some institution. You don't see any bravery in your actions?"

"Coward. I unleashed all my anger on the wrong man. I never stood up to Kal-El — well — in the beginning I tried, but after getting beaten down — I just never did it again."

"Lois — you were fighting to stay alive. You are alive because of the choices you made. So that's hardly cowardice. And actually, when you think about it, your actions against Clark were brave. You took on the most powerful man in the entire world… you did this because you knew that it was the right thing to do. Despite the obvious personal danger, you didn't hide out and hope he'd never notice you — instead you thrust yourself right in front of a huge spotlight — just because you didn't want to see another Earth suffer the way that other one did."

"You make it sound so noble."

"It really is — when you think about it. And compassionate — when you realized you were wrong, you did stop — you stopped because of your compassion for Clark — for seeing that you were hurting him. You let go of your anger — anger that many people would have had trouble releasing — even if they logically knew he was the wrong target. You let it go, because you couldn't bear to hurt an innocent man."

"I guess that's one way of looking at it. I think another person wouldn't have taken it as far as I did."

"So now… tell me who you want to be."

She took a deep breath.

"I want to be strong and brave, and… I guess, compassionate," she smiled at Lana sheepishly. "I also want to be fearless — or able to appear fearless — like before. I want to have hope. I want to be passionate — not just about my work, but physically passionate. I never really felt that I was — before… but I get the feeling sometimes that that's what Tempus took away from me. That chance."

"Can you expound on that?"

"I was supposed to help form a society that Tempus found unbearable — a utopian society — even though I find it nearly impossible to believe that mankind could ever live in that kind of society. But in order for me to have been able to help build that kind of world, I'm guessing I would have found some kind of… peace and love in my life that I don't currently have, that I never have felt. Something that would have given me hope for mankind beyond the wish that we just don't kill ourselves off with weapons of mass destruction. As a reporter, I get to see some really ugly stuff. People killing babies, for Pete's sake… when you see that — it's really hard to imagine that this species is even worth it, let alone capable of a higher way of living."

"So something was supposed to… un-jade you, I suppose. Make you …"

"Dizzy with the possibilities."

"Do you know what that would have been?"

She hesitated, and looked into Lana's expectant face. Lana knew the answer — just as Lois did. The name fell reluctantly from her lips.

"Clark. Maybe if I had met him without the negative experience of having met and endured Lord Kal-El, I would have been inspired by him — you know? By his selfless giving. By his own optimism that the Earth is beautiful and that humanity is worth saving."

"Or maybe something else. Maybe you would have found love."

"I don't want to talk about that."

"Okay."

"How can you want to talk about that, anyway? Didn't I ruin things for the both of you?"

"No. Clark and I were not meant to be together. I believe that now. And so does he."

"Meant to be," she said scornfully. "I don't believe in fate. I don't believe in destiny."

"Chaos, all the way?"

"And turtles… maybe."

"And maybe there is magic, after all. I don't know — I was far more cynical myself, but finding out that there are alternate universes has a way of shifting your perspective on not believing in things you can't see."

"So do you believe in soul-mates?"

She nodded, "Yes. And Clark isn't mine."

It was the way she emphasized that last word that made Lois look up at her with narrowed eyes.

"Lana — are you saying -"

"Not saying anything."

Lois shook her head. "I can't believe that. Could fate, if fate exists — could fate be so sadistic?"

"Looking around at the world… I'd have to say yes. Maybe just capricious. I'm not saying I understand how this stuff works… just that I believe things I didn't used to believe."

"What happens if two soul-mates never get together?"

"I don't know. I think I've met mine though … After I broke up with Clark and got over being angry and bitter, I … I looked for that sense of belonging that Clark had described," she paused and looked apologetically. "Perhaps I shouldn't say anything…"

"No — he told me about it too."

"He did! That's great!"

"Why is that great?"

"Because it means you two actually had a conversation. A pleasant one in which he felt comfortable enough to reveal that to you. That's progress — when you came back — you said that you couldn't even look him in the eye. You really have come a long way."

"I … well — I guess I have."

"Anyway — that's how I feel now, and that's how I know that I've found him."

"Seems too simple."

"Maybe it is. And maybe it's okay for things to be that simple. I don't know. I hope that this is how the universe works — or how they all work. Isn't it a beautiful thought? That life goes on — that love goes on? That we can find that same happiness over and over again…"

"Or never have it at all."

"Right," she said heavily, remembering who she was talking to. "I'm sorry. I got a bit giddy there."

"No — that's okay. Sometimes it's good to be around giddy."

"Lois — is there no chance for the two of you?"

"Do you believe we are soul mates?"

"No. I like you a lot — but…"

"Lana."

She sighed, and shook her head. "It's not for me to say. Do you believe it?"

"I don't know."

"So not a definite 'no'. Just an 'I don't know'."

"It's hard to accept — that the one person I was supposed to hook up with in this lifetime is someone I can never …"

"And are you sure about that?"

"He looks just like a man who did terrible things to me."

"I know," she said softly. "But — when you look into his eyes, do you see Lord Kal-El?"

"No. I don't — but … sometimes it's in his face. His expression or the way he's standing, or the way he'll move, or something that he says… it's just suddenly there… even when he's dressed like any normal human, and even when he's in a good mood… but when he's Superman, or he's angry… then it's just… nauseatingly awful."

"Hmm."

"So there you have it. How can I not fear Clark while fearing Superman so very much? Seems ridiculous to react to him as two different people, when there's just the one."

"Not really so ridiculous. He acts differently as Superman — more remote — stiffer. It's as if he's trying to discourage people from getting close when he's Superman… all business. I've seen it too, and it's — startling."

"I think — he said he felt kind of self-conscious dressed that way — maybe that comes across as remoteness."

"Wow — he really did share."

She flushed deeply. "Well — yeah — I guess…"

"So he must feel very comfortable around you. Do you think he has feelings for you?"

She shook her head violently. "I can't go there, right now, Lana. I can't bear to think of it. It will just lead to …"

"To what?"

"To Kal-El. All roads seem to lead back to Kal-El."

"Do you ever worry about going back there?"

"Sometimes I have nightmares — that my body is somehow harmonized to this other world, and that I'll just get pulled back in because that's where I belong now."

"You don't belong there, though. This is your home — this is your origin. And besides — Clark would go bring you back home."

"He wouldn't be able to."

"Oh yes, he would… he wouldn't stop trying until he did."

"Anyway… it's just a dream — a nightmare… nothing real."

"And Clark is real. How do you feel when you are around him?"

"Like a spaz, mostly. But … it depends. Usually my first impressions are bad… and then I kind of calm down and ease into being with him."

"When you are at ease around him, do you enjoy that time?"

"Yes."

"And how would you feel if he started to see someone, romantically."

"Is he?"

"Well — the tabloids are always insinuating … you never really know."

"I… I'd be fine with it."

"What if he were really your soul mate? Could you be at peace with it — knowing your soul mate was with someone else?"

She stopped and thought. "I guess… it would bug me."

"So…"

"So the truth is — I don't want him for myself, but I don't want anyone else to have him either. That sounds pretty yucky, doesn't it?"

"Sounds honest."

"Do you think you could see yourself with someone else?"

"I hope so. I don't want to be alone the rest of my life — I never did want to be alone. But… right now, it's hard to imagine — the every idea of being physically close to someone terrifies me."

"How do you think you'll go from point A, which is now, to point B, which is the person you want to be? The one who can get close."

"I have no idea. I was hoping you'd have some suggestions."

"I don't really know, Lois — I think that truly these things are a function of time. But what you've been through is so dramatic, it may take longer than average."

"Which could be…"

"I don't really know — could be a month, or it could take years. You'll only know when you've lived it and gone through it."

"Years. Years? I can't accept that, Lana — I just won't. I have to find a way to get past this … and I have to find it now."

Lois Lane was stewing in misery. He had been back for an entire week, and she hadn't heard from him. Not even once.

<<It's not like he should call — why should he call? Really — why have I given him a reason to call? He probably thinks that I'm happier when he's not around. Once, that was actually true… but now I miss him. How strange is that? I miss — God… not the fear, but the times when the fear isn't there, and I'm comfortable in his presence. At those times, I just feel really good. Like all is well in the world. I wonder if he makes everyone feel that way, or if it really is the result of some bizarre destiny thing between us. >>

Frustrated, she looked down at the morning paper and saw his face caught in a moment of unrehearsed happiness. He was smiling. It was a beautiful smile, completely unlike any smile his doppelganger had ever worn, and he was looking down at an incredibly beautiful and renowned model named Carissa.

<<Just look at her. Miss I can't be older than 22, Carissa, no- last-name. She can have any guy in the world, so why does she have to snag the one guy that… whoa there… that what? Why is this eating me up- because I have to admit… it is eating me up. It's killing me. If Kal-El had ever lost interest in me, I'd be overjoyed, even if it meant the end of my life were near. I just lived for that time — when he would move on to some other obsession. This is different. Appearances aside, he's nothing like Kal-El — he's a really great person… a nice guy. And…he's probably the one man I was supposed to be with. If he hooks up with her, what will my life be like? >>

<<Well — I guess, it'll be like it would be if he stayed unattached… it's not like there can be anything between us — right? When it all comes down to it, the idea of ever becoming close with him, in that way — well — it's still a nightmarish thought. So how can I expect him to not go attaching himself — even if he thinks I'm supposed to be the one, he knows, by my behavior, how impossible we are. I'm still upset about it though — and I don't know how to stop being upset about it. At the very least, I wish he'd call — I just want to talk to him. God — to even see him. I miss his face. Now that's frightening. I miss his face, when he's smiling at me, and looking at me with those kind eyes. That's what I miss. It's even worth those initial feelings of panic and oppression. >>

She blew out a frustrated breath.

<<God — the way he's smiling at her… it's like she's the only one in the world. He gave me a smile like that — does he just smile like that normally? Did I see more in it than was really there? A feeling of being special and important to him? Was that just part of his charm? The worse part is — today is my anniversary back from the dead. You think that would warrant a phone call. >> On perfect cue with these bitter thoughts came the ringing of her phone. She ran to the phone, tripping along the way, and suppressed the urge to curse angrily as she gasped, almost frantically into the phone, "Hello?"

A few minutes later, she dejectedly hung up the phone.

<<Well — it was nice of Perry to call. It was nice of him to remember. But darn it — he's not who I wanted to call. For Pete's sake. Just look at me. I'm falling apart here, over a man I used to hate, loathe, despise. And I should be kissing the ground in gratitude for being here instead of that hateful and despicable place. Once, I thought that all I needed to be happy was to be free of my enslavement, but how soon we start to expect more. Like hearing from people who claim to be friends with us. I know he's busy, but he could at least take the time to pick up the damn phone. Arrrgh! Obsessing again. >>

<<I feel empty — frustrated and… this yearning -this need for something more in my life. I feel like crying for a hundred years, and eating a hundred gallons of ice cream. Everything is just so… unsatisfactory. And it should be glorious — I should be happy with what I have? But I'm not. I'm sick of myself. My clothes. My life. My fears. I just want… dear god. I want Clark. Not sexually — I don't know if I'll ever want that. But I want him to NOT be someone else's man either. I want … I want him to call and to hear that smile in his voice and to know that it's all for me, and only for me. But I can't have that — not without the other baggage of a relationship. How long would he accept this kind of passionless friendship — why would he choose to give up dating for the chance to spend time with the amazing frigid woman? Not even frigid — terrified. Panic-stricken. >>

Agitatedly, she went back to her newspaper and looked at the picture again. She stared it at it in annoyance for a few moments longer, and then dropped the paper to the table emphatically.

<<I will not obsess. But why hasn't he called? He said we were friends, or at least… starting to be friends. And he… he loved her, didn't he? So wouldn't you think he'd want to at least talk to me once in a while, seeing as how I'm her doppelganger? Oh — god -maybe that's it. The stark difference between who she is and who I am. How she reacted with him — no doubt she was friendly at the get-go, friendly, warm, inviting. Just how far did their relationship get, anyway? Maybe in her mind, it wouldn't be cheating, if she — nah… if she's anything like me, it would have been cheating. >>

<<He should find someone else. Someone warm, loving, passionate — someone who can be for him what a woman should be for the man she's with. A willing and joyous partner — in all areas of life. That could never be me. He'll find someone — and I'll get to watch it all, from my little empty life. Damn, Kal-El and Tempus for the legacy they've left me. They ruined my life. I might be out of Kal-El's grasp, but I never will truly be free. >>

<<Okay. So I've accepted it. I'll never have him. But… can't I call him? I mean — we are friends… and maybe talking to him — maybe that is all I need to lift up my spirits. It's worth a shot, and hey- what do I really have to lose? He's probably not home anyway — why would he be? He did tell me to call at any time… but did he mean, if I was in danger or did he mean -just any time? God — I want to call, but I don't want to hear him be amazed at my calling — I don't want to hear 'Why are you calling me' in his voice. I want him to be happy to hear from me. And I don't know if he will be.>>

She picked up the phone, and stared at it for a long time. And then she keyed in his number, which she had memorized. Taking another long time to ponder whether or not she should hit the 'on' button, she finally decided to go for it. Squeezing her eyes shut, she hit the button, feeling her heart and stomach clench in nervous response.

He picked up on the first ring, and she hung up the phone in terror.

<<He wasn't supposed to be home!>>

A few seconds later, she was cursing herself for being so stupid.

<<God, he has caller ID, I'm sure of it — so he knows it was me. Damn those engineers who designed caller ID. Don't they know that they've screwed up teenage daters everywhere? It's part of dating history to hastily hang up the phone in fear after calling someone you really like. Oh god- do I really like him? DO I love him? I don't know — I just don't know… but I better call him back, because he's sure to think I'm in trouble. But now I have a reason to call back. To explain that I'm not in trouble. I'll tell him I dialed him by mistake. >>

She quickly hit redial, and tried to will her heart to stop racing, as she heard the sequence of beeps as the phone dialed his number.

<<Stay calm. Stay calm. >>

"Hello? Lois — this is you, right? Are you okay?"

<<As expected. He's worried. >>

Her heart beating fast in her chest, she closed her eyes a few seconds to regain composure.

"Clark. Hi!" She was trying to affect casual cheer, but she knew she came across shrill.

"Lois. Hi! It's great to hear your voice! Is everything okay — did you just call -"

"Yea — sorry — fumble fingers."

"Oh — yeah. No problem. So how are you? It's been a long time since we talked."

"Not since Perry's office!"

<<Oh god. Act like an idiot, why don't you. Let him know that you know how many days it's been since you last saw each other. >>

"You've been a bit busy, haven't you," she said, wincing at the stupidity of what she had said.

"Busy. Yes — definitely. But hopefully all that is settling down. I'm home, and glad to be home."

"Home was just a few minutes away for you — right? No matter where you were?"

<<He's going to take this as nagging.>>

"Yeah — but there's a lot to be said for knowing that you're home to stay. I didn't really have a lot of time anyway — it's really been busy."

<<I needed to be apart from you. It hurts too much to know I'll never have you.>>

"Oh."

There was a sudden silence, and she scoured her brain for something intelligent to say.

"So — um, what's up? Any particular reason for calling?"

<<You couldn't have missed me. >>

"I… I just wanted to. It's been a long time since we talked. I -" She stopped, unable to say the words.

<<I missed you. >>

<<Oh my god. Maybe she did miss me!>>

His heart sang. "Oh!"

<<Okay. Score one for the conversationalist. >>

"Uh. Is that weird?" The question slipped past her before she could control it. All she could do was wait nervously for his answer.

"A bit."

<<Now why the hell did I say that? >>

"O — oh. Oh — yeah. I guess it is. Weird. I'm sorry… I shouldn't have -"

"No — no — no! It's good weird — I — I'm sorry!" His voice was urgent.

<<Stop yelling at her. You're going to remind her of Kal-El. >>

"Oh! Good. Good weird. You didn't expect to hear from me?"

"Expect? Not really- but — yeah — I did hope you would call. Um, I actually wanted to call you -"

<<Easy there boy.>>

"But, I didn't know if you'd welcome that, and I didn't want you to think I was — well — harassing you, like Luthor was doing."

"You are nothing like Luthor," she exclaimed hotly. "Please. The man's a psycho lunatic and a stalker to boot."

"Has he- has he bothered you at all? I swear, I kept an open… well -mind, and ear- out for you… I was ready to come help if you needed it. I hope you know that."

"No. No -he's been blissfully dormant."

"Good. Good. But -well -a quiet Luthor could also be a Luthor who's up to something."

"Don't worry. My guard is hardly let down."

"No -I didn't imagine it would be. Not after that creepy stunt he pulled."

"I -maybe he's bugged my apartment again -how would I know? I should have the experts check again for me."

"I can check for you. With my enhanced hearing and sight. If you want, that is."

<<Great. Remind her of your super-powers. >>

"Actually… that would be great. If you wouldn't mind."

"When could you come over?" She felt her stomach clench — the idea of his coming over with both exciting and terrifying. She wanted it, but feared the panic reaction that would inevitably beset her when she saw him.

"When's good for you."

<<My God! She's inviting me over! But calm yourself. It's just to help her out — this isn't a date. >>

"Uh… now?"

"Okay -I'll be right over!" He hung up the phone, and set out for her place.

She stood staring at the phone in disbelief.

<<No! I'm not ready yet! I haven't even showered! Oh damn — oh rats — he's here! >>

She felt her palms start sweating and her heart increased when she heard the knock on her balcony door. She turned, almost fearfully, and saw him floating there. Resigned to appearing in front of him in her flannel pajamas, she went over and opened the door, trying not to look too closely at him. She needed to ease into seeing him so the panic wouldn't overcome her so sharply

"You're… you didn't mean right now, did you? You meant — in then neighborhood of 20-30 minutes from now." His voice was apologetic. "You know — I can come back -"

"It's okay. Really." She looked up at him, daringly, and waited for the attack to happen.

It didn't happen.

He didn't seem so frightening or forbidding and she wasn't sure if he was deliberately trying to project Clark vibes, or if she was becoming more accustomed to seeing him like that.

"Hi." He was struck speechless — just looking into her eyes made him feel like he was in a dream. And she wasn't reacting in terror, which was too good to be true.

"Hi," she said, breathlessly.

<<Why am I breathless? And is it obvious?>>

"Uh — I won't be long. Okay? I'm just going to … uh — if it's okay… shower, and then change?"

<<Okay? You're going to take off all your clothes, and then get wet, just beyond that little door there? Oh sure. No problem -no problem at all. Well. I definitely had better get out of this suit. It sure doesn't leave much to the imagination, and while I seem to have managed by some amazing stroke of luck to not terrify the hell out of her, the suit won't hide my feelings for her very well.>>

"No problem at all, Lois."

"Okay. No peeking!"

<<Oh my god. I really said that out loud? What the hell is wrong with me? >>

He looked at her in shock. "God, no. I would never do that. I hope you know — oh… you were kidding." He grinned at her, in relief.

"I know. I don't joke around much… so it's hard to really know if I'm kidding or serious."

"Well… I promise —no peeking of any sort- so go on."

<<Idiot. That sounded like an order. >>

"Uh — that is — if you — if you want to."

She went into her room, closed the door, and started to strip down. She glanced uneasily up at the door, and decided that regardless of what he had said, she should probably not tempt fate that way. She moved into the bathroom and took her clothes off in there. As the water hit her body she started to mentally review all that she had said since she first picked up the phone.

<< I'm such a spaz. >>

She took a very short shower, and then quickly dried off and threw on some clothes. She picked clothes that were casual, yet well fitting, so she didn't look like a drudge.

<<Not too sexy. But not too neuter, either. >>

She came out of her room not expecting to be buffeted by panic. The moment her eyes fell on him she staggered back in gasping panic. He had used this time to switch into his street clothes, only he was clad entirely in black. Dressed thusly, he reminded her more potently of Kal-El than he ever had done, except in those brief times where she had seen him show anger. Her eyes were wide and frightened, and she just stared wordlessly at him, unable to even think of modulating her response.

He was equally as startled as she by her response.

<<What did I do? >>

"Lois? My god — what is it? Is — is it me? What — what did I do?"

His anxious questioning penetrated her panic a bit as she dimly became aware that he was asking a question that she once used to ask.

<<What did I do? How have I made you so angry? Whatever I did — I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please!>>

It was a question she had soon learned to not ask — she quickly realized that Kal-El enjoyed hurting her, and didn't need a reason to do it. Thoughts of Kal-El, and his reprisals made her feel sick with worry. Suddenly she felt tense and trapped. The room seemed much smaller now. She wished she could just disappear.

"Lois… what — what is — " He stopped, as he remembered suddenly, the figure in her dreams. Kal-El. Clad entirely in black, and he was bitterly aware of what was causing her fear. "Damn it!" He was frustrated and angry with himself. "Of all the stupid -"

He stopped berating himself when he saw her panic increase.

"I — I — I — I'm sorry. Please — I'm sorry — I — I — I'm sorry. I — I -"

"Oh -no — not what I meant," he said intensely, feeling horribly bad that she had assumed his anger was meant for her. "I should have known. Remembered. I'm sorry." His voice was anxious and urgent.

His words halted her own fear, and she looked into his eyes, confused.

"How could you — remembered what?"

"Lois… I … I've seen Kal-El."

"You — how …you didn't go there, did you? You couldn't have — that doesn't make sense… you -"

"In your mind. When you first came back. You had a bad dream, and I'm afraid that I — I… I thought you were in trouble, I flew around looking for you, but finally figured out it was in your mind… and… I did something I'm not terribly proud of… I kind of … invaded your thoughts without your permission — or your knowledge …"

"You — you were the one — the mystery presence — you helped me overcome it. The bad dream." She was reeling. At first his confession terrified her, but looking at the nervous and regretful expression on his face, she realized that he really had done it because he was worried about her.

"Are… are you mad? I wouldn't blame you if you were — but — I … I'm sorry."

"Clark … I — I don't think I'm upset by it. Certainly not mad. And not… even menaced by it, really. You thought you were helping me. That's — it must have been hard for you to do that."

"It was. I felt horrible about it… because I knew that you wouldn't welcome it — but… I was afraid you … well, now, it seems stupid. You would have been fine, but at the time… I wasn't so sure."

"You've never done it again, have you?"

"No. Most definitely no. I pick up on your broadcasts, but I never ever go into your mind. It seems… a viol — uh … an ill- mannered thing to do."

"It can be a violation," she said quietly, using the word he had stopped himself from using. "And he often used it in that way. But you meant well, and I didn't feel violated by you. You gave me strength and courage. I needed that. So thank you."

"Oh… well — you're welcome, of course…"

She inhaled deeply. "I — I'm sorry I freaked out on you."

"I'm sorry I gave you cause. Look — I can go back home and change…"

"No — no. No. It's okay. I'm okay with it. Really."

<<Really. So long as you don't look, move, act or sound like Kal- El>>

He looked at her dubiously for a few seconds, and then looked around the apartment. "I don't see any bugs here… want me to check -" he gestured in the other room — the bedroom.

"If… if you don't mind."

<<Should I go with him? Into the bedroom? >>

She quailed at the thought.

"I'll just go in and check — I won't be more than a few seconds."

<<Thank you.>>

She knew that he was aware of her aversion to going into the bedroom with him, and felt a sudden burst of gratitude at his sensitivity. While he was gone, she pondered glumly the blatant impossibility of anything between them.

<<How can I even think of having some kind of exclusive 'friendship' with someone who frightens me depending on what he's wearing? >>

"There's nothing in there."

His voice made her jump, and she turned around to face him, quickly. "Oh — oh good! Thank you- thank you so much."

"Okay then… well — I'm sure you have things to do," he said preparing to leave.

<<I want to stay here. With you. Talk to you. >>

"Please… don't go. Let me get you coffee — let's catch up. Unless you're — you must be busy -"

"No — not busy at all. Coffee sounds good — but let me make it."

"Clark," she said sternly, "Are you afraid to try my coffee?"

"No — no — of course not -"

"Then let me make it."

"But… I don't want you to…"

<<Serve me. Service me. >>

"I'm okay, Clark. Really. You don't have to… bend over backwards to avoid… having me do anything for you. You don't have to append please to everything you ask… I'm okay. Intellectually I know you aren't him.

He looked at her for a suspended moment, and then he nodded. "Okay."

"Good. Glad we understand each other."

<<Did I really just… tell him off? >>

"Absolutely. As…as long as we are understanding each other…"

"Go ahead…"

"I wanted to wish you… a happy anniversary … I'm well aware that today marks your one year back in this world. And — I just wanted to say that to you."

She looked down. "Wow. You… you remember. Did Perry tell you?"

"I told him," his voice was slightly indignant.

She quirked a smile. "He forgot to mention that little fact."

"It figures," he smiled back, relieved for the lighthearted moment.

"Did… did you see me at all, that day? What can you tell me about it? The part before I woke up at the hotel?"

"Are you sure you want to talk about this," he asked her quietly, looking at her directly in the eye. "This might be upsetting."

"What isn't upsetting to me, these days… or any other day, for that matter. Please? It's my anniversary, and I still don't really know what happened — how I got back, that sort of thing. Come on. Don't make me beg." She deliberately chose words that she knew would cut into his consciousness.

He listened in silence, and then after a momentary pause, nodded. "I never would do that. If you want me to tell you what I know… then I'll do that. Just…be a little warned, it might trigger some bad memories. Okay?" His expression was worried.

"Okay. Just one question first. Did… did you have anything to do with my return?"

"No. I really thought you were dead. I — well, you must know that I looked for you- I'm sure your parents told you."

"Yeah — they told me right when I first came back. I can't lie to you — it did freak me out. I thought you were stalking me." She admitted this with a little embarrassment.

He nodded. "That's understandable. It must have been an extremely unsettling piece of knowledge."

She took in a deep breath. "Yeah."

"I remember Herb saying something cryptic about never saying 'impossible' — I forget exactly what he said… but it was in reference to finding you. I guess he took it to heart, decided he needed to be involved. Lois, I'm sorry. I just never thought you'd be in a different universe, and yet — given that the other Lois was forced into this once, it seems amazing it wouldn't have occurred to me."

"You don't owe me any apology, Clark. Really."

"I still feel like a dope. I do think it should have occurred to me. But, thank god, it occurred to Herb, and for that… I'll never think ill of him again."

"You thought ill of him?"

"The day you came back, I was having a self-pity session… blaming Herb — and your doppelganger for the current state of my life, which on that day, was not satisfactory to me. I was angry and frustrated that I had to bear the burden of being the sole extraterrestrial on Earth when the other Clark at least had loved ones in his life. He has his parents, and…his wife."

<<Oh god. His wife. >>

She restrained herself from reacting.

"Are you still angry at them?"

"No. And honestly, I used to get into these moods — but then I'd get out of them… mostly, I didn't mind how it all turned out, except… well, I missed her."

<<Do you still miss her?>>

"So — then what happened?"

"Herb showed up — and told me that he had found you. At first, I thought you were her, and I was really mad at Clark for letting this happen to her — letting her get hurt. But then he told me who you were. Lois — it was just the most life-changing moment. One moment, I thought you were dead, and the next thing I know — you were there — in living color. Obviously… a bit worse for the wear." He looked at her carefully. "Is it okay to talk about this still?"

"Yes," she said tightly. "Please."

"Okay."

"Well — I saw you — and you were … beaten pretty badly. I got really upset about that, and Herb pretty much refused to talk about where you had been until I calmed down. So, I forced — uh — I mean — convinced myself to calm down a bit, and asked him to tell me what had happened.

"Lois — my god… when he told me what had happened, I was… staggered. It seemed unreal, and completely impossible, and yet- it had happened. It never occurred to me that I could exist in other realities in such an altered way." He shook his head, still in defiance of that awful truth. "I wanted to go there, immediately, to fight him, to stop him from hurting anyone else… to avenge what he had done to you, I guess — but Herb absolutely refused. So unless I was willing to override his refusal, I had to accept that I could do nothing for that world. At least for the time being."

"You… you could have just … disregarded him. Taken his dimension-machine and just gone ahead with your plan."

"Right. But then — wouldn't that make me a tyrant? Using my power to get my way?" He saw her turn pale and shook his head ruefully. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"Well — I asked the question," she reminded him patiently, with a brave small smile. "Yes. This stuff will upset me, but I want to hear it, nonetheless."

"Right. Okay — so then, we turned to talking about you — about how to best … do what was right for you. We decided that you wouldn't want to see me — in the flesh — uh — in person… so -we came up with the idea that Herb would get a room at the MH, and that I would fly you there, unnoticed."

"You… you flew with me?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. I hope you don't mind — now, that is. I'm sure you'd have minded a lot back then. We didn't want to cause you additional misery by having you wake up in my apartment. You — you had spent the last three years not having a voice — and we wanted to make up for that. In some small way.

She had flushed red a bit, at the thought of him holding her close, flying with her- especially given the flimsy garment she had worn. Such an intimate contact, and she couldn't even remember it. It was a good thing she had been out cold, or she would have probably had the panic attack to end all panic attacks.

"You're right," she said, becoming a bit choked up. "I didn't have a voice. My needs — my wishes — none of it ever mattered. I didn't even have an identity. Just another slave." Her voice was bitter.

"That had to have been awful. For what it's worth — your voice matters here. Very much."

"To everyone except Luthor — who, like Kal-El, just wants to own me." She shuddered.

"That will never happen," said Clark with steely determination.

She looked up at him, startled by his tone, but strangely, not frightened. "That's what enables me to sleep at night."

<<And I'm telling the truth here.>>

"Good. Well — so that's it. You ended up at the hotel, and I left, and the rest you know."

"Right."

After a longer silent pause, he asked her tentatively what it had been like for her when she woke up and found out she was home.

"Were you happy?" He was hopeful

"Disbelieving at first, I think… but then happy — more than happy — just elated beyond belief. I never thought I'd be home again. It… it was a miracle. I was so grateful for what he had done… until he told me about…well — about you. And then, I'm afraid, I kind of verbally attacked him."

"He told me about it before leaving. He wasn't hurt, or angry — just sad, mostly — sad for what had been done to you, and sad that you felt that way. Hunted. In danger. From me."

She sighed wearily. "Yes. That's a good way to describe how I felt. Hunted. It was awful — you know — believing that you were going to come for me." She looked at him ruefully. "I just couldn't believe that you could be so different from him."

"Totally understandable. I'd have felt the same."

"It took my breath away — when he said you were here. I just… fell apart."

She was lost for a few moments in the memory, and then, she tried to force herself into a brighter frame of mind.

"But that was then. We're past that. Now — I'm able to talk to you like this… I know I still act weird — like even today — it's just that sometimes when I see you — you look so much like him." Her eyes clouded bit, as she took in his black outfit. "It's downright scary, sometimes." She whispered tightly.

He looked down at his shirt, and back at her, dismay on his face.

"I don't want to make it harder for you than it already is. I should have gone home and changed — back when you first reacted. I can go now — I can come back if you want, or just go… whatever, it's your call."

"How about neither," she said briskly. "I have … well — I have a third option. I have a Daily Planet sweatshirt you could wear — I admit, it would be easier to see you wearing that than it currently is. Kal-El would never wear a sweatshirt of all things."

"Lois — not to be … difficult — but you're definitely a few sizes smaller than I am," he said, slightly embarrassed by the topic.

"Yes. I am — but they never order these things in women's sizes. It's always a choice between large and extra large — and that really bugs me. Why don't they get a wider assortment of sizes? Why are all the Daily Planet apparel items sized and styled for men? There are tons of women at the Planet so there's just no excuse. It's either huge sizes, or stuff that just looks awful, like polo shirts cut for men. I don't know any of the female staffers that actually ever wear this stuff!"

She stopped short, as she realized she'd been ranting. She also noticed that he was smiling at her ranting in genuine enjoyment.

"I guess it sounds pretty stupid." She was embarrassed. "I mean — after all I went through, and I'm complaining about this silly thing."

"No — in fact… isn't that a sign that you're healing a bit? Getting on with your life? Focusing on the smaller every day annoyances instead of on the big ordeal?"

"You sound like Lana," she chuckled, forgetting he didn't know.

"Yeah — I guess I probably do, but how would you know that? Have you two become friends?"

"I- well — I've been seeing her."

He was taken a back for a moment, and gave her an odd look.

"Not … not that there's anything wrong with … but… you're seeing her? Dating her?"

She burst out laughing at that, and he felt surge of joy at the sound.

"Not dating! Sorry- I guess it sounded like that. You know she's engaged, right?"

"Yes, and …she's definitely not interested in women," he said, "Or at least…not that I ever knew."

Lois flushed a bit, imagining that he would, of course, know Lana's sexual preferences rather well.

"Uh — and she's not exactly my type either."

Their eyes locked for a moment in mutual understanding.

<<Am I your type?>>

"So, I guess you mean — as a psychologist, which is surprising, as she no longer does that kind of thing."

"She made an exception for me. It's more of a 'friends getting together, and one friend listening to the other go on and on' sort of thing. I — I hope you don't mind?"

"Well — even if I did, that would be none of my business, but I'm thrilled for you that you found someone you could talk to — I mean — really talk to — about your experiences. I hope this helps you… I don't know — find some peace."

"Sometimes it seems our sessions get me more unsettled rather than anything else. But I think that's also a good thing. It churns up stuff that I need to work through. Lana's very good. I like her a lot."

<<I wish more than anything that I could help you work through these things>>

"Me too. I'm glad she didn't hold our broken engagement as a grudge. She's too good a friend to lose."

"Do you think her fiancé minds your friendship with her? I imagine most men would find you an intimidating … predecessor."

<<Oh. Now why did I say that? It sounds like I mean it sexually. >>

"Um- well — I don't know about that… if it's a problem — Lana hasn't said anything…"

"Good to hear."

There was an awkward pause, as the current topic of conversation had come to a natural end, and then she suddenly remarked out loud.

"The coffee! I forgot all about it. It's ready …let me go get you coffee."

Uneasy about having her serve him, despite her earlier admonitions, he suggested she not worry about it.

"Clark, it's no problem. Really. It's already been made."

"How about I -" he stopped and smiled sheepishly at her. "Just sit here. Thanks."

She nodded emphatically. "Good. I'll be right back."

Moments later, she returned with two steaming cups and cream and sugar.

"Here ya go."

"Thanks. I really appreciate it."

"It really was no problem," she said looking at him directly in the eye. "I was glad to do it."

"I'll be glad to drink it. You do make great coffee!"

"It makes up, you know, for my lousy cooking."

"Oh come on — I find that hard to believe."

She smiled, "You'll have to judge for yourself sometime, but don't say I didn't warn you."

"Any time!"

<<Did I just suggest we make a date? Did he just accept? >>

"You'd better up your insurance policy."

"Well, that's where invulnerability comes in handy."

"Ah, yes. You're un-killable." The bantering ended as she had a sudden moments pause.

He saw the sudden change and realized he had caused her pain.

"I did it again, didn't I?"

"No. No — you didn't. It's not your fault," she responded in agitation. "You — you just can't worry about it all the time. What you say, what you wear… how you react- it's not your fault. It's not fair for you to have to constantly worry about what you said, what you did… it has to be crazy for you, worrying so much."

"You're worth it, you know. Someone should care about what you think, and what you need — I mean — after all you've been through."

"But you can take it too far. You — you won't want to spend any time in my company if you have to keep this up much longer. And… I … I enjoy spending time with you," she blurted out quickly, before she lost her nerve.

She was rewarded with a smile — a big and glorious one. "Likewise."

"I … I dated a guy who constantly tried to change who I was. What I wore, how I reacted, what I said, what I wrote… in the end, I realized that I could never be who he wanted, and I didn't even want to be who he wanted. I seem to attract the psycho control freaks, don't I? This guy, Luthor — and let's not forget Kal-El."

<<I'm not a control freak. >>

"Lois — the guy was an idiot if he felt you needed to change. His loss."

She flushed in embarrassment at the compliment, and sat silently, unable to think of anything to say to break the tension.

"Well — I should go," he said, unwilling to leave, but feeling like they both needed some time apart to process this time together.

<<Don't go.>>

"Yes — I'm sure you've got a lot to do. Come to think of it, I do too."

"Okay. Well — thanks for calling. I — I missed you, Lois… and I'm really glad you called."

"I… I missed you too. Maybe we can … do this again sometime?"

His heart was doing cartwheels. "Anytime, Lois. Any time at all!" "Perry," said Alice over breakfast. "I think we should have Lois over for dinner. She's been back from god knows where for a year now, and I'd like to celebrate. Would you mind?"

"Excellent idea! When?"

"I invited her over for Saturday."

"You already —"

"I knew you'd agree with the idea."

He shook his head, laughing. "Alice, darlin, what would you have done if I had minded?"

"Asked Superman for help in finding my husband, since clearly you'd have been an imposter. I know how you feel about her."

"Uh — Alice — my feelings for Lois… they aren't … uh — romantic… feelings. I hope you —"

Alice put up a restraining hand. "I know. I admit, when you first met her, I was a bit jealous… it would be hard not to be… but it's been more than obvious that your feelings for her are platonic. I like her too. It's hard not to. I think I should tell you though… I — I also invited someone else."

"Who?"

"Uh…"

"Uh — oh. This can't be good. Come on, Alice, out with it — please?"

She took a deep fortifying breath, nervous that he would think this a really bad idea. She wasn't sure she didn't think it was a really bad idea.

"I invited Clark."

"Great shades… you didn't. Please tell me — you didn't?"

"Perry, please — to be a bit more supportive. I'm nervous enough about it as it is."

"Then why in tarnation did you do it?"

"I don't like it when you talk to me like that. I don't work for you, and I can invite whoever I please to our house — it's not like I invited Lex Luthor, for Pete's sake."

Perry exhaled steadily, trying to regain his sense of balance.

<<Yes dear. Always remember — the correct answer is 'Yes dear' >>

"Yes, dear."

Alice looked at him suspiciously, and then smiled fondly at his transparent attempt at placation.

"It might not be such a horrible idea. We haven't seen enough of either one of them, and they do seem to actually be getting along. Look at that great article she wrote about him? He gave her the exclusive that every reporter in the world wanted. Why would he do that if they weren't getting along?"

"They are getting along, but I still don't think this is wise."

"Why not? I never understood why she was out to get him in the first place?"

"Alice, there's a lot about Lois that you don't know. And —"

"See that's the problem, Perry. I don't know — you need to fill me in."

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't give me that Mr. Innocent act. I know for a fact that there's more going on here than anyone's saying. I know she didn't have amnesia, for one thing. That's too much like a soap opera plot. Something happened to that girl — it altered her, it altered her perspective. The Lois I knew would never have launched an all out attack on someone like Clark without making sure she had just cause. Perry — what happened to her? Where was she?" She paused for a heartbeat, and then decided to drop the hammer. "And what did Clark have to do with it?"

"It's her story to tell," he said desperately, remembering guiltily that he had grilled Clark about this same subject, and Clark had felt just as reluctant to divulge Lois's secrets as he now felt.

<<If the man of steel couldn't stand up to me, how can I expect to be able to stand up to Alice? >>

"I can tell you that Clark had nothing to do with it. But… I'm guessing you knew that or you wouldn't have invited… Is this why you did it? Set this up? To get me to talk?"

"Maybe," she said with a sly smile. "But I also want to see the both of them. Also… I think they make a really good couple. They have a lot in common, and — what? What's wrong with this idea?"

Perry had gone absolutely pale, and he was now sitting, staring at her, aghast, his mouth open in shock. "God, Alice — if you knew…"

"Which I don't," she snapped with some amount of asperity. "I don't like you having secrets with beautiful young women, Perry."

"So this is your revenge? Set up this dinner of doom?"

"No. I … I really think they have chemistry. Didn't Lois have something to do with Lana and Clark breaking up? I thought they were … and then she disappeared again, and came back all different. I can't say it makes sense, but it has seemed that she's been kind of returning to her old self lately, and so I thought — why not?"

"Because, she can never look at Clark without feeling some amount of fear, Alice. He reminds her too much of someone else. Someone who hurt her very badly."

"Because he's a man? A man hurt her, so she's skittish around all men? Oh come on Perry, I recognize the signs of someone who's been… shall we say… mistreated? But that's no reason to live her life out this way — in time, she can overcome anything —"

"If you knew —"

"If you don't stop saying that…"

<<Just tell her. Better to have Lois mad at me than Alice. I live with Alice. >>

"Lois was being held prisoner — by Kryptonians, Alice."

It was her turn to be shocked. Sputtering denials, she shook her head. "It — it can't be! I mean — he's the only one. The last… last son. I — isn't he? And you just said he had nothing to do with it!"

"Here he is. And yes. He had nothing to do with it."

"Here? So … somewhere else? There are others? She was taken to another planet, then? By whom?"

"Another dimension, Alice." He looked at her with a pained expression, fully expecting to be on the receiving end of more anger.

She looked at him in confusion for a few long minutes and then shook her head in total denial. "Come on, Perry — don't' fool around. I really want to know."

"Alice. I'm being 100% honest with you here, and if you don't believe me, you are more than welcome to call Clark. Go ahead. Call out for him — ask him to come here — and he'll confirm."

"But that's… No. I can't do that."

"It's the missing piece. The other Lois you saw came from yet a different universe… she needed Clark to get home, to her own world, to her own — life. She and her Clark are in love. They were making a life together. Our Lois was kidnapped by an evil human from the future… yes — I said future… and taken into an alternate world where… where Clark was a vicious leader of a vicious species, Kryptonians, who had invaded and enslaved the Earth. His name wasn't even Clark — he'd never been raised by humans."

Alice was slowly shaking her head, not so much in refusal to believe, but rather, refusal to accept. Clark? That kind, gentle wonderful man that made her wish sometimes that she were many years younger, and prettier, and single. How could Perry's story possibly be true?

"So —" she said in a small voice, "Do you think Clark would have been that here, if he had come to Earth with his people instead of alone? Do you think he has it in him to be this vicious leader?"

"No," said Perry emphatically. "Clark's a good man through and through. I think that alternate worlds are just alternate. I think it's possible for any one of us to wear vastly different personalities in other worlds. I could be a Hitler-like man, somewhere or when. You just don't know. And you can't drive yourself thinking about it. Clark sure has done a lot of bitter reflection on the topic, and it all comes back to the truth that you can't worry about an infinite number of alternate worlds… worry about the one you're in. That's hard enough."

"Oh, but Perry — oh — god — I better do something about Saturday. Cancel on one of them. It's… no wonder Lois felt and acted as she did. I feel so badly about all the rotten things I said to her —"

"You said rotten things to her? Alice, please — tell me you didn't…"

"Oh — I'm sorry — I should have been more clear— I said them to her in my head. I never could broach the topic with her. She looked too frail, too hurt, too haunted. Looking into those eyes of hers, you just can't hurt her in any way. So now — it all makes sense. This evil Clark…"

"Kal-El."

"Come again?"

"Clark was the name the Kent's gave him. His alien name is Kal- El, and that's how she knew him. As 'Lord Kal-El'."

"Lord." She shuddered. "That sounds so… powerful. Remote. Scary."

"Alice. She was his slave," he said, wincing at the word. "In every way. He treated her very poorly. He did it on purpose — with great enjoyment. She — she doesn't talk about it much, but what's slipped out has been very telling — very ugly."

Alice sat in silence for a few moments.

"Do her parents know?"

"Yes. She finally told them. Lucy knows as well."

"Did she tell you first? I know you're like a father to her … sometimes I think Sam is jealous of you."

"Actually… it was Clark who told me. He told me right at the very beginning."

"How in the world did Clark know about this, and —"

"He found out about where she had been the day she returned. A friend of his who travels dimensions had decided to see if he could find this universe's missing Lois in a different universe. Don't ask me how — I have no idea how any of that works… but he ended up finding her, and he brought her back home. He himself is a human being, so it was a rather extreme act of bravery. We all owe him a lot."

"Oh."

<<I can't tell her he's H.G. Wells. She'll throw me out. >>

"So — now you see?"

She took in a deep fortifying breath. "Oh god, do I ever. Oh — that poor woman. How did she ever get to the point where she could stand to cope with his existence? You would think that would be impossible. And yet — they seem to have gone beyond all that."

"She's a strong woman and he's a good man. He gets under your skin — it's hard to dislike the man. Downright impossible, unless you're someone like Luthor."

"Luthor is threatened by Clark. He doesn't like anyone to be more powerful than he is."

"Exactly. And he's a dangerous control freak. If Luthor had super powers, we'd probably have Lord Luthor in charge of everything."

"Horrifying thought."

"So — so — while she seems to have come to grips with his existence, she's not ready to … well — to be romantically involved with anyone. If she hadn't been taken, they probably would have fallen in love, like in the other world — the one where that other Lois came from. But …"

"This is just so unreal."

"More unreal than a man who can fly and bend steel?"

"I guess our entire existence seems ridiculously unreal at times. Okay. Perry. I get it now. You know — if you'd just told me all this in the beginning…"

"It wasn't my story to tell. Clark told me — And Lois was angry when she found out that he had done so."

"Oh dear. I'm thinking she'll be angry at you too —"

"I don't know. She's mellowed out a bit about it. About who knows, that is — the experience itself continues to haunt her on a daily basis."

"So … so — Clark — how does he feel?"

"Alice, he loves her." Perry shook his head sadly. "He loves her in a way that indicates to me that he'll always love her."

"Oh no," she exhaled sadly. "So his only hope is…"

"That somehow she'll be able to get over this, and start to have feelings for him. Clark's not a fool though. He knows how impossible this is. He said he would never ever declare his feelings for her — what would be the point? Why make her uncomfortable needlessly. Anyway — who knows — maybe he's been dating — the tabs sure seemed to think so. And if he can find some level of happiness with a beautiful super model, or even if he decides to just play the field… then who knows?"

"Yeah," she said dubiously. "Who knows?"

"So what are you going to do?"

"I think I'll call them both, and cancel. Suddenly I don't feel like —"

"Actually. You know- it's not like she minds him being around. She might be okay with it — I saw them both together in my office and they seemed to well on their way to friendship. Maybe your idea isn't such a bad one."

"Should I tell her he's coming?"

"Just level with her and tell her. You can ask her if it's okay. If not, we can just reschedule one of them."

"Okay…"

"I promise, she won't bite."

"Then you tell her."

"Alice…"

"No, no. Just kidding. I dug myself this hole, I'll dig my way out."

45 minutes later, she came into the living room where Perry was reading a book.

"How did it go? You look no worse for the wear."

"I'm fine. She said it's okay with her. Perry, honestly, she sounded kind of eager to see him."

"Really? Did she say so?"

"Not in words, but I could tell… do you think there's any hope for this to become more than just friendship?"

"A month ago, I'd have said no — but I'm more than aware of my obtuseness in these types of things. I didn't even know you were interested in me until you made it blatantly obvious."

"You were hard to convince. That's one of the endearing things about you, love."

"Do you think there's a chance for those two?"'

She smiled. "You know… just maybe there is. I'm hoping that we get some kind of hint of things when we see them here together."

"Well, are you planning on telling Clark?"

"Nah. Let someone get surprised. I'd love to see how he reacts when he sees her. That will be very telling."

"But — we know he loves her."

"Yes, but still won't have a chance to modulate his response. So he'll probably show more pleasure at seeing her than he would show if we gave him a chance to prepare. It's how she responds to that, that will give us our clue."

"Alice, you sound kind of diabolical here. You'd be a match for Luthor, I'm thinking."

"I'm a mother. You learn that skill on the job."

"But…"

"Now what?"

"I think you should tell him. I'm not terribly thrilled with playing mind games with Clark. He's my friend, and he never plays any sort of mind games himself. I think we owe it to him to be as honest with him as he is with us."

"Did I ever tell you that you're a party pooper?"

"Does that mean you'll tell him?"

"This time, I'd rather you did it."

"You always leave the hard jobs to me."

"That's what husbands are for."

She got up and kissed him on the cheek as she handed him the phone.

Clark had just flown in when he heard the phone ringing. His heart racing in hope, he sped over to answer it before whoever it was gave up. Maybe it's her!

"Clark! I'm glad you're in."

"Hey, Perry — what's up?"

"I, uh, wanted to talk to you about Saturday night. I kind of wanted to give you advanced warning — Alice invited another guest."

"This sounds ominous. Oh — god … Please tell me it's not Luthor? No, it can't be. Alice can't stand him. Is it Cat? Please tell me it's not Cat."

"No — son — It's not … it's — it's…"

"Lois. She invited Lois, didn't she?"

"Why do I even bother talking?"

"I should have guessed that immediately — why else would you really feel like you had to 'warn' me."

"Is it okay? If not -"

"Does she know?"

"Yes."

"And… and she's okay with it? With — with my being there?" Clark tried to keep his voice even. Inside, he felt like he was bursting with joy.

"Yes."

"Oh. Wow."

"Are — are you okay with it? I mean — well- I know you have feelings for her, but I also know that being around her can be a bittersweet experience for you."

"I'm very much okay with it, Perry."

<<She's okay with it! She's okay with it! >>

"She's really okay with it? Are you sure- or is she just trying to be polite — did you talk to her, or was it Alice… and — maybe she just didn't feel she could tell Alice that she wasn't okay with it — so are you really sure? Is she really okay with it?"

"Alice knows, son. I told her."

"Oh."

"And she told Lois she knows. So Lois would have no real reason to pretend she was okay with it."

"Right… but … but — maybe she just wants to put on a brave face- you know… she's — her pride gets injured when she perceives herself to be anything less than strong."

"I feel fairly confident that she's okay with it, son." Perry tried to hide the amusement that he was feeling. Clark may be the one with the x-ray vision, but right now, Perry felt he could see right through to him. "You don't have to worry about feeling good about this. She knows you're coming, and she's really okay with it."

"So it's that obvious, is it?"

"To me. I know how you feel about her."

"As long as Alice doesn't… of course, knowing Alice — she initially set this up in hopes of matchmaking. Didn't she?"

"Uh — yeah. That's about right. That's why I told her about what happened. I wanted to nip it in the bud before anyone got hurt."

"What do you mean?"

"Just imagine her approaching Lois directly about it? Or continuing to contrive situations to throw you two together romantically?"

"Right," he said quietly. "Not a good scenario."

"Although…" Perry trailed off thoughtfully.

"Although what?"

"She did mention that Lois actually seemed … more than just okay with the idea of seeing you. And frankly, I'm still reeling from that smile she gave you when she saw you in my office."

"Perry, please. It's hard enough to keep my feet on the ground as it is. Don't be an enabler."

"I'm just saying that maybe things aren't as bleak as we once thought. Look. A year ago we both thought that you didn't even stand a chance of having any kind of positive relationship with her. And now — you two are actually friends. Beyond all belief and hope. So who's to know? Maybe that whole soul-mate thing has some merit — and maybe, no matter what has happened to her, or to you, there are external forces pushing you together — forces that want you to be together."

"I can't set myself up for that kind of expectation, Perry. I have her friendship and that's more than I ever thought I would have. I need to believe that this is the best it can be, or I won't be happy with the status quo. I don't want to do that to me — or to her. I want to be able to find joy in the way things currently are."

"Okay son. That makes sense — and -"

"But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it — your viewpoint. In fact — I'll be honest — certain things she's said to me have given me cause to hope as well — and I'm just working hard at keeping perspective. I just don't want her to start feeling that there's more going on here than she can handle. I don't want to scare her off."

"I know. It would be worse for you to lose her friendship — maybe the payoff isn't worth it. I don't know — I hope she continues to see you for who you really are, and is able to someday be that special person in your life. But Alice and I won't do anything to scare her off either. Now that Alice knows, she feels badly that she even tried this in the first place."

"Well — you know — Saturday doesn't have to happen -"

"No — no. It really — it's really okay — and we are both really looking forward to seeing you both. Please — now that Alice has talked to her, she feels a lot better."

"Okay, Perry. Listen — thanks for the call."

"No problem. I'll see you Saturday then."

"Take care."

After he hung up the phone, he checked quickly to see that his feet were still on the ground.

She's going to be there.

<<I get to see her! This is just too good. I need to make sure I don't wear or do anything to set her off. I know it would really hurt her to have a negative reaction in front of the Whites. I hope she'll be okay — I hope that her initial reaction won't be too harsh. I can't wait to see her! She isn't upset that I'm going to be there! Perry actually thinks she's happy about it! Maybe she's — no — no — don't go there. Just don't. But it can't hurt to just think about it, can it? Yes. It can. It can because it will eventually be obvious to her that I'm hoping for more, and that will make her uncomfortable. She'll start avoiding me, and then I'll never see her. That's a bad scenario — one I don't want. So I need to be cool — play it cool — stay calm. >>

Not far from his apartment, a similar battle was going on in the mind of Lois Lane.

<<Alice knows. This is a good thing, isn't it? I mean — it makes life easier for Perry. And Alice can stop trying to throw the two of us together, because I'm sure that's what this was. A matchmaking kind of dinner. I need her to know so she doesn't try it again. But… if I don't want her to try it again, why am I so excited? Because I am — I'm really excited about seeing him again. I can't wait… and I'm already agonizing about what to wear. This is so weird. Why would I care — why would I be excited about this — it's not like I want it to lead anywhere. Do I? I don't know what I want. I just know what I don't want. I don't want to not see him. I don't want him to date anyone else. I don't want him to go away. But… I don't want to be romantic or intimate with him either. I just want things to be as they are — I want to see him whenever I want, knowing full well that he's not dating anyone else. So what do I wear? Oh god — what about him. I forgot — when I first see him, I usually see Kal-El. It takes a while for Kal-El to fade and Clark to appear. What if — what if he wears black? He probably won't, right? He knows — he'd remember. But still… who knows — it might still freak me out, and I'll have to get it under control in front of Alice and Perry. I can't do that- I can't — risk the humiliation of having a panic attack in front of them. So what do I do?>>

Dismally and frantically she worked through the scene in her mind.

<<I'm sure to have some kind of painful reaction when I see him. I always do — or mostly always. It would be better to just get it over with beforehand. I need — I should… ask him to come here first? Oh — but that sounds like I'm asking him to pick me up — of course — he doesn't have a car — does he? He doesn't need one. I could drive us both — if he'd be willing, but it seems so childish to ask him to do that. I couldn't do it — I couldn't — maybe… maybe I could stop by his place. Just act like "Oh, it was on the way, and I thought you might want a ride." Right. A super powered being who can fly needs me to give him a ride in my car. Makes total sense. But if I know him, he'll accept and won't say anything about the lack of logic behind the action. He'll see right through it — and he'll act like it's the best idea in the world. Yes. I know I can count on that. So — I'll do it. But — I should call him first- so he doesn't leave without me — I shouldn't just show up — should I? What if I get there too early, and he's not dressed yet? It'd be awkward. Or what if he's out saving people — what do I do??>>

A knock at the door startled Lois out of her train of thought. She felt a clenching sensation in the region of her heart.

<<Maybe it's him!>>

"One moment!" She called out.

She was extremely excited and hopeful by the thought of seeing Clark. Eagerly she went over to the peephole and looked through and her heart immediately sank.

<<It's Lex! Oh no. What do I do? I don't want to let him in. He scares me. But he can't hurt me — not with Clark out there to save me, right? But what if Clark is unavoidably busy doing something else- like rescuing people from an earthquake or whatever? Then what? What if Lex masterminds some disaster to keep Clark busy? Opening the door and letting him in is dangerous and I shouldn't do it — shouldn't rely on Clark to be able to save me. What do I do? Should I call for Clark? Call him now! That's what I should do!>>

She went over to the phone, and quickly dialed his number, her heart pounding a mile a minute. She felt a surge of relief when he answered the phone, his voice was warm and welcoming.

"Clark — oh god — I'm glad you're home!"

"Lois? What's wrong? Are you okay?" He was worried. She sounded very tense and afraid.

"Lex is here. Outside my door — and I'm afraid to let him in. I'm also afraid not to let him in. What should I do?"

"Do you want me to come over? I could be there in seconds and then you could let him in to find out what he wants."

"Would you mind —" No sooner had the words left her mouth and he was there, hovering outside her balcony window.

<<I never thought I would feel so glad to see him like that. He doesn't even scare me right now. >>

"Thank you so much for coming," she gasped as she rushed to open the balcony door.

"No problem, Lois — like I said — any time." He smiled reassuringly. He quickly spun into his street clothes — just as Lex knocked on the door again.

"Lois?" Called Lex. "Please open the door."

She looked at Clark nervously and he gave her another smile.

"I promise you — he can't do anything — not while I'm here. Okay? You're safe."

She nodded quickly. "Right. Right. Of course."

She went over to the door and opened it.

"Lex. I'm sorry — I — I — come in."

"Lois, I was worried — when you took so long in — Oh. Clark."

The tone of his voice changed from silky smooth to vaguely menacing. Lois felt cold inside. Nervously she glanced over at Clark and was relieved to find that he wasn't displaying any signs of anger or tension.

"Hey Lex. Long time, no see."

"Not an easy feat for me. Keeping out of view of a man who can see through walls."

"Hope it isn't a blow to your ego to find out that I have far better ways to spend my time."

"I can see that. It looks like you and the delightful Ms. Lane have struck up quite the friendship. Giving her the exclusive on your daring rescue of planet Earth — why — that was just an amazing act of generosity on your part."

"Saving the Earth was the amazing act of generosity," interjected Lois, trying to channel her former mad-dog persona.

<<You won't scare me.>>

"Of course. No doubt about that. We all owe our lives to our friendly neighborhood alien here."

Lois fought back the urge to smack him in the face.

<<Why does he keep making alien cracks? It's like he wants to remind Clark at every opportunity that he's not human. That he doesn't belong. That's it — of course. Lex just wants to hurt him in any way that he can. >>

She repressed a shudder.

<<I hope that Clark can't be hurt. How odd — I once was hoping to find a way to stop Clark, should he ever make my worst fears come true, and now, I'm on the opposite end of that spectrum.>>

"Lex, why are you here?" She decided to ignore his barbs. If Clark could, so could she.

"I wanted to talk to you — but I can see that this is a bad time."

"This is as good a time as any, Lex. If you have something to say to me, I really wish you'd say it now."

"Lois. My heart is wounded. I — do you … are you afraid of me?" His eyes glinted with menace.

<<You'd like that, you bastard.>>

Lois stared at him for a stunned moment as she realized that he truly would like that. He would relish having her at his mercy and having her afraid of him. Lord Luthor. The thought came unbidden into her mind, and it made her feel cold inside.

"Lex, you've given me every reason to treat you warily."

"Lois — you completely misunderstood the situation. I would never hurt you. I was merely — I'm not used to people saying no to me, that's all. In fact- maybe it's a good thing that our flying friend here gave me that dictionary." He smiled humorlessly at Clark.

"Lex, I don't think that ignorance is much of a defense in the eyes of the law," Clark said casually.

<<Don't get mad. Don't rise to his bait. Don't frighten Lois.>>

"I certainly wouldn't think of breaking the law. Dear god, Lois — what did you think I was going to do? Now — the fact that Clark here mistrusts me is no surprise to me, but that you mistrust me — it cuts to the quick. I'll have to earn back your trust, I see."

"It's not important, Lex," she interjected hastily. "But I really don't see any purpose in drawing this out. If you have something to say to me, why not say it now?"

"I just wanted to see if you were okay, and make sure that my little… offer… hadn't left you with another wrong idea. I wasn't… making you an indecent offer. I hope you understand that."

"Lex — I'm curious," interrupted Clark. "Just … how did you manage to duplicate Lois's apartment down to such a detail?"

"Now how do you — oh — so you told him." He cast a sharp look at Lois.

Lois immediately felt like shrinking in herself. Lex, like Kal- El, enjoyed the art of intimidation. He used his voice, his eyes and his body language to inflict fear, just like Kal-El. Both were like amused predators, watching their prey squirm under scrutiny. When he looked at her like that she wanted to fall at his feet and beg forgiveness. Nervously she flicked her eyes quickly to Clark and saw him looking at her in concern. She must have been broadcasting her feelings somewhat, at least enough for him to know she was afraid. She gave him a quick smile to show that she was still under control, and he gave her one back.

<<It's okay, Lois. I'm not going anywhere until you tell me to.>>

She heard him in her mind, and smiled back, only this time, it reached her eyes.

"Am I interrupting something here?" Lex's cold voice cut into their communication.

"Lex —"

"You know," he continued, his voice caustic. "I really just don't understand this. I'm not sure I haven't been played for a fool. Tell me, Lois — was this your plan all along? You and Clark — and maybe even Perry White, all conspiring against me?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Clark and Perry — I know they've mistrusted me, but I never knew you felt that way too. Did you set me up? Pretend to hate our alien friend here? Pretend to fear him? I tell you — your article series was very convincing. You really had me … I thought for sure you hated him. You were afraid of him, and determined to help the world see what they were missing. You painted such a horrific future for us all, and now… now that I see this cozy tête-à-tête, I have to wonder… was this some kind of setup? Were you hoping to somehow bring me down?"

"Lex, has it occurred to you that you're raving?" Clark asked mildly.

"People just don't have a change of heart that quickly," continued Lex, his voice full of venom. "So you either planned this together to make me look like an idiot, or maybe it was something weird between the two of you? Lois — do you have … fantasies… of being enslaved? Of being dominated?"

Lex paused, and noted with satisfaction that Lois had turned pale. In truth, he was rather sure that she had, at one time, been very much afraid of Superman, and he knew this would strike a blow.

<<I don't like to lose. I don't lose, and I haven't lost yet. Don't count me out of the game, because I have big plans for both of you.>>

"Lex," said Clark, keeping his tone as even as possible. "You might want to watch what you're saying here."

"Or what? You'll beat me up, perhaps? Or — what was it that Lois had suggested at one point — that you might use that heat vision of yours to render me nothing more than a pile of ashes?"

"Or… Lois might use one of her famous black belt maneuvers on you. If she feels justified — and I have to warn you — I have no intention of intervening if she chooses to do so."

"I'm not afraid of her," he spat angrily.

"And you have no reason to be afraid of me. You know as well as I that I would never do any of those things."

"Lois didn't know. She thought you would — she was so sure… or at least, she convinced me she was sure. She convinced a lot of people. So is that it, Lois? Your secret wish? You wish he would take over the world, enslave humanity and abuse you like that? You have a secret fantasy to be —"

"Lex. Get. Out." Lois found her voice, and mustered all her anger and courage against her attacker.

"Oh — I'm not even finished yet."

"Luthor, you're trespassing now. I suggest you get out — now. Unless you want the police to show up and have to drag you out of here. I don't think you'd like that — especially as Lois and I wouldn't really hesitate to ensure it ends up on the front page of the Daily Planet."

Luthor looked at him with an angry sneer on his face.

"Super-Clark. The most powerful man in the universe, and that's the best you can do?"

He smiled, "911 — it's just a call away, Lex."

"No need to go that far, Superman." He spat out his name in disgust. "I'm leaving. But I warn you both. I don't take kindly to being played for a fool, and if I find out that you really did set this up, I promise you, you'll both pay. Especially. You." He turned to Lois as he said these words, emphasizing each one, so she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he meant what he said.

"Lex. Are you threatening her? That's a *really* bad idea." Clark was angry now, and couldn't even hope to contain it. He kept his eyes away from Lois, not wanting to see her shrink from his own anger.

Lex looked at him furiously, and turned to walk out the door, slamming it behind him.

There was a long tense silence, during which Clark was afraid to look over at Lois. He finally mustered the courage, only to find that she was sitting on the arm of her couch, holding her arms around herself protectively. She was shaking. It broke his heart to see, but he knew instinctively that I wasn't his own angry reaction that had provoked this response.

He walked carefully over to her.

"Lois?" His voice was tentative and gentle as he tried to get her attention.

"He… he… he means it. He means it. He — he won't rest until he's… he's — he doesn't take no for an answer. Clark. What am I going to do? He's out to get me." She shook her head, and uttered a mirthless laugh. "All — all those months I worked at his side, trying — trying to expose you — for what I felt you surely were… and it was him all along. He was the threat. The one I should have been … oh Clark — what am I going to do?"

"Lois. I know — he's a scary person. That's why Perry and I have been trying our best to … find some evidence that would put him away — that would link him to his crimes. But — but — I assure you — he won't hurt you. I won't let him —"

Her eyes were wild and afraid as she looked up to meet his gaze.

"How can you stop him? If he really means to — he will. He will. He's so powerful, Clark — I've been up against that before. There's no stopping him — no stopping… he's —"

"Lois, from any point on the Earth I can get to you within minutes. Most places — seconds. I promise — you have my protection — round the clock."

She nodded uneasily. "I know And… I'm — I — thank you. I'm sorry if I sound ungrateful…"

"No — Lois — it isn't that. I don't care about that. I just don't want you to be afraid of him."

"You can't … stop how I feel." Her expression was apologetic.

"No. I guess I can't."

"But — knowing you're … out there… listening out for me… it does help a lot. If it weren't for that, I'm not sure what I'd do."

He smiled at her feeble attempts at reassuring him.

"Okay. I'm glad to hear it."

"Thanks for coming this time. I — I felt stupid calling you, but now I'm glad I did."

"Any time. And in fact, even if Lex hadn't shown his true colors tonight — It would never be a stupid thing to do — to trust your instincts… to listen to your fear."

"Thanks."

There was a short and awkward pause, during with time Lois debated with herself about bringing up Saturday's dinner.

"Clark? Are you going to Perry's on Saturday?"

"Yes- and I hear you'll be there too."

"Yeah. Well — I … how about I come by and pick you up?"

"You don't have to do that — I can easily fl- uh — get there on my own."

"Clark — you don't need to … I can handle that you have these powers. Really."

"Lois, it's habit. I'm sorry. I'm working on it."

"No — please — I'm sorry. I know you're only worrying about me. I feel badly about bringing you to this point. But… and I guess — what I have to say next will just seem silly, given what we're just talking about… but — usually… When I see you… Oh… God… I feel like an idiot for —"

"You want to see me alone so you can …deal with the impact of seeing me before getting to the Whites' house."

"Perceptive of you," she said with a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry. It sounds really horrible to even say this after what you've just done…"

"You do realize you didn't have a reaction at seeing me today — uh — even when I first got here."

"But — although you do have an excellent point there, I was kind of under the influence of my Luthor induced fears. Maybe they overshadowed … I don't know. If I'm over having a bad reaction whenever I see you, then that's cause for celebration, but I don't want to have to worry about it — and I certainly don't want to have a reaction in front of them. So…I know it's kind of silly -"

"Do you want me to come here, then? Save you a trip to my place and then we can just head out from here?"

"Do — do you mind?"

<<Do I mind spending time with you? Being with you in a car? In close quarters? Do I mind? Have I died? Gone to heaven? Did I win the lottery? How did life suddenly get so great?>>

"I don't mind at all, Lois." And as he said this, he gave her another one of his incredible smiles.

She stared at him, trying not to let hr jaw drop at the effect his smile had on her.

<<What is it about him that makes me feel so good?>>

"Okay Clark. Good — then… then it's a date."

There was an awkward silence during which time she couldn't meet his eyes. Her face felt burning hot and she was sure she was flushing red.

<<I can't believe I said that. Now what do I do? What does he think? Does he think I want — I want a real date? I don't — I might never —I'm not ready for that. What do I do now? >>

"Coffee — the — the least I could do — after you came here to help… hold on — please — I'll go -"

Before he could say anything, she dashed off to the kitchen and he heard her clattering around. Moments later, he heard the sound of breaking glass, and he rushed heedlessly into the kitchen to see if she was okay. Out of concern for her safety, he moved super-fast and seemed to suddenly appear before her eyes.

She took a startled step back away from him, her eyes wide and frightened. He could see that she was visibly shaking.

"Are — are you okay — what happened?"

"I — I dropped a mug… — into the sink — but — but it's okay — no — not a big mess. I'm sorry — I'm clumsy — I — I know -"

She sounded frightened — as if she was trying to placate him somehow.

<<Move carefully here. Don't scare her. >>

"Hey," he said lightly "It's your mug, okay — so — no need to apologize to me. I'm just glad you're okay."

She looked down, her mind raging. Memories from the other world kept running through her head, and Clark, despite looking human in his casual clothes, looked very much like Kal-El to her at that moment. Worse, Luthor's words kept ringing in her ears — especially his despicable suggestions about her secret fantasies about Clark.

"Lois?"

"I'm sorry. I'm — I — I don't know — I don't know — what…"

Her voice broke and she stopped, talking. She looked away from him to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes.

<<Damn. I'm such a mess. >>

He looked at her hands and saw that they were shaking violently. She was still holding the glass coffee pot.

<<She's going to drop that.>>

Without really thinking about what he was doing, he reached over and gripped the pot. His hand brushed against hers and she looked at him startled.

"I'm sorry. Lois — I — can I take this for you, please? So it doesn't drop?"

Mutely she nodded and released her grip on it. He moved it to the counter, looking at her carefully, trying not to startle her further.

"Lois." He took a deep breath, and then, as if making a sudden resolve, he repeated her name. "Please… look at me?" It was meant as a request, but his words were nearly identical to Kal-El's on more than one occasion.

<<Look at me. >>

<<Don't make him angry. >>

Immediately, she looked up at him fearfully, confused by the rapidly firing memories.

"I'm sorry — I didn't mean to frighten you," he said carefully. "I — it seems like you're … having some bad flashbacks… and I seem to be making it worse."

"No — no —" Her protests were feeble.

"Still… I have to say this — and I don't — I don't want to make things worse… but you need to know… I didn't — didn't think you meant date just now. I — I would never assume that, you know? I would never assume that you meant you wanted… anything more than this… this friendship that we have. You don't have to be afraid of my ever getting the wrong idea — or — of … acting in a way that — that — horrifies you… because of a misunderstanding. It — it will never happen. I know that there's no chance of anything like that between us, and I'm not — I won't ever… make an unwanted move."

Tears pricked again at her eyes at his words.

<<He's giving up on me. >>

"I — I know- I'm sorry. You don't deserve this garbage — you —"

"It's okay. I'm really okay with the way things are. The fact that they will always be — that we will always just be friends. I'm okay with that."

"What if — what if …"

<<What if someday I change my mind? How will you know? Will you keep acting like this? Responding in a platonic way? What if I want more from you? Won't you know? Won't you know to act? To react? What if I can't make that first move? What if I need help? >>

"What if, what if what?"

She shook her head rapidly. "Nothing. Nothing."

He stared at her for a long moment.

<<Could she have meant… no… no — no she couldn't have — especially not now — not after what happened, and how she reacted, not now… not ever. She was probably playing out different scenarios of possible misunderstanding. I should make it clear to her — I won't ever cross that line. >>

"Lois — no matter what — you have nothing to fear from me. I will never make any kind of … move… on you. I promise. Nothing of the kind."

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded slowly. "I trust you. Despite how I sometimes act around you — I do trust you."

"Good — because…" Suddenly he looked distracted for a moment, and then gave her back his full and anxious attention.

"I have to go. There's a call for help! Is it okay if I —"

"Go ahead — really — it's okay!"

He spun into Superman, and apologized for doing so.

"It's really okay —go — someone needs you."

<<Other than me. I need you. I really do. Don't give up on me. >>

As soon as he left, she called Lana, hoping desperately that she was at home and available to meet. Thirty minutes later she was letting Lana into her apartment.

"I'm so glad you came!" She hugged the other woman. Normally, it made her uncomfortable to be physically close to others, but she was able to hug those she really cared about. She had learned to derive strength and comfort from that contact.

"Hey — that's what friends are for," Lana said lightly, picking up on the other woman's tension.

"I've had a rough day. Oh —what an understatement. But first — let me make some coffee."

Ten minutes later, she handed Lana a cup of coffee, "Just as you like it!"

"So what did you mean by 'what if'?"

"Oh — I don't know," she expelled her breath in frustration. "I just don't know. I feel so mixed up all the time."

"Did you mean: What if I change my mind? Or how about 'What if I want you to make a pass at me'?"

"Lana, haven't we been over this? You aren't my type."

"Okay — okay. All silliness aside, please. I think you're still wrestling with the fear of 'What if'. It's no longer 'What if he's evil' and 'What if he hurts me', it's 'What if he goes away?' 'What if he isn't available when I need him to be'?"

"Yeah. It goes back to the whole idea that we're meant for each other."

"But really — you don't absolutely know that."

"Lana. What do you think? Honestly. Based on all that you know about him, about her. What is your honest assessment of the situation, and don't give me any psychologist double-speak. What do you really think?"

Lana looked at her intently for a few moments as if engaging in some inner argument.

"Lois. Frankly. Honestly. I do think you two were supposed to be together. I really do."

"Then you see that I have to do something. Things can't just happen, I have to…"

"What? Get a lobotomy? Lois — how can you just alter who you are today — you can't? You are what you are, and what experience has made you. You are working at overcoming your demons in a healthy way, but what more do you think you should do?"

"I… I think I should tell him. I should tell him about my … feelings that maybe he's supposed to be the one — and that — while I can't offer him anything today — maybe he could wait until I could offer him something… his choice, of course. You're going to tell me that's a bad idea. That I'll be setting myself up for guilt about making him wait for me to be amenable to something other than what we now have and that this guilt will bother me the way my fear of losing him is currently bothering me."

"Yes. I do think that will happen. But… but maybe he can work with you in dispelling that guilt — making you feel like it's okay that things are how they are. If anyone can do it — it's him."

"So — are you saying … I should do it? You're supporting this decision? I thought you'd talk me out of it."

"Do you want me to talk you out of it? I'm torn — I don't want to influence your behavior unduly, but at the same time, knowing both of you as I do, I think it's a workable idea."

"So assuming I do have the courage to admit to him that there's a possibility of something more, way down the line… what if he's not even interested? Maybe he really just loves her."

"Oh Lois," groaned Lana "One what-if at a time."

"Sorry. I'm just a tad neurotic as you can see."

"We all are. We all fear rejection. It's normal. For what it's worth, I have a strong impression that he does have feelings for you."

"Did he ever say anything?"'

"He… he might have," she smiled mysteriously. "But it's not for me to reveal to you conversations I've had with him — just like I can't tell him what you and I talk about. It's not patient/doctor crap — it's friendship stuff. You wouldn't want me to reveal his secrets without his express consent, right?"

"No — no, of course not. But your answer is encouraging … and frightening. Oh god —very frightening."

"Okay then. Just take a few deep breaths, and remember —he's not the kind of guy to ever act on those feelings without you basically tattooing the message of consent onto your forehead. My god — what is it? Did — did I say something —" She stopped talking as she noticed that Lois had suddenly gone pale.

"No — no… it's just that…" she shook her head, trying to shake the memories out of her head. "It's nothing. Really. That … imagery just reminded me of something … pretty bad — from that other world."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Lana's voice was gentle and reassuring.

"Well — I'm — I'm not sure."

"Okay — okay. It's entirely up to you, you know."

She paused a few moments, thinking it over in her mind.

<<Should I tell her about it? I don't want to even think about it. But isn't it all about letting go of the fear of the memories? Shouldn't I talk about it, share it, so it's less burdensome? >>

"Kal-El … branded me… my first day of captivity."

Lana was dumbfounded, and she just looked at Lois with growing horror.

"Hey — next time I want you to stop talking, I'll just talk about —"

"Lois, I'm sorry. I … I just — it's so awful. So awful. A brand? Like with a branding … iron?"

"Heat vision," she whispered back the answer.

"Oh god. Oh GOD. Does Clark know?"

"No And I don't want him to —"

"Relax — please — I promise not to ever talk to him about what we talk about here, remember?"

She smiled feebly. "Yeah — I know. Okay. He used his heat vision and he… burned a symbol into my back. It's… uh — it's small, and it's high on my back, my shoulder, actually. Marking me as… his property."

"That must have been an intensely painful experience."

"Major understatement. I'll show you the mark sometime, when I'm feeling a bit braver, but right now — it was all I could do to even talk about it."

"Oh — totally understandable."

"So back to this Clark thing… I think I'll feel better if I just let him know…"

"So let him know what?"

"Oh god. I just don't know. I don't know what I feel."

"I think you feel like if you don't rush yourself through your healing process, you'll lose him. So you're trying so hard to be … to not be afraid of him and what being with him entails, that you're torturing yourself."

"That's it. In a nutshell."

"Are you so sure that you'll be ready… ready to come right out and tell him this? Are you sure you'll ever be ready to take this to another level? A sexual level?" Lana asked her softly.

She shuddered involuntarily. "No. No — that's the hard part. I'm not sure — I'm not sure at all. How — how could I get pat the Kal-El experiences? Even if I could be with a man, wouldn't … wouldn't the physical similarities between them make it impossible? Plus — he is a Kryptonian — and — he has those powers… I don't know — I —"

"Are you afraid that even if you could get past the associations, you would … still get … hurt… because of his powers? Forgive me for being indelicate, but the fact that you're still here, alive, well, and not seriously maimed in any way, indicates… that…"

"I know —I know… I guess… When Kryptonians are … sexual… they use mental… they get in your head. And…"

"You think he might do that to you?"

She shook her head harshly. "This is a bad conversation to be having."

"I think it's a good one. That you can even have it means that you've come so far! Think about it for a moment. You are contemplating something that even six months ago would have been unspeakable to you."

"So maybe in five years I'll be able to hold his hand." She said bitterly.

"Okay… I know — you're frustrated by what you perceived to be your lack of progress. But from an outside perspective, I think you've come a long way.

"Thanks. I guess — I need to be a bit less harsh on myself."

"You need to be what you need to be. Don't stress over it."

"Okay."

"So… I have a really important question to ask you."

"Yes?"

"What are you wearing on Saturday?" She grinned at her mischievously

"Okay — so now we have a whole new conundrum."

"Oh — I was trying to be…"

"I know — I know — but — I just don't know. I want to look good, but…"

"But what…"

"I'm so…"

"Scared? You want to look good, but you're afraid to look good and all that it might imply?"

"Skinny, I was going to say."

"Skinny?"

"I've lost… my curves. I'm too gaunt. The fact is… I don't look good in any of my dresses."

"Nonsense. You look wonderful. Yes, a few pounds — that might be good for you — but — you look great."

"Nothing like Carissa."

"Screw Carissa. You looked great. Women all over the country would kill to look like you."

"Can — will you go shopping with me? Help me find something good?"

"The press will have a field day seeing us out and about together."

"I think it'll be a good exercise in standing up for myself and telling people to back off."

"There is that. Okay — shopping it is! The best form of therapy that I know."

Lois laughed. Lana was a fun friend to have.

Later that night, she lay in bed, a thousand thoughts firing across her synapses. She was unable to fall asleep. She was nervous now that she had established a course of action for herself and kept tormenting herself with the possible outcomes of her action.

<<What if he laughs at me? Or what if he delicately explains to me that he doesn't think of me in that way — that I'm like a sister to him? What if he starts avoiding me? What if… what if he thinks I'm ready now, and makes a move? What if he kisses me? What if he never kisses me? What if he starts trying to push for more in a couple of months time — just how patient is he? If it were Lex, he would definitely have an expiration date on his ability to wait for the time to be right. He would push the point … physically… heck, he already has, and I never even hinted that I might be interested in him. What am I going to do? Because if I do nothing, Carissa's going to get him. If not her, it will be some other bimbo. I can't let that happen. >>

She slipped into a fitful sleep, and after a while, began to have equally fitful dreams.

She heard a knocking on her window, and saw him hovering there. As she had done many times before, she moved over and unlocked the door.

"I wasn't expecting to see you… is anything wrong?" She felt nervous and uncertain. He seemed on edge somehow, and it made her feel ill at ease.

"Yes. Everything is wrong." His voice was urgent and intense. "I can't take this… I'm sorry. I just can't take this anymore. You told me a year ago that you might have feelings for me, but in that year nothing has changed. We're still exactly the same as we were. I can't take it, Lois. I have feelings too. I have … well — I have needs."

"I — I'm sorry — I'm sorry," she gasped in shock. "I had no idea — no idea that you felt this way — and I'm sorry. I didn't mean to — I'm trying. I'm trying really hard."

"It's not good enough, Lois. Something has to change. Something has to change now."

She turned away in agitation. "You want to … you want to be released from our… arrangement. I don't blame you — I can't… I can't justify asking you to hold off on getting involved if I can't… I know…"

"No. That's not what I want… I want you."

Fear gripped her hard. Slowly she turned to meet his gaze and she flinched at the pure and obvious desire in his eyes.

"Clark… no… No! I — I'm not ready, and I — I — I can't —"

"Relax," he said with silky persuasiveness. "You don't know what you can or can't do because you haven't even tried. It's okay — I think that the mistake we've been making has been in waiting for you to feel like you can make that first move."

He stepped in close to her and she took a startled step backwards.

"Don't do that," he said. It sounded very much like a command. She could see the desire in his eyes alongside something else. An unwavering determination to get his way.

She shook her head, fearing his gaze. "Please — please — stop this — you're — the way you're acting… it's —"

"Scaring you," he mocked? "That's an old song. I know that I scare you on occasion. That's the problem. And I think the solution is that I need to make the first move. Make it for you, because clearly you can't do it. I have to push you past your limits a little bit. You'll be glad that I did, in the end."

"No — no — this isn't what I want — I don't —"

"This isn't about what you want…" He said angrily. "It's been about what you've wanted since you got back. What about me? What about what I want? Right now — I've decided that sometimes it has to be about what I want. What I need!"

His anger and impatience were confusing and frightening her, and she stepped backwards again, trying to put more space between them.

"I said don't do that," he reminded her through clenched teeth. He gripped her arms, causing her to gasp out in shock.

"No, no — no — let's just… if you can't… can't stand the way things are… let's just… we don't have to — you can see others — it's okay. I — I'm sorry I ever…"

"It's too late for that," he said rigidly. There was a dangerous and domineering edge to his voice. "I've waited for you and I'm not … giving up… not without some kind of concession."

"What's wrong with you," she asked frantically, trying to free herself from his grip.

He tightened his hold. "Don't make this harder on yourself," he said harshly. "I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of being patient and understanding. Sometimes you just have to take what you want. Balance need against need. I've decided that in this case, my needs matter more."

"Don't — I can't!"

"It's okay." His voice was suddenly soothing. "I just want to kiss you. It's been a year since you told me you wanted me to wait for you. I think it's time we at least got past this hurdle. I'm just going to kiss you, and then we can take it from there."

"No!" She started twisting frantically, trying to free her arms. "Please let go of me — you're hurting me — you really are!"

"Then stop struggling. You know, I think this is the only way to get through to you. You got so used to it in the other world…"

His voice was rough and angry, and he pulled her closer towards him and kissed her hard. She felt her teeth cut into her lower lip and tasted her blood — just like before.

He heard her crying out, and he rushed to her apartment to see what was happening. Upon his arrival, he did a quick scan to see what the situation was and saw that she was having a nightmare.

He was torn. Last time she had a really bad nightmare — so bad that it summoned him to her side — he went into her mind. That didn't seem a good option at this time, so he was instead, torn by warring options: Stay and wake her up, or just leave, and try to ignore the sound of her distress.

<<What if her distress becomes real — if Lex comes in and attacks or abducts her — and I ignore it — what then? I'd have failed her. So what do I do? Stay out here until it's over? Wake her up? >>

He felt incredibly uncomfortable at the idea of hanging around, spying on her, while she had this awful dream. It seemed that the best option was to go in and wake her up, and yet, how to do that without making things bad for her.

"Clark, No!"

He felt suddenly startled. He heard her calling out his name.

<<What is she dreaming about? Is she dreaming I'm in danger? Is she dreaming of Lex?>>

"Clark, No! Please — no — please — stop!"

He froze.

<<No. Please don't let her be dreaming that I'm hurting her. Where would that come from? Why would she be having such a dream? I've never… or maybe it's Lex — those awful insinuations of his, maybe they set her up for this nightmare. Even more reason to loathe the bastard. What if this affects our friendship? Takes us back to square one? >>

"No — no! You're hurting me — let go. Please. I'm sorry — Clark!"

<<I can't listen to this anymore! >>

Selfishly he decided he had to wake her up.

<<She's better off awake. This must be an awful place in her mind. She must feel so betrayed.>>

He flew over to her balcony and noted that it was unlocked.

<<Yikes — her door is unlocked. Although this is helpful to my purpose, it's not exactly a good idea, given Luthor and his parting threat>>

He flew into her apartment and went into her bedroom. As soon as he got in, he realized how intimidating it would seem for her to see him there.

<<She's better off awake. Or am I better off if she's awake? Seems I'm doing this for my own selfish reasons. If I really care about her, I should let her get through this undisturbed, just stay and make sure she's okay, and then leave before she finds me here. Because waking up suddenly and finding me so close to her like this, in her bedroom is bound to be further fodder for nightmares.>>

As he stood there, battling with himself as to the proper course of action, she suddenly woke up, and gasped out loud at the sight of a strange person in her bedroom.

"Who — who's there?" she called out, her voice shaking. "I — I have a gun!"

"Um. It's just me, Lois — it's Clark — I — you were having a nightmare, you were calling out for help, and I just flew over to see if you were in danger. I came in here because, I thought I should wake you… so that I wouldn't mistake a real call for help with a dream." He rushed through his explanation, feeling guilty for being there at all.

He saw her frantically swing her legs out of bed and stand up. She staggered uncertainly for a moment, and he had to resist a very powerful urge to go offer her assistance.

<<She looks so small. So vulnerable. And really cute in those pajamas. I must look imposing to her — sucking up all the space in this small room. >>

"It's okay — you don't need to get up. I'll leave. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

She didn't know what to say. Seeing him there, he seemed menacing to her in the dark. All she could see was the dark shadow of his body — the outline of his muscles. He seemed dangerous. His voice and manner were reassuring — but her brain was still being bombarded with the images from that terrible nightmare. She felt like she couldn't even get a single word out that would make sense.

<<Try. You have to try. Say something.>>

"Thank you," she whispered.

<<That's better than nothing.>>

"It's okay."

His voice evoked imagery from her nightmare. She squeezed her eyes shut.

<<It's okay. I just want to kiss you. You'll be glad I did, in the end. Don't do that. I'm tired of being patient.>>

She drew in her breath sharply. It seemed so real, like she was living the moment. All the while, he hadn't moved an inch. She finally took note of his actual body language and noticed that he seemed very tense and nervous. A horrible thought struck her.

<<Oh god. Did he get into my head again? He seems so — he seems kind of upset — he wants to get out of here. He's very uncomfortable. Did — does he know what I dreamt? Does he know? Did he go into my mind again? And if he did — how do I ask him? How do I get the nerve to ask?>>

He had hesitated briefly at her fear-based reaction, and then, realizing that he could only be doing more harm than good, turned to leave the room.

"Clark…?"

He turned. "Yes?"

"Uh… Uh… " Now that he was once more looking directly at her, she found herself completely unable to voice her question out loud. "Um. Fly… fly safely."

He smiled briefly at that. "I will. Thanks."

"Oh — and… I'll — I'll see you Saturday night. I — I'm looking forward to it."

This earned her a bigger smile- one that she could hear in his voice.

"Me too, Lois. I'll see you then. Still here? Do — do you still want me to come here first?"

"Yes! Oh — yes! Please!"

<<She wants to see me here first! She's excited to see me!>>

But quickly, his elation faded.

<<She's just eager to avoid a panic attack at the Whites. She's not eager to see me. She's terrified to see me. And she always will be.>>

As soon as he flew off, she glanced at the phone. It was 10:00 p.m. She had been asleep exactly 45 minutes. Was it too late to call Lana? She took a chance and gave her a call.

"Lana, is this a bad time?"

"Why don't you tell me? What's up? You never call this late."

"I'm sorry — really — I didn't want to disturb you —"

"Obviously you're upset about something. Do you feel comfortable talking over the phone?"

"I had a nightmare."

She related her nightmare as quickly as she could and then asked Lana for her opinion.

"Well. There are a number of different interpretations. One is that you put yourself in the role of Clark. You've been pressuring yourself a lot, so you might have been venting your own frustrations at yourself in your dream. The other is that you were bothered by your Luthor encounter — and you mixed the two men up in your mind. And yet another is that you are genuinely worried that Clark might act this way if being together doesn't yield the benefits you think he'd be expecting. Does this make sense to you at all?"

"Yeah," she said glumly.

"I think it's in large part the first. You keep thinking that you have to act a certain way. You feel frustrated with your own perceived lack of progress. And as a result, you end up feeling pressure. As for the middle — Lex Luthor's visit was traumatizing and he said some awful and ugly things. Things that made you, perhaps, question your own feelings about what happened. It's not unusual for victims of violent crime to blame themselves. You may have feelings of guilt that you didn't succeed in escaping. Finally — I'm sure there's a tiny bit of fear of making any kind of commitment to Clark. Of somehow pushing him over an edge at some point. But for what it's worth… Clark would never behave that way. As your mutual friend, I can assure you of that."

"He never… ever… pressured you? You dated in high school, right? Even then — when he was a teenager, and —"

"Never. Not even once. If pressuring was going to happen, it would have gone in the other direction."

"I'm sorry to get so personal — but it's good to know."

"No need to apologize."

"So what should I do?"

"Just — be easy on yourself here…don't set yourself up with expectations. Easier said than done, but you have enough on your plate without adding your own subconscious pressuring you into things you aren't ready for."

"Okay… I'll try."

"So — did you pick which of the dresses we bought for Saturday?"

"The black one I think. A standard. Basic black."

"It looks fantastic on you."

"Thanks," her voice was dubious.

'So much so, that I almost hate you again."

"Now you're just trying to make me laugh."

"What about the other two you bought? You have another choice to make."

"What do you mean?"

"My wedding. You're invited. I'm not planning on having a bridal party, but I want you there as my special guest."

"Oh Lana. I'd be honored to come."

"Clark's coming too. It'll be field day for your guild."

"Just don't let Cat Grant anywhere near your wedding."

"I'm almost positive I'll end up in her column. We all will."

"She's not supposed to dish it up on her coworkers…"

"Will that stop her?"

"Unlikely. Not in this case."

"So screw her. Will you come?"

"Absolutely"

"Good," she laughed impishly. "Maybe you and Clark could come together… give you a 'safe' way of going out on a date… without his really knowing it's a date."

Lois felt a clenching sensation in her heart as the same thought occurred to her.

"Maybe we will. Just maybe. I just don't know."

She stood outside the beauty parlor uncertainly. The idea of being touched —even by the impersonal hands of beauticians made her feel uneasy. She remembered all too well how the Kryptonian concubine women had forced her into readiness. Forced her to conform to his ideal of beautiful, dressed as he wanted her dressed.

<<But I'm here of my own accord. But — once again — to look good for a Kryptonian man. >>

She winced a moment at that thought.

<<But it's a man that I really like — and I want to look good tonight. I really do. So — so this is good. I'm good. I'm okay with this.>>

Taking a deep and fortifying breath, she pulled the door open purposefully and strode in, trying to affect an air of breezy nonchalance.

The woman assigned to her was pleasant and friendly, and Lois found herself relaxing under her easy banter. She was starting to get into an almost meditative state as her nails were being buffed, when she heard a familiar voice calling her name.

"Lois! Lois Lane. Imagine finding you in a beauty parlor."

Cat. "Hi Cat." She didn't say anymore, hoping to end the conversation.

"Getting all shiny and new for your evening at the White house?"

Lois opened startled eyes. "How did —"

"People talk, you hear things. I also heard that our luscious superhero is going to be there. Care to confirm or deny?"

"Cat, if I end up in your column, I swear — I'll —"

"Oh, calm yourself, dear. You know the rule. I certainly wouldn't drag Perry through it, not if I want to work again in this town. The man is revered by just about everyone in our business. No — no — but I just wanted to scratch an itch — you know —"

"Cat — didn't you hear about curiosity?"

"Rumors of my death have been highly over… but then, you know all about that. Returning from the death, not just once, but twice. Quite the feat!"

"What do you want, Cat?" Her tone was weary.

"Nothing much. I'm just curious about you and Blue-man. Are you two an item now, or what? He gave you the juice on the asteroid, and you two have been spotted talking to each other — and it hasn't seemed all that unfriendly — notwithstanding your article series."

"If I tell you that we're just good friends will you go away? I came here to relax."

"No problem. I guess if you're just good friends, it doesn't faze you that he's volunteered to be purchased during the celebrity auction."

"What are you talking about?"

<<Dear god. Did she just say what I think she said?>>

"You need to read my column, dear. It's really just a date auction. All the fabulous men in town have volunteered — it'll be a big draw, a big cash cow, and lots of deserving charities will have their coffers well lined."

"Can you talk like a normal person? How is he involved?"

"Clark's putting himself up on the auction block."

The image of him literally up on an auction block gave her a momentary panicked moment.

<<Get under control. Do not lose it in front of this … woman.>>

"Good for him."

"Gonna bid for him? I think the lowest bid you can make is 5K. Sadly, too rich for my blood… but then, he made it clear that he really wasn't interested back when we worked together. A pity, because I'll bet he's just… amazing between the sheets. I can't imagine. Super sex. Do you think he's faster than a speeding bullet? Because if he is — that wouldn't be any fun. But I'm betting not. I'm betting… I'd better stop, or I'll be hocking all my worldly goods to get a chance. Of course — it's not like he'll put out or anything — it's supposed to be all above the board. Or above the bed. Do you think he floats while he…"

"Cat!" She deliberately kept her voice annoyed and bored. She was anything but bored. Supremely agitated was a better description of what she felt. The conversation was very close to triggering some unpleasant reactions on Lois's part.

<<Please — cat, just go away.>>

"Anyway, rumor has it that Carissa is coming to town just for the event — and I'm guessing she can afford to go as high as needed… being the top model around."

Lois turned unwillingly towards Cat. She needed to hear more. "How — how firm is that rumor?"

"Why, Lois — jealous?"

"Of course not."

"No — because that would mean you'd have to locate that key to your chastity belt."

"Cat, why do you have to be so damned rude?"

"Rude is as rude does, darling. Ciao. Time for my facial."

Lois expelled a frustrated breath as Cat sauntered away.

<<That woman is such a caricature. Doesn't she have any depth at all? But could it be true? Did Clark volunteer for this — and is Carissa going to … to… buy him? How disgusting. How could he do that? Of course — he's doing it for charity. But… but… what if — what if it turns into something else — it's a date — and she's gorgeous. A supermodel for a superman. Seems like they'd be a perfect couple. I'm sure she doesn't have issues with … with anything.>>

Glumly, she pondered the likelihood of a pairing between the two, and it ruined the rest of her beautifying experience.

She left the parlor with nicer nails, hair and skin, but her frame of mind was cloudy.

<<Well — fine. She'll get that night, but I get this evening… and … am I really jealous? Do I really think he's mine? Shouldn't I declare myself — but — oh — god — how to do that without making any kind of physical promises? How fair is that, to make him wait — if he would wait — if he'd be willing to commit without … anything in return. He's not crazy — he'll never go for it.>>

That evening, back at her apartment, she was dressed and ready to go. Two hours before the event. She was pacing back and forth, terrified and excited by the prospect that he would be at her apartment soon. She opened up a bottle of merlot and poured herself a small glass.

<<Just one.>>

Two hours later, she was nursing that same glass, terrified of the idea that she would be too tipsy to drive or act like a normal person around Clark and the Whites. She looked nervously at her balcony, waiting for him to swoop in — when she heard a knock on the door.

<<Oh god — please don't let this be Luthor.>>

Reluctantly she went to the door, not calling out ahead of time — if it was Luthor, she didn't want him to know she was here. She peered through the peephole, and was relieved to see that it was Clark

<<Why did I think he would fly in? He probably did this so I wouldn't have to face him as Superman. He's really thoughtful that way. And he looks really handsome.>>

She opened the door, and smiled tentatively. "Hi," she said shyly.

<<Dear god. She's beautiful. Just so… beautiful. Stunning. I can't believe how gorgeous she is. Calm down, boy. Don't make her nervous. Stop staring, come on… smile. Say something. Anything. No. Not anything. Something non-threatening. >>

He reacted to the sight of her with that same amazing smile he'd given her at Perry's office. Devastating what that smile seemed to do with her mental processes. "Hi, yourself," he said, his voice warm and appealing. It sent an odd tingle down her spine.

"You — you … you look nice," she said, suddenly shy.

<<She's not afraid of me! She's not having a panic attack!>>

"You look absolutely gorgeous," he said — unable to stop the words from coming out. Her lack of fear had muddled his thinking somewhat.

<<Oh please — let her not be threatened by that. I didn't mean to come across so strongly. Please let me not have screwed this up.>>

She was stunned into silence for a few moments. Rather than making her feel nervous, his words had sent a jolt of happiness through her.

<<Does he really think I'm gorgeous? Gorgeous… not 'nice', not 'good', but 'Gorgeous'! >>

Realizing she had yet to speak, she remembered her manners as host.

"Thanks. Uh… did… did you want a glass of wine or something — or are you ready to go out now?"

"I'm good to go… what about you?"

"Ready! Did — did you want to drive?"

"Not unless you don't want to drive."

<<Let her stay in control — being behind the wheel will give her a feeling of being in control.>>

As they went to her car, she felt oddly self conscious and vulnerable beside him. He seemed so suddenly large and powerful. The idea of going out into the dark with him made her shiver a bit. She was about to get into a car with him. A small and enclosed space… trapped with him. She shivered again, unable to get some dark and nervous thoughts out of her head. Her nightmare suddenly felt so close to the fringes of her consciousness.

"Second thoughts?" His voice gently broke into her spiral. He had noticed her reaction.

"No! No… you know. Just… the usual," she gasped a little breathlessly, trying to remain calm.

"Okay. It's okay — you know? It's just me — and… and … not anyone you need to worry about." He again spoke with that warm edge that enveloped her and made her feel buoyant.

"I know. It's just my mind — playing games with me — it's nothing you've done." She opened the door, and slid into the driver's seat. He opened his side, and hesitated a moment. "Please, Clark — please… don't — don't worry about me— I'm fine, and I want you to come in."

He joined her in the car, moving slowly and casually, trying to exude calm friendliness. He didn't want her to feel menaced or oppressed in the small space.

"I like worrying about you," he said, saying words he hadn't intended on vocalizing. "I mean — I don't mind — you should have people worrying and caring… about what upsets you, and what makes you happy."

She smiled at that. He really was a great person. "Sure about my driving?"

"Why," he asked with mock trepidation in his voice. "Are you… a bad driver? Have I just put my life on the edge?"

"Hardly," she laughed. "I just thought… most guys — like to be the one driving." She blushed at the double meaning of her words.

"Not this one," he said easily. "I — I want you to feel completely in control."

"Okay," she said, grateful for his honesty and concern.

She started the car, and they drove off towards the White's house. She felt suddenly tongue-tied. This powerful man who half the time scared her beyond belief was sitting idly next to her, his seatbelt fastened. It seemed so every-day — and yet — it wasn't. She was keenly aware of his presence, and had to work hard at acting normal.

"So… I hear you're doing that celebrity auction."

<<Why did I say that?>>

"Yeah," he said, his voice sheepish and embarrassed "I — it's for a good cause… you know?"

"Yeah. You — you'll bring in a lot of charity dollars. It's really wonderful that you're doing that. It has to be kind of stressful. You never know who will end up — " <<owning you>> "- winning."

"Well — I'm hoping a friend of mine comes through for me," he said with a smile in his voice.

<<Can't be me! I don't have that kind of money. >>

"Do you mean Carissa?"

"Uh… no — Leyna… Lovely. You know her, right?"

"Isn't she… not interested in men?"

"She's just really an old and good friend. When she found out I was doing this, she called me up and reassured me that she intended to win."

"I hear Carissa is planning on putting up a big purse."

<<Leyna has his number?>>

The thought deflated her a bit.

"You heard that? Really? Who said that?"

<<Why does he seem so… interested in this, all of a sudden? >>

"Cat Grant… not that we were gossiping or anything —"

"Did she seem sure?" His voice was tense.

"I — I … I don't know. Is it important?"

Realizing he was getting a little intense, he willed himself back to calm. "I… I didn't even know — I guess I shouldn't be too surprised."

There was an awkward silence as she struggled to resist the urge ask him for details.

"Well… it's for a good cause. You're good to do it."

"I was kind of bullied into it — the woman arranging the whole thing is really … tenacious."

"Bullied? Oh come on…" She stopped short

<<You don't know the meaning of the word. You never could know what that's like. >>

She felt a sudden flush of anger — anger at his casual use of the word. Joking about it — this woman pushing him into something he didn't want to do, when, in fact, he was easily able to do whatever the hell he wanted. For a moment, she wanted to scream at him. She forced herself to calm down.

"I guess that sounds ridiculous," he said quickly, aware that he had pushed one of her buttons. "I shouldn't have said that, really — it's just — I don't feel comfortable with the whole celebrity aspect of who I am. I spent a lot of time trying to be inconspicuous and not draw any attention to the fact that I am different… and now — well — I make a point of drawing attention to it. It's a drastic change for me."

"I can understand," her voice was more relaxed. "I — I know what it's like — to want to … hide. To be noticed less."

Sympathy rushed through him. Every time he tried to even imagine her plight it just filled him with a sense of rage, pain and an intense longing to go find Lord Kal-El and knock him out of power so he couldn't ever hurt anyone again. He shivered a bit as he thought that this very moment, Kal-El was probably hurting a woman.

<<And here we are — off to enjoy fine food, wine and company.>>

She sensed his tension and stole a brief look. He was looking distractedly out the window and it seemed as if he was a million miles away. She moved her gaze back where it belonged.

"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to one-up your…"

"Oh — no. No — you didn't!" He turned to her, and their eyes met briefly again as she turned briefly to see him. "I — I was just… thinking — about… uh… well — about how awful it was for you and how — none of us can really ever understand."

<<Honesty is the best policy.>>

"Well — there are people who might be able to understand. People who have undergone similar things… they're out there… but I don't — don't want to seek them out. I don't want to know about their pain… just like I'm guessing people would rather not know too much about what happened to me.

"Do you get that feeling from people? That they don't want to know?"

<<I want to know. Or… do I? Do I really want her talk about what she went through? Could I ever handle that? Could I give her what she needs — someone to listen and help her share the burden? The truth is, I'm afraid to know what he did to her — to really know.>>

"Yeah… I know I'm not the best company most times… and sometimes I get the feeling that… well, my parents and Lucy — they just want me to be better. Lucy is more willing and… I guess… able … to hear the details. I think — with my parents, at least, they're too deeply invested in the whole thing. I guess it's true about having children — the thought of them in pain is unbearable to parents. Some parents — I know there are a lot of really bad ones out there."

"Have you wanted to talk to them? About the — specifics?"

"No. God —no. Not them. I couldn't ever see myself talking to them. Even Lucy." She looked over at him with a brief and self- deprecating smile. "She's my baby sister… and I don't want her to look at me differently."

"You think she'd…"

"She would pity me. She already does, but it would be so much worse. And — I guess I'd feel that having her react like that whenever she saw me would keep the memories and feelings fresh in my mind. I don't want that."

"I can understand that."

"I'm not even sure I want to talk about the specifics —but sometimes… sometimes… I find myself on the verge of just — opening up with details — at the worst times. When I'm feeling relaxed and more unguarded."

"With Lana?"

"Yes," she said hesitating.

<<And you. Which would be wrong. Very wrong.>>

"What holds you back?"

"I guess paramount is an unwillingness to … get back into those memories. I just don't know what the right thing is. I don't know if she could handle it. If anyone could."

"I — I think anyone who really cares about you could handle it. With the exception maybe of your mother and father. I understand your unwillingness to talk to them."

"So — you think Perry could…"

"He could. And he would if he felt it would help you."

"Could… could you?" It was easier to ask him this in the dark.

He was startled by the question — he hadn't expected her to ask it.

"I… I — could… if I felt it was what you wanted me to do. If you wanted to talk about it to me… then I'd want to be there for you. But…I also confess to feeling really —"

"Feeling…?"

"I don't know — it sounds stupid… but — afraid. I know — that must be infuriating to hear. You lived it — others should be willing and able to hear you talk about it."

"I don't — I know that I — it's hard to face horror — even secondhand. I've never been able to watch 'Sophie's choice' because I know what the 'Choice' was and I can't bear to think about it — that anyone has ever had to do that — even it's a movie, you know that people still have to deal with that kind of choice… on so many different levels… and it's just … unconscionable."

"I can't watch that movie either. I've never seen it. I feel like I should be able to — If people lived it — I should be able to bear witness to it. But it's hard." He hesitated a few moments and then resumed talking. "If — If you ever do want to talk about it — to — to me… I'll be there for you. Although — I imagine I'm last on your list."

"I — I don't know. I don't have a list yet. I just don't think I'm there yet. But I guess I'm heading in that direction, which explains why that urge to spill comes over me from time to time. But I'll keep it in mind," she smiled faintly.

"Any time. Anything you ever need to get through this."

"I should make it clear that you can also … lean on me… I know you face horror regularly too. Those disasters you always go help with… it has to be hard… dealing with the losses of life."

"It is… and it's good to know. Thank you."

<<Fool. He has a million friends, ready and willing to talk to him… to help him… why would he need your counsel or comfort?>>

"Are… you recovered from the asteroid?"

"You mean physically? Yes — it didn't take long."

"Well — I meant — emotionally. I figured you were fine otherwise."

"I've stopped having the daily nightmares," he said.

<<Why did I bring up nightmares?>>

"You were really having daily nightmares? Or nightly?"

"I kept seeing the asteroid — coming at me… a gigantic mass of fire…" he shook his head. "It'll be okay. I'm expecting to be nightmare-free shortly — it just takes time. It was only mildly- horrifying in the grand scheme of things."

"I can't even imagine what it would feel like to see that thing heading straight at you, even knowing that you're invulnerable. I would imagine — that there's a part of you that wonders — what if my invulnerability fails?"

"That's very perceptive of you."

"You — you sometimes think that way?"

"All the time. But nobody has ever… guessed it. I wasn't always invulnerable — and I have to say — that when I'm faced with having to step into something that would normally be a dangerous thing — a fire, a tornado — it's a huge leap of mental faith to just step into it. To believe that — that I really won't get hurt. That somehow — while I'm in the middle of it all, I won't suddenly lose my invulnerability."

"Like a spell — that wears off at the worst possible time."

"Right… or even…"

"Even…"

"Even — just — a trap — a trap that robs me off my abilities."

"But that's impossible, isn't it?"

"I — I would never lay odds on that bet."

"That's awful — feeling that way."

"It's not always so bad. Just sometimes. I just have to give myself a mental boost — a reminder that I have done this before, and can do it again — I usually overcome that moment without hesitating, because hesitating costs lives."

"Do you blame yourself for any lost lives?"

"All the time. I always feel that I should be — moving faster, getting there faster… but I can't obsess either. If I do — I'm no good to anyone."

"You can't be everywhere — it's just not possible."

"Yeah… it's just hard to accept the losses. We're here — that was fast!"

"You're kidding me. You must be used to getting places much faster. Cars must seem like a drag…"

"Not as horrible as planes. I used to have to take them before my secret was out — because how else could I explain the lack of plane expenses when I was sent away on assignment. Anyway — this ride seemed to go by pretty fast — must be your conversation skills," he smiled at her, trying to project calmness and friendship.

"At least it distracted you from my driving!"

"You aren't a bad driver at all!"

"I was when I got back — I —" she stopped, her face clouding over. It was so easy to just suddenly remember — it was like a ton of bricks falling on her, jolting her back into her more usual state of mind.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to —"

<<Break that wonderful magic spell — the one that made you smile.>>

"You didn't do anything. Come on — let's go in. I have to say — I'm kind of nervous — I mean… Alice knows where I was and… I'm afraid — worried — that she'll want to talk about it. But I'm guessing Perry probably told her that wouldn't be a good idea."

Lois knocked on the door, and Alice opened it. She registered surprise at seeing them together and then recovered.

"What timing — you both arrived at —"

Lois looked at Clark.

<<Should we tell them we came together?>>

Lois was unsure about how to respond to Alice's remark. She looked over at Clark to see how he felt, and he looked back at her, a slight smile on his face. He moved his hands in an almost imperceptible gesture that seemed to indicate that he was leaving it up to her.

Looking back at Alice, and grateful for the unspoken support that Clark had given her, she boldly decided to just blurt out the truth.

"Actually Alice, the reason we arrived at the same time is that we came together. Clark was good enough to come by my place first."

"Oh — but you… you drove, right? That is your car —"

"Yes. I — I don't get out much, you know — social occasions these days… kind of make me nervous — even with old friends like you and Perry. So I asked Clark to come with me so that it would be less awkward than arriving alone."

"Oh. Okay!"

"I don't mean to imply that you make me nervous or anything… it's just that —"

"Lois, really. I'm sure it's hard to… to get back into life. I can't even imagine," said Alice with warmth in her expression. "You don't need to fret at all — no offense possibly taken from what you've just shared. Please — please come on in."

Lois was immediately placed at ease by the sight of her former boss moving over to them, his arms outstretched.

"Lois, Clark! I'm so glad you both could come." He gave Lois a quick hug after checking with her wordlessly and getting a slight smile of encouragement.

"Thank you for inviting us," Lois said. Then she turned sheepishly to Clark. "Uh — sorry. I'm answering for you, aren't I? Kind of rude…"

He smiled back. "Not at all. You said what I wanted to say anyway."

<<You can answer for me any time. You can refer to us as 'us' anytime. >>

Alice stole a quick look at Perry and saw a quick look of bemusement flash across his features. They would need to talk about this later.

"How was traffic?"

"Oh —it was nothing."

"Well — come on… Lois, can I offer you a glass of Cabernet?"

Lois looked at Clark quickly. "Oh — well… I drove over here… so — I shouldn't."

"Lois — you know, you can always ask me to drive," Clark said easily, not trying to be pushy, but trying to let her know that he was willing to accommodate her in any way she needed.

"Oh — but that would be kind of rude…"

"Not at all. Look — I have a natural tolerance for alcohol. A few glasses never affect me in any way…" He trailed off, and then looked worried.

<<Stop reminding her you're an alien.>>

"Oh… okay — well… that's great then. If you don't mind?"

"I don't. I'm glad to oblige."

"Great. I'll be right back," said Perry. "Alice, maybe you could come and get the crudités?"

Alice smiled at him and agreed and they disappeared into the kitchen.

Lois looked awkwardly in the direction that they had gone and then turned back to Clark. She saw him looking over at the kitchen with an expression on his face that indicated that he too was suspicious about their dual departure.

"So… are they talking about us?" She joked.

"I — I — I don't — oh — No. I wasn't listening in or anything- if that's what…"

"No! I was just kidding. I'm sorry. I didn't think you would ever do that. Um. At least not now that I know you," she amended apologetically.

"I need to learn to take a joke. Sorry about that."

"No — I realize I don't really do it that much. I'm … I'm kind of … I don't know… getting used to life, again, I guess. Guess I need to work on that humor thing."

"I like it when you make jokes." He smiled back. "And I like it when you're serious too. In case you were feeling like you were more fun to be around if you were joking."

<<Stop it. You're doing it again. Saying too much. Bending over backwards. It makes her uncomfortable when you do that.>>

"I was just… you know — wondering about it — they both left together… do you think that they think something — you know — is going on between us…" She blurted it out quickly, and then continued desperately trying to sound casual. "You know — because we came together?"

"Well — I think Perry knows that we're good friends now."

<<Good friends. Great.>>

"So you don't think —"

"Oh — well — No — Perry would know better, you know…" He trailed off again. "I feel weird talking about this, so please excuse me if I sound like an idiot."

She smiled. "I should say the same."

"You don't. You never do. Sound like an idiot."

<<Ok. Stop. Stop right now. Before she figures out you're in love with her.>>

"Thanks," she smiled back, in what she felt surely was a goofy way. "I … I — I guess I thought maybe — because… they kind of looked at each other strangely earlier on — and…"

"I saw that too. So — yeah — maybe. But — you know — we can always set them straight, you know — if it makes you feel awkward."

"No — no — no need. It's okay. I'm okay."

<<I'm okay with people thinking I mean more to you than a friend. Really.>>

"Does… Alice do this often?"

"Do what?"

"Try to set you up…"

"You think this is a set-up?"

She flushed red, realizing what she had just said. She winced at the embarrassment of it, and ducked her head.

"Uh… I guess — probably not."

He saw her reaction, and was confused. Was she upset? Embarrassed? What should he say to her?

"Lois — I think it may have initially been one, but once Perry explained things to her… well… I'm sure she realized how crazy the idea was. I don't think she has any false hopes at this point."

Lois felt her heart sink.

<<Crazy. False hopes. Yeah. Right. So what am I doing anyway? Why do I care? Why does this hurt me? I can't give him anything — so what do I expect from him in return? >>

"Oh…yeah. I guess you have a good point."

<<Darn. Well — were you hoping she would declare her love for you? No. Well. Yeah. Kind of.>>

"She's never done it before though."

"Done what?"

"Tried to play matchmaker with me."

"So…"

"You're the first." He realized what he had said, and flushed a bit red himself.

She felt the tingle of embarrassment at his unintentional double meaning, and quickly tried to cover up her embarrassment.

"So — maybe she didn't …"

"Actually — I think she did… intend it. It was in her voice, when she first invited me… a certain coyness — like she was planning something."

"I wonder why — you know? Why she thought you and I … well… you know — you can have any woman in the world."

<<Not any woman. Not you. Not the only woman that matters.>>

"Well — we do have a lot in common. And…"

"Oh — and there was that other Lois."

"Yeah, I guess…"

"I mean — maybe she thought you…"

"Lois, maybe we just look cute together," he said, trying to lighten the atmosphere and also dig for more information.

She flushed pink at his words and looked away.

"Lois — sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. I…"

"No! You didn't. I — I didn't even think about him… can you believe that? The word 'cute' … could never even remotely describe him anyway."

He winced, and she caught it.

"Sorry. See, if I let myself start down that path of thinking… but I don't want to. I'm here to have fun. With you and with them. And I won't let Lord Kal-El get in the way of that."

"You can — you know. You don't have to put on a brave front, If you are really upset — please… at least not for my sake, okay?"

"Only if you promise not to worry about what you say."

"Lois," he said, smiling sadly. "I can't promise that."

"Well… you know — neither can I."

"Okay. I get it. Touché. How about we just both try?"

"Yeah. Deal."

"Good."

"Sorry we took so long, kids," said Perry sounding not the least bit apologetic.

"No problem, Perry. We completely understand," said Lois meaningfully.

He looked at her evenly and then looked over at Clark. "Oh, so we're that obvious?"

"Only just a little."

"I'm sorry, we just…"

"Had to talk about us. It's no big deal."

"What's no big deal?" asked Alice.

"We're busted, Alice. Lois figured out that we were gossiping."

"Perry!" She flushed red at his audacity.

"Alice, it's okay. Look. You probably want to know the real reason why Clark and I came together. I… I tend to have these awkward panic attacks sometimes — when I first see him — sometimes he reminds me of… not in anything he says or does, but just… you know — a trick of memory… and it can get ugly. So — I asked him to come by first so I could … get that over with."

"Oh. Lois," said Alice compassionately. "What you must have gone through."

"Anyway," said Lois, attempting lightness in her tone. "I didn't have a panic attack. Not at all. I saw him as Clark, and that really made me feel good. Maybe there's hope for me yet."

<<Maybe there's hope for us.>>

"You're hardly hopeless," said Perry. "But — I am so glad that you didn't react that way."

"It's been a year. You'd think I'd be further along in getting back to normal —"

"Not at all. Most people wouldn't have come nearly as far. Lois — you're quite extraordinary," insisted Alice. "You have a very strong character, and that's what enabled you to survive living your own life again. I'm really amazed at you."

She flushed red. "Thanks Alice," she said, feeling awkward with their praise. "I just feel badly about Clark." She turned to look at him. "You had to put up with my articles, and my antagonism and…"

"Lois, I would have felt like you feel, if roles were reversed. Your reaction was completely normal given your experience. I'm just glad we ended up friends."

She looked into his eyes a long moment, lost for a few moments in his gaze. Then she forced herself back to reality. No point in making the Whites even more confused about what was going on.

"Me too."

"Uh. Kids. Alice here has given me some pretty strict rules about talking about Luthor… and I don't want to spoil a perfectly good evening with friends … but there's something I really just need to tell you both, and then we can talk about more pleasant things. Okay?"

"What is it — you sound really serious."

"This is serious, Clark. Lois. I hate to ask you this… but do you know anything about a fellow named Jason Trask?"

Her sharp in-drawn breath was answer enough. All eyes turned to her.

"Uh. Yeah. I do. He… he's a government agent… and he's rather anti-Superman. In fact… he's convinced that Clark here really is a front-man for some future invasion," she said quietly, looking over at Clark apologetically. The topic was making her very nervous, and she was dangerously close to thinking about Lord Kal-El again. She forced herself to see Clark's gentle eyes when she looked at him. Not Kal-El. This is NOT Kal-El.

"Is this okay to talk about," Perry asked her gently, picking up on her turmoil.

She swallowed hard. "Yeah. It just… evokes…nightmares… but… it should be said. I think Trask is a threat to you, Clark. He thinks that there's some magic rock out there that can kill you, and he is determined to find it. I never met with him in person, but he hounded me a lot when I was writing my articles…" She trailed off, and looked down, feeling really foolish again.

"How did you find out about all this?"

"Sources," she grinned, suddenly mischievous. "You know — my sources. But… you know — many people think he's a nut. Especially because of this magic rock thing. Why on earth would a rock hurt Clark? What are you supposed to do with it? Throw it at him?"

"Well… Actually…"

"Clark? Is… there such a thing?"

"Yeah. Actually there is. Perry is the only other person who knows about this, by the way."

"How can a rock hurt you? I just don't get it?"

"Alice, this rock is radioactive… and I think the rocks are chunks of my home world. It makes me sick on contact. Really sick — you know — lying on the ground, unable to stand up, unable to breathe… and that's just the initial exposure. After a while, it would kill me."

"Oh my god. That's the ultimate in… bad irony, I guess… I mean — your own planet can kill you?"

"Yeah. Talk about salt in a wound, right? But — that's how it is. I don't know how Trask found out about this… but I … I guess if he knows, I need to start keeping my eyes open… if he ever found this stuff, and if he really thinks I'm a threat to Earth, he will probably be trying to kill me."

"What worries me is that he's hooked up with Luthor. That can't be good," Perry interjected.

"What do you mean? He's talking to Luthor?" Lois was aghast.

"Well — he has had several meetings according to my sources… and…"

"Clark!!" Lois's voice was frantic. "This is very bad! You remember what Luthor said. He hates you. He wants you dead. If he gets this rock — you- your life won't be worth much at all. Oh god. What are we going to do!"

Clark looked over at her, and his feelings of trepidation were overridden by the sheer joy of seeing her worry about him. She must have some good feelings about him if she was that worried.

"Lois," he said quietly. "He's always been a threat. But we can stop him… we just need to work at it."

"Well…well…we should work together, Clark. I mean — you, me, and Perry. We need to stop him!"

"I think that's a great idea," said Perry. "Mad dog Lane will be an invaluable asset to our team!"

"Mad-dog?"

"Sorry Lois. I couldn't resist. But you are a good reporter. One of the very best. I'm glad you'll be helping us."

"Absolutely. I can't think of anything more important than stopping him. Especially now. Can you imagine? Clark — you need to promise us — you'll be careful with him? Don't take any chances! Don't let him lure you anywhere alone, okay?"

He smiled at her. "I promise. I don't underestimate him, Lois. I promise you that. I know he could be a big threat to me."

"Okay…" Her voice was unsure.

"Lois… I mean it. I don't think I'm … totally…unstoppable," he said, an apology in his voice.

<<Like he did. I am not that arrogant about my powers.>>

"He didn't think anything could hurt him," she said, her voice a tight whisper. "Are you saying that this thing could have hurt him? All along we could have stopped him?"

"Lois… maybe… but — you know — it's not like it was readily available to you."

"There were… rumors… of a resistance movement… comprised of humans as well as Kryptonians. I wonder if they knew about this stuff — if they were… looking for it?"

"I hope so."

"Me too," she said, her voice ragged. "They deserve to be free again… you know? But back to the topic at hand. We need to form a plan of attack —"

"Lois… can we shelve this — just for one night?" Perry's voice was slightly pleading. "Please? Don't get an old man in trouble with his wife."

"Perry!"

"Sorry… sorry… I guess I reacted strongly. I — I just couldn't stand it… if he killed you — Clark…"

<<Great. Wear your heart on your sleeve.>>

<<She cares! She cares! She cares! >>

"Lois — please don't apologize for caring!"

<<She cares!>>

"Okay. So — back to more pleasant stuff. I'd like to raise a toast to the return of Lois Lane." Perry's voice suddenly became hoarse with emotion.

"I'll definitely drink to that," said Clark.

"Me too," said Alice.

"And me," smiled Lois. "I hope never to disappear again." Her expression darkened a bit at that.

"Lois. I promise — if you do… I'll find you."

"I'm counting on it," she said with a forced smile

Later, as they drove back home, Lois looked over at Clark.

"Sorry about the whole … over reacting thing."

"Lois — really — you have no reason to apologize."

"I guess… I just felt — so scared suddenly. So out of control. So helpless. I hate that feeling. I swore I'd never feel that way again… but if you were gone…"

"I couldn't protect you from him. I know. Lois — I won't let anything happen to me… I know Luthor is a threat to you — and —"

"No! Not just for me," she protested. "I would — be very unhappy… if you were… killed."

"Oh. Oh … well… thanks! Uh… same here."

Just then, he pulled into her parking space.

"Oh — wow. That was quick."

"Hey. I drove the speed limit!"

"I wasn't implying … oh… a joke."

"Lois… can I walk you to your door? I… not to… not trying to… but… just to make sure everything is safe for you… okay?"

"Clark — please come in for coffee. Please. I really want you to."

"I wasn't angling for —"

"I wanted to ask you anyway — and if you hadn't asked to walk me to the door I still would have asked you."

"Are you sure?"

"Clark. I enjoy being with you. I … I know I've reacted badly in the past and I can't even promise not to do so in the future… but when my mind knows that you are you, I have a really good time with you. I really hope you'll accept my invitation."

"Gladly."

"Good." She smiled. She forced herself to ignore her inner tremor of fear.

<<This is Clark. He won't hurt you. He won't misunderstand the invitation to mean more. This is Clark. The safest man in the entire world next to your father and Perry.>>

He saw the quick fear come and go and felt a surge of sympathy. But he knew not to mention it. Her demons were hers to slay. He could just hand her the swords she needed… and maybe keep them sharp for her, but mentioning her fears to her would only upset her.

She unlocked her door, trying to ignore the sudden apprehension she felt at him standing next to her — so tall, strong … imposing…

<<Clark. This is Clark. Not Kal-El. If it were Kal-El, he would already be hurting you. >>

Her breathing was becoming shallow.

Clark felt her fear increase. He had to say something. "Listen. Lois? I… I don't want you to…"

"Clark. It's okay," her voice was tight, and her answer was snappier than she would have liked. "Please — I know I'm having a minor panic attack, but I really want you to be here. Okay?"

"Okay," he said meekly.

"I'm sorry. I didn't' mean to…"

"Please, Lois. No need. Can I help you with the coffee?"

"Did you want coffee? Or more wine?"

"Wine is good…" he said, suddenly feeling awkward.

"Okay. Red fine?"

"Yes."

"One moment then — please make yourself at home!"

A few moments later, she joined him in her living room, precariously carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses. He sprung to his feet and reached out for the wine to help her with her burden. The sudden movement made her heart jolt in terror but she forced herself not to react.

"Sorry — did I startle you?"

"Uh… Kind of… but…not your fault… his… fault… really."

"Oh…"

<<Startle. Scare, more like it.>>

"I'm trying to be honest about it — with myself… as well as with you. Is that okay?"

"More than okay."

"I also… wanted to be honest about something else… and now that I've had enough wine to … uh… short circuit the voice of reason…"

"What is it, Lois?"

"Umm… it's the whole date auction thing."

"What about it?"

"I… I… I hate that you're doing it." She blurted out suddenly.

"You… hate it? Why?"

"I… I don't want you going out with … Carissa — or any of these other women who want you to go out with them." She sat down opposite him, and put her head down in her hands. "I can't even believe I'm saying this."

"What… why don't you want me to do this? I mean… is it because of him? You don't want me dating anyone because of him? Or…I mean — I understand he hurt you… but —"

"No! Clark — No! I'm not afraid of you hurting anyone. But… it's just this… and I'm really going to hate myself for saying this… god… I should just shut up… I can't do it. I can't say it."

"Lois," he said, a slight hoarseness to his voice. "You can say anything to me. Anything at all."

"I'm… I don't want you dating anyone, Clark." She winced at herself.

<<Why can't I just shut up?>>

"Lois… why?" He was trying very hard to keep the note of hope out of his voice. She couldn't mean that she was interested in him. No. But then — what else could she be saying?

"I… I … it sounds awful. Clark. I realize I act like a freak whenever you're around… but… I… like you… and… I'm afraid that if you start dating someone, you might get serious… and then… there won't ever be a chance… for… for us."

"Us?" Hope flared in his heart and refused to be quenched down. "There's an…us?"

"Well- I mean — if you … were interested in there being an us…and…" She trailed off, her face burning hot. "Oh god. Clark. I've done it — haven't I? I put my foot in it…"

"Well… the only thing you've done… is… given me reason to… uh… be hopeful." He admitted, feeling really shaky about saying it to her.

"Hopeful? You've… had… hopes? About us?"

"Don't — don't… please… don't be scared," he said, suddenly urgent. "I know… that… you might not ever… be able to… deal with me in a relationship kind of way… I do realize that…" He said, unable to meet her eyes at this moment. "But yeah. I kind of do have a crush on you… and… it's not because of her, either… if that's what you're wondering. I kind of wonder if what I felt for her was just… an echo of what I could feel for you. But — I'm saying too much again. I don't want to scare you, Lois." His voice was pleading.

<<Help me say this, Lois. Without hurting you.>>

"You… mean… you have feelings for… for me?"

"Yes."

"Can you…look at me?"

"No. Ok. Yes." He lifted his head so that their eyes met. She saw the fear and hesitation in his expression and her heart went out to him. His apprehension gave her strength.

"So… looks like we kind of feel the same here…"

"You — how can you?" His voice was awed.

Stung, she looked away. "You think…like Luthor thought? That I somehow… am addicted to… Kal-El's brutality?"

"Oh god no. I'm sorry. I had no … that's not what I meant. I'm sorry. I wasn't…"

"No. I'm sorry. I guess… I feel that maybe it is a bit… insane of me to feel this way. I don't understand it. All I know is that I feel awful whenever I think of you with any other woman, and I feel … proprietary about your time. I hated it when you were gone," she admitted. "I can't believe I'm saying all this. It's like turning on faucet — the water just spills out."

"I'm glad you're saying it," he said, his voice suddenly husky.

<<Oh god. He sounds… so sexy. Sex. I can't go there… not now. Maybe not ever. I should tell him.>>

"Clark… I don't know… if — if — if —"

"It's okay," he said, his voice suddenly soothing. "I understand."

"Maybe not ever," she whispered. "So — I have no right to ask… you … to wait for me… to be in a holding pattern…"

"Lois — I want that. You aren't asking anything of me that I'm not willing to do — to give. You want time? You got it. Even if — you never… can… I — my feelings for you are very strong — and even the chance that… we might mean more to each other than friends… hell — you already do — mean more to me than a friend… that's… that's everything to me. As you can see… I'm kind of being honest here too… and afraid of it. I'm afraid of scaring you."

"You aren't." She was lying. She was terrified. Terrified of the promises she might be making. Of the words he might be hearing.

"I wouldn't ever… presume that you wanted anything more," he said astutely.

"I …"

"That day you had that nightmare? I mean — that night… I — I … I heard you talking in your sleep. I might as well just continue this honesty thing."

"Oh," she said, shattered.

<<My god. What did he hear?>>

"Lois," his voice was pained. "Were you — was I hurting you in your nightmare?"

She flushed and turned away. "Well… Clark — it was a nightmare. Those things are never… real… just a churning together of all my thoughts and fears —"

"I just… I know — a nightmare is out of your control… but — I need you to understand- I'd never ever do that. There's no provocation possible. You know? None. And… I need you to understand that. Otherwise …"

"Otherwise?"

"We can't even consider this…"

"Oh. Yeah. Well… Clark…I — intellectually… I know it… and I'm sorry you heard that… I'm sorry I had the nightmare… I'm not really ready to talk about it… but …standing here with you… I do feel safe… I mean — I know you won't hurt me in any way."

"Good," he said, relief evident in his voice. "I'm not sure what we've… said to each other really…"

"I guess I should clarify. I don't want you dating anyone," she said, with sudden firmness. "I want you to give us a chance…even if us is… not what an 'us' should be… I promise to work on healing… can you handle that?"

He smiled at her, and she felt herself get lost in that incredible smile of his — the one that made her feel like the most important person in the universe. She felt her heart thudding in response.

"I can handle it."

"I just… can't believe… I said this stuff," she said, suddenly embarrassed. "Promise you aren't… just … horrified by all this?"

"Please don't," he said pleadingly. "I don't want you to regret this. I'm … beyond happy that you said what you did. You are more courageous than I am. I do care about you — very much. And…I never believed this would happen."

An awkward silence descended and she realized she should make some kind of gesture.

<<Move to his couch. Sit next to him. Come on. If you can't even do that- how can you have any kind of exclusive relationship?>>

Her legs felt like lead weights, but she forced herself to overcome that feeling and she stood up. Her heart was roaring in her head, and she felt very weak and dizzy. Ignoring the pounding of her heart, and the squeeze of terror around her lungs, she forced herself to sit next to him. She put her hands in her lap and looked at them, suddenly fascinated by the sight.

"So… so now what?" Her voice was very hesitant.

<<Do you kiss me? Do I kiss you?>>

"Would… it would help if you looked at me," he whispered back, trying desperately not to make it sound like a command.

She squeezed her eyes shut against the wave of terror. She felt like she was standing on the wing of a plane, preparing to jump.

<<Just jump! Come on! Jump!>>

She licked her lips, and then opened her eyes, and lifted her head. She looked him in the eye, hesitation and worry in her expression, and she smiled briefly- it was as sheepish self- mocking smile.

"Uh. So…I'm…making eye contact," she said nervously.

"You… you asked … what we do now… and… I don't know. I think we… just… spend time with each other — kind of like we've been doing… if it's what we want to do… and…not worry about what we think we ought to be doing. You know?" He was trying to tell her that the physical aspect of their relationship was something far off into the future, but he didn't know how to express it in words.

"But Clark… don't you… shouldn't we…"

"No shoulds… just… just what is. Okay?"

She was grateful for his sensitivity and her next smile was actually genuine. She took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. "Okay. But… let me just do this."

<<Do it! Just do it already. Jump. But I'm scared. Don't worry. The parachute will open — but even if it doesn't — he knows how to fly. He'll rescue you.>>

She closed her eyes against the sudden wave of vertigo, and leaned in. Sensing where his lips were, she leaned in and brushed her lips against his. It was a brief contact, and then just as suddenly, she withdrew.

<<My god. I — I just kissed him. I just… god… what did I just do? I can't believe I just did that! I kissed him. It wasn't… horrifying. Great. How romantic. Kissing you wasn't horrible, Clark! Still want to date me? Oh — no — but what if he thinks… I can't … give him more than this. Not now — not yet. What if — >>

She pulled away, her face flushing deep pink. She could feel the heat of the flush and was grateful for a second that the room was very dimly lit. And then, cursing herself for her stupidity, she realized he could see perfectly well — dark or light. No hiding here for her.

"I — I — I …I can't believe… I just did that," she said, her voice low and agitated.

He had hardly dared to move during the entire encounter, terrified of somehow triggering a panic attack… terrified that if he dared put a hand on her arm or shoulder, or waist — or any of the other typical responses to being kissed by the woman you loved — that he would somehow unconsciously mimic an action carried out by the man who had hurt her so badly in the first place.

<<Let her take the lead. Every step of the way.>>

"I'm kind of — stunned myself," he said, trying to somehow make sense of what was going on.

"Uh — I kissed you." Her voice was wondering. "I really did that. " Insecurity swamped her as she remembered it had been more like brushing her lips in the vicinity of his. Not much of a kiss. "But — it wasn't much of a kiss — it — it was nothing — right? It was … mostly nothing."

"Or…everything, depending on your point of view," he said, trying to say what he was feeling without intimidating her. It was a very fine line to walk.

"I — I — oh… yeah. Is… is that your point of view?"

"Pretty much."

She sprang up and started pacing, her body coiled and tense… her movements short and sharp. He could feel the worry emanating from her — it didn't even take their connection for him to feel that. He desperately wanted to go up to her and offer her comfort — in the form of an embrace… something to make her feel safe… but he knew that was the last thing he should do. He didn't want to appear unaffected or distant either, especially when he was feeling so many strong things right now.

"Oh… Oh… yeah… god… Clark… I — I — I kissed you."

"You did."

"Was — was it okay? It's been — a … while — since … I kissed someone… on — my own volition."

That last phrase brought hot fury into his heart and he had to fight to push it back down where it belonged. Rage for Kal-El didn't have any place in this conversation.

"Lois. It was — really … wonderful."

"So — you don't regret — what we — agreed on?"

"Not at all. Do —do you? Because if you do — please tell me — please don't — be afraid to —"

"No! I — I don't. I — I wasn't happy before. I had all these feelings — of worry — of jealousy — of frustration. I'm glad — that we understand — how each other feels — but… that kiss… that —"

"Did — did you … have any flashbacks?" His voice was tentative. He knew she hated talking about it.

"No. No — thank god. No. But…" She looked at him directly, worry evident in her eyes. "I just don't know — if I can do this… again… for a while. You know? I — I — I really am afraid of those flashbacks. And — I'm — just nowhere near ready — for that. Is — that okay?"

He saw the pure anxious anticipation on her face as she waited for his answer. All though it broke his heart to see her waiting for his answer so fretfully, it made him feel a little better that she wasn't acting as if she expected him to attack her. That was something.

"Lois. I — said it before. There aren't any rules for us — you just have to do what you want to do."

"But what about what you want? I mean — do you want me? Like that?"

"Well — yeah. I do." His answer was carefully delivered as he watched her for any negative reaction. "But — you know — so what? Right? I mean — so — I would love to be kissing you right now, it doesn't mean we should be doing that — I don't want you to do anything just to … make this relationship conform to what you think it should be. I promise you, Lois — if I ever feel like I want things to be different, I'll tell you."

His words both elated and frightened her. The idea that he, right now, right at this moment, might be feeling sexual desire for her — made her feel somewhat trapped. But there was also a sense of — relief — that he wasn't somehow agreeing to do this out of a misguided sense of guilt for what the other Kal-El had done, or … even worse… pity.

"Oh-" was all she could say.

"You're — important to me… do you understand that?"

<< You're mine. Do you understand that?>>

Kal-El's brutal words echoed in her head and she winced against them, too startled to try to modulate her response.

"Lois? Are you —"

<<I'll show you what it means to be mine!>>

"No! I — I — No!"

"Lois? Please! Answer me!"

<<Answer me, when I talk to you!>>

In her minds eye, she saw his raised hand ready to strike a blow, and she flinched.

He saw her reactions and realized — that right now — he wasn't even here to her. She was somewhere else and he was just provoking further flashbacks.

"Lois — I'm sorry. I — I don't know what to do for you. I — I…"

She looked at him suddenly, fretful eyes meeting his in direct contact. "I can't get him out of my head," she wailed. "He just won't leave me alone!"

"How can I help? If at all?" His voice was soothing and low.

"I don't know," she said, not looking at him anymore, unable to deal with the sensory input. "I — I — you have to know that this will happen. More often than … not… I'm afraid… and — and — I need to know — that you can handle that."

"I can handle anything, Lois … for you… but — I just don't know what to do."

"That's the part you have to be able to handle," she said, looking back at him anguished. "Not being able to save me — because sometimes… I have to save myself."

"So — what do you want me to do — when it gets like that?"

"I wish I knew… it would be easy if I could answer that — I just don't know. Leaving — doesn't seem to be what I would want — but also — sometimes I feed off what you say. I guess — each circumstance will — be different. Right now — I'm… I made it okay. But — he's there now —" she shook her head, her face twisted in frustration and disgust. "He's in my mind, and he's tainting things. It's just so — it makes me so angry! I — I never got a chance to — tell him how much I absolutely hate him!"

"Would… telling me … help? I mean — since I look like him?"

"Not with your eyes the way they are," she said, laughing mirthlessly.

"What? You mean — my heat vision — you don't ever have to —"

"No! I mean… I mean — your eyes are so different. Warm. Kind. Accepting. You don't look out at humanity with … contempt… you don't look at me and see — property. You radiate honor and — and that's what drew me to you — against my own wishes… I didn't want to feel this way. I'm not saying I regret feeling this way — I know that — before all this happened to me I would have … given anything — it seems — to feel this way — It's just hard. It won't be easy — and I need to know — that you understand that. Do you?"

"I do. I don't expect it to be easy. I — I'm not — I don't fool myself into thinking that you can just forget him — forget what happened. Obviously not. It's — a part of your life."

"Just give me time — to work it through. I apologize in advance for hurting you, because — I know I have and I know I will."

"You don't need to apologize for that. I have my eyes open for this."

"Where do we go from here?" Her voice was small. "I feel so bad that I — had this flashback — things were — so great tonight."

"Overall they still were."

"Do… do you want to — get together — soon?"

"Always," he smiled at her. "How about — I give you some space… what about Wednesday?"

"I don't — do I need space? I don't know…"

"If you decide you don't — give me a call," he said.

"Right. Stalk you."

"No! You wouldn't be stalking me. I love being with you. That's not the issue — I just don't want you to …"

"I know. Okay. So — I can call you — and if I don't — want to get together — or feel up to it… that's okay — you won't feel wounded?"

"Not at all."

"But if I do — you'll be happy about it?"

"Yes… unless of course, there's a disaster calling my name… in which case — I might not be able to —"

"I know. I just don't want to feel like I'm imposing."

"You could never impose. Ever. Not in a billion years."

"You could… you know — call me — too — just to talk…"

"That's good to know. Thanks."

"So… just to be clear here — you will tell me — if I'm overdoing it — as far as you're concerned… in your life too much —"

"You couldn't ever do that. I just can't even imagine a time where I'd think I was seeing too much of you. I — do you think that I'm just going along with this — out of some sense of…"

"Guilt? Pity? I… worry. I mean — look at you — and then… what do you see in me?"

"You… do own mirrors, right? And beyond your obvious — beauty — there's the fact that… the person that you are… just — draws me to you."

"You aren't just saying that."

"No. Why — why do you think I am?"

"Rule 1 about Lois Lane — I'm insecure and neurotic. A lot of women are, so I refuse to feel like a weirdo about it… but — I guess — being — treated the way I was — as long as I was — tends to take away your sense of personal worth."

"Okay — I can see that," he said. "The last part of what you said… I can see it… I don't know how to — reassure you then — that my feelings really exist — and — are nothing at all like pity or guilt."

"Because you're modulating how you react to me —" She flushed as she realized what she had said. "I don't mean — physically — but — well — yeah — physically — how you look at me — your body language — you're trying so hard to be non-threatening that you come across as almost indifferent. I'm not complaining — about how you act… I know it kind of sounds like I am — but…" She expelled a frustrated sigh.

<<Tongue-tied. I'm always tongue-tied. Me. Multiple-time Kerth winner.>>

"Lois," he said, dropping the veil for a few moments and letting the full force of his emotions come through in his expression and voice. "I — am as far from indifferent to you as I can be. If you trust anything about me — please… trust in that. I don't pity you. I don't feel guilt about you. I really like you. A lot. I'm really — really attracted to you, in a way that goes far beyond friendship."

<<Please, Lois. Don't be afraid of what I feel for you.>>

She looked at him a long moment, mesmerized by the change in his expression.

<<Wow. Or Yikes. Or both.>>

Finally, she nodded, licking lips that felt suddenly very dry. "Okay… thanks…"

"Is it okay that I told you that?"

"Yes. Yes- I — as much as it … seems — like… I might — be uncomfortable with stuff like that… I need to know. I want to know."

"And — I want to share those feelings… I just don't want to mess this up. Uh… on that note… I'm… going to go now. Is that okay? You look tired — and…"

"Yeah, yeah… I am. I — I'll call you tomorrow."

"I'll try hard not to wait by the phone," he said smiling. He stood up and made for the door.

"Clark. You know — you can fly out of here — if that's easier for you."

He looked at her uncertainly. "I'm afraid — of…"

"You won't. You know. Or maybe you might. Scare me. But — that's a part of you — the… uh… the … Kryptonian part of you… and… I have to… get over it."

"No — you don't… at least — not right at this moment."

"I can't — be… involved with you — and be afraid of… Superman. It's crazy. You're one person — it's just the clothes. Please… just indulge me. Okay?"

"How can I say no to that? Are you absolutely sure?"

She nodded, not really trusting herself to speak.

He decided to take her at her word. She needed to go through things in her own way, and if this is how she wanted it — then this is what he would do. Feeling awkward and conspicuous about her watching, he spun into his suit. He forced himself to keep the same body language he had been keeping with as Clark. There was no reason for him to slip into his superman 'persona' around her — no need to keep her at a distance.

"Still… okay?" he asked carefully.

"Yeah," she said, somewhat breathlessly. "I — I — admit to feeling a bit more… anxious — than before… but… you're not… you're still Clark."

She walked over to him, her steps a bit forced and awkward, and she stood so close she could feel the heat of his body.

"Clark? Should… I … we … as a goodbye — thing… you know? The customary way that — people who — are… dating… say … goodbye?"

He looked at her, seeing that she was steeling herself up to do something that clearly alarmed her. He bent forward, and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and then straightened back up.

"Will that do?"

She smiled at him, grateful for his sensitivity. "Yeah. It'll do."

Her smile dazzled him.

<<God. I love you, Lois. Someday I'll even tell you that. >>

He walked to the balcony and then looked back at her right before taking off. "I feel like I'm going to wake up tomorrow — and this will never have happened."

"You can't escape me that easily," she said, with a smile.

He felt a sudden chill run through him at her words. Not wanting to alarm her he gave her an answering smile and then flew off.

Her words filled him with dark thoughts. The idea of her trying to escape from Kal-El — and failing… and being made to suffer for it… made his heart ache so badly that he felt that he would go insane if he couldn't go into that world and at least try and teach Kal-El some kind of a lesson for what he had done. He had never felt this urge for payback so badly. It terrified him — because he knew that if he ever directed that feeling towards a human — he could cross lines that should never be crossed. He knew that hiding his reactions to her reactions was going to be a challenge — but he had to do it… anything else would just upset her.

She watched him leave, and as soon as he did she felt a sort of regretful loneliness at his absence. Even though the sight of him in the suit had made her feel a bit worried… she had still wanted him to be there.

<<I wonder if he misses me like that… as soon as we part? Or is this obsessive on my part? Could it be that I just need that good feeling that being around him gives me? It keeps away this other feeling — that I feel — when I'm alone, and get to think about all that has happened. And — he seemed a bit… distracted when he left — that last smile didn't even reach his eyes… it was after what I said. I hope he doesn't think I'm stalking him… but then — he said he didn't. He doesn't come across as the kind of guy to lie about his feelings just to make me feel better. He's smarter than that. But — what was it? What did I say? Oh — of course… you can't escape me… I must have — made him … think… about it. What does he think about when he thinks about what I've gone through? Is he angry and hurt for me? Afraid for me — afraid I'll never recover? Or — is he — disgusted — in any way — that I let … I let myself be — used like that? I'll have to ask him someday — but I just can't see asking him any time soon. I've had enough soul- baring for at least a few days. I'm tired. I guess I'll go to sleep. I really hope I don't have nightmares. God. I miss him already. I wish he's call me. Call me and … just … call me. >>

She stared at the phone, and found herself willing it to ring. On cue… it did.

She picked up the phone in eager haste practically falling over in her excitement to hear his voice again. She was once again struck by the sheer craziness of the situation.

<<I am excited about hearing his voice again!>>

"Hello?" She tried to keep the sound of her excitement out of her voice. No point in scaring him away with her enthusiasm.

She heard the tense sound of silence — and although she couldn't hear breathing or a voice, she knew that there was a presence at the other end of the connection.

"Hello?" This time her voice was unsure, and she was fighting to keep the trembling out.

Again, there was no response, and she hastily dropped the phone back down in its base. She was shaking, and she backed away from the phone as if whoever had called her could somehow do harm just by reaching out through the phone.

She backed away to her couch and sank down into it, adrenaline coursing through her, wiping out all of the warm and happy feelings that she had had from talking with Clark. In there place was a sick sense of dread and foreboding.

<<Oh god. Who was that?>>

The shrill sound of the phone ringing jarred her already heightened nerves.

<<Please. Please be Clark. Please. Please. Please.>>

She slowly walked over to the phone, no eager haste pulling her forward — rather, she was fighting an urge to stay as far away from the machine as possible.

"Hello?" She tried to keep her voice neutral — no point in giving whoever it was a thrill.

Again. Silence.

She slammed the phone down refusing to keep playing this game, and turned the ringer off. She stared uncertainly at the machine for a few long moments.

<<I could call him. I could call him and tell him what's happening — maybe he'd come back and… and what? Stay here all night? I can't call him… it's too weird to call him, and I don't want him thinking that I'm so paranoid that I can't even deal with this on my own. No point in being high maintenance — or more high maintenance than I already am. But I'm scared — I'll never get any sleep tonight… I hate this — this being alone. It's awful. I … I could call Lucy — and ask her to come here… it's not really that dangerous to be out at this time, is it? She could always call Clark if she ran into trouble… that's it — I'll call Lucy! >>

She picked up the phone and dialed her sister with quick and nerveless fingers. As soon as she heard her sister pick up the phone, she gasped urgently into the receiver.

"Lucy! Thank god you're home!"

"God, Lois, it's three in the morning. Is something wrong?"

"I — well… kind of… I got this hang-up call… and it's really freaking me out."

"Oh — god ! Well — want me to come over?"

"Yeah," she said, her voice suddenly small and unsure. "Is that okay?"

"Of course! I'll be over in 10 minutes."

"Be — be careful. Okay — if you have any problems — call… call Superman, okay?"

"Don't worry, I'm out late all the time. But I'll call him if I need him."

Lois resisted the urge to call her sister every minute on the minute after she hung up the phone. Lucy would be okay. Lucy would be there soon. She felt almost as if she wouldn't be able to contain her fear for even 10 short minutes, when she heard Lucy's knock at the door. She rushed over and looked through the peephole. Seeing Lucy outside, she opened the door for her.

"Come in! Come on! Quickly!" She shut the door, and then locked all the bolts.

Lucy watched her fearful sister, and tried to hide the expression of horrified pity at this frightened woman her sister had become.

"Thank you so much!" Lois grabbed her in a tight hug, trying to keep from breaking down.

"Oh. Lois." She hugged her sister hard, trying to impart to her some strength. God knows, Lois had done the same for her throughout most of their lives.

"Oh Lucy — it was — I was scared. I feel so much better with you here…"

"Do you think someone's stalking you?" Her voice was hushed as she asked the scary question.

"I know that Lex Luthor has it in for me… and that's bad enough."

"Oh my god."

"He hates me, Lucy. I … rejected his advances, quit my job with him, and then had the audacity to make friends with Clark."

Her face fell. "Lois — a lot of people are angry about that, you know… you may have picked up a few enemies."

"You mean in addition to all the people who hate me because I'm responsible for them being in jail, and all the people who hate me for daring to write bad things about Clark? Yeah. I know. I've had a few nasty encounters with my fellow journalists. It seems they all resent my getting the asteroid story after being so horrible to him. It could have been a random stranger making prank calls — but something inside me tells me it's not."

"If you feel that way, it probably wasn't. You ever read 'The gift of fear?'"

"No… and fear isn't much of a gift if you ask me…"

"No — no — really. Really. It's an amazing book — it doesn't teach you to be afraid — it just talks about how people have learned to suppress their natural 'gift' of being able to sense danger.. animals have it, and so do we — but we talk ourselves out of that fear, or we block sensory input — by wearing headphones and listening to music while we walk, or by talking on the cell phone… we ignore our environment, and wander blithely around, which, if you think about it — is very dangerous."

"Are you saying that we should blame the victim for not paying proper attention? I —"

"No! Never. But we CAN tune in more to our own feelings, and our environment. In doing so, we can protect ourselves better. We have to. If a rabbit is killed by a bear, is it the rabbit's fault? The bear attacked the rabbit, the bear was hungry — and it's almost an inevitability to get killed by some predator if you're a rabbit — but the rabbit is able to avoid a lot of predators by using its instincts. We have those instincts and we can and should use them."

"It's not like I could have ever foreseen or sensed Tempus popping into existence —"

"No — that's definitely outside the norm. I'm sorry — I didn't mean to imply that you could have prevented what happened to you… but it's a really good book. Worth a read. He wrote one about protecting children too."

"I'll check it out."

"Cool."

"So… I have something to tell you — and I kind of don't know how to start. Uh.. you know that Clark and I have become friends… right?"

"Yeah. I think it's great. I know why you felt the way you did — and I don't blame you at all for it — but I'm relieved to see that things have gotten so good between you. If anything — he's a good friend to have, just because he's such a nice guy."

"Well… it's actually … we're kind of more than friends now," she said, not able to look her sister in the eye as she uttered those words. "I — I — kind of told him that I… might… have feelings for him… maybe… and — I — I even kissed him."

"My GOD!" Lucy's voice rose to a scream, causing her sister to flinch a bit from the sound.

"Lucy! Please…"

"How could you LET me stand here and jabber away for a good 20 minutes about other stuff when you should have been telling me about this? This is huge! You kissed him! You actually kissed him! How could that not have been the very first thing you said when you opened the door? Lois! How could you hold out on me! My god! My god!"

"Okay… Okay — I know — I know it's huge."

"So — so how was it? What did you say? What did he say? What did he do? Did he kiss you back? Did you kiss again? Oh god — oh god — please tell me — you didn't — it wasn't awful for you, right? You didn't react badly? Oh — that would be so awful —"

"Lucy… Lucy — please. I can't get in a word."

"Oh. Oh — Sorry. Sorry. It's just so HUGE. You kissed him! You told him you had feelings for him — I mean — this is so glorious, Lois! This is just — amazing."

"I — yeah. I know. It is — it is pretty amazing," she said, a smile forcing its way onto her face.

"Oh — so it was good? Really good? I always imagined he would be so good to kiss!"

"Lucy!"

"No — no… I mean — I — I do find him attractive, Lois — but — I know that he never saw me that way, And I'm fine with that, you know — I'm not madly in love with him — if he had encouraged it in any way, I probably would be — but you two are soul-mates Lois — meant to be… which is probably why you ended up being attracted to him despite it all!"

"Soul-mates? Isn't that a little — spiritual — for you?"

"I know, I know — but I believe it. I do — and he does too — and — and — deep down, can you honestly say you haven't wondered?"

"He thinks we're soul-mates?"

"Didn't he tell you?"

"He told me he was… that he really liked me — but —"

"Oh. Lois. Come on. He's madly and forever in love with you. That's a definite."

"No …" Her voice trailed off uncertainly. "No — he can't be."

"Oh. Should I not have said anything," she was suddenly distressed. "You aren't afraid now — are you? You're afraid to get involved? You don't have to be afraid — don't you see — this makes him even more … safe. A man who loves you would never hurt you — uh — physically. Doesn't it help to know his feelings aren't just based on physical attraction?"

"It's not that I think he'll hurt me… well —not physically — but… I — I could really hurt him… and that… hurts me…"

"Because you love him."

"No! Lucy — no — I don't know that I —"

"You love him. You do! And you're denying it… But you do love him… admit it!"

"Oh — I don't know! I don't know… It's too much, Luce. Too much to think about. Please don't push me — I can't … I — I can't face those feelings just yet. Let me enjoy — the way things are now. Okay?"

"Okay — okay — we'll stop talking about this… we can talk about — about you kissing him! How was it? Was it great? It had to have been — right? Unless it was awful — because of that bastard… oh god — was it? Was it — did it make you think of him? Please! I'm dying here, Lois! Talk. Spill!"

"It… it wasn't awful. It — it… it was scary — and I think that's all I felt — just the utter … overwhelming emotional impact of what I was doing — that I forgot to really … feel it. I … I think it would have … it only lasted a split second — it wasn't even really a kiss… I just kind of brushed his lips with mine."

"Oh — but what a start! What did he say?"

"Well — he… I kind of had to prompt him — he's … unwilling to say or do much to freak me out."

"Did he like it? Come on… Did he try to kiss you again."

"No — I mean — yes — I think he liked the fact that I kissed him… whether he liked the kiss itself… or whether he was disappointed — I really don't know… but — no — he didn't try again — I think he knew that he should just be as passive as possible in the encounter…"

"You have to have an idea as to whether he liked it or not — come on!"

"Well — I think he did!"

"Lois!" Her voice rose in an excited squeal again. "Of course he did!! Did he say he did?"

"Please — Lucy — stop yelling — it's three in the morning — my neighbors will start complaining! He… yeah — he did… he did… tell me. And … when he left, he even … he even kissed me —"

"Oh my god! I thought you said he was passive about it —"

"On the cheek," she finished, smiling despite her earlier fear. Lucy's enthusiasm was bringing her back to that warm happiness that Clark had left her with.

"Oh… oh — well —"

"Come on, Lucy — you know he couldn't have done anything else."

"Actually — it's so damned sweet," she gushed. "So utterly Clark to do something like that. So I guess you'll never wash that cheek again!"

"Do I look like Marcia Brady? But… yeah — it was a really nice — thing."

"How come you never told me that you were falling for him?" Lucy tried to keep the hurt out of her voice, but knew she was unsuccessful.

"I… I didn't want you to get your hopes up. I know how you feel about him — and me — and how we are supposed to be together — and — I was afraid your enthusiasm… might feel like pressure. I'm sorry. I needed to get here by myself — not because of what you wanted."

"But, Lois — you never do what I want — so why —"

"Subconsciously I might have. I might have gotten caught up in your feelings and — I had to be sure — that I was with him for the right reasons. Even now — I wonder…"

"Wonder what?"

"If I made a huge mistake. When I think of having NOT done it, I feel really bad —I'm glad I told him — but at the same time, I feel this sense of pressure now — this sense… of being — almost… owned. Like — I somehow belong to him now."

"Well- you kind of do — but I think — doesn't he also belong to you? Isn't that kind of a heady feeling? Of all the glorious women in the world who want him — he's yours?"

"Possessing someone… disturbs me. It brings back a lot of… a lot of horror."

"I'm sorry. That was insensitive. Of course — of course it would."

"It's okay, Lucy. You weren't there — it's natural you wouldn't really see it the way I do. But yes — it feels — almost like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't have to worry about losing him while I try to heal from what happened to me. So I guess I'm just really ambivalent. It's okay though. The overriding emotion right now is happiness and relief — relief that he didn't reject me, and relief that he knows that there's … something… something maybe worth waiting around for. All those other women out there — they try to —"

"Get their super-model claws in him. I know. Makes me sick."

"Lucy… how different is what I'm doing from what they are doing?"

"They don't love him. You do."

"Lucy!"

"Are you going to tell him about the phone calls?"

"Only if they keep happening — I'm hoping it was just a random thing."

"Did you get anymore?"

"Uh — let me check the call log… I turned off the ringer."

She went over and scrolled through the call log in her caller ID box.

"No. None — I hope… I hope it doesn't mean that someone is watching me and knows that I called you…"

"Lois… you need to tell Clark about this. If someone — like Lex Luthor — is… stalking you — he needs to know now."

"Let me give it a day or two — if it continues — or if I continue to feel… like something bad is going on… I'll call him. Okay?"

"Okay. You'd better. Because if you don't — I will."

"Lucy —"

"I lost you once. I'm not letting that happen again."

The next day, Lois and Lucy spent the morning together visiting their parents. Afterwards, Lois spent the rest of the day by herself. She spent a long time wandering around Metropolis, and as she wandered, she thought of Clark.

<<I want to call him. I really do. I miss him — I even want to see him. But — I can't… not with all this hanging over me. He'll know something is bothering me — and he'll probably be way too… considerate — I guess is the word… to push for answers. But he'll know — and then I'll feel like I'm hiding things- and I don't want to start things off like that. We should be honest with each other. I don't want to feel like I'm keeping important things from him. At the same time, I don't want to be an idiot about this. Now that I'm out of the apartment, and now that it's broad daylight — I feel kind of like I might have overreacted. Things always seem more frightening at night, when you are alone, and especially if you're sleep deprived. It's probably nothing, and I'm just overreacting because of my past trauma. I can handle this on my own. But I can't handle seeing him — no matter how badly I want to — I just don't want him to feel like I'm keeping secrets. I hate this! I hate feeling like this! I don't want to feel like this! And what about him — how will he feel if I don't call? Will he feel badly? Will it make him feel like I'm not thinking of him, or that I didn't want to talk to him? I guess it's a step in the right direction that I'm not obsessing over making him angry. I wish I could call and just leave a message. No — really — I really just wish I could see him — to talk to him… to have him smile at me the way he does. But — I'll see him soon, and I'm sure by then, this will be over. Done. In the past.>>

As the day drew to an end she debated sleeping over at her parents' house. Lucy had also offered to stay another night, but Lois felt like either of those choices would be handing a victory to whoever was threatening her.

<<No one chases me out of my home! >>

Regardless of her indignant bravado, she was terrified to go home.

She arrived at her apartment, and stood for a long while in front of the door before she finally got up the nerve to put the key in. As soon as she was in, she felt that the walls were closing in on her. She felt panic and dread squeeze her heart.

<<God! This is my home. I should feel good walking in here. Happy. Safe. Not like this — not sick with dread. I can't let whoever is doing this to me win!>>

Looking over at her answering machine, she saw the blinking light that heralded the presence of a new message and nervously approached the machine. She stared at it a long while, and then finally forced herself to reach out and stab the play button.

'Hi Lois. It's Clark — I hope you don't mind my calling. I had to call — I just wanted to hear your voice — and hey — hearing it on the machine was a decent substitute for the real thing! Hope you're doing well — and that you managed to get some sleep last night. I miss you — and I'm looking forward to seeing you again! No need to call back or anything — I just felt like saying 'Hi' — and so… 'Hi'!

She caught herself smiling at the simple friendliness of his message. He seemed much more comfortable talking with her than he had in the past — even on her machine, and she thrilled to the fact. She also was pleased to note that her own reaction was a good one — instead of feeling threatened or menaced by his voice, she felt suddenly a little safer and happier than she had before.

She checked her caller ID log, and verified that there had been no other calls. Realizing that she was holding her breath, she slowly released the breath out of tense, taut lungs. The feeling of relief that she felt was short-lived, however. The night was far from over, and there was still plenty of time in which to get another hang-up call.

Worse, it was likely that if this was a deliberate attempt to frighten or stalk her, the caller would likely repeat the pattern of calling late at night. That thought filled her with a sense of impending dread, and she paced her apartment restlessly, not wanting to give into her weariness. But finally she decided that the best thing she could do was get some sleep. If anyone broke in, she could call Clark — he would be there in less than a second.

<<I really am safe. Mostly safe, that is… but… he's really — it's like he's here. I can count on him to help me. He always does — and he always will.>>

At 1 AM she was brutally awakened by the shrill sound of the ringing phone.

<<Oh god. Not again.>>

She felt her heart pounding in her ears and throat as she edged closer to the phone, it's jangling ringing piercing her senses. She stood quietly, waiting for it to stop ringing. Maybe if whoever it was thought she wasn't home… Finally, it stopped, and her machine picked up. She waited tensely for her machine to finish the greeting and then she listened carefully. There was long silence, and then a menacing click. This wasn't a wrong number. It was a deliberate attempt at scaring her.

As she knew it would, the phone rang again. Despite expecting it, she jumped back in startled fear. Fed up with it all, she picked up the phone in angry haste.

"Who is it? What do you want?" Her voice was angry and challenging.

<Click>

Lois threw the phone down as if she were shaking a furry tarantula off of her arm. She was trembling wildly and she felt an old and very familiar sense of helpless panic overtake her. She was very tempted to cry.

<<No. I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not give in to him. I survived Lord Kal-El. Whoever this is can't hurt me. I won't let him.>>

She stared at the phone in loathing and thought about what she could do. She wanted very badly to have Clark there. Desperately. She wanted him to stay the night even. Not as a lover of course — that was still far too horrifying to contemplate, but her worries in that direction were eclipsed by her current situation. She knew she couldn't spend another moment there alone.

An iron hand seemed to squeeze her heart as a desperate plan took form.

<<I have to get out of here. Now. Right away. >>

Danger lurked, and she had to get away from it. Immediately. If she stayed, she would be hurt. She had to leave. Driven by this instinctive and frightened urge, she quickly rushed around her apartment throwing things that she would need in a bag. She grabbed her purse and keys and rushed over to her front door and peered out the security window to see if there was anyone out there.

<<No one. It's clear.>>

Emboldened by her adrenaline surge, she flung open her door and headed for her car.

Wildly trembling fingers failed on several attempts to insert the key into the lock, but finally, she was in her car. I have to get one of those remote door lock things. She quickly locked the doors after ensuring that she was alone in her car and drove hastily out of her parking spot.

Once she was on the road, she took a deep breath.

<<Safe. For now. I hope. I hope. I am. Safe. No one can hurt me now. I'm a moving target. I'm not a sitting duck anymore. >>

Now that she was a little calmer, she began to actually think about what she was doing.

<<Where the hell am I going? I could go to mom and dad's… or Perry's… or Lucy's… or… dare I even think it… Clark's? Is that where I really want to go? Oddly… strangely… miraculously… it is. I really do want to go to Clark's. Of course — it's because I know I'm safe with him — very little can hurt him, and if someone is after me — I'll be most safe with him… right? And it's not like he's going to get the wrong idea… he wouldn't, would he? He won't think I'm making a pass or anything… no… he wouldn't. He's far too aware and worried about what I might be thinking to ever think that. So… I'm safe. I don't need to worry… about him… doing anything — unwanted. But… then there's the other thing. Won't he wonder why I hadn't told him about this before? I could tell him that it just started happening — but I can't lie. I'm really bad at lying, and worse… I'd feel awful lying… Kal-El used to accuse me of lying when I hadn't. He would accuse me of coming on to his friends… of throwing myself at them — and when I denied it, he would tell me I was lying. Of course, he did that just for his own enjoyment. It amused him to make up reasons to hurt me. To make it my fault — even though we both knew it never was my fault. But Clark — he wouldn't ever hurt me. It's … me hurting him — that I want to avoid. I don't want him to feel badly — what if he walks away from us — what if he thinks a relationship without trust isn't worth having? Because it isn't… and since it isn't… and since I want this… I have to tell him the truth. >>

As she fretted about his possible reaction, she stopped at a light. Her car idled for a few seconds and then her engine sputtered to a dead stop. Repeatedly she tried restarting it, but to no avail. She was stranded.

<<Damn Stupid Car! Why does this kind of thing keep happening to me? Did I break a million mirrors in a previous life? Why me? I cannot believe it. This is incredible. Here I am… I'm out at this ridiculous, lonely and scary hour — driving to a man's house to spend the night because I'm too scared to be at home. And not just any man. A Kryptonian man. Not just any Kryptonian man. THE Kryptonian man. The man who is the identical twin to a man who made my life a living hell. And why am I doing that? Because some bastard is trying to scare me out of my mind. So … thank you FATE for doing this to me. I really appreciate it. Really. Thanks. You shouldn't have. Really. Really shouldn't. It's hard enough for me to be doing this — going to his place — unannounced… in the middle of the night… god — this is hard enough. I didn't need added trauma. Whoever is scripting my life had better change things soon. Otherwise, I won't be held responsible for what I do. You hear me out there? Make things better!>>

After her initial outburst of anger, she tried to get herself under control.

<<Ok. Girl. Relax. It's not really as bad as all that. I can just call him for help. Yell — help Superman. It's not like I won't already be waking him up. This is nothing. He'll be here instantly. So just do that. Yell. Help. Superman. Help. Do it! Come on. Why is it so hard? I'm not afraid to see him — it's not that… I'm just — oh — god… damsel in distress. I hate that so much. I don't want him to see me as so damned needy all the time. Of course — going over, in the middle of the night because I'm afraid of a stupid wrong number? Yeah — that's high up there on the needy scale. You know what? This really sucks!>>

Self pity won, and she started crying. Everything seemed so hopeless.

<<Why do things always have to be so hard? I don't know what to do! I don't know what I should do. >>

Suddenly, she heard a voice outside her car.

"Lois?"

She jumped in fear. She saw a shape outside and it took her few moments to realize it was Clark. Or — in this case, Superman. She opened the door, unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped outside.

"Oh god. Clark! How — how did you know — did I broadcast to you or something?"

"Actually — I just happened to be out… a call for help and then I saw your car. What's wrong, Lois? You're crying! Are you okay? Did something happen to you?" He was horrified to see her like this — fearing that something awful had happened. He desperately wanted to ask her where she was going at two in the morning, but he repressed that urge firmly. He didn't want her to think that he was being possessive, jealous and controlling.

<<God knows, she had enough of that from Lord Kal-El. >>

"I — I — Oh Clark. My car won't start up again! I'm stuck… I was stuck here."

"Why didn't you call for me?"

"I… I didn't want to —" Look like a helpless idiot. Which is what I am.

"You didn't want to… call me?"

"No. You don't understand. I — didn't want to bother you. I know — you're thinking that it's not a bother… but to me — I'm tired of always needing help! It bothers me. You know? It bothers me — to always need help!"

"Okay," he soothed her. "I can see how it might sometimes feel like you do — but mostly — it looks to me like you've been doing fine on your own."

"It doesn't feel like that," she whispered.

"Okay. I'm here though — so can I help you?"

"Yes," she said softly.

"Uh.. it actually looks like you're out of gas."

She looked at her gauge and groaned.

"Am I really that stupid? My god — I could have sworn I had at least a quarter tank. I never run out of gas… Clark — maybe… could someone have done this — deliberately?"

"Sure. It's possible."

"But not likely. Right? I mean — you're thinking I probably just forgot —"

"No. Lois. I don't think that at all. Do you think this was a deliberate act ? If you do, then I do too."

"Uh… well… maybe…"

"So… do you want me to take you home? I can get your car after I drop you off and help you get it fuelled tomorrow."

"No!"

"You… is it — you don't want to go flying with me? I get that… it's okay… I could call you a cab! And I can wait here with you — because… I can't just leave … I'm sorry — I don't want to be in your space or anything — but it's late out, and … isolated… and —"

"I… I — I didn't mean — I … I don't want to go back home. Don't you want to know where I was going?"

He looked at her with a guilty expression in his eyes. "Well… I was kind of wondering — only because it's so late. But you know — I really don't want you to feel like … I don't want you to think I'm —"

"Like Lord Kal-El. I know. I… I can see that. But I want you to … to act normally around me, Clark — if this thing — if it has a chance, we have to learn to be normal around each other. And normally — you'd ask someone — right — if I was a stranger — out this late, like this? Wouldn't you?"

"Actually — no. I wouldn't ask if I didn't know you. Especially not then. I don't want people to feel like I'm threatening them, or bullying them, or trying to somehow impose curfews… you know? If I asked people what they were doing, why they were doing it — It would be like imposing some kind of weird policing on them… this is a free country — and people have the right to act as they want-within the law."

"But — you do help with stopping crimes and … don't you ask questions then? At least to the criminals?"

"I'm not a police officer. I'm a citizen — and I help out… but I leave police work to the police — I do my part… you know — stopping the crime — and then giving any information I might have — as a citizen and witness. Maybe people appreciate the help, but they won't if the help comes with the price of less freedom."

"God — what a fine line you have to walk — you probably get accused of being too remote and distant because you don't ask questions, but if you did, you'd be worrying people."

"Life as an alien. I — I'm here — on Earth at the … will of the people — if they decided I was a threat and asked me to leave, wouldn't I just have to do that?"

"No! It wouldn't happen — but god — no! You have every right to be here — as much as anyone else. Who cares whether you were born on Earth or sent here from another world — you've been here your whole life, contributed to this society more than most people. It's not fair that you would have to leave if people asked."

"Thanks… that really means a lot," he said, smiling in genuine pleasure at her heated defense of him. "So — uh… since it's okay to ask… where were you going?"

"Your place."

"My what?"

"Your apartment. I was going to your apartment."

"Why? Not — not that you aren't always welcome — but — why? Did something happen at your place?"

She attempted to sound breezy and off-hand. "Nothing really… but last night and then again, tonight, someone called me a few times and then hung up… it wasn't the kind of hang-up you associate with a wrong number — but rather, the kind meant to scare a person… you know, a long pause, and then a hang-up. I mean — it could be nothing… but…"

"It sounds really nerve-wracking."

"I didn't tell you — because — well… at first, I hoped that I was just overreacting… that it really was a one-time thing. The fact that it happened again… makes me think it might be a big deal. So… I was… can I… borrow your couch for the night?" She felt suddenly shy and awkward asking the question.

"Absolutely."

"So it's not — a problem? Doesn't feel like an invasion of space to you? You aren't thinking — god, we just started this relationship and now she's always around?"

"Not at all. Lois — first of all — I like being around you. So — spending more time with you — that's always a good thing… but — also — you can always count on me, you know… this is not at all a big deal or an imposition — or — any of the other things you might be worrying about. Okay? I really would tell you if it were."

"But — you could always just take me to my parents' house, or I could ask the Whites — I don't have to come over."

"Yes — you could. Is that what you want?"

"No. I really want to come over."

"Then that's —"

"But — I don't want to be this person you always have to baby-sit -"

"You aren't. This isn't that. Really. It's okay."

"Thank you."

"How about I move your car over into a parking space — just along there — and I can come back and get it after you're settled for the night."

"Thanks, Clark. You think of everything."

He looked at the car for a few moments and then turned back to her.

"Maybe you could just … not watch me."

"What?"

"I don't want to upset you… using my… strength this way."

"Clark. I'm not looking the other way," she said firmly. "So you'll just have to deal with it."

He grinned at the tone of her voice.

"Okay!"

Still feeling immensely self-conscious, he moved her car over to the parking spot that he had indicated. Moments later he was back at her side.

Her heart had seemingly skipped a few times as she watched him in 'Superman' mode. It was scary to see how effortlessly he was able to lift up her car like that — it was a harsh reminder of what he could do if he so desired… but it was also heart-warming that he was willing to do that for her. Moving her car seemed like a task far too mundane for this ultra-famous superhero.

"Thanks, Clark…"

He smiled self-consciously. "Really, it was no problem."

"Good! So… so… your place." She looked at him, and she felt suddenly nervous. "Uh — so… flying. Right?"

"Is that okay with you?" His voice was very gentle.

"It… yeah. It's okay."

"No — awful- flying experiences?" His expression was worried as he awaited her answer.

"Oh — you mean — over… over there… uh… no. No — nobody ever flew with me…"

She winced, remembering some rumors she had heard of humans being dropped just for kicks. Recollecting herself back into the present, she was startled by the compassion in his eyes. She gave him a smile that was mostly genuine.

"I'm okay. Really. I'm fine — especially now that you're here. Don't you know," her smiled widened. "You just saved the day?"

He smiled back. "So… is now a good time?"

She felt a very sudden tug of nerves. Fear and apprehension and even anticipation — all warred together, churning her stomach and making her dizzy. She closed her eyes against the feeling, trying to get it under control.

"So… how do we do this?" Her voice was suddenly a whisper.

"Well … if I put my arm around your waist, I can just lift off like that. I know that might be too close for comfort, Lois — and I'm sorry. Are you sure you don't want to take a cab?"

"No. I don't — let's do this — this can be done. It's doable. Come on. I'm ready," she said, suddenly feeling anything but ready. The sensation she was feeling was not unlike the sensation she had felt when learning to skydive. It was like that moment just before making that jump. Terrifying — her heart in her mouth, frightened, but also eager to know what it would be like.

<<What if he feels like Lord Kal-El? What if his arm around me feels like his. What if his body against mine feels like his? How can I hold it together — and if I do have a bad flashback… or a panic attack… how can I get through it? >>

He sensed her fear, but didn't want to upset her by calling attention to it.

"Just let me know if you feel overwhelmed. Okay?"

She nodded. "Overwhelmed. Sure. Uh… feeling overwhelmed right now… but…" She closed her eyes again, feeling the waves of panic hitting her, and not wanting him to see it in her eyes. "Okay… I'm ready!"

Her eyes were closed, and she tensely waited for him to put an arm around her. It was almost harder like this because she felt her fear increasing at the simple fact that she had cut off a major sensory input. But she really didn't want him to read her nervousness in her eyes.

She forced herself not to jump when she felt his arm come gently around her. The contact did shock her and she felt as if she had been burned. The expectation of what it would feel like had whipped her up into such a state of nervous anticipation that she was amazed that so far she wasn't having any bad flashbacks.

She forced herself to calm down, trying to take in each sensation at a time. She could feel the side of her body in contact with his. As panic began to tighten in her gut, she mentally willed herself not to start remembering times when she had last been so close to a body very much like this one. He's helping me. Not hurting me. He doesn't deserve this from me.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes."

<<What was that I said about being honest?>>

"I'm going to lift-off — is that okay? Are you okay with that?"

"Yes. I'm — I'm okay."

As soon as she said those words he lifted off, the motion causing him to tighten his hold a bit, bringing her closer to his body. The increase in contact and the tightening of his hold immediately brought about a feeling of being trapped. Of being menaced. She tried to will herself to relax to not have any bad memories or flashbacks, but they seemed to push at the edges of her consciousness.

He had felt the sudden change in her — she had been very tense and slightly shaky when he had first held her , but now, it was even more pronounced. He wanted to ask her if she was okay but it sounded stupid and superfluous. Also, he didn't want to cause her more distress by the sound of his voice or even make her feel like she needed to lie to keep him flying. Repeated stops and starts wouldn't really help her out … they would just prolong the journey, and along with it, her fear.

<<I'll stop if she asks — but otherwise… might as well just keep going.>>

She felt an almost absurd need to laugh at her own fear.

<<God. We're flying, and I — I'm acting like an idiot. How can I ever hope to- to … to ever get close to him — if I can't even handle this I need to just —just — enjoy this — I mean — I'm flying, for crying out loud. Flying. He gets to do this all the time — and wow — it is pretty cool. She opened her eyes and got lost in the beauty of the lights below. It's like being a bird! Hang-gliding… sky-diving — it's nothing like this! I've dreamt of having wings my whole life.>>

He landed, and she realized that they were on his balcony. He let go of her as soon as she was balanced on her feet, and stepped away from her, trying to give her the space he was sure she would need.

"Wow," she gasped. "Wow. So that's flying. Wow!"

He smiled at her enthusiasm. "I know. I love to fly. It was the one power that made being so different worth while."

He opened the door and stood aside. "Please, come on in," he said, trying to sound casual and reassuring.

"Thanks," she said, suddenly very much aware that she was here, at his apartment — with the intent of spending the night. Platonic as it may be, she still felt very awkward about the whole idea.

After she came in, she looked up over at him and was startled to see him as Clark.

"God. If I could change that fast… wow…"

"I have the added incentive of hating being dressed like that…"

"You said that once — and — I guess I understand. Why continue it, if you hate it?"

"Because — oddly enough, it helps me lead that normal life I crave. It really sets that part of my life away from this part of my life —the human part. People treat me differently — they actually mostly treat me like a normal person when I look like this — and I think it's because I've separated these two worlds I live in by making 'Superman' so utterly conspicuous."

"So you hide in plain view — by dressing in such a way that you attract attention, you actually end up being better able to just blend into the crowd as Clark. Wow. It actually makes a strange kind of sense, and clearly, it does work." She yawned widely. "Oh. God. Sorry about that."

"Hey — you're tired. It's the middle of the night, and … late night yesterday too. Let me get you the things you'll need, and I'll see you in the morning." He forced himself to sound casual and matter-of-fact. He didn't want her to feel an ounce of concern that he had misunderstood her request to spend the night. He really wanted to offer her the more comfortable sleeping environment — the bed… but he knew that in this case, the couch really was what she wanted. She would feel bad about pushing him out of his space, and then there was just the very intimate association of sleeping in his bed. He desperately didn't want her having nightmares.

"Thanks," she said, suddenly shy again. "I really appreciate it."

After he had gotten her the bedding she needed and laid it out on the couch for her, he looked over at her.

"I'm glad you … you felt like you could come here. If you need anything — don't hesitate — okay?"

"Thanks — thank you so much. I — I feel — really…safe here."

He looked at her, struck suddenly with a realization. "You do? You feel safe? I know that… when you were here — after I lost my memory… I'll never be able to apologize enough for that …"

"No. You don't need to — you really don't. And — yes, I really do feel safe here. I just… I just do. So thanks. I'll probably get a better night's sleep than I've had in a long time."

"Okay! Well… pleasant dreams, then." He turned to go.

"Wait! Clark." He stopped and looked at her inquiringly. She walked over, moving into his space, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She drew back and looked at him, a self-mocking smile playing on her lips. "Uh… good night."

He smiled back at her, but didn't make a move to repeat the contact. "Good night, Lois. Pleasant dreams. I'm going to go move your car back to your place… I won't be long — but I'll be really quiet so I don't wake you."

He left and she felt bereft at the lack of his presence. She looked over at her makeshift bed and weariness overtook her.

<<So tired. I am so tired.>>

Heeding her driving need for sleep, she curled up under the covers he had provided and fell asleep instantly.

She was driven from deep sleep unwillingly by the sensation of someone shaking her awake. Consciousness evaded her, and she tried to shut the sensation out. She heard a voice — not loud but definitely insistent… and elusively familiar. She tried to block it out.

<<Just a few more minutes. Please. Just a few more minutes. >>

The voice got a little louder and a little more insistent, and in a shock of horrified recollection, she remembered where she'd heard that voice before.

Gasping awake, fighting off the layers of sleep, she sat up jerkily, not even noting how the man withdrew from her startled by the abruptness of her motion. She saw him there, standing in front of her, and she knew he was angry, knew that he was displeased.

<<He told me to wake up, and I didn't. He's going to be angry — and when he's angry… dear god — don't let him be angry>>

Even though her intellectual mind knew that begging for forgiveness would yield her nothing, she started, in a panicked and frantic voice, to appeal to him — to beg for him to forgive her momentary lapse of … whatever. The words spilled out, hasty and frantic, and in her state of panic and not-yet-fully-awake confusion, she didn't notice that the man standing in front of her was looking at her in dawning horror.

He had debated long and hard about whether or not to wake her up. He was afraid to touch her while she was asleep, afraid of triggering a panic attack. At the same time, he knew that she would be upset with herself if she overslept, and if she knew that he had let his own fear of upsetting her stop him from waking her up, he could lose her. Maybe he wouldn't lose her today, but if she felt he was handling her with kid gloves, she would eventually feel resentful and stifled in their relationship. Above all else, he knew that Lois would want to be treated like the very competent equal partner that she was.

It had been hard — she hadn't wanted to wake up. He knew that the last few nights had been low on sleep for her, and that she was probably in desperate need of another four or five hours — but he also knew that being late for their kind of job without a really good excuse was a direct path to doing cute little human interest stories. Lois would give up food and sleep before she would want that to happen to her career. He knew that. So he shook a little harder, and put a little louder/firmer edge to his voice, imploring her to wake up.

Her reaction had thrown him for a loop despite his mental preparations. She had been so sudden in her transition from completely asleep to … whatever this was. What threw him the most was that she seemed to be pleading with him… in Kryptonian. Like a ton of bricks it hit him. He realized with a horrible flash of insight that she had been woken up before, countless of times, out of a deep and comfortless sleep. By him. By Lord Kal-El.

<<I should have known that … he would have done that. I should have known. I should have thought this through. What was I thinking? Was I even thinking at all?>>

She suddenly came fully aware. It was as if her conscious mind had suddenly woken up and realized that her body had beat it to the punch. As soon as awareness took hold of her, she stopped the outflow of words. Silence now filled the room painfully.

She felt each second drag by, as if it were a minute, and knew that she had to say something. Anything — to break this really awful moment into two, and let something more pleasant trickle in. But what do you say to a man that you've driven into such a state of dismay? Had he even understood her words? What had she been saying? In the cold light of consciousness, she couldn't even remember.

"Clark?" Her voice was much smaller than she had intended. Mentally she cursed herself for that weakness. "It's okay," she added, this time, her voice came out as she desired. Strong, and in control. Soothing even. "I'm okay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to react like that."

His brow was wrinkled with worry, and his eyes were broadcasting all kinds of distressful feelings. Shock, horror, sadness, guilt — it was all there, in his brown gaze, and she was driven to offer forth more comfort. She shook her legs loose from the coverings, and stood up, very carefully and slowly. She walked over to him, noting that he was now watching her with wary caution and she very gently put her hand on his arm.

"You okay?" Her voice was soft and solicitous.

These words had an effect. He heard them, and the horror in his gaze made way for disbelief. Incredulity.

"You're asking me… if I'm okay?" He said these words in a disbelieving tone. "I mean.. my god… you're asking me…"

"Oh, come on," she said in a light tone that completely belied the feelings that she was experiencing on the inside. "Can't the shoe be on the other foot from time to time?"

"Lois," he breathed, unable to follow her into a place of lighter banter. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head as if trying to shake the last ten minutes from his mind.

He stepped back away from her. Her nearness was too much for his shattered senses right now. He didn't know what to do or say and was absolutely terrified that he would somehow say something that would be as wrong a thing to say as possible. Words tumbled in his brain and he clamped them tight.

<<He did that to you? He came to you like that? He woke you like that? To force himself on you. He did that … and you couldn't stop him. >>

He stepped further away and felt the couch against the back of his legs. Defeated, he just dropped down, holding his head in his hands, with his eyes still shut, trying desperately to erase the images from his mind.

<<Don't think about it. Don't. Don't visualize it. >>

She watched him, confused. What had her reaction done to him? What was he thinking, what was he imagining? She moved closer to the where he sat, and then, decision made, she dropped down on the couch next to him, her body nearly touching his. She reached out a hand and put it on his arm again. She could feel the tension in his body — he was stiff and unyielding.

"Clark. Please. Talk to me," she implored. "Please."

The sound of her soft pleading brought him to his senses somewhat.

<<She's pleading. She should never have to plead.>>

He lifted his head, and looked at her, still wearing a tortured expression.

She looked at him directly, and he could see the tears still on her face. She had been crying during her panic attack.

<<No. Not a panic attack. She had been having a flashback. There's a difference. >>

"Lois," he said, trying out her name out loud.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "I didn't mean to upset you like that." Her voice was careful and even as if she was trying very hard not to agitate him further.

That broke his heart even further. He didn't want her to ever have to modulate her response around him, to worry about how he might react or take something.

He shook his head, still not having the right words, still not able to tell her what he was feeling. He didn't want to hurt her by his own thoughts.

"You don't owe me an apology," he said hastily. "You didn't do anything — there's nothing to apologize for."

His voice was frantic and urgent, as if afraid that she might not believe him. She had to know that he wasn't upset with her. She had to know that he wasn't someone that she needed to worry about.

<<You can say anything. Do anything. And it's okay with me. Please don't be afraid of how I'll react.>>

"What happened," she said quietly. "What… what's wrong?"

It seemed ludicrous to ask this question, but still — she felt like there was more going on here than just feeling guilty about triggering her reaction.

He shook his head. "Lois — I — I … I don't want you to be late for work."

He grabbed onto that like a lifeline. She had to go to work. She had limited time in which to get ready and get there. She wouldn't want to talk about this now once she realized that.

"I… I'll go in late. It's okay… I want to —"

"No! You can't! You can't… you — you have to go in! You can't be late… you," he trailed off as he heard himself giving her what might sound like a directive. An imperative. A command.

"It'll be okay," she urged him on, clearly not taking his words as commands.

"I don't want to be responsible for you losing your job — or losing respect at your job," he said miserably. "I'm sorry. But … I know your reputation and career mean a lot to you… and I don't want to be the cause of that all falling apart for you."

"You don't want to talk about it, either." She said shrewdly. "Although I believe what you just said about my job… you really don't want to talk about this."

Her voice held bitterness and resignation.

<<He won't be able to handle this. This won't work.>>

"No — I do… but — it's… it's hard. I… it's too… much. And… it's …"

<<He can't bear to be with me.>>

Swallowing the huge lump growing in her throat, she had to ask the horrible questions.

"Do you want to… forget about… us? I mean — I know… I guess… I should have realized that… it was hard for you. To be… at the receiving end of all this… baggage. To have me react to you sometimes as if you were him. To a man like you — that has to be torture. And… I don't blame you if you —"

Clark stood up sharply. To his great relief she didn't back away as he advanced agitatedly towards her. When he reached her, he stopped. He resisted fiercely the urge to put his arms around her.

"I don't want to forget about us — my god — I couldn't even if I wanted to. I could never forget about you or give up a chance of being with you — I… I — I just… I just… I'm sorry. I lost it — there… I … freaked out on you, I guess — and… all I can say is that I'm sorry — and I'll try really hard not to let it happen again."

"Clark — I'm not angry at you — I'm not — I'm just trying to give you a way out of this — if that's what you want. You don't owe me anything. You didn't do this to me — you are not to blame for what happened to me — you don't owe it to me to help me heal!"

Her voice was intense and resolute as she tried to let him understand that he had no obligations to fulfill as far as she was concerned.

"Lois? Did you actually — even for a moment — think that I was in your life like this because… I felt it was somehow my duty? To undo what he did?"

"Most of the time… no. But sometimes — when my insecurities get the better of me…"

"I'm with you," he said as sincerely as he could, never breaking his gaze, "because I want to be. Because being with you is the only thing I want. Because being without you is unbearable now. Lois — I don't ever want to end what we have. I would — if you wanted to — of course… but … I would never want things to end on my own. Do you believe me?"

His words were so stark and honest that she was tempted by habit to break the gaze that they were sharing. She forced herself to respond without any show of discomfort.

"I … believe you," she said.

He let out a relieved breath, making her realize just how worried he was about the fate of their relationship. She took a deep breath and resolved to lighten the atmosphere a bit. There was only so much intensity you could take at this hour of the morning.

"And… I'm going to go to work — how about I get in the shower… and… you…" she said, slowly, teasingly, looking at him with some mischief in her eyes.

"Yeah…?"

He couldn't help but smile back at her change in attitude. He knew she was deliberately being playful and he was happy that she felt comfortable enough to tease like that even if he was also well aware that she was deliberately trying to make things more relaxed between them.

"Make some coffee," she finished. "After all, you do it so well, it would be a shame to waste your talents."

<<Your wish is my command.>>

He bit back those words as soon as they came into his head.

<<Don't say anything so overtly stupid.>>

"Coffee, it is. Is that all? Breakfast? I can —"

"No — I know you can make it fast — I can't eat that fast. I'll grab something at the office. But coffee will keep me alive until then. I… I… maybe a ride to the office too?"

"You want me to —"

"Discreetly, of course — you can drop me off a few blocks away — whatever — because I know that… if we were seen flying together…"

"Yeah. I hear you. Discreet." His voice held an edge.

"I'm not — Clark… I'm not… ashamed or afraid of people knowing about us… the only… discomfort I feel in that area is all the attention — you know…"

"I do, I do." He sounded happier. "I'm sorry. Lana was always so … she felt that …"

"I know. I think she regrets that — hurting you like that — if it's any consolation."

"I know she does. It's okay. I understand — having your life a constant media circus is a pain in the neck."

"Add thoughtlessness to the list of wonderful qualities I've shown you today." Her voice was remorseful. "Of course you know what that's like. I'm sorry — I'm being pretty selfish — and … rude."

"You aren't. I know. It's okay. I agree — let's just keep this between us until we're more comfortable with it all," he said easily.

She nodded, a little unsure of how she felt by his response. Gathering up her bag, she went into the bathroom and closed the door, preparing to shower.

As she stood under the hot water, she started thinking about their conversation on discretion. Part of her felt a strong desire to have him plead the opposing case — to tell the world that they were dating, to throw discretion out the window. His agreement that it was a good idea made her feel somewhat diminished and deflated, but then, she couldn't argue with her own sound reasons.

Furthermore, what if it didn't work out between them? She would always be the woman that Superman dumped. Even if she broke it off. Not that she would — she couldn't imagine it being any other way than his dumping her — getting fed up finally with the sham of a woman that she really was. But if — or … when… she couldn't bear to be the recipient of all the pity, scorn, or even loathing that people would feel towards her.

Her shower was over, and she stepped out and dried off. Throwing her clothes on, she took a few short moments to complete the rest of her morning routine, and then she came out into the kitchen feeling a little shy and awkward again.

<<I hope he thinks I look pretty.>>

He looked up as she came out and smiled at her.

<<She always looks so beautiful. How can anyone who works with her get anything done? >>

"I am really impressed," he said, teasing her gently. "You got ready really quickly."

"Not all women take a long time," she gently teased back. "But don't get too used to this. I reserve the right to be as slow as I want under other circumstances." As soon as she said this, she flushed red, realizing that her words could be taken to mean something completely different.

"Okay," he said, refusing to take the bait, especially as he realized that the bait had been held out unwittingly. "Thanks for the warning. But now you at least have some time to drink your coffee without…"

<<Burning yourself. Oh god. I was really going to say that. >>

"Thanks for making it," she said quietly, rescuing him from his awkward pause.

"Anytime," he said. It seemed a big leap to him that she actually had asked him to do something for her — had done so without worrying about the inconvenience. He really hoped that they would one day reach that point of independent co-dependence that happy couples seemed to share.

He waited until she told him it was time to go and then he spun into his traveling clothes.

"Not very discreet," he said, feeling suddenly awkward. He was worried about scaring her like this — of looking too Kryptonian.

Her manner had changed slightly when he had done his changing act. The ease had slipped somewhat from her stance, and he felt that she was also feeling the same awkwardness that had seized him.

"Are… you okay?" He hadn't really meant to ask her the question — to give actual words to the feeling between them, because he felt like she might be embarrassed by her own perceived weakness — her fear of being around him like this.

"Yes. Yes — I'm okay. I -… sorry…"

He shook his head. "No need."

"I know. But I still am."

"Still want the lift? I mean — a cab might still get you there in good time."

She smiled at him slowly, and he felt his heart skip a few beats. "Trying to get out of it?"

"Yeah … nothing doing, right?"

"Yup — you aren't backing out on me now. I had no idea you were so lazy!"

"Okay. Okay — I'll get you there and then I can come back here and be lazy," he joked. "Are you ready?"

She smiled tightly. "Yeah," she said, her voice revealing some of her nervousness.

He walked over to where she was standing and reached out his hand to hold hers. She moved her hand into his, her eyes connecting with his all the time. He saw the mix of feelings in her gaze. He could feel that she was afraid, afraid that the contact would be disturbing to her, afraid that she would have a bad flashback — but also he saw the warmth, the friendship — and that something else that was defining their relationship as more than just friends. He gave her hand a very gentle reassuring squeeze and he walked with her towards the balcony door.

For her part, she appreciated that he had done that — walked with her — hand in hand. It made the closer intimacy of flying together easier to contemplate. She smiled as she realized just how hard he was trying to put her at ease. He was an unselfish and caring person. And he was hers. That was the biggest miracle of all.

"Okay. Ready?"

"Ready…"

<<Why does my voice have to sound all breathless like that? I sound like a teenage girl.>>

He let go of her hand and slipped his arm around her waist — he did this quickly so that she wouldn't have time to build up any anticipatory fear in her mind. Tightening his hold, he lifted off from the ground.

The sensation of Clark's arm around her waist had been not terrifying — at least not until he tightened his hold. Had he left his arm lightly around her waist, she might have been able to move past some of the worrisome sensations it evoked and tried to revel in the other feelings that it would also likely produce. Good feelings. Warm feelings. But he couldn't just hold her lightly as they flew — part of the mechanics of the process dictated that he tighten his hold. She knew that — knew that he couldn't hold her loosely and risk her falling.

So why wasn't she able to tell her body that. She felt that panic and bad memories had gripped her, and she was unable to relax against him. Desperately she begged her body not to reflect her inner feelings. She didn't want him to know that she was afraid, especially after what had happened between them this morning.

The problem was that although it was Clark Kent's arm around her, and he wasn't doing anything even remotely threatening or menacing, she kept having flashes of that other place. Lord Kal- El grasping her arm roughly, slamming her against a wall, or pulling her in so that the space between them decreased and she was trapped against his body. She remembered that awful helpless feeling — the sense of impending doom … knowing that he was going to do her harm. She felt like she could feel his lips on hers, she could taste her own blood — bitter and metallic, and she remembered the horrible and explosive pain of his body driving into hers. She remembered the sound of his voice — so much like Clark's and yet so very different.

She squeezed her eyes shut against the memories, and then very hesitantly opened them up, tilting her head up a bit to see his face. She felt fortunate that at this moment he wasn't looking at her — he was looking down, scouting for a good place to land. She was able to observe him without being observed. She looked at his face, and once again marveled at how he could look so much like Kal-El and so little like Kal-El at the same time.

If she were in a room with the both of them, identically dressed, would she be able to tell them apart if they didn't say anything? She was sure she could — Lord Kal-El wore his cruelty like a cloak. Everything about him — the way he looked at her, the way he spoke, and even the way he moved — all these things had been done with deliberate intent. Intent to dominate, to show power and possession. There would be no mistaking who was who, if she were ever in a room with them both. But thankfully, that would never happen. She shuddered involuntarily at the thought, right as they went in for a landing.

He landed them in a very desolate alley and quickly switched over into his street clothes.

Still aware of her too-fast beating heart, her increased respiration, and the very panicked look in her eyes, he looked at her anxiously, trying to gauge if she was okay.

"I'm sorry," she laughed feeling stupid. "I know that we did that already — and I feel really idiotic making such a fuss…"

"It's not stupid at all," he assured her with a smile. "Flying is very up close and personal. Of course that would bother you."

She looked around and winced. "It's kind of … creepy here…"

"I know. But it works for the whole discretion thing. I thought I'd just fly overhead until you got safely to your office — so you won't be alone — I won't leave until you're inside the building. Is that okay? If you want door-to-door, I can do so… willingly — but —"

"No. Thank you. This is the right thing to do. I'm sorry for seeming to criticize you…"

"You didn't. It is isolated, and it's disturbing. I know that… dark creepy alleys bug me too."

She smiled. "Thanks for being my bodyguard."

"No problem." He looked around, making sure it really was safe to leave her, and then he looked back at her. "I'll see you tonight? Right? Are we still on — or… do you need some space…"

"No! No — space… I want to… get together tonight. I really do… I mean — after all — you've got that thing on Friday — and tomorrow night I'm seeing my family — so this will be my only chance to see you for a few days. You don't need space… do you?"

He smiled. "Not at all. I'm glad you feel that way. I — I'll get your car filled for you if you like."

"Thank you so much. You can come to the office and give me these back," she said as she handed him her keys.

He looked at her intently. "Do… do you want me to do that? Come visit you?"

She smiled shyly. "Yes… yes, I think I do — but only if it's convenient. If you are too busy —"

"I'll come," he said, with a smile. "If I can't — I'll call you — but I doubt I won't have a free moment. That rarely ever happens."

"Okay," she smiled back.

"Before we attract any attention," he said, "I'd better go."

"Right. Thanks again."

He smiled at her, and then he took off, hovering high up in the sky, watching her make her way to work. There was no way he was going to leave her to handle any emergencies until he was sure she was all right.

After he saw her enter the building, he used his x-ray vision to ascertain that she made it safely to her desk. Then he turned and flew off, intending to get her car taken care of. He figured he'd wait a few hours or so before coming to see her with her keys, not wanting to seem overly eager to see her again. He wasn't trying to play any mind games with her, but he didn't want to overwhelm her either.

Later that day, he walked in through the doors of the newsroom feeling a strong stab of nervousness. He wished for the zillionth time that his attempt at a secret identity had been successful. He was very awkward with his celebrity status.

He braced himself for the onslaught, and just as he had expected, as he walked in, he was immediately descended upon by large numbers of his former coworkers.

"Clark! Hey — good to see you man!"

"Clark, long time no see — are you coming back to us?"

"Hey — Clark — nice job with that asteroid! Did you bring any asteroid rocks back home?"

"Hi, Clark," drawled Cat, give him a deliberately provocative smile.

He smiled at his friends, glad to see them, but also, perversely, wishing that he could have come in and not attracted so much attention. At least they were calling him 'Clark' and not 'Superman' — he had to be grateful for small favors.

Lois had been working busily at her computer, but she had immediately switched out of work mode the minute she felt his presence. And she had felt his presence. Even before the first 'Clark' rang out in greeting, she knew he was there. Her gaze zeroed in on him and refused to waver.

He was engaging in social banter with people who had been friends and colleagues, and who were now admirers as well, of this strange alien who gave so much of his time and life to helping their planet. After his rescue of the planet earth from the deadly asteroid, his popularity was at an all time high.

<<Glad to see my articles didn't have any lasting damage. >>

Lois was happy that Clark was so well-loved, but it contrarily made her feel a little out of sorts. Maybe because she herself always felt that she had to try so hard. She had many attributes that people would automatically associate with popularity… she was intelligent, she was dynamic, she was beautiful and she was athletic. But… she was also very neurotic, and as a result, had grown a caustic personality as a defense mechanism which tended not to draw a lot of people to her side. She was admired, but it was usually from afar and many of her admirers would have been highly unwilling to admit that they held her in high esteem.

Cat Grant was one such person. Lois was her hero in many ways…a mentor of sorts. Lois had broken through many a glass ceiling in the world of high-powered journalism — not via her sexual appeal, although that definitely helped her open doors… but rather, because she was tough as nails and never took no for an answer. While her beauty made it less likely that people would turn from disgust at her aggressive behavior, it was her talent and determination that made her the reporter she was.

Cat would never admit any of this to Lois — because she was also afraid of her. She knew that Lois held her in contempt, and it would be a huge blow to her own ego to have someone who felt that way about her know that she longed for their acceptance. So instead, she had frequently soothed her hurt feelings by poking little needles into Lois's carefully preserved defense system. Lately, the fun in that had waned… since coming back from god knows where, Lois wasn't exactly the same person. The skill and the drive were still there… but there was something almost…broken… about her… and poking sticks at her felt more like an act of cruelty than anything else.

At this current moment, Cat's eyes were on Lois. She saw how Lois had turned into a statue the moment Clark walked in the room. She had seen Lois's reaction around Clark — as Clark, and as Superman — she had seen her freeze up on many occasions — only then, it had been obviously a fearful reaction. Now, it was very different. Lois was staring at Clark like that because she had no choice. It was obvious to Cat that at this moment in time nobody else in the room existed for her but him. This wasn't fear. So what was it? Could it be love? How could Lois have gone from one end of the spectrum to another? She expertly trained her eyes on Clark to see how he would react to Lois.

Clark looked over at Lois, aware that she was also looking at him. He was almost afraid to make eye contact — afraid that a huge goofy smile would overcome him and he wouldn't be able to hide how he felt. He wanted them to be able to talk to each other without it being incredibly obvious that something was going on.

<<Come on. Just act normal. Act casual. Come on. You can do it.>>

"Hey, so… what brings you by," asked Ralph, one of his least favorite former coworkers.

"Oh… actually — I wanted to talk to Lois about something."

"What's the deal with you two? She acted like you were the scourge of the Earth when she resurfaced from the dead, and now you guys are the best of friends?"

"Yeah, I guess so," he said, refusing to give any more information.

"So — I mean — she's really hot… but… I mean — come on… you can have anyone you —"

"I'll talk to you soon, okay? I really need to talk to her, and you never know when someone might suddenly need me…"

"Oh. Yeah — well — of course. Next time then —"

"Definitely."

Lois felt her heart stop, as his eyes connected directly with hers. He approached her desk with a very disturbing ease and calmness.

<<Damn him. How dare he be so calm — I'm a total mess. Is he really calm? Or is he a mess inside too?>>

She was well aware that everyone in the newsroom was now openly staring at them.

Nobody in the newsroom had ever asked her about her articles or the impetus for them. Elena Lutz hadn't even brought it up again — having made her stance clear during their initial interview, and Lois had not encouraged anyone else to broach the topic. So now they were all staring, trying to figure out the mystery behind Lois, her antipathy towards Clark, and their current friendship. She felt a strong urge to yell out: Take a picture! It lasts longer. But then… in a newsroom full of photographers — that wasn't so much of a sarcastic rejoinder as it was an open invitation.

"Hey, Lois. How are you?" He smiled at her, feeling like an idiot.

<<Oh god. We are on display. Fishbowl city.>>

"I'm doing well," she said, a huge grin splitting her face. Ouch. It hurts to smile this wide.

He came in closer, grabbed a chair and pulled it in close to hers, and said in a low voice, only for her to hear: "I brought your keys. Your car is down on 5th, at the corner of Baker. Not too far."

"Thanks," she smiled, feeling incredibly shy once again. "I — I… you… it has gas in it, right?"

"Yes," he said. "Come on — I wouldn't —"

"I know — I know — it was a stupid question."

"You are incapable of asking a stupid question," he said back to her, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Just doing stupid things like forgetting to refill my gas tank," she smiled.

"Hey — it gave me an excuse to see you this afternoon — so I'm not complaining."

"You don't need an excuse," she said, her eyes directly shooting into his. It felt to her like they were almost flirting. Which is what they were doing. Not almost. Exactly. And here, in front of a newsroom full of reporters, not to mention the city's most talented gossip columnist.

"I'll keep that in mind," he said back to her, feeling the same thing she was feeling. "You… you do know that we're being watched…"

"I'd have to be blind not to know that," she laughed. "It's really obvious. It's a good thing they don't have your hearing — or your telepathy — because then — the gig would be up."

"Hardly a fate worse than death." The words slipped out before he could yank them back, and he sent her a silent look of apology at the possible pain his words may have given her.

She looked at him with narrowing eyes.

"Clark… don't you want this to be a secret?"

"I want… what you want."

"So… if I wanted to tell people…"

"Then… I'd still want what you want."

"But…" she was getting frustrated by his lack of answer. "Clark — how do you feel about it?"

"I have no reason to want to hide our relationship. Granted, one could say that your life would be in additional danger being associated with me- but I have to feel that at some point that — it's just going to be obvious… at least — I hope it is —" he flushed, at looked down. "I keep doing that — getting myself caught up in verbal blunders."

"You didn't! I- I just want to know — I mean — other than my being in danger — do you have any objection to letting people know about us?"

"None whatsoever." His eyes were back on his and they seemed to be reading her soul.

She was caught off guard by the sudden intensity of his gaze and she felt a little lost. She felt like she was losing her grip on where she was. The effect he could have on her at times was very unsettling in a way that was vastly different from the unsettled feeling she felt when she thought of Kal-El.

"Oh…"

"But I don't want you to rush into — not on my account — if you don't want people to know just yet -"

"I — I just don't know what I want," she blurted out. "I kind of… I asked you to bring my keys by — because I knew… it would… you know — plant the seeds… I guess I kind of do want people to know."

"But you aren't sure," he asked perceptively.

"Yeah," she said, with a small self-mocking chuckle. " I mean — I'm really — I want everyone — I want them all to know- but I don't want the press to watch us like hawks — I don't want them wondering about why we never kiss," she said, flushing at her own words. She looked away, embarrassed. "Lois Lane, the cold fish. I guess — I don't want to hear any jokes about how you'd have to be super-human to withstand the ice in my veins —"

"Do people actually say that about you?" He was horrified.

"And this was before. Before Tempus." She laughed, but the laugh was not happy.

"You don't have ice in your veins, Lois," he said. "It's obvious from how you write that you are a person of deep feelings. Anyone who's failed to see that is … is — blind… I guess…"

She smiled at him, looking at him square in the eyes again.

"Thanks," she said. "I needed to hear that. Someday I'll tell you about my federal disasters — also known as my romantic history. But — I guess I have to go to work, and if Cat does one more 'fly-by' my desk, I might have to kill her."

"Got it," he said, trying hard not to laugh at her last statement. "Look, I'll see you tonight, Okay? 7? Want to come over? I'll make you dinner," he said in a deliberately tempting fashion.

She grinned back. "Sounds great. I'll see you there."

He stood up with easy grace, making his movements slow enough not to startle her. He didn't want her to have an unconscious physical reaction in front of all her coworkers, knowing full well that it would rankle at her.

Lois watched as he left, joking and talking with friends as he did. She marveled at his comfort and ease. She knew that it bothered him to be treated differently by people — to be fawned over and treated as someone to covet, rather than just another one of the gang. But at the same time, he didn't let it show — his outward appearance implied that he was in control, relaxed, and not bothered by any of it. She wished she could do the same — but it just wasn't in her nature.

She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up and she knew she was being watched. She turned and saw Cat looking at her, with a small smile playing on her face.

"Cat… what can I do for you?" she said, forcing herself to be professionally courteous.

Cat narrowed her eyes in a way that reminded Lois of the feline she was often compared with, and shook her head.

"Nothing," she said with a smile.

"Come on, Cat… we both know that you have something to say." She gave up the pretense right away, almost annoyed that Cat had failed to respond as she had expected.

"What's the point, Lois?" Her response had been a challenge, and she saw Lois flush red. Score.

"Cat…"

"Look, Lois — never mind… I make it a point not to write about Clark unless I know everyone else has the same information. He's a friend — and he's done far too much for all of us for me to want to make things bad for him."

Lois flinched. Was Cat digging her about her articles?

"I don't want to make things bad for him either," she said quietly. "I've stopped… I'm sure you've noticed."

"Lois — I didn't mean that. I know you wrote those things because you believed them to be true." Cat's voice was sincere. She wasn't sure why she was telling Lois these things.

"I did. I don't anymore. We're friends… okay? Is that so hard to believe — that he would want me as a friend?"

"No, Lois," she said. "It's all good."

Cat turned and walked away, and Lois had the uncomfortable feeling that Cat had gotten the answers she was seeking. She stared after her for a long moment, and then, still feeling like eyes were upon her, she forced herself to focus back on her work.

***

Clark had spent the entire day worrying about the evening to come. The moment was at hand. She had just knocked on the door, and their date was about to begin.

<<Please let this go well. Please let her not be afraid. Please let me not do or say anything to upset her.>>

He opened the door, and immediately all coherent thought flew out the window.

<<My god. She's gorgeous. She's just so gorgeous. >>

"Hi," he said quickly trying to recover his aplomb.

"Hi," she responded, smiling shyly.

<<Oh… He's just devastating.>>

He stood there for a few seconds, and then finished awkwardly. "Please… please — come in!"

She smiled at him, made less uneasy by his obvious nervousness. "Thanks."

She stepped inside and cleared the doorway so he could close it. She watched him as he shut the door, and once again reflected on how bizarre their current situation was. Once she would have done anything to avoid being in a locked room with a Kryptonian man — in particular … this man. Or a man who looked just like this one. But now — now… she courted it. She encouraged it. And even though this man was very different, it still sometimes felt very weird.

I'm glad to be here. The thought floated into her mind and she realized that she really was happier when she was with him then when they were apart. Wistfully, she thought back to the previous night — it was the best night's sleep she'd had in a while and it was under his roof.

<<He makes me feel safe.>>

She knew she wouldn't be sleeping there tonight. It was too strange to end a date that way. She wanted this to be a date — not just a meeting of friends, and if she were to make platonic use of his couch again, it would cross that line. And there was no chance of her making non-platonic use of his bed… not now — not for a very long time — so that left her with no option of seeking safe haven here. Lucy would be her port in the storm.

He turned back to her and she flushed a little at being caught watching him.

"Uh… I brought you this," she said, handing the bottle of wine to him.

"Great! Want me to open it now?"

"Only if you share it with me."

"Gladly. I'll be right back."

"Can I help?" she asked, following him to the kitchen.

"I'm all set."

"Okay," she said easily, watching him as he opened the bottle.

She watched him as he opened the bottle. His movements were steady and sure and he got the cork out easily without breaking it apart. She was amazed at how easy it was for him to perform such delicate tasks. He could break an asteroid and yet he could remove a cork without getting any of it in the wine. Such opposite skills required for these tasks and he was good at both.

He poured the glasses, and then headed back in her direction. As he approached, her breath caught in her throat as she had a brief flash of Kal-El heading towards her. Stop that. Her inner voice was firm and sure as she scolded that other part of her for daring to disrupt the pleasant feelings she was currently feeling.

He saw the quick flash of something on her face, but didn't comment or alter his course of action. She would let him know if she needed space. He couldn't expect the evening to go by without a few hard moments, and he was just grateful that she was doing as well as she was.

"Here," he said, handing her the glass.

She smiled tentatively and took it from him, very aware of how close he now was to her. She felt she could almost feel his body heat, and it was both unnerving and exciting. As she grasped the glass, she deliberately let her hand brush against his, as if testing her reactions to make sure that she was under control.

The brief contact sent pleasant feelings through her and she vowed to try to do it again sometime during the evening.

<<Maybe I'll even kiss him. >>

As soon as she thought that, she felt her chest squeeze tightly in alarm.

<<Oh god. Kissing. Kissing him. Him kissing me. Oh. Give me strength.>>

"Dinner isn't ready," he said. "More cooking time is needed. Want to sit down?"

"Yes! Yes — sure! Sure. That sounds great!"

"Good," he said.

She sat down on the nearest couch and noted that he sat down on a different chair entirely.

<<If this were a normal date wouldn't he have sat next to me?>>

"So… how was your day," she asked, trying to start a harmless conversation.

"It was good. As you know — no catastrophes or anything. I did meet with Perry today to talk about Lex. But I won't drag the evening down by talking too much about that."

"No… not tonight — but I do want to work with you both on this. Don't forget that."

"I won't. You have every reason to want to expose Luthor, and of course- you're incredibly valuable to the effort."

"Flatterer."

"It's all true. What about you? How was your day? Was it weird after I left?"

"Yeah," she grinned. "Really weird. Cat kind of pseudo-drilled me, and everyone else was just bursting with curiosity. It felt strangely good — in an 'I've got a secret' kind of way. Childish I guess… but it still felt good."

"Hey, I don't think it's childish at all."

"Did you tell Perry about us?"

"No. You… have to give me the 'ok' before I do that. But once you do — I'll definitely let him know. He knows how I feel about you —" he stopped short, realizing he might be revealing too much. He looked at her with a slightly guilty expression in his eyes.

"How you feel… you mean — you told him you were … uh…"

<<Attracted to me? Interested in me? What? What?>>

"He kind of guessed."

"Oh."

"Just by how I talked about you.. and yeah… we did … talk about you. He was trying to figure things out… and…"

"It's okay. I may have reacted angrily to Perry when I found out he knew — but I don't feel that way anymore."

"Good. I never… uh… I never wanted to make you feel like that… you know — like your privacy was on the line."

"I guess I did feel that way — but now, I know you were kind of in a tough place. I mean — I'm sure Perry was very much like a pit-bull. God — they call me a mad-dog, but Perry really earns that title."

"He was relentless," Clark laughed, and then immediately regretted his choice of words. "That is… I … I mean… I know that…"

"It's okay. Clark. Really."

She realized he was remembering the other night when she got all upset at his use of the word 'Bully', angry that he would even feel that way when he couldn't even really ever imagine.

"Clark… I was a little tense that day. I know that Perry is impossible to hide secrets from. Believe me, I've tried. It's just not possible."

"I wonder if his kids ever got away with it."

She smiled. "I doubt it. But I'm guessing he let them think that they did… for the sakes of their egos."

"My parents were pretty insightful," he said. "They always knew if I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes, but they never made it out to be something bad. It's like they knew that kids need to feel some amount of success at things like that."

"They sound terrific."

"They were. They really were."

The timer went off, interrupting their conversation.

"I have to go to the kitchen for a few minute… here's the remote if you want to turn on the TV or anything."

"Can I help?"

"Nope! I'm all set."

"Okay," she smiled.

She picked up the remote, and aimed it at the TV, intending to check out the news.

"Ugh. Luthor," she muttered to herself as she saw the object of her disgust being interviewed on television. Lex Luthor had recently donated a large sum of money towards the development of programs for underprivileged children, and he was now being awarded some kind of good-citizen award. "Smarmy jerk," she muttered again as she saw him go through his smooth and oily fake nice-guy routine. How could she have never seen through his act before? She was so busy trying to find the bad-guy in Clark, that she failed to see that the real bad-guy was right in front of her.

"He's a real piece of work, isn't he?" Clark had come back into the room.

They both were silent for a few moments as they listened to Lex give his speech of acceptance.

And then, Clark laughed in sheer mockery and disbelief at how badly Lex was laying it on.

The sound of it unnerved her. She remembered all too well the sound of Lord Kal-El's mocking laugh that first time she had tried to escape. She had believed herself to be close to freedom, and it was the sound of his laugh that had cued her in to his presence. She remembered the sick and horrified feeling that single sound evoked, and when she heard Clark laugh, it sounded all too familiar.

Dread trickled in and made itself at home in her mind, and she felt a heavy cloak of uncertainty descend upon her. Don't make him angry. She started regulating her breathing in long slow inhalations and exhalations, trying hard to block out the fear. The images. The memories.

She felt herself shaking uncontrollably, but she was too paralyzed by dread to move. Part of her was trapped in the past, and the other part was here in the present. She had conflicting fears — fears of what Lord Kal-El would do next… and fears of causing Clark pain with a flashback.

"Lois?" His voice penetrated dimly through the shield of dread around her. Very nervously, unwillingly, hesitantly, she looked up at him. It was a painstaking and slow motion, and when she did, her eyes clearly broadcasted what was currently on her mind. Fear. Fear of him.

"Lois?" His voice was very gentle this time as it became clear that something had triggered her memories. Bewildered he looked at the TV. Was it seeing Luthor? "What can I do for you?" His voice was even and calm as he tried to figure out ways to help.

"I…" She was unable to get past that single utterance.

He longed to say something, but forced himself to remain silent. Let her find her way out of this. You will only get in her way if you try to help.

"I… you aren't him…" it was part question, and part assertion. "You aren't him?"

He shook his head, his eyes reassuring. "No. I'm not him. Did I just do something that made you think of him?" His question wasn't borne from self-loathing or remorse, but just a calm space in which he was trying to make sense of the current situation.

"I… I… I —"

"Okay. Take your time," he said gently. "Do you want to sit down? Should I leave the apartment? Leave the room? Turn off the TV?"

She shook her head tightly. She looked up at him and tried desperately to dispel the superimposition of his dark doppelganger over him. She was unable to do so — standing there in front of her was Lord Kal-El. I want Clark back. She started to cry and the sight raged against his senses. More than anything, he wanted to hold her and offer up the physical comfort of a hug, but he knew that she would not see that as anything remotely resembling comfort, so he stood his ground.

"I… I — it's… you… you… laughed. It… sounded… like him. I — I'm sorry. That's horrible," she said, her voice strained with the wealth of hurt she was feeling emotionally. "I'm sorry. You sounded like him," she repeated, in a horrified whisper. "What kind of a thing to say to a man like you… you sounded like a monster."

"It's okay," he said softly.

"I… you sounded … there was this time," she said, not looking at him, still in tears, but able to speak. "I… I tried to escape."

Clark froze as he realized that for the first time, she was going to actually share with him some of what had happened. He felt a sick a surge of apprehension uncoiling in his stomach.

"I tried to escape…" she shook her head. "How naïve is that? I mean — I tried to escape. I thought I could escape. I thought I could… hide from super-powered beings… I can't believe I even thought I could succeed." She shook her head in utter disbelief. Her voice was bitter now, as she recollected. She looked at him briefly. "You could find anyone on this Earth — anyone who was alive. Imagine how impossible it would be for someone to hide from you."

He didn't respond, not sure how he could. Suddenly he felt an overwhelming need to look away from the expression in her eyes. But he didn't. She didn't need him to run away from this.

She shook her head again in distracted disbelief. "I thought I had made it to the shuttle area. I… I — it had taken me hours. I was badly… hurt. He… he… had… forced himself on me earlier… and — I was badly hurt. I had cracked ribs, and — I was dizzy… nauseous… maybe… a mild concussion?"

She looked unseeingly up at him, a question in her eyes, asking him to verify for her if that would have been a sign of concussion. Helplessly he shook his head. He was sure at this moment, the horror he felt at what she was telling him was well reflected on his face.

He winced suddenly, and seeing that she suddenly saw him for who he really was.

"I'm sorry," she said, suddenly feeling unsure of her recitation. "Is this too much? Too… graphic? I don't have to talk about —"

He shook his head. "No. I'm okay. You can… tell me anything."

Nodding, she swallowed the dread and dryness in her throat. She slid her eyes away from his again, unable to see him when she told her story.

"I'm… I was there. I was almost… there… and then — I heard his laugh. It was a mocking laugh. And… he just… floated down." Her voice was rising in remembered horror. "He just floated down… so… casual in his… cruel enjoyment of the situation. He was watching me like… he was a god — one of those violent gods from ancient mythologies — and … god — what could I have done to fend him off? It was laughable to even think I could fend him off… whatever he wanted… he could do… he could have…"

She looked at him again, and shook her head. "You wield such power. You could… so easily…"

He remained silent. He was unwilling to defend himself… to speak of his own harmlessness. It was pointless and irrelevant. She needed to say these things.

"He hit me," she whispered. "Like this…" she mimicked the casual flick of a hand — the seeming non-exertion of any significant force. "Like this — … like this — you could just fling a full grown woman across the room," she whispered in horror. "You could do it — just like this."

He felt his heart squeeze again — in pain, in panic and in dismay.

<<Not me. Not ever me. I couldn't — I couldn't. Not me. >>

"Anyway…" She shook her head tightly. Impatiently, as if shaking the thoughts out from her head. "It — it got … it got ugly. He… laughed at me. He mocked me, and then… He hit me pretty hard… and — after he made sure I knew my place… made me tell him that I knew my place… he dragged me… back … to his quarters… and he — well… he raped me again." She winced in the remembered horror and pain of it all. Her voice was low as she continued. "I realized then that I was never going to be free." Her eyes traveled unseeingly back to his. "That's when I started to give up."

He was transfixed, staring at her, listening to her, almost holding his breath, afraid to make any move or sound that might stop her outpouring, and yet, also, desirous of her to stop — to not tell him — to not make it real by giving it words.

And then — he felt the familiar sense of shame at being so very identical — he looked like him, sounded like him — probably moved like him part of the time — and… even — his smell — was it all Kal-El, and when … if and when she ever allowed him to kiss her, would the feel of his lips on hers — his body against hers, his hands on her… would make her feel like Kal-El was touching her?

<<My name is Kal-El. It would be Kal-El. How can she even think of being with me like that?>>

How could they ever be intimate? It was an awful question and he knew for a fact that this same question — these same thoughts — they rolled around in Lois' s mind — and yet, even given all that, she had basically declared to him that she had feelings for him. She had signed up for something that could potentially bring up such awful feelings for her.

He let out a shaky breath. She looked up at him questioningly.

"Are you okay?" She could see that he wasn't. She was in part remorseful for having hurt him, and relieved to see this reaction to her story. A man who looked like this after a story like that was not a threat. Not that she thought he was anymore, but it still felt good to get the affirmation.

"Lois. I'm okay. I just… well… I'm affected by what you told me. That's… a major understatement, actually."

"How… do you feel?"

"Truthfully?"

"Yeah…" her voice was hesitant as she gave him leave to tell her what really was on his mind. "I mean — if we can't be truthful…"

"I want to kill him," he said hoarsely. He shook his head. "I know… it's a primitive urge… I know — and we all have them, and we overcome them… but I want to kill him." He shook his head blindly. "I don't know what would ever happen if I got a chance to go into his world."

"You wouldn't. You'd find another way," she said softly. She was amazed that his words hadn't frightened her.

"God. I just don't know. But… beyond that… I… I — I want to… help you somehow — make it better — make it not have happened — but I can't — so I feel helpless — and then I feel horribly guilty for looking so much like him — for being just like him — for laughing like that earlier on and then making you feel like I was him — like I was going to hurt you — and for… ever making you feel like you were around him again. How awful that must feel for you. And then… I feel a lot of fear — because — how could you not … how could we ever … be close… without you feeling I was him — how could you ever not feel… attacked?" He wasn't able to look at her as he said these words, his eyes choosing instead to rest on her left foot.

She heard his words, and a flush washed over her as she realized what he meant.

"Raped, you mean?"

"Yeah. Raped." He winced as he said it. A horrible word. A horrible act.

"I… worry about that too," she said. "But… please — don't … don't end this — because…"

His eyes flew up to hers, startled and worried.

"No! That isn't what I meant. I … I just… I…" he shook his head again, and smiled ruefully at her. "God, I don't even know what I meant. I just… said what I was thinking. I'm sorry. It — I — I don't want to end this. I just —"

"I know," she said softly, trying to help bail him out. "You didn't say anything wrong. All the right things, really."

"Including that part about killing him?" His eyes were anxious on hers. "I shouldn't have —"

She smiled. "Oddly enough, that didn't bother me at all. I'd kill him too. In an instant. But I hope never to get near enough to him to be able to do it." She shuddered.

He hesitated, and she could see that he had something else on his mind.

"Clark?"

"You said… about how easy it would be for me to do those things. I — you said it — and — I just wanted to say that I couldn't — that you had it wrong — that I could never… but then — I realized — how dare I try to reassure you of that? You've seen it… I mean — god — you've seen it first hand…" he winced, looking away again.

<<Coward. I'm such a coward. Look her in the eye when you say hurtful things to her.>>

"I… I have all his abilities — you know for a fact that I could do those things if I ever wanted to…"

"I know — I know that you couldn't. If I didn't — I wouldn't be here with you like this," she said hastily. "I'm sorry for saying those things."

"No — It's okay to have said them. It's part of what you need to do — I'm sure you do think about it — how easily I could do the things he did… I mean — it's what drove your articles… beware — because this man could really destroy …everything — and — how could you not make that comparison — that observation?"

She approached him hesitantly and gingerly gripped his hand in hers. She slowly lifted his unresisting limb and brushed her cheek with it — mimicking the motion Kal-El had used to strike her — to fling her back.

"You don't hit… you comfort… you don't take — you give… you don't break… you build. Equal —maybe… but equal and opposite… isn't that one of the laws of physics? For every force, there's an equal and opposite one?"

"I … think so."

He was mesmerized and thrown off center by her gesture. She was still holding his hand. She gasped softly as he took control of the limb and moved it on his own volition, repeating the caress, his eyes gazing into hers. She held her breath, frightened despite her brave actions and words, and waited hesitantly for him to actually contact her skin again — she watched his hand approach her cheek in slow motion, and felt the whisper soft caress as his knuckles grazed her cheek bone.

"How do you do that?" she whispered in awe. "It was so easy for him to… hurt… without any exertion at all — how did you modulate your strength so that — it was gentle instead of hurtful?"

"I just can," he said honestly. "I don't know how. I just can. I've never accidentally hurt anyone," he confessed to her. "Ever. So… my track record's pretty good there. I never would accidentally or purposely hurt anyone like this."

She nodded, feeling her heart squeeze. Was it fear, excitement, or a bit of both that was rendering her unable to speak.

He moved his hand again, and cupped her face with it, stroking her cheekbone with his thumb.

"Does this bother you?" he asked quietly. "Or does it feel good?"

She licked nervous lips and answered. "He… did that. He… held my face like that to grip it — to hold it still — so he could — force eye contact when he wanted to make sure I really saw him when he spoke… it would start out as a gentle grip — and then get fierce and cruel — a mockery — a joke — a cruel game…"

"Oh —" he moved his hand away, and she grabbed it and held it in her hand.

"But … when you did it — it felt good — once I got past the fear. I'm not … afraid that you — Clark Kent — will hurt me. I'm afraid that…" she shook her head. "I don't know… sometimes —you turn into him — in my mind — and then I am afraid you'll hurt me — but only because I'm confused… and then other times, I'm afraid that what he did to me will taint everything between us — that… even a loving and gentle caress… will feel like the precursor to being hurt. It's… really … bad sometimes — here in my mind."

"I can't imagine," he said quietly. "I — I don't have … any idea of what to say about that. I guess… I just want you to know that… you don't need to rush yourself for me. To rush the healing process… I know it'll take time."

"Maybe… a long time," she said nervously. "Maybe…a long, long, long time."

"I'll always be here," he said.

"As a friend? Or… as … the man I'm hoping to be … more than friends with… someday."

"The latter," he said, seriously.

"But how can you? I mean… Are you sure that… you … you … want me," she said hastily and nervously. "Physically? I mean? Are you sure?" His nearness was disturbing and she couldn't believe she was asking this.

"Yes," he said, his voice sounding suddenly so sensual. "Yes…"

He looked into her eyes and lifted his other hand very slowly, and lifted it up to her face. He saw her swallow nervously, but she didn't back away. He gently stroked her face again, and moved his hand down the side of her face in an unmistakably sensual gesture. "Yes," he repeated again, that same edge his voice.

For a long while it seemed she was struck mute, and then, she swallowed past the tension in her throat, and acknowledged what he had said. "Oh…"

"Right now… I'd love to be kissing you," he said softly, brushing his thumb across her lips. "Right now — I'd love to be holding you." He dropped his hand lightly and placed it on her waist ever so gently. "I'd love to pull you close in —right now — like this — and then… kiss you."

His voice was hypnotic and utterly mesmerizing. She swallowed again, lost in the spell he was weaving. Another part of her was encouraging her to run away as fast as she could. She didn't know which voice to listen to.

<<Oh my god. Is he going to kiss me? My god. He's going to kiss me. I should… I should stop this. I should… I should…>>

Wild and incoherent thoughts were ricocheting through her mind.

<<Do I let this happen? >>

Before she could make a decision motivated by her conscious mind, she felt herself taking a startled step backwards. She closed her eyes in frustration as she felt the light contact of his hand on her waist drop away.

<<God No! I didn't just do that. I couldn't have just done that!>>

Anguished and embarrassed she struggled to regain control of her emotions. After a long moment, she forced herself to open her eyes and meet his gaze.

"Clark," she said, her voice strained and low. "I'm sorry. I can't believe… Damn it, Clark, I can't believe I did that."

He was eager to reassure her.

<<She has to know it's okay. I don't want her to think I'm angry. Not like he would be. >>

"It's okay — it's going to take…"

"No! It's not okay!" Her voice was suddenly louder and angry. "It's not okay!"

<<Clark! Why do you have to be so reassuring all the time?>>

He was silent against her anger, suddenly unsure about what to say next. The timer suddenly rang, and he broke the gaze, looking over at the kitchen. He turned back to face her.

"I have to go get that."

She saw relief in his expression, a relief he may not even have known he was feeling, and hot bitterness rose inside her.

<<He wants to escape.>>

"Saved by the bell," she said mockingly. She was shocked as the words came out, she hadn't intended on saying them out loud.

He hesitated, looking at her with even more uncertainty, and remorse set in. She was being unfair.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "That was uncalled for."

"It's…" he stopped, not wanting to make her angry by telling her it was okay. Although logically he knew she was really angry at herself, he still didn't want to provoke her at this moment in time.

"It's okay. I know. But… I'm showing you the worst of me… and we should have our relationship on more solid footing before I do that. I'm acting like a jerk."

"You really aren't. You were right in guessing that I was relieved about the timer. I just wasn't sure what to say that wouldn't be… upsetting."

"You have to walk on eggshells sometimes, don't you?"

"Not that often," he said, trying to reassure her.

"You go and take care of the food… I don't want to get in the way of dinner prep."

"All right. It'll be ready in just a minute."

After he left her, she gave herself a mental scolding.

<<Stop picking on him. He isn't responsible for you being a big mess, and you can't start acting all peevish every time you have a panic attack.>>

She saw him laying things out on the table, and she walked over, seeing if she could help.

"It's all ready."

"Everything looks great!"

"Hopefully you'll think it tastes great."

After they had settled down to eat, she took her first bite.

"Clark. You're even a great cook. Is there anything you don't do well?"

"Do you have a couple of hours?"

She laughed.

"You're just being modest. But really… this is great. Did your mom teach you … I'm sorry. I don't want to —"

"No… no… She taught me to enjoy cooking… but a lot of this I learned on my own."

"Well, I'm glad you did. Mom always said to hook up with a guy who could cook."

He laughed at that.

"Clark. I'm really sorry about before."

"I know you are. On my account though — there's no need."

"I just… I feel like… you know… like… I'm not …"

She paused a long moment, and he waited silently. He hated it when people tried to fill in other people's sentences.

"I guess… Okay. I'm just going to come out and say it… even though I feel like an idiot. I … I'm really having problems with this whole auction thing. And — I'm really… feeling insecure about it. I can't help but worry that whatever you see in me — will be eclipsed … if someone other than Leyna ends up spending that evening with you… I mean… you're going to be going out on a date with another woman, Clark… that makes me uncomfortable. Oh my god. I can't believe I just said this out loud to you. I wasn't going to."

"Well… can I say something — now?"

She smiled. "Yeah, I guess you can talk."

"Okay. First… I'm going to come out and make the very daring statement that if our roles were reversed and you were participating in this type of event, I'd be pretty miserable about it too."

"Come on. You don't mean that."

"I do. If you and I were involved at the time that I was asked to do this, I would have said no, and wouldn't have felt badly about it. I mean — it's inappropriate for me to go out on a date — even if it is a charity thing, and even if it isn't meant to be romantic in nature. It's not right, it's not fair to you. The way you feel makes sense, Lois."

She smiled shyly at the earnestness in his expression.

"Thanks," she said softly. "It helps to hear that. Because… jealousy is not necessarily an attractive thing in a person. And I've had a lifetime of dealing with possessive people who are prone to violent jealous fits." She shuddered.

"Let me guess…"

"Yeah. I mean — it goes with everything else… right? That whole control thing."

"Did it bug you that I told you it would bother me if you were doing this? Because it would. I'm not saying that to make you feel better about your own feelings… at the same time, I don't want you to feel threatened by it. If you ever decided to move on from… well — from us… even if I didn't want to break up, I wouldn't — act badly about it. Do you… well — I hope you believe that."

"I believe it, Clark."

"Good." His relief was obvious, and she had to force back a smile.

"But…" Her smile sobered as she moved back on her initial track. "I … I still feel badly about it… even with your validation."

"You feel threatened by it?"

"Kind of," she was shy now, unable to meet his gaze directly. She was skirting dangerously back to topics which made her uncomfortable.

"What… what do you think will happen?"

"I… I mean — what if Leyna doesn't… and… it's someone like Carissa… or it… it is Carissa."

"Carissa's not important to me, Lois. She's… a casual acquaintance, if anything."

"My… my dad had a lot of those."

"Lois… I know your dad…"

"I'm sorry. You aren't him… and you aren't *him*. I can't do this to you — make you pay for the sins of other men."

"You aren't doing that… our lives are always the sum of our experiences, and we bring those to every new experience. You haven't exactly been given a lot of reasons to trust that people will… be truthful with you. I know that."

"You… I know you can be trusted… that way… it's not that I think you'd do anything behind my back or anything… but I'm afraid of that… that… dear Lois letter…"

"I…"

"What… I mean — what would … what would happen on this date? Describe it to me… please."

"Just… you know… the usual… dinner… dancing… that kind of thing."

She let out a mocking laugh. "That kind of thing."

"What?" He was genuinely lost now.

She looked at him directly, entreaty in her eyes.

"Dancing."

Comprehension gleamed in his answering gaze.

"Oh…"

She closed her eyes in frustration with her own feelings.

"I know — I know that you're okay with it… with backing off from any deeper kind of intimacy at this moment in time… but I still feel like a sideshow freak. I mean — I can't even go on a date, do the 'usual' without acting like a scared little teenager on her first date! It's pathetic!"

"You went through hell, Lois. That's bound to have an effect on anyone!"

"I know. I know. Rationally I know one thing… but… I'm not the world's most patient person. And… my lack of self-confidence is showing… and… my lack of trust… and… add it all up, and you have one woman, going crazy with worry over a simple thing like a charity date auction. I guess it eats me up — you're doing this thing with her that you haven't ever done with me!"

"How can I make this better? Should I cancel?"

"You can't cancel!! Not on my account! I mean — it's really for a good cause — and I'd feel awful if you had to cancel — especially since we aren't public with this yet… I … I don't want you to do it. Promise you won't cancel."

"I won't… I mean — barring an emergency…"

"Right.. so I just have to engineer an oil spill somewhere…"

"Hey — now you're sounding like Lex Luthor."

"Hey!"

"How about this… how about … tonight… this evening… now… how about… you dance with me?"

"Oh," she breathed, suddenly feeling very nervous again. "Oh… yeah… I mean — that… that's an idea…"

"Want to give it a try?"

<<Please say yes. Please don't be afraid — and please don't feel pressured!>>

"You mean now?"

<<Now? Now? Oh. No. I can't do this!>>

"No better time, right?" He was trying not to let his own nervousness show… but it was hard in the face of her obvious fear.

"Uh… yeah. I mean… I guess…"

"Lois… no pressure, okay? I don't want you to feel —"

"No. I don't. Not from you… the only pressure is from me… I — I'm sorry. You asked me to dance, and I'm acting like you asked me to pick up an alligator. I… I'd love to dance," she said, feeling shy again. It amazed her how they could talk about such powerful things, and yet, she could still sometimes feel so awkward and shy about things.

He stood up, and she watched, her heart squeezing in her chest as he came around to her and held out an inviting hand.

"Okay," she said, on a breathless exhalation.

<<No hyperventilating!>>

She took his hand, and pulled herself up, trying to calm her extremely agitated nerves.

<<We've been close together before. Flying. This is okay. Nothing we haven't done before. Well. It is. But not really. But… well.. yeah, really. This is different. Very different. >>

She took in a breath and let it out quickly. She connected her gaze to his, and smiled.

"I'm okay. I know you want to ask… so I figured I'd just get it out there. I'm okay."

"Okay," he said gently. He let go of her hand and went over to the stereo system. Soon the music was playing, and her heart picked up in rhythm. The music made it more real somehow.

"Is the music okay?" He was right in front of her now.

She nodded, unable to speak at this particular moment in time. Looking at him, she swallowed hard, mentally preparing herself for what was to come. Anxious eyes lifted to his and he saw the mixed emotions. His heart went out to her.

"Remember… nothing that you don't want. You can just call a halt to this at any time."

She nodded, feeling vaguely detached from her body.

"Ready?"

"No," she laughed — it was a harsh sound coming from her heart. "But let's… just try this."

He stepped into her personal space, and very gently drew her into his arms.

"Is this okay?" His voice was low and quiet.

"So far," she said nervously. Her heart was pounding, and she felt her nerves on fire. She was trying very hard to beat back the sensation of being trapped.

He gently tugged her in closer, and she gasped a little as she felt off balance due to her natural resistance. She stumbled awkwardly, and he gently held her upright as she settled herself. She was in close to him — in 'slow dancing' proximity, and she gasped again as their bodies came into gentle contact. She could feel the heat from his body and felt the steady beating of his heart. They were so close in together, and suddenly she felt very worried, very menaced, and very tense. Despite her mind yelling out to her body that this was Clark, her body began to slip back into familiar reactions… reacting to being locked in Kal-El's unforgiving embrace.

She let out a worried exhalation as she realized that panic was over-taking her, and then she heard his voice by her ear.

"You're trembling," he said softly. "Your heart is beating so fast. Do you want to stop this?"

She took a few deep breaths to get herself under control.

"Yes… I'm … I'm scared. But… I don't want to stop… okay?"

To give her words extra emphasis, she tentatively rested her cheek against his chest letting out a slow shaky breath.

Very carefully, he moved the hand that had been on her waist so that it was gently pressing against her back and they began to move to the music.

Despite her fear and feeling of awkwardness, she kept her weight balanced on the balls of her feet and followed his lead without letting him do all the work.

"You're a good dancer," he said quietly, speaking so that she would know that it was him. Belatedly he realized that maybe his voice might sound like Kal-El's and that it would just make things worse.

"Lucy and I both — my parents wanted us to learn this particular social grace."

"I'll have to dance with Lucy for comparison," he said teasingly.

"Hey. Lucy can find her own partner," she said laughingly, trying to keep the light banter going. Her heart reached out to him. He really was trying hard to keep her at ease.

"Is this okay?"

"Yeah…" her voice was a breathless sigh. "It is. I'm not having a panic attack." There was surprised wonder in her tone.

The phone rang, it's loud and strident tones caused her to jerk back in alarm. Immediately, he released his hold on her.

"It's just the phone," he said. "I got it…"

"It's stopped ringing."

"So it has…"

"I hope it isn't … I hope whoever's bothering me isn't …"

"What are you going to do about tonight? I mean…" he blushed suddenly. "I mean — about the caller… do you …"

"No," she said firmly. "I don't. Because… this is a date… and if I sleep on the couch, it'll just be weird. I… I told Lucy I might crash at her place."

"Good!"

"So… you can drive me there later."

"Oh. Sure!"

"Because… well… the wine has made me lightheaded and I never want to take that kind of risk. Also… I don't feel safe being out late… on my own."

"I'd be happy to do it, Lois. And you know — if you ever are in danger —"

"You're there. I know. I know. I count on it… you know?"

"Did… did you want to…"

"As… incredible as it was… and… it was… I think… I need — I —"

"It's okay Lois. Really."

"Want to go to the living room? And talk? And have some more wine?"

"Sounds great. Let me get everything and -"

"No. Let me at least get our glasses."

"Ok. I'll get the bottle."

After she placed the glasses next to each other, she sat down on the big couch. He came over, and put the bottle down, and then he sat in the nearby armchair.

"Please… can you.. can you sit here?" She indicated the large couch.

"It's okay — I'm comfortable here," he said with a smile.

"No — No… can you … can you please sit here. Next to me? Please?"

<<Oh. Oh. Ohhhhh. Yeah. I get it. Not too thickheaded, am I?>>

He looked at her intently. "Are you sure?"

She swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat. "Yes," she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Please."

He carefully stood up and walked over to sit next to her. He watched her carefully for any signs of panic at his approach. Her eyes met his steadily and it gave him the courage to join her. He sat down next to her, leaving a foot of space between them."

"Let me show you what I mean," she said, as she moved over right next to him. Inwardly, her heart was pounding, and she was bracing against an onslaught on panic, but she was trying very hard to project calm. She wanted there to be more from this night — more that would make her feel like they had a chance of ever making this work. More that might make her feel less insecure about his date with whoever won the auction.

"You…" she croaked, and then, cleared her throat a bit. "You can put your arm around me — if you'd like?"

"Like this?" His movements had been very careful and measured, and his arm as it landed across her shoulders was very gentle and deliberately non-threatening.

"Well," she said, with a hint of humor in her voce. "It'll do for now."

"Glad to hear," he responded with equal humor.

They sat like that in silence a few moments.

She brought her glass of wine up to drink its contents, and realized it was mostly empty. She leaned forward a bit, and his arm on her didn't restrain her in the slightest. That simple fact gave her an extra shot of courage. She poured herself a glass and moved to settle back against him. Suddenly she realized she hadn't even offered him any and she turned to ask if he wanted more.

Their eyes connected immediately, and she was startled by the unguarded expression in his eyes. It mesmerized her, as it had the few times he had deliberately dropped his guard, and she felt her breath catch. She swallowed reflexively, her throat suddenly dry, unable to break the gaze. He seemed equally moved, and equally mesmerized.

<<She's so beautiful. She's very beautiful And… I think…I think I'm going to kiss her.>>

Without really being aware of it, his arm shifted a bit, and he tightened his grip on her shoulders imperceptibly. He leaned forward, ever so slowly, his eyes never breaking contact with hers.

She felt a strange and oddly heady mixture of fear and excitement squeeze a tight grip on her heart. She felt like he must be able to hear her heart's increased pounding — it was so loud in her ears. She felt almost like a small animal, caught in a predators gaze. So fascinated by those eyes, unable to escape to safety — sealing her fate. There was a weak and distant voice in her crying out for her to move, to break the spell, to stop him, but she fiercely tamped it down. She wanted this.

She closed her eyes as his lips hovered just centimeters near hers, and tensed up in worried expectation as his arm tightened further bringing her close in to meet his kiss.

And suddenly — he was kissing her.

The first touch of his lips on hers had been a mere brushing of lips. After that, he had leaned in closer and kissed her again, this time, the pressure a little more tangible. The hand that had been against her back was now pulling her in closer towards him.

Her mind was whirling fast with different feelings — panic, apprehension, excitement and tense anticipation.

She was relieved to find that his kiss was nothing like Kal-El's and that this wasn't evoking any harsh and sudden flashbacks. She was here, in the moment, with him. Although, she was very nervous about where the kiss would lead, she was eager to keep the contact. The warm and sensual feelings that his kiss was evoking in her were preventing her from even wanting to try to test the truth of her freedom.

Briefly, he lifted his head to look at her, and she saw an unfathomable expression in his eyes. Her eyes locked with his, and she nervously licked her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue. The gesture fascinated him, and he dropped his gaze from her eyes, down to that lower lip. He moved his free hand to caress her lip with his thumb as he did earlier on in the evening, and then he leaned in to kiss her again.

This kiss was slightly more intense than the previous one, less tentative… more purposeful, and she felt a small squeeze of apprehension.

<<Don't think about Kal-El. This is Clark, he'll stop if I ask him to. And I don't want him to. Not yet. >>

In defiance of her nervousness, she leaned into him, taking a small amount of control of the situation, and kissed him back. As she did this, she felt her nervousness abate a bit. Thoughts of Kal-El were pushed into the back burner, and she felt her body react with pleasure at his nearness and at this contact. In her entire life, nobody had ever made her feel this way with just a kiss.

<<Wow. He sure knows how to kiss.>>

He retreated again, and she felt devastated by the sudden loss of his lips against hers.

<<No. Don't stop. >>

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes, and looked at him with wounded confusion.

<<Why did you stop?>>

He had backed away in order to ensure that she really wanted to be kissing him. Expecting to see wariness, tension and fear, instead he saw the hazy confusion in her eyes and the spark of desire. His body responded immediately, and he was taken aback at the strength and immediacy of that response. It was almost as if his cognitive brain functions were actually shutting down.

"Lois," he gasped, his voice now a sensual rasp. "God, I … I…" He wasn't able to stop himself, he moved in again, and this time, he pulled her close with an increasing sense of urgency. More than anything, he wanted to kiss her again — to feel her body against his.

In the moment before they made contact she saw the deep glittering desire in his eyes, and suddenly, a thought shocked through her mind.

<<He looks just like Kal-El!>>

The thought acted like a bucket of ice-water against her incipient feelings of desire, and this time as his lips descended on hers she felt trapped and menaced. Her body hadn't yet had time to transmit this change of mind to him, and he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her even closer. Her feelings of being trapped intensified, and her heart started beating faster. She was scared and she wanted to be free of this.

Blindly, she pushed away, ignoring the warning voice that told her she should never rebuff Kal-El. As soon as she did, he let her go, and panic flared even harder as she realized that she had done the one thing she should never ever do — she had resisted.

<<Oh god! He'll be angry!>>

"I — I —" she started to gasp out a frightened apology and he quickly grasped her face between his hands and urged her to look at him.

"It's me, Lois. It's me. I'm not him!"

Her eyes were wide and almost unseeing, but something in the way he sounded got through to her. She felt herself start to calm down, and after a long and painful moment, she wordlessly nodded, indicating her understanding.

"I'm sorry," she gasped , breathless from the exertion of being afraid.

"I think I'm the one who owes you an apology," he said. "I shouldn't have —"

"But I wanted you to. I encouraged you to. I wanted that!" Her voice was an anxious protest. "Please — if you feel guilty every time something like this happens —" She broke off, unwilling to complete her thought.

<<We won't ever be lovers.>>

He looked back at her, unspoken remorse still in his expression. He knew what she was going to say and he tried not to let his own feelings show.

<<How can I ever have the courage to even try to get that close to her? The kinds of flashbacks that could bring back could be nightmarish for us both. >>

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she said, looking away. Truth be told, she was deeply embarrassed by her reaction. He had been so gentle and careful and completely in control — and she had reacted like a ninny.

"Do you want to —"

"I don't think I'm ready to do this again… not tonight… I mean — but… next time… definitely."

"I… I actually was going to ask if you wanted me to drive you home. It's late, and I know you have work tomorrow."

"Oh…" Her cheeks flushed red, and she looked away again. "Oh. God. Oh… I'm sorry — I …" She trailed off, feeling even more gauche than before.

"But I'm really looking forward to next time," he said with a teasing edge to his voice. "Especially now."

Despite herself, she smiled shyly.

"Me too. I really am. And… yeah… I guess we should call it a night."

"Come on… I'll drive you home."

"Sure you don't just want to fly me home?"

"Is that what you want?"

"I… I don't know. It kind of seems like it might be nice."

"I'd be happy to — but I'm also happy to drive you home."

"You know… maybe you should. I don't want Lucy going ballistic if she sees us fly in…"

"Don't you think she'll go ballistic anyway? Seeing us drive in?"

"You're probably right. But I don't want to put you through the hassle of getting my car back to me."

He heard the unspoken worry in her voice. She wanted to fly but she was afraid. Afraid of having a panic attack, which to her, would make her feel like she had ruined their date. He gracefully let her last comment pass without trying to assure her that getting her car back would be no problem.

They made their way down to her car, and after they had gotten themselves settled in, he turned to her trying to assess how she was doing.

"Are you sure… that… you're okay?"

"Clark," her voice held gentle exasperation. "I promise — I wouldn't lie to you about it."

"I just… I —"

"I'm fine," she said softly.

"If I … If I made you feel — that you were with him — I —"

"You didn't. I had a bit of a panicked moment. But at no time when I was kissing you was I thinking of him. It was just at the end … I — I mean — you know that I wouldn't have been responding to you if I thought you were him, don't you? I mean — you do know that, right?" Her voice was suddenly very worried. "You know that I wasn't… in the slightest amount… attracted to him… right?"

"No! God — of course. I know — I know — I wasn't saying that… or if I was, I didn't mean to be saying that. I just was worried that — well — if you thought that I was him, you wouldn't push me away — because," he winced before continuing, " — because he would have hurt you if you ever did that."

"You're right," she said, her voice quiet again. "He would have, and he did. But… remember this… I did … push you away — when things got too much for me to take, when my fears started to come back into the forefront of my mind. And — that's not something I could have ever done with him."

"Oh… I hadn't really thought of that. Thanks for telling me."

They drove on in silence for a little while, and then she broke the quiet.

"I had a great time," she said.

"Me too."

"How are you feeling about Friday?"

"I wish it were over."

"I can understand that. It must be awkward sometimes — being so much in the public eye — it's not like you ever sought that out for yourself."

"Well… it has its ups and downs. I wish I'd managed to keep my identities separate… like that other Clark."

"I still don't understand how glasses could make such a difference… is she really all that smart? How can she be?"

"Lois!!"

"It just seems… I don't know — you'd have to be kind of…"

"I don't know. It does work for him — and she wasn't the only one who didn't see it… I've met some of the people in her world, and they seemed really smart to me. I think that they just didn't see it because it seemed so improbable."

"Yeah… maybe. But… what do you mean, you've met some of the people in her world?"

"I went there once."

"Why?"

"I — had to help find Clark…" His voice was tense with discomfort. He didn't want to talk to her about dimension- hopping, he didn't want to talk about Tempus, and he really didn't want to tell her that he made a move on her counterpart. Not just yet, anyway.

"Oh," she said, detecting his discomfort. "And… did you find him?"

"Yes."

"Oh."

"I — uh… I got to meet his parents…"

"Oh my god. That must have been amazing… and painful…"

"Yeah. It was. I think that's when I started to feel kind of bitter about things. Full of self-pity, you know?"

"I can imagine."

"But then — I see what you've gone through and how you've overcome it all — and… I realize that my problems are so small… I have a really good life, all things considered, and now that you're a part of it, it's an amazing life."

She smiled. "Likewise."

"Come on, I'll walk you up."

"You don't have to —"

"Yes. I do. Please… indulge me on this? I just worry — it's late, and it's dark — and…"

"Indulgence granted," she said with another smile. "Honestly, I'm glad of your company."

He walked her to the door, and then he asked her one more time.

"So… you're really okay? We're okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, smiling at him gently. "In fact, I wouldn't mind a good night kiss from you."

"Oh… yeah?" His voice was suddenly sensual again and she felt a jolt of nervous excitement.

It was night, and she could hardly see — he seemed even larger and more imposing in the dark, and yet she longed to repeat the experience of feeling so wonderful while in his arms.

"Yeah," she said, her throat suddenly dry again. "How about it?"

She stepped closer to him, her body almost touching his, and he felt a surge of love for her. She was afraid — she was afraid of another panic attack, she was afraid of what kissing him might make her feel… but she was still asking him to do it, inviting him to share this intimacy with her again. And he loved her for her bravery. He loved her for her determination not to let the past ruin her future.

He reached out, and stroked her hair, and then dropped that hand to come around her back. Like before, his arm was circling her, and he drew her close as he bent down to meet her.

She once again felt a spark of fear and excitement as the space closed between them. But this time as their lips met, she gave herself up entirely to the feeling. This was a good night kiss and there was no hidden voice to warn her about going too far in the confines of his apartment. Although she knew that he would never do anything without her express consent, it was deeply ingrained in her, even just from being a woman, that you had to be careful under certain circumstances.

This kiss, shared under the stars was spectacular. And it was over all too quickly.

"I'd better go," he said, his voice regretful. "It's late… and I don't want you to be dragging tomorrow."

"I'll be dragging until I see you again," she said, honestly. "I can't wait!"

"I can't wait either."

"I wish I could have stayed with you tonight…" She flushed, she realized she had actually said that. "I… I can't wait for a time when I can."

"Me either…"

She smiled at that, half-expecting him to start telling her that there was no pressure, no worries, that they had all the time in the world. Instead, he had answered with the same heart-felt honesty that she had just shown him. Barriers had been broken tonight… physical, as well as mental, and she had no intention of giving up her hard-won gains.

"Can you come see me after the auction? I'm guessing you won't have your date that same night."

"But it might be late…"

"As if that matters…"

"Okay. I'll definitely come see you. If you're asleep — I'll just…"

"Wake me up. No matter how late… even if it's 4:00 in the morning because you got caught up in an emergency. Wake me up — I want to hear about it… I want to… just connect with you — to see you — to feel your presence… it'll make me feel better… okay?"

"Okay."

"Besides… if you have to wake me, you can do it in the fairy-tale honored way," she said, an impish sparkle in her eyes.

"Lois," he said, his voice suddenly deeper and tinged with playful warning. "You know… you're really —" appalled, he stopped himself short.

<<Oh god. I was going to say 'playing with fire.' How could I even say something like that?>>

"I'm really what?"

"Terrific," he said, trying to save himself from further blunder.

"Liar. What were you really going to say?"

"Lois… please…"

"Okay. Okay. I'll let it go. This time. But… you will come over on Friday, right?"

"Yes. Wild horses might actually delay me, but they won't stop me."

He stepped away from her and spun into his flying clothes.

"I… I'll see you," he said, hoping against hope that his transformation into Superman wouldn't make her associate him back to Kal-El.

"Wait," she said.

"What's wrong?"

"This…"

She moved forward again into his space, and placing her arms around his neck, gave him another kiss. Her lips connected with his for a brief moment, and then she stepped back again feeling flushed and embarrassed.

"Wow…"

"I… I wanted to … kiss you as Superman… to…"

"You never have to explain why you'd do something like that," he said.

"It's just that — you know… how sometimes I act differently when you're like this… I just wanted you to know that … it's all of you- that I want…"

"Thank you, Lois. That means a lot. That means everything."

"You don't need to thank me… I just wanted you to know that," she said feeling shy.

"I'm glad you did. Good night, Lois," he said. "I'll see you on Friday, okay?"

"Okay," she said, still feeling shy. They had shared so much intimacy this evening, but when she thought about it now, and about resuming it later, she felt awkward. "I guess I'll go in now."

He waited for her to go in, and after she had, he rose up into the air. From the air, he scanned Lucy's apartment to make sure Lois had made it in okay. He didn't feel terribly guilty about doing that. He worried about Lois. It seemed a certainty that Luthor was going to get retribution for the imagined slights that he had ranted on about at their last meeting. Also, he was worried about whoever was making the phone calls. Nonetheless, he was extremely glad that Lucy hadn't been doing anything that he would have been embarrassed at seeing.

Satisfied that she was safe, he flew off.

Lois entered the apartment, feeling a sense of loss. I hate being apart from him. She was relieved to see that Lucy was home and awake. It helped make her feel less lonely for Clark.

"Lucy! I didn't think you'd be up."

"So, pretty lady… how did the date go?"

Lois looked at Lucy and then burst into tears.

Lucy, awash with concern, rushed forward and drew her sister into a tight embrace.

"What? What is it? What?" Her voice was gentle and inquiring as she held her, fearing the worst. "My god — what is it?"

Lois stayed in her sister's arms a few moments, and then pulled back, rubbing at her eyes and nose, trying to regain a semblance of calm.

"No — No, Lucy — " her voice was raw from crying. "It was wonderful. He was wonderful. I just… I guess… I just got caught up in the whole …"

"Of course, of course," soothed Lucy, waving aside her sister's need to explain. "Lois, I understand. I really do. Did you want to talk about it?" Her voice and expression were deeply solicitous.

"I… I — I don't know."

"It's okay. I won't be offended if you don't want to."

"It's just so… intense. You know? Intense."

"Okay…"

"I… It was fantastic, Lucy. We had a great time. He's just the most amazing man."

Lucy quirked a smile. "Super, one might even say."

"Oh, Lucy!"

"So you had a good time?" She asked the redundant question with a note of hopeful yearning in her voice. "You really did?"

"We… uh… we danced, Lucy… and we even … we kissed!"

"Oh my god. I didn't think that you would — I mean — I didn't expect it — so soon!"

"I know."

"Did he kiss you, or…"

"It was a mutual thing, you know?"

"And the kiss? What was it like… did you…" She trailed off, hesitant about asking.

"No — well — I did have a small … there were moments of panic, moments of difficulty — there was one bad moment, actually… but then, the other bad moment wasn't really all that bad, and in the end it was just so amazing."

"That's so wonderful! I am so envious!! I want to hate you, but I can't."

"He's one of a kind. I don't blame you or any other woman for hating me. He's the most incredible man."

"You sound like you're in love."

"I don't know, Lucy. I … can I really be in love so soon?"

"I think so," Lucy answered quietly.

"I — I just… I …" Her brow furrowed as a new difficulty occurred to her.

"What?"

"Well… we got kind of close… I mean — for me… we kissed — several times… and… I just — what if… I can't do that the next time? What if he just expects that I can? I mean — what if the next time he sees me he moves in to kiss me — right away? And I freak out? I… I usually am kind of shy and awkward around him at first — sometimes he looks exactly like Kal-El when I first see him — it takes me a while to ease into him being Clark. So what if — what if… I kind of insinuated that next time I'd like to do more of that… and he seemed receptive to the idea… so what if —"

"Lois!"

"Sorry."

"I'm sorry — I know your fears are very… justified. But — I just need to say something here. He won't. Wouldn't you say that up until this point he's been very careful about reading your mood before doing or saying anything? I mean — you even said that his second-guessing your reactions was a little on the overboard side… right?"

"Yeah…"

"Well — given that — I'm sure that the next time he sees you — he won't just act like you both can continue where you left off. Not him. He's too smart and sensitive for that."

"Yeah. You're right. I know…"

"You haven't…committed to anything by getting closer. You haven't set a new line in the sand."

"I guess. I just — I don't want him to think I'm some kind of a tease."

"You aren't. You're a woman suffering from some rather serious post-traumatic stuff and healing takes time — a lifetime even. You may get a flashback even 50 years from now even after you think you've resolved all the issues."

"I see your psychology classes are finally doing you some good," she said, smiling good-naturedly at her sister

"Sorry," she said, flushing red. "I don't suppose I know what I'm talking about."

"No. Don't be sorry. This is good stuff to hear. Thank you. You're right. He's far too smart and sensitive to do something like that. I guess I just started thinking… I asked him to come over on Friday, after the auction — and he said he would. I asked him to wake me, and then… and I can't even believe I said this… I implied that if I were asleep… he could … um… kiss me… to wake me up."

"You said that?"

"I used the phrase — 'fairy-tale method'"

"Wow…"

"So… the question is… do you think he'll actually…"

"I still think he'd be reticent about doing something like that."

"Yeah. I hope… I don't know what I hope. He's such an amazing kisser, Lucy!"

"Oh, I'll bet," she sighed dreamily. "You lucky…"

"I've never… ever kissed anyone who kisses like that. Part of me wishes I was still with him, feeling those amazing feelings… and another part of me is extremely worried about doing it again. Mostly I'm worried that bad memories will intrude and make me feel how I felt before — even though he isn't hurting me in any way. I know he wouldn't. I just don't want to feel like I did — that sick and hopeless and terrified feeling. It was horrible."

Lucy's brows were knit with worry as she listened to Lois reminisce.

"I can't imagine, but… I can see why you would worry about that."

"I'm sure it'll get better each time."

"I am too."

"But now, I have to wait until Friday night — early Saturday morning before I get to see him again. And what do I wear to sleep? Do I wear regular boring pajamas or do I go for a sexier look?"

"Be yourself, is my best advice. Go for what you usually wear."

"Hmm. Boring then…"

"Yeah, but it'll put less pressure on you — you won't feel self- conscious about it."

"Good point. And… I don't want him thinking I'm a tease."

"He will never think that about you. You aren't a tease. A tease does it to deliberately make someone suffer. You don't do that — you never did."

"Thanks, Lucy." She reached out and gave her sister a hug. "I guess I'll go to sleep."

Lois managed to get through the next day without seeing or hearing from Clark. It hadn't been easy. She couldn't stop thinking about him and those amazing kisses that they had shared. She kept reliving the sensation of dancing close up against him and feeling his arms around her.

<<How can I function if all I do is moon around like a love- struck teenager?>>

Finally, it was Friday and she had fallen asleep while watching the news. She had been waiting to hear the results of the auction. Exhaustion from a series of nights with very little sleep had caught up with her, and before she heard the results, she had fallen fast asleep on the couch.

Hours later, she woke up with a start and sat up. The television was still on and it was very late. The auction was long over. She stood up, and made her way over to her laptop, intending to use the internet to find out who had won the auction. Her heart in her throat, she went over to the website that had been setup for the auction, and waited for it to load. The bad news was right on the front page.

<< Carissa. Great. Carissa. Leyna didn't come through, I guess. I had heard that she was overseas, but I had hoped that she would be back in time for this. I can't fault her for it… her career is important to her, the way mine is to me, but I really wish this one time, she had put friendship over a story. I can't worry about it. He doesn't love Carissa. I don't even think he likes her. It's me he wants to be with. Not her. Not some stupid super- model. Some stupid, beautiful, tall, glamorous, young, wealthy woman. What's to be jealous about?>>

She heard a knocking sound and jumped in sudden fear. She turned to the direction of the knocking. It was Clark. All at once she felt a surge of shyness.

Last time they had been together, she had been so forward with the things she did and said… at least, forward for her. And now, she was nervous. She was nervous that things would be awkward. Nervous that he might pull her close and kiss her as soon as she opened that window. Could she handle it if he did? Could she handle it if he didn't? Her heart pounding with nervousness, she went over and opened the balcony doors.

He floated in and landed a few feet away from her, trying to give her the space that he knew she needed.

He remained dressed as Superman, not planning on staying very long because it was late, and he knew she was suffering from some serious lack of sleep.

"You're awake," he said, spilling out the first thought that came to his mind.

"Yeah… are you disappointed?"

<<God. I'm flirting. Where is this coming from?>>

"Never."

"I… I —"

She was back to being nervous and shy, not knowing what to say to him next. His costume addled her brain a bit… he seemed so much bigger and Kryptonian. She felt diminished a bit in his presence, and she didn't like that feeling.

"Would you be more comfortable if I changed?"

"Are you reading my mind?"

"No… I — wouldn't —"

"No. I'm sorry. I meant that rhetorically. Actually — I'd rather you stayed like this. I need to get over it."

"I know you think that. Just… let me know if you change your mind, okay?"

"Okay."

She stepped forward into his personal space, and placed a very tentative hand on his chest.

"We should kiss, shouldn't we?" Her voice was uncertain.

"Or not. We don't really have to do anything, you know. It's not scripted ahead of time."

"But — we kissed before, and if we don't now, then it's like we're going backwards."

"No," he said, grasping her hand gently. "This isn't a linear path, Lois."

"I want to kiss you," she repeated stubbornly. She closed her eyes, and waited for the wave of sudden panic to go through her. She felt dizzy, and wasn't sure how long she could remain standing on her shaky legs. "But I can't!"

"It's okay," his voice had taken on a pleading quality. He hated it when she did this to herself.

"Maybe you could just kiss me? I think it might be easier if you initiate it." Her eyes bore anxiously into his.

"Okay," he said. "One kiss… coming up." Still holding her hand, he leaned in. As he did so, she jerked away reflexively.

"I'm sorry," she ground out, exasperated and angry at herself. "I didn't intend to do that. It was… an autonomic kind of thing."

"I figured," he said quietly. "I guess sometimes it's hard not to act on those impulses."

"At… at least, I can. I mean — he would have…" she trailed off, and winced. "It… it was… ingrained in me not to. I… I guess I don't have those — uh — defenses in place anymore — that enabled me to endure… without … backing away. Making him angry."

"The only thing here that makes me angry is what he did to you. You can do whatever you want — but you already knew that."

She smiled. "Yeah. I do. Maybe… though… I mean — maybe you could just hold me tighter or something — or I could stand right against a wall."

"What? Why?"

She flushed in the face of his startled questions. "So we can kiss without me trying to back away — if I try, and you're holding me tighter, or the wall is there — then —" She trailed off, feeling awkward. She knew she was asking him to do something he found distasteful.

"Then I'd be forcing you to kiss me," he said. "I can't … I won't do that. I'm sorry."

"But then … I can't control it, Clark," she wailed. "And I want to kiss you!"

"Why are you being so hard on yourself? It doesn't have to happen — not now, not today at all…"

"It was so wonderful, Clark. I want that again. That feeling. That closeness… don't you?"

"Yes — but not if you have to force yourself into doing it!"

"I just feel that if it's totally up to me, then we won't get anywhere. I guess I think I need you to kind of take control once in a while."

He looked at her dubiously.

"I thought that it should be the other way around."

"But I kind of need help with it — it's hard to take a first step sometimes when you're afraid of the consequences of that step. The other day, you sort of did take the lead a few times, and it made it easier for me. I'm not saying I want you to be… well… forceful — but… you know… maybe… just… maybe if you surprised me."

"Surprised you?"

"Like with the hiccups. How if you surprise someone with the hiccups you can make the hiccups go away?"

"Surprise you into kissing me… to make your nervousness go away… or just not be a factor?"

"Ok. Yeah. I guess that's stupid — I -" She left off with a squeal as he moved suddenly faster than she could really see, and suddenly she found herself swept up and cradled in his arms.

"What…" Her voice was a startled gasp, but before she could complete her sentence, his lips descended quickly down on hers, and he kissed her gently.

Moments later, he lifted his head, and looked into her eyes to see how she was taking this.

"Surprise," he whispered gently.

"You… you… You kissed me."

"Is it okay?"

"Uh… oh… oh — yeah." Her voice was dazed. His kiss had awoken all kinds of warm and heavy feelings of desire in her, and she was finding it hard to concentrate on anything. "Yeah. It was… more than okay."

Not wanting to push his luck, he placed her gently back on her feet.

"I was a little worried that … it might upset you — my picking you up like that. I …"

"He did on occasion… do that. But — mostly, he… I … I don't want to talk about it right now," she said quickly, trying to erase the image of Lord Kal-El grabbing her arm roughly and shoving her down on his bed. It hurt to think about this in conjunction to what she was sharing with Clark, and if she thought too much of Kal-El, she would see him overlaid on Clark, and then, she'd be a complete mess.

"Okay. No talking about it."

"I liked it," she said, huskily. "I liked you sweeping me up in your arms like that — it was romantic and very exciting. And… I loved the kiss. Thanks for … surprising me. For not laughing at my request."

"I would never laugh at you."

"Want to sit down?"

"Sure. Uh…do you mind if I change? I feel really ostentatious like this."

"Oh. Sure. No problem. I want you to be comfortable."

He spun into more casual clothes, and she looked at him in awe, her eyes shining and luminous.

"You just amaze me…"

"Not half as much as you amaze me," he said easily.

"You know… some day you should… wear black."

"Black."

"Yeah. I need to get past that. Too."

"Okay. You let me know when you want me to do that. I don't have to ever wear black again you know. It's not a big deal to me."

"It is to me, though. You should be able to be whoever you are, without caring about my reaction."

"I like worrying about you — or at least… caring about your reactions. If something bothers you, for whatever reason — and it's not a big deal to change it — why shouldn't I?"

"I still think… it still — I guess I see it as a personal weakness. I'm sorry. I know that sounds insane."

"It isn't insane. If it bothers you, then we'll overcome it together. Okay?"

"Thanks," she said awkwardly.

She reached out to him, her eyes locking with his, and held his hand. She pulled him gently along as she walked over to the couch.

"Sit with me?"

"Okay," he said, his voice a little huskier than before. She did strange things to his head.

She sat down and pulled him down gently next to her. He dropped down at her side, and she immediately nestled in against him. Encouraged, he placed an arm around her shoulder. She felt suddenly warm at his touch.

"Mmm. I … I haven't been able to stop thinking about how we kissed," she said, suddenly unable to look at him while she talked. "It's all I can think about. All I can … it replays over and over in my mind, and I can't … I can't even imagine thinking of something else."

"It's been on my mind too."

"I … I was hoping we could have a… re-match?"

He tightened his arm briefly around her shoulders in an affectionate squeeze. "You bet. But don't you want to talk about the auction?"

"Oh. Yeah. That." Her voice darkened a bit. "Carissa won."

"I'm Sorry. Leyna couldn't be here. She's overseas covering a story."

"I know."

"She called and apologized, but I didn't get the message until after the auction."

"It's okay, Clark. Really. I'm okay with it."

"Good — because…"

"Actually. I'm lying through my teeth. I'm not… I'm not okay with it. I mean — god… it's Carissa — the most beautiful woman in … well —"

"Not in the world. And not in Metropolis. You are orders of magnitude more beautiful than Carissa."

"Please, Clark — you don't have to — appease me… I -"

"I'm not making that up. You really are, Lois. If you had chosen her line of career you'd have made a huge success of it — you'd have eclipsed her."

"I…"

"I'm glad you didn't. The world needs people like you, Lois — championing for what's right… but… you could have. That's all I'm saying."

"Oh… Clark."

"I … I've never been interested in her, Lois."

"But you're going on a date. And that's different from just seeing her at parties. You'll be alone with her."

"We've been … we've been alone before, Lois."

"You… did you date her?" Dread trickled into her heart. Was Carissa an ex… lover?

"Very casually."

"Casually? Casually? What does that mean? I mean —" She was getting flustered. She stood up abruptly and took a few steps away, not willing for him to see her like this.

He came up behind her and gripped her shoulders, gently turning her back to face him, despite the possible explosion of panic that his touch might bring.

"Please, don't …" His voice was supplication.

His touch had sent shivers of anticipation and apprehension through her. She forced herself to calm down so she could finish this.

"But Clark… how can I compete? I mean —"

"It was nothing. We spent a few evenings together. But it really wasn't anything."

"My… my dad had a lot of… meaningless friendships with women, Clark. I know that things that aren't anything can still be something. Nothing can still have the power to destroy… happiness, and destroy families. Oh… god… I was worried about with you dancing with her, when you couldn't dance with me- but… now — it's so much more than that, isn't it? I mean — you've… you've… I can't do that! Not yet — and… I —"

"We haven't," he said, firmly, guessing what she meant. "I never made love with her."

She couldn't look at him, this whole conversation was upsetting her so much, but she knew she was wrong to be feeling this way. What happened before their relationship was none of her business.

"You don't believe me?"

"I …"

"Lois, why would I lie?"

"To make me feel better?"

"I wouldn't. I would never lie about something like that."

"You never… really? You never…"

"Lois — I don't know how much you and Lana talked about my relationship with Lana — but… I mean — you do know that …"

"I know you were never… that … close… you were waiting for marriage… right?"

"Right."

"Because she wanted to. A lot of women do — and you were willing to wait. I admire that about you — I really do — but…"

"She wasn't the one who wanted to wait. I was."

"Oh… you…you were? But… after you broke up, and after the woman you thought you loved left this universe — didn't things change? Didn't you just… give in to… the… the urge?"

"I didn't, Lois. I didn't. Yes… I did almost give up on meeting the right one after Lois left, and after I failed to find you. I did. But, I still had hope. Hope that somehow I would meet you, despite it all. You were the woman I was meant to be with. I believe that wholeheartedly. I waited for you, Lois… even before I knew you, I was waiting for you. And… I… I'll wait for you for the rest of my life. Well… that is, if you want me to wait."

She took a deep breath, taken aback by his admission.

"You… are you saying you… you love me?"

"Yeah. That's exactly what I'm saying. But… you don't have to … feel threatened by it — okay?" His voice was suddenly nervous. "I'm not the kind of person to … impose myself on someone…If you ever decide you want to end this — even if you want to be with someone else — it's okay… I mean — it'd be awful for me — but I wouldn't… turn into a… a monster over it."

"I know —I know — please. You don't need… I just… I …"

"It's weird to hear that from me — isn't it? This early on …"

"Not weird.. Wonderful. It's… wonderful. I… I'm pretty sure I love you too," she admitted, not able to look at him as she admitted it. " But… I… I don't… I didn't…"

"I know you aren't ready for any kind of deep commitment…"

"Can we sit down, again?" She didn't want to have this conversation while standing.

He returned to where they had been sitting, and she sat down next to him again. She looked at her hands a long moment, and then finally, screwing up the courage, she lifted earnest eyes to meet his.

"Actually… I was going to say — I was going to say that I'm not… you know. Not a virgin."

He waited in silence, knowing she still had more to say.

"I mean… I know — you know I'm not a virgin… what I'm trying to say — is… I wasn't…before. I didn't wait… I guess… I didn't wait for the 'right' one. I… I kind of feel badly about that… but then, I also think that if I had been waiting, then all I would have known would have been… Kal-El… and his… brutality — so… so — it's good that I didn't —"

"Lois. Your past relationships — those are in this past… and I don't regret them expect for any pain you may have felt as a result of them."

"Thank you, Clark… I guess I feel that — you waited, so — you … you deserve to — and then — there's the fact that I'm so… I mean — don't you worry — that we won't ever get that close?"

"Lois. I believe very strongly that we are meant to be together. That we are soul-mates. I really do feel an amazing and unbelievable connection to you. I think things will work out for us."

"You think we'll end up… you know… as lovers?"

"Yeah. I do. And I think — we'll be happy together."

"I hope so," she breathed out, feeling slightly lost under his conviction. "I worry sometimes… I —"

"You know — there's no need to try to push yourself to do anything…"

"I know. I do know that. And I'm really… glad you feel that way. But — I still feel funny about not being able to."

"I just love being with you."

The inevitable pause came upon them, and after a few moments he reached over and stroked her hair gently with one hand.

"So… you mentioned a re-match?" he asked her, his voice sounding sensual again.

She licked her lip nervously as he said that, feeling once again that spasm of fear and anticipation. The sight her doing that sent a shockwave through his entire body.

"God… when you do that," he groaned, unwilling to stop himself from the utterance.

"Do what," she gasped breathlessly.

"That thing you do… with your tongue… and your mouth. Your… beautiful mouth. It's so… sexy, and … I really want to kiss you." His voice was deeper now, and over-toned with the desire he was feeling.

She felt a spasm of fear go through her. Like this, he did remind her more of … well — not so much of Kal-El — but rather… he reminded her less of himself. His easy going manner wasn't as evident, and she felt like prey caught in a predators gaze. And yet — she knew that this kiss would be incredible, like before, and that he wasn't a predator — he was a loving and caring partner who wanted to give her pleasure. She was torn with ambivalence.

<<I want him to show me that he is attracted to me, otherwise I get all insecure. But when he does, I get scared.>>

She swallowed nervously. "I…"

"Shh. It's okay." he whispered, and he leaned in carefully and kissed her. By far this was the most amazing kiss yet. His lips on hers were careful and gentle, but he seemed more sure of himself than before. He increased the pressure, and she felt her lips parting under his. Hot waves of warmth flooded her as she felt the tip of his tongue flick against her bottom lip, and she gasped against it, opening her lips further.

As she did that, he pulled her close in against him, her body touching his as he deepened the kiss.

His tongue gently danced with hers as he continued to kiss her, his free hand moving to caress her hair.

She was feeling a whole host of things. She was excited beyond belief by the sensual pressure of his kiss. He kissed like a dream — and this was bringing her to levels of desire that she had never ever felt before with any other man. And yet — it was an openly passionate and sexual kiss. She felt a squeeze of nervousness at the sensuality involved, and darts of fear were poking at her, piercing the haze of desire.

<<Please. Please. Let me not panic.>>

He felt her tense a little, and he knew that he had pushed a little further than she could go at this moment. He pulled back a few inches, ending the kiss, and looked at her with eyes that had gone dark with his own desire.

She felt a sharper jolt of fear at the look in his eyes, and forced herself to keep her gaze locked on his.

<<Remember. This isn't Kal-El!>>

"Are you okay?" There was a very sensual edge to his voice.

"Yeah," she whispered breathlessly. "I… I — I'm okay. I — a little scared — but… definitely… okay."

"I won't go further than you want me to," he assured her, his eyes never leaving hers. "You can stop this at any time."

Fear gripped her again, as she wondered how far he would go if she didn't stop him. After all, she had asked him to take control. Should she not have done that?

"How… how far… are… you going to go?" Her voice was breathless again, and she inwardly cursed herself for not being able to talk normally.

"That's for you to decide," he said. And then he leaned in again and kissed her again.

Feeling urgency in his actions, her desire temporarily went into hiding as fear took a hold of her. She pulled back, and he immediately released her, breaking off his kiss. His eyes were so dark now that his expression was inscrutable.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I Just feel… I feel — like… you're… I …"

Tears began to form in her eyes, and she silently cursed herself again for not being able to control them.

In the face of her tears, his manner changed immediately — the sensuality he was exuding was replaced by urgent concern.

"Did I hurt you? Are you all right? Did I go too far? I'm sorry !"

"No. No! No — You didn't. You didn't… I just got scared… it's stupid — it's silly — I —"

"You aren't stupid or silly. Please… what's wrong?"

"I felt… I felt lost… like you weren't here with me… you… you seemed so different… and I don't usually see you like that."

"I seemed … like him?"

"More like him than before — but only because… I'm used to seeing that side of him — the side of him that's… feeling… you know…"

"I…"

"But you aren't like him — when you're… kissing me. You aren't like him at all… it's just … an association that my mind makes… and then it… scares me. I guess I felt … like I was alone in this. I don't feel that way when you're like you are now."

"Maybe we should just ease off a bit. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed you like that."

"I don't want to stop this. I don't want to take backwards steps!"

"But it isn't going backwards — it's just going a little laterally or tangentially — or —"

"No!! I — I can't help how I feel — but I don't want to just stop. I want to challenge those feelings. Sometimes I might get like this — but I don't… I still want this… I want you to kiss me again. Please. Will you?"

He looked at her a long moment, and then reached out to brush some of the moisture of her face. It was an impulse born from tenderness, but she flinched and he stopped in his tracks.

<<Did she think I was going to hit her?>>

"That was stupid of me," he said. "I should have — Did you think that I was going to hit you?"

"No. No — I didn't think that. It's just… he used to … like it when I cried… and when I did — he would do that… brush away the tears — gently even… it was a sick twisted thing of his… parody tenderness… right before inflicting more pain."

"Oh. Lois." Unable to bear it any longer, he reached out and pulled her into a close embrace. This embrace had no sensuality attached to it — he merely wanted to offer her comfort.

She melted into it, and rubbed against his back with her hand. "I'm okay. It's over. I'm not there anymore. He can't hurt me, and I know that," she reassured him.

He released her and shook his head.

"You went through so much hell. I just can't believe it."

"Kiss me again, Clark." Her voice was deliberately sexy.

He looked at her hesitantly, and then, after a long moment, leaned in and gently kissed her again, this time keeping it very light.

She gripped his shoulders, and moved so that she was pressed against him, trying to encourage him to deepened the kiss as before. She pressed her lips into his with more force, parting her lips on her own volition. This time, she darted her tongue out to lick at his lip, and he tightened his arms reflexively in response, a low groan in his throat.

His action thrilled and scared her all at once, but she persevered.

He broke off, breathing hard.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm more than okay," she said with a very encouraging smile.

He pulled her close again, and started to kiss her with increasing passion. His lips broke from hers, and kissed along her jaw bone. She gasped at the way that made her feel, and then, he started to kiss down the side of her neck.

Her hands on him tightened hard as the familiar conflicting feelings surged through her, and she tilted her head to give him better access. A moan escaped her throat as she felt desire coursing through her in sharp waves.

Encouraged by her sounds, he rested his lips at the base of her throat. He darted his tongue out to gently lick her right on the pulse point. That simple and very sensuous gesture heated her up even further. She felt her entire body starting to burn with an urge to get even closer to him. Blood was rushing to various areas of her body, making her crave a more intimate contact with him.

She gasped out his name.

He lifted his head. "Too much?"

"No! Clark! God — don't … don't… don't stop!"

He moved in again, and resumed what he was doing, his tongue tracing lazy and torturous circles around her pulse point. She felt her body responding — tightening and loosening up all at the same time. She was embarrassed and elated to find that she was becoming highly aroused.

He moved his lips back up and ended up nipping at her ear. She shuddered at the pure desire that now had her in its thrall.

<<God. I want him.>>

The thought surprised her — she was in the grip of a ferocious passion — and she hadn't expected to ever feel anything remotely like it again. It scared her somewhat — just as his passion had scared her earlier.

He returned to her lips, and pulled her in for another soul- destroying sensuous kiss, and this time, his hand slipped under the thin fabric of her top. She felt heat where he touched her, and she wondered at how a simple touch could feel so hot. Dimly she was aware that there was something she needed to tell him. But she couldn't really think or focus anymore, and decided not to worry about it.

His hand moved up her body, and she stiffened a little.

He broke off a bit.

"Is this okay?" his voice was a sensual murmur that sent shivers down her spine.

"Yeah," she gasped, completely out of breath from her passion. "Yeah!"

He kissed her again, and as he did so he gently caressed her bare skin, moving his hand over the very sensitized zones of her body.

She made a strangled sound in her throat, and he paused for a moment to see if she would push away.

He was losing control. Her reactions, the sounds she was making, and the sheer sensual pleasure of holding her, kissing her, stroking her skin were all driving him wild. He was on fire, and he was finding it really hard to think of anything other than the simple and strong desire to bury himself in her body and find his way to completion. He had never felt like this before. It scared him.

He broke off his kiss, and looked into her eyes. "We have to stop. We have to stop now." He was gasping out the words.

"Why?" She was floating on a haze, lost, and unable and unwilling to even contemplate putting a stop to this.

"I … I can't… I — I feel like I'm close to losing control." His voice was now a growl, and that feral sound finally registered with her. She felt a thrill of fear run through her at the idea that he would or could lose control. That fear, as before was linked inexorably with sensual excitement.

<<I wonder what that would be like. >>

That thought floated up in defiance of the fear in her that was warning her to heed his words — to stop this now, before it was too late. The old Lois was afraid of Clark out of control, while the sensually awakened wild woman inside her was almost eager to meet with her equally wild mate.

"I… I —"

"I'm sorry," he gasped out again. "I didn't think… I would… I — I didn't think I could get like this — feel so out of control like this… it's never happened to me before… but if I don't stop now — I might not be able to — I might not even be aware you want me to — I feel like my mind is clouding over, and I can't think of anything but making love to you," he confessed in a heated rush. "I can't let that happen!"

She nodded, her throat dry. "I… I don't want to stop — but — I — I don't know if I'm ready for — I don't think I am — and —"

"Shh," he said, gently stroking her face with his hand. "I know. I know. And that's why… I stopped — I have to stop — while I still can."

"So you don't want to stop?" Insecurity laced her voice, and his eyes darkened again, making her feel a shiver inside.

"I want… nothing more… at this moment… than to kiss you senseless. To press you back against the couch — to feel your entire body pressing against mine — to join with you in the most intimate way possible," he growled. "And I want that… now!"

"Oh," once again, all she was capable of was a breathless gasp.

"Is it okay that I told you that?"

She nodded her head mutely. She was feeling a very heady combination of fear and desire, and she wasn't even sure she didn't want the scenario he had just described to happen. Her body wanted to blindly arch towards him, to entice him further into a primitive rhythm, but the part of her that had been through a hellish ordeal was holding her back.

Words bubbled through her mind, and ached to burst out and be heard:

<<Stay. Stay the night. Make love to me.>>

The words hung there in her mind, but she was unable to break past the fear she was feeling — unable to actually ask him to stay. She looked at him, flushed and confused — desire and fear warring for control.

"I want you to stay," she started to say, a nervous edge to her voice. "But — I don't think that… I mean — if you're close to losing control — and — I don't know if I can go all the way through with this — I don't know if it's a good idea."

He shook his head. "It's not a good idea. I really can't believe how I feel when I'm with you. It really… shakes me — how much I feel that loss of awareness — that loss of control. It scares me, even." His voice was still hoarse from the effects of his own passion.

She looked up, and met his gaze directly. She saw such honesty and earnestness in them. And she also saw the love that had been there all along — probably since day one.

She reached up, not really thinking, and caressed his face. He caught her hand in one of his and held it up against his face with a gentle grip that she knew she could easily break free from.

"I love your face," she sighed.

"Really? You really do?" Amazement laced his words.

"You surely can't be surprised that someone would… you're so gorgeous. So beautiful — and that smile of yours ought to be regulated. I mean — you smile at someone who happens to be driving a bike, and that person is going to drive right into a tree."

He laughed at that, enjoying this side of her.

"I guess you're surprised because you look like Kal-El." Her voice was sober now. "I'm right… aren't I?"

"Well — I mean — it's hard not to be surprised — that you can even stand to look at me. I — I don't know if I could ever look at someone who looked and sounded like Luthor, and call him a trusted friend."

"I can't explain it either," she said. "When I first saw you here — I thought you looked exactly like Kal-El. But then, when you saved my life — when you saved me from that truck — I did finally look at you — after you kept begging me to respond — and… I was shocked at how unlike Kal-El you were. It was amazing. Still — it did take me a long time to get past it all. Sometimes I was so sure you looked just like him… and other times, it was impossible to see the resemblance. I'm still getting through that… sometimes…"

"When we kiss," he asked cautiously, not trying to hurt her, "do I … is it anything like kissing him?"

"You don't kiss anything like him. He was brutal and hurtful. He was concerned only with his own pleasure, and his own pleasure came from inflicting pain and fear. There is no comparison — none." Her voice was resolute in its firm assertions.

"But still — the fact that I'm physically identical —"

"So far — hasn't been a huge issue … with physical — closeness — you've seen how you affect me."

"I just worry …" He trailed off, unable to say it.

<<When we're close. When we lie together — in a bed — and take off our clothes — when our bodies come in close and unhindered contact… what if that brings it all back for her? What if it's inevitable. What if she can't ever stop seeing him — when we try to get close? What if I lose her?>>

"I know — it scares me too. Uh — guess that's pretty obvious, right?" She laughed a little in self-deprecating embarrassment. " I guess that's why I — I can't just ask you to — make love to me tonight. I know that I might very well have a panic attack, and then — if you feel out of control —"

"You don't owe me any explanations… I agree. I need to learn how to control my responses to you."

"Part of me is glad you aren't in control. Kryptonians in that other world were so arrogant about how they were in such control of themselves, and how sloppy and out of control we puny little earthlings were."

Clark winced. "Sounds pretty bigoted on their part"

"By thinking of us in that way, they were able to justify not … not … caring about what they did to us."

"I can't imagine ever …" He stopped. He didn't want to evoke bad memories.

"You couldn't. The man you are — the man you always have been — no matter what the circumstances of your life — you could never have been like him."

"Thanks, Lois. I really … appreciate you saying that."

"So — what would you have done if I couldn't have gotten past the appearance thing? Past it enough to even be friends?"

"Well, I guess I could have worn a disguise," he said, smiling at her as he made the lame joke. Her words sent cold chills down his spine — the thought of not having Lois in his life — ever… it was unthinkable.

"I'm smarter than that," she said saucily. "Just because it worked in that other world. I mean — what would you do? Wear a hat? Hey — maybe next time you go into that other Lois's universe, you can wear a hat. And then she won't recognize you. And then, you can take the hat off, and say — Look! It's just me!"

He laughed and he pulled her into his arms, charmed by her silliness.

"You really don't like her, do you?"

"Other-Lois?"

"Yes. Why?"

"I guess… she — you fell in love with her first. And — that hurts." Lois was serious once again as she aired out this old and long-standing wound in her heart.

"I didn't fall in love with her first. I fell in love with the idea of her. She wasn't the one… but she was a close second, and that was closer than anyone else had ever come. Lois — I was lonely… and she made me feel like I could be part of something — that I could have a real home … a real family. That I could be me and still be… be loved."

"Oh — Clark… that's really — it makes me feel so awful about being so mean towards you."

"You don't need to — all hurts are healed now. I mean — anything I may have felt — any sadness or loneliness — it's gone. You've made it all go away. And — I've said it before- your actions made a lot of sense. You weren't trying to be malicious."

"I don't know. There were times when I had some strong doubts that I was doing the right thing — and yet I kept twisting the screw. I guess — I wanted to hurt him, and doing something that might hurt you felt like — uh — I guess… a close second."

He tightened his arm in a comforting squeeze.

"But about — Lois… if she were to come here and tell you that she loved you, and wanted you to be with her… she's not all traumatized like I am — you could have a close relationship with her without all the baggage." Lois knew the answer, but she still needed to hear it. Her insecurities would take a long time to wither away.

"You are the only one in my heart. And you always will be the only one in my heart."

"Oh… Clark…"

"Besides, she cut her hair really short, and I like yours better!"

"Hey!!! So if I were to cut my hair…"

"Well…"

"Clark!"

"I'm just kidding. You could shave your entire head and put tattoos all over it, and even though I'd be saddened to — what… what is it?"

He stopped as he saw her grow pale. She stiffened a little, and he released her from his light embrace, sensing she needed some space.

"I… I kind of have something — I want to tell you." Her voice sounded tense and scared, and she couldn't look at him.

"Anything. You can tell me anything." He was worried that her behavior was out of fear of making him angry. He didn't yet know what she wanted to say.

"I — I … I have a… brand," she said, flushing deep red. "Near the base of my neck."

"I know," he said quietly.

Startled, she looked up at him. "You… you know? I mean — how do you … you haven't… I mean — you wouldn't…"

"No. I would never look through your clothes. You do not need to start lining them all with lead. I — I… saw it when you were asleep — uh — on the floor of my apartment. I — your shirt had slipped enough for me to see it — I wasn't really looking — or … you know — ogling you — but… I — I saw it, and it was obviously not a birthmark."

"It… it was an ownership mark," she whispered harshly, springing to her feet. She felt nervous and trapped as old memories started to crowd. She could still hear Kal-El's voice in her head telling her that she was his.

"I should have told you," his voice was contrite.

<<God, does she feel violated now — knowing that I'd seen it??>>

"No… no — you didn't do anything wrong. You were waiting for me to talk about it. You guessed, and rightly so — that I wouldn't want you to broach the subject."

He shook his head. "Unthinkable. Unconscionable. To … to do that to another living being… a sentient and intelligent — being… a woman, no less… I mean — it defies all decency — all -… the man is clearly a monster of the highest order."

"Yes. Yes, he is."

"That had to have been terrifying and painful as hell."

She looked directly at him.

"He did it my first day there. I had no idea it was coming… and… after that… he — uh…" She trailed away.

"If I ever can get Herb to agree to it, I want to go to that world and stop him from ever doing that to anyone again," he said fervently. "God — that's so sick and horrifying. I'm sorry. Lois — I'm sorry — I should have been there, I should have known, and I should have stopped him. I wish more than anything that I could have stopped him."

"You can't go there," she said, her voice rising in passion. "It's too dangerous. And then I'd feel compelled to go with you to watch over you, because — well — I know the lay of the land there… and then — I'd have to face him again — so promise me… we won't ever go there!"

He looked at her. "I don't want to make that promise. I don't ever want you going back there — but —"

"Clark! You can't ever go there. I forbid it. Okay? You don't even have to promise. I forbid it."

He was silent a moment, giving it some thought, and then his eyes met hers.

"In that case, I guess there's no point in talking about it. — if that's your final word…"

"Clark — please tell me that —"

"If you forbid it, I won't do it. I mean — you obviously feel very strongly about it —"

"Don't get all Kryptonian on me," she snapped, her cheeks flaming red. "Damn it. I love you, and I won't let you kill yourself like that. I won't let Lord Kal-El hurt me again — and if he killed you, he would be delivering one of his worst blows yet!"

"I'm sorry," he said, full of compunction. "I didn't mean to sound…"

"I'm sorry. I can't use your species as an epithet. That's rude. And bigoted. I … I shouldn't have said that."

"I'm glad you did. I'm glad you can yell at me. Glad you can forbid me to do things…"

"And yet, it's inequitable. If you ever yelled at me or tried to forbid me to do something, I'd have a panic attack."

She sat back down next to him as she said these words.

"I rarely yell. And as far as forbidding… I'll just pester you not to do things — I can be annoying when I give it a good try."

She laughed. "I'll have to see that in action."

"I do want to put your fears about the other Lois to rest — or at least… as best as I can. I really don't love her. I — guess… I — I should tell you this… I actually did kiss her… and — while it was a great kiss — it wasn't that — kind of — wow… feeling — that I get with you. She isn't my soul-mate, Lois. You are."

"Hold on. Wait. You kissed her?"

He looked at her, discomfort and guilt lurking in his expression.

"Back in her world… we were looking for her Clark — Tempus had caused him to be lost in time. She despaired of ever finding him again. And — I guess I just… being near her, being in her world — seeing his parents, seeing their life — made me feel so lonely and … just so close to something that I would like to have as my life… that I kissed her."

"What did she do?"

"She kissed me back … and then, she stopped the kiss and made it very clear that it wasn't ever going to happen again."

"Oh… I'm … I'm sorry?"

"No — I'm not. She was right. I stepped over the line and she was right to tell me off."

"Your motivation wasn't impure — I mean — you could easily lure women away from the men who love them— if you so desired…"

"Still… but my point is that — I kissed her — and — it was nothing like kissing you."

"Like with Kal-El…"

He winced at that. "Not exactly. I mean — Lois wasn't a monster…"

"I know… but — even if Kal-El hadn't been — evil — I probably would never have felt the attraction that I feel towards you."

"When did you start feeling it?"

"Well — I was drawn to you — almost right from the start… but I didn't start feeling — anything that could be called an attraction until — well — I'm not sure. But — I guess… when you went off to stop the asteroid, I was fiercely jealous of Leyna — you both seemed to be flirting with each other."

"Oh. Wow."

"But I think even earlier than that… I was drawn to you. I was also still very scared — and confused — he kept rearing up in my mind — causing me to get all agitated. I'm sorry — for all the times I acted like that in front of you."

"You have no need to apologize. I really mean it."

"I guess it's still all so confusing sometimes. Sometimes I see him instead of you, because of some kind of trigger… or other times — well — you seem more like him than you do at other times." She blushed in embarrassment as she tried explain.

<<When you're feeling desire. That's when it seems most glaring. God — how awful a thing to say to him. I can't say that.>>

"Like before, when we were kissing?" He hadn't read her mind, but he could read her face.

"Yeah," she said, looking away.

"Is there anything I can do about that? I don't want you to have to see … what you saw in his eyes, or expression — or —" His voice and expression were anxious.

"No! This isn't your fault — it's just — I'm still getting used to seeing you like that. It's good to feel that way, Clark. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, and under ideal circumstances, I would certainly want to see you like that."

"But … it scares me a bit, Lois. You — I feel — so … good… with you — it's like I'm — just — lost in it. And that scares me." His voice was hesitant as he made this admission which could potentially frighten the heck out of her.

"The control thing?"

"I don't want you to feel like I'm trying to be Kryptonian — whatever that means. I don't know what that means, and I'm not trying to set myself apart from humanity — but… I mean — and I hate saying this… but — my powers give me an added… burden? Responsibility? I can't lose control — I can't risk hurting people… you know? Simple things that people can do — like — slamming their fist into the couch when they see their team losing in an important game… I can't do stuff like that. I have to worry about that stuff. And — with… physical intimacy — it's even more important — to keep control."

"But physical intimacy is sometimes about losing control. About immersing yourself in those feelings."

"It can't be. Not for me."

"Clark — you can't hold yourself to an impossible standard. Is this… another reason, why you've waited?"

He looked down, unable to meet her gaze.

"Look — Clark… you know … that I'm still here. Alive. And… not overly harmed in any way that you can see… I've had broken bones, but — never by accident. You know?"

He winced and squeezed his eyes shut against the image her words evoked.

"Oh god," he groaned.

"I'm not trying to hurt you — I just wanted you to — think about the implications — if it gives you any kind of comfort — to know that…"

"Comfort —"

"No. I realize. No comfort in knowing that I was abused like that," she said. "I know that… but —"

He looked directly at her, and then reached up a cautious hand to stroke her hair.

"I love you, Lois —for telling me that — with the intent of making me feel better. I love you."

"Does it help?"

He winced again. "I hate to …"

"It's okay if it does." Her voice was hasty as she sought to reassure him.

"Well — it had kind of occurred to me…"

"I figured — you had to have thought about it."

"But… what if —" He stopped, appalled that he was even going to ask.

"What if — what?"

"Is it okay — I mean… if I ask you something about that world?"

"Clark, you can ask. Go ahead. I can't guarantee it won't upset me, but I won't be angry about it — and it's okay."

She waited, feeling a surge of nervous anticipation. What was he going to ask?

"Well… I … I mean — maybe the first — few times… anyone there — I mean — maybe they hurt people — or killed them… until they … learned how to — not…"

"Oh, Clark- is that what you're worried about?"

"It's hard not to be," he mumbled, looking down. "I mean — I was pretty confident that I could handle this — that I could always stop when you asked, and then — after just a few moments of kissing, I'm acting like a crazed animal… it's not — what I expected and it is scary."

"You weren't anything like a crazed animal. If you were… then I was too. But… Clark — what about that other Clark? And Lois?"

"I don't know — I never asked — but they weren't married, and… so — if he's like me, I'm guessing —"

"Yeah… but eventually, didn't they help form a utopian-like society? Didn't their descendants help form this society? That implies that … she survived, and — likely enjoyed their encounters together."

"I… I never thought of that," he said, still uncomfortable about the line of conversation. "I guess you've got a good point there."

"It'll all work out," she said, trying to give him more assurance than what she personally felt. She really wasn't worried that Clark would accidentally hurt her — but she was afraid that he might not even know she needed him to stop — and might unwittingly hurt her by pushing her into intimacy when she was gripped with fears and memories from her past. She couldn't bear if that ever happened — in addition to adding to her physical and emotional trauma, it would destroy their relationship. And that was unbearable to contemplate.

"Thanks, Lois."

"So… tomorrow night? What are you doing? Want to get together?"

"I … actually… I have a date. Uh… you know — with Carissa."

"Tomorrow? So… so soon," she trailed off, feeling threatened again by Carissa. Her expression was stricken as her insecurities once again swamped her.

<<Tomorrow? Maybe — maybe I should ask him to stay — give him a reason to want to stay with me — maybe — I should — >>

"Lois —I want to get it over with." His voice intruded on her wild thoughts.

"Yeah, I understand," she croaked out unconvincingly.

"Are you … is it okay?"

"It has to be," she whispered. "But — it makes me feel really badly — you'll be with her … tomorrow night. I —"

"Lois. It won't be a real date. I have zero interest in her."

"I know," she said in a small voice.

<<I can't help feeling like I'm part of his harem.>>

"Lois…"

"I hate feeling diminished. Like — I'm nothing."

"And this makes you feel that way?" His voice was filled with appalled horror.

"I know it shouldn't… but —"

"I never want you feeling that way — not because of something I've done. What should I do — I don't want to make you feel those feelings."

His lack of composure gave her strength.

"Go on the date," she said firmly. "But you could send a few telepathic thoughts my way — it might help me feel like I'm on your mind."

"But wouldn't that be…well — like something that he would have done?"

"He did use telepathy — I know I've told you that… but — it — it would make me feel better if you did… regardless."

"Well… then — I'll do it."

"Just… don't have a good time. Okay?"

"I promise — I won't," he said, smiling at her.

She nodded and gave him a tight smile. He did not fail to notice that the smile didn't reach her eyes.

"Lois- I should go. You have to at least get some sleep…"

"As if. But — okay. It's a good idea."

"I love you."

"I love you too."

She leaned forward and kissed him — a brief clinging of her mouth to his, and then she drew back. She was leery about starting both of them on a passion spiral again. No sense in being a tease.

He sensed her apprehension and responded only at the level of the kiss she was offering. He stood up and moved towards her balcony doors.

"Fly safe," she said softly.

He quickly spun into his flying clothes, and then looked at her to gauge her reaction, always fearing that he was scaring her.

She looked lost and lonely as she stood there, watching him with a wistful look in her tired eyes. Before he was even aware of what he was doing, he found himself closing the distance between them.

Her eyes widened as he walked so resolutely towards her and her heart caught in her throat.

Before she knew what was going on, his arm was wrapping around her and he was pulling her close. He kissed her with a passion that seemed to match their earlier kisses, and she felt lost at the hard and sensual pressure.

He ended the kiss reluctantly, and then lifted his head. His voice was slightly ragged as he spoke to her.

"I love you. Fervently and feverishly. I won't be able to stop thinking about you until we see each other again — and I'm hoping beyond hope that you'll agree to see me Sunday."

"Su- Sunday's good," she gasped out, caught up once again in his spell.

"Your place, or mine?" His voice was sensual, laced with an edge of gentle teasing.

"Uh…"

"How about — I come and get you, and we go to my place. More privacy," he murmured, as he leaned down to kiss her again. "And I like knowing that nobody can hear us when we do this…"

He kissed her again.

"Or this…"

He touched his lips to her neck again, causing her to arch against him and cry out softly.

"Are… are we going to be … doing all this?" Her voice was a mere gasp as she felt the effects of his touch.

"God, I hope so."

The very sensual and fervent note in his voice made her shiver with the combination of her very high-voltage feelings. He was being more assertive now in his expression of passion — just as she had asked him to be, and she felt a thrill of desire coupled with its ever present companion — apprehension. The fact that he was acting this way dressed as Superman added an edge to her apprehension, but she was glad he felt he could do that. They had made a lot of progress in a very short span of time.

She knew one thing — she wasn't going to be thinking of anything but Sunday — so it had better come soon.

She slept fretfully, and woke up feeling as if she hadn't slept at all.

She saw her reflection in the mirror as she brushed her teeth.

<<I look 10 years older.>>

She felt horrible, a sense of dread had wormed its way into her heart and she wanted to cry.

<<I could lose him. I could still lose him.>>

She had a deep sense of foreboding — like something horrible was about to happen. Something horrible was about to happen. The man she loved was about to go on a date with a woman whose beauty was legendary.

<<He loves me.>>

<<Yeah. Keep telling yourself that. >>

She sighed, and wondered how she was going to survive the day.

<<Shopping. I'm going shopping.>>

Lois turned to the age old ritual that had been making women feel better for years and years. She and Lucy headed out to their favorite stores and spent far more money than they ever should have. Lois stayed far away from radios and TV sets, not wanting to hear anything about Carissa, Clark, and their date.

When she returned home she was shocked to find a beautiful bunch of flowers waiting for her. At first, her skin pricked uneasily. Lex? But then, she looked at the card, and saw his unmistakable handwriting. Clark! It had been Clark. He had done this, had left her this wonderful homage of love.

The note was short and sweet.

<<I miss you already. Sunday can't come soon enough. I love you. Clark.>>

She felt a warm flush go through her body at the thought of Sunday. She should have been focusing on that — on the fact that Sunday, she would be able to resume what they had been doing last night on her couch. Her face burned as she turned to the couch and tried to remember what it felt like to be in his arms. When he had swept her up like that to kiss her — she felt so cherished , loved and wanted. It had been exciting, frightening and sensual. All those heady feelings all rolled together — and she had been happy.

She remembered how his lips had felt on hers, and the wonderful exciting sensual thrill of having his arm curved around her back, urging her close. She remembered his urgent passion, and how he had never let it get away from him — how even at the mercy of deep and primal feelings, he had restrained himself from doing anything that he thought might hurt or frighten her.

She loved him. She had been fighting it for so long, but now, it seemed as if she had always loved him. She remembered how he looked at her that day he had stopped the truck from killing her. He had been so worried, and so … she saw it now — so hurt by her fear of him. Hurt, but not offended. Her fear of him had been like a physical blow, but he had understood its cause and never resented her for it. She knew now that her articles must have been dreadful for him… that he must have endured a lot as a result of them — that people had actually started to question his motives more, and feared him more. And she had felt so triumphant at her success. She had felt like she had won against her enemy — a small battle, but still — a victory.

And now she felt wracked with the pain of having hurt him like that. This man, this innocent person who would die before hurting someone like that — she had accused him of having such vile intentions towards Earth and humanity.

She remembered how he had saved her from Lex's unwanted advances, and how careful he had been about her feelings. She was sure he had been furious, and yet — he had tempered it, had tamped it all down, so as not to make the situation worse for her. And he had offered her up a safe alternative to flying with him — he had suggested she let Lex's driver take her home and had let her know that he would be there in a heartbeat if she had needed him.

And then, she remembered how he had tried to offer her the briefcase. That briefcase which contained all the fruits of such hard and desperate labor… and he had offered what he knew at her feet, more valuable than all the jewels in the world, and she had thrown it back in his face… having a huge panic attack, and slamming the door in his face. She cringed as she remembered that, trying hard not to visualize the stricken expression that he must have wore as she flung the door shut in his face.

And then she remembered the whole asteroid ordeal. He must have felt terrible after his memory returned. She cringed at the memory, remembering his apologies and how much remorse she had seen in his eyes.

<<He's been apologizing since he met me. And he has no reason to ever apologize to me. It's all me- I'm the one who owes everything. I can't believe he loves me.>>

As she thought of him, she felt a warm presence in her mind, so different from Lord Kal-El. His presence left her filled with a sense of rightness. He wasn't trying to invade or probe at her thoughts, he just wanted to tell her he was there, and thinking of her.

**Lois.

**Clark?

**I love you. I miss you. I wish more than anything it was you here with me, instead of her.

**I'm sure she's great company.

He let her feel some of the boredom and frustration he was feeling at having to listen to Carissa talk. She giggled as he did so.

**Just look at her pretty face, and try not to listen to what she's saying.

**I'd rather think of your pretty face. And your pretty body. And those amazing kisses of yours. And how incredibly soft and smooth your skin is.

His thoughts, right in her head, filled her with an immediate sense of arousal.

**Stop! This is killing me!

Immediately, she sensed contrition.

**No! I didn't mean to make you feel bad! I didn't mean literally. Our link isn't hurting me. I just miss you so much.

Suddenly she felt a break in their communication. It was stark, sudden and harsh, and she felt a jolt of pain. She winced and clutched her head. God! What was that?

**Clark! She called out to him. What happened? Are you okay? Answer me!!

There was no answer to her plea, and her sense of unease started to increase.

**Clark!!!

But there was no answer.

Feverishly, she ran to the phone and dialed his cell phone.

But there was no answer.

Something had happened to him.

She couldn't exactly call the police — and tell them… tell them what? That her mental link with Clark had broken? They wouldn't believe her — why should they believe her? What should she do? She was torn and trapped.

She kept dialing his number, but he never answered, and with a heavy heart and mind, she finally fell asleep after leaving a message on his home phone.

The next day, she woke up feeling heavy and worried. After a few short seconds, she remembered: She had no idea where Clark was, or if he was even okay.

<<God. Please let him be okay.>>

She called Perry on the phone, and decided to share her fears with him.

"Lois — good to hear from you!"

"Listen — Perry… I — this isn't a social call. It's about Clark — I — I think something's happened to him."

"What do you mean?"

"I can't reach him… he — he's vanished," her voice was filled with tight worry.

"Darlin — just turn on the television. He's fine."

She rushed to the TV, and turned it to the all-day news channel. Live action crews were filming a post-rescue interview with the very man she was worrying about.

She breathed out a huge sigh of relief.

"Oh god… Oh… thank god…"

"Lois — why did you think he was missing?"

"He… he wasn't answering his cell phone," she said, not wanting to go into the whole telepathy thing.

"Uh… well — you do know that he went on that charity date. With Carissa." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Uh — maybe he just turned it off."

"Perry. He wouldn't do that. He — he and I… we aren't really public with it — but — we're kind of… together."

"That's great news!" His voice was enthusiastic. "Wow! Can I tell Alice?"

"Only Alice. It's not out yet. Okay?"

"This is great," he said, his voice showing his excitement clearly. "We had hoped… I knew the boy had it bad for you — but — I didn't think he ever stood a chance!"

"I know. I know. But… I fell in love with him, despite myself," she said, feeling good about being able to talk to Perry about this. "But — I'm still… I mean — I still think something strange happened last night."

"Now, Lois — I don't think he would ever betray your trust — whatever it is that you're thinking —"

"No. I don't' think he would either. Hey — I know he wouldn't. But… I — I have a bad feeling about this. I need to see him — I … I — need to make sure that he really is okay."

She called his number again. No answer.

<<Is his phone broken?>>

She saw him interacting with the news crew and felt a slight twinge of unease. Something about him seemed off to her, and she was loathe to call him now to meet her here. Something told her not to do it.

She still needed to see him, so she drove to the scene of the Superman sighting but he was no longer there.

Frustrated, she stood helplessly by her car, and her eyes caught sight of the alley where he had landed with her when he had brought her to work.

She moved down into the alley feeling very nervous about her surroundings. But at least if she called him here, they wouldn't attract a host of attention. She was about to call out for him, when she felt herself roughly pushed from behind.

She landed on the ground, hitting her head on the pavement. Stars swam before her eyes and she fought to regain her sense of control. Instinctively, she shifted around, so that her leg was raised in a position to give a killer side-lying kick to anyone stupid enough to approach her.

"Give me your bag, Lady," she heard a rough male voice say. "I just need your bag — I don't want any trouble!"

She didn't see a gun, and not wanting to lose her keys and credit cards, she hollered out a desperate call: "Help! Superman!"

In a gust of wind, he was there.

He landed, and saw the boy still standing over her as she lay on the ground. He picked the kid up and flung him brutally against one of the alley walls. The kid crumpled to the ground and didn't move to get up. He didn't move at all.

Lois watched in shock. Clark was never that rough.

He had just thrown that mugger. Thrown him so hard.

The kid wasn't even moving.

She looked up at Clark from her position on the ground and saw that he wasn't even looking at her. He was still looking over at where the kid lay, seemingly gloating over his actions. There was a slight smile of satisfaction on his face — a smile which seemed so starkly out of place with the man she knew.

She felt a shiver of fear and wanted to slink away from this man — slink away unnoticed before his attentions turned towards her.

<<Clark wouldn't hurt me.>>

She reminded herself of this fact as fear started to clench around her heart.

"Clark?" Her voice was small as she painfully stood up, feeling like she needed to be on her feet before facing him.

<<Why do I feel so threatened all of a sudden? Is it because I've never really see him deal with a criminal before? Is this how he normally does things, and I just never noticed?>>

He turned to look at her, and her eyes widened as he actually looked her up and down, as if … as if — ogling her. He gave her his full attention, smiling widely.

"Hey," he said, his voice sounding deliberately seductive.

She stepped back a half step, uncertain in the face of his strange behavior.

<<He looks so much like Kal-El now. Where's the warmth I usually see? What's going on with him?>>

"Clark?" She asked the question again, fearing for a brief moment that somehow he had switched places with Kal-El. But if this were Kal, why would he be pretending to be Superman?

"Yeah, baby. What's up?"

By now, he had recognized her as Lois Lane. His 'father' had mentioned that there was a possibility that Lois Lane was having some kind of close relationship with the other Superman. And if the other Superman had a thing going on with Lois Lane, that meant that *he* had a thing going on with Lois Lane. He smiled a little wider. She was hot.

"Uh… is — is everything okay?"

"Sure — why wouldn't it be?"

"You.. you threw him— so… violently. It's not like you."

He looked and saw reporters descending. He didn't want to talk to reporters. He only wanted to talk to her. He wanted to kiss her too. He wanted to do more than kiss her. He felt his body tighten in response, and knew what he had to do.

"Come on, baby. Let's make this a private party."

He stepped into her space, and snaked an arm around her waist. Tightening his grip, he lifted up into the sky.

She gasped in shock at his aggressive actions, and had to fight back the very real panic that was attacking her sense of composure.

"Clark," her voice was scared. "Please — please… what's going on? You're… you're scaring me."

"Hey. Have I ever dropped you? Don't worry…"

He flew them back to Clark's apartment and set her on her feet.

As soon as he released her, she stepped away, stumbling a little as she sought to regain her balance.

She stood staring at him, not knowing what to think. Sure, they had planned on getting together, and they were going to get together at his place, and he had even offered her a ride there. But… he hadn't even asked her for her permission, and he didn't seem at all fazed by her declaration of fear as they were flying.

Something very strange was going on.

He saw the fear in her eyes and realized he'd acted a little out of character.

"Sorry, sweetheart. But the press were coming and I didn't want anyone stealing your story."

She blinked at that. Such behavior seemed too unethical for him — giving her an exclusive like that — taking her away so he could do it. Furthering her career with his powers.

"Oh…" Her voice faltered as she tried to believe him. "I — I — I guess… thank you?"

"That guy had it coming." he said, carelessly. "I — I may have forgotten myself a bit — but you know — might is right, and after all — he was harassing my girl."

"Might is…"

His words made no sense to her at all, from his declaration of his new motto, to his usage of the words 'my girl'. Surely he would be loathe to call her that, fearing that she might flash back to her days as a slave.

"Right… look, Lois — how often to I have to do this kind of thing? Every day, right? Nobody ever learns from it. You would think — eventually — people would figure out there's no point in doing stuff like this — not in my city at least…"

<<His city?>>

"A little — strong show of force, and that will discourage future perpetrators. Maybe I violate a few civil rights here and there, but in the end — it's the results that count. The ends do justify the means."

She narrowed her eyes and shook her head. "This — doesn't sound like you."

"Come on, baby," he said, mesmerized by how much she was making him want her. She was so beautiful — and he was having trouble keeping up his act in the face of how she was making him feel. He wanted her. "Come on. Let's not fight."

He walked over to her and she had to fight from stepping back. She searched his face, trying desperately to find one spark of Clark in his expression. Something … anything… to tell her that she was crazy for thinking that this wasn't Clark.

<<God — who the hell is this?>>

He gripped her shoulders, and she tensed up.

<<No. No — don't kiss me!>>

He lowered his head and crushed his lips down on hers as he simultaneously pulled her close in against his body. Immediately she felt her fear and panic reflexes kick in.

<<This isn't Clark! Clark does not kiss like this. Where is Clark? Who is this?>>

Her heart was beating rapidly in sheer terror and she pushed at him frantically, unable to even pretend to enjoy his kisses.

He stepped back and looked at her, anger clearly etched into his features.

<<No. Definitely not Clark! >>

She felt dread take a hold of her heart.

"What's wrong now," he asked her in a deadly voice.

"I —I — I don't have — I have to be somewhere — and… I have to be there — uh — now." Her voice and manner were pleading, and she hated herself for it.

"No problem. We can make this quick," he murmured, leaning in again to kiss her.

She backed away, and he had to fight every instinct to grip her arms harder and pull her in.

<<How dare she back away from me. >>

He calmed those angry thoughts, not wanting her to know he wasn't Clark.

"Please," she begged, feeling very close to tears. "I can't. Not now. But later! I mean — we did have a date tonight — right…? Why spoil tonight — let's just — let's just wait. Okay?" She hadn't meant to tell him about her date, but she needed to mollify him with something.

"Okay," he said, clearly irritated. "But don't play games with me, Lois. I don' t like it. I'll take you back."

"No! Because… because — you know… You didn't want people to know about us just yet — and if you take me back — it might start people talking…"

"Oh… Oh — yeah. Right… okay."

"I'll be fine on my own. Really."

"If you say so."

He pulled her in again, and kissed her, forcing his tongue into her mouth in an overtly passionate maneuver.

Instead of thrilling her, it sickened her. She forced herself to respond, and when it was over she had to fight the urge to wipe her mouth in disgust.

"I'll see you tonight," he said. "Wear something sexy."

His words sounded like and order, and she shuddered.

<<Not Kal-El. But someone a lot like Kal-El. What's going on?>>

As soon as she got out of his apartment, she ran a few blocks, trying to run some of the fear out of her body. She was trembling violently at her close call and trying very hard not to succumb to the lure of tears. The man she loved was gone. Someone had put this … this… changeling in his place. It was right out of some kind of horrible dream.

<<God. Could Tempus have done this?>>

She took a cab back to her car and then drove home. Once home, she paced nervously, trying to figure out what her next move should be. She had to figure out what was going on, and she needed help. Problem was, she needed help from someone who could help her stand up to this imposter. And that person was Clark. And he didn't seem to be anywhere.

She continued calling out to him in her mind, but she heard no response. For all she knew, he was dead. The thought gripped her with pain and horror, and she found herself overcome by the grief of his loss. No.

<<I can't lose it now. I have to hang on. I can do this, because I'm strong. >>

She knew she only had a few hours before the imposter would come looking for her, expecting her to be willing and compliant to his physical demands.

<<I have to find Clark before tonight!>>

She jumped in shock as she heard a knock on her door.

<<Oh god!>>

She quietly made her way to the door, and peered fearfully out the peephole.

<<Wells!! It's Wells!! Oh god! Maybe he can help. Maybe he knows what happened. Maybe Tempus did do something. Maybe it will be okay!>>

She flung open the door, full of relief and haste.

"Oh … my god — you have no idea how glad I am to see you."

Herb surveyed the woman nervously, remembering clearly how angry and frightened she had been when he last saw her. He knew she could be dangerous if she was cornered, and he wasn't sure whether or not she would welcome seeing him.

"Miss Lane… I need your help."

"Yes. Come in! Please!"

She resisted the urge to pull him in, and instead waited nervously as he walked in at his own pace. As soon as he was in, she urgently shut the door and locked all the locks.

"Mister Wells…"

"Herbert. Please. Or Herb."

"Herb… oh god…"

She broke down and started crying, and he stood there, feeling completely inadequate to the task at hand — offering up comfort to this woman who had been through so much. He remembered how she had cried when he had told her that she was home, and then, had broken the news about Clark being in this world. It hurt to see her cry.

"Is … Is Clark … I'm sorry to — come to you with this… but is — is —he… is he all right? I — sensed a dimming of his life force and became quite… quite alarmed. I couldn't find him, and so… I thought — maybe you might know what happened."

She shook her head wildly.

"He's not all right. I mean — I don' t know what's happened to him — or where he is — but he's not all right. There's… there's someone who claims to be Clark — going about as Superman, and stopping crime — but it's not Clark. I know it's not Clark, and I have no idea who it is. He's not as … good as Clark, either. He seems… he seems dangerous… not quite like Lord Kal-El — but not benign either. I need your help. Could Clark have gone into another universe?"

Herb shook his head worriedly. "I don't think so."

He pulled a device