Strong

By Shayne Terry <byron212@yahoo.com>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: September 2007

Summary: In her time of greatest need, Lois Lane hears a voice asking, "Are you ready to be strong?" Now she must deal with the consequences, while investigating the collapse of Sunnydale and dealing with her new partner Clark Kent.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own the characters or the worlds they live in. They belong to a lot of people who aren't me. I don't own Buffy, or Lois and Clark or any of their friends.

***

Scrubbing at the blood on her hands, Lois stared at herself in the grimy bathroom mirror. In the harsh neon glare of the bathroom light she looked pale and washed out. The bruises on her face were already fading and the swelling was slowly going down.

She closed her eyes for a moment and flinched as a flash of memory came over her. The sensation of her hands crunching bone was something that was going to haunt her nightmares for a long time.

Lois Lane had been sure she was going to die tonight. In a way, she almost wished she had.

Of all the risks she'd taken, this one shouldn't have been any different. Than the others. Somehow it had.

She never would have gotten out alive if it hadn't been for the voice.

"Are you ready to be strong?" The voice had rung out in her ear even though no one had spoken the words. Somehow, they'd compelled her, drawn her in, given her strength that she never would have imagined her having.

That strength had kept her alive, but it had come with a price.

She was going to have to live with what she had done for the rest of her life.

***

Lois felt as though she was walking through a dream. She'd double checked her makeup and the swelling of her right eye was barely noticeable. The bruises had already faded with an unnatural speed.

She looked professional as always, and she held herself erect. There was no reason that anyone else had to know about her own personal hell. They already avoided her. The people at the office only tolerated her because she got results.

Risks had carried her to three Merriweather awards, and her current story might get her nominated for a Pulitzer. For someone who was only twenty six, it was an impressive resume.

Risk had carried her to the top, and it was only now that Lois found herself wondering if it had all been worth it.

The story she had in her hands might win her a Pulitzer, and the thought of it should have filled her with joy. Instead, all she felt was numb.

Her hands still shook when she wasn't paying attention.

She walked through the Bullpen, wondering when everything had gotten so quiet. The place was almost deserted, although she could hear the television blaring from the conference room.

She stepped through the door, to find a crowd of people who had their eyes glued to the television.

The picture of a massive crater, dwarfed by the tiny trucks and vehicles parked by the rim was stark, as were pictures of refugees huddled in busses.

She saw Perry White, her editor get up silently and slide around the periphery of the room. He stepped outside the conference room and said in a low voice, "Where have you been honey? I've been worried about you."

He stared at her, and Lois had a sense that she wasn't fooling him with all the makeup.

"I've got the gunrunning story. I just got back from the airport."

"From the Congo?"

"I flew through London."

She hadn't bothered to try to sleep, knowing that it would be useless. Instead, she'd used her time productively, writing story after story that would be the end of these men.

What they did to people was a crime.

"I have the proof to nail them to the wall. I'm going to have the story that's going to…"

"Give me what you have. The rest you'll have to finish up on the plane," Perry said. "I almost sent the new hire out on the Sunnydale story by himself."

"Sunnydale?"

"The crater back there. It was a town in California with a population of thirty eight thousand. Nobody seems to know what happened."

"Terrorists?" Lois asked. The only thing she could think of that would do that kind of damage was a meteor impact, or an underground nuclear detonation. The Meteor strike would have been observed.

Perry shrugged. "Keep your traveling clothes together, and I'll have you on a flight with your new partner."

"Partner?" Lois scowled. She'd tried having partners in the past, but it had never worked. She'd always ended up driving them away.

In the end it had become clear to her that she worked better alone. No one else was willing to take the risks she did.

"He's just the man we need for this." There was a strange certainty in Perry's voice that worried Lois.

Perry gestured, and a handsome man smoothly rose from his seat and smiled at her.

Lois fought to keep from scowling again. She hated handsome men. They were full of themselves and they generally weren't all that bright either.

"Clark Kent, I'd like you to meet Lois Lane."

***

"Let's get things straight before we go any further," Lois said as he packed the last of the suitcases in the back of the taxi, making it look effortless. With her newfound strength, which seemingly hadn't gone away, Lois could have matched that feat, but she was still impressed.

"You like to be top banana," Clark said, interrupting her. "You call the shots, and I look and learn."

Lois frowned. "You've been talking to people at the office?"

"I watch people," he said. "Sometimes I can be a pretty good judge of character."

"Well, I also don't like being interrupted. I'm the top banana, and I'm the lead reporter on this. You are the new man here, the low man on the totem pole. Where did you say you were from again?"

"I didn't." Clark opened the door for her, and gestured for her to get in. The cabbie inside looked bored.

"Let me guess. You come from one of the red states in the middle of the country. You are a country boy, and you still think it's polite to rise when a woman enters the room."

Clark nodded. "I can square dance too." He slipped into the taxi beside her. Closing the door, he leaned forward and said, "The Airport please."

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"A small town named Smallville."

Lois smirked and looked away for a moment. The handsome man was nothing more than a good looking farmer.

She could work with him, if he was as na´ve as he pretended to be.

Now all she had to worry about was this collapsed city, and the source of her mysterious new strength.

And she'd have to come to terms with her own guilt. Luckily, Lois Lane could achieve anything if she set her mind to it.

She was asleep a moment after she found her seat on the plane.

Startled, Lois jerked awake. She had fading memories of dreams of men with demonic looking faces, of fighting, blood and death.

She'd had enough of that in real life to be surprised that it followed in her dreams.

It took her a moment to realize that she was lying with her head on her partner's shoulder. She glanced up at him, only to see that he was looking down at her with amusement.

Pulling herself quickly to an upright position, she said, "How far are we from Los Angeles?"

"You've been asleep for almost nine hours," Clark said. "We had a layover and the stewardess thought you were drunk."

Lois stared at him, wondering if he was teasing her. It was hard to tell given his bland expression. She had a feeling that he'd practiced fading into the woodwork. It was a good skill for an undercover reporter.

"We've got about thirty minutes before we land." Clark said. "The good news is that we've got a vehicle. The bad news is that there aren't any places to stay within a two hundred mile radius."

Lois frowned.

"Thirty five thousand people or so have flooded every hotel, motel, bed and breakfast and private home willing to rent in the area."

"So what are we going to do?"

Clark looked embarrassed. "I have friends in the area; we'll stay with them."

"Of course you do," Lois said.

"They live about an hour out from the crater," Clark said. "It'll be fun."

***

Lois stared at the small collection of Spanish style houses covered in red tile roofs. They were clustered together among the rolling hills, but the weather was hot and the countryside was brown. There had been a drought here, she remembered.

Smiling widely, Clark Kent was embraced by the large family. They were well dressed Latin-Americans, who seemed genuinely fond of Clark. They spoke to him in rapid Spanish, and he replied to them in the same language.

The children didn't seem to have any concept of boundaries, and Lois found herself involuntarily pulling away as they attempted to hug her as well.

She was soon pulled to her room, an airy room with an old fashioned ceiling fan and an old fashioned bed.

Dropping her suitcases to the hardwood floors, Lois winced at the heavy thump they'd made. She was carrying several of them, and she'd forgotten how heavy they were. Luckily, Clark hadn't seemed to notice.

There were lovely Spanish rugs on the floor and pictures of laughing children covered the walls, which were painted brightly in reds and pinks.

The window opened out into a view of the hills and it was large enough that she could have crawled out of it. She would only have a little drop. She wondered how they managed without bars on the windows, or any of the other little protections that she had come to be used to in Metropolis.

Small town people were too trusting. Here they were accepting her into their home, a woman they knew nothing about.

For all they knew, she could be an axe-murderer. She closed her eyes at the sudden image of blood on her hands.

***

The motor homes and RV's had already proliferated into a sort of shanty town at the edge of the crater. None of the vehicles belonged to the former residents. Instead, they'd all been rented out by news networks. Satellite dishes sprouted from the roofs of the vehicles, and helicopters flew over the rim of the crater.

The crater was vast. More than five miles in diameter, and several hundred feet deep, it was already the focus of a massive rescue operation. Deep in the crater, men were combing the rubble for any sighs of survivors, or failing that, any evidence of what had happened here.

"There is no evidence that this is the result of a terrorist attack, but we are investigating all possibilities." Carl Braithwait was a mid level FEMA employee who looked more like a heavyset accountant. In all likelihood that was exactly what he had once been.

He was sweating at the podium, and to the gathered crowd of reporters, it was like chum in the water.

"So there is no sign that this was the result of an underground nuclear detonation?" One reporter asked quickly.

"Radiation readings are normal at every place in the crater we have measured so far. The size of the detonation needed to create a crater this size would leave evidence that we just don't see."

"What's the working theory then?" Another reporter stood up and asked the question.

"We believe that the town of Sunnydale was built on top of an unstable system of caverns that eventually collapsed in on itself."

"Who warned the citizens of Sunnydale to evacuate the city?" Lois asked. "And if they had several days warning, why wasn't anyone else informed of the dangers?"

"You'll have to ask the citizens themselves why they all decided to leave at the same time. As far as we can tell, there was no government involvement in the evacuation at all. This came as a surprise to us as much as to anyone."

Lois scowled as the next woman stood up to ask her question. There was something rotten here, and she knew it.

A young man in a black t-shirt and with several piercing stood up and said, "What about the weirdness that was the city before the collapse? Is anyone ready to talk about the truth about the city of Sunnydale?"

"I'm here to focus on the crisis at hand. We are doing everything we can to rescue any possible survivors, and trying to find a solution as to the relocation of the people who lived here. This is an insurance crisis as well as a humanitarian one."

Neatly sidestepping the question. "Have there been any survivors found?" Lois asked.

Braithwait shook his head. Before he could ask anyone else, she followed with another question. "How many bodies have you found?"

"At last count, thirty seven," he said. "Seventeen were seniors trapped in a nursing home. It is a national chain and there will be an investigation."

"Is there fear of looting?" The reporter who asked this was particularly stupid looking.

"It takes special equipment just to get down into the crater." Braithwait wiped his head. "And whatever treasures might be left are buried under tons of rock and rubble. Worrying about looters is a low priority at the moment."

As he spoke, Lois pulled out her cell phone and quickly sent a text message to Jimmy.

"Research Sunnydale. Full background, esp. weirdness. Lois."

A moment later there was a reply.

"Already on it. Information tonight."

The rest of the press conference was a bust.

***

"There aren't any survivors," Clark said stubbornly.

"I covered the earthquake in Mexico and they were still finding people weeks later."

Shaking his head, Clark said "I looked…there's nothing that could have survived all that. It's a waste of time."

"Tell that to the families of the dead," Lois said.

At least a list of the dead was going to be released. How long it would be was an open question. With so many people displaced, there wasn't any good way to contact relatives beforehand.

Lois grabbed one of Clark's fries, already regretting her choice of a salad and tuna sandwich. She was ravenous, more than could be accounted for by what she'd eaten.

It felt as though she could eat her meal and his too, and Clark Kent ate like a teenager.

"How do you eat like that?" she asked. Full cream in his coffee, fatty hamburger, double order of fries, milkshake, pie. Kent was a fat man in a fit man's body, and she envied him.

He pushed the basket of fries in her direction, and she smiled at him gratefully before shoveling most of them onto her empty salad plate.

"Jimmy is going to investigate the town, so our next step is to find people who were in town the day it fell."

Clark got a sudden far off look in his eyes. He turned to her and said, "I'll get started on that. I'll do some leg work and meet you back at the villa."

Tossing her the keys to the rental, and throwing some money down on the table, Clark stood up and quickly left the building.

He didn't even have a vehicle.

***

Stepping out of the cafÚ, Lois scanned the street outside. She'd grabbed the keys almost as soon as he'd left, and there shouldn't have been time for him to get very far.

It was a narrow street filled with closely parked cars. There wasn't anywhere for her partner to have gone in either direction; there weren't any alleyways or intersection streets for most of a city block.

Lois scowled as she walked quickly down the street toward the rental. Ditching her was unprofessional, and she was going to let Perry know exactly what she thought of her new partner. She was Lois Lane, and she would be treated with respect.

It felt good to be angry. Anger was a familiar emotion, one she'd had a great deal of experience channeling into positive outcomes.

It had only failed her once. Lois suppressed a shudder, and then stopped as she came to the rental.

Someone had parked barely a foot away from the front bumper, and someone else had parked almost as close from the back. There was no way she was ever going to be able to squeeze out of the parking space as it was. Worse, Perry had already read her the riot act about damaging rentals, after a few unfortunate incidents involving car chases.

People were so rude. It had always irritated her, but the longer she stood and stared at it, the angrier it made her.

She glanced over at the business the car was parked in front of. The beat of loud music played from inside, and there was some sort of cheesy gothic design on the front sign.

The street was deserted though.

Slipping her keys into a front pocket, Lois reached down and grabbed the rear bumper of the car in front of her. Although she'd seen some of what her strength could do, she had never really tested it.

The rear of the car came up, and a moment later, the tires came up as well. It was a strain, but Lois didn't feel as though she was hurting anything important.

She shoved the car a few inches out in the street. She then moved to the front and shoved that a few inches forward.

Lois Lane had always hated rudeness.

***

Lois smirked as she stared in the rear view mirror. She'd called to report a car parked out in the middle of the street, and the tow truck had already arrived. It was petty of her, but somehow she felt a little better.

She pulled into drive and headed back for the villa. She was grateful that she'd driven on the way out to the conference, or she would have missed the turn onto the dirt road leading to the Cortez home.

Pulling up next to a seeming fleet of cars, she put the car into park and sat for a moment. The sun had long ago gone down, and Lois could feel the wind turning cooler.

She got out of the car and headed for the back. Their rooms had their own doors, so they wouldn't have to interrupt their hosts. Another door led to an interior courtyard with a beautiful garden.

Lois needed access to her computer to see what Jimmy had come up with. Maybe then she could start writing up a preliminary story for the Planet.

As she approached her door, she saw the patriarch of the family leaning against the wall. He was lighting a cigar and staring up at the sky.

"Senor Cortez," she said. Under ordinary circumstances, she would be wary about being alone at night with a man she did not know, but since the change, she knew the truth.

He should worry about being alone with her.

"Senorita Lane," the man said, nodding in her direction. He was a man in his sixties, and gray was just beginning to creep into his moustache.

She hesitated, and then asked, "How does your family know Mr. Kent?"

"He saved the life of my granddaughter," the older man said. "In my culture, we do not forget such things."

"How did he…?" Lois frowned. She hadn't pegged Clark Kent as the physically brave type.

"He was a drifter…he found work with us on the ranch. When Anna went missing, lost in the hills, he found her and brought her back after she'd been bitten by a snake."

So he had just been part of the rescue effort. It didn't help much in getting a better picture of who her partner was.

"Anna thought he was an angel come to take her." The older man chuckled. "She was delirious at the time. It was a miracle that he even found her in the first place. She was miles away from where any of the rest of us thought to look." "Thank you, Mr. Cortez." Lois hesitated. "Do you know anything about Sunnydale?"

The old man spat on the ground. "La Boca del Infierno. The Spanish always had sense enough to avoid that place. Only the gringos were stupid enough to move there."

"There was something wrong with it?" Lois asked. She'd felt something the first time she'd seen the crater, a sense of slowly fading evil, but she'd dismissed it as jet lag.

"It was a cursed place. My Maria drove an extra thirty minutes just to avoid shopping there."

The old man extinguished the cigar with a small brass device from his pocket. "I'm going to bed. If you know what's good for you, you will as well. Things escaped when the city collapsed, and the hills aren't as safe as they once were."

Before Lois could ask another question, he slipped around the corner and was gone.

Frowning, Lois found her key and stepped inside her room. A few moments allowed her to connect her laptop to the telephone line.

A few moments later she was inside the US census database. California as a whole was racially diverse. Latinos, Asians, African Americans…it was an ethnic and cultural melting pot, more so than in most parts of the country. Only half the population was Caucasian.

Sunnydale had been almost ninety eight percent Caucasian. Lois frowned. Something definitely wasn't right here, especially as housing prices in Sunnydale were a third of the price anywhere else in the state. Those prices had kept dropping over a period of several years even as the rest of the state had skyrocketing property prices.

Lois checked her e-mail. Jimmy hadn't sent her an attachment yet, and all of a sudden she was waiting anxiously. She could tell that she was only hitting the tip of the iceberg with this story, and there was something desperately wrong with that town.

Cursed. It was how she had been feeling about herself since she'd begun changing.

She jerked compulsively as there was a knock at the door.

Her partner stepped into the room, and Lois said, "Where have you been? I looked all over for…"

"They've found more than a hundred bodies." Clark said. "Buried by a gas station just past the edge of the crater."

He handed her a photo. It was an aerial photo of ambulances gathered to collect bodies, even as police were digging up a mass communal grave.

Lois was already gathering her coat.

***

Trees flashed by rapidly as Clark made his way expertly through the winding, unlit path. There had been a time when Lois would have been almost blind; it was a moonless night and the only light came from the headlights, which didn't reach that far in front of them.

Since the change, the darkness didn't seem as all encompassing. She could see all around them, and for a moment she thought of asking Clark to drive. Apparently, he also had very good night vision, because he never seemed to make a mistake, slowing even before she saw the deer which tried to run out into the road.

For some reason, the bodies were being transported by refrigerated trucks to the San Louis Obispo county morgue instead of further up or down coast. This required a trip through the Los Padres National forest, something that didn't make sense to Lois, but which Clark explained as being due to overcrowding in the Los Angeles morgues.

"How did you get the aerial photo?" she asked, not looking at her partner. He'd certainly come through professionally, but she was still angry about being ditched.

Clark Kent coughed and said "I have a friend who is a helicopter pilot."

He was lying. Lois wasn't sure why, but she filed it away for another time. There would be time enough o teach him the error of his ways.

"How are we going to get the coroner to talk?" she asked.

"I know the Assistant Coroner," Clark said. He stared at the road and didn't look at her.

So there were reasons Perry had sent Clark on this assignment. He knew the area, he had connections. Lois was beginning to feel like the third wheel. She hoped she didn't have to get between the man and his ego.

"So we won't be using her name in the story."

It was a shot in the dark, but his slight flinch told her she was correct. Lois pursed her lips. She should have known that a man who looked like her partner would have a checkered past.

Glancing at her, Clark said, "She's a member of the Cortez family."

The same family that loved Clark for having saved their little girl.

"They certainly get around," she said.

Clark shrugged. He tapped the brake sharply and a moment later Lois saw a deer dart out in front of them. This one didn't stop, and Clark smoothly missed it.

"You're pretty good at this," she said.

"I had some training driving as a bodyguard for a Nigerian princess," he said. He glanced at her and smirked. "She taught me to dance."

Lois had taken the combat driving course before going to the Congo. It hadn't done her much good, and she wasn't sure how it would apply now. Before the change she would have hit the deer almost certainly.

Now she wasn't sure. She doubted that she would have been able to do it as smoothly as Clark Kent had.

"You missed your profession, Smallville," Lois said uneasily. "You should be at the Indianapolis 500."

He smiled at her. "Who says I haven't?"

"What, you're a world traveler?"

"I've been traveling the world for the past five years, and I did some traveling in college."

"Trust fund baby?" Lois asked.

Clark shook his head. "My parents are farmers in Kansas. I just discovered that it's possible to go anywhere if you are willing to undergo a little hardship."

Mr. Cortez had described him as a drifter.

"You never wrote for any major paper?"

"The London Times, the New York Times…I've written a few things for the AP. Mostly I did freelance work for smaller papers. I did an article for the Borneo Gazette about the mating habits of…"

Lois gestured irritably. "I'm not interesting in mating habits. I want to know about this case."

"They've found eighty nine bodies so far, most were buried about three feet underground in shallow graves. One of the graves intersected with the Sunnydale pit, and a searcher noticed an arm hanging out. There's no telling if more bodies are inside the pit, although the searchers don't seem to think so."

"I just don't see how someone could kill eighty nine people without it being noticed."

"There are a hundred thousand missing persons' cases active at any given time," Clark said. "People like Gacy, Dahmer, Bundy…sometimes they get away with it for years."

Lois scowled and stared out the window again.

The rest of the trip was silent.

***

Lois had always hated morgues. They had the usual hospital smell to them, of disinfectants and other chemicals, and underlying that, she'd always thought she could sense an underlying smell of rot.

They were purposefully isolated, and often underground. It was probably easier to insulate the cadavers.

There were refrigerated trucks pulled around the back of the building. Lois could hear the sound of humming coming from the trucks, and the sounds of a gasoline generator somewhere farther behind.

There were too many bodies for the facility, and some of them were going to have to stay in the trucks.

Lois felt nervous. Someone was going to have to check on the generators and the refrigeration equipment fairly regularly, or a mistake could be disastrous.

There was a double set of large metal doors in the back, with a smaller door off to the side. The door clicked open, and an attractive Latino woman gestured for them to come in.

A moment later they were walking quickly down a long hall toward an elevator.

The woman, who was wearing a lab coat, quietly went to the door next to the elevator, and they slipped down the stairs.

"My boss is upstairs," the woman said finally when they reached the bottom. "He gets curious when he hears the elevator moving."

She pushed open another set of double doors, and they were inside the morgue.

There were five bodies draped in sheets. On one wall were row upon row of metal drawers, which held bodies. To the right was the door to the freezer.

A large African-American man was scrubbing his hands at a sink.

"This is Marcus, my Diener," the woman said.

The man looked up at them and nodded curtly before going back to scrubbing himself. As a Diener, he was the man who actually manhandled the bodies, moving them from place to place and assisting the coroner.

The woman turned and said, "My name is Angela Cortez. I don't normally make a habit of speaking with the press."

There would be legal problems if she did speak about ongoing investigations. The implication was that she wanted her name out of the paper.

"We won't implicate you," Lois said. "Can you tell me what you've found?"

"I've only done five autopsies," Angela said, "but I've had a preliminary look at thirty other bodies. My boss is upstairs doing other autopsies, and I suspect he won't find anything different."

Lois didn't say anything, and Angela stepped over to the nearest body. Pulling the cover carefully aside, she showed the decaying face of a mustachioed man.

Putting one hand to her nose because of the smell, Lois leaned forward. The man had a tattoo on his head. She couldn't make out the design due to the discoloration of his face.

"If they'd been buried any more shallowly, we'd be looking at bones. As it is, the estimated time of death is approximately two to three years ago."

"You can't pin the time down any more closely," Lois asked.

"These are preliminary results," the woman said.

"All the bodies were killed at the same time?" Clark asked.

The woman nodded. "All the ones I've examined so far, anyway. What I've seen of my bosses results show the same thing."

"How did they die?"

"Blunt force trauma, mostly. Broken bones, crushed skulls, occasional puncture wounds that weren't made by anything sharp. Some of them had limbs torn completely off."

Lois frowned. "Somebody stabbed them with something blunt?"

"I found this in the back of one man's eye socket." Angelica turned to a nearby drawer and pulled out a clearly labeled evidence bag.

Inside was a single, broken red fingernail.

"Someone dropped that in while they were burying the bodies?" Clark asked.

Angelica shook her head. "It was buried in the back of the eye socket."

Lois stared at the coroner for a long moment, feeling nauseous. She could remember the feeling of bone shattering under her hands, and it took her a moment to realize the full implications.

The coroner began to drone on about blunt force trauma, about crushed skulls, about impact points and pre-mortem injuries.

This was something Lois was capable of doing. As she hadn't, it meant that she wasn't the only person to have changed.

She didn't wonder why Clark had the same look of sick realization on his face as she did.

***

Angelica droned on and on about the causes of death. Blunt force trauma, the occasional piercing wounds, limbs ripped off. The litany of death went on and on, and Lois found herself becoming more and more nauseous.

"Were they wearing anything that would give some clue to their identities?" she asked, interrupting. Anything would be better than listing all the possible ways a human being could be killed by someone else with their bare hands.

"They were wearing custom made armor," Angelica said. "Helmets, mail shirts, armored gloves…the full regalia."

"Movie props?" Clark asked.

Angelica shook her head. "Well made and useable. No recognizable armorer's mark. They were armed with swords, maces, and crossbows…all medieval weapons without a single modern pistol or rifle among them."

"Could they have done this to each other?" Lois asked, hoping for an alternative explanation. "Some of these wounds could have been made by a hammer or mace…"

"The heads of the weapons are too large for the impact areas. I haven't seen any of the maces with a small enough head to have done the sort of damage we've seen, although some of the crushed skulls might have been."

"Anything else?" Lois asked.

Angelica nodded. "I haven't done the autopsy on this last fellow here, and Marcus just pulled his armor off before you got here."

She pulled back the sheet to reveal a desiccated corpse wearing some sort of strange cotton undergarment.

"Do you recognize this?" Lois asked.

Both Clark and Angelica shook their heads.

Marcus, the morgue attendant spoke up for the first time. "It's a Vestis Angelica."

"What?"

"I took a class at UC Sunnydale," the man said, sounding embarrassed. "A Vestis Angelica is a monastic garment that laymen wore shortly before their death, that they might have the benefit of monks' prayers."

"So these men thought they were going to die soon." Lois glanced at Clark, knowing he was wondering the same thing as she was. Was this some sort of suicide cult?

"I think it was a custom in Europe back in the middle ages. Today it's mostly continued in Italy and Spain. I don't recognize the religious order these things are dedicated to. If you get much past the Dominicans or the Franciscans, I'm lost."

Lois leaned forward. There was a small design on the undergarment that looked like the same design on the tattoos.

"Are all the tattoos the same?" Clark asked.

"All the ones we've seen so far anyway." Angelica said quietly.

"Were you in Sunnydale when it…?" Lois asked, staring at the man. They needed interviews with survivors, but from what she was hearing from Perry, the survivors were uncharacteristically silent, even to the television reporters.

The day a Californian didn't want to be on television was the day something was wrong.

"I had the sense to get out three years ago," he said. "It meant transferring schools, but it was worth it."

"What can you tell me about Sunnydale?" Lois asked.

The man scowled and turned away to wash his hands again. This time he seemed to do it compulsively.

"I worked at the coroner's office in Sunnydale for a month before I got out. It was the biggest mistake of my life."

"Why?" Lois asked.

"Check the death statistics," he said. His face was closed, and she could tell she wasn't going to get more out of him without extensive prying.

Lois stiffened, and she noticed that Clark did as well. She could hear the sounds of stealthy movements in the hallway outside.

Angelica and Marcus didn't appear to have heard anything.

Lois gestured toward the door, and Angelica's eyes widened. If her boss found her in the morgue with two reporters, her career could be over.

Angelica gestured toward the vault, and Lois nodded, as did Clark. They hustled toward the refrigerated vault, the door closing behind them just as Lois heard a muffled voice on the other side of the door. She couldn't make out the words, but it seemed to go on and on and on.

It was bitingly, freezing cold, and Lois wasn't dressed for it. She began shivering, and Clark pulled off his suit jacket and gave it to her.

Lois would have protested, but she was too cold to care. She was wearing a skirt, and her legs were starting to feel numb. Luckily, his jacket covered her to the knees, and it was amazingly warm and comfortable as it enveloped her.

Clark looked at her, and a moment later. Lois thought the cold seemed to recede a little, and the jacket seemed to feel warmer. She huddled against a wall, and Clark huddled close to her.

Lois ignored the bodies laid out on the shelves behind her. There wasn't anything she wanted to see.

A moment later she jerked as the door to the vault opened.

"I'm sorry," Angelica said. "You have to get out of here. He's bringing some observer's down for the next autopsy."

Lois nodded, and the two of them stepped out into the autopsy room.

Slipping her heels off, she and Clark dashed down the hall. She heard the sound of the elevator door opening, along with the chime that usually accompanied it.

She sprinted down the hall, with Clark right behind her. They both slipped through the door to the stairs a moment before the elevator opened. Clark had the door in his hand, and he held it slightly open, so the noise of the door closing wouldn't alert whoever was coming out of the elevator.

Three men in black suits followed a heavyset man in a green operating gown.

Clark allowed the door to click shut only after the men were halfway down the hall.

***

The identical Crown Victorias with government plates parked in front of the building were only conformation of what Lois already expected.

"FBI?" she asked Clark quietly.

He nodded, staring intently over his glasses into the car. Even with her improved night sight, Lois couldn't make out anything incriminating, and even she wasn't about to break into an FBI vehicle.

Clark glanced behind him and said, "Let's get out of here before they get back."

Lois nodded, and they quickly headed for the rental car. They'd parked it a moderate distance away in accordance to Angela's wishes.

"Do you really think they were a suicide cult?" Lois asked.

"Or they knew that something out there might kill them," Clark said grimly. He looked at Lois for a moment and said, "I'm getting the feeling that we're just hitting the tip of the iceberg here."

"Jimmy should have the information for us. I'll check it online when I get back."

As Clark slipped the vehicle into drive, Lois wondered if she should have insisted on driving. At home, she never would have let anyone else drive, but Clark was familiar with the area, and she was always so tired. She hadn't felt rested, no matter how much she slept.

She realized she was still wearing Clark's jacket, but she felt warm and comfortable. A few minutes into the trip she began to drift off.

***

She was surrounded by rock walls, the only light coming from a cave entrance. Three men stood before her, and when she tried to move she discovered that she was somehow chained down.

They spoke in a language she didn't understand, and she screamed as darkness began to rise from the walls and the floor. It woke, and began to pour toward her, an inexorable tide of evil.

It flowed over her, and a moment later she was choking on it.

***

Lois jerked awake, dismayed to realize that she was sweating profusely. Clark had turned the heater on full blast, and inside his coat she'd been too warm.

She could still taste the darkness, smell it. Instinctively she knew that it tainted everything it touched.

It would explain why she'd done what she'd done.

The car pulled to a stop, and Lois stepped out quickly. She was exhausted and looking for something to blame on her own bad choices.

She'd made the choice to kill, and now she was going to have to live with it for the rest of her life.

Mysterious strength or no, there had been nothing forcing her to make the choices she had, other than the circumstances.

There was an unfamiliar car in the Cortez parking lot, and Lois wondered who might be coming here at this hour of the night.

She headed for the front entrance way instead of the back, and Lois was surprised to see a familiar face.

"Jimmy?" she asked. "What are you doing here?"

"I was originally assigned to your seat on the plane," he said. "After the things I found out about Sunnydale…and didn't, the Chief wanted me to come down here and see if I could find out anything more concrete."

"What's going on?" Lois asked.

She gestured for him to come inside, and he did.

Several of the Cortez family were watching from a common living area, and for some reason, the moment Jimmy stepped over the threshold, they visibly relaxed.

"The records online have been tampered with," Jimmy said. "But there's a lot of evidence from home web sites that disagrees with the official record. I'm going to look at copies of the paper they have in Los Angeles to see if I can find out anything."

Lois led Jimmy through the courtyard and toward her room. She gestured for Clark to come in as well.

As soon as the door closed, Jimmy said, "There's a massive conspiracy around this place, and I have proof."

Jimmy had brought a small suitcase and a larger computer bag with him. He dropped the suitcase on the floor, and pulled a thick file folder out of the bag. He opened it on the table and glanced through it, flipping through several pages.

"I was investigating Sunnydale like I was asked, and I didn't find anything out of the ordinary. Everything seemed pretty standard for a California town of thirty eight thousand people and change."

Lois sat slowly on the bed, certain that there was more to the story.

"There were a few anomalies…Sunnydale had a college campus, an airport, a train and bus station…too much for a town of that size. Someone had to have some heavy political clout over the years to attract all of that business."

"Well, it's a county seat…" Lois said slowly.

Jimmy shook his head. "I found personal blogs and web pages from people who had been living in Sunnydale at the time, and what they say is a lot different than the official line. Some of it is pretty far out there…accusing the government of conspiracies, talking about the supernatural…"

"Well, the internet isn't exactly the most reliable source for information," Lois said.

Giving her a sour look, Jimmy grabbed a sheet from the folder. Glancing at it, he said, "In June 1999, someone bombed one of the Sunnydale High schools, completely destroying it during the graduation ceremony. In the process, more than forty people were killed. Survivors talked about giant snakes and monsters attacking."

Lois glanced at Clark. That should have been national news, the sort of news that ran for months as CNN and MSNBC tried to decide who was to blame. Although she had been in her first year as a reporter, she should have heard about that. She hadn't heard a word.

"Earlier that year, a group of vigilantes attempted to burn several people at the stake, accusing them of witchcraft."

Jimmy shifted uneasily in his seat and pulled another folder from the computer bag. He glanced at several papers inside.

"In December 1999, the entire town of Sunnydale came down with laryngitis, all at the same time. Yet somehow, the CDC denies any knowledge of this, and no one was sent to investigate."

"I heard something about that," Lois said. "Wasn't it dismissed as a hoax?"

Jimmy hesitated and said, "What the reports that did come out didn't mention were that there are reports of gangs of men in straitjackets being followed by 'floating men' through the middle of town, as well as several murders where victims had their hearts surgically removed."

Lois saw Clark flinch at the mention of floating men. She resolved to ask him about it later.

He continued. "In February 2001, someone murdered thirty people on a train car entering Sunnydale. Yet it never made the news."

"That should have been national news," Lois said. "And nobody reported on it?"

Jimmy shrugged helplessly. "In November 2001, there are reports that people in Sunnydale were singing and dancing maniacally in the streets."

Clark said, "I've heard reports of that happening back in the middle ages. It's been attributed to ergot poisoning, and hallucinogenic molds."

"On their web pages and blogs, these people were talking about classmates and neighbors dying every day, and yet very few people seemed to ever leave."

"Is there any evidence of that?" Lois asked.

"As far as I can tell, the death rate in Sunnydale was more than thirty times higher than Washington D.C. on its worst year. They disguised this by attributing the deaths to barbeque accidents, animal attacks and gang violence."

Jimmy shook his head. "I'm going to the library tomorrow. For some reason, all issues of the Sunnydale newspaper dating after 1992 are not available online, but I understand that the L.A. Country library has copies. I'm going to try to get all the corroborating evidence I can."

"Is that all you've got?" Lois asked.

"So far," Jimmy said. He looked tired.

Clark stood and told Jimmy, "You'll be rooming with me."

He grabbed Jimmy's bags and headed out the door. Jimmy glanced at the clock on the mantle, and stood as well.

As he was leaving, Lois stood up and spoke. "What were you planning on doing tonight?"

"Well, it's kind of late. I was hoping to find a room, maybe meet one of the senoritas…"

"This is work, not a single's bar. We don't exactly have time to go surfing."

"Well, I wouldn't mind a little time at the beach," Jimmy said. "Maybe after all this is over we can all delay the flight back a few days and go windsurfing or something."

Lois rolled her eyes at Jimmy. "You're living in fantasyland if you think we're getting a free vacation out of this."

Jimmy shrugged. "It never hurts to try."

"I need you to do something for me," Lois said quietly. "Try to find any stories out there that you can about feats of superhuman strength."

She briefly described what they'd discovered at the coroners.

"So I should focus on female feats of strength?"

"If you find things about males, I'll take those too," Lois said. "But I'm mostly interested in finding out who this woman was."

"I'm sure you are just the first in a long line of people," Jimmy said. He smiled wanly. "I think I'm going to be a little more polite to the girls I date from now on."

Lois patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sure most girls don't want to stick a finger in your eye or rip your arms off. If they do…you really ought to be nicer."

A moment later, he was gone.

***

Lois sat on her bed, her eyes burning. She'd been going through the folder Jimmy had provided, and it wasn't painting a pretty picture. If anything, Jimmy had understated the problem.

In 1992, Sunnydale had a population of 38,500. By 2002, the population had dropped to 32,900, and there was no indication that people were leaving Sunnydale in great numbers.

If someone had built a nuclear plant in the middle of a toxic waste dump, the people of Sunnydale would have been safer living there.

There was a knock at the door, Lois could hear a quiet murmuring from the other side of it, and one of the voices sounded like Clark's.

She glanced at the old fashioned clock on the mantle. It was almost two in the morning.

Grabbing a robe, she headed for the door.

There wasn't a peephole, so she opened the door cautiously. Years of living in Metropolis had taught her that it was batter to be safe than sorry.

Clark stood impatiently on the other side of the door with Marcus, the Diener.

"Is everything all right?" Lois asked.

Marcus stepped forward until his toe was over the threshold. "We had a visit from two FBI men tonight. They are going to try to cover everything up."

Lois opened the door and let the two men in.

"I did enough of that in Sunnydale. I can't do it anymore."

Lois gestured toward the chair. "Why don't you tell us a little bit about Sunnydale?"

Marcus sat on the chair, which seemed to groan a little under his weight. He leaned forward and closed his eyes for a long moment.

"It's not easy to talk about, Sunnydale. It looked so good in the brochures. The houses there cost a third of what a similar house cost in L.A. We'd just gotten married, and it seemed like the perfect place to raise a family."

"I transferred to U.C. Sunnydale, and I got my first job as a Diener. For some reason, the county paid its morgue attendants better than any other place I've ever heard of. My wife was going to school and it seemed perfect. We were going to live the American dream."

Marcus shook his head and chuckled bitterly. "We should have known there was a reason the houses were so cheap, why handling bodies paid so much, but at the time we weren't asking any questions. It was a beautiful town, and it was a beautiful house, and everything seemed perfect."

"Things changed?"

"There were rumors," Marcus admitted. "Morgue attendants and coroners disappeared. Some were murdered. Sunnydale had three different city morgues, and most of them were filled nearly to capacity."

He shifted uneasily. "It wasn't until the night of the train massacre that things started to change."

"There really was a train massacre?"

Marcus nodded grimly. "Forty two men women and children. Even split among the other morgues, it was a horribly busy night, because we still had out usual load of dead people on top of the victims."

"How were they killed?" Lois asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," Marcus said. "Legally, I guess I can't. People from the mayor's office came down to talk to us about it. We weren't going to talk to the press, especially out of towners. There was an article in the local paper, but I don't think it ever got picked up."

"What happened next?"

"They wheeled a Jane Doe in. They'd already photographed the body, and I was sent in to set it up for the coroner to take a look. When I pulled the sheet away and saw that it was my Rachel…"

He stared at the floor and didn't speak for a long moment.

"Well, that was it for me. I don't remember much of the next couple of days. I went through the funeral in a haze."

Clark nodded sympathetically.

"It wasn't until that night that I realized just how wrong things were." Marcus looked up, looking Lois directly in the eye. "That was the night Rachel came back." "I'd been telling myself it was all a dream," Marcus said. "And here she was at my doorstep."

Lois glanced at Clark. She wasn't sure where Marcus was going with this, but she found it hard to believe that the dead had been rising in Sunnydale. There had to be a more mundane explanation.

"I was so stunned that I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I think that's what saved my life." Marcus stared down at the floor again. "She smiled at me, and it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw."

"So what happened?" Clark asked quietly.

Lois was impressed. There was no hint of disbelief in his voice. Clark was more of a professional than she'd imagined.

"She asked me to invite her in," Marcus said. "That's when I knew something was wrong."

"You weren't blocking the door?" Lois asked.

Marcus shook his head. "It was wide open. All she would have had to do was step inside."

"And as your wife, she shouldn't need an invitation to come into her own home," Clark said.

"It just struck me as wrong, somehow. It wasn't like her." Marcus scowled. "I started to wonder if it was really her, or if it was something else wearing her face."

That struck a chord with Lois for some reason, and she had a flash of memory, as though from a dream. Monstrous figures moving in the darkness, former friends…evil.

"It was a hell of a thing, standing there with the woman I loved on the other side of the door and not being able to speak." Marcus grimaced. "She asked me again."

"You didn't let her in."

"I'd heard stories from some of the other coroners…warnings never to invite anyone into your house at night. I'd thought they were just paranoid ramblings, but when she started asking and asking, I knew something was wrong."

Marcus closed his eyes. "All she had to do was step through the door. If it had been my Rachel, she would have come in and if she was really mad, she might have yelled at me a little."

"But she didn't." Lois had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"She started cursing at me, telling me that I had never been a good husband to her…that I was less than a man. She said things…horrible things. The sort of things that you can't take back."

Marcus coughed uncomfortably, and he looked away. "I haven't been able to think of Rachel the same way since…and I'm bitter about it." He looked back up, and Lois saw that his eyes seemed a little moist. "I loved that woman, and I feel like something precious was stolen from me."

"What happened then," Lois said.

"She started crying. I've never been able to stand seeing her cry. So I stepped outside the door. That's when she changed." Marcus shook his head. "Her face twisted and turned into something monstrous and ugly, and she lunged at me. She was fast, and if I hadn't fallen backward she would have gotten to me."

"All night she prowled around the windows, looking in and calling out to me. She cried, she begged…she did everything she could to trick me into coming out. She left just before dawn."

"You didn't call the police?" Lois asked.

"What was I going to tell them, that I was being stalked by my dead wife?" Marcus shook his head again. "What if she was there when they showed up? If she was some sort of spirit, guns wouldn't work on her. If she was some sort of zombie, it was the same thing. Either way, I wasn't going to endanger some poor cop."

"I packed as much as I could, and on my way out of town, I drove by the cemetery. It was foolish of me, but I was hoping it had all been a dream. The grave had been disturbed."

From somewhere, Clark had found a bottle of water. He handed it to Marcus, who opened it and took a deep drink.

"It wasn't until I tried to sell the house that I found out why most people never left Sunnydale." He laughed bitterly. "As cheap as I'd bought the house, you'd think someone would have snapped it up. But the prices just kept dropping, even while housing prices in the rest of the country kept going up and up."

"I ended up owing fifty grand, having to quit school, and having to work for a third the pay."

"I'd have thought you'd have ended up on the other side of the country," Lois said. "Instead of just a couple of hours away."

"I just couldn't leave. The thought that there might be some part of Rachel trapped in there with that thing…it torments me. I keep feeling that there is something I should do, some way to give her peace."

Marcus sighed. "I know there isn't much here that you can use. People won't believe any of it. All I can tell you is that if you want to get the story out about the monks, you'd better hurry. They plan on moving the bodies in two days."

He stood up, and said, "It's getting late."

"Thank you," Lois said, as warmly as she could manage. Something about his story had seemed familiar to her, although she wasn't sure where she'd heard it.

She ushered both Marcus and Clark out the door. This left her alone with her thoughts.

***

Her dreams were troubled, filled with monsters, men in armor fighting, people dying. Always in the center, there was a girl. As the times changed, so did her face, but somehow, it was always the same girl. Whether she wore a hoop skirt, a loincloth or dressed in medieval armor, she was always the focus of evil.

Lois woke in a cold sweat, fading memories of monstrous faces disturbing her.

She heard a knock at the door and rose as quickly as she could, which wasn't very fast. A glance at the clock showed that she'd only had three hours of sleep.

Grabbing her robe, she wrapped it around herself and headed for the door. She opened it.

On the other side stood Jimmy, looking exhausted. "I did the search you wanted," he said.

He handed her a thick stack of computer printouts. "This is everything I could find. I'm going to get a little shut eye before heading for the library today."

"Thank you," Lois said. She took the stack of papers and closed the door behind her.

***

By the time Clark was up, Lois had already had a shower and had been studying the news reports for two hours. She hadn't even had coffee yet, but somehow she was feeling reenergized.

He knocked at the door, and Lois absently said come in.

"After last night, I'd think you wouldn't be inviting people in," Clark said. He stepped in the room with a large tray. "Mrs. Cortez made breakfast."

"Jimmy did that search on freakish feats of strength," Lois said. "There are a lot of stories here. A fifteen year old girl beats her kidnapper almost to death…a nine year old girl pulls both her parents out of a building…a twenty year old mother pushed a car off her boyfriend after a car accident. Jimmy found more than thirty stories of freakish feats of strength by young girls and women; all dated May 20, 2003."

"The day Sunnydale collapsed."

"There were older stories," Lois said, "But most of them tended to be about a mysterious man saving people from train wrecks, burning cars and boat accidents. They date back for the past eight years, but I don't think they really apply here."

"I'm sure you're right," Clark said.

Lois thought Clark paled a little, but she wasn't sure.

"I wanted to focus on the ones that happened when Sunnydale collapsed, since they seemed to have the most in common."

It wouldn't help with the case of the murdered dead men, but Lois had her own reasons for investigating.

"I made some telephone calls," Lois said. "Confirming a few of the times. Some of the other times were noted in the articles."

She'd written a list, which she handed Clark. On each was a time, a state and a synopsis of what had happened."

He glanced at it, and said, "I don't see anything in common. The times are all within a two or three hour period, but…"

Lois handed him a second list. "It struck me as curious that the times were so close…and then I had an idea."

"Time zones," Clark said. "There are stories here from as far away as China."

Lois nodded. "And as far as I can tell, all of these girls and women had a sudden surge of unusual strength about ten minutes before Sunnydale collapsed."

There was one name she'd kept off the list, but it fit the trend perfectly. She'd been in the Congo, where it was nine hours later than California, and as far as she could recall, her change had happened at exactly the same time as the others.

She wasn't alone.

***

Special Agent Thomas Kincaid was a heavyset man, with eyes sunken into his skull. He looked like he hadn't been getting much more sleep than Lois had, and that wasn't much.

"There is no conspiracy," he said. "We're issuing a general press statement this afternoon."

"So what do you know about these bodies?" Lois asked the question after glancing at Clark. Although Marcus's story had been fantastic, he'd seemed certain that the coroner's office was being coerced. It was the one part of the story she was prepared to believe.

Of course, the changes in her own body were starting to make her wonder just what else was possible.

"They seem to be members of an obscure Serbian religious organization. They are considered terrorists by the United States government, but they have been considered a low priority threat."

"Why?" Clark asked.

"Imagine the Amish going on a holy war. These people refuse to use modern weapons, and they don't get involved in politics. They have obscure aims and frankly, nobody knows much about them."

"Why is anyone interested at all?"

"Members are wanted in the murder and kidnapping of several antiquities dealers and dealers of rare books."

"So why were they here?"

"We don't know." The special agent shook his head. "If they hadn't somehow managed to get a hundred men and three thousand pounds of metal armor and weapons on U.S. soil, I'd be inclined to dismiss them as just another group of religious nutcases."

Lois glanced at Clark. "Do you have any idea how they managed that?"

"So far, we are investigating leads relating to a cargo ship from Russia. We suspect that someone may have been bribed to look the other way, although we aren't sure. They might have been able to slip onto U.S. soil even without collusion."

"So you don't take them seriously?"

"The bodies were buried in accordance to their religious customs. Unless this was some sort of inter-organizational schism, I doubt that the perpetrators would have bothered to do more than throw them in a mass grave. Our profile of the killers indicate that they are disorganized, and utterly without mercy."

Lois nodded and made a note on her notepad.

"I don't suppose you have any agents here who come from Sunnydale," she asked casually. She wasn't sure that she believed him about the conspiracy angle, but he had been more open than she'd expected.

He shook his head. "We didn't have a field office in Sunnydale."

"What about former police officers?"

He laughed sharply. "Former Sunnydale police officers are notoriously bad police officers."

"Bad as in violent?" Clark asked.

"Bad as in incompetent." Kincaid shook his head. "I don't know what they were doing down there, but anyone with a Sunnydale P.D. job on their resume is going to end up flipping burgers before they get a job within a thousand miles. They just aren't cut out for it."

"Almost as though they were purposefully hired for being incompetent?"

"If I was a cynical man, I'd think that," Kincaid said. "More likely it was just a bad system combined with some sort of nepotistic hiring practices."

"What else can you tell us about the case?" Lois asked.

"I can tell you it's an ongoing investigation, and that there is only so much information I am allowed to disclose. That's not a sign of a cover up, by the way. That's standard police procedure."

"So if I ask for details about how the victims were killed, you wouldn't be able to help me."

Kincaid said, "Sometimes entire cases turn on what information is disseminated."

Lois nodded. "I have a source who seems to believe that two FBI agents were out trying to coerce witnesses into keeping quiet about what they'd seen."

The special agent frowned. "The Bureau is not in the business of conspiracies. I could see Homeland Security wanting to cover up leaks in our defenses."

Lois pulled out her notepad.

"I saw two government issue crown Victorias with these license numbers outside the morgue they are using to autopsy the bodies."

Agent Kincaid's eyes widened, and he said, "When did you see this?"

"Last night at approximately ten," Lois said. "Why?"

"We've had two special agents who have been missing for three days. Their vehicles had these plate numbers." Agent Kincaid picked up the telephone.

"I'm going to have someone come down and take your statements. Don't leave anything out. Even the smallest detail might be crucial."

***

Lois stretched. She'd been locked in a small room for several hours.

Normally, she would have railed against abuses by the system, but everyone seemed sincere in their worry about the two agents and the coroners. They were polite and professional.

When it finally ended, Lois was escorted back to Special Agent Kincaid's office.

"You've both been very helpful," Kincaid said. "Feel free to call me if you find out anything else related to this matter. In fact…I insist that you do."

An agent was at the door to escort them out.

"Would it be all right for me to use the ladies' room?" Lois asked.

The agent nodded. Lois slipped inside and stared at herself in the mirror for a long moment. She stiffened as she heard the faint sound of a voice coming through one of the vents.

Over the past few days her hearing had sharpened. She doubted that she would have heard anything at all before.

She approached the vent quickly and stood as closely as she was able.

It was Special Agent Kincaid's voice. Lois could barely make it out.

"I told them the truth. WE haven't been covering up anything."

Lois couldn't make out another voice, and she wondered if he was on the telephone.

"Jesus. They were that close to launching? Are they crazy? We're downwind…the fallout would have killed millions of people."

Lois scowled and tried to stand on the tips of her toes. She was normally fairly pleased with her height, but today she would have given a great deal to be just a little taller.

"You military types are always trying to shoot a fly with a bazooka. It couldn't have been that bad."

There was silence for a long moment, and then Kincaid said, "Oh. I guess I can see why…"

Lois heard the sounds of footsteps from the hallway outside, but they passed.

"I just want my people back. According to the Lane woman, someone is out there trying to play spin control on all of this. I want to know who that is, because they have two of my agents. I don't care what you have to do, just get me the list."

Lois grimaced as she heard the sound of a telephone being slammed down on the receiver.

She finished her ablutions quickly, but although she listened, she didn't hear anything else.

***

"I don't know who to believe," Lois said. "Marcus seemed sincere last night, but he had that story about his wife. Agent Kincaid seemed pretty open."

She couldn't explain about what she'd overheard from the bathroom. Clark had been close enough to know she hadn't snuck out, and it was too convenient that she could hear what was happening on the other side of the wall.

She wasn't about to explain her new found abilities, not to anyone.

"Maybe they weren't actual FBI agents," Clark said slowly.

"You think someone would kidnap federal agents for their badges?"

"I've seen worse," Clark said.

Lois had to admit that she had too. She'd been working at the Planet for the past five years, and she'd thought she'd seen every level of human depravity that existed.

She'd been wrong, although whether it was human depravity was still undecided.

Lois shuddered at the though that she might no longer be human. What was happening inside her? She could feel herself changing, and it terrified her.

It wasn't just the strength and the hearing. Every night she had nightmares, and every morning she woke feeling as though she hadn't slept at all. Yet she had more energy now than she had in the days when she'd been a six cups of coffee drinker in the morning.

Come to think of it…she hadn't been drinking coffee at all. The Cortez family didn't supply it. They'd been too far out of town to get any, and she'd barely noticed.

Lois had fueled her career on coffee, and it was a little disturbing to realize that she'd barely noticed.

She wondered what else was going to change. Lois hoped fervently that she wasn't going to start spitting up stomach acid to digest her food. Seeing "The Fly" with her sister had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it left her with a host of images she didn't want to think about.

They reached their destination.

"They put everyone in a stadium?" Lois asked.

"It's air conditioned, and there are bathrooms equipped to handle thousands of people," Clark said. "There are several places like this set up in Los Angeles. Of course, the wealthier residents have taken hotel rooms."

Lois nodded. Together they headed for the entrance. It was time to talk to the citizens of Sunnydale.

***

It was dark as they left the stadium, and the parking lot was filled with a sea of cars, yet it felt curiously deserted.

This wasn't the best neighborhood after dark, Lois supposed.

They had enough information for a dozen human interest stories. Lois planned to get working on them as soon as they returned to the Cortez family home. Perry would be expecting a number of stories to be coming over the wire to justify the expense of taking two of his reporters and a photographer out of circulation at home.

Yet every time Lois had asked a question about the dark side of Sunnydale, people had flinches, and they'd quickly changed the subject. The whole evening had been a bust from the perspective of finding out what she really wanted to know.

"Are we supposed to pick up Jimmy?" Lois asked.

"He drove his own car," Clark said. "He should be…"

Lois could hear Clark's cell phone ringing from inside his jacket. Clark turned away for a moment as he spoke.

"Jimmy's at the Emergency Room," Clark said. "He's been attacked."

***

Lois hated hospitals almost as much as she hated morgues. They both had the same universal disinfectant smell, and sometimes they had the same underlying smell of rot. Unlike the morgue, however, hospitals were filled with people in pain.

She'd been forced to sit in too many waiting rooms as a child, forced to wait on her father to finish with one patient or another to ever want to step foot in another hospital.

This one didn't impress her. The walls were fading and poorly maintained, the equipment looked heavily used, and the whole place looked like it needed to be renovated.

Clark spoke quietly to the woman at the information desk, and she smiled.

As busy as she had been, Lois had almost forgotten how handsome Clark was. It wasn't something she would have expected. There was a certain arrogance most handsome men had that never let anyone forget that they knew just how good looking they were.

Clark was much more humble than that. He was quietly competent, and he didn't pretend to be anything he wasn't. He'd managed to work with her all this time without any problems.

Of course, she hadn't been herself. She'd been subdued and distracted, and she hadn't really been up to her full "Mad dog Lane" persona.

Maybe she was just spooked by this case. Fingernails in eyeballs, disappearing cities, murdered monks…it was all a little much to take in at once.

Clark smiled at the woman again and said, "He's on the second floor."

He led her to a set of elevators nearby, and a moment later they were alone.

Lois found herself staring straight forward. "You aren't what I expected, Smallville."

"You aren't either," he said. "People kept talking about Mad Dog Lane, and how I'd have to keep up or eat your dust."

She glanced at him. "If you couldn't keep up, that's exactly what you'd be doing."

His lips quirked and she found herself smiling in return. She was more comfortable with Clark than she had been with anyone in a long time. He was quiet, sure, but she suspected that was because he was responding to her need for a little space.

She couldn't have tolerated a clingy, talkative partner, not with everything she was going through.

"Do you think Jimmy is going to be all right?" she asked, staring back at the elevator door again.

"He's not in intensive care," Clark said as the door opened. "I take that as a good sign."

Lois nodded, and followed him down yet another drab hall tiled in 1950's style linoleum. They passed several rooms, and in one Lois could hear someone coughing convulsively. She grimaced. She'd done a story on hospital infections in the past, and she didn't like the odds of catching a drug resistant strain of something nasty.

Clark knocked politely at the door, and then pushed it open.

Jimmy was lying on the bed, his face pale and his eyes slightly glazed. The left side of his face was a massive bruise.

Lois slipped by Clark and sat on the chair by the bed. There was an electronic monitor by the side of the bed that kept track of pulse, respiration, and blood pressure.

"What happened?" she asked. "Are you all right?"

Jimmy glanced over at Lois and said, "I'm feeling fine." He struggled to focus on her. "I think they have me on some pain medications."

"You were attacked? By who?"

"I was coming out of the library and these two thugs grabbed me and tried to drag me down the alley." Jimmy grinned and stared off into space.

"Jimmy?" Lois asked.

"There was this girl in leather pants…"

"Try to focus on what happened after they grabbed you," Lois said, irritated. Jimmy was a little too focused on women for her taste, even if he reminded her of a younger brother some time.

"I am!" Jimmy said. "These guys were really strong. I couldn't budge them at all."

"So you fought them off," Lois said, trying to prompt him.

Jimmy shook his head slightly, and then winced. "No. It was this girl in leather pants. She said something to them…I can't remember what it was, but it was pretty clever."

"She had a gun?" Clark asked. "A Taser maybe, pepper spray?"

"She had a stick." Jimmy said. "I've never seen anybody move like that in my life. She was really fast…and she looked great in leather pants."

"I'm sure her pants were really nice, Jimmy," Lois said irritably. "But did you happen to get a name, or see which way the guys went?"

"One of them threw me into a fall face first, and that was all I could remember." Jimmy hesitated. "I'm told that a girl brought me into the hospital though. Maybe they'd know who she was."

Clark stood and said, "I'll go see if I can ask the admitting nurse if she has any idea who brought him in."

Lois nodded slightly.

Jimmy gestured toward his bag, which was visible in the open closet. "Take my bag. I don't trust that somebody won't steal it. I got copies of all the articles," he said.

Lois grabbed the bag and pulled out several file folders. One was thinner than the other. She opened it. Inside was the picture of an older man. It was an old daguerreotype, a photo from the eighteen hundreds.

"Richard Wilkins," the caption said. "1898."

She flipped to the next picture. It was a picture of the same man, but clearer. The caption said "Mayor Richard Wilkins the second, 1938."

The third picture was from a newspaper at a ribbon cutting ceremony. It was of the same man, but the caption said "Mayor Richard Wilkins the third." The date of the paper was 1997.

There wasn't anything else in the folder, but what Lois had seen was enough. Three men who looked exactly the same had lived in the same town for a hundred years without ever seeming to age.

She glanced over at Jimmy, who was already dozing off. Lois went back to her seat and began going through the newspaper articles.

It only seemed like a short period, but she soon heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. They seemed lighter than Clark's, and more quickly paced together. They were uncertain, hesitant, like the stride of someone who wasn't sure whether they were where they needed to be.

Lois stood and headed for the door.

A woman was leaning against the wall outside. She was wearing a black denim jacket, black tank top and black leather pants. She was a little shorter than Lois, but more muscular.

"How's the kid?" she asked. Her voice was a little deep for a woman's, husky, with a pronounced Boston accent.

Lois guessed that the girl wasn't that much older than Jimmy was. She was somewhere in her early twenties.

"He's sleeping now," Lois said. "Are you the girl in the leather pants he keeps going on about?"

A slight smile from the woman, "Maybe."

"Thanks for helping him," Lois said. "He's a friend."

"No big," she said, looking down at the floor. She seemed embarrassed by the compliment. "I just did what anybody would do."

"Not everybody," Lois said. "I guess you must be pretty good in a fight."

"I know a few things." The woman didn't look at Lois.

"You have a name?" Lois asked.

"Why?" The woman's reply was suspicious.

"I think Jimmy would love to be able to put a name to a pair of pants," Lois said.

"Faith," The woman's eyes narrowed. "What about you?"

"Lois Lane," Lois said. "I'm a reporter."

"You the one who's been asking all the questions about Sunny-D?"

"You know about that?" Lois asked mildly, even as her mind raced.

"I've got friends down at the shelter." Faith hesitated. "What are you going to do with what you find out?"

"Write a story," Lois said. "Maybe several. Expose the people who caused all this."

Faith smirked. "No you won't. Not unless you want to work for the National Enquirer. Nobody ever believes this kind of sh…stuff."

"So tell me," Lois said. "If you don't think I'll ever be able to tell anybody. What harm can it do?"

"You aren't ready for the truth."

"Try me," Lois said flatly.

Faith shrugged. "It's your funeral. Most people don't want to know, not really. They live in this safe little bubble where nothing bad can happen to them. They don't want to believe in a world where the monsters are real."

"That's why nobody will talk about it?" Lois asked.

Faith nodded. "As long as they don't talk about it, it's not real. That bubble is there for a reason. People are happier feeling safe. It's pretty crappy realizing that there are things out there that are ready to get you."

"Things?" Lois asked.

"Every nightmare you ever had. Monsters are real," Faith said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a cigarette. She froze at Lois's look, and then put it back into her pocket.

"Where did they come from?" Lois asked quietly. The hallway seemed to dim a little, and she realized just how isolated this ward actually was. Most of the rooms were empty, and the coughing patient from before was silent.

"Some people say they were always here," Faith said. "I'm not sure I believe that."

"So Sunnydale?"

"There are places where the world wears thin, where it's easier to cross the divide from here and…someplace else." Faith sighed. "Most times these places are pretty small and don't last very long."

"Not Sunnydale though," Lois said.

"Sunnydale had a place like that. It was big, thin, and it led to someplace pretty nasty. It just about radiated evil, and that was like a beacon to the sorts of things that people don't want to think about."

"So why would anybody move here?" Lois asked.

Faith sighed. "You ask too many questions."

"You promised to tell me a story," Lois said. "So spill it."

"Someone made a deal with the devil. Well, a deal with demons anyway." Faith shook her head and looked pensive. "He made a deal…in return for a hundred years of staying young and a chance to turn into something more powerful at the end of that time; he built a city right on that spot of concentrated evil."

"The mayor, Richard Wilkins," Lois said.

Faith looked surprised. "You HAVE done your homework."

"So he got immortality for a while…what did they get out of it?"

"A twenty four hour a day all you can eat buffet." Faith shrugged. "I'm guessing the local Chumash Indian tribes were pretty canny and hard to catch. White guys in suburbia are pretty slow by comparison."

"So the whole place was designed to be a…what?"

"A feeding ground," Faith said. "It was a playground for the monsters, and the mayor did everything he could to keep it that way."

"Including corrupting the police," Lois said.

Faith nodded. "The ones who weren't on the payroll were the worst people they could find. They actively looked for Barney Fifes."

Lois frowned. "Who?"

"Andy Griffith?" Faith looked disgusted. "I guess you sat home all day reading maps when you were a kid."

Lois shrugged uncomfortably.

"So what happened?"

"The mayor blew his chance and croaked. The people he'd hired stayed in office, and it was business as usual."

"Covering up the biggest story since…anytime?" Lois shook her head. "People talk about government conspiracies all the time, but it's impossible. Somebody is always going to talk."

"Who would believe them?" Faith asked. "Dick…he had a hundred years to set everything up. He had help from things that weren't natural. And he told people what they wanted to believe."

"They just needed somebody to blow the whistle," Lois said stubbornly. "Maybe put it in the paper put it on CNN. If it's on television people will believe it."

"Not to sound paranoid, but what are the chances that you'd get that far? You'd end up in a padded room somewhere."

Lois shook her head stubbornly. "People have to be warned. If there are things out there…"

Faith said, "There are things out there. But people don't want to know about it. They want to sleep in bed at night and feel safe."

"I think you don't give people enough credit," Lois said. "People can handle the truth."

Faith sighed. "Let me ask you a question. After all this…all the research you've done, everything you've heard from people…do you believe it?"

"Yes," Lois said.

"Deep down?"

Lois hesitated, and then said, "No." Deep down she kept hoping it was all a dream and that it would all go away. Despite everything she'd seen as a reporter, she'd had that bubble, that security blanket. She'd known that there was evil in the world, but somehow, it never seemed to affect her, even when she had guns in her face. She'd felt invulnerable.

She missed that feeling.

There had to be a reasonable explanation to everything. Terrorists, some sort of genetic engineering.

Wasn't it more likely that she'd been given some sort of virus that was changing her, maybe a test run for something worse? It made more sense than magic and monsters and deals with the devil.

"So that's where you come in. You keep people safe."

Faith's face brightened, and slowly she smiled. "Yeah. I guess I do."

A beeping sound from inside her jacket caused Faith to start. She reached inside her pocket and pulled out a cell phone.

"Yeah," she said. She listened to what was said on the other end, and Lois was disgusted to realize that even with her new hearing, she wasn't able to catch the other side of the conversation.

"I'll be right there," she said.

She closed the phone and looked at Lois. "Give the kid my regards."

The younger girl hesitated, and then stared at Lois for a moment. "Did you ever do any fighting?"

"Brown Belt in Tai Kwon Do," Lois said.

"That must be it," Faith said. "You move like a fighter."

Lois shrugged. She didn't think she moved any differently than anyone else, really. It was meant as a compliment, so she'd accept it as one.

"Watch yourself," Faith said. "It wasn't just the people that came here to L.A. before everything went down."

Lois heard Clark coming down the hallway. She glanced back at them, and then stiffened.

"Before what went down?"

Faith was already gone.

***

"I'm going to stay," Clark said. "The nurses think he needs to be observed for a while, and I'm not comfortable with the thought that those guys might not come back."

Lois nodded. Despite regulations, it wasn't that hard for a determined person to find out where a patient had been shipped off to. All they had to do was start with the nearest hospital and work their way out.

"Do you think it was just a random mugging, or…?"

"If it had been a deliberate attack, that implied that someone was either watching them or had been tipped off that someone was investigating Sunnydale. Either way, Jimmy might be in danger."

Clark shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know. I just think it might be better if I watch over him until we can get him up and running."

Lois nodded. "I'll take his bag and go over the rest of the things he found out."

"And send the story to Perry?" he asked.

Lois flushed. He HAD been warned about her. "I don't steal stories Clark. We're sharing a byline on this one."

He smiled slightly, as though she'd confirmed something he'd suspected about her.

Lois found herself flushing a little. Other than Perry White, it had been a long time since a man she'd respected had approved of her.

It was surprising how much she enjoyed it.

"I've already got enough to write a few stories," Lois said.

"And the supernatural angle?"

Lois shook her head. "All we've got is rumor and hearsay. Something this major is going to take ironclad proof. Otherwise they'll laugh us all the way into the tabloids."

In the meantime, she was going o look for alternative explanations. All of this just seemed too convenient. Wrap everything under the aegis of the supernatural, and say that the world won't believe it.

You couldn't get a hundred people in a room and get them to agree to anything. There were always dissenters, people who would speak out against things even the rest of the world commonly believed as good.

So getting thirty thousand and more people to agree not to talk was an impossibility.

There had to be a few people in the crowd who were ready for fame and fortune, people who wanted to sell their story and make money in Hollywood. She just had to get to them before the rest of the reporters did.

All together, Lois hoped the explanation was simpler, like aliens.

***

Lois opened the bag and pulled out several files worth of research. The first few were the files she'd already seen. The pictures of the mayor, stories confirming at least the bare bones of the rumors Jimmy had come to them with.

Lois frowned as she pulled a large book from the bag. It was hardback, bound in red, with the inscription, "Sunnydale High: The future is ours."

Irony was sometimes cruel.

This was a copy of the Sunnydale High School yearbook. Lois suspected that the library didn't lend these out and she smiled a little at Jimmy's initiative.

She frowned a moment as a thought struck her. Lois began flipping pages quickly, searching for one particular face.

There were no pictures of a brunette who looked like the woman Lois had seen in the hall of the hospital. Lois sighed. She'd hoped that there might be some connection, even if the name Faith was probably a pseudonym.

There was only one picture in the page after page of student pictures that was missing. Buffy Summers.

Lois flipped through the pages until she came across a picture of a blonde girl in a tiara.

Buffy Summers, Class protector.

This girl was a classic California blond, not at all like the brunette Lois had met.

Faith had not been a student at Sunnydale High School, at least not in 1998.

The "In Memoriam" section was shocking. Over twenty dead on the first page alone, including four teachers and one school Principal. Each had a short phrase describing how much they would be missed, but as Lois turned the page five more times, she wondered how anyone had gone to that school at all without suffering post traumatic stress.

Lois cross referenced the list of the dead with those killed on graduation day. Those weren't even included in the list, which had likely been published before the school had been destroyed.

The inscriptions on the back page were revealing. "I'm glad to see you coming out! You've been great this year!"

"You survived all four years! You should get a shirt."

"I'm glad you aren't trying to look up my skirt anymore, or I'd have to kick your ***

again. Buffy."

Lois frowned and flipped back through the pages. Buffy was listed as the class protector, but she'd also been voted most likely to go to jail.

She studied the only picture of the girl in the book. She was smiling brightly in the picture, and she looked happy.

It was odd how happy the kids looked in all the pictures. You'd think that with the specter of death hanging over everyone's heads that that stress and fear would show in the pictures. With the exception of a few anomalies, these kids didn't seem any different than anyone else.

The surface seemed bright and sunny, but what was underneath was much more dark and sinister.

It reminded Lois of the first vacation after her parents' divorce. Everyone had tried so hard to have fun, to smile and pretend they were having a good time, when in reality they were all miserable.

She rose and headed for the bathroom mirror. She stared at her reflection, trying to see if she looked any older.

It should change you, being a murderer. But she couldn't see any difference at all.

***

There was movement in the underbrush, and all Lois could feel was an overwhelming sense of danger. It was oppressive, and it was all around her.

It was hot and dry. Lois was in some sort of gully, with a small stream beside her feet. All around her were patches of brambles and thorns.

She saw movement from the underbrush near the cavern wall. It took a moment to focus, to understand what she was seeing.

The figure was vaguely human. Slathered in white mud that gave it the appearance of mottled white earth, it moved slowly, deliberately.

Its movements were those of a predator.

It crouched unnaturally low to the ground, sliding closer to her with a horrific noise rising from its throat.

Its eyes snapped open and it stared at her for a long moment. It stilled and was completely silent.

It took her a moment to realize it was female. In that instant it leapt toward her. Moving out of the brush with blinding speed, it slashed out at her, and Lois was barely able to move in time. As it was, she gasped as she felt pain in her shoulder.

She staggered back, trying to remember every bit of martial arts instructions she could recall. She'd insisted on drilling each move over and over so that she wouldn't forget at times like this.

It didn't seem to matter. The creature lashed out at her again, and this time it grabbed her by the arm.

Lois fell backward, trying to flip the thing, but somehow it held on to her with a grip of iron.

She tried to force its face back from her.

It spoke.

"Your strength is death."

Lois shoved it away, and struggled to stand.

It was dark and she froze as she realized that there was a single dim and dirty light shining feebly from a single bulb.

"No." Lois felt the blood draining from her face.

It hadn't changed. The dingy walls, the single toilet in the corner. A single bunk covered in a filthy mattress, and an even filthier blanket. From where she was, Lois could see the blanket moving slightly. From experience, she knew it was the vermin underneath.

There were bars on one wall, and across from that, Lois could see another cell. Its single occupant stared at her dully, a female face that had lost its femininity to pain and uncomprehending loss. This was a face that did not remember hope. All it knew was unrelenting pain and anguish.

It was a look that was on every other face on the block.

Lois had thought she'd stumbled on a simple gunrunning story. Instead she'd found something worse than she'd ever imagined.

There was a hallway filled with cells on each side. Lois could hear muffled sobbing coming from one of the cells. She could smell old urine and stale sweat.

She'd been such a fool, believing she was invincible. She'd always escaped before. She was Lois Lane. She was better than everyone else.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Lois heard the sound she'd been dreading all along.

Screaming and sobbing, the sound of a woman being dragged. The sounds of dozens of boots hitting the concrete floor of the hallway in unison.

Marta had been a girl just out of womanhood. As they dragged her around the corner, Lois didn't recognize her.

The things they'd done to her made her stomach cramp.

She felt sick, and she knew they were coming for her next.

As they opened the cell door, she lunged for the first of them. She elbowed him in the face and managed to wrench his nightstick out of his hands.

She then used it to hit one of the men who had been abusing the girl.

They were all around her, crowding her, not letting her have any room to move. There were too many of them, and the moves she'd learned in martial arts class had never been meant to work against twenty men.

It angered them that she'd fought back, and she could see it in their swarthy faces. They began to hit her over and over again. Although Lois never gave up, at some point she realized she was on the floor.

Her rage never faltered, even though her body did. As the blows fell, all Lois could hear was a single voice.

"Are you ready to be strong?"

She'd accepted without thinking.

A moment later, the blood began to fly, and the walls turned red.

***

Lois woke retching. She staggered to the bathroom and dry heaved. Whatever had been in her stomach was long gone.

She felt an oppressive, overwhelming presence. It wasn't simply the sense of a predator, like she'd gotten in her dream.

This was the feeling of pure evil.

Feeling weak, Lois wiped her mouth and stepped back out of the bathroom. The feeling was still there in her gut, a sense of terrifying wrongness.

There wasn't any way she was going to be able to get back to bed.

Lois slipped over to her window and cautiously pulled back the drapes.

She couldn't see anything outside. The hills stood in the moonlight as they'd doubtlessly stood since before mankind had ever come to this place.

It was a beautiful view, but the sense of evil still remained.

Lois grabbed her robe. She hesitated a moment, then grabbed her cell phone off the table. She had an odd urge to confide in Clark. More realistically, Clark would be able to confirm that Jimmy was doing ok, and she'd be able to go over some of the details of the stories she'd sent in.

Hearing another human voice would be a relief. Something had Lois spooked and she wasn't sure what it was. She headed through the back door through the courtyard.

The evening was dead silent. The usual sounds of the evening, crickets and other insects were entirely absent.

The place was ominously quiet.

She slipped through the door into the main living area.

She heard voices at the door.

"Pepito, let me in."

It was Angela's voice.

A child stood at the open door, with only a locked screen door to keep the insects out between him and the outside world.

Lois frowned. From what she'd gathered, Angela no longer lived here with most of her clan. She lived in the city, near her work.

"Angela?" Lois asked.

Angela looked terrible. There was blood all over the front of her shirt, and she looked as though she'd been in a fight.

"Lois?" she said. "Let me in."

"Are you all right?" Lois asked, rushing to the door.

The woman looked like she'd been in an automobile accident.

Lois unlatched the door and pushed it open. "Come in."

The woman lunged for her, and it was only Lois's newfound speed that allowed her to avoid having her arm grabbed.

Her face was changing into something horrible, and she lunged forward, only to howl as she pushed up against some sort of invisible barrier.

Lois staggered back.

From behind her, she heard a quiet voice. "The invitation has to be from someone who actually lives here." It hesitated. "Come away from there Pepito."

Lois felt ashamed that she'd barely paid attention to the child who was staring at his sister with undisguised horror.

The head of the family stood behind her, his eyes red rimmed as he stared at the thing that had once been his daughter.

His daughter was dead. That her corpse was still talking didn't change that incontrovertible fact.

Lois started as her phone rang.

She flipped it open.

Clark's voice was terse on the other line. "They found Marcus's vehicle near his apartment two hours ago. Angela Cortez is missing too. Are you all right?"

Lois imagined that she could almost feel the alien presence lurking behind Angela's eyes.

The thing smiled as behind her two good people wept.

"Angela is here," Lois said curtly into the phone. "She isn't herself."

She clicked the cell phone shut and tossed it into the pocket of her robe.

The thing that had been Angela stood outside grinning. "Oh, I'm myself all right. I'm just better. I'm not the meek little girl who was always so desperate for daddy's approval."

She leaned forward until her face was up to the threshold. "It feels so good. No guilt, no pain. Just strength, power."

Her face was back to normal now, and she smiled. If Lois hadn't known what she was, she might have been fooled.

The blood stains down the front of her dress might have clued her in.

"There's the hunger, of course. They say most of us that are new are stupid with the hunger. That's why I made sure to get a bite to eat on my way out here. I wanted to be sharp." She smirked. "How long has it been since you heard from Uncle Carlo anyway, papa?"

"Madre de Dios," the older Cortez said under his breath.

"Such a good little Catholic. You know what happens to the souls of those like me? They don't get to go on. They are just waiting…how will it be to get up to the pearly gates and realize your precious daughter isn't there? She was losing her faith anyway. Maybe she'll end up in hell and I'll get to meet her there someday."

"Leave them alone," Lois said. She was surprised at how strong she sounded. Despite the palpable feeling of evil, she was surprised to realize she wasn't afraid.

"Oh, a hero. I shouldn't be surprised. That's the only kind of woman Clark would hook up with." The thing scowled.

"We're partners," Lois said defensively.

"You're just his type. Strong, assertive, a little abusive. All the things meek little me wasn't." The corpse glanced at Angelica's parents slyly. "I'll bet you didn't know that I threw myself at him that summer. He's seen your little girl naked."

"And he rejected you," Lois said, suddenly certain.

"Clark's too much of a boy scout to deflower his boss's daughter…even if I wasn't exactly a virgin." The thing grinned slyly. "Do you remember that ranch hand the year I was sixteen? I never told you, but he forced me to do all sorts of things. I never told you because I knew you would kill him."

The older Cortez paled even further. His wife began crying softly.

"It doesn't matter whether Clark rejected me back then or not anyway. I'm going to have him now," the creature said. "Once the rest of you are dead, I'll be the only one left. I'll be the grieving daughter…"

"Clark isn't stupid," Lois said. "You think he won't notice?"

"He won't have to for long," she said. She stared dreamily into space. "We'll be together until the stars turn to dust, for eternity."

"I have a feeling you won't survive as long as you think," Lois said, her mind racing.

"Oh, I'm a modern thinker. The rest of them are stuck in the past. That's the downside of being hundreds of years old, I guess. They don't seem to realize that it's a new day. It's the twenty first century and we have to learn to change with the times. This whole threshold thing…the rest of them thought it couldn't be got around, at least until I set them straight."

Suddenly Lois was aware of movement from one of the windows. She could see several figures approaching from the woods.

"People think they are safe, all holed up cozy in their beds. Me, I had a thought."

The corpse reached down to the ground outside of Lois's view and came up with a crossbow.

"I can't go in there, but I hardly have to."

The snap of the bow was shocking. Mr. Cortez gasped and fell back as the bolt sprouted just in front of his eye.

Lois stood beside him with the bolt in her hand. Somehow she'd grabbed it in mid-air.

She gaped, as shocked as he was.

"Wow," the corpse said. "I thought it was just a legend. Killer of my kind, eh? The big bogeyman that's supposed to make me tremble in my boots…"

It pulled something from the back of its pants.

"Try catching this."

The world slowed around her as Lois saw the long metal barrel of the gun rising and pointing toward them. The sound of the shot was deafening, and Lois found herself flying through the air.

She hit the older couple, and they fell to the ground as Lois landed on top of them. She'd pushed them out of sight of the door, although all the creature had to do was move around to the large picture window in the living area and shoot from there.

Already to her feet, she rushed toward the door. She dodged the first bullet and the second. The third hit the door beside her as she shoved it closed with enough force to cause it to crack a little.

"Get inside," Lois shouted at the older couple. "Get the others to an interior room."

The gunshots had woken everyone. She could hear the sounds of movement from deeper inside the building. Some of the children were crying.

"Get everybody away from the windows!"

The older couple staggered to their feet and rushed to do as she'd asked.

Lois locked the door and winced as she heard the sounds of several more shots hitting the door. This was a heavy, thick exterior door however, and it held.

The gun from outside went silent, and Lois moved as quietly as she was able to the room to the left, a small entryway leading off to the kitchen. There was a small circular window that lit the room.

Lois was surprised to realize that she was still clutching the crossbow bolt.

A group of men had gathered near Angelica, and she was gesturing toward the house. Six of them were carrying three bright red coolers. At her command, they sat them down and opened them.

They began pulling wine bottles out of the coolers and passing them around. Lois doubted that they were filled with wine. The bottles each had a rag sticking out of them.

She grimaced. They were going to try to burn the family out of their home.

When the Cortez family finally had to leave the burning remnants of their home, they would be easy victims for whatever those men really were.

One of the men approached. He tried to light the rag with a lighter and instead managed to spill some of the fluid on himself.

A moment later he was an inferno, screaming and staggering toward the building. A moment later, he disintegrated, turning to ash.

Angelica looked disgusted.

The others weren't nearly as stupid. They began to run around the perimeter of the house, and a moment later, Lois heard the sounds of crashing from the windows as lit bottles were thrown through the windows.

She raced toward the kitchen, where she saw that one of the bottles hadn't broken. She scooped it up and threw it out the window, hitting the man that stood outside.

There was a flash of light as he caught fire and a moment later, silence.

She ran again, and in the second room, she hadn't been as lucky. This was someone's bedroom, and the carpet was already on fire. Lois scanned quickly for any survivors and then she closed the door quickly.

She had to find the family. The only way they were going o survive was to make it to one of the cars and force their way through as a group, preferably while most of the men were chasing after a distraction.

Her mind flashed back, and she felt bones crunching under her hands. She'd never wanted to face something like that again, but she didn't see any other way.

Lois had a sick feeling as she realized that part of what she was feeling was anticipation.

She'd been accused of being an adrenaline junkie by jealous reporters, people who said she risked her life time after time on purpose. She was chilled by the thought that they might be right.

Lois found all twenty members of the Cortez family huddled together in the central courtyard.

Lois approached the patriarch.

"Senor Cortez," she said. "Are you all right?"

His face was pale, but he nodded. She noticed that his hands were clutched around a crucifix, and that several other members of the family had them as well.

"I don't know if those will work, but we're going to have to get out of here."

"They cannot get inside. We are protected."

Lois spoke quietly. "They are throwing lit bottles filled with gasoline through the windows. Soon everything will begin to burn."

He stared at her for a moment, then glanced back at his family.

"The smoke will kill them long before the fires will," Lois said.

The adobe walls would not burn, but the rooms inside would, and it wouldn't be long before the smoke was overwhelming.

"Is there a way to get everyone on the roof?" Lois asked.

He shook his head. "We'd have to leave the children, the old behind."

"Do you have any vehicles that will carry you all?"

"There's an old grain truck in the back," he said.

"I'm going to distract them," she said. She glanced at the others. "Does anyone have a cell phone?"

***

These people had been good to her. They'd opened their home to her, and in some ways, they'd been more of a family to her than her own ever had.

She barely knew them.

She hadn't even bothered to learn their names. They hadn't been witnesses and so it hadn't mattered. Somehow, it mattered now.

All she knew was that she didn't have a choice. Maybe this would atone for what she'd done in the Congo.

Fighting twenty men had been surprisingly easy, but these weren't men. They were something else, and Lois had no illusions about her chances against them, especially with the Angelica-thing having a gun.

She wasn't even sure how to fight them.

All she had was her cell phone clutched in one hand, and the crossbow bolt in the other. At the urging of the eldest Cortez, she'd snapped the tip off the end of the bolt, leaving a jagged edge.

She could feel the heat from the fires now, and the smoke.

Unlocking the door as quietly as she could, she picked up her cell phone again from the ground, and prepared to run.

She slammed the door open and launched herself out into the open.

The light of the fires behind her lit everything in high contrast.

Several of the men were standing in a group near the thing that had been Angelica. The rest of them were spread out around the building, waiting for the onrush of humanity.

As Lois ran toward them, she yelled into the cell phone and dropped it.

It was then that the miracle happened.

The wind in the trees stopped suddenly, and everything fell into an unnatural, almost preternatural stillness.

The creature in Angelica's body stared at her for a moment, and in its eyes, Lois saw an awareness that something was wrong.

A tremendous wind rose suddenly, and the light from the fire in the windows behind her flickered and died.

The wind died down for a moment, then it rose again, this time in the middle of the crowd of things near Angelica.

They went flying in all directions, although most flew towards the woods.

Angelica ran, and Lois could see several of the other things flying, caught up apparently by small twisters.

Before she could do anything, it was over.

***

The Cortez family was unharmed, although all of them were pale and the children were crying quietly to themselves.

Lois jerked violently as there was a knock at the door. They'd been discussing whether to still make a run for it. There was no telling if they would receive a second miracle if the things came back.

The door opened, and Lois rose quickly to her feet.

Clark stepped inside and looked apologetic.

"I didn't hear a car drive up," Lois said.

"Someone locked the gate near the road," Clark said grimly. "Is everyone all right?"

Lois nodded. "We've got to talk."

It was strange, but although he was only a man, Lois felt a sense of relief now that Clark was here.

He just had that effect on people.

"I should have been here," Clark said grimly.

Lois frowned. "I'm not sure how much of a difference you could have made if you had been here." She hesitated. "How did you get here so fast, anyway?"

"I was already on my way back," Clark shook his head. "I was right about Jimmy. A couple of thugs tried to sneak in and attack him."

"Were they…?" Lois asked.

Clark shrugged. "I'm not sure how you tell the difference. I got the drop on them, and they are in police custody now."

"And Jimmy?"

"He's all right." Clark said. "The LAPD have placed him under guard."

"Clark," Lois said, "Did you ever see Angela naked?"

Flushing, Clark looked away. "There was never anything between us."

"She…It taunted the Cortezes." Lois stared at him intently. "It implied that you rejected Angela."

"I…It wouldn't have been right." Clark said. "They'd taken me into their home, treated me like family. I couldn't do that to them."

Lois nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off him.

She'd suspected that he was a good man, but part of her kept expecting him to disappoint her. He was competent, but so were most of the people working at her level.

There was just a strange sort of freshness about him. To the untrained eye, it made him look a little na´ve, but Lois was beginning to suspect that there was more than that. He seemed to want to believe the best in people, and the people around him wanted to live up to it.

She certainly did.

"Are you ok?" he asked. "You aren't hurt?"

Lois shook her head mutely. In the rush of everything that had happened, she wasn't sure just how she felt about anything.

She'd killed again. Even if the man she'd thrown the burning bottle at had been some sort of weird alien creature, it had been her hand that had thrown the bottle.

She had a flash again of blood and rage and death. She shook her head again to dispel the image from her mind.

Clark hugged her suddenly. Lois stood stiff for a moment before relaxing.

She'd never been comfortable with being touched by strangers. Her own family hadn't been touchy feely types, and so she'd always felt strange when people tried touching her without permission.

This felt nice, though. She felt oddly safe wrapped in Clark's arms, and safe wasn't something she'd felt much of since she'd been in the Congo.

She wondered if the dreams were ever going to leave her.

"I'm glad you are ok," he said.

"We have to do something for the Cortezes," Lois said. "It's our fault that this happened."

Clark shook his head. "Angelica was the assistant coroner. Anyone interested in delaying the investigation was going to take care of her first. My guess is that they tried bribing and threatening her first. It would have been better for them for a falsified report to come from a living coroner."

"And once Angelica was turned, whatever anger she held toward her family would have made this inevitable." Lois sighed.

"Still, I can't see that she's going to stop now that she's tried once."

Lois nodded at Clark, then stiffened and stepped out of his grasp.

She could hear sirens in the distance. Help had finally arrived.

***

The lights from the fire trucks and police cars were annoying.

"A woman led the attack," Lois told the lead detective. "There must have been twenty men following her."

The evidence was still on the ground in the form of three coolers, some of which were filled with unused Molotov cocktails.

"Let's go over the fire again. You say that the house was hit by some sort of tornado?"

"I guess that's what it has to have been," Lois said. "I can't think of any other kind of wind that would have hit the house from all different sides and put out the fires."

"You say it knocked some of the assailants over?"

"It blew them quite some distance," Lois said. "I already showed you the place where they landed."

"You didn't recognize any of them?"

Lois hesitated, then shook her head. She'd overheard the senior Cortez telling investigators that they hadn't known any of the men, or the woman either.

She could understand wanting to keep the truth in the family. The family had been through enough.

"We're going to have more questions, Ms. Lane. Please don't leave town without getting in contact with the LAPD." The man handed her a card. Lois barely looked at it.

The sky was beginning to lighten already, and Lois found that she was beginning to relax. The worst was over, for tonight at least.

***

Lois had been lucky. Her room was one of the few that hadn't been targeted, although she was sure that they would have gotten around to it eventually. Clark hadn't been as lucky, and everything he owned had been burned or damaged.

She woke, and felt oddly refreshed. Her dreams, if she'd had them had been unmemorable.

A look at her watch told her it was noon. She'd had five hours of sleep.

She dressed quickly after a quick shower. Thankfully the place still had hot water.

A great deal had been done while she was asleep. Much of the mess had been cleaned up, and she could see suitcases and bags sitting in the common room.

"What's going on?" Lois asked. Clark was carrying a number of bags, which he dropped gently to the floor.

"They are sending the women and the children away to stay with relatives out of state," Clark said. "They plan to be gone by nightfall."

At least the children were out from school, Lois thought, although she wondered what the women were going to do about jobs, those who had them.

"The men are staying?"

"The younger, stronger men," Clark said.

The door opened and the eldest Cortez stepped in the room carrying a box. He was followed by several men, also carrying boxes.

He pulled a box cutter from his pocket and bent down to open the first one, pulling out a gleaming weapon of metal.

It was a thing of odd beauty, that crossbow. Lois's hands ached to touch it.

She'd never had an interest in weapons before. In fact, she'd always been a strict advocate for gun control.

Yet she couldn't help her visceral response to the weapon.

The other men were also opening boxes. They pulled out an odd assortment of crossbows, clearly bought in different places and of all different makes and models.

The eldest Cortez set his crossbow down on an end table, then slowly rose to his feet. He sighed.

He turned to Lois and said, "We'll remember what you've done for us. You'll always be welcome among us."

Lois shook her head. "I didn't do anything."

"You saved my life," he said. "And the life of my wife. You ran at someone who was shooting at you to give us the time to get away."

He took her hand and said, "Those things aren't nothing."

Clark was staring at her, and Lois realized that she hadn't bothered to mention much about her role in the attack. It hadn't seemed important last night.

Her mind flashed back to the sensation of grabbing a flying object out of the air a moment before it would have hit the elder Cortez.

It was impossible. Nothing human could move that fast.

Lois didn't want to think about the implications. The thought that she might be changing into something alien, inhuman was frightening.

"We won't be unprepared the next time," he continued. "If they come back, we will be ready."

***

"I've been thinking about the wind that hit us," Lois said.

Clark was driving again, and he didn't look at her. For some reason, a muscle in his jaw tensed.

When he didn't speak, she continued. "They just don't have tornadoes in this part of the country."

"Yes they do," Clark said. "California averages around five tornadoes a year. You just don't hear much about them."

"It's a pretty big state," Lois said. "What are the odds that one of the five tornadoes in the whole state would hit just at the right time to save the Cortez family ranch?"

Clark shrugged. "It happened." He wasn't looking at her.

"The sky wasn't even cloudy last night."

"What are you getting at?" he asked. His voice was oddly tense, and Lois looked at him curiously.

"With everything else we've seen…well, heard about…it makes you wonder."

"Yes?"

"They were burning people as witches in Sunnydale. It could be mass hysteria…but what if it wasn't?"

Clark relaxed and glanced over at her with an amused look. "So you think some witch called up a storm to save the Cortezes?"

"Maybe one of the Cortezes IS the witch," Lois said. In her mind she envisioned one of the old women muttering protective spells in the garden.

"The Cortezes are Catholics," Clark said. "Very devout."

Lois caught his amused grin and she scowled. "You weren't there. You didn't see what I saw. What else could it be?"

Clark grinned at her. "Alien intervention?"

"Get serious," Lois said. She scowled again and turned to stare out at the passing countryside.

At least they were getting to pick up Jimmy. She didn't feel comfortable leaving him alone and unprotected, not when she knew what was out there.

***

Jimmy grinned up at her from the wheelchair.

"I could get used to this," he said. "Getting pushed around by beautiful women."

"From what I hear, that's pretty much your dating history," Lois said dryly.

Jimmy shrugged. "It works for me."

"You haven't heard from the girl in the leather pants, have you?" Lois asked. She'd checked with the hospital. Faith hadn't left any sort of information with them. She'd slipped out shortly after delivering Jimmy.

Jimmy shook his head, ten grimaced. "Don't I wish. It's just my luck. I meet the girl of my dreams and a minute later I get my face smashed into a wall."

"Love is like that," Lois said. It wasn't as though she'd ever felt that way, but it was what she'd always heard.

The front doors of the hospital slid open, and Lois pushed Jimmy out into the light.

Jimmy stood up slowly at curbside, and Clark, who was waiting with the car, helped him inside.

As they slid into their seats, Clark spoke.

"I have a lead on a living member of the cult they found in the mass grave."

"One of the Cortez cousins is a paramedic," Clark said. "With everything that has happened, the family has been talking."

Clark pulled smoothly out into traffic, and Lois glanced back at Jimmy, who seemed to be alert and conscious.

Turning back to Clark, Lois said, "He remembered something."

Clark nodded.

"Did he work in Sunnydale?" From what one of the Cortez men had said, the family had avoided the city.

Clark shook his head. "He worked out of Norwalk, a city about twenty minutes southeast of Los Angeles. The closest State Psychiatric Hospital is there."

"And Sunnydale was being swamped with new cases," Lois said.

One of Jimmy's news articles had mentioned that the Sunnydale Psychiatric Hospital had been overwhelmed with schizophrenic patients. The CDC had promised to investigate, but Jimmy hadn't found anything further on the matter, with a single exception.

Apparently the patients had escaped the ward as a group, emptying the entire unit. Afterwards, there weren't any mention at all of further cases, or the disposition of those who had to have been wandering the streets of Sunnydale.

Given what she'd heard about the place, she wondered just how long they'd managed to survive those streets. Sunnydale didn't sound like it had been a city with much of a homeless problem.

The problem wouldn't have been finding a good meal. It would have been avoiding being one.

"They started shifting some of their excess patients by ambulance to the state hospital. Those who were violent were escorted by Sheriff's Deputy."

Lois nodded impatiently. "So why does he remember a single patient after all this time?"

"The man had a tattoo on his forehead. He was docile when they put him in the ambulance, but he tried to escape in the middle of the trip."

"So he went to the state psychiatric hospital two years ago."

"That's where we start."

***

Norwalk might have been a twenty minute drive southeast of Los Angeles, but getting there was a nightmare. Lois was used to the traffic in Metropolis which, Like Manhattan was compact and busy.

She wasn't used to the sheer urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The distance from one place to another amazed her, and the sheer number of car accidents and subsequent slowing traffic was a problem.

It wasn't even rush hour.

What should have been a forty five minute trip took almost three hours.

The city itself seemed nice enough. Small, neatly kept homes with well tended yards. These were the sort of homes Lois had once fantasized about having, before she'd realized that there was no such thing as Mr. Right.

She glanced over at Clark, who seemed to know where he was going.

Suburban bliss began to change, becoming darker and more neglected the closer they got to their destination.

It reflected Lois's mood. She stared out the window as they found themselves passing through an industrial district.

She wondered how many of these places were abandoned, filled with the homeless. How many of these people were facing the same fate as Sunnydale's had?

If monsters were real, why hadn't she ever heard about them in her own town? Did they only exist in Sunnydale, or were they like cockroaches?

Did every city have its own monsters, hidden away where the average person couldn't find them?

Life would have been easier if she'd never started that gunrunning story, if she'd never heard of Sunnydale.

They were back on the highway again, and Clark soon turned off onto another road.

The place was huge, with acre after acre of green lawns and trees. Mental health was apparently big business.

They'd soon have their answers.

***

"We can't help you." The man at the desk was fussy and neat, and he stared at them disapprovingly.

"We're just trying to find this man, and the last place he was known to be was here." Lois said. "He may have vital information relating to a case of mass murders outside of Sunnydale."

"If you have a warrant, I can speak with you. Otherwise, I can't help you." The man stared at her calmly.

"What are you trying to hide here?" Lois asked.

"Confidentiality rules exist for a reason, Ms. Lane. It's difficult enough to get people to come in for psychiatric help that they genuinely need without the fear that their name will be released to the newspaper whenever a reporter gets an urge to do a story."

"We have no intention of naming names." Lois glanced over at Clark, who had spent the entire interview silently staring at the wall with his glasses pulled down to the bridge of his nose. "But it's vitally important that we find this man. We think he could be in danger."

"Then tell the police."

Clark suddenly moved, shoving his glasses back up his nose.

"If you can't help us with an individual case, could you help us with information about common procedures?"

The man nodded reluctantly.

"What happens to a homeless patient who is declared at least temporarily stable?"

"He is referred out to a number of shelters. The Salvation Army accepts some of these people."

"Would it be possible to get a list of shelters in Los Angeles County that people are sent to?"

"There are six shelters that we commonly use," the man said. He looked at Lois and sighed. "I'll write down the addresses of all of them."

***

"How do we even know that he wasn't picked up by other members of his cult?" Lois asked. She was still irritated by the officious man's refusal to help.

Hadn't he heard of freedom of press?

"How would they have even known where he was?" Clark asked. "Unless he called them to come pick him up, which is always a possibility, they would have hit the same roadblocks as we did."

"You don't think he was coherent enough to call them?" Lois asked.

"I think that there's a lot of pressure on the hospital to make room for new patients," Clark said grimly. "And not a lot of options for aftercare."

"There are agencies…" Lois said. She hadn't had much experience with the mentally ill. Her stories had always focused more on crime and corruption.

Through her family she understood alcoholism and depression, but schizophrenia was beyond her.

"Some of these people have problems taking their medications. If they can't even find a roof to sleep under, how are they supposed to remember to take their meds or come to their appointments?"

"You have some experience with this?" Lois asked.

"I did some stories in Kansas," Clark said. "I can't imagine that things are better in the big city."

Clark began to slow, and it took Lois a moment to realize why.

Traffic was backed up ahead, and everything was coming to a stop.

Rush hour had begun.

***

Lois felt frustrated and angry. Clark had managed to get off the freeway and had managed some creative driving that had cut their drive time to only three hours, but it was still frustrating to realize that they had wasted most of the day on something that wasn't likely to pan out.

"Why are we starting with this one?" Lois asked. "It's on the middle of the list."

It wasn't even the closest to the hospital. There was one that was closer.

The sun was already setting, and with it, Lois's sense of danger. In the back, Jimmy was laying on his side, asleep.

At least the hospital had ruled out a concussion.

"It's one of the closest," Clark said. "And I have a gut feeling."

He touched his glasses self consciously, and Lois wondered what he was hiding.

It seemed strange for a man outwardly as honest as Clark to be hiding things, but there was something about him that had been nagging her for a while.

Something told her that there was more to him than met the eye. It wasn't just his quiet confidence, his competence, or his excellent driving.

It certainly wasn't that he was attractive, although he undeniably was.

In the few days she'd known him, he'd somehow grown more handsome than he was when she'd first met him.

Deep down, she liked him. She'd been through a great deal over the past few days, and the last thing she could have tolerated was a talkative, annoying partner.

He'd been sensitive enough to known what she'd needed, and he'd kept quiet.

Or perhaps that's just how he was. Either way, his presence soothed her. In her old life she might have thought he was boring. She'd have been so busy chasing the next story that he would have faded into the background.

But out here, all alone with her thoughts, she could see him more clearly.

Perry had clearly known what he was doing in assigning him to this case.

Clark slowed the car again, and they soon pulled up in front of a nondescript brick building. A large crowd of men, mostly African American and Hispanic were standing outside the building.

It was clear from the way they were dressed that they didn't have much. Homeless chic hadn't really caught on in L.A.

Jimmy woke up, looking groggy.

"Watch the car," Lois told him.

In Metropolis, a car like their rental would be stripped to the chasse in less than twenty minutes in some sections of town. This place looked like one of those places.

***

"You honestly want me to remember someone that came through here two years ago?" the woman stared at them and laughed. "Do you know how many people we have coming through here every day? And now with the Sunnydale thing? We've got people sleeping on the floor."

"We're asking about a man with a tattoo on his forehead," Lois said. "He would have been clearly mentally ill."

She pulled out a close up photo of the tattoo taken from one of the corpses at the morgue.

The woman glanced at the picture then did a double take.

"I did know someone like that. He doesn't come by anymore. He went by the name of Olaf."

"Do you have any idea where he might be?"

"I've heard that he was harassing some of the kids over at the East Hills Teen Center." The woman shook her head. "Getting people to take their medications is almost impossible, and when they are off them, things can deteriorate pretty fast."

The woman wrote an address down on a sheet of paper. "Ask Anne Steele what she's seen. She's the director of the teen center, and she might be able to give you a better lead."

Lois glanced at Clark, and they both rose to their feet. "Thank you."

***

"We're getting closer," Lois said. "I can feel it."

Clark's hunch had been correct. Lois wondered if he was hiding something. Maybe he had a source at the hospital that he didn't want to reveal.

The East Hills Teen Center was in a part of town even more poverty stricken than the last place they'd visited. The interior was well kept, and the teenagers passing through seemed respectful and clean.

The director of the place was absurdly young however, barely out of her teens herself.

"How may I help you?" the woman asked. There was something about the way she looked at Clark that Lois didn't like.

It was speculative interest, in the way a woman looks at a man.

"My name is Lois Lane and this is my partner Clark Kent," Lois said, reaching out to shake hands. The woman's hands were warm and human.

"We're investigating the collapse of Sunnydale," Lois said, continuing.

The woman's expression changed. "I don't have anything to say about Sunnydale."

"You are a native?" Lois asked.

"We're here looking into a mass grave outside of town. There were a number of men with this tattoo buried there, and we think that a survivor may have escaped." Clark spoke smoothly, and he smiled at Anne.

He handed her the photograph, and Lois noticed that her hands lingered a moment too long on his.

The woman…girl really, gasped as she saw the photograph.

"There's a local street person who has a tattoo like this. He's been harassing some of the kids, and I've had to call the police on several different occasions."

"Any idea where he usually stays?"

Anne shook her head and handed the picture back to Clark. "Some of the kids do, though."

She gestured, and a pair of young African American kids stepped forward.

The boys were more than happy to give directions to Olaf's home.

***

Olaf's home was a box in a dark alley behind a dumpster.

The entire alley smelled of garbage, rotting food and human urine. It was dark even to Lois's newly enhanced vision, and Lois had an uneasy feeling of dread.

From the darkness, a deep, accented voice spoke.

"Are you here to kill me then, killer of men?"

Lois froze.

"Come to finish off the work of the Beast?" the voice continued, this time closer. "Brought your own creature and the monster inside."

The thing that shuffled into the light was barely a man. The tattoo on his forehead, and the light of madness in his eyes were only accentuated by the long knife in his hand.

Lois took a step back, the blood draining from her face. It wasn't that she was afraid of the knife.

He knew what she had done.

"It is not my time, reaper. You may not take me." The man stood in the shadows, swaying. A moment later he stepped out into the light.

"Abomination," he muttered, staring at them with his good eye. His other eye was covered with a dirty rag which did not conceal a crusted matte of something nasty seeping from the other one.

Lois stood frozen, unable to speak. The sick feeling at the pit of her stomach had never gone away, though it had gradually faded into the background over the past few days.

It was back in full force.

There was something about the way the man was staring at her. His single eye stared at her as though he knew all her secrets and despised them.

He was a tall man, dressed in multiple layers of clothing. His clothing reeked of stale urine and body odor.

"I was the hand of God, and the eye, and now I am nothing." The man shook his head. He had a full, matted beard, and crumbs fell from it.

"Olaf?" Clark asked. "My name is Clark Kent, and this is Lois Lane. We are reporters—"

"I know who you are." The man scowled. "I know what you are. This is not your place, not your home. This is our place, MY place."

"We just wanted to ask some questions about the other members of your order." Clark glanced at Lois and she shook her head a little. She didn't feel ready o speak yet.

"Dead. All dead because I could not see." The man's expression turned morose. "I was to be the eye, and they were the hand."

"The Hand?" Clark asked.

"Of God, fool!" Olaf stepped forward, his eye blazing. "We were the hand of God, ready to smite the Enemy."

"And you failed." Lois spoke, and she realized that her voice was flat.

"The Beast was too strong. Mortal hands had no chance." The man was becoming agitated. "Damn her back to hell!"

Lois shared a look with Clark before turning back to the questioning.

Olaf hadn't been an old man. His posture and bearing was that of someone who had been broken. He stooped, and although he had once been a big man, he was now skinny and he swayed.

It looked as though he hadn't eaten in a while. His eyes were sunken in his head.

"You came to America to find the Beast?" Lois asked, finally regaining her voice.

Olaf stared at her. "No one seeks the Beast. To meet her is death." He closed his remaining eye. "Beautiful death."

"Then why?"

"The Key must be destroyed."

"You were looking for a key," Lois said. "And it took a hundred of you?"

"The Key was hidden. It was our holy duty." The man looked suddenly morose. "We could not kill her."

"The Beast?" Lois asked.

"They Key! The Key was a girl, the sun's morning light."

Lois scowled. Talking to Olaf was like trying to swim through tar. Every question only led to more, and nothing ever seemed to go anywhere.

"We were talking about the Beast." Lois said. "What did she look like? Was she tall, short, blonde…?"

"If you are seeking the Beast, you are a fool!" Olaf scowled and stepped closer to Lois. "You'll get what I got. Cold hands reaching into your head…stealing it all away."

Lois glanced at Clark again, remembering a fingernail embedded in a man's skull.

"Did she do this to your eye?" Lois asked. Despite the filth, she found herself leaning forward to look under the rag. She was repulsed, yet fascinated.

Even though she knew she'd regret it, she couldn't not look.

Olaf batted her hand away and said, "No touching. I did this."

"Why?" Lois asked, repelled. What could make a man gouge out his own eye?

"If thine eye offends thee…" Olaf lifted the rag to reveal the ruined socket where an eye had once been. "My eyes failed my brothers. I was to be their seer. Now I see better."

Lois stepped back, and leaned in toward Clark. "I'm not sure he's capable of telling us anything more."

"We need to get him some assistance," Clark said. "That socket looks infected, and I'd hate for him to try to blind the other one."

"I am not blind!" Olaf said. His hearing was apparently quite good. "You are both the blind ones. Cannot see what is right before you. I may not see the now, but I see what will come."

"You're saying you are some sort of prophet," Lois said skeptically.

"I said it before," the man said irritably. "I was the seer, only I did not see. Now I see but the connections are lost."

"So what's in the future?"

"Darkness and death, killer of men. Dark days are coming for this city of Angels. The angels will reject it and the others will come."

"I'd thought the Angels left a long time ago," Lois said.

"You perhaps, when the darkness entered your soul." Olaf chuckled, and the short laugh turned into a cough heavy with phlegm. "You still dream about it, every night."

Chilled, Lois stepped back. "I dream about my next big story. You apparently aren't it."

"Galactically stupid," Olaf said. "You seek the alien and inhuman when the truth is beside you, inside you, all around."

Lois glanced at Clark, who shrugged uncomfortably.

It was time to end this, and it looked like Clark knew it. He stepped carefully back then stepped further down the alley while pulling out his cell phone. Lois presumed that he intended to call the police to get Olaf the help he needed.

"You know what's in you," Olaf said quietly. He fumbled in the rancid layers of clothes he was wearing, searching through his pockets.

Glancing back to see that Clark was engrossed in his conversation with the police dispatcher, Lois turned to Olaf.

"What do you know about me?"

"Always craving Daddy's love." Olaf coughed again. "Mama a drunk. What don't I know?"

"What's happening to me?" There were so many questions, and so few places to find answers.

"You know what's happening. You've had the dreams. Evil to fight evil. The fools." Olaf stared at her. "You will kill again."

Lois shook her head. "You don't know what you are talking about. I don't have to do anything."

"It infests you. You must cut it out before it takes you over."

Olaf fumbled through his pockets. Most of his body was still in the darkness, but as he lunged forward, Lois could see the gleam of something metallic in his hand.

The world seemed to slow around her, and without conscious thought she grabbed his wrist and twisted just as her sensei had always taught her.

The bones in his wrist made a cracking, and he shrieked. The knife fell to the floor of the alley and Lois kicked it behind her.

He yanked ineffectually at his arm, shrieking again, and Lois felt the bones of his wrist grinding together under her hand.

She let go convulsively, and Olaf staggered back to land in a heap against the wall. He did not move again, although she could hear him moaning in a low voice.

Lois shuddered violently, and she stared at her hands. Olaf was right. There was something inside her, and she didn't know how to get rid of it.

She staggered backward, and then Clark was there.

***

The flashing lights of the ambulance were interspersed with the flashes of the camera as pictures were taken of the knife. Lois was wrapped in a blanket that Clark had found from somewhere.

For some reason, she couldn't seem to get warm.

"He didn't say anything before he attacked you, Ms. Lane?" The police detective had been competent and clinical. Undoubtedly she dealt with assault victims every day.

Not that Lois had been the victim.

"He said I had an infection that had to be cut out," Lois said.

The woman nodded. In the distance, Lois could see Clark being interrogated by another officer. Jimmy was in the background, wide eyed. "So you came to ask him questions about a religious group he'd belonged to, one involved in a mass murder over in Sunnydale."

"Outside of Sunnydale," Lois said absently.

"And he became violent and tried to stab you?"

Lois nodded.

"Are you trained in the martial arts, Ms. Lane?"

"I'm a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do," Lois said. She hesitated. "I haven't had time to take the formal test, but my sensei tells me I am."

"So you should have been able to disarm him without hurting him?" The officer's face was expressionless.

Lois sighed. "I don't understand how it happened. I got the knife away from him, and something just popped."

It was a lie. Something had crunched under her fingers. Lois rubbed them together again compulsively.

"It all just seemed to happen so fast," Lois said. She found herself staring at the ground. She felt exhausted suddenly, even though she'd slept until noon.

The woman touched her shoulder and Lois flinched. "I wouldn't worry about this, Ms. Lane. You are the victim here."

If only that were true.

"If this goes to trial, you might have to testify," the detective said quietly. "But I doubt this will ever go to trial."

"He said he injured his eye himself," Lois said. "He's clearly a danger to himself."

"We have enough evidence that a judge will sign an emergency detention order. They can hold him for up to seventy two hours at the psych ward. After that, we'll see what we can do about getting him the help he needs."

"How did he ever get out in the first place?" Lois asked.

"I'm sure he's much clearer when he's taking his meds." The detective shook her head. "The system is overloaded. They have to let people go to make room for the next ones, whether they are all the way ready or not."

They were done shortly afterward.

***

"So you broke the guy's wrist?" Jimmy asked. Lois didn't like the wide eyed enthusiasm on his face, or the admiration in his voice. "I always knew you could take care of yourself. After you put that guy Mitchell in the hospital…"

Lois scowled. "That was my cooking. How was I to know that he was allergic to curry powder?"

"I'm sure he was surprised to find it in an omelet," Jimmy said, grinning.

Lois shrugged, relieved when she saw a slight smile from Clark. Somehow they'd ended up in a diner that didn't look much different than the one they'd been in on the night they'd first visited Angelica.

It felt like that was an eternity ago. Lois had felt different then, and she felt even more different now.

She kept feeling bone cracking under her hands. It was more than just Olaf, although that was part of it.

She tried to smile at Clark, although she could tell by his expression that she wasn't fooling him. They were going to have to talk soon, and Lois wasn't sure what she was going to say to him.

Telling him the truth was out of the question. How was she going to tell him that she wondered sometimes if she was even human anymore?

Her hands hadn't stopped trembling.

"I'm sorry," Clark said finally. "I should have seen that he had a knife."

Lois grimaced. "What were you going to do, frisk him? I wouldn't have touched him at all if I hadn't had to."

She'd washed her hand repeatedly after the officer had left, and it still felt dirty. Lois was going to take a bath as soon as she got home.

Lice were a complication she didn't need in her life right now.

"I should have been watching more closely," Clark said. He'd been staring at the table for much of the conversation, even more quiet than usual.

"I can take care of myself, Smallville," Lois said irritably.

Clark smiled slightly. "I can tell."

"Olaf was a dead end," Lois said. "So where do we go from here?"

"I think we should go back to the Teen shelter," Jimmy said.

"Looking for a date?" Lois said, instantly regretting it. Jimmy meant well. It wasn't his fault she was going through an existential crisis.

"She was in Sunnydale, and she probably knows a lot of the kids that came from there," Jimmy said. "It can't hurt."

Lois sighed. He was right. They'd have to find some way to make the girl talk.

"Plus," Jimmy said, "She's kind of cute."

He grinned, and for a moment Lois felt better.

***

Exhausted, Lois stared out the window as they finally made the turn that led into the Cortez ranch.

She wasn't used to the driving. In Metropolis, she could get practically anywhere within an hour, unless there were major accidents. In Los Angeles, it could take three hours just to get from one interviewee to the next.

More likely, her exhaustion was from emotional stress. Seeing what she'd done to Olaf had forced memories forward that she had been trying to suppress.

Clark pulled into the driveway, and Lois could see that the family had been busy while they were gone. The windows were boarded up, even the ones which hadn't been firebombed and she could see small slits cut in the wood.

She could see movement in some of them, although most of the lights were obviously off. Remembering the crates filled with crossbows, Lois shuddered.

Stepping out of the car, she stared at the surrounding hills. It all looked so peaceful now, but she wasn't ever going to feel fully safe here ever again. She wasn't sure she was ever going to feel safe anywhere.

As soon as she got to her room and slipped out of her clothes, she dropped into a deep sleep.

***

The silence was unnerving.

Lois could still hear screaming in her mind. When she finally stood, she didn't look down. She knew what was there, and even the glimpses she had out the corner of her eye were going to be the fodder for nightmares in the years to come.

She'd grown used to the sounds of moaning and coughing from the other cells. Now, however, everyone was silent.

The woman in the cell across from her was staring at her, white faced. The look of horror on her face head to reflect the feelings Lois was supposed to have, but all she felt was numb.

She didn't feel anything, and she wondered when it was going to start to hurt. She'd run through the snow barefoot one year as a child, and had been surprised to find that it wasn't painful at all.

It wasn't until she'd come back into the warmth that the pain had come. She'd been numb, and painless, and the agony had hit her all at once.

Her hands were shaking. Looking down at them, Lois grimaced. There was blood on them and she wiped them absently against the side of her dress.

It wouldn't come off. She wiped harder and harder, and it still wouldn't come off.

Finally, Lois had to look at what she had done. She'd known the jailer. He was a big man named N'tombe who had been notorious for using the girls before they were sold. He was laying on the floor close to the door now, his eyes staring unseeing at the ceiling. Flies were already starting to gather on what was left of his face.

Hands shaking, Lois bent down slowly, fumbling for his keys. She had to free the others, and they had to get out before others came. No matter what freakish strength she'd found, men with bullets would make short work of her.

Some of them had tried already, had hit their compatriots. Close quarter work was dangerous for groups that weren't trained for it. She couldn't tell how she knew this, but she did.

The keys weren't in his pockets. Lois grimaced and rolled him over. There was a squelching sound that she tried not to think about, and she found the keys underneath him.

They were matted and encrusted, but they would work.

Lois staggered toward the first cell, and she tried to ignore how the girl recoiled from her.

The door was open, first one, then the next, then the next. The other girls hadn't seen what she'd done, but they recoiled from the blood that covered her and from the look on her face. It wasn't the hopelessness that they would have seen on their own faces.

It was something darker and more imperturbable.

Finally the last of the doors were open, and the girls were streaming out of the building. As long as the buyers didn't come up the main road, they'd be able to make their way to the nearest village soon enough. There was an army garrison there, and they would come to investigate.

Lois had to be gone before that happened.

She found a bathroom that had been used by the guards. It was as filthy as the rest of the place, but at least it had a sink and a mirror. In the neon light of the bathroom, she looked pale and washed out.

Over and over she scrubbed her hands, but somehow the blood was always there. No matter how hard she rubbed, it wouldn't go away.

Lois glanced up at the mirror. The bruises and swelling on her face, legacies of the last few days were already disappearing, almost before her eyes.

It was then that she felt herself begin to change. Her skin rippled and her eyes began to turn golden.

There was something inside her, and she began to claw at her face to get it out.

***

A dark figure leaned over her bed, and Lois lashed out, feeling her fist connect flesh. The figure flew backward several feet and landed in a heap on the floor.

Lois struggled out of her blankets, then realized that the figure was familiar.

"Oh my God, Clark, are you all right?"

She switched the lamp on, and she saw her partner slowly rising to his feet. He was rubbing his jaw and smiling.

"Wow," he said. "That's some right hook you have."

"I grew up around boxers," Lois said absently. Clark wasn't dead. He wasn't even bruised. "What were you doing in my room?"

"I could hear you moaning in here. It sounded like you were having a nightmare."

"I think this case is getting to me," Lois said. She stepped toward Clark and in the dim light cast by the lamp tried to examine his jaw.

When she'd hit the men in the Congo that hard, they hadn't gotten up again. Ever.

"Are you sure you are all right?" she asked quickly.

"When I was doing bodyguard work for the Nigerians, I was taught to roll with a punch," Clark said.

It was a weak excuse, but at the moment Lois couldn't think of anything else it could be. She didn't have the same feelings around Clark that she'd had around Angelica and her minions.

If her stomach twitched, it was for another reason.

The light behind her popped and died, and Lois found herself flinching. She grimaced as the room was plunged into darkness, lit only by the light from an arrow slit in her boarded up window and the light from under the doorway that led to the hallway outside. "Are YOU all right," Clark asked.

"I'll be fine. I'm surprised that you haven't been having nightmares."

She expected a quick denial, but instead Clark was silent. Most men would have felt insecure and would have been quick to put up a macho front.

"I dream about the city collapsing," Clark said slowly. "I wish I could have helped."

"Well, even if you'd been here there wouldn't have been anything you could do." Lois laid a hand on his arm. "The way you help is by finding out what happened and making sure it doesn't ever happen again."

"You aren't what I was told you would be," he said.

"Oh?" Lois asked. It was a dangerous admission. She knew what sort of rumors were floating around about her at the Planet. She was hell on partners and almost impossible to work with. She was so focused on the story that she had no time for a personal life. She was an ice queen. None of them were good.

"I was warned that you would be sarcastic, driven, so focused on the story that you'd leave everybody else in your dust."

Lois nodded. Those were some of the least damaging things people said about her.

"I can't help but feel like something is wrong," Clark said. "You are a lot quieter than people said you would be, and I haven't heard you make a joke since you got here. You don't smile, and you look more and more exhausted every day."

"I don't see what business it is of yours," Lois said, stung. "Whether I smile or not."

"I've seen pictures of you smiling," Clark said. "When you do, it lights up the entire room."

"Well, there's been plenty of light," Lois said. "Not now, obviously, but…"

"Did something happen in the Congo?"

The words were out there, and Lois felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. She'd been running from the truth for days, and it kept being thrown back at her.

He was looking at her, and Lois knew he was expecting an answer.

"I saw some things there," Lois said. "Things that have given me a few nightmares. The things they were doing to those girls…"

"You came across the bodies of the gunrunners, didn't you?"

Lois had a sudden flash of memory. Piling up the bodies, the flash of a gun in her hand. Setting the fire. She'd done a good job of covering her tracks.

"They were burned beyond recognition," she said. She hesitated. "I can still smell it sometimes."

"I've come across some things that still haunt me," Clark said. "People that didn't get out of burning cars, disaster victims, victims of war. It helps to talk about it."

"I'm not ready yet," Lois said.

In all likelihood, she never would be.

Impulsively, she leaned forward and hugged Clark. He melted into the embrace almost immediately. There was no hesitancy, no reluctance.

This was a man who had been touched often growing up. He was comfortable with it in a way Lois doubted she ever would be.

She tried to imagine having a childhood like that and failed.

Envy wasn't something Lois felt often, but she felt it now. Having people to talk to at the end of the day, people who were able to take simple, uncomplicated joy in just touching each other. It must have been a great childhood.

"I've got a feeling you'd make a great friend, Clark Kent," Lois said.

"Why don't we find out?" Clark said.

They talked for half the night.

***

He didn't have a bruise on his face. Clark still had the same perfect complexion he'd always had, even though she was sure she'd punched him in the jaw. There wasn't the slightest hint that he'd ever been hit.

Lois glanced down at the brightly lit kitchen table. Luckily, this was one of the rooms that hadn't been firebombed. They were still providing breakfast, although Lois noted that they still didn't drink coffee.

"So we're going to see Anne Steele this morning," Jimmy said. He grinned at Lois's scowl.

She should have been exhausted, but she felt curiously revitalized. Clark's stories about a Norman Rockwellesque life in Kansas and about some of the exotic things he'd seen on his travels had been strangely soothing.

It was good to know that somewhere out there were places untouched by darkness. Even before going to the Congo, she'd been becoming more cynical and less trusting.

Spending all her time with politicians and criminals hadn't been good for her.

It was odd. Despite her suspicions that something was off about Clark, she believed his stories. She believed him.

Not that it would keep her from finding out his secret, in time. It's just that if he was really the good man he presented himself as being, she wouldn't share them with anyone.

She'd spend her entire life hating secrets, always wishing she was on the other side of the closed door. But now that she had some of her own, she was starting to realize why people reacted so violently, why they went to such lengths to protect them.

It just meant she was going to have to work harder to discover the truth.

***

At this time of the morning, the East Hills Teen Center was quiet and the street seemed to be deserted. Clark found a parking spot nearby, and Lois slipped out of the rental easily.

Jimmy had insisted on coming, even though they really didn't need him. There had been depressingly little to photograph on this trip, other than the gaping wound the Sunnydale crater had left in the landscape, and the general public had probably gotten tired of those images already.

From what Lois had seen on CNN this morning, news of the war and the Kobe Bryant case had been seen as more interesting that the story of 30,000 people being displaced. She and Clark had both been sending in stories regularly, and her editor seemed pleased with their output, but there were so many things they were discovering that couldn't be written about without absolute proof.

Lois had worked too hard for her reputation as a reporter to be demoted to the tabloids.

Clark tried the door, which was unlocked. He stepped inside, and Lois followed. Jimmy trailed along behind, with his camera out and ready.

Lois had barely noticed the place before, except to notice that it seemed to be well run, but this time she took a closer look. The walls were painted a pleasant pinkish color with a white trim. The furniture was older, but well preserved.

Anne was waiting for them. A slender, blonde girl, her youth struck Lois again. She didn't look old enough to be the director of a teen center this size. She looked like she should be one of the clients instead. She was wearing jeans and a blouse that left part of her stomach showing.

"I'm only talking to you because Xavier vouched for you," Anne said. "I haven't had much luck with the press."

She gestured for them to sit down on a nearby couch, while she took a chair. Sitting between Clark and Jimmy, Lois was uncomfortably aware of Clark's warmth by his side.

At least Anne hadn't insisted on sitting next to Clark. The whole flirtation thing had been tiresome.

"I can't imagine that a place like this would get bad press," Clark said.

"Try no press," Anne said. "The news isn't about people doing good things to help people, and so places like this get swept under the rug."

It was true, and Lois didn't have anything to say to that.

"I'm sure we can write a small article about this place. It'll get run in Metropolis, but it might get picked up by the Associated Press," Clark said.

Anne smiled slightly. "I'll believe it when I see it."

"So do you have a lot of refugees from Sunnydale here?" Lois asked. "Writing the story for our editor might make more sense if this is part of the bigger Sunnydale issue."

Anne nodded. "I'm a refugee myself, although I haven't been in Sunnydale in six years. You'd be surprised how many of the homeless kids around here come from there."

"I'm sure that having come from that background gives you a unique insight into helping hose kids."

"You mean holding them at night when they have nightmares?" Anne shook her head. "Sunnydale doesn't have a monopoly on that. I spent two years on the streets here in L.A. and it's scarier here than Sunnydale ever was…except once or twice, I guess."

Lois glanced at Clark and said, "We're not saying…"

"I get it. This is the first time you've been exposed to the supernatural, and of course you are interested." Anne shook her head. "Xavier told me what you did for his uncle at the ranch, and I can appreciate that."

"It wasn't anything," Lois said, feeling her cheeks flushing. She hated when people tried to make the story about her.

"But the truth is, there are monsters every bit as scary as the ones that came out of Sunnydale. We see them every day. Some of these kids had to live with them for their whole lives until they finally got out."

"You aren't advocating kids running away from home," Lois said.

"Children don't leave their parents unless they don't see any other way out. When you grow up without people you can trust, it damages you as a human being. It leaves you empty and anxious to fill the void."

Lois had a sudden image of her mother drinking in the dark by herself, of her father leaving with yet another of his bimbos. She'd grown up learning that she'd never be able to trust anyone other than herself, and it had left her with a certain void. She'd tried to fill it with work, desperately seeking the approval of Perry, who was the closest thing she had to a father figure.

Each Kerth had been just another reminder that all the awards in the world wouldn't make up for the closeness that she'd craved.

"I'm sure you do good work here," Lois said. "But the story right now is Sunnydale. People are interested in hearing from the survivors."

Anne sighed. "The kids here are all on their own. The kids from Sunnydale are still a little shell shocked. Most of them don't have families any more. A few of them still hope to be reunited with people they've gotten separated from."

"We might be able to help with that," Clark said, glancing at Lois.

Running a column in the Los Angeles paper would have to go through Perry, but Lois thought they might be able to manage it, even if they had to go through the Associated Press.

"What about you," Clark said. "You've been through all of this. I'm sure it's given you some insights into what it's like to grow up in Sunnydale."

Clark smiled, and something twisted inside Lois when she saw Anne responding to that.

Didn't she realize that Clark wasn't free to pursue a romance in this part of the country? He had responsibilities back in Metropolis, even if he'd only just begun the job.

"I don't think it was much different than growing up any other place," Anne said. "It had its secrets…but people didn't talk about them. There was an unspoken agreement I guess that people just didn't talk about that sort of thing in public. It didn't keep the kids from whispering sometimes."

"You didn't notice all the people disappearing," Lois asked.

"They always had explanations. Bobby was attacked by a drug gang. Billy had a barbeque accident. Joe was attacked by wild dogs. Mostly the adults were smart enough to stay in at night, and they kept the kids with them."

"So it was mostly the teenagers who were disappearing," Lois said.

"Some of them were never accounted for, and people just assumed that they'd run away to Los Angeles or got hooked on drugs."

"But so many kids?" Lois shook her head. "It's hard to believe that people can be so blind."

"What are the odds of getting mugged in Metropolis," Anne asked. "I'm sure it's something that most people don't go through at all. But there's always a chance that it could happen, and if you make stupid choices, your chances of getting victimized go way up. Mostly people don't think about it."

Anne shook her head. "We ignore our fears because we can't do anything else. Otherwise we'd be paralyzed and wouldn't be able to do anything. Most people in Sunnydale lived normal lives by day. They stayed in at night, and anyone unlucky enough to get caught out was just asking for whatever trouble they found."

"So you didn't know about the monsters by the time you got to be a teenager?"

"We knew. Most people just ignored it, but some people bought into the whole scene. I got involved with a group of people who bought into the whole Anne Rice thing. Vampires as misunderstood loners." Anne shook her head. "We were fools, playacting at being monsters to keep the fear away."

"I'm assuming that things didn't go well," Lois said. It was difficult for her to see the things she'd seen as lonely and misunderstood. What she'd seen had been the worst that humanity had to offer.

The feelings they left in the pit of her stomach were pure evil.

"Someone locked us in with those things," Anne said bleakly. "I saw some of my best friends die."

Jimmy had been sitting quietly beside Lois. He spoke suddenly. "I can't imagine what that would be like."

"It's like having the heart ripped out of your chest, "Anne said. "I dropped out of school, joint a cult, changed my name."

"How did you get away if you were locked in?" Lois asked suddenly.

Anne smiled. "Not everyone in Sunnydale was clueless. There were some good people fighting the good fight."

Lois straightened. This was the first she'd heard of this. "You wouldn't happen to have their names, would you?"

Anne's smile turned frosty. "You think I'd turn over someone who saved my life more than once?"

"We aren't the police," Lois said. "We just want to talk with them."

Shaking her head, Anne said, "Even if I was willing to give up the names, I'm not sure they got out of Sunnydale. I'd expect that they'd have been there until the very end."

"So you don't believe the official line about it being undiscovered cave systems beneath the city collapsing?" Clark asked quietly.

Anne laughed shortly. "What are the odds of the whole city evacuating at once three days before it collapsed. There were no evacuation orders, no alarms, and no warnings on television. Everybody just decided to get up and leave."

"Did the kids say why they left?" Lois asked.

"They said they had a sense of impending doom, a feeling that if they stayed they were going to die." Anne rose to her feet. "I can let you interview some of them if you promise to be gentle."

"Did you know a woman named Buffy Summers?" Lois asked.

Anne froze, and there was a strange, trapped look in her eyes.

"The last I heard, she died back in 2001," she said at last. "She was a good person, no matter what anybody else says."

"The senior class gave her an award for being class protector," Lois said.

Anne's face relaxed and she smiled wistfully. "She was like that."

As she stepped away to find some of the teenagers, Lois turned to Jimmy. "When we get back, I want you to find out everything you can about Buffy Summers."

At Clark's expression, she said, "The monks were murdered by a woman in 2001. Buffy Summers, noted class protector, died in 2001. Maybe there's a connection."

"A lot of people died in Sunnydale in 2001," Jimmy said. "Apparently it was the hip thing to do in school that year."

"I have a hunch," Lois said. "I think you'd have to be able to take care of yourself pretty well to protect anyone in Sunnydale."

There wasn't any more time for conversation as Anne brought the first of the interviewees.

***

"Didn't get the date?" Lois asked, seeing Jimmy's crestfallen expression.

"She shot me down," Jimmy said. "Said I remind her of a younger brother."

"You're at least as old as she is," Lois said irritably.

"Not in street years, whatever that is."

"It's a little like dog years," Lois said. "Trust me. I know a bi- Clark! Hey!"

Clark emerged from the shelter and smiled a little at her. "Anne gave me a list of some of the other shelters housing Sunnydale people. I'd like to hit some of them before we get back."

"That's not all she gave him," Jimmy mumbled under his breathe.

Clark looked up sharply, and Lois wondered whether he could hear what Jimmy had just said. Jimmy was standing next to her, and even with her newly improved hearing, she could barely hear what he had said.

"We should drop Jimmy off at a place with a wi-fi connection," Lois said, "So he can get started on that Buffy Summers research."

"As long as it's not the same library I was at before. I've got some issues with it."

"We'll come and get you before dark," Lois assured him.

Jimmy sighed, and then said, "Well, maybe I can see the girl in the leather pants again."

"Her name is Faith," Lois said absently.

When Jimmy stared at her, she said, "I didn't tell you? She came by to check on you after you got hurt."

Jimmy grinned. "Hey, at least some girls like me."

"I wish I could talk to her again. She had some pretty interesting things to say about Sunnydale."

Whether Lois could believe them or not was another thing. Places where the walls between the worlds got thin? Government conspiracies? Still, she'd been more open than anybody else in this case, and Lois had the feeling that she knew a lot more."

Jimmy frowned. "What are the odds that a girl like that was there just to see me?"

"Well, she went to a lot of effort to save you…" Lois said.

"I could see her calling to check on me…"

"They wouldn't give the information out over the phone," Lois said. She pulled open the back door of the rental and gestured for him to get in.

He did and Lois slipped into her own seat a moment later.

Jimmy leaned forward. "Anne said that her friends would be among the last people out of Sunnydale."

"You think Anne knows Faith? That would be a huge coincidence," Lois said.

"I doubt that everybody who does that sort of thing knows each other," Jimmy said. "But they are probably similar sorts of people."

"The sort of people who would stay in a town that everybody else was terrified to stay in, trying to stop whatever was happening."

"Who says all her friends got out in one piece?" Jimmy said slowly.

Lois froze for a moment. "You mean you think that she took you to a hospital where some of her friends were staying?"

"The library was within easy walking distance of the hospital," Jimmy said. "It's the closest one by a long shot."

"So she might still be there," Clark said, pulling out of the parking space and into the street. "I guess we'll be making a detour."

Lois glanced back at Jimmy, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He'd done very well. She'd have felt better if she'd thought he was happy about such brilliant detective work instead of the more likely scenario.

More likely, he was happy about the chance to see leather pants again.

***

It was only as they pulled into the hospital parking lot that Lois realized the monumental task they'd set for themselves.

They could hardly go asking if any of the patients had been stabbed, or bitten or clawed; hospitals had all sorts of confidentiality rules to prevent it.

Wandering the hallways aimlessly until they saw Faith might work, but what if she wasn't visiting this afternoon. Whoever she was visiting had probably gone to the emergency room initially, and may have gone to intensive care afterwards. Either they would still be there or they would have been moved out into the general populace.

There were hundreds of rooms in the hospital, and the nurses were going to notice them wandering around lost, without a particular patient's room to ask for.

"You're the only one who has seen this Faith," Clark said. "What are we going to do if she's changed into some other sort of pants?"

"I saw her!" Jimmy said. "Not for long, and mostly I saw her pants, but I remember the basics. She was a brunette, a little shorter than you, Lois."

"You just have to recognize her if she'd wearing something else," Lois said.

She stared at the building. "Any idea of how we are going to find them without a name, a description or anything?"

"If I could get access to the hospital computers I could probably cut the field down a lot." Jimmy said. "Just look for patients with a Sunnydale address who were admitted after the city fell."

That would work. The number of people injured in the evacuation of Sunnydale had been remarkably small. From what Lois had heard, it had mostly been a series of vehicular accidents and the usual round of injuries and illnesses that would have affected anyone.

"Get that list and break it down even more. Look for people with cuts, abrasions, violent injuries. Leave out the sick people…except for heart attacks maybe." Excessive strain, such as helping survivors escape might exacerbate heart problems.

"I doubt they are going to just let me walk up and use their computers," Jimmy said.

"Leave it to me."

***

Breaking into an administrator's office was easier than Lois would have thought. With the men standing around her to shield her from prying eyes, Lois quickly managed to get the lock open.

The locks in his place hadn't been replaced in years. After having seen the general state of disrepair here, Lois wasn't surprised. Money for upgrades was scarce, and indigent care had made hospitals in affected areas almost unprofitable.

Slipping into the office, Lois noted that someone was coming down the corridor. She closed the door carefully, and waited with the others until the footsteps passed.

The room was brightly lit through barred windows; even though this was a second floor office; apparently the administrators hadn't trusted that someone wouldn't try to get in.

As Jimmy mumbled about the antiquated computer terminal, Lois walked over toward the window.

Although they were on the second floor, there was a flat roof outside, explaining the need for bars. Lois glanced back. Clark was at the door, apparently watching for intruders and Jimmy was tapping his fingers impatiently as the system slowly began to boot up.

It was a fairly average office, with file cabinets, a desk, and chairs.

Lois wondered if there might be some information in the filing cabinets, although she doubted it. Information these days tended to be located centrally, with paper files being kept in medical records departments.

Cursing under his breath, Jimmy began typing.

"What's wrong?" Lois asked.

"There's a password," Jimmy said. "And this is an older system I'm not familiar with. I can get through it, but it might take a while."

"Get up," Lois said.

Obediently the younger man did so, and watched as Lois crouched down and looked under the desk. She rifled through the drawers which were filled with standard office supplies, then lifted the keyboard.

The username and password were printed on a piece of tape underneath.

"You may know computers, but I know people," Lois sad smugly.

Jimmy shook his head and muttered something Lois couldn't make out. Something about how criminally lax some people were about security.

As Jimmy began to work, Lois stepped over to Clark, who was standing by the door.

He had his glasses down again, and he was staring at the filing cabinets. After a moment he sighed and shook his head.

She was really going to have to ask him about that sometimes.

There were a lot of things she was going to have to ask him about. She suspected that being superhumanly tough was only part of it.

Idly she wondered if what had happened to her had only affected females, or if it had happened to men as well. It would certainly explain at least some things, although Clark seemed comfortable in his own skin.

Lois couldn't imagine being that comfortable after having had such a major life change in the past few days.

Still, given what had happened to the cultists and the reports of a mystery man doing feats of strength all over the world, it was clear that people with superhuman strength had preexisted the collapse of Sunnydale, even though it had become more common afterward.

Lois had looked at the reports. Mysteriously strong men had appeared in Nigeria, in China, in England, and in a number of other locations around the world. Clark had admitted to having visited many of those places over the past several years.

Lois wondered if he'd heard about the mystery men, and what he thought of the stories. It might make an interesting follow up story, after she'd gotten a few more conventional stories under her belt.

Perhaps people were evolving, slowly gaining abilities that would have been declared superhuman in the past.

More likely, there was a more sinister explanation.

"Anything?" she whispered.

"Some foot traffic," Clark replied. "Nobody sounds like they are stopping."

Lois heard a beep from the computer behind them, then winced at the sound of an unexpectedly lout dot matrix printer.

Jimmy winced and shrugged. The Planet's printers were silent and fast. These took an excruciatingly long time.

At the look on Clark's face, Lois hurried over to Jimmy.

"We'd better hurry up," Lois said. "I'd hate to be caught in here."

When Clark gestured violently toward them, Jimmy hurried to shut the computer off, while Lois looked for some place to hide. There was a door to a supply closet, which she managed to open.

The place was dusty, and she felt a need to sneeze, which she quickly suppressed.

Jimmy pulled the paper out of the printer and finished shutting off the computer. He moved quickly toward Lois, who moved aside to let him in.

Clark followed, and Lois was the last one in. She shut the door a moment before the outside door opened.

"They're healing faster than is humanly possible," the first voice said.

"You asked all the usual questions?" The second voice was impatient.

"I made discrete inquiries. The local Ano-Movic and Brachen clans know enough to give hints to the doctors in the know. There are medications they can't take."

"There aren't that many species that can pass as human," the second voice said. "Just avoid the usual allergens."

"I'd feel more comfortable if I knew what we were dealing with."

"Have any of them had adverse reactions to anything we've given them?" The second voice asked sharply.

"No. Most of them seem to be healing twenty to thirty times as fast as normal. Doctor Jamison is excited. He wants to call the CDC, write a paper."

"I'll talk to him. Most of them must be ready to go then."

"All but Summers and Woods."

"Good. They're the only ones with insurance. Get the others out and free up the bed space. They're indigents and they are costing us money by the day."

"Summers and Woods have better insurance than I do."

"What do you expect? The Sunnydale school district had to do something to attract teachers."

"Their rates must have been terrible."

"My sister is an insurance adjuster, and she tells me they got a special rate. Most of the people they lost died of one cause or another…and their indemnity plan didn't pay hardly anything. Not that many people got sick."

"I wouldn't have believed Summers could have survived that abdominal piercing." The first voice said. "Perforated several internal organs and I'm told she still walked into the ER."

"Decreased sensitivity to pain isn't all that uncommon." The second voice said. "Be sure and get any information you can on the patients before they leave. We want a shot at the federal disaster funds if the government releases any."

"Woods will be here for a while. I don't think he's anything more than he appears to be, but I think Summers is going to try to leave AMA."

"Are we likely to get sued if she leaves?" The voice was quiet for a moment. "Then let her go."

Lois could hear the sounds of footsteps leaving the room. She then heard the computer powering up in the next room and she found herself grimacing.

There wasn't any way to tell how long he would be working in his office. Lois slumped against the wall and resigned herself to waiting.

***

The storage closet felt hot and stuffy. Lois wasn't sure how the man in the other room hadn't heard them shifting around and moving occasionally.

It had been almost two hours since the man had come into his office, and he hadn't even talked on the telephone. It wasn't natural. All Lois could do was stand and think unflattering thoughts about just what sort of a drone this guy must be.

Clark was better at standing motionless than Jimmy. Jimmy seemed incredibly loud, and Lois found herself wincing every time he made a small noise.

It seemed incredible that the man couldn't hear them. It seemed that Lois could hear ever rustle of his clothes, every shifting in his seat, the click of the keys on the keyboard. It was maddening.

When Lois heard the printer start, it's obscenely loud and slow clattering almost obscuring any other sounds in the room, she began to relax.

Then it stopped, and she heard the man cursing under his breath.

Looking behind her, Lois froze as she saw stacks of computer paper and ribbons on shelves on the wall.

She heard footsteps approaching, and she froze, looking up at Clark.

She grabbed the door handle and held it steady.

The person on the other side tried to pull the door open, but Lois held it shut. He couldn't even turn the handle.

The footsteps retreated for a moment, and then Lois heard the sound of a lock in the keyhole. The man tried again, but the door didn't move. This time he'd actually locked the door.

The sounds of cursing under his breath were followed by footsteps heading away.

Lois relaxed. This door, at least had a lock on the inside to prevent anyone from being locked in.

She went to open the door, when Clark shook his head. It took her a moment, but she realized that she was hearing breathing outside the door.

Clark's glasses were down again. It was a habit that was becoming annoying, and Lois resolved to ask him about it.

They waited several more minutes before the breathing moved away.

Clark finally relaxed, and gestured for Lois to open the door. She did so, and they moved quickly to leave the office. Being seen coming out of a supposedly locked office would be just as bad as being seen going in.

It wasn't until they were out of the hallway and into a relatively unpopulated waiting area that Lois turned to Jimmy.

"Tell me that you got it."

"Robin Woods, Buffy Summers, and four other individuals were all admitted to the waiting room at approximately the same time, approximately two hours after Sunnydale collapsed.

Lois looked at the names on the list then gave it back to Jimmy. She approached the woman at the information desk.

"Hi. I'm looking for some of my friends. They were admitted recently."

"Their names?" The woman at the desk looked bored. She didn't even look up from her console.

"Buffy Summers," Lois said.

"She just finished checking out fifteen minutes ago."

The other girls would have done the same. "What about Robin Woods?"

"He's on the third floor, in room 313." The woman gestured without looking at her. "Just go through those elevators."

Lois nodded quietly, and she and the others headed in the direction they'd been led.

***

The hallway didn't look much different than Jimmy's had, except that it was busier, with nurses and visitors passing by.

Room 313 was closed, and Lois knocked gently on the door.

The door opened suddenly, and a familiar face stared out at them.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Faith's expression was furious, and Lois could see moistness around her eyes.

The tough girl fašade was cracking.

For a moment Lois was at a loss for words. She'd never been one of those reporters who accosted victims' families while their loved ones were lying in the hospital. She'd always preferred to go after those she saw as guilty.

She glanced at Clark, who was obviously no more comfortable with the situation than she was.

"Thanks for saving me," Jimmy said from behind them.

Whatever Faith had been going to say died in her throat. She looked slightly embarrassed.

"Sure, kid."

"I don't know what I would have done…" Jimmy was laying it on a little thick, Lois thought. It wasn't guilt, but something similar that caused Faith to open the door wider and step outside.

Inside, Lois caught a glimpse of an African-American man hooked up to a number of machines.

"What do you want?' Faith asked.

"The same thing we wanted before," Lois said. "Answers."

"I don't owe you any," Faith said. "You might not have noticed, but I'm a little busy."

"Because he's not healing as fast as the girls." Lois said. It was a risky move. It wouldn't take much to alienate Faith; years of experience had given her the ability to gauge people.

Faith was silent for a moment. "Damn. I guess all that confidentiality stuff the Docs keep harping on about is a load."

"We're good at what we do," Lois said. "Eventually we'll get the answers with or without you. Wouldn't it be better to have your friends give their side of the story?"

"Why are you bothering with all this?" Faith asked. "It's not like you'll ever be able to publish anything about all of this."

A nurse walked by, and her expression was chilly. Obviously extended conversations in the hallway weren't approved behavior.

"We might," Lois said. "If we have concrete proof."

She felt a moment of guilt at the thought that Faith might be right. She'd spent years building up her credibility as a journalist. Was she really ready to throw it away on a story about monsters and magic?

"What kind of proof can you possibly get? Demonstrate magic and people will call it special effects. Capture a demon, and it's a man in a mask. Pictures can be faked."

"Bodies?" Lois hazarded.

"You've seen the alien autopsy video. Do you believe it?"

Mutely, Lois shook her head. She didn't believe in aliens. Demons were hard enough, and even there she was wondering if there weren't alternate explanations.

Maybe Vampirism was some sort of disease, an infection that like rabies affected its host's brain.

So called demons could be just undiscovered species, like Big Foot, or perhaps strange genetic offshoots of humanity.

It wasn't as though she'd actually seen magic. Other than her own transformation, everything else she'd seen could be explained through weird science.

If she couldn't convince herself, how was she going to convince anyone else?

"We'll find a way," she said grimly.

The nurse was glaring at them again, and Faith sighed and gestured for them to follow her. She led them down the hall into a nearby waiting room.

It was deserted.

"I don't care what you think you know; you don't have enough."

"Those places you said the world was thin," Lois asked suddenly. "Are there any other places like that?"

"There are a few other places like that," Faith said cautiously, glancing at Clark and Jimmy. Clearly she hadn't expected Lois to share their conversation from earlier.

"How likely is this to happen again?"

Faith shrugged.

"That's not much of an answer."

"Do I look like a psychic to you?"

"So this could happen again."

Faith shrugged again. "Maybe. Probably not."

"There are stories I can run with this," Lois said. "Stories that wouldn't get me thrown into the tabloids. There is a lot of human interest in Sunnydale right now, and pretty young girls are always popular with the television networks."

She turned to Clark. "Scientist discovers secret to accelerated human healing. What sort of interest would that generate do you think?"

"About as much as a story about a last group of Sunnydale survivors with stab wounds being hospitalized," Clark said. "Some government agency is sure to come by with some questions about how six underage girls came in with stab wounds."

Something changed in the room, and Lois felt her hackles rise. There was something about the way that Faith tensed and shifted her stance that was dangerous.

There was a sense of danger about her now that hadn't been there before, and behind her, Lois could hear Jimmy stepping back.

Lois refused, instead standing very still. Beside her, Clark did the same.

It was important to never show a predator fear, and in the deepest pit of her gut she knew that's what Faith was.

She could feel a response rising within her. Lois had never dealt well with threats, but now there was more than just anger. There was a feeling of something primitive inside her responding.

If she moved, things would escalate.

"It'd be a mistake," Faith said after a long moment. "People would get hurt."

The unspoken promise was that they would be among them. Lois fought down her increasing urge to push back.

"Did the girls suddenly get stronger about ten minutes before Sunnydale died?" Lois asked suddenly.

Faith froze.

"They started healing faster, moving faster…being more agile. More aggressive…"

The sense of danger faded, being replaced by a sense of confusion.

"It's been happening all over the world," Lois said. "And it hasn't always ended well."

Faith was silent for a long moment. She was staring at Lois speculatively.

"There are people who can explain things better," Faith said at last. "I can set up a meet. Give me your cell numbers, and I'll have someone call you."

So cautious, Lois thought. But in a world where men, or things which had once been men, threw burning bottles into houses, it was probably prudent.

***

"Did you see her?" Jimmy said. The hero worship was out of his voice, replaced by a sense of worry. "I thought for a minute she was going to…"

"Her friend is in the hospital," Clark said. "Publishing a story would make it fairly easy for his enemies to find him."

He sound vaguely ashamed, and Lois felt an unwelcome tinge of it herself. She normally didn't bully victims. The problem was, she wasn't yet sure into which category Faith fit.

Clark had talked about men coming after Jimmy when he was in the hospital.

"Whatever happened to the guys who came after Jimmy?" Lois asked.

"I turned them over to the police," Clark said. "I don't know what happened after that."

"We need to find out. It might give us a clue into the people who were after us."

Clark nodded noncommittally. If it had been anyone else, Lois's words would have been a rebuke. But Clark had proven himself to her, and given how hectic the past few days had been, Lois wasn't surprised that things were being dropped.

"We need to find out everything we can about Buffy Summers and any of the other people on this list," Lois said. "Any of their acquaintances too. I want to know if there was anyone named Faith in their circle of friends."

"It's back to the library for me, then?" Jimmy asked, sighing.

"For all of us. I don't know when this meeting Faith agreed to will happen and I want to have the facts straight before we get started."

The three of them could do the research much quicker than Jimmy alone, and Lois had a feeling that she would need an edge in dealing with Faith's friends.

They had answers Lois needed desperately. It wasn't just for the story. She needed them to start making sense of her own life.

***

Five hours at the library, with Lois spending part of the time outside on the telephone to various places and agencies were enlightening.

Although people assumed the reporter's job was always exciting, often it was the grunt work that got things done. In this case, it had been enlightening.

The sun was already setting, and Lois cursed the lost time. It was barely seven, and already another day was gone. They had the teen shelter story, but it was hardly front page news for the Planet, even with the human interest angle.

If Perry thought the story was being overexposed, he might decide to pull them from the case, and rely on stories from the Associated Press.

Being huddled in the back stacks of the library wasn't the idea place to work, but at least they could speak without getting glared at by the librarians. These same women smiled at the several obviously homeless people who loitered in the library, presumably taking advantage of the air conditioning until the shelters opened again.

Being nice probably cut down on vandalism and public urination. Lois sniffed as yet another homeless person walked by. She could smell an unsavory assortment of aromas on this one, and she was suddenly reminded of Olaf.

She'd broken his arm, and she hadn't even thought about him in hours. The street prophet had known something more than he had been telling.

Sighing, she turned back to her presentation.

Jimmy said, "Buffy Summers was born in Los Angeles in 1981. I wasn't able to find out much about her until high school, where she apparently went to Hemery High, a school not far from here."

Lois picked up the narrative. "I spoke with several of her teachers. Apparently she was considered to be bright, but an underachiever. She was popular, and as a freshman she was elected Prom Princess and Fiesta Queen."

"She had a Juvenile record," Clark said. "It's sealed, but apparently she burned down the school gym and was expelled for that. She didn't serve any time; apparently she was placed into a psychiatric institution for trying to claim that vampires were real and that she had been trying to save everyone from them."

Before this week, Lois would have dismissed the girl as crazy. It was a warning, and a reason more people didn't try to reveal the proof.

Talk about Bigfoot or alien abductions and people made fun of you. Talk about vampires and demons, and people locked you away with strange medications.

Lois reminded herself mentally to make sure that whatever evidence she found was incontrovertible.

Straightjackets weren't in style this year.

A glance at the others showed that they were thinking the same thing.

"Her parents divorced, and her mother opened up a small art gallery in Sunnydale in 1998. I wasn't able to get a clear picture of high school experience. Those people from Sunnydale I could get hold of wouldn't talk to me. She didn't win prom queen though," Jimmy said.

"She was accused of murder in spring 1998. The Sunnydale PD records went down in the collapse, but she was enrolled again in the next year, so the charges must have been dropped." Clark glanced down at the stack of papers in front of him.

"Apparently the girl who was killed was a Jamaican National in the country illegally. There were several more suspicious deaths at her school, including her computer teacher, who was murdered after hours at the school, and her teacher, who was apparently torn apart by wild dogs."

The euphemisms the Sunnydale newspaper had used for causes of death had gotten tiresome after the first hour.

"Mysteriously, her new high school burned down on graduation day. Officials called it a gas leak, but it seems a little coincidental that two schools occupied by the same student are set on fire."

Lois scowled. The school principal, a Mr. Snyder had made numerous complaints about Buffy to the school board and had expelled her after the murder.

"She was a U.C. Sunnydale student for a semester, and then she dropped out. She dropped off the radar after that."

"Didn't you have footage of someone shooting a rocket launcher off inside the Sunnydale mall?"

"It was on You-tube and was pretty grainy. I went over it as closely as I could," Jimmy said. "But I couldn't make out whether it was her or not."

"Somehow she gets hired by the Sunnydale ISD as a school counselor without so much as an Associates degree. How could they hire somebody barely out of high school to counsel their kids?"

"She was good for the health plan?" Jimmy asked.

Lois brightened and smiled at Jimmy. "That may be it. She was voted class protector in high school. Maybe some of the people in the know hired her."

"Death rates at Sunnydale High school dropped sixty percent during her tenure as a student," Clark said.

Lois blinked. The death tolls she'd seen in the school yearbook had been at a reduced rate from previous years?

The picture that was forming wasn't a very pretty one. A young woman, resourceful, alienated from society, and willing to use any means necessary to accomplish her goals, including the destruction of public property, arson, and possibly murder.

And she was surrounded by a cadre of seemingly loyal, superhumanly strong girls who presumably had the same sense of expedience.

This was a dangerous woman. Her profile fit that of a terrorist leader, or a cult leader.

It also fit the profile of a freedom fighter.

Given that there seemed to be real enemies out to get them, Lois couldn't decide which was more likely.

Either way, she wouldn't deal any better with having her secrets exposed than Faith had. Yet Lois's gut was telling her that this was the person who would have the answers she was looking for.

Her gut was telling her something else.

Somewhere in the building, she sensed that something wasn't right.

All around them, the sounds of the library began to grow silent. It was a busy library, and with her new hearing, Lois had grown used to the sounds of people moving, of the occasional homeless person snoring, of books being pulled from racks.

One by one, those sounds began to fall silent. Lois felt something on her skin, like an electrical discharge, and she could smell ozone.

Clark could sense it too, although Jimmy seemed oblivious. He was still flipping through the paperwork and talking about the background histories he'd found on some of the others.

Out the window, Lois could see the last rays of the sun fading from a sky that was turning dark. It was twilight, the time once known as the gloaming.

The sensation Lois had begun to associate with evil was rising deep within her stomach, and she stood up suddenly and moved down the stacks to try to see what was happening down the main aisle.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and saw Clark shaking his head. He gestured to their left, and Lois crouched. Behind them, Jimmy was just falling silent.

Through the books she could see someone collapsed to the floor in the next aisle, and someone else in the aisle past that.

It must be happening all over the library.

For some reason, Lois's hands itched for a weapon.

The shelving was all metallic. Lois scuttled backwards, and returned to their seats. These had thick wooden slats on the back.

Lois leaned forward on one of the chairs and said quietly, "Jimmy, gather everything together."

He nodded, for the first time noticing the expressions on both their faces.

Lois heard a cracking sound, and the wooden piece she was leaning against cracked. She looked up at Jimmy, who was staring at her, and she shrugged.

People didn't take care of things at public libraries anyway.

She pulled at the wood, which splintered, and the whole thing came off in her hand.

Jimmy wasn't the only one staring at her. She could feel Clark's eyes on her back, but she didn't have time to worry about it. Something was coming, and she had a growing sense of danger.

It was then that she heard the sound of the wind.

Lois turned quickly, and Clark was there with her. Jimmy was hurriedly gathering everything together, looking frantically up every now and again.

Clark pulled his glasses down yet again, and he seemed to be staring through the stacks. He stiffened, and a moment later Lois saw why.

Angelica stepped around the corner, and she wasn't alone.

Worse still, Lois couldn't move.

***

"You thought you were clever, bringing a witch with you." Angelica smiled at Lois, with an appreciative glance at Clark. "I wouldn't have expected it of a newcomer."

She patted Lois's cheek, and Lois was surprised to find that her hand really was unnaturally cool.

No matter how she struggled, she couldn't move an inch.

"Did you really think it was going to be hard to hire a witch in Los Angeles?" Angelica grinned. "I told you I'm smarter than the other newbies. I learn from my mistakes."

Lois could smell the blood on her breath and on her clothes a faint smell of the sewers.

"I've heard that the blood of your kind is like a drug for mine. It's supposed to be better than sex, better than chocolate, a real rush."

She sniffed Lois's neck, and then grinned. "I think I'll enjoy it more if I have an appetizer."

She stepped behind Lois, out of her field of vision and a moment later Lois heard a horrible wet smacking sound.

If Jimmy died, it would be her fault.

Angelica returned to her field of vision, blood running down her chin. "Young and sweet. He'll be popular at dinner. Much better than the horrible old winos I've had to eat."

Clark stood perfectly still as Angelica left Lois and headed for him.

She caressed his face, which was expressionless. Leaning against him, she said, "We wasted so much time. Now we'll be together forever."

Lois's finger twitched.

"Get this over with. They're both hellishly strong, especially him." The young blonde woman behind Angelica was sweating profusely. "You didn't tell me he wasn't human."

"Skeletons in the closet?" Angelica smiled more widely. "Clark! And I always thought you were so honest."

Glancing over at Lois, she turned to her last minion. "Kill her. We'll have dinner cold tonight."

Marcus smiled at Lois. "Turns out, all that time I was waiting for Rachel…she wasn't waiting back."

He put one large, dark hand on her neck. "You'd think it'd bother me more." He lightly caressed her jugular. "You smell really good Miss Lane."

"We aren't taking her to the prom. Just snap her neck!" Angela said.

Marcus shrugged and then placed his other hand on the other side of her neck. "Sorry. She's the boss. Me, I think you'd make a grand va—"

He disintegrated into a cloud of fine dust, and Lois was left staring down at her hand which was holding the stake.

It had slid in like warm butter, not at all like a human. Human ribcages tended to crack and snap.

Lois could hear an agonized howl from Angela, who was holding her bloody mouth. A moment later Angela was flying, and stacks of shelving were falling.

Clark blurred and disappeared.

A moment later, Lois could see patrons appearing in the main aisle as though by magic.

The girl had disappeared, and so had Angela.

Turning toward Jimmy, Lois saw that he was holding a part of his own shirt against a wound on his left wrist. The cloth was rapidly turning red.

"Clark!" Lois called.

She could hear the sounds of the museum restarting as everyone within woke. She could hear sounds of dismay from down below as people realized they had collapsed on the floor.

Clark appeared before her. Before she could say anything, he had picked Jimmy up and he was gone.

***

"They're calling it a carbon monoxide leak from the furnace." Lois stared at the telephone. "It's summertime and the furnace isn't even on!"

"He's going to be fine," Clark said. "They didn't even have to give hum a transfusion, although he had to get several stitches."

Clark was pulling several authentic looking cardboard boxes filled with Chinese food and setting them out on the table near her bed.

In the aftermath of the incident at the library, neither of them had gotten to eat. Given the conversation they were about to have, Lois wasn't sure she'd be able to eat a bite.

"We need to get Jimmy on the first plane back to Metropolis." Lois closed her eyes. "He's going to get killed if he stays here much longer."

"I've already talked to Perry. He's threatening to yank us off the case as well."

"What did you tell him?" Lois asked, pivoting on her heel to face him.

"I told him that Jimmy was attacked by the same people who've attacked him once already, and attacked the Cortez ranch."

"We can't leave now," Lois said. "I've got too much invested in all this to quit. If I have to, I'll take my vacation time."

She had a lot of it, almost four years worth, maxed out with time no longer accumulating.

Perhaps after this was al over, it would be best if she used some of that time anyway.

"We need to talk," Clark said.

For some reason, Lois couldn't look him in the eyes. She couldn't stand the thought of looking at him and seeing the same horror, the same disgust she'd seen in the face of the prisoner she'd saved.

She still saw those eyes in her nightmares, reflecting back her own horror. All the things she hadn't been able to feel at the time had come flooding in later.

She'd felt sick and empty and utterly alone. This wasn't some youthful indiscretion she could share with her sister Lucy with the lights down low.

It had tarnished the way she looked at herself, made her feel dirty in ways she was only now beginning to be able to describe.

Having Clark see her that way made her shrivel inside.

It was the dark side of respect. People you respected, their opinions were important. Their opinions mattered.

"You had no choice. He was going to kill you."

Clark was sensitive enough to know what was going through her mind, but he had to say that. It was the expected thing to say.

"I liked Marcus," Lois said. "Staying loyal to his wife, living so close. I haven't met many men like him."

Marcus had chosen to put the needs others first. Lois had just been selfish.

"Look at me," Clark said.

Lois shook her head. If she didn't look at him, then some part of her could pretend that it never happened. Once she looked at him, it would be real.

"I don't think I'm human anymore," Lois said at last.

"I don't think I ever was," Clark said quietly.

At that, Lois finally looked up.

There wasn't a trace of censure in his eyes.

***

"I didn't even know I was different until I was eight," Clark said. "There was an accident on the farm, and I was…ok. I shouldn't have been."

As hard as Lois had hit him in her sleep, he hadn't been bruised.

"When I hit puberty, things started to change." He grimaced. "There were all these things I could do, and nobody to share it with."

"Your parents?"

"It scared them," Clark said. "They tried to hide it, but I could hear them talking. I could hear everything, and I couldn't control it."

His hearing was even better than hers.

"As I got older, I kept getting stronger, and there were more and more things I could do."

"So you're some sort of demon?" It would make sense. Lois had already learned that there were enough nonhumans living among ordinary people that doctors knew how to treat them.

Clark stared off into the distance. "I don't know. My parents say they found me in a spaceship, so I always assumed I was some sort of government experiment, or an alien or something. All this…it brings up unpleasant possibilities."

He continued. "That's why I traveled all these years, looking to see if I was the only person like me. With all these things I could do, there was nobody to share it with."

"It sounds lonely."

"I managed to help a few people along the way, but I couldn't reveal myself."

"Your parents aren't as tough as you."

"If people found out what I can do, my parents would never have an ordinary life again. I wouldn't have one. People would always look at me like I was different."

"I know how you feel."

She really did. People had already looked at her that way, and it still gave her nightmares.

"All this is new to you," Clark said. "Being different."

"I've always been different. Smarter, more driven…I went to Ireland when I was seventeen. At eighteen I got an internship to a major newspaper."

"The Planet?"

"The Inquisitor," Lois said. She scowled at him. "What? I was eighteen. They were taking college students with three years of college and I got in anyway."

She'd been proud of that. It had given her an understanding of the newspaper business that had given her a leg up when she finally had gotten a job at the Planet. She'd known exactly the risks to take to move up the ladder, passing people by with years more experience.

"So you've always been…stronger than other women?"

Lois sighed. "No. This is something new. Do you really think I'd be breaking people's wrists every time I got excited if it wasn't?"

"It happened in the Congo," Clark said. She could almost see the wheels clicking in his mind as he put the puzzle pieces together.

"Ten minutes before Sunnydale collapsed," Lois said. "Just like all the others."

"You never had any hint of anything unusual before?"

"There were dreams," Lois said. "Nightmares that started when I was a teenager. They went away after I went to college."

"And now?"

"Technicolor, wide screen nightmares. I keep dreaming about this girl, and about monsters."

And about what kind of a monster she was.

"You think Faith's friends know something?"

"They were at the epicenter, at ground zero. Over the rest of the world, this has been happening to individual girls, but in this one place an entire group of them are gathered together?"

"Maybe it's something that happened at Sunnydale that changed them."

"If it was something random, wouldn't we have been hearing stories about Sunnydale survivors with freakish strength?"

Clark shrugged.

Lois began spooning portions of the different dishes out into several paper bowls. She ignored the portion of herself that wanted to go back to living a non-fat, non-sugary lifestyle.

That was all behind her, it seemed.

Her eyes widened as she took her first bite. "Where did you get this at this hour?"

It was the best Chinese food she'd ever tasted. Now that she was paying attention, she couldn't see anything at all written in English.

Clark smiled slightly. "I've got a knack for finding good food."

It was more than that; Lois suspected that Clark was capable of a lot more than he had admitted to.

Like creating winds to blow attacking things away without hurting them, finding genuine Chinese food, and moving so fast that even Lois's eye couldn't follow it.

He was a wonder. A man with all those abilities who seemed to want nothing more than to help other people.

"Jimmy's articles…those are about you, aren't they?"

Clark swallowed a bite of food. Absently, Lois noted that he was using chopsticks and quite adeptly.

"Most of them. There were a couple of stories that I didn't recognize, but I don't remember everybody that I've helped."

They ate in silence for a time. The silence was companionable. At this point, with most men, Lois would have felt compelled to babble on about one thing or the other. With Clark she could be herself.

Clark looked up at her, and he almost seemed to be debating with himself.

"What happened in the Congo, Lois?"

Lois's sense of camaraderie vanished, to be replaced by a feeling of panic.

"We've talked about this," Lois said finally. "I said I wasn't ready."

She wasn't ever going to be ready to talk about it. How it felt to have bones cracking under her hands, how it was to see herself as a monster.

How deep down in the darkest part of her, she'd liked it. After seeing what they were doing to the other girls, knowing that they'd done it for years, what they'd threatened to do to her. Her rage had grown during her time of confinement, and it had blended in with the rage she'd had in the past over other, similar things.

It wasn't a part of herself that she could show Clark. He was too important, too pure.

He represented everything that she wasn't. He was a good man, someone who had taken whatever freakish abilities nature had given him and turned it into a miracle.

Instead of death, he was life.

"You hurt some people," Clark said. "I don't think what happened with Olaf would have bothered you so much if you hadn't."

"Does it really matter?" Lois asked. "I can't change anything I've done. All I can do is try to do better."

"Sometimes it helps to talk." Clark said.

"I'm not sure you are the right person for me to be talking to," Lois said. At the hurt look in his eye, Lois asked, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?"

Hesitating, Clark said, "I haven't saved people. I've put the safety of my parents and my desire for an ordinary life over the welfare of people I don't know. I've hidden and skulked in the shadows waiting for some sort of epiphany telling me how to be a hero."

"So you've been within earshot of people in pain, and you haven't helped them."

Clark shrugged uncomfortably. "Earshot for me is a long way. It's part of the reason I've mostly avoided big cities. Hearing all those people and not being able to do anything…"

"Have you ever hurt anyone, other than by inaction?"

Clark was silent, and then said, "I petted my dog too hard once."

Lois snorted derisively.

"It's not funny. I was ten, and probably about as strong as you are now. I could pick refrigerators up and it all seemed just great." Clark shook his head. "I didn't really understand just how strong I was."

"Your dog?" Lois asked.

"He got better, eventually. He even forgave me, a long time before I forgave myself." Clark sighed. "I never forgot that lesson, until tonight."

"Tonight?"

"I never should have pushed Angelica into that shelving. I wasn't thinking. I thought you were about to be killed, and I just…reacted."

"Nobody was hurt," Lois said.

"Because everyone was unconscious on the ground, and the shelves were solid. Most of the people just had books hit them."

"You threw her high," Lois said. "So they'd fall the way they did. Subconsciously you were protecting people."

Clark shrugged and looked away.

"Are you ever going to talk about the Congo?" Clark asked.

"I don't know," Lois said. "I like the way you look at me."

Clark smiled slightly. "I like you too, Lois. I'm not sure what…"

"I really like who I am in your eyes," Lois said. "At work, everybody has this image of me. Mad Dog Lane…doesn't care about anything but the story. Part of it's a little flattering. People respect me, politicians fear me."

Lois took another bite of the noodles Clark had provided, and then looked up at him.

"You're the first person who has looked at me like I'm a person in a long time," Lois said. "I like that."

"What about your family or Perry?" Clark asked.

Lois shook her head. "I'm a disappointment to both my parents. My sister sees me as a nagging fuddy-duddy, and while Perry has been a father to me, part of him will always belong to the Planet. I'm an asset."

"I don't see it," Clark said. "I don't think you give people enough credit. People can change if you give them the chance."

"All I know is that you seem to like me for who I am," Lois said. "And I need that. After what happened…I don't like me."

Clark reached out and touched her hand. Lois closed her eyes. It was exactly what she'd needed. Human contact had been so infrequent that it now consisted of isolated moments, times that she remembered.

"Ok," Clark said. "I'm here if you need me but I'll let it go."

"Do you have any more of that…dumpling, whatever it is?" Lois asked, hoping to change the subject.

"Jiaozi," Clark said. At her strange look he said, "That's the name of the dumpling."

Lois opened a previously unopened box and discovered it was filled with steaming bamboo leaves. They were filled with rice and some sort of sweet filling.

"Really…where did you get all this?" Lois asked.

"We've all got our secrets," Clark said grinning.

"Like why you keep slipping your glasses down?" Lois asked. "If you don't need them, then why do you wear them?"

Clark sighed.

He really was an extraordinary man.

***

"I really wish you guys would let me stay," Jimmy said.

"Perry says the insurance people tell him it's too dangerous. The paper could be liable if they keep throwing you into all the dangerous situations when you are already injured."

It had the virtue of being true. Of course, that hadn't stopped Lois from signing waivers in the past and going right back to whatever it was that had wounded her in the past.

Not that there had been many injuries. She really had been lucky. A twisted ankle here, bruising there. Numerous death threats.

She'd been bruised in her soul, but that didn't mean that she couldn't get back into the fight.

When she closed her eyes, she saw Marcus standing there, so loyal to his wife, and waiting for something to change.

She couldn't wait. If things were going to change, they would change because she made them happen.

"You can keep up the work on the other end," Lois said.

"When the chief doesn't have me making coffee and running errands." Jimmy's voice was slightly bitter. A look at his too pale face prevented Lois from wavering.

"If it's for the story, he'll understand," Lois said. She patted him on the shoulder, then watched as he entered the security line.

The line was monstrously long. He'd be standing in it for hours.

Lois turned to Clark and said, "Well, I guess we'd better get started."

***

The hospital administrators had all but admitted that there were entire clans of non-human people in the Los Angeles area, enough that they had procedures to deal with them.

So far, all they had were a lot of newspaper stories, a few inconclusive interviews, and a several attacks by creatures of the night. None of it reached anything close to the standard of being verifiable evidence.

Lois doubted that the Sunnydale police or the journalists who had worked at the Sunnydale newspaper would be any more forthcoming than the average citizen had been. They'd been actively involved in covering things up, or they'd been so incompetent that embarrassment would keep them from saying anything.

So they had to find some way to talk to the nonhumans themselves, which might be difficult, as they had a vested interest in staying hidden.

They pulled up onto the familiar street. Things were busier now, at almost noon, and the East Hills Teen Center seemed much busier than it had in the past few days.

Of course, it was Saturday, and school wasn't keeping most of the teens away.

As Lois and Clark entered, Lois noticed one group of teenagers staring at her. She might have assumed it had something to do with how she looked, but they were giving strange looks to Clark as well.

As soon as they noticed her looking at them, they split away, and began to head for the exits.

"Anne!" Lois said.

Anne was talking to a young girl, who blanched when she looked at Clark.

That wasn't the usual reaction young women had around Clark. Lois had been around him long enough to know that.

"I wasn't expecting to hear from you guys so soon," Anne said, frowning.

"Oh, we were just going to let you know that your information on Buffy Summers was a little dated. She was seen in a hospital not too far from here just a couple of days ago."

Anne's face lit up into a genuine smile. "She's not dead?"

As an act, Lois couldn't understand it. Anne had to know that they were on to her. She couldn't believe they would be gullible enough to believe that she had just been mistaken.

"You didn't call her?"

"I never had her number," Anne said.

"I thought you knew her," Clark said quietly. He was glancing around at some of the teens who were vanishing as they spoke.

"She rescued me a couple of times," Anne said. "It's what she did…does. Wow. I was so sure…"

"Why are the kids leaving?' Lois asked. "Are they worried we're police?"

The word should have spread about who they were and what they were doing. They'd interviewed several of the teenagers only the day before.

It was only certain small groups of teenagers who were leaving. The rest of them sat and talked with each other as though nothing was happening.

Which nothing was.

Anne shrugged. "Maybe you remind them of someone," she said.

She was lying.

"Do you have some kids here who aren't fully human?" Lois asked.

"It's the people who abused them who aren't human, Ms Lane." Anne looked her in the eye. "We don't discriminate based on race, color, religion or sexual orientation. That's the law."

It being a teen center, some people were excluded due to age no doubt.

"I'd say some of them just revealed themselves," Lois said.

"Because they didn't want to talk to the press?" Anne asked incredulously. "Half the kids here are on the run from someone. The last thing they need is their picture in the paper."

"I'd like to talk to them," Lois said.

Anne shook her head. "This is a place of safety, so that teenagers don't have to feel harassed by adults."

"We're hitting a lot of dead ends because people don't want to talk to us. When that happens, we have to just dig a little harder."

Lois glanced around the room. None of the teenagers seemed to be listening.

"Should I be talking to Anne Steele," Lois asked. "Or Sister Sunshine, Chantarelle…Lily…Joan?"

Her research the night before had been enlightening. Anne hadn't lied about her history on the streets. She'd changed names frequently, but there were records of her from various agencies that had tried to get her help.

Obviously, one of them had succeeded.

Anne stared at her for a moment, and then shrugged. "You think you can blackmail me by revealing that I had a rough past? You think it'll hurt my reputation with this group of kids? Most of them already know the basics."

"Then we'll keep asking questions until we find out the truth," Lois said.

Anne sighed.

"There are a few places I tell my kids to stay out of. Most of them they already know to avoid." Anne hesitated. "Are you sure you can handle yourselves?"

Lois nodded. Between the two of them, there was little that she and Clark couldn't handle, other than magic.

She sighed and wrote down a couple of addresses.

***

The first place they'd tried was a bust. No building of that number existed, which was odd, because the number was the only one missing on the block, with the rest of the numbers out of sequence.

The second was a seedy looking dive in a warehouse district. It looked to have been a converted warehouse.

Clark pulled his glasses down slightly, and Lois grinned up at him. It felt good to finally be in on the secret.

Clark had been so chagrinned at the thought of how obvious he had been; he obviously wasn't the master of disguise he thought he was. She was going to have to show him the ropes.

He glanced over at her and shook his head. "It's empty. There's a bar in the back, and I can't really tell what's in some of the bottles, but otherwise it looks fairly legit."

Except for the fact that it was a bar in a place that wasn't zoned for bars. The outside of the building was nondescript, designed to blend in to the buildings around it. Without some hint of music from inside, or people spilling outside into the streets, you wouldn't be able to tell this place was a bar at all.

It looked as though their chances to see a nonhuman had dropped yet again to almost nothing.

They were going to have to hope that Faith followed through on her call.

Lois glanced at Clark and sighed. They were going to have to—

He stiffened and a moment later, she did as well. There was a sound coming from the alley behind the building.

Carefully, Lois walked as quietly as she could in shoes with hard soles. Clark, beside her was absolutely quiet, and seemed almost to be floating as he moved across the street.

They rounded the corner, and they were treated to the sight of an industrial dumpster, a trash receptacle taller than a man, where warehouse employees could throw cardboard boxes and the refuse of their on site lunches.

There was noise coming from inside the receptacle, and Lois felt her stomach clench. She was sensing something inside, even if it didn't have the overwhelming sense of evil that she'd sensed from the other supernatural creatures she'd encountered.

Lois picked up a bottle and threw it at the dumpster and the noises from inside ceased for a moment.

"Come out of there!" Lois said loudly, even as she saw Clark lowering his glasses yet again.

If it wasn't for the fact that she'd never be sure what he was looking at without them, she'd insist that he leave them off.

His parents had made leaded lenses after he'd accidentally looked at his 5th grade English teacher, a three hundred pound sixty year old woman with an unfortunate skin condition.

"All right!" The voice from inside the dumpster was surprisingly mild.

From the opening, a face appeared.

It was horrible. Pale, red eyes and far too much skin.

"Hi!" The figure smiled, and it had fangs.

Lois's hands itched for a weapon.

The demon smiled, which revealed small fangs. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm in a dumpster."

Lois glanced at Clark.

"It's a funny story, really." The demon chuckled uneasily. "I was ah…throwing something away, and I lost my car keys."

There was a yowl from inside the dumpster, like that of a housecat.

The demon glanced down uncomfortably, and then kicked at something unseen.

"You're a demon," Lois said. It was a stupid thing to say, but part of her was having trouble believing it.

"A demon?" The demon smiled again. "Oh, no. I'm…um…circus folk. Yeah…"

The demon had protruding dog like ears, red pupils in his eyes and fangs. It wasn't likely that he was a human being, but Lois glanced at Clark, who shook his head.

"Two hearts," he murmured.

Lois glared at the demon and said, "Don't lie to me! I can tell a demon when I see one!"

"Would you believe I just have a skin condition?" the demon asked hopefully.

Lois shook her head firmly, never taking her eyes off the demon. The longer she looked at him, the more he reminded her of one of those Shar-Pei puppies her mother had tried to give her in her senior year of high school.

They'd peed on her favorite dress.

"Get out of there," Lois said.

The demon sighed and struggled to climb out of the dumpster. After he slipped and fell twice, Clark stepped over to the dumpster and hauled him out easily.

The demon gave one last longing look inside the dumpster. Moving to the side, Lois could see a cat working its way out of a hole in the side of it.

Out of the dumpster, the demon looked even worse. It wasn't fat, but it had rolls of skin hanging off its arms. It was wearing a horrendously loud red Hawaiian shirt and a pair of jeans, which at least concealed any further monstrousness.

Shaking spaghetti off its sleeve, the demon turned to Lois and started to smile. Its smile died as it took a closer look at her. "Damn." It closed its eyes and said, "I really thought she was going to make it."

Lois frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"I guess you're the new girl in town." The demon forced a smile. "Hi. I'm Clem."

It held its hand out. Lois hesitated, and then took it.

Clem's handshake was warm and friendly, firm, yet without trying to prove anything. The feeling in Lois's gut was fading, although she was aware of Clem's presence.

Glancing at Clark, Clem said, "What can I do for you?"

"You're a demon," Lois found herself saying, again. It was a strange sense of unreality that was descending on her. This must have been how it would have felt for Alice falling down the rabbit hole, only to discover that her whole view of the world was being changed forever.

"Right. I'm a demon. You're the Slayer. He's…I don't know…a Hellgod maybe?" Clem smiled apologetically at Clark. "I'd have stayed out of your way if I hadn't gotten distracted."

"You can tell what I am?" Clark asked. Lois could hear the anxiety in his voice.

"With that much power? I could feel you coming halfway across the city. I just didn't figure you were coming here." Clem shook his head.

"What's a slayer?" Lois asked suddenly.

Clem stared at her. "Wow. You really are new."

"Just answer the question!" Lois snapped. Everyone had been giving her the runaround for days.

"You haven't had a visit from some stuffy old English guy talking about destiny, have you?"

Lois shook her head, scowling.

Clem looked at Lois closely. "Aren't you a little old to be a Slayer?"

"Hey!" Lois said. "I'm twenty six! I'm not exactly ready to go into a rest home."

"By Slayer standards, you're ancient." At the look on her face, Clem took a step back and held up his hands. "I'm just saying…most of them get called in their mid-teens."

"Called to do what?" Lois asked. "What is a slayer?"

"You're the thing that gives the monsters nightmares."

***

The demon…Clem had a sporty red car parked at the end of the alleyway. He pulled a set of keys from a fold in the skin on his arm. Lois thought she saw a flash of a playing card as he reached for the keys.

"I don't really know all that much," Clem was saying. "Just the basics everybody knows."

"So I'm some sort of …mystic warrior," Lois said.

"Demon mothers all over the world threaten their kids with you." Clem shrugged. "You or one of the others. One slayer dies, another is called."

"Why me?" Lois asked.

Clem shrugged. "Why not you? It had to be somebody."

"I'm a reporter!" Lois said. "Not some sort of boogieman for the monsters."

Her mind flashed back to the Congo, and Lois had a moment of uncomfortable realization as she realized that she easily could become that thing.

Clem stepped back from her. "A reporter? Um…can I go being a guy with a skin condition?"

"What, afraid that the world will find out about you and all your man eating buddies?" Lois snapped. "Afraid the free buffet is going to dry up?"

"Hey!" Clem said, indignantly. "Not all of us are like that!"

"So you don't kill humans?" Lois asked. He didn't feel evil, but she'd been fooled before.

"I don't kill them, I don't eat them…I just try to live my life without making many waves." Clem sighed. "Most of us are just trying to keep our heads down and stay alive."

"How can you possibly blend in?" Clark asked.

It wasn't a surprising question. Clark had spent his entire life trying to blend in, and to see that something that looked like a shaved Shar-Pei could somehow make a life for itself and own a car…

Clem shrugged. "There are businesses that'll look the other way."

Like hospitals that were secretly aware that some of their patients weren't completely human. They probably had clinics that took the less human looking patients. It was breathtaking; the thought of an entire underground society that almost nobody knew about.

It was the kind of story that would win a reporter a Pulitzer Prize.

"Plus, put me in a coat and a hat in the big city, and most people go out of their way to not look at me." Clem slipped his key into his door. "It's like when you see the guy with the huge birthmark on his face. Nobody talks about it, and people just sort of look the other way."

"It must make it hard to get a job," Lois said. "So how did you afford the car?"

"I buy things for demons that can't pass as well as I can." Clem looked up at her. "A twenty percent commission on toilet paper and cigarettes isn't much, but it's more than fair."

Lois tried to imagine some non-humanoid thing smoking, and her mind drew a blank. Apparently some things were better left alone.

"So this place?"

"Used to be a demon bar," Clem said. "They have to move fairly often. The wards have already faded on this one."

"Wards?"

"They didn't bother with them much back in Sunnydale, but in a lot of places they hire a magician to make people ignore things…people see them, but don't make the connection."

"So if they saw you…"

"They'd remember a guy in a great shirt."

Lois glanced at Clark remembering the other missing address. "You could find one of these other places for us?"

Clem shrugged. "Well…I've been having a bit of trouble finding a new place. All the free places have squatters, and the places with rent are crazy expensive."

Glancing at Clark, Lois sighed. "We could pay you." ***

Clem had refused to leave his car, so Lois was riding with him while Clark followed in the rental. Although she felt fairly safe with him, Lois kept one hand on the mace in her purse, and the other clenched into a fist.

His car smelled like cheetos and Buffalo wings, and so Lois had rolled with window down, only to be assailed by the worse smells outside.

Worse yet, he wouldn't let her drive. She'd been distracted when she'd let Clark get in the habit of always driving; it was something she planned to break him of soon. Admittedly, it WAS Clem's car. Still, there was a problem.

Clem drove like a little old lady.

People passed them by frequently, and many of them honked their horns angrily. It was amusing seeing those same people pass them and do a double take. Clem always had a jaunty grin and an uplifted thumb for them.

Still, Lois's toe was tapping impatiently as Clem stopped at yet another yellow light.

"Can't you drive any faster?"

"Better safe than sorry, I always say," Clem said.

They rode in silence for several minutes. Clem finally spoke.

"You write a story about us, and a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt."

"Demons or humans?" Lois asked sharply.

"Both," Clem said. "Humans tend to get a little crazy when they're afraid."

Lois remembered the impact of her fists on flesh. She closed her eyes.

"What do you think is going to happen when you tell people that there are monsters living next door?"

"People will know enough not to get eaten?" Lois asked after a moment.

"Some demons you can't tell from a human," Clem said. "So the government rounds up all the obvious suspects and then people start looking at their neighbors."

"That wouldn't happen here," Lois argued, but even as she said it, she knew it was a lie.

The Salem witch hunts, Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, secret prisons in the Middle East. People forgot their ideals when they were afraid.

"They already tried it in Sunnydale. A friend of mine got locked up by the government." Clem grimaced, which looked particularly grotesque. "It was a bad business."

Glancing at Lois, he said, "Did you ever see a movie called a Clockwork Orange?"

Lois nodded.

"They put a chip in his head so he couldn't hurt anybody."

"Well," Lois said. "Maybe he needed to stop hurting people."

"How long do you think it'll be before they start using that chip in jails with regular humans?"

Do a little brain surgery; make sure a murderer couldn't hurt anyone before he was released. It was a blindingly simple idea, but a dangerous one.

If you could do it to murderers, then why not other criminals? Make it mandatory for anyone going to jail.

Give it to people who've just been detained. Give it to people who are not favored by the political party in power.

Give it to everyone who wasn't police or a soldier.

It was a slippery slope.

"So what do you want me to do?" she asked. "Sweep it all under the rug like everybody else?"

"Why not?"

"So people don't get eaten."

"You write crime stories, right?" Clem slowed the vehicle and took a right turn. They were slipping back into another desolate part of town.

A glance in the mirror showed that Clark was right behind them, although he had to be as dissatisfied with their slow pace as Lois was. She wondered what he was thinking. Was he able to hear what they were saying from that far back over the sounds of two engines?

"You tell people about the bad parts of town, about the muggings and the killings and everything else."

Lois nodded.

"Do people still go to those places and get mugged and killed?"

"Well…" Lois said.

"So all writing the story is going to do is going to get a lot of people hurt."

Lois wasn't so sure that it was people who would be hurt, but Clem had given her a few things to think about.

"How sure are you about that one Slayer dies another is chosen thing?"

"That's how it's always been. There was some confusion a few years back, and they somehow got a second one, but I don't really know all that much about it."

"And you're sure I am one."

"No question. All you…well…all I have to do is look. Demons can smell power. That's probably why they've been avoiding your friend back there for all these years."

"We've had a couple of encounters with vampires," Lois said. "They never noticed anything odd about him.

Clem snorted. "Vampires can't sense power the way the rest of us can. They're as blind to it as most witches."

Slowly pulling to a stop, Clem said, "Are you sure you're ready for this? I guess you've been kind of sheltered before."

Was she ready to leave her comfortable world of rational science and like Alice jump down the rabbit hole?

"Take me to your demons." Lois was never going to be able to answer her questions unless she saw this underground society for herself.

Clem shrugged and got out of the car. Lois hesitated, then did so herself.

It was time to enter another world.

***

As other worlds went, the Inferno club was a big disappointment. She'd expected something like the bar scene from Star Wars; dozens of weird looking aliens sitting and drinking exotic drinks while making shady business deals in alien tongues.

What she got instead was a bar that on the surface at least looked like a hundred other bars had visited in her life. There was the same familiar bar stools, the same pool table, the same stained bar.

In one corner there was a raised stage and some sort of Karaoke setup, but otherwise the place could have been her mother's old hangout. Places like this always reminded Lois of her mother; the aura of palpable despair, of failure and lost dreams.

Several men were playing pool; it wasn't until she looked more closely that Lois realized their faces had the same distinct ridges and the same golden eyes Angelica had. They looked up, and when they saw Lois, they grinned at her.

That grin faltered as they saw Clark staring at them impassively.

In one darkened corner, there was something huge that Lois couldn't quite make out. There was something odd about the light in that corner, which was darker than any other part of the bar. Whatever was inside was larger than human, and Lois could hear a distinctive crunching sound. She saw a tentacle lash out of the darkness and wrap around what looked like a Buffalo Wing.

At the bar were two men with gray skin and ridges surrounding their eyes. They looked as though they'd been drinking for a while, and were bleary eyed. They were dressed like city sewer workers.

All in all, the place was practically deserted. It was, however, mid-day. It took Lois a moment to realize that Clem was gone.

They hadn't even had a chance to pay him.

"Um…Clark?" Lois said. She wasn't sure what to do. For once, Clark misinterpreted her question.

"Not one of them is human," Clark said. "Even the ones that look like it have organs in the wrong place, and organs I don't recognize." He'd slipped his glasses off entirely and was looking around the room. Glancing over at the darkened corner, Clark visibly shuddered and looked away.

Clark could see internal organs? That just seemed wrong somehow.

"Our guide ran off." Lois said.

Clark glanced behind them, then said, "He's getting something out of the car."

Lois took a deep breath. No matter what these things looked like, they were in a bar drinking. That probably meant that they were similar to the other drunks she'd met.

If they weren't, she and Clark could probably handle anything that came at them.

Lois slid up to the bar, wincing as she realized that the seat was covered in some kind of slime. She quickly changed seats and turned to the bartender, who was another member of the gray faced set with the ridged eyes.

"What's the house special?" she asked.

"Depends," he said. He glanced back at a mirror over the bar. "You aren't a vamp. Neither is your friend. What are you into?"

Lois frowned.

"Blood, exotic protoplasm, spinal secretions from desert lizards?"

"Um…what sort of blood do you have?" Lois asked, feeling somewhat queasy.

"A positive, O negative, Otter, pig, cow and Ibex." The waiter leaned forward. "I wouldn't recommend the human stuff, myself. They get it out of the medical waste bins at the hospital, and I understand that the diseases can give it a real tang."

"Ibex?" Clark asked.

"We've got an African supplier who comes up with the primo stuff."

"I don't suppose you have Diet Coke," Lois asked. Glancing around, she said, "Still in the can."

The waiter smiled slightly. "I guess you folks must be new in town."

"What clued you in," Lois asked.

"Most folks don't bother keeping their human faces in here." He hesitated. "I can't quite make out what species either of you are."

Lois heard the back door open, and Clem staggered in with boxes under both arms. Clark moved to help him, leaving Lois alone with the bartender.

"Slayer," Lois said quietly.

Apparently, it wasn't quietly enough, as the vampires at the table immediately headed for a darkened hole in the floor behind the pool table.

"Where does that go?" Lois asked quietly, hoping Clem hadn't been lying about the reputation of her kind.

He hadn't.

The gray skin seemed to pale a little. "It goes down to the storm drains and the sewer system. Light sensitive types sometimes take it to get around during the day…"

As, most likely, did the ones too non-human to be seen by daylight.

"I'm looking for a vampire named Angelica Cortez, or one of her crew."

The bartender shrugged helplessly. "What, you think all demons know each other?" He shook his head and muttered unflattering profanities to himself.

"The guys that just left might know something, but mostly they just leech off the blood bank nearby." The bartender said, "We don't get a lot of the really bad sorts around here, except on Karaoke night."

Clem staggered up to the counter with a box. "Things really start cooking on Karaoke night. Did I hear you were going to have a talent scout tonight?"

"Wolfram and Hart's new guy is going to be looking for a few good demons to play in a couple of underground pics."

"Not snuff flicks," Clem said, looking worried. "I had a cousin who got involved with one of those, and they had to get a shaman to resurrect him. He wasn't ever the same after that, let me tell you."

"Nah. They want to save some money on effects and figure a real live demon would be cheaper than paying for a rubber monster. Just show up and look terrifying, and they'll pay you half of scale."

"Do you get SAG credit?"

The waiter shrugged and shook his head.

Clem sighed. At Lois's inquiring look, he said, "You'd be surprised how many demons there are in Hollywood. Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson…"

Pulling several boxes of Buffalo wings and one box of cigarettes from one box, he ambled over to the darkened corner where the thing with the tentacles sat.

He carefully set the boxes on the table, and then backed away slowly.

Several tentacles lashed out, pulling the boxes back into the alcove. A moment later, Lois could see several points of light, and could smell the distinctive smell of several cigarettes.

She shuddered.

***

"This place is a dead end," Lois said, sliding into the booth across from Clark. "We'd get more information from kids off the street."

Clark nodded slowly. "It's all a little more…mundane than I would have expected."

"A bunch of drunks at the bar in the middle of the day," Lois said.

The whole place reminded her so much of her mother that she just wanted to leave.

"You don't think this talent scout is going to be worth anything?"

"According to the bartender, the place fills up on Karaoke night, which starts in a couple of hours." Lois sighed. "I get the feeling that he may be exaggerating."

***

The bartender hadn't been exaggerating. When Lois had first entered the bar, she'd hoped for a scene out of Star Wars, with multiple strange species drinking exotic drinks and making deals in foreign tongues.

By six o'clock, Lois had counted thirteen different species of demon, and more were filling in rapidly. Word had apparently gotten out about the talent scout, and apparently, there were some universal constants in Los Angeles.

One was that everyone wanted to be in the movies.

Lois and Clark had found an unobtrusive spot in a booth in the back of the room. Although the more human looking species tended to ignore them, the less human creatures tended to avoid them. Some actually entered the bar, took one look at Clark and turned around to leave.

This earned dirty looks from the bartender.

At seven, the door opened again. A tall demon entered the room, and Lois could see instantly that he was different.

The rest of the demons all wore working class clothing, some with company logos attached. Some of the least humanoid demons didn't wear clothing at all.

This demon was wearing an Armani suit, which, like his skin was green. He had small red horns on his forehead and red eyes, and he moved like someone who was used to being in the spotlight.

He was given that sort of deference too. Other demons were quick to find him a seat, and a drink was quickly brought to him.

It was something tropical and fruity.

The lights quickly dropped, and the Karaoke began.

Throughout her time at the Inferno bar, Lois had been struck by the similarities between the demon community and that of the humans. As the music began, however, she learned of some important differences.

Apparently demons couldn't sing.

From the expression on the green demon's face, he'd been hoping that wasn't the case. He winced on several occasions, and once he whispered a message to a hanger on. The hanger on delivered the message to the demon on stage, who paled and quit mid song to hurry out of the bar.

It was a pleasant surprise when a female demon with strange spikes coming out of her face actually had a voice that was a pleasant contralto.

Lois found herself smiling at Clark and humming under her breath.

The green demon froze and turned to look at her. He whispered something in the bartender's ear, and the demon quickly headed for Lois's table.

"The host asks that you be the next to sing."

Lois shook her head. Although she had a decent singing voice, she had no intention of making a spectacle of herself in front of these barely human creatures.

Clark grinned at her. "Go ahead. Live a little."

Lois shook her head again and scowled.

The bartender hesitated. "The Host is a psychic. He gets flashes of people's future when he hears them sing."

Frowning, Lois shook her head. She'd learned her lesson with Olaf. She didn't want anyone else prying around inside her head.

"The Host's hearing is quite good. When you hummed before, he had a precognitive flash. He said to tell you that your friend Jimmy is in danger."

***

"What do you mean he never got on the plane?" Lois asked. She was standing outside the club with a finger in one ear and listening intently to her cell phone.

According to Perry, there was no record that Jimmy had ever gone through security.

"He wouldn't have done this one his own," Lois said. "Somebody must have coerced him."

After listening to Perry for a moment more, Lois said, "We'll do everything we can to find him."

It was time to sing for the psychic.

***

Nervously, Lois flipped through the choices in the well worn play list book. She didn't want to sing, but if the green demon wasn't yanking her around, she needed to sing something in order to get his help.

There were places in the book that were sticky with spilled alcohol and other fluids Lois didn't want to think about. Obviously demons weren't any more careful when drinking than her mother's friends had been.

Most of the selections were top forty pop songs. Country and western wasn't as popular, and there were only three religious songs. Blues was surprising well represented. There was an entire section in an alien script. Lois wondered if demons had their own music, with their own artists. She paused as she came across a certain selection. It wasn't appropriate for the venue, but she'd sung it before, and she knew she could be good at it.

Although she would have preferred another selection, she quickly scribbled down her selection and handed it to the bartender. Jimmy didn't have time for her to be finicky about what she was singing.

She took the microphone, and waited for the music to start.

With the lights on her, she felt unaccountably nervous. These things in the audience weren't even human, no matter how well they seemed to have adopted the human lifestyle. There wasn't any reason for her to care what they thought.

Clark, though…Clark she wanted to impress.

Lois took a deep breath, focused, and sang.

***

The response wasn't what she'd expected. Lois felt blood rushing to her face as the audience clapped and wolf whistled at her. Even those who had avoided Clark earlier were appreciative.

Of course, after listening for half the evening to creatures with voices like cheese graters, anyone half decent would have been appreciated.

Clark's eyes hadn't left her the entire time she was singing. Lois wasn't sure how she felt about that.

She liked Clark a great deal. He was the perfect partner. Strong enough to take anything she could dish out, but good enough not to lash out at her, or reject her. He was handsome, but didn't have the self absorption she usually associated with handsome men.

Working with someone who understood her the way he did wasn't something that had even occurred to her as being possible. It wasn't something she was ready to lose.

Given her history with romance, Clark would be gone in a month if she tried to see him romantically.

Unlike the rest of the crowd, the Host wasn't smiling. He looked disturbed. He whispered something to the bartender, who stood up and said, "The Host is taking a 15 minute break. Please use the time to pass around the play book and look over your selections."

With a serious look, the green demon headed for a door behind the bar, and beckoned for her to follow.

Clark stood and followed right behind.

By the time Lois managed to squeeze through the crowded tables, the demon was already on the telephone.

"There's not a decent voice in the lot, but there are a couple who would work for that piece of…whatever that Berman is filming. I'll get their information and fax it to you in the morning."

Seeing that she and Clark had finally arrived, the demon said, "Talk to you later, Ciao!"

"Sorry about that folks. I recently sold my soul to the devil, metaphorically speaking, and joined a law firm. Talk about evil!" The demon closed its telephone and slipped it into a pocket.

"My name is Lorne," the demon said. "I go by the Host out there because a lot of demons like to make Bonanza jokes. Also, I had my own club until certain people decided to blow it up…"

At Lois's blank look, he said, "Lorne Green? Cowboys? Hoss, Little John?" He shook his head and sighed. "Humans."

"Our friend has been kidnapped," Lois said. "Did you read anything that might help us find him?"

"I read a lot more than that, honey." Lorne looked disturbed. "We've got a lot to talk about." "Can you tell me where Jimmy is?" Lois asked. Angelica wasn't likely to wait to make him the mid-evening buffet.

Did vampires have to sleep during the day? Even if that was true, the sun was already setting, and Jimmy's time might already have run out. Lois didn't want to contemplate the idea that Jimmy might already be cold and dead, or worse, dead and infected by whatever it was that animated vampires.

Lorne shook his head. "I heard you singing, honey, not him."

"Then what did you see?"

"You're going to have to make a choice soon…" Lorne turned to Clark. "I need you to sing a few bars for me."

Clark looked embarrassed. "I can't really sing well."

"You don't have to do a whole song. You're wrapped up in this whole thing, and I need to get a better look."

Sighing, Clark began to hum.

Lorne's eyes widened. "Wow. You've come a long way."

Clark's eyes narrowed and Lois saw the sudden interest in them. Clark had been in the dark about his origins, and this demon might be able to answer some of the questions which had been hounding him for his entire life.

"Can you tell me why I…" Glancing at Lois he shook his head. "What about Jimmy?"

"They're going to try to make a trade." Lorne said. "Don't do it."

"What do we have that she wants?" Lois asked. It took her a moment, and then she looked at Clark. "Oh."

Angelica didn't just want sex with Clark. She wanted power. It was a motivation Lois was familiar with. In her profession she'd dealt with criminals and politicians on a day to day basis, and they all scrambled for more and more power.

"What would happen if she gets him," Lois asked.

"If she could control him, the intimidation factor would give her a lot of leverage; get a lot of unaligned demons to follow her."

If Lois was the thing demon children feared, Clark was the thing that terrified their parents.

"Even that wouldn't be a good thing," Lorne said. He scowled and grabbed for another fruity drink.

Apparently he warranted executive treatment. Unlike the front area, this small office was meticulously clean. A fruit basket was prepared, along with a selection of unopened bottled waters and fruit juices.

"This is exactly the sort of thing my partners normally take care of," Lorne said. "But they're taking a vacation before turning up for work."

"You haven't heard anyone else sing anything that would help me? You sent one demon out earlier…"

"His wife was having babies." Lorne winced. "He was going to say goodbye."

Lois was going to question this, but at the look on his face, decided that she didn't want to know.

She'd never believed in psychics, not before she'd met Olaf, and even afterwards she hadn't been sure.

"How do I know that you aren't part of the whole thing with Angelica?" Lois asked suddenly.

This whole place was making her crazy. She was getting to the point where she would believe anything.

"The blood never comes off," Lorne said. "Most demons don't care, but things with souls do."

Lois froze. First Olaf, and now this demon. She felt a moment of panic, and her voice froze in her throat.

Everybody would know what she had done.

The guilt was bad enough, but the shame…that would be the end. Lois had talked to enough victims of violent crimes to know that sometimes the shame was the worst part…the feeling that the people you loved were never going to be able to see you the same way again.

"You have a bright and shining soul," Lorne said. "I don't get to see many of those. These things that have been happening aren't a reflection of who you are."

Given his audience, Lois wasn't surprised that he didn't see many bright and shining souls. It sounded to her that even the most benign demon lived a life of oppression, always waiting for discovery, always afraid that the things that wandered the night would show up at their door.

They had no sense of safety, no security. Human law would not help them. It couldn't protect them against things it didn't know existed. Or at least, things it wouldn't admit existed.

Being a demon must be like living in a war zone all the time. It wore at you, tore away your sense of self, and made you feel perpetually the victim.

It was the sort of thing that darkened the soul. Fertile ground for anger and hatred and rage, it was the kind of life that sometimes spawned evil.

All that assumed, of course that a being wasn't born with a terrible hunger for human flesh.

Lois found that she couldn't meet Lorne's eye. All she could hope was that he was perceptive enough not to spill the beans in front of Clark.

"Am I a demon, or a hellthing?" Clark asked, after the silence grew too long.

"You aren't even from this earth," Lorne said. "You aren't remotely like a demon."

"Then why?"

It took Lois a moment to realize that he was asking why he'd been abandoned. Where were his parents, why hadn't they wanted him?

It was another question they had in common, although Lois knew the answer to her question. Her mother had been in a bottle, and her father had been immersed in his work, or in his floozy of the week.

Clark had gotten the better deal.

"They loved you," Lorne said. "And they had to do it."

"You don't know anything else?"

"What do I look like, Miss Cleo?" Lorne scowled. "If this was an exact science, I'd be playing the stock market."

"So that's it," Lois protested. "You're going to tell us that Jimmy is in danger, they're going to want us to trade, and don't do it?"

"That's pretty much it, as far as your friend goes." Lorne smiled. "There's a lot I can tell you about what's going on with you, but you aren't going to have time."

Lois frowned. "Why—"

Her cell phone rang. Flipping it open, Lois saw that it was Jimmy's number.

"Lois!" Angelica's voice was smug. "We keep missing each other."

"I'm sorry I missed you," Lois said. "Maybe next time I'll aim a little better."

"My thoughts exactly." Lois could hear sounds in the background. "I have something of yours."

"What do you want?" Lois asked.

"A trade," Angelica said. "Aren't you going to ask for proof I have your item?"

"No," Lois said.

"I'd be happy to send you a piece or two, free of charge." Angelica laughed, and in the background Lois could hear a muffled sobbing sound. She could also hear the sounds of dripping water. "Or I could send you the whole thing after I'm done with it."

"No," Lois said quickly. "That won't be necessary."

"I hear you're getting into music." The sound of a buzz saw in the background followed by a terrified scream froze Lois. "How do you like this?"

The gurgling noise was followed by wet sucking sounds.

"I get so hungry these days."

"Why should I do anything for you, if you've already killed him?"

"Oh, that wasn't your item. That was breakfast."

A moment later, Jimmy's voice came on the line. He sounded terrified. "Lois! They just killed this guy and they're…"

"Where are you?" Lois asked.

"They had me blindfolded. There's water…" Jimmy sounded almost incoherent. He'd already suffered a mild concussion and blood loss. Lois wasn't sure how they were going to get him out of there.

If they did save him, what nightmares was he going to have?

"I know where you are," Angelica said. "Meet me at the Kodak theater center on Hollywood and Highland in two hours. If you don't, I'll be having a little brunch."

The telephone went dead.

Lois turned to the Clark and Lorne, but they both shook their head.

"Don't go," Lorne said. "It can only lead to badness."

"We'll just have to be ready for them," Clark said. "I'm not leaving a friend of mine…or anybody else for that matter to die if I can help it."

There wasn't a hint of hesitation or fear in his voice. He might have thought he was invulnerable once, but it was already apparent that magic could affect him…and maybe hurt him. Yet he was planning to sacrifice himself if he had to in order to save the life of a man he hadn't known for long.

"We're going to have to leave right away," Lois said. "With traffic, we'll barely make it in time."

"I know a shortcut," Clark said.

Lorne sighed. "People never listen. When this is all over, why don't you give me a call?"

He handed Lois a business card. It had a distinctive logo at the top, with Wolfram and Hart, entertainment division.

"Your name is Krevlorne?"

"You expected it to be Larry?" Lorne shrugged. "I'm a demon."

"Is there a back way out of this place?" Clark asked.

Lorne gestured toward a door in the middle of a featureless brick wall. It was made of heavy metal and seemed to have brackets for bars to be set in place.

"It locks from the outside too," Lorne said. "The owners wanted to be sure they could get out if the patrons weren't happy with the service."

Lois could easily imagine.

"You want a cruller to go?" Lorne asked. "Idiotic heroics on an empty stomach aren't a great idea…"

Clark was already through the door, and Lois was following.

***

"So where is this shortcut?" Lois asked. "And why aren't we taking the rental?"

"We don't need it."

His arm slid around her and Lois tensed. With anyone else, she would already be pushing them away, which at her current strength might have pushed them into a wall.

"Clark?" she asked.

"Trust me."

Lois stared up at him, and the squalor of the alley, it's strange and unsettling smells faded away. All she could see was him and the sky above them.

Although she'd dreamed of meeting a good man, a hero, Lois had given up on the dream a long time ago. The world was a thousand shades of gray and nobody was perfect. Men were flawed. Inevitably they had disappointed her.

It was so odd meeting him here and now. At the time in her life when she was the most vulnerable he was here. He had power, but he didn't abuse it. He was kind. He was competent and talented.

He'd lived the life she'd always dreamed of. He'd been loved and he surely had never felt the deep feelings of loneliness that had been her companions throughout her childhood.

It took Lois a moment to realize that she saw stars.

This was strange because in Los Angeles, you never saw stars. The lights of the city obscured them, leaving the sky a formless void.

She clutched at Clark as she looked down.

It was beautiful. A sea of glittering lights spread out as far as the eye could see. From here, all the petty imperfections were washed away, and all she could see was the beauty.

Was this how he saw the world?

He smiled down at her nervously, and Lois sensed that this was an important moment for them both.

Clark was sharing something precious with her, something that was precious to him. She could see in his expression that he expected her to scream, to reject this.

Lois returned his smile, and while it was initially forced, it soon grew to be natural.

Flying was like nothing she'd ever experienced.

It was better than riding a white horse, or driving a fast car, or any of the other things she'd imagined doing with a man when she was younger.

Clark could have rushed off on his own, left her stranded as he had on the first night of their investigation. Instead, he'd chosen to expose himself even further, to share this…gift.

If she'd met him on a blind date, she never would have believed that a man could be such a perfect match for her. She'd have been convinced that he was hiding something, and she would have been trying to discover his dirty little secrets.

Now, everything was different. Whenever she looked at him, all she saw was stars.

***

They'd landed some distance from the meeting place. Apparently, even in Hollywood, a flying couple was going to garner some attention.

So Clark had landed in another featureless alley, although this one seemed clean at least, and didn't have a stink of demonic taint.

"She won't be expecting us for a while," Clark said. "If we can get the jump on them we can beat them."

"She's depending on the crowd to keep you from doing anything…heroic."

"I can move faster than the crowd can see," Clark said, "Although not carrying a person. A normal person anyway."

"What about the witch?" Lois asked. That was her biggest concern. Angelica wasn't a physical threat to Clark, but the witch could disable them both.

"I'll just have to make sure she doesn't get a chance to concentrate," he said. "They'll never know we're coming."

Lois had an uneasy feeling in her stomach, Lorne had seemed pretty convinced that they shouldn't take the deal that was offered, and this seemed to be the only way to avoid that. Whatever Clark did, Lois would have to be ready to follow up, to get Jimmy to safety.

The faster Lois could get them both away, the safer Clark would be. He'd be able to escape before the witch came to her senses.

It seemed like a perfect plan.

It wasn't until she felt a familiar feeling of paralysis stealing over her that she realized it had already failed. "You really didn't think my witch wouldn't detect you, once she knew what to look for?"

From an expanse of blank wall, Angelica appeared, followed by the blonde witch. The wall shimmered, and then part of it disappeared to reveal a concealed doorway.

Magicians created wards, Clem had said, so that passersby never knew what was going on behind closed doors.

The door was open, and as Angelica and the witch stepped forward, they began to exit the room beyond and fan out into the alleyway.

Lois struggled, and she could see a bead of sweat forming on the witch's forehead. Angelica noticed and turned to one of her men.

"Stop fighting," she said. "You might break free, but not before bad things happen to your friend here."

From the back of the crowd, a vampire dragged Jimmy. There was a dark bruise over the side of his neck, a place where the blood had congealed under the skin.

Lois instantly stopped fighting when the creature pulled a switchblade out and held it against Jimmy's neck.

The witch looked a great deal more relaxed, and Lois realized that Clark must have stopped fighting as well.

"You never had a chance," Angelica said. "This is the closest alleyway to the drop site. Did your brujah come with you?"

She still thought they had a witch. Lois's mind raced. If she was able to speak, she might be able to take advantage of that misapprehension.

Angelica didn't fully appreciate Clark's power, though Lois had no doubt that the witch had tried to tell her. Lois hoped that there was something in Clark's bags of tricks that he hadn't told her, otherwise things were about to get much worse.

The thought of having something looking out with her eyes, using her body to get close to the people she loved was abhorrent.

Her parents hadn't been good to her. However, they loved her in their own way, and she wouldn't want something that looked like her to attack them.

Lois suspected that she'd make a horrific vampire.

After a moment, Angelica's eyes widened. "Oh! Cat's got your tongue?" She chuckled. "Well that won't do, not at all."

Turning to the witch she said, "Let them speak."

"Let him go," Lois said. It took her a moment to realize that Clark was saying exactly the same thing.

Angelica smiled. "Cut from the same cloth, I guess. Heroes…"

She stepped closer to Lois and set her hand on Lois's throat. It was cold, colder than ice.

"I hear that there is power to be had in Slayer blood. They say you haven't made it until you've killed your first Slayer. Of course, I don't think this is what they had in mind, but I'll take what I can get."

The witch cried out, and Angelica glanced back at her. "Eduardo," she said.

A trickle of blood dripped from the knife point set against Jimmy's throat. The witch gave a sigh of relief.

Patting Lois's face, she said, "Still, I'm a little more ambitious that the run of the mill fledgling, so I have an offer to make you."

She turned to Clark. "I've got a deal for you. You heroic types tend to be self sacrificing, so here is your chance."

"I'm going to kill your friend in front of your eyes. I'm going to kill your…girlfriend and drink her dry. You might be able to get free, but it won't be in time to save either one of them."

She gestured to the slowly growing crowd of vampires slipping out of the doorway beyond. Now that Lois could see through the doorway, she realized that the room beyond was part of another demon bar. There was a reason that this alleyway was isolated and isolated despite being so close to a major Hollywood landmark.

Angelica stepped closer to Clark. "Or you could make the other choice. Both of them could live. They could walk right out of here, and I'd never be able to harm a hair on their heads. Make the trade, and that could be part of the deal…their continued safety."

"Don't do it," Lois said. "Remember what Lorne said."

Angelica might not appreciate the extent of Clark's powers, but she clearly understood politics. He'd be an excellent tool for her to intimidate the others, and once she discovered what he could do, there might be no limit to what she could do.

Angelica gestured, and Lois found that she could no longer speak. The witch behind her nodded in her direction.

"You won't get away with this," Clark said.

"Really? I think I will," Angelica grinned. "I think I'm going to get away with a lot more than this."

"Why would I think you'd keep to the bargain?" Clark said. "I could make the trade, and you'd just have your minions do the killing for you."

"It'd be part of the magic," Angelica said. "Free passage for them both and I won't order or cause any harm to either of them. Failure to follow the contract makes it all null and void."

"Contract?"

"A verbal contract," Angelica said. "But when you have a powerful witch on your side, it'll be binding."

She leaned forward. "All you have to do is say yes."

Angelica ran her fingers idly over Clark's chest. "I'm not eighteen any more. Would it really be so bad?"

Lois felt nauseous at the thought of having sex with a corpse. The thought that it might be Clark who was forced to do it made it even worse.

The thought of Clark in even another living woman's arms was bad enough.

"Don't make me do this," Clark said. From the tone of his voice, he wasn't talking about the deal.

"It won't hurt at all," Angelica said. "It'll just be like part of you is going to sleep."

She slid around behind him, touching him on his shoulders and his back. "I'll finally get to know what it's like, and you'll get to know that your friends aren't being tortured or killed."

She leaned close to Clark, nibbling his ear. "Or maybe I could make them like me."

There was some sort of spark off the switchblade, and a moment later the vampire holding it swore and leapt back as the hand holding the switchblade caught fire.

He shrieked and stumbled into one of the creatures standing near him, and this one caught as well. Lois felt the grip on her movements weakening, and she strained forward, hoping she could get free.

The witch dropped to the ground, her face contorted in pain.

Lois's hand twitched and she found herself rocking in place.

The first vampire was now a blazing inferno. It screamed horribly and a moment later she could see its skeleton. A moment after that, it was ash.

The others were beating the flames out of the second creature, but it was apparent that vampires burned quite easily.

Jimmy collapsed to the ground, and apparently that was all Clark needed. He pursed his lips, and a moment later a mighty wind whipped through the alleyway. The flames covering the second vampire vanished. Those vampires who were standing flew backward. One fell back into the witch.

Instantly the feeling of paralysis was gone.

Lois was moving a moment later, and Clark simply vanished. It was as though he had disappeared into thin air. An instant later Jimmy was gone from the ground.

Lois lunged forward, punching Angelica in the face.

It wasn't Tae Kwon Do, or any other martial arts move, but it felt really good. After all the feelings of helplessness, of waiting for the next time Angelica was going to attack from out of nowhere, it felt good to finally lash out and get some of her own back.

Angelica looked stunned. If Lois had a piece of wood, it would have been all over that minute.

Instead, Lois felt herself being jerked backwards violently. She was alone in a group of twenty creatures that hated her.

The world spun around her, and then she found herself on a rooftop.

It had been Clark who'd grabbed her, Lois realized.

Jimmy was on the ground beside Clark. Clark looked at her for a moment, and it took Lois a moment to recognize the expression on his face.

It was the same expression she'd seen in the mirror every day since coming back from the Congo. It was a combination of shock, guilt and pain.

A moment later, Clark and Jimmy were both gone.

Lois suspected they were going back to the hospital. Lois hoped that this time Clark found Jimmy some place out of Los Angeles. Worrying that someone was going to find his hospital room and hold him hostage again was more than they needed at the moment.

If it hadn't been for the change, that's what her life with Clark would have been like. She would have always been a target, someone that people used to try to manipulate Clark.

It wasn't ever going to happen to her. She was never going to be a liability.

She was never going to be a liability again.

***

Five minutes turned to ten. Ten minutes turned into half an hour. Lois was beginning to wonder if Clark was ever coming back.

Lois was shivering. She hadn't dressed warmly, and the wind up here was fairly constant.

She was only on the third floor. There wasn't a door visible up here, and Lois was beginning to wonder if she might try jumping down a floor to the building beside her.

She heard the crunch of his shoes, and Lois turned quickly. Clark had landed silently behind her.

"Is Jimmy going to be all right?" Lois asked.

"I got him to a hospital in Kansas," Clark said. "My parents will keep an eye out for him."

For some reason, Clark wasn't looking at her.

"Won't he wonder how he got there?"

"I don't care," Clark said. He closed his eyes for a moment. "I don't think I can do this anymore."

"What?" Lois asked.

"This," Clark said, gesturing at the skyline. "I thought I was finally ready to be around normal people, but…"

"What are you talking about?" Lois stepped closer to Clark.

"It's time to go home." For the first time, Clark looked Lois in the eye, and his expression was bleak. "What are we really accomplishing here?"

"Breaking the story of a lifetime?"

"We aren't going to publish any of this," Clark said. "You know it as well as I do."

"There are parts we can publish," Lois said. "Get out the parts that people will believe, at least point people in the right direction."

"We should get out now. What more can we possibly learn?"

"I can't believe you're giving up," Lois scowled. "So you just want to walk away?"

"I killed someone tonight," Clark said. He was silent for a long moment. "How am I supposed to live with that?"

The question hung in the air between them. It was the same question Lois had been asking herself for days.

How did you go on after you have done the unthinkable?

"You killed something tonight," Lois said finally. Her throat constricted. This wasn't a conversation she wanted to be having with Clark. "It wasn't human."

"That makes it all right?" Clark said. "I'm not human. Clem isn't human. We've seen a lot of people tonight who didn't look human. Is that enough to make it okay to kill them?"

"You were protecting Jimmy," Lois said quietly. "You had no choice."

"There's always another choice. I just didn't want to take it," Clark scowled. "Part of me has been waiting for this since I was ten years old. I've dreaded it all my life."

What was the worst nightmare of an invulnerable man? Hurting other people.

"I've always been so careful. I played football in high school and college, and I never hurt a single person."

But part of him had always been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Clark…" Lois wasn't sure what to say. Communicating her emotions had always been difficult. She'd learned early on that what she said would be used against her later. It had always been easier just to go on the offensive.

People were less likely to find the hurtful things to say if they were off balance.

Clark's voice was bewildered. "It wasn't supposed to happen like that. I was just trying to make him drop the knife. I was going to heat it up and make him drop it."

The vampire had moved. Lois remembered it vividly. It had shifted in its place, and Clark had caught its sleeve on fire.

"It all happened so fast," Clark said. "I should have blown him out. It's just…when I saw the fire, I froze."

He'd probably been frozen, horrified. He hadn't seen how terribly flammable the things had been at the Cortez ranch. It must have flabbergasted him to realize what was happening.

"I forgot tonight just how fragile people are. That's something I can never afford to forget. You just don't understand."

"I understand," Lois said softly. "You think I don't understand how easy it is? They're so fragile."

Lois closed her eyes as an image of flying teeth and cracking bones came to mind. She shuddered.

"It's so easy to break bones," Lois continued. The feeling of Olaf's wrist under her fingers, snapping like a stick made her fingers twitch.

At least Clark was looking at her now. "I'm supposed to be better than that."

"Better than me, you mean." Lois closed her eyes.

Clark touched her arm and said, "No…I didn't mean…"

"You killed something accidentally tonight, Clark." Lois shook her head. "Something that would have killed Jimmy and would have gone on and on, killing until it was killed."

Deep in her stomach she knew she was right. Not killing the thing would have been the greater crime, because it would have meant being responsible for the deaths of everyone the thing killed after it was released.

"I killed people, Clark." Lois looked up at him finally. "I've killed people, and I knew what I was doing."

The words hung in the air between them like a death knell.

***

"You don't have to…" Clark said.

"Don't tell me you didn't guess," Lois said. "Girl comes back from a war zone with flashbacks…usually she's a victim. Girl comes back a Slayer…"

"I suspected," Clark admitted. "After Olaf."

"You didn't say anything," Lois said staring up at him. The expression on his face was concerned, but not judgmental. If she'd seen condemnation in his eyes something in her would have died.

"It wasn't my place. I know you well enough to know that you wouldn't do something like that without a good reason."

He said it firmly, in that way he had, as though by saying it he made it true.

"That's the thing. I don't know if I'm me anymore. If we were talking about the person I was two weeks ago, I'd agree with you. Now…"

Now she felt as though there was another, darker part of herself that she'd never known before. Until she knew exactly what had been done to her, she would never be able to relax. She'd never be able to sleep without nightmares.

Lois shivered, with more than the wind making her cold. She was startled when she felt Clark's coat settling around her. Once again it was warm and it covered her to her knees.

His hand stayed on her shoulder, and even through the coat she could feel the heat of it.

"Now I'm not sure that part of me didn't like it."

She'd enjoyed hitting Angelica. It had felt as good as anything she'd felt in a long time. All her unexpressed rage focused on a target she didn't have to feel any guilt about. It had been a heady feeling.

There was a sense of power in violence. Although society tried to reject violence, it was tied into the fabric of human life. Lois had learned that lesson the first time she'd gone to a boxing match with her father. The energy of the crowd, the driving, surging hunger…the relentless need.

It was something that was part of her now, and it wasn't something she could easily explain.

"Do you feel that way now?"

"What?" Lois asked.

"Are you happy you did what you did?"

"No!" Lois stared at him for a moment. "What kind of question is that?"

Clark placed his hand on her arm. "The way you are feeling now…it shows that you aren't this inhuman thing you're afraid of."

"I have a darkness within me," Lois said stubbornly. "And until I find out why, I can't stop."

"We'll find out together."

"You won't leave?" Lois asked. For some reason, this was more important to her than she would have imagined before all of this began. She'd always seen a partner as a hindrance.

Now she couldn't imagine doing this without him.

Clark was silent for a long moment then sighed. "Not this time. I've done enough of that in my life."

He'd lived the life of a nomad before this, always moving on before people became too suspicious of the miracles in their midst.

They stared out at the city. The view from here was nothing like flying, but it was still beautiful. They were silent for long moments.

Lois leaned up against Clark and felt him put his arm around her.

"It's not easy, feeling helpless," Lois said finally, breaking the silence.

That's how it had all started, with Lois's helplessness and rage.

If Lois closed her eyes, she could still see that faces of the girls who had been shipped out before she'd changed. The abuse she'd seen and been unable to stop.

"I always hated feeling that way," Lois said. "Now it's intolerable."

"I went through the Congo once," Clark sighed. "I didn't stay long. It hurt too much knowing that the villagers you helped one week were going to be herded off their land the next."

Three million dead and with the death toll rising, the Congo was a place of horrors. The land screamed out its misery. It wasn't any wonder that Nassur and his men had thought no one would miss a few hundred young women.

Nobody had but their families.

"I was so angry," Lois said, staring off into the distance. "I saw what they were doing, and I couldn't do anything to stop it."

"And things changed…"

"They were hitting me," Lois said. "And I heard this voice, offering me power."

"It sounds like you didn't have much of a choice."

"What if I did? What if I did this to myself?"

The nightmares, the strange urges, the growing anger and violence and rage. What if she'd made a deal with the devil to save her own life?

"What was the alternative?" Clark tightened his grip around her reassuringly.

"I would have died." Lois didn't look at Clark. If she hadn't been caught in the first place, she never would have been in that situation.

"You said in your story that forty girls escaped from a compound in the Congo. How much did you have to do with that?"

"I made it happen," Lois said grimly.

If she hadn't taken the risks she had, Nassur and his men would still be shipping girls out. They'd still be brutalizing them.

"Then you gave those girls a chance." Clark sighed and stared off into the distance. "I made a decision a long time ago to try to help people. It's not something I've ever regretted."

"Well, I did a good thing in getting the girls out, but that doesn't justify what I did," Lois said.

It didn't justify how much part of her had enjoyed it.

"I can't judge you," Clark said. "You had a difficult choice to make, and you made it."

"What if it wasn't me making that decision?"

The specter of being possessed by something dark and evil terrified Lois.

"Then it wasn't your fault."

"I could have stopped," Lois said quietly. "At least after the first few."

Her rage had consumed her; it had been like she was someone else entirely. She'd been another person.

"Then you have to live with that," Clark said. "Just like I have to live with what I've done this evening."

"That thing would have kept killing," Lois said. It seemed so obvious to her. Killing the thing that had taken over a man's corpse almost wasn't like killing at all.

Of course, before going to the Congo, Lois had been against capital punishment.

It was frightening to wonder how many of the changes in her personality were due to an alien influence, and how many were just the result of life trauma.

"Would those men have stopped what they were doing?" Clark shook his head. "It doesn't make what either of us did right, but it makes it a little easier."

"I dream about it every night," Lois said.

"Guilt exists for a reason. It's there to help us choose differently in the future."

"What if we can't?" Lois asked.

"If I get into the same situation again, I won't be making the same choice," Clark said firmly.

Lois felt a chill. He'd as much as admitted that he'd surrender himself if he was captured again.

She'd have to make sure that didn't happen.

***

"We're going to have to be more careful," Lois said quietly. "Angelica isn't going to stop trying to get control of you."

"I'm going to take us out of the city," Clark said. "At least for the night."

"How far are we going to have to go?"

"Far enough that even if they can find out where I am they'll have trouble getting anyone to us before we can get away."

"Metropolis?" Lois asked, before realizing how foolish that sounded. All it would take would be for one of Lucy's friends or Lois's coworkers to recognize either of them, and Perry would have some very pointed questions.

"I don't want to lead them back to anyone we care about." Clark looked grim. "One hostage is more than enough."

Lois wondered whether he was talking about her or Jimmy.

Against magic, he was just as likely as any of them to be a victim, which had to be disconcerting.

"Surprise me," she said.

***

The view across the river Thames was amazing.

"Why England?" Lois asked. She'd been part of an exchange student in Ireland during her eleventh grade year, but somehow she'd never made it to London.

She'd always wanted to go, but she'd never had the time.

"Do you remember Clem asking you if a man with an English accent had come looking for you?"

Lois nodded slowly.

"Doesn't that sort of suggest that there is some sort of story there?"

"Maybe we should ask Clem," Lois said.

That assumed they could find him again. By his own admission he didn't have a fixed abode.

"I have the feeling that Clem didn't know all that much," Clark said. "He seemed like the sort that would have told us."

"If he hadn't assumed we already knew." Lois shook her head. "We should be back in the states looking for Faith's friends."

"Well, at least this will give us a safe place to sleep." Clark sighed and rose to his feet. "We'll see what we can find in the morning, and if we don't find anything we can always head back."

"Clark," Lois said. "Thank you."

She reached up and kissed him on the cheek.

Lois turned away quickly, before either of them could be embarrassed.

***

The crater somehow wasn't an unexpected sight. An act of domestic terrorism which had been perpetrated in the days before Sunnydale's collapse, it was still being investigated by the London police.

Lois had been surprised at how much information the name Slayer had made available. It had opened unexpected doors, both on the internet and in local libraries.

There was an entry on a website called "Demons, Demons, Demons." The things Lois saw on that site made her shudder. If she hadn't seen some demon types she recognized from the bar, she would have assumed that it was all fantasy.

Apparently, wherever Slayers appeared there appeared watchers, people trained in supporting them. Clem had been right. According to local legend, only one Slayer was Chosen, after the death of the last.

Lois had wondered briefly where her watcher was; having someone who was there to ease her into the transition might have made things a little easier.

This answered her question. This was all that was left of the main quarters of the watchers' organization. On paper they were a group of historians and dealers in antiquities.

The death toll had been in the hundreds.

"This wasn't a coincidence," Lois said.

Clark nodded. He was staring at the rubble, then shook his head. "There isn't enough of anything left to save. I don't think you'll find your answers here."

Lois scowled. Whatever had happened at Sunnydale was looking more and more like a deliberate act of terrorism.

People had to be warned.

***

By daylight, flying was even more exhilarating than by night. They had to skim near the surface to avoid leaving much of a radar trail, and seeing the sea and then land flashing by beneath her was exciting.

Glancing at Clark, Lois felt a sense of contentedness. He hadn't rejected her, even though she'd revealed things she'd never revealed to anyone. If there was a sadness in his eyes, and a sense that he wasn't happy about his own role in killing, it was something that Lois was sure would fade with time.

All she had to do was protect him while she looked for the truth behind what had happened to her, to the organization in England, and to the city of Sunnydale.

It was a task that she had renewed hope in being able to accomplish. She was Lois Lane after all, and she could do anything.

She could even master herself. The darkness was still there, but it was not her master. If she could still hear the crunching of bones when she was sleeping, if the faces of the dead gathered at the foot of her bed, she would endure.

It wasn't until she felt the vibration in her pocket that her temporary sense of calm was interrupted.

Clark landed, and Lois was thankful she had nationwide coverage. Lex-Tel was more than efficient. Whatever else could be said about Luthorcorp, its businesses were efficient.

"Ms Lane?" An unfamiliar male voice was on the telephone. "I believe you wished to set up a meeting with Ms. Summers?"

The voice was British, cultured, confident.

"Um…yes?"

"Meet her in an hour in the hospital parking lot. Come alone."

Before Lois could protest, the line went dead.

***

By night the parking lot took on an eerie look. Islands of washed out neon brightness were interspersed by shadows and darkness. Half the lights were burned out or broken, leaving the few cars in the lot as hulking silhouettes.

Lois took a deep breath. Clark had assured her that although he was nearly a mile away he would have no trouble hearing everything that went on. He'd be with her in the space of a moment if anything went wrong.

The nervousness she felt wasn't just about being alone at night. Lois had never lacked physical courage, and even in Metropolis, she'd gone out in the middle of the night alone to meet sources.

Of course, if she'd known the truth about the things that went bump in the night she might have been more careful.

Although things were different now, Lois still had the sense that there were things out in the dark that would be more than a match for her.

Buffy Summers might be one of them. The sight of that red fingernail stuck in an eye socket still haunted Lois.

What she knew of the girl was a mass of contractions. Was she a hero or a terrorist? Was she the monster that Lois had nightmares about being?

Was she responsible for what was happening to Lois, and to other girls all over the globe?

The answers to all of those questions might be waiting…or this could be another ambush. Either way, Lois felt that her senses were on high alert.

It was a surprise, then to walk by a spot of darkness and hear the sound of a match. Squinting, Lois could barely make out a figure leaning against the side of a car.

Taking a step forward, Lois realized it was Faith.

A moment later she became aware of other figures moving around the periphery of her vision. They darted from car to car, moving so quickly that Lois was barely able to follow them.

It took her a moment to pinpoint their locations, but finally she thought she had them all.

That was why the tiny blonde standing within arms reach was such a surprise.

With her bleached hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wearing a black denim skirt and jacket, the girl almost faded into the darkness.

"Ms. Summers?" Lois asked. "My name is…"

"I know who you are." The girl simple stood there and stared at Lois. "You're the person who decided that calling all my old high school teachers would be a fun way to spend a Friday night."

"I'm a reporter. It's my job." For some reason, the girl was making Lois feel tense. She had the same sense of being a predator that Faith had, but it was much more intense.

"You work for the Inquirer?" Before Lois could respond, the girl said, "Because looking into the monster of the week- usually not a good career move."

"Everybody keeps telling me that," Lois said. "And I wonder if they are trying to convince their selves. Do you really think that people are better off not knowing?"

"If you'd seen what I'd seen, you wouldn't ask."

Remembering the news story about the attempted witch burnings in Sunnydale, Lois could understand how the girl might feel that way. People tended to lash out at things they didn't understand.

"The funny thing is…the longer I've been looking into all this, the more everything starts to point in your direction," Lois said.

The girl stiffened. "I don't know what…"

"First you blew up your old high school gym. Then you were involved in blowing up your entire high school. There are You-tube pictures of you firing off some kind of missile in the Sunnydale mall."

Gasping a little, Buffy took an involuntary step back.

"An organization in England with ties to you had its headquarters blow up, and now your entire home town has been destroyed. There are trails of dead bodies associated with you for the past seven years."

Buffy stared at her for a moment. There was a stricken look in her eyes. "You don't have proof of any of that, except the thing with the gym. And I totally had a good excuse for…"

"Vampires and monsters?" Lois said. "You tried telling people, and look where it got you."

Buffy stiffened. "Those records were supposed to be sealed!"

"Why did you kill those cultists up near the gas station on Daughtree Road?"

Buffy paled. "I had…I didn't have anything to do with that."

The girl was lying. The shock on her face, the recognition in her eyes…Lois found herself leaning forward in anticipation.

"They were killed by someone with superhuman strength. Someone female…" Lois took a cautious step back. "Someone who broke off a fingernail in someone's skull."

She glanced down at Buffy's hands. They were finely manicured and painted bubblegum pink, but the nails were short.

For some reason, Buffy seemed to relax, regaining her equilibrium.

"I don't do that sort of thing," Buffy said. "And if you had any proof you'd already have given it to the police."

"I just wanted to hear your side of things," Lois said slyly. "There had to be a reason for it."

"The Knights of Byzantium were fanatics. They were killed by someone who wasn't me," Buffy said. "I tried to stop her."

"You tried to stop them from taking the Key."

At the look in Buffy's eye, Lois took an involuntary step back. The sense of being a predator was back, stronger than ever before.

"Where in the hell are you getting all your information?" Buffy's voice was angry, although she kept her features carefully frozen.

"I'm a prize winning investigative reporter," Lois said. "If you are good enough, you can find out almost anything."

"So what is the Key?" Lois asked. "Why was it so important to those cultists?"

"It never existed, except in their twisted imaginations." Buffy's eyes darted out behind Lois, and Lois could hear the sounds of movement out in the darkness.

She was lying, but Lois knew when to back away from a question. If she kept pushing at this point, Buffy Summers was going to clam up and stop talking.

"You see yourself as a hero," she said. "Somebody out to save the world."

The class protector award, the conflicting stories…they all suggested the same thing. Buffy Summers was insane.

She thought she could save the world.

"So what did you want me to do?" Buffy asked. "Just let the world end?"

"I never said anything about the world ending." Lois said. "I just said you wanted to save it."

"You don't have any idea." Buffy scowled irritably. "If people really knew just how thin a thread the world has been hanging on all these years…they'd be going postal in the streets."

"So you make yourself some sort of vigilante."

"Someone had to," Buffy said quietly. "When I was younger I spent a lot of time wondering why I had to be the Chosen one. It's a little like getting to be prom queen at Carrie's prom…buckets of blood and not much glamour."

"So quit."

"And in a week, I find out the world has gone all '28 days later.' No…I like the world as it is."

"You have a pretty high opinion of yourself. You don't think that the army would be better qualified to deal with this sort of thing?"

"They tried it. It didn't work," Buffy said flatly.

Lois could hear figures moving around in the darkness. They were closer now. An ordinary reporter would have heard them too, and would have been spooked.

Forcing herself to stand confidently, Lois refused to show fear. She knew exactly where all the others were, and she was hopelessly outnumbered.

As long as they didn't have a witch, she would be all right. Even if they did have one, they didn't seem to know much about his capabilities

"Trying to intimidate me won't work either," Lois said. "I'm not going to stop until I find out the truth about what happened to Sunnydale."

Lois stepped back reflexively as Faith stepped out of the darkness. She leaned towards Buffy and whispered in her ear, all without taking her eyes off Lois.

She faded into the darkness again as Buffy stepped forward. "You're a hypocrite. You talk about wanting to find out about the supernatural, and you've been terrorizing the underworld for days with some sort of Hellgod."

"I don't even know what that is," Lois said.

Clark had spent so much time and effort trying to keep people from finding out what he was. One week with Lois, and he was already the subject of city wide gossip.

"We've been following the news…firebombing a local ranch…attacking a library right around the corner from this hospital, dragging people off the streets. You were involved every time."

"I've been having a little vampire trouble," Lois said weakly. "Girl had a crush on my partner before she was turned."

"The girl has chutzpah. A slayer convention in town, and she decides to go all Demolition man."

"About that…I was under the impression that there was only supposed to be one Slayer at a time." Lois kept her voice level. This was the question she really wanted to ask.

Why her?

Why had they chosen to give this…thing to her instead of to one of the other girls in the complex? Hadn't the other girls been more needful, hadn't they been violated in a more profound way?

The power of a Slayer in a war zone. A girl like that would have been able to protect her family, maybe even others in her village. She might have been able to take the power to deal death and turned it into something constructive.

If she'd turned it into a mockery, a twisted bloodbath like Lois had, she wouldn't be saddled with this overwhelming sense of guilt. People struggling to survive didn't have time for guilt.

"Things change," Buffy said. "It's better this way."

"Better for whom?" Lois asked. "For the little girl who bear her stepfather to death in his trailer in Little Rock? How about the insane girl here in L.A. who killed three orderlies in the asylum? This thing isn't a gift…it's a curse."

"I'm not talking about this." Buffy shook her head. "People think they know what it's like to be a Slayer, but unless you are one, you need to just keep your mouth shut."

"You had something to do with changing the rules, didn't you?" Lois stared at Buffy for a moment. "It's your fault that this is happening to people all over the world!"

"You don't get to ask that!" Buffy said. "What gives you the right to pry into people's lives, dig up things that ought to stay buried?"

"I'm a journalist," Lois said. "People have the right to know the truth."

It all rang a little hollow. It was what she'd always believed, but she was already having reservations. Would creatures like Clem be considered to have basic human rights? Would Clark? Or would those rights be reserved for humans only, allowing entire species to be shut away into camps?

"What do you think the government would do if they knew there was more than one of us?"

"They'd want to study you," Lois said. "Try to recruit you into the military."

"They tried it," Buffy said softly. "It didn't work."

"So because a few adults failed, that means the entire adult world is clueless? " Lois shook her head. "That's a juvenile way of thinking."

"The world has been in the hands of a fifteen year old girl for the past six thousand years," Buffy said. "And it's still here."

"So you had a lucky streak," Lois said. She smiled slightly.

"That's what worries me," Buffy said. She straightened suddenly. "I've got to get back to work."

Lois lunged forward. "Don't leave!" She felt a moment of panic. She'd been so close to finding the answers she'd been seeking for so long.

Buffy looked down and it took Lois a moment to realize that she had grabbed the sleeve of Buffy's jacket.

There was an odd smile on Buffy's face, and it was then that Lois realized that Buffy actually enjoyed the violence.

"I'd let go if I were you," Buffy said in a quiet voice.

In the background, Lois could hear the sound of several weapons being cocked. None sounded like guns, but Lois thought she could hear the sound of a bow being pulled.

She tensed, and forced her grip on the smaller woman's sleeve to relax.

Buffy pulled her arm away and said, "It's not a good idea to grab a Slayer."

As Buffy turned away, Lois stepped forward again. "I just wanted to know why you did this to me!"

The words echoed across the parking lot. They almost covered the sound that had both women turning in slow motion, their eyes widening in horror.

Apparently some of the younger girls were on a hair trigger. Whether it was her reputation as traveling with something that scared demons, or simple fanatical loyalty, it wasn't until Lois heard the sound of the crossbow firing that she knew she'd made a mistake.

Flying through the air, the bolt seemed to be moving in slow motion. Lois twisted and grabbed it, and she was surprised to find Buffy's fingers closing over hers in a tight grip, even though Buffy had been five feet further away.

"Sorry!" The voice in the darkness was rueful.

"Dawn!" Buffy yelled. "What did I tell you about crossbows?"

Lois stared at her hand, with Buffy's tightly over it. Buffy had been faster than she was…not so fast that Lois couldn't follow her, but fast enough that she wouldn't have wanted to get into a fight.

"There was this thing…with a cat. Poor Ms. Kitty Fantastico." Buffy seemed to be embarrassed.

Lois glanced up at her, with one eyebrow raised, and Buffy quickly released her hand.

"Um…we're not in the habit of trying to kill people under a flag of truce. We're trustworthy, I swear."

Wondering where Clark had been, Lois decided that he must have known she'd be able to handle the arrow.

Had he seen her catch the arrow at the Cortez ranch? Or had he been so confident in his speed that he'd had time to reconsider.

Buffy waved, and the figures hiding in the shadows of the parking lot began to disperse. One approached; Lois could make out the familiar form of Faith.

"I knew there was something about you. Didn't I tell you, B?"

"There are a few demons that could do that," Buffy said. The sense of her being a predator was gone, however.

"So how did you get the mojo?" Faith asked.

Lois hesitated. Over the last few days keeping secrets had become a habit. Admitting that she was one of them would have all sorts of unknown obligations and expectations.

If she wanted to find out about their world, about the questions that had been hounding her, she had no choice.

"I was in the Congo. I heard a voice asking "Are you ready to be strong?" Then I was."

Buffy relaxed even further and Faith grinned.

"Welcome to the sisterhood! The more the merrier, I always say."

"It's not you who's paying the grocery bill," Buffy said. She seemed to look at Lois closely for the first time. "Wow. You're a little long in the tooth for this gig."

"Why does everybody keep saying that?" Lois protested. "Like I'm ready for Geritol and a retirement home in Florida? I'm twenty six! I'm only four years older than you!"

"Most Slayers never make it past the age of sixteen," Buffy said. "Meeting an adult like us…it wasn't something I expected."

"Buffy was expecting to be the grandmother of the group," Faith said. "Old granny Summers at the age of twenty two."

"Things are different now, better," Buffy said. "There are more of us. It's not just one against the world."

"So you really did this to me?" Lois asked.

"It was that or the world was going to end," Buffy said. "Sometimes there aren't any good choices."

"How?"

"Magic," Buffy said. "Don't ask me to explain it. If we'd left things the way they were, the world was going to be overrun by demons. So we changed the rules."

"And you left all those girls out there alone, not understanding what's happening to them?"

"We're getting the council back together. We're going to start tracking everybody down, explain everything. We've just been a little off our game for the last few days." Buffy's voice was defensive. "I've still got to teach people the whole speech 'The world didn't begin as a paradise…'yadda yadda yadda…"

"So we can talk?"

Buffy glanced at her. "I guess I'm obligated. I still want to know what's up with that thing you're traveling with."

"He's not a thing!" Lois said quietly. "He's not even a demon, according to Lorne."

"Lorne isn't as smart as he thinks he is," Buffy said. "I met him once when I was tracking down…an old boyfriend."

"I'd trust my life to him," Lois said.

"I respect that," Buffy said. "But I'm responsible for the lives of more than fifteen people, so forgive me if I don't invite every incredibly dangerous being in for tea at the drop of a hat."

"You should meet him," Lois said. "Maybe you'd feel differently."

Buffy glanced off in the distance at one of the few remaining figures in the lot. When it gave a thumbs up gesture, she visibly relaxed.

"You don't have any signs of being under anyone's thrall," she said. "Which makes me feel a little better about your loyalty."

"Thrall?"

"Magical compulsions. Witches and a few other creatures can control people's minds…make them do things or even believe things. It's a whole mind mojo thing."

"Mojo?"

"Jedi mind tricks…'you see no droids here', that sort of thing." Buffy scowled. "I've been hanging around nerds for a little too long."

Lois felt vaguely ill. Her mind was the only thing she had that was completely her own. The thought that there were people and creatures that could force her to do what they wanted was repugnant.

Her thoughts turned to Clark. He should have been here by now. Why wasn't he?

"I'm worried about my friend," Lois said, pulling out her cell phone. "He should have been here now."

He should have been here to save her.

All she got was the sound of continual ringing.

"He was supposed to be waiting for me by the library," Lois said. There was a growing sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. "I've got to go check on him."

"We'll come with you," Buffy said, in a voice that didn't seem open to any other options.

Buffy gestured, and three forms that Lois had missed slipped out of dark shadows and move silently down the street.

The walk to the library was interminable, even if Lois set a quick pace. She was almost jogging by the time they reached the place, and none of them was close to being out of breath.

It shocked her a little to see how young they all were. Most were in their mid-teens, but they had the same look she'd seen on ten year olds in the Congo. In that country, boys sometimes had to use guns to protect themselves and their families. Sometimes they fought wars.

Warfare was a thing for the young, she supposed. Older people gradually lost that sense of invulnerability that allowed the young to throw themselves into the jaws of death and do heroic things. It wasn't that the old couldn't be heroic; it was just that generally they knew better.

It wasn't their age that shocked Lois. It was the level of responsibility. These girls were all that was between the world and an apocalypse? At age 15 and 16, Lois had been level headed and had been a member of the chess club.

Trusting Lois to make decisions affecting the whole world would still have been idiotic.

That the town of Sunnydale had fallen into a hole was starting to make a little more sense.

The parking lot at the library was even darker than the hospital. Here, no one expected any traffic late at night. There was a little light around the entrances, in the hopes that anyone trying to break in would be afraid of being too exposed.

Otherwise, there was only darkness. Even with her newly enhanced night vision, Lois could barely make out anything.

She reached into her pocket and flipped open her cell phone. She'd already set Clark's number in memory; other than Perry, Jimmy and Ralph's Pagoda, he was the only person she bothered to put in memory.

There was a ringing sound from the bushes near the front steps of the library. Lois began to dart forward, only to feel Buffy grabbing her by the shoulder.

"We're not alone anymore," she said. She made a set of incomprehensible gestures to the others, and they began to spread out, cautiously approaching the row of bushes.

Knowing Angelica, there could be anything from a row of men with guns to people throwing firebombs, so Lois could understand their caution.

There was something moving around in the bushes, and Lois felt herself on edge. She heard the sounds of muttered chanting from the bushes, and she tried to dive to the side, fearing something was going to emerge.

Instead, there was a flash of light from the bushes, and then everything went calm and still.

Lois slowly rose to her feet and approached the bushes cautiously. It wasn't until she saw the black shoe sticking out of the bushes that her heart leapt to her throat.

"Clark?" she called out cautiously. This couldn't be his shoe; he was invulnerable. It had to be yet another of the random victims of violence around here.

She crept forward a little more, until she saw the trouser legs.

Those were definitely Clark's trousers.

After that, everything was a blur.

***

He wasn't dead; that much was a blessing. But no matter how hard Lois tried, she couldn't get him to wake up. He was burning up; it was painful to touch him for more than a few moments at a time.

Clark didn't look real like this; his face looked waxen and there was a sheen of sweat on his brow. Lois had never seen him sweat on even the hottest of days while wearing a tie and a jacket. It all seemed wrong.

Buffy was off in the background barking out orders into a cell phone, while the other girls had gathered into a circle, guarding the perimeter.

A school bus, of all things arrived a few minutes later, and Lois found herself shoved to the side as the others picked up his body, shifting often as the heat radiating from him began to hurt their hands. They carried him onto the bus.

The interior of the bus smelled like sweat and blood and death, and at Lois's expression, Buffy shrugged. "We've been a little busy."

A man with an eye patch was driving the bus, and Lois spent a moment worrying about depth perception. Of course, the girls all looked too young to have drivers' licenses, so he may have been all they had.

They laid him in the back of the bus, in a spot where several seats had been ripped out. A young looking red-headed woman crouched over him.

"Crap," the girl muttered to herself as she stared at Clark. "Stupid auras. Tara was always better at…"

Lois could only stand and stare, feeling helpless.

***

Lois hadn't smoked since she'd been a rebellious teenager. She hadn't even wanted to in years. It was a dirty habit that had killed her grandmother. There were a thousand reasons not to smoke, all of which she believed heartily.

She wanted a cigarette.

Clark was lying in the back of a dirty bus, possibly dying, and there wasn't anything she could do. They couldn't even take him to a hospital because doctors would have no idea how to treat him. His alien physiology would leave everything up to guesswork.

Lois hated looking weak. She hated feeling that way even worse.

Caring for Clark hadn't been something that she'd anticipated. It hadn't even been something that she'd wanted. She was at the height of her career, just getting ready to reach for the Pulitzer. The last thing she needed was romantic entanglements.

They hadn't even kissed, not really. They'd never been on a date, hadn't made any sort of commitment to each other. Other than that one night, they'd barely talked about their pasts or what they liked to do outside of work.

Objectively, Lois knew that was part of what made this hurt so much. Clark was an enigma still, and she was able to fill in the gaps of what she knew with the fantasy of her perfect man.

It was the same thing that allowed cheaters to think that their lover was more perfect than their spouse. It wasn't until they woke up and discovered that their lover had the same flaws and the same morning breath that they realized that they'd made a mistake.

People were imperfect. Just because Clark wasn't human didn't make him any different than any other man. He probably squeezed toothpaste from the middle of the tube, left the toilet seat up and threw his underwear on the floor beside the hamper.

He couldn't be as perfect for her as Lois was thinking.

It kept nagging at her, this feeling that she might have met the perfect person and let him slip away from her.

She'd known Angelica was after him, that she had a witch who could not only immobilize him, but who could sense exactly where he was at all times. Why had she thought it would be a god idea to leave him alone? She should have been more forceful, more assertive about bringing him with her.

It was a sign of the times that she'd just meekly gone along with the demands Buffy's people had placed on her. She'd wanted so badly to find out about what was happening to her that she'd ignored her niggling fears for Clark.

Guilt was an ugly emotion.

She started as she heard the sounds of footsteps approaching from the other side of the bus.

Faith turned the corner and said softly, "Hey."

"Any changes?"

"Red's got his fever down to normal. She thinks she'll get him awake in another half hour."

Lois perked up. "He's not dying?"

"I don't know. They start talking magic and I just sort of tune out." Faith shrugged. "Give me something I can face with an axe and I'm your girl."

Well, at least there was some progress. Lois felt the knot in her stomach unclench somewhat.

"I want to be there when he wakes up," Lois said.

It was odd how protective she felt towards a man who until a week ago had thought he was invulnerable.

"You care about him a lot," Faith said. There was a strange wistfulness in her voice.

"He's my partner," Lois said.

It was true. Whatever else their relationship might be destined to become, he was one person she'd ever managed to work with who actually made her work better. He was the first person who hadn't had to be dragged along by the nose due to a lack of talent, or a lack of desire.

She'd miss that as much as the strange feelings she was beginning to get at the pit of her stomach at the thought of kissing him.

"I get that. I sort of had that with Robin…for about a day or so." Faith stared down at the ground. "I don't know what's going to happen when he gets better."

Robin…the guy in the hospital.

"We aren't dating," Lois said. "We haven't even…"

She stopped herself. There was no reason to make an automatic denial. It wasn't as though she was talking to another news professional, or someone else at the Planet.

"We haven't had enough time," she said.

"Isn't that the way of it?" Faith pulled out a cigarette and offered one to Lois.

With the knowledge that Clark was going o wake up, the temporary urge had passed, and Lois shook her head.

"You finally find a guy you wouldn't mind going back for seconds with, and he almost dies on you." Faith sighed. "I'm not even sure that he wants to come back for more."

"You don't talk about this with the others?" Lois asked, trying to keep the impatience out of her own voice.

"They think I'm some sort of hard ***

because I'm an ex-con," Faith said. "Buffy just lost somebody and she's all in denial and most of the girls are too young to really talk with anyway."

"An ex-con?" Lois asked faintly. "Is that where you got Chosen?"

"No," Faith said. "Me and Buffy were Slayers before all this happened. I accidentally killed a guy, and then I not-so accidentally killed another guy."

Lois frowned. Why was Faith telling her all of this? Was she bragging?

"I went to jail because I regretted what I had done," Faith said. "I guess I was seeking penance."

It would be relatively easy for a Slayer to escape, at least if her captors didn't know what she was capable of.

"In the pen, I got to see what it looked like, that kind of guilt. I saw it in the mirror every day, and I saw it in the eyes of some of the others." Faith hesitated, then took a deep breath. "I get that sort of feeling from you."

"What?" Lois felt frozen and flushed at the same time.

"Who did you kill?"

"I haven't killed anyone," Lois lied. "Why would you think I had?"

All she could hope was the darkness concealed the flush of her cheeks and the trembling of her hands. Was this going to follow her for her entire life, this fear of discovery?

Faith took a long drag of her cigarette. "The way you were talking back there, like being a Slayer was a bad thing, it's a little odd. Most people love the idea of getting super powers."

"I'd already heard about what had happened in Arkansas," Lois said.

"What…a little girl killed the guy who was molesting her?" Faith shook her head. "What do you think the alternative was? That…waste of space would have kept on doing it for year after year after year."

There was a tenseness in her voice that suggested she'd had some personal experience with that sort of abuse.

"Maybe I've had a few run-ins with vampires," Lois said.

"I've seen the file Willow worked up on you," Faith said. "You take crazy chances all the time."

"You people have been investigating me?" Lois couldn't keep the sense of outrage out of her voice, even though part of her knew it was hypocritical.

"What did you think? We were going to walk into an ambush without at least googling the people we were meeting?" Faith smirked. "We're young. We aren't stupid."

"So what did you find out?" Lois asked, her mind racing. Just how much information about her was out there, floating around on the information superhighway? It was an unpleasant thought, being the focus of the same sort of an investigation she usually did on other people.

Faith shrugged. "The usual sort of stuff. Hospital records, credit card purchases, a full list of articles you've written…"

"You can get hospital records?" Lois asked. Jimmy had had some trouble accessing those from online.

"Willow's got a magical touch with a computer." Faith smirked.

Willow was their witch, apparently, probably the redhead who was working on Clark inside the bus.

"I'd suppose so. So you looked everything over and came to the conclusion that I was a killer." Lois tried to make her voice sound skeptical.

Faith shook her head. "You started talking about those girls…the little girl in the trailer…the crazy chick. I could hear it in your voice."

"What's that?"

"Self-loathing," Faith said.

"Maybe I was just having a bad day," Lois said, desperately scrambling for some sort of an excuse. "Maybe I'm a bigot."

"You wouldn't be hanging around powers boy in there if you were some sort of magic hater," Faith chuckled. "And you strike me as the kind who really ought to love what these bodies can do."

"I'm not sure I get you."

If Faith was suggesting something sexual, Lois was going to punch her. Because really…wasn't it enough that she was accusing her of murder without suggesting she was a slut too?

"Better sight and hearing isn't a good thing for a snoop? How about being able to jump up to a third story fire escape and get pictures?"

"I'm not some sort of sleazy paparazzi," Lois said, stung. "I'm a reputable journalist."

"Who has been arrested three times for breaking and entering, and twice for getting into a fight with a city councilman?"

"Those were totally justified!" Lois said. "They were using substandard materials…they'd have gotten someone killed sooner or later."

"And now you'll be able to get the bad guy a little easier. He'll have a harder time catching you, and if he does, you'll be able to defend yourself."

"I was already able to defend myself!" Lois said quickly. Too well, as it had turned out.

"There it is!" Faith said. "The look in your eyes."

"There is no look in my eyes," Lois said. "You're just projecting your own guilt."

Faith stared at her for a long moment without speaking.

"Even if I had hurt somebody, it wouldn't necessarily follow that I'd killed them," Lois said finally.

The one lesson she and Lucy had learned as children was this: admit to a lesser crime, and sometimes people won't look any further.

"You hurt a couple of thugs bad enough to put them in the hospital a couple of years ago, back when you were just a regular girl."

"Woman," Lois muttered. These people were entirely too thorough. It was unfair using magic.

Of course, if Lois was the one using it, she'd…

Best not to think about it.

"So a woman weighing maybe a hundred twenty, hundred ten takes on two thugs and puts them both in the hospital. A woman with no Slayer speed, no Slayer strength, just skill and determination."

"I've got a brown belt in Judo," Lois said proudly. "I worked hard for it."

Technically she hadn't taken her examinations yet, but her instructor had assured her she was ready.

"Take that same woman and put her in the Congo on the day Willow does her mojo." Faith's voice dropped, became quieter. "Stuck in a place that sounds like hell."

Lois closed her eyes, and for a moment she could almost smell the jungle, feel the heat on her back as she lit the gasoline, obliterating all evidence of what she'd done.

She was never going to be clean, and if it was written on her face to where any ex-con could see what she'd done…she wasn't sure what she was going to do.

Faith was still droning on. "Give that girl ten times the strength and speed and she doesn't know it. It's a disaster in the making."

"What difference does it make whether I did it or not?" Lois said tiredly. "It's not likely that I would admit to it if it had happened."

"So don't," Faith said.

Lois opened her eyes, and saw that Faith was looking down.

She glanced downward and saw that her hand was clenched into a fist.

"Don't admit to anything," Faith sighed. "Hell, it's not as if I'm the expert on what it feels like to kill people. I've only done it twice, and the first time was an accident."

"The second wasn't?"

Dropping the cigarette, Faith stubbed it out with her toe. "I was a pretty messed up kid. My mom was a drunk. My dad was in prison…but mom told me he was dead."

Slipping her hands into her pockets and leaning against the bus, Faith said, "Mom was never a real mother to me, but you know how stupid kids are…they always want people to love them, no matter how hard they get beat down."

Lois knew exactly how it felt. Her mother had never beaten her; she'd just withheld love and been critical. Nothing had ever been good enough. The harder her mother had pushed, the harder Lois had tried to do anything to make her mother love her.

"You keep hoping for that one time it'll be good."

"You too?" Faith asked.

"My mother never beat me, but she drank."

"It's funny how drunks can find each other across a crowded room." Faith sighed. "Abusive people can do the same thing, only they have a weird sort of sense for vulnerable people."

Lois nodded. Over time, she'd gotten a feel for alcoholics. She couldn't see them all of the time, but she often had guy feelings.

"You must have been pretty lonely," Lois said.

She'd been lonely throughout her childhood, first when her parents were fighting, when she'd have to try to protect Lucy by telling her stories while trying to block out the sounds of yelling. Then as she'd watched her mother spiral downwards into drunkenness while her father slowly drifted away into his work and his mistresses of the week.

Faith nodded and stared at the ground. "So when this British woman came and told me I was special, that I had a destiny…I was pretty easy meat."

"Your watcher."

There was something about an organization that found young girls and indoctrinated them into fighting for their lives that didn't sit right with Lois.

"Diana was good to me," Faith said. "She was a professor at Harvard. I remember that her house always smelled nice, and she always had these little finger sandwiches for me."

"Something happened to her?"

"She was tortured in front of me…killed by this bastard…She was the closest thing to a mother I'd ever had." Faith looked up. "I'd have died for her."

"So when you came to Sunnydale…"

"I was pretty much all alone. Buffy had her friends, her inner circle, and then there was me."

A young girl, alone and vulnerable. A man must have shown up. They always did.

Faith chuckled bitterly. "I guess you hear it all the time…girl needs a daddy. A guy shows up and pretends to be nice."

"He took advantage of you?"

"If it was just sex he'd wanted, he could have had it, and I'd have been done with him. No…he offered me something much harder to resist."

"A family."

"A screwed up, dysfunctional family where daddy wanted to turn into a giant snake and eat people, but yeah…"

Faith was silent for an interminable time, and Lois said, "How did you deal with it?"

"I pretended it wasn't a big deal, tried to hide it," Faith said. "Then I started getting angry and taking it out on everybody around me."

"So it gets better?"

All she had was the same platitudes that everybody else had. Give it time, things get better…they hadn't worked when Lois had lost her grandmother, and they weren't going to work now.

"No. It doesn't." Faith looked up at Lois soberly. "Not on its own anyway. It gets worse before it gets better."

Not the same platitudes, then.

"It gets worse?"

"I lost it," Faith said. "Tried to get a vamp to eat me, anything to keep from realizing what a piece of…garbage I was."

"You couldn't just not think about it?" Lois asked.

It was what she had been doing, trying to keep so busy that she didn't have time to remember.

"It never goes away. It just hammers and hammers at you until you let it in…or until it slips in on its own."

"So what do you do?" Lois had been having too many flashes…times when those images kept overwhelming her.

"Prison was actually good for me," Faith said. "I got rid of the men, the booze, simplified my life. They actually had a counselor there."

"I don't think I could go to a shrink…" Lois said, and then realized what she'd said. Her face flushed hot again.

Faith's lips curled upward into a grin. "It's not too bad. They don't really make you lie on a couch or talk about your mother…well; mine did, because a lot of my problems sorta started there, but not all of them."

"What it all comes down to is, are you going to let your guilt make you stupid, or are you going to let it make you smarter?"

"What?" Lois asked, her head still spinning from her inadvertent admission.

"Guilt is pain…and pain is nature's little way of telling us 'don't do that.'" Faith sighed. "If you learn your lesson, then guilt made you smarter. The next time that situation comes up, you won't do the same thing."

"And if it makes you stupid?"

"Then you spend so much time thinking about how bad you are that you don't change. That makes you a dumbass."

Lois heard the sounds of footsteps coming around the side of the bus.

Buffy stepped carefully around a spot of oil on the ground, being careful not to dirty her Manolo Blahnik shoes.

"What are you guys talking about?" she asked.

"Girl stuff," Faith said.

"I'm not a girl?" Buffy's voice was a little testy.

Faith shrugged. "You're the boss."

"Your boyfriend is awake," Buffy said.

***

The young red headed woman met them at the door of the bus.

"He's still a little confused, but he's awake."

"Can I see him?" Lois asked, ready to push the woman aside.

"He's not ok." The young woman shook her head. "His aura is so bright; it makes it really hard to work. I can't see what I'm doing well enough to fix him. Plus, still sort of drained after doing that whole earth mother thing with the scythe."

"So what do we know?" Buffy spoke from behind Lois, and her voice was curt.

"There's some kind of compulsion on him. All they have to do is call for him, and he'll come."

Lois closed her eyes for a moment. She should have protected him.

At least this guilt was going to make her smarter. She was going to do better. She was going to save him.

And then she'd save herself.

***

Shadows and light played across the floor of the bus. Lois sat, ignoring the years of accumulated detritus on the floor. Clark's head was in her lap. He was awake, staring up at her, and for the first time in a while, Lois felt lethargic and relaxed.

"So basically, you've got no place to stay." Buffy's head stuck over one of the seats in front of them.

Lois sighed. "I think the Cortez family would take us back if we asked. They're in danger anyway because they are Angelica's family."

"We still don't know what they did to him," Buffy said, jerking her head toward Clark as though he wasn't awake and staring at her. "Do you think it's wise to stay with normal people?"

"Clark's normal!" Lois said. "He's the most normal person I know."

She felt him squeeze her hand silently. He'd been very quiet since he'd awoken; only answering questions when directly addressed.

"With the exception of Patch Adams up front, none of us are normal," Buffy said.

"I heard that!"

Apparently the one eyed driver's hearing was better than his vision. Of course, Buffy HAD pitched her voice higher, so as to be heard over the sound of the engine.

"If any of us were compromised, me included, I'd tell you the same thing. Keep dangerous people away from the norms." Buffy glanced over at Faith. "All it takes is one wrong move and somebody is dead."

Clark closed his eyes and sighed, and Lois wondered whether he was obsessing over the dead vampire again. His tendency towards taking the weight of the world on his shoulders was going to be annoying.

"Way I hear it, you tried to kill some people when you were doped up by a demon," Faith said casually.

"So I known what I'm talking about." Buffy looked irritated. "We've got some of the best chains in the business, built to hold werewolves, slayers, whatever."

For the first time, Willow spoke. "Chains won't hold him. He's stronger than Glory was, even if he is sort of a weenie about magic."

"Well, then we've got Willow to help keep him safe," Buffy said. She'd blanched at the name Glory.

"What bothers me is why they didn't take him with them," Lois said. "I thought Angelica had…um…unfinished business with him."

Lois had a momentary image of naked bodies writhing around, and her grip tightened on Clark's. She wasn't going to let that happen to him.

The very thought of it made her angry.

"They weren't going to take him anywhere, not with the way that he leaks power. He'd lead half the city to wherever they took him." Willow shook her head. "They can call him whenever they need him, and I get the impression he can move pretty fast."

They still didn't realize that he could fly, and Lois wasn't going to tell them. Although her gut was telling her to trust them, her gut had been wrong before. It had told her to go to the Congo after all.

If they had to get away, they needed an edge.

"You can stay with us," Buffy said. "What the hell. What's one more slayer?"

"Thirty minutes less bathroom time every day," Faith snickered. "Still, it'll be nice having somebody who talks about something other than boys."

"I thought you liked boys," Buffy said, grinning a little.

The relationship between Buffy and Faith confused Lois. At times they bickered like sisters. At other times, there seemed to be strained silences between them.

It almost seemed to bother Buffy that Faith was talking to Lois. Lois couldn't tell if it was because she wanted to be the one dominating the conversation, or if she somehow felt left out. Lois couldn't tell who Buffy was jealous of, Faith, or Lois.

"I like men," Faith said. "I get a little sick of hearing about boy bands and high school guys."

"They're teenagers," Buffy said, glancing back at the group of girls sitting in the front seats. Many of those were giggling and glancing back toward Clark. "You're going to have to watch your boy toy."

Clark spoke for the first time in a while. "This control they have over me…will distance weaken it?"

Willow's face popped back over the seat. "It would depend on how far away you could get."

"Shanghai, maybe?" he asked.

"If they thought you were running, they'd yank you back," Willow said. "And even on the opposite end of the earth, you'd still feel the compulsion."

Lois was glad that Clark was ignoring all Buffy's little digs at him. It showed class, and confirmed the image that had been growing in her mind.

Clark was the kind of man who held doors open because it was the right thing to do, not because he liked to look at women's butts. He treated everybody decently, whether they were rich or poor, man or woman…even demons.

According to him, he'd been born in a Norman Rockwell sort of place, the sort of town that Lois hadn't believed really existed anymore. Being from Smallville was almost like being from an earlier era of human life.

Or maybe it was just that his parents hadn't had cable when he was growing up.

The powers he'd developed had made him sensitive at an early age to the pain he caused other people. He'd feared hurting others, and had actively tried to find ways to keep other people from hurting.

Sometimes that kept him from even hurting people who were hurting him.

"What worried me is that they put a second spell in to make you sick. If I hadn't been here, it would have knocked you out completely for at least a day."

"Maybe they were afraid he was going to stop them."

"He can't," Willow said. "He can't do anything to harm them directly."

"What about their allies?" Lois asked. Memories of vampires flying hopelessly through the air, blown by an unseen wind went through her mind.

"Fair game, unless they order him not to." Willow shrugged. "It's not an exact science, and I'd be more comfortable if I knew exactly what sort of deal he made."

"I said I wasn't going to kill anyone, and that if they hurt Lois or anyone close to me in the slightest, the deal was off." Clark cleared his throat. "Angelica tried to get me to choose something else, but the witch took the deal."

So Clark wasn't going to be their private assassin. That was something at least.

Willow smiled slowly. "That's a start. You left an out clause at least."

"An out clause?"

"If they break the deal…force him to hurt someone, or if they hurt you, then the spell will be broken."

"I didn't think there was much use they could make of me if I couldn't kill anyone."

Buffy scowled. "You said kill, not hurt, right?"

"Yes."

"So they could have you beat up tough demons, then hold them down while they finished them off."

Lois felt Clark stiffen.

"Or they could use you as a rallying point for a demonic army. With you to take care of human weapons, and to capture human soldiers, they'd have a free reign on the city."

"It's not what you intended," Willow said at Clark's look of dismay, "But according to the fine letter of the agreement it's allowable. They could even force you to drop Ms. Lane on a deserted island somewhere. It wouldn't hurt her and it would be within the letter of the rules."

"I'd fight it," Clark said. "I've fought it off before."

Buffy shook her head. "You made the agreement, and so the fighting is all over. All we can do is keep you away from them and hope that Willow has enough mojo to knock you out before they call you to do whatever things they want you to do."

"We're not going to let anything happen to you Clark,' Lois said, and she felt his hand tighten on hers again.

"Or to anyone else," Buffy said. It should have sounded cold, but Clark's expression was one of relief.

"While you were out, I did something to block the signal, so you won't know when they call to you. If it works, they'd have to be in earshot of you to control you."

"Um…" Clark said. He hesitated for a long moment, as though considering the alternatives. Finally he sighed. "That may be a problem. I can hear everything in maybe a thirty mile radius."

After a lifetime of secrecy, it couldn't be easy for him to admit to being different to a set of strangers. Lois had a feeling that he was still a little groggy and confused, and that when he was back to himself he was going to be more

Willow and Buffy glanced at each other. Willow was the first to speak. "Um…when you say everything…you mean everything?"

Clark shrugged, then winced. "I try to shut most things out…"

When Clark had told her about his developing abilities, he'd told her that learning to shut everything out had been one of the hardest things to do. It hadn't come as naturally as controlling his strength, and even that had been difficult for a time.

"Let me be the first to say, eww," Buffy said.

Lois frowned, then felt heat rising to her face. Being able to hear everything had to be something of a curse, no matter how useful it was. Every flush of the toilet, every couple making love, every disgusting bodily noise made by everyone in thirty miles. In Los Angeles… millions of people fighting, making love, eating, snoring…it had to be overwhelming…

"I spent a lot of years in out of the way places," Clark admitted. "Until I got good control of it."

"I thought you went to college?" Willow looked fascinated.

There was something about her that Lois didn't like. Perhaps it was simply the knowledge that she was a witch, much like the one who had immobilized Lois and Clark time after time without ever being defeated. Lois hated feeling helpless, and she disliked people who made her feel that way.

Maybe it was the interest she was showing in Clark. It wasn't the interest a woman had in a man. It was more like a scientist examining a lab specimen.

Clark wasn't anyone's specimen, and he wasn't going to be.

Sitting up completely, Clark said, "I think I'll be ok. Where are we going?"

As he rose to his feet, he held a hand out to Lois.

"There aren't many places with enough room for a group this large, what with the hotel shortage due to all the refugees," Buffy said.

"Your old boyfriend had a perfectly good hotel," Faith said.

"He's working for Wolfram and Hart now," Buffy said. "We can't trust him."

"So instead, we're staying at a vineyard near the crater." Buffy looked uncomfortable. "It has some bad memories associated with it, but at least the toilets work and there's hot water."

"Yeah. I guess Caleb liked his hot showers after killing little girls," Faith muttered.

"It's just until we get back on our feet," Buffy said, with a sharp glance toward Faith.

"Shouldn't you try to find some place closer to the hospital?" Lois asked. "With everything that's happened…"

"We keep a guard of five Slayers there at all times," Buffy said. Her voice sounded defensive. "Robin is going to be fine."

"What about the authorities?" Clark asked. "As far as I could see, the Feds were combing the area for clues."

"They'd already been over the place when we decided to make a place there. Now, anybody asks any questions, we're just a group of squatters."

"Anybody asks more questions than that," Faith said wearily, "And Willow gets to pretend she's a Jedi."

Willow giggled slightly, but Lois still didn't like the look in her eye.

It was a look she'd seen in the eyes of crime bosses and corrupt politicians, the look of someone who was drunk on power.

Willow smiled suddenly, and the look was gone, replaced by the innocent smile of a child. "We're really not as bad as we look. Normally we have things a little more organized. It's just…homeless, you know."

"You'd have thought someone might have warned us to pack a few bags," Buffy said. "Pick up the occasional pair of pajamas, a toothbrush…stuffed pig."

"Nobody had any way of knowing that was going to happen," Willow said. "So there's no use crying about your closet full of shoes in the bottom of the crater."

"Buffy's just pissed because she's had to shop at Wal-Mart," Faith smirked.

Buffy didn't look like she'd ever even seen a Wal-Mart, much less dressed from one. Her shoes alone cost more than Lois's entire outfit.

"I'm not just shopping there," Buffy corrected, "I'm having to take them there…"

She gestured back toward the gaggle of girls sitting in the front seats.

"A fate worse than death, I'm sure." Faith smirked again.

"I don't see you out there volunteering."

"I'd just let them buy sugar frosted bomb cereal and all that unhealthy sh…stuff," Faith said with a glance toward Lois.

Lois was getting tired of being looked at like she was an old woman.

She settled back onto the rear seat of the bus, sliding in beside Clark.

"Are you all right?" she asked, her voice pitched low.

He nodded slight. "I hope so."

He stiffened. "I hear sirens."

"What?" Lois asked.

She saw the heads of the others snapping around as well.

"Sirens going toward the hospital."

"It's a hospital," Lois said. "They have ambulances pulling in all the time."

"Not like this," he said. His face was grim.

"There are casualty reports…" his face paled. "There's a report of a massacre at the hospital."

The next few moments were a confused mess, as the bus suddenly swerved into traffic, making a fast u-turn. Lois felt her face pressed against the glass, staring at oncoming traffic and wondering if she was going to die.

A moment later they were driving the way they had come, the bus accelerating toward unsafe speeds.

There was a sudden sound of wind, and Lois glanced beside her.

Clark was gone, and the back window of the bus was open.

Things had gone from bad to worse.

Lois jumped up and ran for the back of the bus.

Clark was gone, and the emergency door was swinging wildly back and forth as the bus swerved to avoid oncoming traffic.

Lois could only hope their driver's depth perception problem didn't get them all killed.

She leaned out of the bus, and she felt Faith grab her arm. She looked back gratefully. The road flying by under her seemed suddenly closer than just a few feet away. When she could, she grabbed the door on its closest swing and pulled it shut.

"Where did he go?" Buffy's voice was a little shrill. Looking back at Willow, she said, "Did they get him?"

Willow shook her head mutely, then turned her head toward the hospital. She seemed to be concentrating on something.

"He went to help," Lois said. "That's what he does."

Buffy stared at her for a moment, then nodded. She turned and headed for the front of the bus. Lois and Faith followed.

"Can you get us there any faster?" she asked the driver.

"Doing the best I can, Buff…"

It was then that Lois noticed that the lights were turning green ahead of them…all of them as far as she could see. She turned to look back at Willow, who nodded.

Luckily, the streets weren't crowded at this time of night, and so it took only seven minutes to get back to the hospital.

Smoke was rising from several floors, and there were already three fire trucks and two police cars in the parking lot. Their lights were flashing vividly, but the sirens were not on.

The firemen were laying on the ground, their throats slashed, pools of blood almost invisible on the black tar.

"She's making a statement," Buffy said grimly. "Telling the demon community that she's able to flout human law and get away with it."

There was a sudden explosion of glass from above them, and a screaming body flew through it.

All they could do was stare in horror at the sight of the tiny human figure falling helplessly.

"That's Kennedy," Faith said, sharp eyes.

Beside them now, Willow stiffened, and her hair began to turn dark. Before she could gather her will, however, another figure streaked out of the sky, catching the fallen woman and setting her gently on the ground near the bus.

He didn't even bother looking at them, staring upwards and streaking back into the sky.

"Wow," Buffy said.

Lois was suddenly aware of the group of girls who had crowded all around them, staring up into the sky.

"He won't kill any of those things," Buffy said. "So we have a job to do."

With that, the atmosphere on the bus changed. The one eyed man pulled the door to the bus open, and while Willow rushed over to the fallen Slayer, the rest of them filed out quickly.

It was time to strike back.

***

Without even talking about it, the slayers split up into four groups of three. There wasn't any way of knowing whether the four other slayers in the hospital were even alive, but if they were, it was going to be their job to find them.

Kennedy, the brunette was already standing by the time Buffy had given them their marching orders.

"Twelve of them rushed us," she said. "That wasn't a problem, but they had that bitch Amy with them."

"Amy Madison?" Willow asked.

Kennedy nodded grimly. "She threw me out the window of Robin's room, and I don't know what happened to the others. I think we weren't the only target. We could hear explosions in the other parts of the hospital."

Another explosion rocked an upper floor, and flames erupted from an upper window.

Almost instantly the flames disappeared and a blur went past them.

"I think fly guy has kept things from getting too bad, but there's a whole grippe of vampires in the hospitals, and people are dying." Kennedy grinned weakly. "Plenty for everybody."

"You heard the woman," Buffy said. "Let's get moving."

Without asking, Lois found herself in a group with Faith and another girl she didn't know. They pushed their way through the front doors of the emergency room, only to stop at the sight of carnage inside.

Lois felt like throwing up. The blood, the battered faces…she felt a flash of memory, and suddenly instead of white and brown, the victims were black.

She took a deep breath, and they quickly moved on.

It quickly became apparent that there wasn't much use searching for survivors. They'd found the ward with the most critically wounded, the weakest and least able to defend themselves, and they'd attacked.

With a grim look at each of them, Faith pushed her way through the blood stained doorway ahead.

Suddenly Lois heard a voice in her head. Willow.

"They are on the second floor working their way up. Watch out for guards at the elevators and stairwells."

This hospital had six floors, and most of the population was on the upper floors of the building, with the exception of the administrative staff, most of who had probably gone home for the night. Perhaps there was still time to save people.

As they turned a corner, Lois saw the two thugs waiting at the elevator, undoubtedly hoping to catch any victims mobile enough to try to escape.

Killing them was catharsis.

***

Moving steadily through the hallways, Lois knew that the vampires had finally caught on. The first few groups had been unwary, overconfident. They'd been easy to kill.

Apparently someone had welded the doors to the upper levels shut, leaving them trapped on the second level, where apparently the victims were mysteriously vanishing, relocated to an upper level.

"I'm telling you, this isn't right." The vampire was speaking. "Since when did humans just vanish without a trace?"

"We'll catch em eventually." The second vampire sounded less intelligent. "Just hurry up. I want to get to the killing."

Clark was doing it, Lois was sure. He was moving so fast that no one could see him.

Lois stopped by the corner and gestured toward the others. She waited by the corner, and a moment later, she felt a jarring impact, followed by the experience of dust covering her hand.

The second vampire was dressed in a surgeon's outfit covered in blood. He stared at the three of them for a moment before turning and trying to run.

Faith and the second girl tackled him easily.

"Where is your boss?" Lois asked quickly.

"Back at the lair," the thing said, grinning. "She's getting the party ready."

The thing disintegrated into dust a moment later.

"What did I tell you about interrogations?" Faith asked the other girl.

"That they can be fun?" The other girl grinned for a moment, and Lois had to remind herself that she was only fifteen or sixteen.

There was a certain amount of viciousness in teenagers that probably made the work easier. They hadn't yet learned to see the world in shades of gray, and typically weren't all that empathic.

They certainly weren't likely to get so wrapped up in moral quandaries about whether it was right to kill a monster that they'd let themselves be captured and used.

Clark was moving fast now, Lois knew, hoping to avoid being caught by the witch. As long as the witch didn't know about his hearing, she'd have to break whatever protection Willow had placed on Clark to control him.

So he had to stay as far away from her as possible.

They had to get to her before she could do any more damage.

"Let's go," Lois said.

***

The death toll wasn't as bad as Lois had feared. Although it had been several minutes before the alarm had been sent out, most of the damage had been done in the emergency rooms.

Clark had moved the patients who could be moved, and those who couldn't, he'd somehow welded their doors shut. The only patients he left behind were the dead.

More damage had been taken by the doctors and the nursing staff as they had tried to protect the people in their charge.

Lois wondered if there were patients mysteriously appearing in Emergency rooms all across the city.

It had to be driving the others crazy.

At last they reached the elevators.

"He's cut the elevators," Willow's voice in her head said. "I'm unsealing the doors to the stairwells."

Beside Lois, a seal around the door, obviously crudely spot welded began to crack apart.

If this was Willow when she wasn't at full power, Lois didn't want to imagine what she would be like in all her glory.

The door opened, and Lois was immediately assaulted by the stench of death. She saw several bodies on the stairwell, apparently security guards who had tried to run. From the angles of their necks, something had landed on them and snapped them.

Lois began to move cautiously up the stairs. Clark wouldn't have sealed the stairs if there wasn't something moving through them. Whether they'd already moved out by the time Clark finished or were still there, there wasn't any way of knowing.

Lois stopped as she heard a sound from up above her.

She turned, and then felt something around her throat. She gagged, choking, and tried to grab the hands that had grabbed her.

All she felt was dust.

Standing behind her, Faith grinned slightly. "It's good having people have your back."

Better having help than having to do it alone. Slayers had been alone throughout recorded history, and Lois had a suspicion that they'd typically died shortly after being called, leading short and brutal lives.

She'd resented these women for thrusting all this on her, but the truth was that if they hadn't, she'd be dead somewhere in Africa, a forgotten footnote in the history of journalism. Only a few of her coworkers would have mourned her, and the few family members she had left.

She'd have never gotten the chance to meet Clark or to explore this frightening under corner of the universe.

Faith moved past her, as did the younger Slayer, while Lois tried to catch her breath.

***

The second floor was free of damage. Apparently, those going for Robin Woods and the Slayers had ignored the second floor, while the rest had started at the bottom and started working their way up.

There were doctors and nurses here, but most of them were huddled behind counters. From what little conversation Lois could hear, there had been rumors of shootings and terrorism on lower floors.

At least some of the doctors were peripherally aware of the supernatural. Lois could see one of the administrators staring at the group of them as they joined up with Buffy's group.

No one questioned them. A large group of grim faced girls carrying sharpened sticks wasn't something most people wanted to face.

As the third group joined them, Lois glanced over and saw the bus driver, the man with the patch. He was with Willow's group, and he grinned over at her.

The stairs were going to be a problem; tactically, they were a shooting gallery. Anyone with a gun could do immeasurable damage, and in tight, enclosed quarters, the Slayer speed and agility wouldn't make as much damage.

They came to the elevator doors, and Lois noticed Willow's hair turning black. The stairwell by the elevator began to unseal itself, and a moment later, it slammed open.

Immediately Lois felt herself flying to the floor as the sounds of gunshots echoed from the stairwell.

Willow didn't dive to the floor the way most of the Slayers had. Instead she stood, and wind began to rise.

"Adversus Solem mori," she said, and gestured.

Everything turned white. Lois was blinded for several long moments, and as her vision began to return, she saw that dust was floating in the stairwell.

The others were already up and moving. Apparently they'd known better than to keep their eyes open.

She blinked and hurried to follow, with Willow in the lead.

***

In the darkness of the stairwell, Lois was the last to go up. She was startled as someone grabbed her from behind, his hand over her mouth.

She struggled, but it was like fighting a statue. Ramming her elbow in the figures gut only caused her to drop her stake.

"Are you all right?"

It was Clark's voice, and Lois relaxed.

He let her go, and Lois turned quickly.

"I'm fine. What about you?"

He looked pale, and his clothes were tattered and scorched. Nothing was left of his suit jacket, and there were burn marks on his pants and shirt.

"I've been flying fast," he said. "Anything not tight against me gets scorched."

"Are you ok, though? They haven't…"

"I've been helping the victims."

There was pain in Clark's eyes, pain that hadn't been there before.

"Why would they do this?" he asked. "If it was just about food, I could understand, but…"

He didn't really understand evil. For all that he'd traveled the world; there was part of him that had kept its innocence.

It was one of the things she loved about him.

"They're making a statement. They don't care about human rules and have the power to do something like this. Faith says demons are a sucker for this kind of thing, and that it'll get her recruits that aren't vampires."

Angelica was determined to prove that she was someone, and she was willing to do whatever it took so that everyone else believed it.

"Lois…" Clark said. "I…"

There was a look in his eye that Lois hadn't seen before, something she hadn't expected.

"I was afraid I was going to lose you," he sighed. "I don't know how it happened, but you've…"

Lois kissed him.

Kissing, in Lois's experience had always been a pleasant prelude to other things. It was something that she considered herself reasonably good at, but it wasn't something she thought much about.

This kiss was something different. It was as though something clicked inside her, and suddenly the world slipped into focus.

This was the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with.

He was the sort of man she'd always dreamed about, the good man who wasn't afraid to be strong. He was the first person she'd ever known who was not only willing to put up with her, but who could more than keep up.

He was handsome and brave and wasn't afraid to sacrifice himself for the common good. In a way, he'd sacrificed himself already for her.

When they finally came up for air, Lois became aware of the sounds of fighting above her.

This wasn't the time for kissing.

"Clark, I have to…"

He stiffened, and eyes which had been filled with emotion suddenly went blank. He stared straight through her, and a moment later, he was gone, a burst of wind and the feeling of Lois's lips the only sign he'd been there at all.

Lois felt a sudden surge of horror. They'd just found each other.

She couldn't lose him now.

For an endless moment, it was all Lois could do to stand and stare at the space where Clark had been. To have had an epiphany and realize that she was having feelings she'd never had before was a little overwhelming. To realize that Clark was gone, possibly lost to the one creature who should never have him was sickening.

In Lois's experience, most men were not good people. It wasn't just that she spent most of her days working with politicians and criminals. From her father admitting that he'd never wanted a daughter and that she was never going to measure up, to the coworker who had slept with her and then stolen her award winning story, Lois's track record with men had been abysmal.

Sometimes she had wondered if it was something about her that made men leave with such astounding regularity. Betrayal after betrayal had left its mark; she'd been unable to trust anyone in more than two years.

Somehow, and Lois wasn't sure how, Clark had managed to cut through that veil of mistrust. Lois had the feeling that on his own, he never would have left her if he'd had a choice.

He hadn't been allowed that choice. The thought filled Lois with the beginnings of slow smoldering anger.

The lights went out, and there was the sound of an explosion from the floor above them. Snapping out of her moment of paralysis, Lois exploded into motion even as the emergency lighting reluctantly flickered on.

Another flight of stairs, and then Lois found herself at the door to the third floor. It was badly bent inward, as though something had been thrown against it from the other side. Lois grabbed the door handle and hissed as she realized that it was hot.

She pulled with all her newfound strength, and the door flew backwards, banging loudly as it began to fall down the stairwell.

After checking to see that no one was waiting for her on the other side, Lois stepped quickly into the hallway.

She wasn't going to let anyone choke her from behind again. She had too much to accomplish.

The entire floor looked like a disaster area. Gurneys were lying on their sides, the wheels still spinning. Paperwork had exploded out across the floor, leaving litter and detritus as far as Lois could see.

The nurses' station still had a nurse sitting at the desk. It wasn't until Lois stepped a little closer that she could see the blank, vacant stare of the woman, or the unnatural angle of her neck. The woman was dead, and probably had been for several minutes.

Most of the doors on the floor were firmly closed. The patients had likely done the smart thing and hidden when they'd heard the sounds of conflict outside. Lois could hear the sounds of movement and muffled sobbing behind some of the doors.

The door to Robin Wood's room was completely gone, burst completely to splinters.

Lois hesitated before turning the corner. All she could hear were several sets of labored breathing and the sounds of the wind whistling.

The inside of the room was worse than the hallways had been. There was very little that remained recognizable; much had been tossed out the open window or outright destroyed in the midst of the minute long fight between the witch and the Slayers.

The floor was littered with bodies. It took Lois a moment to realize that most of them were alive.

There was no sign of Clark or the witch.

"What happened?" Lois asked in a low undertone. There was always the possibility that the witch was hiding somewhere nearby.

"Your boyfriend kicked our asses," Buffy said, grimacing as she tried to lever herself to her feet using a scythe Lois hadn't seen her entering the hospital with. It was bloodstained on the end.

Glancing around at the group of girls, most of who were recovering and slowing rising to her feet. "In forty five seconds?"

"Less than that. Amy had time to give orders," Willow said. The witch had blood running out of her nose and down on her chin, and she looked exhausted. "And he spent most of that time trying to get to me."

"Two seconds," Buffy said, staring at the devastation around them. She looked as though she was in shock. "Twelve slayers and the most powerful witch in the western hemisphere and he beat us in two seconds."

"Where did they go?" Lois asked.

"When Amy saw he wasn't getting through Willow's shield, she had him fly her out." Buffy wouldn't meet her eyes as she said it, and Lois had the feeling she was lying. Lois found herself staring at the weapon Buffy was leaning against.

There was something about the blood on the end of the Scythe that repelled her. At least when vampires died, they died in a clean explosion of ash and dust. This was something more visceral, more human. "Did you get the witch?"

Buffy shook her head.

"Then where did the blood come from?" Lois asked suspiciously.

For a long moment Buffy didn't speak. When she did, she didn't look Lois in the eye.

"Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do."

"You hurt Clark?" Lois asked, suddenly horror stricken. Her mind went blank. "How is that even possible?"

Buffy took a step toward Lois and said, "This was made for us, back when the Slayer line was first created."

Lois could feel it now, a sort of dark, compelling pull toward the weapon. It hummed, as though it recognized her, and Lois felt a momentary impulse to run her hand along the grain of the weapon's shaft.

She pulled back. "You stabbed Clark with a magical weapon. I thought he beat all of you in two seconds."

"I didn't have a choice," Buffy said. "Once Willow went down, Amy would have slaughtered the rest of us, and there wouldn't have been anything Clark could do to stop her."

"At least you are using his name now," Lois said. "What did you do, stab him in the back?"

The expression on Buffy's face was indictment enough.

"He knew I was coming," Buffy said softly. "Even with the compulsion, he could have stopped me."

Willow spoke for the first time. "He could have done more damage to the rest of us too. He could have broken arms, cracked skulls…even without killing us. Part of him is still in there, fighting."

The witch was slowly wiping the blood off her nose with tissues from a dispenser beside the sink.

"You knew that and still tried to kill him?"

"I gave it my best shot," Buffy said. "As hard as I hit him, I should have cut him in half. He's incredibly tough."

"How could you do that?" Lois asked. "Clark was innocent."

"No he wasn't," Buffy said. "Clark was a hero. He could have ducked out of the way if he'd wanted to."

She was saying that Clark would rather die than continue to be used to hurt other people.

"But you—"

Buffy's expression hardened. "I did what had to be done."

"This whole thing…" Lois began, but she stiffened as she realized that four of the bodies hadn't begun stirring.

Four teenage girls were dead.

"They actually managed to hold Amy off until we got here," Buffy said. There was a quiet pride in her voice.

It must have been to distracting for Amy to try to freeze five Slayers at the same time. It was likely why she'd thrown Kennedy out the window.

Faith approached the overturned bed in the corner. She gave a quiet hiss, then rushed toward the spot on the other side.

"Robin is still alive!" she said.

Willow and several of the others rushed forward to help.

"Being a Slayer isn't about flashy powers or kicky boots," Buffy said softly. "It's about sacrifice. Sometimes it's a pretty crappy life."

In her eyes, Lois could see a look of remembered pain.

The Slayers set Robin back on the bed.

"He's ripped some stitches, but I think he'll be ok."

"Sometimes, though, it's worth it," Buffy said as she watched Faith hugging the man on the bed. "And of course, there are always the flashy powers and the kicky boots."

***

The sounds of sirens alerted them that time was running out.

Buffy glanced at Willow, then gestured to the others.

Everyone began filing out of the room quickly.

"You're just going to leave them here?" Lois asked, gesturing toward the bodies of the fallen girls.

"The police will take care of them," Buffy said quietly.

"And Robin?"

"The official story will be that terrorists attacked the hospital and that the girls' martial arts team was visiting their principal when it all happened."

"And several of them died trying to protect him."

"It'll give them the chance to be recognized for the heroes that they were." Buffy glanced back at the bodies of the fallen girls and sighed. "That doesn't happen very often in this line of work."

With the other girls gone, Buffy slumped, and Lois could see the pain in her eyes.

"I should have seen this coming," Buffy said. Her expression hardened. "It's not going to happen again."

With that she was out the door, and Lois was following her.

They exited the stairwell on the second floor, with Willow in the lead. The doorways Clark had sealed popped open as she passed them, and the girls ignored the stares of patients who were slowly and reluctantly peering out of their rooms.

They exited out a little used southern entrance, and from the sounds of things the sirens were all out of the front entrance, so far at least.

Several police officers had been killed, and the last thing Lois wanted to do was be around a group of angry, trigger happy cops who were first on the scene.

The bus pulled around the corner, swerving dramatically. A moment later, it pulled in front of them, almost hitting Willow who scowled and shook her fist at them.

The doors opened, and the young girl who was driving grinned at them.

"Dawn!" Buffy said. "I told you to wait by the bus, not take it on a joy ride!"

The younger girl shrugged. "I suppose you'd have rather walked all the way across LA."

There were dents on the front of the bus that hadn't been there before, and it suddenly the reason the group used a one eyed driver was becoming more clear.

"You left her with the bus?" Lois asked.

If Angelica had been around, she'd have relished the chance to take another hostage.

"Willow warded the bus a few days ago," Buffy said. "Same deal as the demon bars. If you aren't looking for it, you won't notice it."

The one eyed man gestured, and the girl reluctantly got out of the driver's seat. The rest of the girls loaded quickly onto the bus.

A moment after Lois slid into the bus and the one eyed man shut the door, red flashing lights appeared from behind them.

Lois froze. They didn't have time to be stopped by the police. Clark was wounded somewhere in the middle of all his enemies and he needed their help.

No one said anything as the lights from the police car shone slowly through the windows. Lois found herself freezing, as though the police wouldn't be able to see her if she didn't move, even though her profile was undoubtedly highly visible.

Both patrol units pulled to the front of the bus, and Lois began to relax.

She froze again as the patrol cars stopped in front of them. The flashing red lights gave the eight men exiting the two cars a hellish look. The men retrieved shotguns and rifles from the trunks. From the grim looks on their faces, they didn't intend to take any prisoners.

They headed straight toward the bus, and Lois felt herself becoming more tense. In the enclosed confines of the bus, Slayer speed and strength wouldn't matter much. They'd be sitting targets trapped by thin walls of metal and glass.

Lois eyed the doorway speculatively. She was strong enough to push her way through it, but it would slow her down. By the time she got outside, the police officers would have a bead on her and it would be too late.

The men split, moving to both sides of the bus.

Lois tensed, ready to drop to the floor. Angelica had already turned FBI agents to her cause, so why not the police as well?

The men continued walking past them, heading for a delivery entrance to the hospital. From their posture, it appeared that they hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary, even though they'd moved to avoid walking into the bus.

Willow was frighteningly powerful.

Lois glanced over at the red headed witch, who was holding the hand of the brown haired Slayer Clark had saved. She looked exhausted, and there were dark circles appearing under her eyes.

They waited for several moments after the police had entered the delivery bay doors before the one eyed man started the engines.

"Where are we going?" Lois asked Buffy, who had sat down beside her. The Scythe she had been carrying was nowhere in evidence, and Lois couldn't see it anywhere else on the bus.

"We're going to rescue Clark," Buffy said soberly. She glanced over at Willow who had her eyes closed. "As long as he stays in the city, Willow can find him any time she wants."

"What if she takes him out of the city…to Shanghai or something?"

"Things get more complicated," Buffy said. "But I don't think she will, not for the long term anyway. Your vampire Angelica seems to be trying to get political influence here, and that means she's going to need him here."

Lois sighed. "Any idea what we're going to do when we get there?"

"We have to take Clark out of the equation any way we can, if we're to have any chance at all," Buffy said.

Lois noticed that Buffy had finally started calling Clark by his name.

"I'm not going to go along with hurting him," Lois said. "He's been hurt enough."

Willow extricated herself from the other girl's embrace and walked toward the front of the bus. She whispered into the ear of the one eyed man.

"I'm sorry for what I had to do," Buffy said quietly. "I'm even more sorry for what I may have to do. Believe me, I understand what it feels like."

"How could you possibly?" Lois asked, irritably.

"I had to stab my first love in the chest and sent him through a portal to hell in order to save the world," Buffy said. She sighed and stared down at her hands. "I don't think I've ever really gotten over it."

She looked up after a long moment and said," It's the worst part of the job. You have to make choices that no one should ever have to make, and you know that if you don't a lot of people…maybe all the people that there are will die."

Lois didn't know what to say.

These people were fanatics, willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of what they saw as the greater good. It had left them emotionally damaged. Looking back through the bus, Lois could see the shadows of fear in everyone's eyes, coupled with anger and pain.

They'd kill Clark, if they thought it was expedient, rather than let him be controlled by a monster. If Buffy was right, and Clark had chosen to allow himself to be stabbed, he might even think the same way.

All of them were heroes.

Luckily, Lois wasn't. She hadn't lost that spark of humanity that let her look beyond the numbers and see the value of a single human life.

Or even a single inhuman one.

Lois wasn't going to let them hurt Clark, no matter what Buffy thought was going to happen.

Willow was exhausted, and the witch Amy couldn't be any better off. That left the majority of the fighting to the rest of them.

They didn't stand a chance against Clark. No one did, except Lois.

According to the terms of the spell Clark was under, he could not be forced to hurt Lois. Neither Angelica nor Amy could either.

Lois wasn't sure whether that applied to any of their minions.

All in all though, it meant that she was the one with the best chance of stopping them. She would be the one to free Clark from slavery.

Being under a compulsion wouldn't matter if the people who controlled you were dead.

The thought of killing again should have brought back traumatic memories, but for once, Lois had a different set to counter it with.

The dead in the emergency room, the dead nurse, four dead little girls…they all cried out for vengeance.

Lois was going to be the one to give it to them. Lois stared up at the two headless bronze statues in front of the stadium. Angelica couldn't have picked a more conspicuous place for her meeting, although at two o'clock in the morning in south Los Angeles no one was likely going to ask many questions.

Although the stadium was semi-famous, it was in a bad part of town. The place was dark, except for a few lights in the parking lot. It was a safe bet that nothing short of a shooting war was going to draw in the police.

Glancing back, Lois noticed that Buffy was somehow holding the scythe again.

"They've got the entrances blocked," Willow said. "Nothing we can't handle, but inside…there's a huge crowd of vamps and demons."

The lights on the bus went out, and the one eyed man squinted desperately as he was suddenly blind to things the Slayers could still see.

"Any way in that they forgot to guard?" Lois asked.

Buffy gave her a hard look and then turned back to Willow, who closed her eyes. She shook her head. "They've got a dozen vamps at each exit."

"It's too bad you can't make things quiet," Lois said. If she had been able to do so, Clark wouldn't be in the mess he was in.

"I can," Willow said, "but it won't be mobile. I certainly couldn't follow somebody moving as fast as Clark with it."

"So we go in a side entrance, kill everything that moves and we go from there," Buffy said. Glancing around to see if anyone had any objections, her eyes met Lois's.

Lois nodded slightly. She'd follow the lead of the more experienced person until the time came.

Buffy gestured and the others began filing out of the bus, which had parked near a service entrance. She turned to Willow and said, "The last time I had a big group like this, I burned down my gym. Do you think…?"

"This is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum!" Willow protested. "They've had two Olympics here! Didn't you see the bronze guys out in front? This place has a lot of history…"

"A lot of people will be history if we don't consider all the options." Buffy's voice was grim. "I don't particularly want to face another army of darkness any time soon. I'm out of boyfriends to sacrifice."

There was a hint of bitterness in her voice that Lois hadn't heard before.

"Buffy…" Willow said, but before Lois could hear any more she felt Faith's hand on her shoulder.

"Come on," Faith said in a low voice.

Lois glanced down as she felt a stake being pressed into her hand. It was obviously hand carved, and its tip had been shaved to a point which was razor sharp.

They moved quickly across the expanse of the parking lots, staying in the same groups they'd been in before. It was a moonless night, and with the exception of a collection of cars and RVs near the entrances, the place was deserted.

Just as Lois saw the first of the guards by the entrance, the world went silent around them. Lois could see one frantically trying to use a walkie talkie, but no sound came out of his mouth.

Although there were twelve vampires, there were an equal number of Slayers, and the fight was short and brutal.

All of the girls were deadly, but their fighting styles were uncoordinated and brutal. Lois's sensei would have been disappointed at their recklessness. Despite the lack of skill, they were faster and stronger than their opponents, and they didn't hesitate to press their advantage. By contrast, Faith and Buffy moved with a deadly fluid grace, killing almost effortlessly.

It was over in a matter of seconds. Lois never even had time to lift a stake.

Sound suddenly appeared in the world around them, and Lois heard the excited breathing coming from the girls.

There was a strange, wild excitement in their eyes.

It was hard for Lois to understand how they could enjoy this. It was combat, short and brutal, and even if there was something about it that called to the new darker part of her soul, it wasn't the sort of thing that should be enjoyed.

Even though Lois knew it had to be done, she wasn't looking forward to doing it herself. The times she'd already killed had been in the heat of battle. Doing something like this, so cold blooded just seemed wrong somehow.

Buffy gestured, and the first of the girls headed for the door.

Willow lifted a hand and the girls stopped.

A moment later, the door opened on its own, without anyone touching anything.

As they passed through the door, Lois saw the tell tale signs of an alarm system. If Willow had somehow kept it from being tripped, that would make everything a little easier for them.

Smart baddies like Angelica wouldn't just use one system, but the minions were likely to get a little lazy if they thought they were safe. The farther in one got through rings of security, the more lax the guards tended to get.

It was a principle that had saved her life time and again.

Of course, if the group inside consisted of possible allies and probable enemies, the reverse might very well be true. From what Lois had seen, Demons weren't a very trustworthy bunch, and so they might be spending most of their attention focused inward.

This would work just as well. Anything that distracted the others until they could get in and take out Amy and Angelica would be for the good.

They moved into a lightless corridor, and though Lois was sure that Willow could have made light, she didn't. Instead, they had to move along using on the reflected light of the moon from the open entrance behind them.

Even with Lois's newly improved night sight, it was all she could do to make out the figures moving around her.

They exited into a pitch black area, and for the first time Willow risked the smallest light she could manage.

In the light of the wavering matchstick sized flame, Lois could see the steel countertops and dimly she could make out the shape of other mysterious items that added up to only one conclusion.

They were in the concession stand.

There was a door nearby, and Willow's flame went out. The door clicked open, and blessedly there was a little light from outside.

Slipping out into the common area, which was deserted but lit by the dozen or so entrances to the stadium itself, Lois felt her stomach tighten.

This was it. She could hear Angelica's voice amplified, but due to the distortion she couldn't understand what she was saying.

As a group they headed for the nearest opening. This led to the seats on the lower levels.

Lois found herself crouching as they got closer to the opening. The others were following suit, and Buffy and Faith glanced at Willow, who closed her eyes for a moment and then nodded.

No one waiting around the entrance then to ambush them, presumably.

Buffy and Faith moved forward, almost crawling, while Lois followed behind. It took a couple of minutes before they were out in the poorly lit stadium. Although there wasn't much cover, other than the short dividing wall between the section they were on and the lower section, the poorly lit seating meant they weren't likely to be seen.

Lucky, everyone was standing on the floor of the stadium, standing out in the middle of the green football field.

Angelica had an eye for the dramatic. The field was lit with torches driven into the ground around half the field. The only artificial lights shone up towards a stage beneath a large Olympic style torch, a remnant of an earlier better time in the life of the stadium.

On the stage stood Angelica, Clark, Amy, three vampires and kneeling on the ground were two nude men and three nude women. They had collars around their necks with medical tubing attached to them. Lois couldn't see where the tubing was leading, but the lines were red with blood.

The crowd in front of the podium seemed huge to Lois. There were at least five hundred creatures there, at least half of whom seemed to be vampires. Lois glanced over at Buffy, who winced.

Even with Willow and twelve other Slayers, they wouldn't stand a chance if the full might of that group came to bear.

Angelica spoke into a microphone. "It's time we entered into a new age! For too long we have lived in the dark ages, forced to live in whatever holes in the ground the humans couldn't be bothered to occupy."

The torch behind her suddenly lit with an unnatural flame, leaving the whole field lit in an eerie blue light. Lois found herself crouch lower, and she saw that Faith and Buffy were doing the same.

"Don't we deserve the benefits of modern technology? Don't we deserve to have our rightful place as the masters of the humans? What are we now? Petty scavengers who hunt the isolated and the weak."

A large demon stepped forward. Lois would have almost thought it to be a vampire except for the cloven hooves and twisted monstrosity of a face. When it spoke, its voice was deep and carries across the length of the football field.

"Stop making a fool of yourself. No one will follow a fledgling. Fewer will follow a woman."

Angelica stared at the creature which had stepped forward, and she sighed. "Clark-" she said.

There was a flickering sensation of movement, and Clark disappeared from the stage and reappeared beside the tall demon. A moment later, he flickered again, and the demon was on the stage with them. It tried to struggle against Clark, but it clearly couldn't move.

"Break his neck," Angelica ordered.

There was a shocking, audible crack, and the large creature slumped in Clark's grasp.

"This won't kill me," the thing protested. "I'll heal, and when I do—"

Angelica reached behind her and grabbed the American Flag. Pulling it from its stand, she held it up. The end had been whittled to a sharp point.

She shoved it into the monster's chest as hard as it would go.

"You'll be dust in the wind."

The monster stared down at the pole in its chest and a moment later it turned to dust, its outline visible for only a moment.

Angelica turned toward the crowd, which was stirring and muttering angrily.

"The old ways are dead! For too long have the old demons kept the rest of us under their heels. They have kept us trapped in a way of life that is far less than what we deserve."

"Why should we listen to you?" One voice shouted from the crowd.

"Because I have him," Angelica said. "And with him, we can stop all the humans, turn back their war machines. We can bring this country to its knees, and once we have the power of this country, the world will follow."

"Your hellgod is bleeding," another voice said. "If he can be hurt, then…"

"He is making a sacrifice for the cause," Angelica said. She gestured and one of her minions brought forward a wine glass filled with something red and luminescent.

"You've all heard of the power that the blood of a Slayer gives vampires," Angelica grinned. "What then, would the blood of a hellgod do?"

She lifted the glass, only to fall back as two vampires jumped to the top of the stage and grabbed the glass out of her hand. He punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground.

Lois noted that Clark did not move. Without orders, he wasn't inclined to help Angelica at all.

It took her another moment to realize that Clark was staring through the darkness directly at her. She stiffened, and Buffy stiffened beside her.

"He noticed us," she hissed.

Lois shook her head. "As long as the others don't notice us, we'll be ok."

Slaves didn't do anything they didn't have to do.

The first vampire grabbed the glass and lifted it to his lips. He grinned as he drank, shouting in triumph and closing his eyes in apparent ecstasy.

The second vampire was already dust, and Angelica rose to her feet. She stared intently at the first vampire, and then grinned as he began to scream.

A moment later, he exploded.

"I guess I should have mentioned it needs to be diluted a bit." She glanced back at the weakening slaves behind her, and then snapped her finger for another glass.

This time the crowd was silent as she lifted it to her lips. She grinned and tossed it down.

The crowd waited expectantly, and when she bent forward as though in pain, the front row moved back a little. A moment later they had their answer.

She was laughing, and a moment after that she leapt down onto the ground in the front of the crowd.

The first seven foot tall blue demon she saw, she grabbed with one hand and tossed it through the air.

It landed in the middle of the crowd and did not move.

Angelica had already leapt to the stage, far quicker than she'd ever been before.

"Unlimited power to any vampire who joins me!" she shouted. "If you are with me, cross that line!"

Almost a hundred vampires rushed forward to the empty spot on the field, right of the field goal.

"This is the last chance for the rest of you. Join me!"

"Or what? You can't take us all, bitch, even with that freak you have with you."

No one else moved to join her.

"Remember what I said about the humans?" Angelica said. "All that military hardware, all that science just lying around for anyone willing to use it?"

The torches had been carefully placed so as to blind those within the circle of light to what was going on outside. Lois could see this now, as the shadowy figures began to step forward from the shadows.

The rest of Angelica's men, wearing flame retardant suits and carrying huge packs on their backs with hoses.

It wasn't until the flamethrowers started to be used that Lois fully understood.

This wasn't about politics at all. It was about getting rid of the competition, all in one major offensive.

One look at Buffy, who was already gesturing curtly toward the others, gave the bad news.

They were about to enter the firestorm.

***

As the group began to file quickly back into the concealing darkness of the concourse, Buffy was already urgently in a low tone of voice. Given the sounds of screaming, and the general melee which had broken out as the demons attempted to fight back against their fate, there was little danger of anyone noticing them. Unless they had the bad luck to stumble across a group of stragglers who were late for the party, the Slayers were going to be fine.

Lois glanced back at the melee on the field and grimaced. Entire groups of vampires were burning. Whenever one of the larger demons tried to form a pocket of resistance, Angelica gestured, and Clark streaked out onto the field and knocked it out.

He didn't kill any of them, but the demons that did fall were quickly overrun by the attackers, who swarmed them and hacked at them brutally.

Lois couldn't imagine the horror of having her body being used to kill, even indirectly. It had been hard enough when it was her own choice. This was something else entirely. It wasn't self defense. It was murder.

Faith touched her arm and gestured, and Lois followed her back into the concourse. The area beneath the bleachers was still and quiet, although the sounds of screaming were still quite audible.

"We aren't going to get involved on the field unless we absolutely have to," Buffy was telling the girls. "The only reason we are here is to kill Angelica, take care of Amy, and if we can't do that, get Clark away from them."

Getting Clark away from them would probably be the only way they could take either one of them on.

"Our best bet is for Willow to do the silence thing again, and then somebody will have to make sure he isn't looking at any of the others." Buffy glanced at Willow. "Amy hasn't broken your mojo on her mojo, has she?"

Willow shook her head. "He has to see or hear them for the control to work."

"If we don't take care of this now," Buffy said, "Then she'll be able to break into military facilities whenever she wants to. I'd hate to face vamps with machineguns or tanks."

What she wasn't saying was that with Clark, Angelica would be able to beat just about anything the world had to offer that wasn't magical, and it was likely that the longer she had him, the more she'd find ways to guard against that.

If she had him long enough, Lois had a feeling that she'd make him do things that would make his soul shrivel inside his body. Just seeing her touch him made Lois flush with anger.

The thought that she would touch him and there wasn't anything he could do about it made her skin crawl.

The Slayers nodded grimly. They'd seen what Clark could do, and knew they didn't have a chance against him. Only Willow was anything close to a threat to him, and unless they took out Amy, Willow might be occupied with her as well.

They began jogging easily around the great hall. One of the things that amazed Lois about her new body was the stamina. She'd jogged several miles a day in the past. Being able to run quickly had been a survival tactic in her line of work. Now, however, they were setting a pace that would have had the old her gasping for breath.

Willow was speaking quietly. "I don't know where they got the flamethrowers. The United States hasn't used them since the late seventies."

"The Congo," Lois said quietly. "Those flamethrowers are Russian made. Angelica probably just told Clark what kind of weapons to pick up."

The night she'd told him about her experiences in the Congo, Lois had mentioned some of the weapons she'd seen there. She'd done a great deal of research on her story; it had begun after all as a story on weapon smuggling.

It was her fault that Clark had known where to find them. In all likelihood he'd have found some eventually, but perhaps not in time for the gathering.

Buffy and Willow glanced at each other, and Lois could see that they still weren't used to the one factor in Clark's life that changed everything else.

Distance was not a factor. When one could speed all the way across the planet in the course of a few seconds, it became clear that no place was far from home.

No weapon was out of reach, either.

They jogged for several more moments silently, with Willow turning red faced and gasping before closing her eyes for a moment and suddenly lifting slightly into the air and levitating along with the rest of them.

"I thought you were going to try to take Clark out," Lois said, finally.

Buffy glanced over at her and said, "I will if I have to." The Scythe was in her hand again. "But it's not the kind of thing we normally do around here. If there is another way, we'll find it."

At Lois's dubious look, Buffy shook her head. "Look, I'm sorry. I've had a lot to deal with over the past few days. Between the First, and Spike, and losing everything and having to be den-mother to a group of…well…the Buffster has been a little cranky lately."

Before Lois could reply, she realized that the girls in the front were slowing down. They'd reached the opposite end of the football stadium in the space of less than a minute, and the sounds of screams from outside were decreasing.

The vampires wouldn't have lasted long being sprayed with flaming liquid. From what Lois had seen, they were highly flammable anyway.

All that would be left were isolated pockets of resistance, and Clark would be taking care of the worst of those. It was a nightmare for everybody, and Lois suspected that when the night was over, she'd have a whole new set of nightmares. As though she didn't have too many already.

Buffy began gesturing again. This had to be a stealth operation. If Willow made everything silent too soon, then Angelica or Amy could control him through gestures.

To her surprise, Buffy gestured for her to come up front.

She leaned close to Lois's ear and murmured, "I need you to take care of Clark. Willow says you are the only one he can't hurt. Tie a blindfold around his eyes, play peek-a-boo…I don't care. Just keep him off us."

The rest of them would be going after Amy and Angelica, and fighting off her minions.

If some of the vamps on the field decided to turn the flamethrowers onto the stage, they were all dead. The movies generally tended to make people underestimate the true distance the flamethrowers could reach.

Some could reach as far as 270 feet. That meant that even if the vamps were all the way on the other side of the football field, they could still get them.

Of course, Angelica was just as flammable as any other vampire, so she would have likely given strict orders.

Assuming someone didn't decide they wanted to try to take her place, they ought to be safe at first. After Angelica was dead, all bets were off.

Lois hoped everyone knew what they were doing.

As she moved quietly through the passage leading to the area backstage, Lois noticed that the fight was still going on furiously, although some of the flamethrowers had stuttered and fallen silence. At least some of the demons had apparently fought their way through and captured the flamethrowers.

As Lois began to climb up the back of the stage, she could see the melee through the slats in the wood of the platform.

She saw Clark grabbing one demon even as another demon tried to drive a claw into his wound. This didn't seem to have much of an effect.

A third demon on the other side of the field overpowered one of the vampires using the flamethrower, and he quickly turned it on Angelica's vampires.

Lois could hear Angelica screaming obscenities above them, and she resumed her efforts to climb as quickly as she could without revealing herself.

The others were climbing the two other poles supporting the back of the stage beside her, moving with the quickness of trained navy seals.

It was all done with the sort of unified grace that Lois would have expected of units with hundreds of hours of training. However, she was in the midst of them and moving almost in step.

The smell of smoke almost made her cough, as the bodies of some of the demons began to burn. The lone demon with the flamethrower turned it on the hundred or so vampires who had sided with Angelica.

Whatever else happened, Angelica wasn't getting the army she'd hoped for out of all of this.

As Clark tore the flamethrower from the demon's hand and tossed it up into the bleachers, Lois reached the top of the stage.

Faith and Buffy were at the top of the two other poles, and they hesitated, waiting for Clark to return before beginning their fight.

Clark flew slowly back to the stage, where Angelica was screaming angrily.

With his back to the bodies on the ground, some of which were being summarily dispatched by the remaining vampires, he didn't see one of the fallen rising up with a flamethrower.

The arc flew right by him, but the stage exploded.

The world turned into one gigantic mass of exploding flames. Lois screamed, and she fell, and as she did so, she realized that all sound had vanished.

Whether this was the result of Willow's spell, or whether it was just shock or a perforated eardrum, Lois didn't know. All she knew was a moment of terror that was followed by a moment of peace.

She flipped in midair and landed on her feet. A fall of thirty feet didn't hurt, although the world was still silent.

Lois stared upwards and saw that although the flamethrower blast had almost caught her, and had caught much of the stage on fire; it hadn't stopped Buffy or Faith, both of whom were grabbing Amy.

Amy vanished before they could even hit her.

Angelica's face changed, turning into a mask even uglier than it had been before. Whatever changes Clark's alien blood had made on her hadn't been kind.

However, they'd done more than increase her strength. They'd increased her speed as well. She was using the flagpole against both of the Slayers at once, and the three of them were moving almost faster than Lois could follow.

Clark was still standing over the fallen body of the final demon, and Lois found herself pelting towards him, killing the first one, then two more of the remaining vampires that tried to get in her way.

If she could keep Clark out of the fight, she could give the others a fighting chance.

Sound resumed as she approached him. Lois yelled, "Clark!"

His head snapped up and he stared at her.

There was an expression in his eyes that she'd never seen before.

Defeat.

She could see that he was horrified at the things he'd been forced to do, and even more horrified at the things he might be forced to do in the future.

"Clark. You don't have to do this." Lois stared at him, willing him to look at her and not the scene behind them. All Angelica had to do was gesture, and he'd be forced to follow and stop the whole thing.

He stared at her, and as she reached him, Lois began to circle around him. To keep looking at her, he first had to turn his head, and then turn his entire body, until he wasn't facing the battle at all.

"None of this was your fault," Lois said. She stabbed backwards once, brutally, and felt the explosion of dust hit her neck. "You couldn't have known this was going to happen."

Buffy had known. In truth, deep down, Lois had known as well. Clark was too perfect to remain unsullied by this new, grimmer darker world they'd discovered.

Lois had a feeling that this side of life wasn't a place that you entered without losing a little of yourself. Nothing was as cut and dried as it had been in the past.

The stage collapsed, and Lois tried not to gasp. She couldn't see any of the figures now, and the smoke and dust that was being thrown up was obscuring everything.

The remaining vampires were gathering together into large groups, and Lois could see that they were planning on coming for her. A few of them were wearing the asbestos suits, and two actually had flamethrowers.

"Clark. If you ever loved me, you'll snap out of it."

Being burned alive wasn't anything Lois had ever wanted to experience, even second hand.

"Lois…" his voice was slurred, like that of someone trying to overcome the effects of a stroke. "What's happening…?"

From the burning pile of rubble came a small explosion, and Angelica flew upward, frantically trying to pat out the flames. It was taking her a lot longer to burn than the others.

Two more explosions of wood and debris, and Faith and Lois were pushing their way out and staggering forward, all in silence.

Before they could follow Angelica, however, they were swarmed by a silent horde of minions, the remnants of the battle anxious for blood.

"You are stronger than they are," Lois said urgently. "You don't have to do what they tell you to."

Maybe with Amy gone, the spell would be weaker. Lois didn't have any way of knowing.

A moment later, Angelica broke free of the area of silence.

"Stop them!" she screamed, pointing behind her.

A slow smile appeared on Clark's face, and he turned.

He inhaled and a massive wind struck the crowd that had just piled onto the twin Slayers.

The entire crowd went flying more than fifty feet through the air, and the stage behind them went flying through the air.

"Not them, you idiot!" Angelica screamed. "Them!"

She pointed at Faith and Buffy, who were tumbling through the air just like the vampires.

Clark vanished, and a moment later both Slayers were safely at the top of the bleachers.

Lois gaped for a moment. Clark couldn't disobey a direct order, but he had enough willpower to subvert its intent. As long as Angelica kept making vague statements, he was going to keep trying to do the wrong thing.

Lois found herself sprinting forward. Angelica would realize that in a moment as well, and then it would be all over. It was up to her to keep her from getting the time she needed to make those commands.

Angelica heard her coming, and she whipped around in a frightening blur.

When Lois had first begun learning the martial arts, she'd watched some demonstrations of what black belts could do. They had seemed to move with frightening speed, almost faster than her eye had been able to follow.

This was what Angelica looked like now. She'd held two experienced Slayers at bay with enhanced strength and speed. Just how much Lois would be able to accomplish, she didn't know. All she could do was buy the others time.

In the first few moments she realized that her brown belt wasn't going to cut it. Angelica didn't have the skill she had, but the two Slayers had been much better. With her speed and strength, it was all Lois could do to keep her away from her throat.

The younger Slayers had finally worked their way free and were fighting those vampires that hadn't chosen to run.

Clark was standing at the top of the bleachers. There was no sign of the senior Slayers. Willow stood next to him, and he was turned away from the fight.

"You bitch," Angelica said. She grabbed Lois and the next thing Lois knew she was pinned to the ground, with the creature that had once been Clark's friend with its hand around her throat.

"You can't hurt me." Lois ground out as the pressure on her throat increased.

"Is that what he told you?" Angelica grinned. Her face was monstrous, as was the look of triumph on it. "Didn't you ever learn not to trust witnesses? They get it wrong half the time. I only promised not to shed a drop of your blood."

Lois choked and gagged and felt the world dimming around her.

The hands wrapped around her throat were cold and as hard as stone. No matter how Lois scrabbled, she couldn't get them to let up on the pressure. Angelica was staring down at her avidly, as though waiting to see the last moment of life pass through her eyes.

Usually grabbing the thumb and pulling it up and back would pull someone off, but Lois couldn't even move these thumbs. She felt her vision darkening around the edges.

She reached up to try to gouge at Angelica's eye; the sensei had taught dirty street tactics as well as conventional Tai Kwon Do, with the idea that it was better to be alive than it was to be correct.

Instinctively, this caused Angelica to pull up and away, loosening her grip for the space of a moment.

That was all Lois needed to get her grip around a thumb and pull, lashing out at Angelica's eyes again and managing to scratch the side of her face. Lois rolled Angelica off her, and a moment later they were both up again and facing each other.

Lois was gasping for breath, and Angelica barely seemed winded.

"I'm going to enjoy the look in his eye after I kill you," Angelica said, her demonic visage making her look more like the demon she was than ever before. "Seeing that hope die…It's going to be hot when I make him…"

She must have seen the reflection in Lois's eye, because Angelica dodged out of the way a moment before the fireball would have hit her in the back.

Willow already had another small ball of fire in her hand, and it was already growing.

Apparently deciding that Lois no longer rated as the main threat, Angelica raced for the wall leading up to the bleachers. She dodged another thrown fireball easily, and a moment later she was out of Willow's immediate field of vision.

Lois began scrabbling around for her stake. She hadn't come this far to let other people do all the fighting, even if she didn't have much of a chance.

Angelica reached the base of the wall, then bent and leapt straight up. More than thirty feet, and then she was dropping to the bleachers.

Willow's next fireball missed her, although it set several of the chairs on fire. Just as it seemed to be ready to create another huge scorch mark on the Astroturf, the ball stopped in midair and turned.

Angelica was in trouble.

Lois found herself being grabbed by younger Slayers, who pulled her to her feet. At least she'd found her stake; she didn't even remember having dropped it.

"Let's get out of here," one of them was saying.

Although the vampires had taken massive casualties, the remaining Slayers were woefully outnumbered. They were still fighting in clumps, but Lois could see that it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.

One girl against the entire world. It really hadn't been a fair idea. The swarming hosts of monsters would quickly overwhelm anyone.

Unfortunately, Lois didn't have time to help them. Angelica was heading straight for Willow and Clark. If the fireball got to her before she reached them, everything would be all right. If it didn't, Willow would be in trouble. Angelica was moving so quickly, that it would be difficult for Willow to follow her.

Lois couldn't help the others. If Angelica got control of Clark, it was all over for everybody.

Glancing at the stake in her hand, Lois realized that there was no way she was going to be able to throw it far enough to help at all.

She stepped forward. She was going to have to follow and do what she could to hold Angelica off.

Her foot twisted as she stepped on something. Nimbly, she stepped off it and glanced down.

The flagpole lay where Angelica had dropped it. There wasn't much left of the flag on one end. Much of that had burned or been torn in the middle of the earlier fight.

Bending down, Lois grabbed the pole, its sharpened end forward, and she realized that it felt right. Whatever gifts being a Slayer gave, knowledge of using long wooden things was apparently one of them.

She began to run, keeping her eye on Angelica, who was leaping from seat to seat, zigzagging up the bleachers like some sort of monstrous spider. The flames were having trouble catching up, and in several places small fires broke out as seats began to smolder and burn.

As Lois ran, she mentally calculated where she was going to throw. The trick wasn't to throw where Angelica was, but rather where she would be.

The world seemed silent suddenly as Lois reared back and the makeshift spear left her hand. In the world of the ordinary Olympics, it would have been a prodigious, inhuman throw.

It moved through the air with the deadly accuracy of a guided missile, and Angelica apparently didn't see it.

Angelica prepared to take her final leap, with both the spear and the fireball rushing up from behind her. With one eye on the fireball, Angelica had eyes for nothing else.

It was a surprise when her last leap toward Willow and Clark ended with her being plastered against some sort of invisible force field.

This resulted in her not being where Lois had hoped she would be, and the spear also clattered against the invisible field, falling to lie among the bleachers.

The fireball struck the field and exploded against it, leaving Willow looking visibly shaken. It too flew too high, and Angelica screamed in rage as she patted out the few sparks which had fallen on her.

Angelica was screaming in rage now. Before Willow could stop her, she leapt. Instead of leaping futilely at Willow, she leapt even higher than she had before. So high did she leap that instead of hitting the dome, she went over it.

She was behind Willow now, facing Clark.

She gestured, and Lois could see Willow's eyes widen in comprehension as Clark turned and flicked her in the head with his finger.

Willow collapsed where she stood, and with her, the shield fell.

Lois reached the wall leading up to the bleachers and she leapt. She was over the top and onto the front row even as Angelica leapt toward the witch.

The crossbow bolt that flew toward Angelica was a surprise. Glancing back, Lois could see that Faith and Buffy had somehow made their way back to the ground level and were even now trying to save their friend's life.

Seeing that Buffy had grabbed one of the flame throwers, Lois threw herself flat as a gout of flame flew over her and headed straight for Angelica and Clark.

Clark didn't move, but Angelica shrieked and ducked and dodged.

Wherever she went Buffy's flames followed her. Lois grimaced as she felt drops of burning fluid hit her back, blistering. She crawled quickly, thankful for the dividing wall.

She stopped as she reached the aisle, watching Angelica move. All it would take would be one misstep, and it would all be over.

Angelica didn't even have time to call out to Clark to save her. It was taking all her concentration to keep away from the flames, which were even more deadly to her than to a human being.

It wasn't until the flames stopped that Lois realized something was wrong.

The fuel was out.

Angelica stopped and grinned in triumph. She was near Clark again, and she said something to him.

A moment later, Buffy and Faith's unconscious bodies were lying beside Willow's, with Angelica standing over them.

Lois exploded into motion. She was halfway up the bleachers before Angelica noticed her, and when she did, she grinned.

She bent down and grabbed Buffy's Scythe. She stopped for a moment and stared at it as it seemed to twist in her hand of its own accord.

That moment was all the time Lois needed. The flagpole lay where it had fallen, and Lois picked it up and threw it as she ran.

This time there as no shield to stop it. However, Angelica looked up a moment before it hit her and managed to twist out of the way.

It didn't hit her heart, but it pierced her side, and blood welled up from the wound.

Angelica shrieked, enraged. For all that she liked to brag about being better than other fledglings, smarter, more in control, in the end, she was like the rest of them.

A creature of rage.

She lunged forward, but Lois had been watching her fight. She was tiring now, slower than she had been. The cumulative effects of all her wounds were bringing her speed down to something that Lois could handle.

It wasn't always speed that won fights. Lois's sensei had drilled that lesson into her time and time again. There was always going to be someone stronger, always someone faster. Fighting smarter was the only thing that could bridge that gap, and even then not always.

Angelica came flying toward her, but for all her speed, she had to move more than ten feet.

Lois only had to move a few inches.

Lois stepped quickly to the side and jabbed brutally upward. Angelica twisted again, and the stake missed her heart, but plunged deeply into her chest nonetheless. It wrenched out of Lois's grasp, leaving her weaponless.

Angelica lashed out as she passed, and Lois felt her head rocked back from the force of the blow.

The punch wasn't as strong as Lois had been expecting. Angelica was fading, and her sudden rush had placed her further down the stairs than Lois.

Angelica froze, staring at her, and Lois felt a wetness on her upper lip. She lifted her hand and it came away red.

A single drop fell from her hand, and suddenly, incongruously Lois thought she could hear the sound of chimes.

Stiffening suddenly, Clark gasped. An expression of sudden joy appeared on his face, which lit up.

He was free.

Angelica glanced back at Clark, and then toward Lois, and for the first time an expression similar to fear appeared on her face.

Lois couldn't help the savage grin that appeared on her own face.

Clark vanished, and the sounds of the sonic boom washed over them. The sounds of fighting from below stopped.

Lois was facing the football field now, staring down at Angelica and the scene down below.

The girls had been herded toward the pile of burning debris that was all that had been left of the stage. They were all together, facing a horde eight times their size.

None of that mattered. As Clark plowed into the crowd, Lois heard Angelica making her move, trying to take advantage of Lois's distraction.

She'd expected it, and as Angelica tried to charge up the stairs toward her, Lois stepped back and kicked her in the face.

Angelica fell, and this gave Lois time to turn and run up the stairs. She reached down even as she felt Angelica's hand on her ankle, and a moment later she had the Scythe in her hand.

It was unnaturally warm in her grasp, and she could feel its humming contentment to be back in the hands of one for whom it had been meant to be used.

Before she could do anything about it, Lois was jerked back and down, and the weapon flew out of her hand. She twisted, and a moment later Angelica was on top of her again with her hands around her throat.

Angelica leaned forward, her face a monstrous testament to her true nature.

"I'll get it all back."

"No you won't," Lois said, gagging.

Angelica's eyes widened as she felt Lois grab the stake still in her chest. A simple twist and a shove was all it took.

"I'm sorry," Lois said.

A moment later there was only dust in the wind.

At least now the Cortez family would finally be able to mourn their lost daughter. They wouldn't have to be afraid to open their door at night. They wouldn't have to live in terror.

At least not any more than anyone who was aware of the truth of the world.

Lois heard a stirring sound from behind her. Buffy and Faith were slowly starting to move, although Willow was still out.

"Is it over?" she heard Buffy ask, in a voice that sounded almost disappointed.

"Well, B," Faith said. "At least you got to burn some things."

Lois slowly started to sit up and look around.

The stadium was a disaster area. There were huge portions of Astroturf that were smoldering and blackened.

Burning seats in the stands left an acrid smell of burning wood and smoke, as did the still burning stage.

The damage was likely to run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.

It was worth every penny.

The world was safe, and Lois had Clark back.

The vampires were gone from the field, either slain or having fled, and Clark was flashing back and forth, taking the most heavily wounded of the Slayers into the sky, presumably heading back for the hospital.

Buffy and Lois were checking on Willow, who had finally begun to come around.

Lois overheard Buffy say, "What do you think the chances are of getting some more fuel for those things?"

Glancing upward, Lois realized that Buffy was staring at the fallen flamethrowers.

Apparently her reputation as a pyromaniac was well deserved.

A moment later, Buffy was at her side.

"Are you all right?"

Lois nodded. She'd have bruises on top of bruises in the morning, but luckily none of it would last long.

There were benefits to being a Slayer. It wasn't all just nightmares and death and terror. Sometimes it meant being able to make a difference in the world.

It was something she'd always wanted to do.

"Angelica?"

Lois shook her head and gestured at the few remaining pockets of dust around her. The wind had finally begun to pick up.

"So Clark's free," Buffy said quietly. She stared out onto the field, undoubtedly worried about casualties.

Lois nodded. Of all the people she'd helped, he was the one she felt most grateful for. She'd never known anyone with so much potential for good. He made her want to be someone better than she was, and she felt that when she was with him, she was.

"You're lucky to have him," she said quietly. "Don't let him go. You never know how long you have…" The pain in Buffy's eyes was unmistakable.

Lois smiled up at Buffy and said, "I'm sorry for everything."

She'd judged Buffy and the life she'd lived without having a clear idea of what it was like. She still couldn't imagine what it would have been like to have been alone, to have known that in all the world there was no one else like you.

Or perhaps she could. She'd felt that way in the first few days after coming back from the Congo, but Clark had begun to fill the empty place that had been left in her heart. Without him, Lois didn't know if she'd have had the strength to see it through.

"Do the nightmares ever go away?" Lois asked quietly.

"That's what we do," Buffy said. "We make them go away."

Buffy helped Lois to her feet, and the two of them surveyed the destruction below.

"Well, I didn't burn the whole stadium down," Buffy said. "Maybe Willow won't be too angry."

"Just try not to start a fight on the Statue of Liberty," Lois said. "I haven't had a chance to go see it yet."

"We got off on the wrong foot," Buffy said. "What with the suspiciousness and the hellgod thingie…"

Lois nodded in agreement. There was so much she had to learn about what it meant to be a Slayer.

There was a dark part of her that would always crave the violence. She'd already been something of an adventure junkie before.

Any advice on how to manage it all and still have time for an ordinary life would be tremendously helpful.

Lois's head snapped around as she saw Clark slowly coming in for a landing. She was never going to have an ordinary life, and somehow, that made her glad.

Beside her, Buffy sighed. A moment later Lois could hear the sounds of sirens in the distance. Apparently the sounds of fighting and the smoke hadn't gone as unnoticed as everyone would have expected.

Buffy stiffened, and a moment later she was striding down the stairs barking orders at the remaining Slayers.

A Slayer's work was never done.

Clark landed beside her, and Lois hugged him tightly. Absently she noted that the wound at his side had finally healed over.

At least Lois would never have to do it alone.

***

The dark alleyway was the sort of place that reputable citizens of Metropolis avoided like the plague. Even criminals tended to avoid places like this; the chances of being ambushed were too great for anyone but the most dangerous or the most desperate.

Lois walked casually into the darkness. Before the Congo, she still would have entered the alleyway, if a story demanded it, but she would have felt that familiar fear of fear in the pit of her stomach.

Now, all she felt was anticipation. Her source had insisted on meeting her here alone, which raised suspicions in her mind.

Contrary to what most people thought, Lois wasn't so single minded that she couldn't see a tree in the forest. She knew a trap when she saw one, especially now.

A year as a Slayer had been quite educational.

The three men stepping out of the shadows were almost a disappointment. Lois had been hoping for a demon, or vampires, something.

For some reason, supernatural creatures had been leaving Metropolis like rats from a sinking ship. Lois wondered sometimes if it was the sheer glee she'd taken in her duties as Slayer.

"Let me guess," Lois said. "You want me to come with you."

These men must be newcomers to town. It was generally acknowledged by the underworld that it was far better to be caught by Superman than it was to face Lois Lane.

Superman tended not to leave people in the hospital with humiliating injuries. He also didn't seem to hold grudges, which Lois was known to do.

"You've done this before," one of the men said, seemingly surprised.

"About fifty times," Lois said, sighing wearily.

Fifty one to be exact. Lois had begun to hope that her reputation was going to stop any more inane kidnapping attempts. When Superman had first appeared, it hadn't taken the underworld long to make the connection between him and his favorite reporter. They'd declared open season on her, and she'd had to make it quite clear that she was not going to be easy prey.

Fifty one kidnapping attempts and only three had been successful. Without her Slayer abilities, Lois would have been constantly in danger, and Clark would have teased her about it unmercifully.

That assumed that he ever bothered to tell her about his abilities. It was a humiliation she was happy to be spared. She liked being a more or less equal partner to both Clark Kent and Superman. Anything less she would have resented.

Lois cautiously approached one of the men, who had holstered his weapon and had a pair of handcuffs waiting for her.

They weren't even police grade. They had a fur lining, like something from one of the sex shops in the Suicide Slum.

Tacky.

These guys were amateurs.

As the man reached for her arm, Lois twisted hers and yanked him toward her. With his larger body between hers and the shooters, she punched him once in the stomach, dropping to one knee.

The other two opened fire, and Lois grabbed the man in front of her, who shrieked as a bullet gouged one of his buttocks. She shoved him hard, sending him flying into the other two.

It was the work of an instant to get their guns away from them.

A quick check showed what Lois had expected. The ugly green glowing rock in the left coat pocket of the leader was an ugly little reminder of how vulnerable Clark really was.

Kryptonite had been a nasty little surprise when they'd first encountered it. Now, it seemed almost common. Lois suspected that someone was behind these attempts on Clark's life. Someone had access to a larger supply and was chipping off a piece at a time, hoping one of their minions would get lucky.

It was only a matter of time until Lois found them and made them pay. Until then, she was going to remain vigilant and spend a fair amount of money on lead boxes.

Lois reached into her purse and pulled out a small lead box. It was the work of a moment to shove the rock into the box, and then Lois called out tiredly, "Help, Superman."

The tone of her voice would be enough to tell him it wasn't an emergency.

Lois pulled out her cell phone and dialed for 911. To her trained eye, the wound appeared only to be a graze and it was bleeding only sluggishly. However, at the trial she was going to be asked about her actions, and she didn't want to give defense lawyers any leeway.

Next she dialed the police. Inspector Henderson was on the other end of the line in moments.

"I've got a little problem," she said.

He sighed and said, "How bad are they hurt?"

"One guy is shot in the butt," Lois said. "I didn't do it, I swear. The others just have the usual."

"If you didn't have the best lawyers in the business…" Henderson's voice was weary. Lois generated more paperwork for him than any other civilian.

At least criminals went away.

"Hey, nobody's tried this in almost a month."

Lois had hoped that people were finally getting the message, but apparently the number of fools in Metropolis was effectively unlimited.

One of the few things Buffy's crew had managed to do for her was to establish a legal defense fund. It was available to all Slayers, but Lois tended to use it more than most.

After all, vampires didn't sue people, but crazy whack job kidnappers did.

The feeling of wind at her back was her only warning.

"Superman," Lois said, turning to him.

The costume should have looked silly. Lois hadn't been happy with some aspects of his mother's design, but by the time she'd first seen it, it had been too late. He'd already gone public.

Now it had grown on her. He looked good in the suit, powerful.

If the number of websites with Clark's head pasted onto the bodies of nude male models was any indication, the female population of the planet thought so too.

"Are you all right?" he asked. He glanced over at the men lying on the alley floor and added, "Ms. Lane?"

"I'm fine, just like the other fifty times," Lois said. "These guys had a package though."

She handed him the metal box and he grimaced. He's been traveling into space and throwing these things at the sun for almost a year, and he hated it.

He'd admitted to hating the feeling of vulnerability, the feeling that he was the one needing to be protected.

Lois reached out and touched his hand, careful to keep his body between the kidnappers and the one sign of affection she was going to allow herself.

"I'm sorry I was late. I had to help deliver a baby on the bridge." Clark stiffened, and he stared off into the distance with a familiar expression.

Someone else needed his help already.

Lois tightened her grip on his hand reassuringly. "Just do what you have to do. I'm going to be stuck here for a while with the police and the paramedics."

"Are you hurt?" Clark asked automatically, and then he sighed and glanced over at the men lying on the alley floor.

Lois smiled slightly and shrugged. The sort of men who would try to kidnap women at gunpoint and then kill their boyfriend didn't deserve any special treatment.

Sometimes she really enjoyed being a Slayer.

He shook his head. "They'll be fine. The ambulance will be here in less than five minutes and the police aren't far behind."

"Good luck," Lois said.

Despite all his power, Clark wasn't always successful in saving people. It was the sort of thing that tore him up inside.

All Lois had been able to do was be there for him, and give him the number to her counselor.

Somehow Buffy and her friends had gotten her the number of a counselor who knew about the supernatural side of life, but who wasn't a cultist or some other sort of villainous crazy.

It helped to talk to someone who didn't judge. Between her counselor, and Clark, and occasional phone calls to Faith in Cleveland, Lois had come a long way toward finding peace with both what she was, and what she'd done.

Of course, there were all sorts of things they couldn't say over the telephone. The government wiretapping that had been taking place since the twin towers made it unwise to do much more than talk about normal day to day living.

As the ambulance rounded the corner, Lois sighed. She had hours of explaining to look forward to, and worse, her source had turned out to be a bust, which meant that her story was stalled.

She'd have to find another angle, she always did.

***

Wearily, Lois opened her door and slipped inside her darkened apartment. She'd been with the police for over three hours. She thought sometimes that they enjoyed these little interrogation sessions, perhaps as payback for the hell she gave them the rest of the time in search for stories.

She'd have to testify at the trial. She was doing that more and more lately and it was getting old. Facing the same defense attorneys over and over, getting the same grilling in front of juries…it was annoying and kept her away from work.

Lois froze as she heard something move in the darkness. It wasn't a vampire; they couldn't enter a dwelling without an invitation. It could however be some sort of demon, a burglar, or even as assassin of some sort.

That business with the Order of Taraka last year had been nasty and unpleasant.

She dropped her keys into her pocket and she quickly grabbed a stake from the dresser beside the door.

A head popped up from her couch.

Lois froze, and then said, "Faith?"

"Hey Lois."

Lois glanced back at her door, which still had six locks and a chain on it. "How did you get in?"

"You always leave your window open," Faith said.

Normal people wouldn't have had an easy time getting into a fifth story apartment, fire escapes notwithstanding.

Lois dropped the stake back onto the small table by the door. "What are you doing here?"

Faith sat up. "You and Big Blue have a hot date tonight?"

Lois shook her head. "There's this thing in China. It's on the news."

"You wouldn't mind if I crash for a little while?" Faith asked.

Although Lois had bonded with Faith over the past few months, she remembered the last time her sister Lucy had crashed at her place.

It had lasted three weeks and had felt like it was forever.

"What's going on?" Lois asked, purposefully avoiding the question.

"Me and Robin are sort of splitsville," Faith sighed. "It got kind of ugly."

"I'll get the ice cream," Lois said.

***

"So what's up with the underwear on the outside thing?" Faith asked.

"That wasn't my fault," Lois said. "His mother made the costume for him, and he got embarrassed because in originally you could sort of…um…make things out."

Faith grinned. "It's a wicked tight suit."

"So he had her add the underwear for the sake of modesty."

"He should have left it off. Then nobody would be looking at his face." Faith smirked.

"That's what his mother said, but Clark's a little bit of a prude."

"So you and he haven't…" Faith made an obscene hand gesture.

Lois sighed and shook her head.

For all that she pressed the issue, she was glad that Clark had consistently slowed things down. Lois's first urge had always been to rush into things, but in this, Clark had been the wiser one.

They hadn't really known each other all that well at first, and although Lois's gut had told her that he was perfect for her, she hadn't really known.

Now she knew that he wasn't perfect, any more than any other person could be. He had his moments of stubborn pig headedness and he could be pushed into being a little sarcastic.

But in all the world, she knew now there could be nobody more perfect for her.

"Well," Faith said, "Be glad you have him. I think it's best that Slayer chicks have guys who can take a beating."

Lois stared at Faith and was startled to see her blush.

***

"Eighteen hundred girls," Lois said. It was mind boggling.

"That's what Willow thinks. We've got almost five hundred working for us. Buffy runs things from Scotland, Robin takes care of things in Cleveland, Andrew has Italy and Giles has England."

Lois hadn't imagined that many girls being affected on the day Sunnydale collapsed.

"Any problems from the government?"

"They've been sniffing around. Caught a couple of girls and interrogated them. Our lawyers got them out quick enough."

"Has anybody thought about going public?"

Faith shook her head. "They think you're crazy for even suggesting it."

"Have you checked the net?" Lois asked. "Belief in the supernatural is at an all time high."

Clark was part of that. In a world where a man could fly and lift space shuttles into space, it was a little easier to believe that others might have strange abilities. It was only a small leap from that to being open to the possibility of the supernatural.

It was all part of Lois's long term plan. The truth about the supernatural wasn't going to remain a secret forever. When it came out, she was going to be on the front lines, earning that Pulitzer. In the meantime, anything she could do to make society more accepting would be important.

"Speaking of the supernatural, how is the new intern doing?" Faith's voice was casual, but even here they couldn't speak freely.

The newest intern at the Daily Planet was a witch. She'd been hired by Buffy's group to maintain the protections Willow had placed on Clark and to keep tabs on him to make sure nothing had gotten through them.

Clark had no idea that she was anything other than a love struck teenager. If he ever was controlled again, she was everyone's secret ace in the hole.

Lois scowled. "She has a crush on him. It would be cute if it wasn't sickening."

"Well, that's the price you pay for dating someone who looks like that. I think most of the younger Slayers have a crush on him too."

Faith's cell phone rang, and she grabbed it.

Faith froze, and then turned away from Lois.

Lois could hear her crying quietly, but from the quietly murmured words she was speaking, Lois knew she wasn't going to have to put Faith up for a long time.

It was a relief. Things with her and Clark were finally progressing, and she didn't want any questions.

She wanted to simply enjoy it for what it was.

***

She floated through the night air with him, weightless and endlessly free. It was one of the things she enjoyed doing best with him. Flying by night she could imagine that they were the only two people left in the entire world, that there weren't an endless flood of distractions in both their lives.

Life with Superman wasn't easy. She had to share him with the world, even as a greedy part of her wanted to keep him all to herself.

Before him, her work had been her life. What little personal time she'd had had been drab and dull, while her work had been vibrant and exciting.

She'd had no idea that her work could be even more enjoyable, even brighter. Even without powers, Clark would have been the perfect partner for her. He was strong enough to stand up to her occasional outbursts of anger, and sensitive enough not to blame her for them.

He had a sharp sense of humor, which she hadn't learned about until they'd been working together for a while.

He'd treated her with kid gloves for the first couple of months of their relationship.

But as they'd both begun to heal, their true selves had begun to emerge. Lois had finally allowed him to see more of the ugliness in her soul, and despite her fear, he'd loved her anyway.

Being loved unconditionally was a heady feeling. It wasn't something Lois had ever felt before, and she'd kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. She'd kept waiting for the bad news that had never come.

Although he was an alien, her first impression had been correct. He really was the most human person she'd ever known.

For the first time, her life away from work had been as vibrant and interesting as her life at work. She and Clark were together sixteen hours a day and that should have been more than enough to make her want to do anything to get away from him.

Instead she found herself wanting only more.

When she'd first been asked if she was ready to be strong, she'd thought she'd made a terrible mistake. Accepting that strength had come at all sorts of hidden costs, including the knowledge that the world had never been the safe place everyone thought it was.

But if she'd never accepted, or never even been made the offer, then she never would have felt this way. She'd have never experienced what it was like to look at someone and feel as though the breath was knocked out of her chest.

Lois was happy, and she was strong. Together she and Clark were going to do far more good than either of them would have been able to do alone.

Being strong had led her to love, and love had led her to happiness.

She kissed Clark impulsively, and what she saw in his eyes made her heart swell.

Her joy was like flying.

THE END