Above Alt Else

By SunRei <sunrei@cloisfic.co.cc>

Rated PG-13 (for mild language)

Submitted April 2008

Summary: An alternate universe retelling of the fateful meeting between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. The tale begins the day they meet at the Daily Planet and how fate, flight, and fancy shape how they grow from there. If you think you know the secret, think again...

Author's Note:

Okay, so this is a story idea that lay in dormant for a long (emphasis on long) time. I had about twenty pages written in a file that never got opened, and then my hard drive crashed. Long story short, it was the crying over spilt milk that kicked my muse in gear. Before you get started, I want to warn you that this is an alternate universe of my making. It takes the first meeting between Lois and Clark and spins off from there... and maybe there was some spinning before that too... I would like to thank all of the readers on the boards for their comments and encouragement. I would also like to thank Larissa for going through this thing with a fine-toothed comb in order to get it ready for the archive. Some mistakes I chose to keep for style, and some I kept because... well, we just didn't catch them. Basically, what I'm saying is, all red pens should be pointed directly at me. Enjoy!


Act I: Close Encounters


*Reality is above all else a variable. With a firm enough commitment, you can sometimes create a reality which did not exist before.*

-- Margaret Halsey


Tapping a small notepad against her thigh, Lois Lane waited impatiently for the elevator to reach its destination. When the 'ding' sounded to announce the car's arrival, she stepped out before the doors had a chance to fully slide open. Deftly dodging passing colleagues, she briskly strode down the ramp toward her desk.

She dropped into the chair -- which hadn't been pushed in since her earlier departure -- and slid over to the left lower drawer, unlocking it and flipping through the files she kept there. She had been out all morning avoiding the assignment her editor had given her, but none of her sources had anything bite-worthy to report. That left her going into her emergency stash. She pulled a folder out, scanned the contents and grimaced before replacing it in the drawer. With renewed vigor she continued her search for something that would justify blatant rebellion to her boss.

Settling on another folder, she jumped to her feet and assumed a confident air. She knew that half the battle was won in the presentation. Flicking her hair over her shoulder, she walked to Perry White's door and reached for the handle.

"Uh, I wouldn't do that if I were you," a young man warned as he rounded the corner. "Chief's in a meeting. He said it was important and put his sign up."

Lois glanced at the sign on the door. Instead of the nameplate that usually read 'Editor-in-Chief,' a brass template declared that the occupant of the room was now 'In a meeting...'

She raised an eyebrow and considered if waiting for Perry to finish his meeting would be better on his mood. With a shrug, she decided that he couldn't kill her if there were witnesses.

"But you see, Jimmy," she said, smiling sweetly at him, "there's something you're forgetting. Those signs never apply to Lois Lane."

Jimmy shrugged as she started to turn the handle and went to carry out his errand. He wanted to be well out of hearing distance when the shouting started. When the Chief got going on one of his tirades, he'd find something to say to anyone within an ear's distance... and that usually included one Jimmy Olsen, Daily Planet copy boy.

Lois stepped into the office talking. She didn't want to give Perry an opportunity to yell before she had completed her pitch. "I think there's a story here, Chief. I just need a little time to check out the facts but you have to believe me that this has the potential to be huge," she stated, dropping the file onto her editor's desk.

Surprisingly, Perry looked amused rather than angry at her interruption as he leaned back into his chair. "What about that mood piece I assigned you?" he asked calmly, clasping his hands and pulling them into his lap. The look on his face said that he already knew what the answer would be.

Lois smiled playfully, taking full advantage of Perry's less than standard response. "Would you believe it if I told you that I wasn't in the *mood*?"

A low chuckle coming from behind her caused Lois to glance over her shoulder briefly. She wasn't interested in whomever Perry was meeting with, as she just wanted clearance to work on a story more her speed, but inexplicably, she found herself doing a double take. The man standing in front of the visitor's chair was wearing wire-framed glasses and a boxy suit. Not having recognized him, she couldn't understand the strange feeling of deja-vu that seeing him caused.

"I figured as much," Perry drawled, pulling her attention back to him. "That's why I sent Ralph."

"Ralph?! You sent Ralph to do *my* story?" Lois demanded, her eyes swinging back to Perry.

The editor's amusement only heightened with her sudden territorial attitude about a story she didn't want. He ignored her outbreak and continued speaking. "I'm glad that you are here, though. I was about to have you paged. Lois, this is Clark Kent. Kent, I want you to meet Metropolis' top investigative reporter, Lois Lane."

Turning to face the visitor, Lois realized that he was still standing, and delayed, it occurred to her that he had risen right after she'd entered the room. She reached out and shook his hand firmly, flinching slightly at the short burst of static shock she felt when they touched.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Lane," he said. A very slight hint of a drawl indicated that he was probably from somewhere in the mid-west.

"Likewise," she replied with a nod. She briefly studied him again before pulling her hand from his and spinning back on Perry. "My story, Chief," she redirected. "You have to agree that this is more appealing than a human-interest drabble about an old theatre being razed. I mean, it's got everything: big business, white collar misdeed..."

Her spiel faltered off as she wondered if she should say anything more about her story in the company of strangers. Suddenly her mind clicked and she placed the name. She stepped back with narrowed eyes, gazing from one man to the other. "Kent... as in US Daily News columnist and advocacy journalist Kent." She arched an eyebrow in Perry's direction. "What's going on here?"

Perry smiled and moved the file she had brought to the side of his desk, uncovering the one that he'd been looking at before she came in. Rising from his seat, he waved at the two chairs across from his desk. "Please. Have a seat. Both of you."

Lois perched on the edge of the nearest chair after a slight hesitation, curiosity getting the better of her. She noticed with a little annoyance that Kent didn't copy her move until he was sure that she was seated. Perry walked around to the front of the desk and leaned against it, assuming the authoritative position as the one with the highest vantage point in the room.

The editor handed Lois the file in his hands. "I think you might want to take a look at this," he said as she began perusing the contents. "It seems that a recent investigation has brought Mr. Kent to our great city and he finds himself in need of some of our esteemed resources. I agreed to his having full access with the provision that the *Planet* gets the shared byline and equal publishing rights."

He turned to address the man seated to her left. "Lois will be working with you on the story."

The seated pair looked at him with matching expressions of surprise. "What?" "Excuse me?"

"Mr. White, I think you misunderstood the arrangement I requested..."

"Perry! You can't stick me with a partner -- especially not some two-bit, over-publicized hack!" Lois entered vehemently.

"I can assure you that I am no hack," Clark countered with a frown. He turned back to Perry. "And I work alone."

"Now, Son, you have to realize that in order for me to give you free reign of my newsroom, I need to have some form of assurance."

"You have my word," Clark emphasized, leaning forward in his seat.

"And I appreciate that, I do, but if you're going to play in my sandbox, you're going to have to play nice with my kids, and that means working with Lois." Perry shrugged. "Now, if my conditions are a deal-breaker for you then you're certainly welcome to take your story to the Star..."

Clark looked from the man in front of him to the woman in the other chair. She was studiously going through his file again and he had no doubt that she was memorizing his notes as she went. With a heavy sigh, he nodded his agreement.

"Good, then, that's settled. Lois?"

Without looking up from the folder, Lois addressed the other reporter. "You might actually have something here -- if it's accurate... Where'd you get the intel?"

Clark bristled at the suggestion that he might have falsified his notes. "I will not reveal my source but you can trust me when I say that what you see there is both reliable and true." He didn't like that she was interviewing him on his own story.

Ignoring his tone, Lois nodded curtly and quickly followed with another question. "And from the few facts that you have here among the mishmash, you really think that you can pull out a veritable story? I see that you suspect that this goes beyond the plant but you have no evidence and no backup theory, while there are a thousand other explanations that make more sense."

She finally pulled her attention from the folder and looked him squarely in the eye. "What makes you so sure?" she challenged.

Clark glanced at Perry. The editor was watching the exchange thoughtfully but offering no reprieve. Turning back to Lois, he returned her gaze evenly. "Instinct."

Lois set her jaw and narrowed her eyes. "You expect me to drop everything I'm doing and follow a story with implications this high up based solely on *your* instinct?"

Clark stiffened. "Might I remind you that your addition to this investigation was not planned and is certainly not necessary, but if it is your intention to work on this, then the answer is yes. My belief in the validity of this story is based solely on instinct. *My* instinct."

Lois flipped her hair and stood, snapping the folder shut with a grin. "Good. That's how I work. Let's get started."

She patted the folder against her editor's arm fondly and reached out to retrieve the file she had brought into the office from his desk. "Rainy day," she explained, shooting him a brilliant grin before striding out of the office.

Clark watched her leave with a perplexed expression. She obviously expected him to follow behind her.

"Fiesty one, isn't she?" Perry asked in an amused tone while watching her stalk toward her desk. "She's a breath of fresh air."

"More like a tornado," Clark muttered, watching as she put the folders on her desk and sat down.

The remark evoked a loud bark of laughter from the graying editor. He pushed himself from the desk and clapped Clark's shoulder. Still chuckling, he led the younger man out of the office and in Lois's direction. "Lois, about that piece on the theater being razed...If you're concerned about the way Ralph is going to handle it..."

"Nah, I think it'll be good sensitivity training for him," Lois replied without looking up. "Besides," she said with a smirk, "I'm onto something big right now."

The wink that she capped the statement with was not lost on Clark.

With a satisfied chuckle, Perry nodded and turned to cast a sharp eye around the newsroom as he went back to his office. He liked to run a tight ship.

Lois eyed the large frame of the man standing beside her desk and then turned to look at her less than adequate visitor's chair. "Hmmph. Let's go set up in a conference room," she decided, gathering the files' contents and jumping to her feet.

Once again, Clark had no choice but to follow behind as she made her way across the newsroom. Lifting his hands in exasperation, he wondered aloud if she was always like this.


"Are you following any of this?" Clark asked. Reluctantly, he had just finished walking through all of his research with his partner-to-be.

Lois sucked on her teeth and leaned back into her chair, crossing her legs and nodding tersely. "You were contacted by a scientist from Cyphren Chemical about a new production technique that the company implemented not too long ago. He reported to the higher ups that the process was risky because he hadn't completed all of the tests but the company decided to go with it anyway."

"He contacted me when his warnings were ignored," Clark amended. "As soon as he reported his findings on the increased production rate possible with the new system, Cyphren Chem wanted to go live."

"Must have been time for the annual report to shareholders," Lois commented. She glanced back down at the papers on the table. "What's his name?" she asked casually.

When Clark responded with a glare, she smirked and picked up a piece of paper. "It was worth a shot. You'll tell me eventually," she promised. "So the story is based on this random guy's claim..."

"Acclaimed scientist -- not random guy," Clark corrected.

"Okay...this random *scientist* guy's claim that Cyphren could be intentionally endangering the health of its employees and nearby residents. Cyphren Chemical is a major company headquartered right here in the Big Apricot -- which explains your arrival to New Troy."

Lois leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table. "But it also brings you to the Daily Planet -- a necessity because this isn't your city and you need the resources and pull that the Planet can offer if you want to get to the bottom of this." She arched an eyebrow. "Am I right?"

Clark didn't respond. He wasn't going to admit to needing anything, much less anyone, even though she *was* right. In his opinion, Lois was looking far too smug with his apparent dependence.

Pulling a Xeroxed copy of an article from the group of papers, he held it up. "The Daily Planet has a well known reputation for getting answers. The paper was on the forefront of both the Genron Energy and First Media scandals. I could have gone to one of the other papers but I knew that Mr. White would have access to the people I need to speak to."

Lois gave the paper he held a casual glance. "Um hmmm, 'Genron Energy Blows Steam. Board suspected of insider trading,'" she read offhandedly. "I wrote it."

Clark turned the paper over with a look of surprise. "You wrote it? You're 'L. Lane?'" His gaze returned to her face. "I thought it was a..."

"Man," Lois finished for him. "Figures."

Lois had never really paid much attention to the way her byline was written. Everyone in Metropolis knew who she was, and when she had first started out in the business, she'd requested that only her first initial be used so men wouldn't bypass her work out of chauvinistic prejudice. She dismissed the uncharacteristic pang of regret she felt upon Clark making the mistake she had initially encouraged.

"Do you eat?" she asked suddenly.

Her rapid change of topic caught him momentarily off guard. "Excuse me? Eat? I mean, yes, of course I eat, but shouldn't we finish..."

"Look, instead of going to lunch, I spent the afternoon hunting down sources with worthless tips. Right now, it's after 4:00 and I'm starving."

Clark looked uncertainly down at the papers. "Well..."

Seeing his hesitation, she jumped in. "Hey, I'm all for the work all day and night routine, but if I don't get something to eat, all the midnight oil in the world wouldn't be able to keep me going. You wouldn't want to be the cause of my sugar imbalance, now would you?"

Without waiting for an answer, she started gathering the papers together. "Tell you what, we can bring these with us."

Frowning, Clark finally agreed. "Okay."

Lois's eyes twinkled at the victory she had already counted as won. "Great. We can go the Bread Box -- it's a deli up the street."


Lois shifted her messenger bag to the other shoulder as they waited on the corner with a small group of people. Just as the light changed, her cell phone rang, causing her to pause so she could dig inside of her bag to retrieve it. "They keep making these things smaller and smaller," she grunted as the phone's exact location continued to elude her.

"Lane here," she said after flipping the phone open. "Yeah, Jimmy, sure... Do me a favor and tell Perry..." Her words suddenly faltered as she stopped in her tracks.

Although the light directing them to walk was green, a city bus coming toward the intersection was not showing any signs of slowing down. In an instant, Lois took into account the elderly lady entering the oncoming vehicle's path, the furrowed brow of the bus driver as his attention was drawn to something out of sight, and Clark Kent, who suddenly appeared at the woman's side, inserted between the woman and the bus. In the next instant, the bus was motionless and Kent was aiding the woman to the opposite curb.

"Jimmy, I'll have to call you back," she quickly said before flipping the phone shut.

She ran to the side of the bus and banged a hand against the window. Startled, the driver hit the switch to open the door.

"What just happened?" she yelled over the noise of the engine.

The driver shook his head dazedly. "I don't know... The brakes... I didn't see her..." He seemed clearly shaken. "The brakes must have kicked in at the last second." He ran a trembling hand across his brow, obviously relieved that an accident had been avoided.

Lois frowned, unsure of what to make of it all. "Are you sure they're working now?"

"Yeah, if they weren't, I wouldn't be able to hold the bus at this position." The bus shifted slightly as he lifted his foot from the brake pad a little and pressed it down again. "See what I mean?"

"I see... Okay." Lois nodded and hurried around the front of the bus, mentally logging the bus number as she went.

When she reached the front, she noticed a large dent-like impression in the hood. Tentatively placing her hand in the indentation, she thought that it looked a lot like the shape of a large distorted mitten. A flashing orange light caught her eye and she noted that the crosswalk sign was about to change. With a final glance at the dent, she jogged the rest of the way across the street.

On the corner, the elderly lady was holding onto Clark's arm and rattling on about her pet poodle. He appeared to be patiently listening but Lois didn't miss his look of relief when she arrived on the curb next to them.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Lois interjected politely. "I'm afraid that I'm going to have to take him off of your hands now."

"Oh!" the woman exclaimed. She smiled and gave Lois a knowing look. "You've got yourself a nice one here, young lady," she said quietly as she slowly walked by.

Lois chuckled and waved before turning to walk in the direction of the deli. "What happened back there?"

"Hmm? Oh, I, uh, saw the lady walking across the street and ran over to give her a hand," he replied evasively.

Making another mental note, Lois nodded and allowed the subject to drop. "Here we are," she announced as they reached the door to the sandwich shop.

Clark's arm brushed past her and pulled the door open just as she was about to do the same. Lois regarded him out of the corner of her eye as she stepped through the open door. It was clear that his manners were subconscious, a fact that also made it painfully clear that he was not from Metropolis.

After placing and paying for her order, Lois listened with amusement as Clark placed his. For someone so reluctant to take a lunch break, he must have been hungry because he ordered two full sized sandwiches for himself. After locating an empty corner table large enough to spread their files on, they sat down with their meals.

Lois immediately dug into her sandwich, determined to take the edge off of her hunger so she could concentrate better. She couldn't help the satisfied moan that sounded in her throat once she had taken the first bite. Opening her eyes after reaching a safe point between starvation and hunger, she found Clark giving her a strange look. She grinned at him and he immediately dropped his gaze.

She arched an eyebrow and picked up a chip. "An expose on a negligent company is a pretty good news piece but somehow I think that there's more to the story."

Clark lowered his sandwich and swallowed the bite he had been chewing. "Chemical companies are not guided by a watchdog association like most other industries," he explained. "The FDA pretty much leaves it up to them to make their own rules and abide by them. Most of the time, they find out that their by-products are toxic only after people have died. If this story gains the attention that I think it will, it might put some pressure on the government to do something about it."

"I guess that makes you Erin Brokovich," Lois concluded, reaching for another chip. "Cyphren is the number one producer of plastics in North America. I think I remember hearing something about them looking to build a plant in Costa Rica. If that's true, then it sounds to me like they are planning on spreading that dominance into the southern hemisphere."

Clark nodded. "My research has shown that they have already broken ground down there. Metropolis is their current headquarters -- the main plant is located in the Riverside Industrial Sector -- but the Research and Development Center is housed in Ilium Heights."

"So, we'll get some more information from your source and then talk to some of my contacts down at Riverside." Lois sat back feeling satisfied that they had a plan of action. The planning stages of an investigation were necessary, but not quite as fun as the other parts.

"Miss Lane, perhaps we should..."

Lois gave him an odd look. "If we're going to be friends, you cannot call me that. It's Lois."

Clark frowned. 'Friends' was not something he was after. "Um, if you don't mind, I would rather not... I mean, I feel that it would be best if we maintained a professional..."

"Okay, okay," Lois sighed, fanning a hand in a dismissing motion. "Well, you're going to have to use both of my names because Mrs. Lane is my mother and I will not have you driving me crazy by making me think that she is behind my back every other minute." She laughed to herself. "That would be enough to drive *anyone* crazy, believe me."

Clark took a breath and rubbed his chin. "All right, Miss... Lois Lane. I think that maybe..."

Unable to take the ridiculousness of the sound of her full name and title used as an address, Lois tilted her head back and laughed aloud.

Clark halted at the sudden sound of her easy laughter and looked away to hide the smile that escaped his lips in spite of his best intentions. He had to admit that the way he'd said her name did sound ridiculous. Turning back, he noticed that Lois was watching him curiously, and he forced himself to sit up straighter. He had taken his suit jacket off when they sat down to eat, and now he felt bare without it.

Lois took in his rolled up sleeves and thought he almost looked relaxed. *Almost* being the key observation. "There it is," she said in mock wonder.

"There what is?"

"Your smile," she replied softly. "I thought for a minute there that maybe you didn't smile because you feared cracking your face." She met his gaze. "You have a nice smile -- you should use it more often."

Clark's posture stiffened immediately and she watched as he focused his attention on finishing his second sandwich. Lois knew that he had allowed her to see something he was reluctant to show and was now trying to withdraw.

"So, where are you from?" she asked in an attempt to keep him from going totally stoic on her.

"I'm not sure that where I'm from is relevant to the sto..." Clark stopped himself. He realized that if he didn't give her some information she was going to get suspicious. After all, he was a reporter too. He knew the cues. "Sorry... I'm from Kansas."

To her credit, Lois kept her expression in check as she added another mental note to her tally. "That's interesting," she said. "I couldn't really tell from your accent. I mean, some of your words sounded Midwestern, but then there were others that were different. I've never heard quite a combination like that."

Clark felt a muscle in his jaw tense and forced himself to stop gritting his teeth. She was even sharper than he had previously guessed. He silently warned himself to tread lightly.

"I've done a lot of travelling." He made a small hand movement to indicate a flying airplane. "Quite a lot of it, actually. You tend to pick up different inflections as you go."

"I bet," Lois remarked. "How many languages do you speak?"

Clark frowned. "I never really counted. I wouldn't say that I'm fluent in all of them -- I just know enough to converse really." He decided that it was time to change the subject, or at least the subject matter. "How about you? Do you travel much?"

"Believe it or not, no. I mean, not any more. I go all over New Troy, California a couple of times a year, D.C. on assignment more than a few times, but I rarely get out of the country." She raised a hand in mock salute. "I was actually born outside of the country -- Germany, I'm an army brat twice over -- but my parents went stateside after a few stints in France, and Argentina. Mom got tired of moving us so we've been here ever since."

She smirked. "Not that I've really had the time to travel or anything. With Metropolis being the largest metropolitan city in the nation, there's enough here to keep me in trouble. How were your sandwiches?" she asked incredulously, noticing that there were nothing but crumbs remaining on his tray.

Clark looked down distractedly. "Oh -- they were very good, thanks. Are you finished?"

"Yes... Do you eat like that all the time?" When he shrugged and nodded, Lois looked astonished. "I don't see where it all goes."

Biting back a grin, Clark stood and gathered their garbage from the table. "I have a high metabolism," he offered, turning to walk to the trash bin on the other side of the deli.

"Very high," Lois muttered, tilting her head. The sound of her phone interrupted her reverie and she blushed upon realizing what part of his 'metabolism' she had been focusing her gaze on. With a mental slap, she pulled the phone to her ear. "Lane."

"Perry's looking for you."

"Oh, Jimmy, hey. I was about to call you back. What's up?"

"Nothing for me. I was calling earlier because a call came in about that Pine Street thing, but then Chief told me you were no longer on it."

"What does Perry need?"

"He said he got a call from a US Daily correspondent or something like that. It was someone trying to get a hold of Mr. Kent."

"Tell Perry we're on our way back to the pit now. We should be there in five minutes."

"Got it."

"Thanks, Jim," she said, flipping the phone shut and tossing it back into her bag.

She pulled the untouched papers back into their folder and grabbed Kent's jacket from the back of his chair. Meeting him halfway as he made his way back across the shop, she used her free hand to pull him toward the door.

"Is something wrong?" he asked with a furrowed brow, stepping past her to open the door first.

Lois looked up at him with an excited glint in her eye. "We got a call on the case," she informed him, ignoring the fact that technically *he* was the one that had gotten the call.

Clark fell into step beside her as they walked back to the Daily Planet building. As they stepped onto the elevator, Lois handed him his jacket.

"Thanks." He unrolled his sleeves and slid the jacket back on.

When they disembarked from the elevator car, Perry stuck his head out of his office door. "You two, my office. Pronto," he yelled gruffly.

Reporters around the newsroom glanced up curiously upon hearing their colleagues being addressed. They were surprised to hear their editor speak that way to a visitor.

"Welcome to the Daily Planet family," Lois said with a smirk.

She idly wondered how Perry had known they were the ones getting off of the elevator right then. She had an amusing mental image of her boss poking his head out of his office every time the elevator dinged. It was a comical version of a Jack-in-the-Box.

She was still smiling at the thought when she spotted Jimmy by Roger Friaz's desk. She waved a hand in the general direction of Perry's office. "Go ahead. I'll be right there," she told Clark, leaving him so that she could corner Jimmy.

Clark followed her retreat with his eyes for a brief moment before continuing on to Perry's office. He stopped just outside the open door.

"Come in, Son, come in," Perry beckoned. "I got a call from a Thomas Hale. He tells me that he's got some information for you but would only settle for a call back." He tapped a pink slip of paper on his desk.

"I tried to tell him we were all friends here, but he said you would know to call. You know, Kent, reporters are a suspicious bunch. They don't trust easy and they have good reasons for that. Heck, for all Mr. Hale knew, I could have been the copy boy answering the editor's phone."

Perry held out the paper but pulled it back slightly when Clark reached for it. "It reminds me of the time the King was getting ready to record 'Blue Suede Shoes...'"


Lois sidled up next to Jimmy, speaking in a hushed tone. "I need a full workup on Clark Kent," she told him. "I want to know where he's been, where he's going, who he knows, and who knows him -- everything."

"A workup on Mr. Kent?" Jimmy repeated. "He doesn't look like he has anything to hide."

"Journalism 101, Jim. Everyone has something to hide, and it's the people who least look like it who usually have the biggest secrets."

Jimmy had been working with Lois long enough to know not to argue. "When do you need it?" he asked, mentally adding it to the list of things he had on his plate for the next day.

"Oh... take your time -- just have it to me before I leave tonight."

"Tonight! Lois, it's almost 5:30... that could take hours!"

Lois smiled at him sweetly and reached over to pat his cheek. "Guess you'd better get started." As she began walking toward Perry's office, another thought came to her mind. "Also, call over to Metropolis Transit. I need the number for somebody in maintenance."

Jimmy muttered under his breath and took off in the direction of the mailroom. From experience, he knew that there he would have unmonitored access to computers, fax machines and phones.

Lois entered the office just as Perry was getting into his story.

"You said there was a call," she inserted when he paused to take a breath.

"Oh, the call, right. I was just about to give Kent, here, the phone."

Lois shot an amused glance at Clark. "No, we don't want to occupy your line, Chief. He can use my phone." She arched an eyebrow at Clark. "Do you have what you need?"

"Uh..." Clark turned to Perry and retrieved the pink slip. "I do now."

"Remind me to finish that story sometime," Perry called after them as they left the room.

When they reached her desk, Lois plopped down into the visitor's chair, letting Clark sit in the desk chair while he made his call. When he returned the handset to the cradle, she leaned forward with anticipation. "Well?"

Clark frowned down at the notes he had taken during his call. "This is crazy," he said, running a hand through his previously perfectly poised hair. "Tom intercepted a fax from my source's wife. She says he's gone."

"Your source is gone? Are you saying he left or that he disappeared?" The options sounded the same, but Lois knew that one had a more ominous implication than the other -- especially when there was a potential whistleblower involved.

"I'm not sure. The message was cryptic enough -- it just mentioned that her husband was 'not available' and would not be for an extended period of time. She wrote that she was asked to pass that message on to me."

Lois tapped a pen against the desk top. "It sounds pretty straight forward on the surface," she replied thoughtfully. "That is, unless the message that she needs to pass on has to do with his unavailability."

Clark rubbed his jaw. He knew that he needed to make a trip to Ilium Heights soon or any of the clues that he was going to be able to pick up would be gone. His best bet would be to fly out there and do some digging. If he went about it his way, he could be there and back in a couple of hours.

The only problem was that he now had a partner and there would be no way to explain how he'd obtained the information so fast. As much as he hated traveling in airplanes, he knew that he was going to have to play this one by the book. He had to keep things from looking suspicious.

"Well, we'd better go and take a look."

Lois's declaration pulled him from his thoughts. "What? No, that's okay. I can go out there myself," he responded. "It would go quicker if someone was here getting the scoop on this end at the same time." He picked up the phone again. "I'll just schedule a flight out tonight and..."

Lois stood and put a finger on the phone's base, effectively cutting off the open line. "Does this look like Little House on the Prairie to you?" she asked with narrowed eyes. "You know, some show where you go off and explore while I wait with a cup of tea and doilies?"

"Doilies?" Clark repeated with a confused expression.

Lois ignored him and kept talking. "Let me tell you something. No one..." She put the pointer finger of her opposite hand in the center of his chest. "No. One. Pushes me out of a story."

She pulled her hand away and smiled. "We've still got plenty of time to get hold of some local contacts today. We'll do what we can here and then go to Ilium Heights tomorrow." She released the phone. "And we can drive. It's barely a five hour trip."

Clark sighed and shook his head in defeat. This is why he worked alone... Well, it was *one* of the reasons why he worked alone. He began dialing the telephone number of his source's wife so he could schedule a meeting with her sometime the next afternoon.

Satisfied that he was seeing things her way, Lois glanced at her watch and stalked to a colleague's vacated desk nearby and commandeered the phone.

Fifteen minutes later, she returned to inform Clark that they were scheduled to take a tour of the R&D Center of Cyphren Chemical Corp the next day. Clark then reported that he had been able to get the wife to meet with them later in the afternoon.

"Looks like we're out of research assistants," Lois observed, scanning the thinning population in the newsroom. "They speed out of here at quitting time so fast you would think there is a factory whistle attached to the clock. Let's go into the conference room again. This desk wasn't built for two."

She moved to stand next to the desk chair Clark was sitting in. "I just need to shut down my computer..."

"Right, sorry." Clark lifted from her chair and picked the folder up off of her desk.

When he had gone inside the meeting room, Lois sent a quick text message to Jimmy instructing him to 'deliver the package' to her house that night. When she received confirmation that the message had been sent, she logged off and shut the machine down.



*And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.*

-- Roald Dahl

Lois and Clark spent the next few hours discussing their investigative options. Clark's research showed that the chemical by-products from the production processes were usually problem areas for chemical companies like Cyphren. Lois estimated that they would need to stay in New Troy overnight to ensure that they would have enough time to search the grounds for any stagnant water or runoff pools to get samples. She also figured that they would need to talk to hospital officials about possible side effects that the workers could be experiencing.

They finished a little before nine and Clark offered her a ride home. Lois had taken the metro to work that morning, so she gratefully accepted his offer.

"No, really. It's okay," Lois assured him as she closed the door to his rental car.

"I'd feel better if I walked you to your door... at least I would know that you got inside safely."

"I hardly think anything could happen to me inside of the building, Clark. It's just two flights of stairs and the halls are well lit," she told him, amused at his stubborn good manners.

By that time, they had reached the top stoop at the outer door to Lois's apartment building. Clark knew that she was probably right about her safety, and that it was highly unlikely something sinister would happen once she was beyond that door, but something inside of him wouldn't allow him to leave her there. Mentally cursing his unfailing etiquette, he roughly ran a hand through his hair and watched her unlock the door.

Lois's peripheral glance caught an expression on Clark's face that she was beginning to recognize as evidence of his having conflicting emotions about something. Feeling benevolent, she decided to end his inner turmoil and allow him to walk her to her apartment door.

If he was lucky, she might even let him swat a fly out of the way, she thought with a chuckle.

Facing him, she smiled and invited him through the open door. "Well, you're practically inside already, so come on up."

Clark followed her silently up the stairs, keeping his attention on the shadows. Lois was convinced he suffered from a bout of paranoia and she was further puzzled when he stared intently at the door to her apartment before nodding as if satisfied with the wood grain.


Lucy Lane was in the bathroom brushing her hair when she heard the first key turn in the lock. After a few unsatisfied expose subjects had made their unhappiness known over the years, Lois had insisted on having seven different dead bolts installed on the door and demanded that they be locked at all times. The problem was that it took forever to find the correct key for each lock when you wanted to get in. Lucy laughed at the thought of what her sister would do if she were really being chased down the hallway.

"Probably run to someone else's door because she wouldn't be able to get this one open," she muttered to herself as she jogged to the door and began unlocking the bolts from the inside.

"Lois! Where have you been..." Lucy's words faltered as she noticed the well-built man standing in the hall behind her sister. "Hi, who are you?"

"Lucy!" Lois glared at the younger version of herself. "Sorry," she offered, shrugging apologetically in Clark's direction. "This is my little sister Lucy. Luce, this is Clark Kent from the US Daily. We're working on a story together."

"Hmmm," Lucy murmured, stepping back into the apartment and holding the door open. "So, Mr. Kent, do you want something to drink... or eat? I cooked."

Lois raised her eyebrows in surprise and regarded her sister warily.

Clark made no move toward the open door, shoving both of his hands into his pockets. "No," he answered, shaking his head. "I'm just going to get something at the hotel. I, uh, guess I should be going." Taking a step back, he faced Lois. "I'll be by to pick you up in the morning."

"You really don't have to pick me up. I can meet you at your hotel and we can take my car. It doesn't make much sense for you to come over here when your hotel is on the way out anyway."

"The car is already on my expense report and the miles are unlimited. It would be a waste if we didn't use it. I don't mind."

"She'll be ready," Lucy interjected. "What time will you be here?"

Lois gaped soundlessly at her sister, wondering what had gotten into her.

Clark waited for Lois to look back at him. When she nodded agreement to his silent question, he replied, "Four-thirty?"

Lois groaned. "Make it five. We won't hit any traffic and we'll still make it in plenty of time for the meeting."

He nodded and looked at Lucy. "Miss Lane," he said in parting. He gave both women a curt wave and started down the hall.

Lois stepped through the open door and into the apartment as Lucy craned her neck to watch Clark's retreating figure. Lois shook her head and dropped her bag onto the couch as she passed on the way to her room.

Quickly changing into some baggy sweats, she walked into the kitchen. "You cooked?" she asked disbelievingly.

Lucy was leaning against the kitchen counter waiting for her. Lois peered into the pot on the stove and laughed. "Mac and cheese? That's dinner?"

"Hey! You know it's my favorite meal! Besides, it's one of the major food groups when you're in college."

"Yeah, I know," Lois agreed with a laugh. "This is starch. What about the vegetables? The bread?"

"See -- I knew you would say that. There's a spinach salad in the fridge and I can make you some toast if you want."

Lois carried her bowl of pasta to the table and set it down next to a large manila envelope. "What's this?"

"Oh, Jimmy brought that by earlier. He said something about researching a story for you... Where are you going tomorrow?"

Lois pulled out a chair and sat down. She opened the envelope and spread the papers across the table. "Ilium Heights -- but only for tomorrow and tomorrow night. I'll be back some time Friday," she answered around a mouthful of cheesy noodles.

Lucy's head spun around from where she was making Lois's salad at the kitchen counter.

"On the story," Lois said without turning around. She instinctively knew what kind of look her sister was giving her.

Lucy turned back to her creation. "It's a shame he had to pay for a hotel room for just one night. He could have stayed in my bed."


"I would have bunked with you, of course," Lucy added dramatically. "Unless... you'd have wanted a different arrangement? *Your* bed perhaps..."


Lucy giggled and walked behind Lois, reaching over her sister's shoulder to set the salad on the table. She glanced at the papers Lois was reading. "You're investigating *him*?!"

The younger woman walked around the small table and sat heavily in the opposite chair.

"Stop looking at me like that," Lois contested with a grimace. She had no reason to feel guilty about her project but she was beginning to anyway.

"Do you investigate every guy you're interested in?" Lucy asked, crossing her arms on her chest.

"I'm not interested in him. We're working together. That's all."

"You know, sometimes it makes for a better relationship when you don't know all the details about the other person right off the bat. Have you ever heard of the whole 'getting to know you' phase?"

"Luce, I told you, this is just about work. I have to trust my reputation to this guy and I need to know who he is -- what he's about. Besides, you might want to do a little more research on some of your dates," Lois threw back at her, using her fork to point in emphasis. "He's not my type."

"He is *so* your type. Tall, dark, fabulous body, dreamy eyes... courteous. Heck, he's everybody's type!" Lucy sighed, "Lo- I just want you to be happy. You never date, and when you do, you have interviews."

"I do not have interviews!" After a beat she said, "Okay, maybe I do. But I'm not upset about where my life is at right now. We've been over this. I put everything on the side so that I could get my career together. I still have friends. I still go out and have fun. I'm just not ready to complicate things with the whole dating scene right now. My type is more than looks, Lucy. I don't want to fall in love."

"Tell that to your heart when it happens," Lucy retorted under her breath. Aloud, she mused, "I wonder if he's married."

"He's not," Lois quipped. "What? There was no ring and no tan line. A reporter notices those things!"

"Um hmmm. A *woman* notices those things too. Did you happen to notice that he's very attractive?"

"He's quite good-looking," Lois agreed. "But there's something else about him that I just can't put my finger on... He's quiet and closed one minute, but open and expressive the next. His manners are archaic... but flattering in a way."

Lois picked at a piece of lettuce. "I wonder what he's hiding beneath all those layers..."

"A-ha!" Lucy said, smiling.

"A-ha, what?"

"You're an onion."

Lois frowned. "I'm an onion?"

"Lois Lane cannot stand not knowing the answer to any puzzle. I think our Mr. Kent has tapped into something beneath *your* layers and you're intrigued by it."

"What is all that psycho-babble supposed to mean?" Lois asked teasingly. Lucy was a psychology major at the University of Southern California. "I don't have layers. What you see is what you get."

"So, what happened with Paul?"

"Paul?! I can't believe you are bringing him up. That was years ago! You know exactly what happened with Paul. It just didn't work out -- we were both too young."

"And Claude?"

"Lucy, what is this, the Royal Inquisition? I told you, Claude was a bit too aggressive -- he wanted to get serious before I was ready."

"You'd been seeing him off and on for over two years."

"Mostly off," Lois reminded.

"Perspective," Lucy countered.

"He was a fun date, but I wasn't looking for a boyfriend." Lois was starting to get annoyed with her sister's line of questioning. "What does this have to do with my investigation?"

"Nothing. Just that for the first time, *you* are the one doing the pursuing."

"I'm not pursuing anything but a story!" Lois exclaimed, flustered.

Lucy's attempt at choking back a laugh ended in a coughing fit. Catching the menacing look Lois was sending her way, she decided to press a few more buttons. "So, this overnight trip... Are you going undercover?"

Relieved that her sister was changing to a safer subject, Lois shook her head. "No, actually we've got a couple of meetings and some looking around to do."

"That's too bad."

"What is?"

"The undercover thing," the younger woman said, rising to stand behind her chair. "Ilium Heights is an amazing vacation spot. You guys could have pretended to be newlyweds at one of the vineyards... You know, taken advantage of those fabulous Honeymoon suites. Imagine that man in nothing but black silk boxers -- Even Lois Lane wouldn't be able to resist that!"

"Lucy!" Lois burst out laughing, searching for something to throw, all while trying to remove the imagery that Lucy had painted from her mind.

Lucy ducked as a wadded up napkin sailed past her head. Laughing, she raised both hands in surrender. "Okay. Okay, I'm done." When both women had calmed down, Lucy sighed. "You're going to miss me when I go back to school."

"You're wrong," Lois challenged. "I'm missing you already."

Lucy rounded the table and wrapped her arms around Lois from behind, pulling her into a tight hug. "I'm going to go take a shower," she whispered, releasing her big sister and walking out of the kitchen.

"Why couldn't you hug me *after* you were clean?" Lois called, hearing Lucy laugh as she entered the guest room.

Every time Lucy stayed with her for the summer, it was just like old times. They'd been really close when they were younger, but now the geographical distance made it hard for them to see each other as much as they wanted to. Her baby sister was also her best friend, and it felt good to be able to tease her and be teased back without hard feelings.

Clearing the table and heading into the living room so she could settle in front of the television, Lois became lost in her memories.


Thirteen year old Lois Lane was sitting at the dining nook reading through a copy of the Daily Planet. Her father's career had just taken him to Germany for a three-year project and her mother hadn't wanted to take them out of school again. They had finally found a place to settle -- Metropolis.

"Sweetie," Ellen Lane started, coming to the table after finishing the breakfast dishes. "I'm going to need your help."

Lois looked up from the paper and glanced over into the living room where nine-year-old Lucy was watching Saturday morning cartoons. She figured that her mother was going to ask her to braid Lucy's hair or something.

"With Daddy gone on his trip, and with you girls in school all day, I've decided to go back to school to get my doctorate degree. I would like to be able to get into administration."

Ellen had been an Army Corps registered nurse when she and Sam Lane had first met. They had continued working together after they married, but Ellen took leave when Lois was born. She had been so excited over the birth of her first child that she'd stopped working to ensure that she would be there for every waking moment.

As a nurse, Ellen had seen first hand the consequences of homes where the parents were too preoccupied for their children, and she felt it to be a privilege to be with her daughters.

Lois blinked, frowning. Her mother had always been there when school let out and she was always planning or hosting some dinner event for her father and his colleagues. She couldn't quite understand what it would be like without these standards she'd grown up with.

"Well, if you're going to school too, then we'll all get back home at the same time, right?"

Ellen laughed and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind Lois's ear. "No, honey. See, my classes will be at different times. There will be days that I'll need to leave really early, even before your school starts, and then, some days I will have to come home late."

Lois nodded. It didn't sound too bad to her.

"So, we're all going to have to chip in, okay?"

"We're Lane girls, Mom," Lois said, repeating what her father always called the three of them. "We can do it. We can do anything."

"I know, hon. You girls are getting bigger now and you don't need me like you used to. With Daddy being gone, there are no parties to plan so my days are long and kind of boring."

She smiled conspiratorially at her oldest daughter. "Besides, with nothing to do, I'd probably resort to drinking out of boredom, and I have a feeling that I would make a lousy drunk."


Chuckling aloud at the memory, Lois recalled that life for the Lane Girls had changed considerably in the following years. Her father's project was extended from three to five years, and his visits home were never long enough for any of them. Her mother graduated after three years but instead of returning their schedule to normal, it heightened in uncertainty as she held a position at Metropolis General and taught a class at the university.

As it turned out, Lois had become a surrogate parent for Lucy as more and more time was spent with just the two of them. On the days when their mother had an early class, Lucy would ride the bus to the high school with Lois and sit through part of her first class with her. When it was time for the middle school down the street to start, Lucy would walk the short distance. When the Journalism Club held meetings after school, Lucy would lounge in another part of the library doing her homework until it was time for them both to ride the metro home.

Lucy had been Lois's taste-tester over the years as she learned to cook, both to feed them their after school snacks, and to prepare dinner on Ellen's late nights. Lois had learned to add a little extra milk and a slice of cheese to the boxed macaroni mix, just like her little sister liked. Some nights, when they both were feeling lonely, they would end up sharing the bed in one of their rooms.

Of course, acting like a parent to Lucy had caused some tension. They'd had their share of fights, especially when Lois had to be the authority figure, but thankfully, the anger had never lasted too long. They still laughed about the time when Lois, a college junior, had to go to the high school for Lucy's parent night.

Sam's stint in Germany had since ended and he moved back to work on a project based in Metropolis. Finally, he and her mother were back together again.

Lois finally blinked to attention as she caught sight of the face of the clock on the wall. "Crap!"

Frantically flipping through the papers Jimmy had given her, she finally found the post-it note she had seen earlier but set aside. Leaning from the place on the floor she was using as her command post, she grabbed the cordless phone and tapped in the phone number Jimmy had found for Metropolis Public Transit.

She was silently praying that it wasn't too late for someone to be in Maintenance when a teenage voice answered the line.

"This is Lois Lane from The Daily Planet. I need some information on one of your buses."

"The Daily Planet? Is this for some type of drug bust?" the kid asked excitedly.

Lois rolled her eyes. "No, I'm looking to see if there was a distinctive mark reported on bus 306."

"Hmmm. 306 is a route number. Any bus could have been on that route. Did you get the bus id number?"

"I thought that *was* the bus id number. 306 is all that I saw. Where would I have seen its id?"

"It's on the back of the bus."

Lois's head dropped back and she glared at the ceiling. She hadn't gone around to the *back* of the bus. "Look, it was around 4:30 this afternoon. Do you think you could look it up?"

"Oh, yeah, I guess I can. Ha!" He sounded amazed that he could do something with the computers. "Uh, give me a sec."

Lois sighed impatiently.

"Hey, I got it!" the teen yelled, causing Lois to pull the phone away from her ear. "Yeah! The id number is 8508761! Sweet. I didn't know I could do that."

"Okay. Great -- hey, what's your name?" Lois asked, trying to redirect the kid's enthusiasm.


"Okay, Ted. Now, how about you see if bus number 850... whatever, was brought in yet?"

"How would I know that?"

Lois held her breath for a few seconds. "Ted... do drivers sign their buses in when they bring them back to the station?"

"Sure. Oh! I'll check the list... Yeah, it came in after the day shift. It was scheduled to go out on route 425 this evening, but was held back."

Lois sat up a little straighter at that piece of information. "Why?"

"Uh... it says here that the driver requested a brake check."

Lois nodded. Now they were getting somewhere. "Does it say anything about a dent?"

"Nope, only that it underwent ding removal."

She couldn't help but laugh at that. "How about the ding? Is there a description -- maybe something about it being out of the ordinary in location or size?"

"No. Buses come in with dings all the time. They wouldn't think that was strange."

"This one was in the middle of the hood. It would have had to be caused by a battering ram."

"Maybe that's what happened," Ted replied helpfully.

"Thanks. I guess that's all I need," Lois replied with some disappointment.

"Are you going to quote me in your article?"

"I'll think about it," she said, shaking her head. "Hey, Ted?"


"Stay in school. It's good for you."

Hanging up, Lois tossed the phone onto the couch behind her and turned her attention back to the papers spread around her on the floor. Grabbing the remote, she turned the television on for some background noise while she worked.


Clark sat at the desk in his hotel room dressed in boxers and a T-shirt, massaging the back of his neck with one hand. His other hand was holding the telephone to his ear. Both of his parents were listening on the other line.

"Yeah, we're headed north in the morning. We set out at five."

"So, what is she like?" his mother asked.

"I don't know. She's different... complicated. Stubborn, tenacious, and demanding. I can never tell what she's going to do next but she has everything calculated. Like when we were brainstorming tonight... it's hard to explain. I'm going to have to be careful around her. She's... really sharp," he ended, diffused.

In Kansas, Martha Kent shot an amused glance at her husband, Jonathan, who returned a look of disapproval. The look that Martha followed with cautioned him to keep quiet.

In response, Jonathan sighed. "Did anything else happen today?"

Clark knew what his father was really asking. "Well, I stopped a bus outside of the Planet."

"You did what?!"

"We were getting ready to cross the street and this bus was about to hit an elderly lady."

Clark mentally kicked himself. He'd promised himself he wouldn't use his abilities ever again. Especially not in a public place, but he couldn't very well have ignored the bus, could he? He couldn't have let the lady die right in front of his eyes.

Yet, if her were honest, he had to admit that he hadn't even thought about it. He had simply found himself in a position to stop the vehicle instinctively. Placing an outstretched arm forward when the bus was within reach, he'd brought it to a stop. Seeing the print left from the impact, he'd had to think quickly, and moved his hand in a clockwise motion, denting the metal in an attempt to camouflage the impression. Yes -- he was going to have to be careful.

"Was Miss Lane there?"

"Yes, she was next to me on the curb when I saw the bus but I don't think she noticed anything unusual. Her phone had just rung and her attention was on that."

"Clark, you know you can't do those things in public," his father began. "And now that you've got that reporter tailing you around..."

"Dad, I know. I'm a reporter too. I know what kind of danger it is. I'll be careful. I hadn't wanted her to work with me but I had no choice."

"What happened with the bus?" Martha asked.

"I didn't even mean to do it. I saw the bus. I saw the lady, and immediately, without even thinking about it, I was there," Clark answered. He kept the information about the dent in the hood to himself, knowing that it would only serve to make his father anxious.

"How did it make you feel?" Martha asked, already knowing the answer.

Clark sighed. "Good. It felt really good to help like that. I probably saved her life. I... It's just so hard sometimes to... I couldn't watch that happen knowing that I could do something to prevent it."

Martha nodded, looking pointedly at her husband.

"You've got a lot at stake here, Clark. I just want you to be careful." Jonathan sighed again. "Well, I better go shut down the barn. Watch yourself, Son."

"I will," Clark replied softly, but his father had already hung up his extension. After a moment of silence, he asked, "How is he?"

"Oh, honey," his mother replied sympathetically, "he's doing fine."

"Has he... Has he had any more of his episodes?"

"Well," Martha started. She considered lying but knew that Clark would be able to tell. "He had one a few hours ago..."

Clark sat up straighter in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I should come home. I'll just cancel the trip tomorrow and I'll be there as soon as..."

"No, Clark," Martha interrupted. "Everything's fine now. He's okay. You go on your trip. Besides, you know that it is the first one he's had in weeks."

"I *do* know that, but they used to not come for months at a time," Clark said. He let out a slow breath. "They're getting closer together, Mom. I should... I mean... you know."

"No, what you need to do is stay there and keep working. You can get to the bottom of this, Clark, I know you can."

Clark rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Okay," he mumbled. "I guess I should go."

"I love you, sweetheart. Go ahead and get some rest."

"I love you too, Mom." He paused, knowing that he was supposed to say something else. "Could you tell him for me... tell him that I, uh...that I..."

Martha sighed, and Clark could sense her disappointment. "I'll tell him."

Clark sighed as well. It was so easy to say the words to his mother, but to anyone else... "I'm sorry."

"I know, honey. Have a good night."

After bidding his mother goodnight, Clark sat and listened to the silent line until the dial tone sounded. He replaced the phone to its base and stood, walking over to the window and staring at the stars.

He clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides, feeling restless, helpless, and a little bit claustrophobic. He opened the window and closed his eyes, taking a moment to inhale the crispness of the night air. Slowly, he turned back into the room and plopped onto the bed, flipping on the television in an attempt to divert his attention from what was happening in Smallville.

The end of a news report caused him to sit upright with a start. There was nothing he could do about what was going on at home, but there was somewhere in the world where he could make a difference. Seconds later, he was leaving the hotel through the rear entrance dressed in faded jeans and a dark t-shirt.


Lois frowned and searched through the various papers around her for an article with a picture. Jimmy had pulled together an amazing amount of information considering the short time she had given him. She made a mental note to thank him -- he was invaluable to her, but she knew that she didn't always express how much she appreciated him.

Clark Kent was indeed from Kansas -- Smallville, Kansas in fact; she couldn't have made that name up. His birth date made him a few months older than she was, and he had attended college at a large public university in Manhattan, Kansas. He had been a star player on the football team, although he had gotten into the school on an academic scholarship. For all of his accomplishments, Lois found it odd that none of the articles showed a clear picture of him. Even his athletic profile from the school's website had claimed that no photo had ever been available.

It just didn't make sense.

A few years after college, Clark had become an international freelance journalist for the New York based US Daily News; all of his submissions coming from remote corners of the world. He'd been everywhere except for the United States up until two years earlier. Still, with all of that information, there were no clear images of his face, and he wasn't even in the US Daily staff photo.

She picked up another Xeroxed article showing the Kansas State University football team in celebration after a win. The caption told her that Clark Kent was the player in the foreground, but his face was turned so that all that was visible was his left profile. She leaned closer to the photo for a better look, but the grainy texture of the black and white image made getting closer to the image worse on its clarity. Frustrated, Lois sat back, irrationally wondering if Clark was purposely dodging the camera.

Putting down the photo, she picked up another report of several pages. Jimmy had dutifully run an airline charter search. Clark hadn't been lying when he said that he traveled a lot. Going through the list of flights he'd taken in the last five years, Lois tried to mentally flag the cities on a world map. An idea struck and she began simultaneously flipping through the Xeroxed articles and matching the settings with the charter listings. In contrast to what she would have expected, the dates of Kent's flights were sometimes a day after, or the day of, the event the article chronicled.

She narrowed her eyes in thought but was suddenly distracted when a loud burst of canned laughter erupted from the television. Grimacing, she grabbed the remote and changed the channel to LNN.

"...danger. We now turn you over to our Central American LNN affiliate for more details on this impending tragedy."

"Thank you, Carmen. As you can see, the greatest damage was done here when the Casitas volcanic crater that towers over the city spewed ash earlier today. That toxic emission mixed with the nonstop downpour is creating a very perilous situation."

As the camera panned to show images of the destruction, Lois turned her attention to the message ticker that scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

'Mudslide hits Caribbean coastal region in the wake of Hurricane Marco.'

"The rains have not yet died down enough to allow additional resources into the area. International aid agencies have promised to send workers, but many are being delayed due to the storm. Kevin Sarimento is live at the scene. Kevin?"

The black-haired reporter's response was a bit delayed as the news anchor's words were transmitted across satellite waves. "Yes. This is a picture of Mount Casitas before the storm. You can see here that at the base of the mountain there are a number of villages. It is the fear now that the mudslide has destroyed these homes. I'm here at the closest position available to the actual site without being in direct danger. This is also where the rescue attempts are being based. Many of the workers are actually residents of nearby cities who were able to evacuate during the early onslaught of the storm."

The affiliate news anchor broke in again, "Kevin, can you tell us what the casualty rate is at this point?"

"We can't be sure, but there are more than 2,000 people unaccounted for. I want to emphasize that it is still early and people are continuing to be pulled out as we speak, much due to the tireless work of volunteers like this one."

The reporter pointed to a mud-covered man who was carrying another man toward a wind blown aid tent.

"Sir! Sir, can we talk to you?" he called when aid workers intercepted them and took the victim away.

The man yelled something indistinct back that was obviously in a different language and gestured over his shoulder. The camera zoomed in to get a better shot of the rescuer, but he turned away right before the shot cleared.

Lois gasped as she watched the man run back toward the flooding water. The LNN anchor then came on the screen saying that this was likely to top the record as far as devastation from a hurricane in that part of the world. They then began to detail past disasters and their casualty rates.

Lois pushed papers aside furiously as she searched for the photo of the football team. The television had missed the man's face, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway, because it was covered with mud. The side profile, though, was remarkably similar to the one of Clark Kent in the newspaper photo. The build of the rescuer on television couldn't be compared as well since the football pads in the newspaper article exaggerated everything.

Lois knew she was reaching at strands. "This is crazy." She sighed and shuffled the papers into a stack before standing up. "Just a slight resemblance, that's all... and I need to pack."

Leaving the television on so she could hear the continued reports, she headed into her room.



*Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.*

-- Proverbs 4:23


Five o'clock came around much too early for Lois, and she was standing in the kitchen sipping a cup of coffee when she heard a knock at the front door. She opened the door to a Clark Kent who also looked like the morning had arrived too soon for his liking.

He was wearing dress pants and a button-up shirt without a tie. His tussled hair gave him a softer edge than the one she'd seen the day before.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Lois asked, stepping to the side to allow him to enter the apartment.

He hesitated at first, but then he nodded, obviously recognizing the need to inject some caffeine into his demeanor.

Lois poured a second mug of the brew and handed it to him, gesturing to the sugar and cream on the counter.

"If someone would bring me my coffee every morning before I dressed, I would be very happy. It would change the day," she muttered jokingly, returning to her mug.

"Did you see the coverage on that mudslide in the Caribbean?" she asked after a few minutes of both of them silently savoring their drinks.

"Yes, I saw it last night." Clark grimaced -- seeming to bring himself back from distant thoughts -- and added, "...on TV."

Lois found his addendum to be strange but didn't say anything. "It must be horrible there," she commented aloud, placing her empty mug in the sink.

"It was," he replied automatically. "I mean, it is. You're right. It looked horrible." He moved to fix his tie, and awkwardly moved to smooth his shirt instead when he realized it wasn't there.

Lois raised her eyebrows and picked up his empty mug, placing it in the sink next to hers. "Are you ready to go?"

At his nod she grabbed her purse and reached for her garment bag, but before she could remove it from the couch, Clark had taken it and was heading for the door. Shaking her head in mild exasperation, Lois followed and locked the door behind them.

Outside, she walked to the driver's side door of Clark's rental car and held her hand out for the keys. He looked confused for a moment before beginning to protest.

"Oh, uh, that's probably not a good idea, Miss... um, Lois. You're not on the paperwork and if we got pulled over..."

"We're not going to get pulled over," she admonished with a laugh. "I know these roads, and I know the speed traps. Hand 'em over... besides, you look like one of those map-reading kinds. Am I right?"

He sheepishly shrugged in response.

"I thought so," she said, smirking. "That makes you the navigator. We'll make great time, I promise."


Clark felt a gentle shake on his arm and slowly opened his eyes. When he glanced over to the driver's seat, he was momentarily taken aback by the aesthetic vision Lois created with the sun shining brightly behind her, framing her in its rays. Strands of her hair tossed wildly in the wind flowing through the open window, having escaped from the messy ponytail she had styled at some point during the drive.

In this hazy world that existed between sleep and wakefulness, Clark's gaze focused on the line of her neck, and as if acting with a will of its own, his left hand moved to replace a flailing strand. The sight of his arm rising from his lap snapped him back to attention, and he forced the wayward hand to his face instead, rubbing his eyes and brushing through his hair.

He cleared his throat and reached for the switch to move the seat upright.

Lois smiled and welcomed him back to the land of the living. "We're here," she announced. "Well, not here, here, but definitely close."

Clark blinked at the clock. "We made it in four hours?" he asked incredulously.

"I told you we'd make good time if I drove," Lois replied, turning to face him long enough to grin triumphantly.

Clark cleared his throat. He was a little shaken by the fact that he hadn't even realized that he'd fallen asleep. "Wow, okay, so it's 9:30... How far away are we from Cyphren's R&D facility?"

Lois gave him a sly look. "Do want to know mileage or time?"

The glint in her eye made him afraid to know the answer to either. "Uh..."

Laughing, Lois winked and pressed down the accelerator a little more.


Their tour guide, Bethany, welcomed them to the R&D facility and handed them each an orange visitor's badge and a press packet.

"Cyphren Chemical is the nation's leading manufacturer of plastics and has seen a growth in its stock value of over 30% in the last five months alone," Bethany began, leading them over to a flat screen display in a corner of the vast lobby. "We are on the brink of releasing a new Public Relations campaign and were quite pleased that The Daily Planet was interested in doing a story so early in the process."

As she turned to enter some commands in the touchpad next to the screen, Clark sent a questioning look in Lois's direction. The expression she returned indicated that he should play along.

"This is actually one of a series of commercials that will be running in a few weeks," Bethany explained as a video began playing on the screen.

The company's name and logo faded onto the screen accompanied with the background sound of a single heartbeat. Lively music using the beat as a baseline began playing as images of Cyphren produced products being used flashed across the screen. There was a shot of an infant holding a baby bottle with milk filling the plastic insert and then a close-up of a smiling child on brightly colored playground equipment at a day care center. Next, the screen showed a life-saving IV being installed in an emergency room, right before the scene switched to the headgear on a collegiate wrestler. From there, the focus became the baton as it was passed between two runners from the Olympic four-by-one team, and then to the braces on a smiling pre-teen.

The images kept transitioning into one another with clever editing techniques, morphing each plastic object into another until finally settling into the pacemaker on a smiling grandfather. The camera zoomed out to show the elderly man as he posed on a golf course with a mountain landscape at his back. Once again, the music trimmed down to the single heartbeat, and the tagline appeared in lively script on the bottom of the screen area. It read simply, 'Plastic: The Ingredient of Life.'

Bethany smiled as the video ended. "Cyphren employs engineers and scientists at the top of their fields to create products of the greatest quality for consumers. If you come this way, I will show you where the magic takes place."

The two reporters were shown a number of labs and sample production spaces that had been created to show the processes that workers went through to produce the products. Following a well-planned agenda, the tour was informative without revealing any trade secrets or giving glimpses of restricted areas.

As they were being led through a pristine hallway, Clark brought up the new production technique.

"Wow, I'm impressed, you really have done your homework," Bethany remarked. "The new system was just put into place at our main plant. The new technique uses a revolutionary binding compound that is both cheaper and faster to produce. Without a doubt, it will change the face of the industry as we know it. Things are going so well, in fact, that along with the PR campaign, Cyphren will be releasing 300,000 more shares of its stock to the market."

"How recent was this implementation?" Lois inquired.

Bethany looked thoughtful for a moment. "I really hate to guess but I think that they moved it to the Metropolis plant around six months ago after first testing it here."

"Is that a normal introductory timeframe for new techniques?"

"I really wouldn't know. I've been employed here for about a year and a half, and this has been the only implementation I've personally seen. I would have to assume that it is, though."

"What can you tell us about the company's disposal methods?" Clark asked as they neared the lobby again.

"Not much, I'm afraid, and unfortunately there aren't any scientists available at this time to answer your questions more thoroughly. Usually when I give these tours we have them along for the final Q&A, but with such short notice we had to do the best we could. I'm no expert, but I'll try to explain what I do know," Bethany replied, apologetically.

"When the chemicals are combined to make different compounds, there are usually byproducts created during the process. Depending on the nature of the byproduct, additional processes are employed to neutralize them for adequate disposal. As bizarre as it may seem, there are some reactions that have resulted in a byproduct of pure water!" She paused and smiled as if waiting for the two reporters to join in on her amazement. It was obviously a well rehearsed speech.

"While I wouldn't encourage drinking it, it is quite harmless. We have contracts with waste companies to take the other neutralized solutions and dispose of them as required by law. These final products range from liquids, to powders, to gaseous substances."

"Is there any way we could get more information about this new compound?" Lois asked innocently. "I mean, with the impact you say it's going to have, our readers are going to want as much information as possible."

"I'll tell you what," the tour guide conceded, "I'll call and see if you can meet with one of the resident scientists. I don't know what the company will be able to release since we are still working under patent protection. As far as I know, the patent will protect the particulars of the process from being released for at least twenty years. That said, it is unlikely that you'll be able to get the details, but it might be enough to help you with your article."

"That would be great," Lois said, handing the other woman a business card with her cell phone number scrawled on the back. "We're going to be in town until tomorrow afternoon, so if that meeting can be arranged before then, we would appreciate it."

Bethany took the card and nodded. "I'm really sorry that we weren't able to accommodate you today. It really is unfortunate that the senior staff happened to be out at the time of your visit."

"Unfortunate," Lois repeated dryly in agreement.

Promising to call them with the details if she could get a meeting set up, Bethany led them to the main doors of the lobby and retrieved their guest passes.


After the tour, they moved on to a tourist-influenced café on Main Street, the location Clark had arranged for the meeting with Dr. Wallace Kwolek's wife, Stephanie. Relieved when Lois agreed to sit at an outside table, Clark situated his chair to get the most of the available sunlight.

He had been occupied with the mudslide until four o'clock that morning, at which point he had raced back to his hotel for a quick shower before heading out to pick Lois up at her apartment. It was rare that he was faced with exhaustion, but he knew that the rare feeling had to be his current disposition. It was the only thing that could explain how he'd almost let his guard down earlier in the car with Lois.

Clark lived his life within a set of boundaries. Stroking the hair of a dangerous stranger was not within those limits.

"I think the eagle has landed," Lois said, interrupting his thoughts.

"The eagle?"

Lois rolled her eyes and nodded in the direction of a woman crossing the street. "Do you know what Mrs. Kwolek looks like?"

Clark shook his head. "We've never met." He hadn't even met Dr. Kwolek; their one conversation had been a rushed telephone call.

"Well, I think that's her," Lois said. She settled against the back of her chair and sipped her designer coffee.

Clark took another glance in the approaching woman's direction. "Why?"

Speaking over the rim of her cup, Lois explained, "She's got bags under her eyes, so it's obvious she's been spending her nights worrying about something, and she missed fastening the first and third buttons on her sweater. She's anxious... and she's trying to look for somebody without *looking* like she's trying."

Clark turned back to Lois and studied her in mild amazement. He had enhanced vision and hadn't even picked up on those things.

Lois met his gaze with a soft smile playing on her lips. "It's my job to look for inconsistencies."

The hairs on the back of Clark's neck rose to attention, but before he could analyze the reaction, the woman they had been watching reached the table.

"Mr. Kent?"

Pulling his eyes away from Lois, Clark pushed his chair back and rose. "Mrs. Kwolek? Hello." He shook her hand and then reached to pull a chair out for her. "Please, join us."

Stephanie Kwolek lowered into the offered chair and shot a nervous glance in Lois's direction.

"This is Lois Lane of the Daily Planet," he introduced. "We're working together on your husband's story."

"It's very nice to meet you, Mrs. Kwolek," Lois offered.

"Call me Stephanie. Thank you, it's nice to meet you too."

Once the introductions had been made, business began. Stephanie Kwolek described her husband's strange departure the day before. It wasn't unusual for Wallace to take unplanned trips for his work with Cyphren, and occasionally, he'd be required to attend conferences or meetings for different projects. What made this particular trip stand out in Stephanie's mind was the fact that he'd been accompanied by a Cyphren driver *inside* of the house, when normally they waited in the car.

"Was there anything other than the driver that was strange about your husband's departure?" Lois asked.

"Not that I can remember," Stephanie replied.

The conversation paused as their waiter returned with their lunch orders.

"Wallace packed an overnight bag, came back out to the living area and kissed me goodbye. He and the driver got into the Towne car, and that was it."

"I don't understand," Clark entered. "How did you know to call me?"

Stephanie picked at the dark lettuce of her salad distractedly. "A little while after he'd gone, I went to the bedroom and saw that the bedspread had been pulled back on my side of the bed. He must have known I would come and straighten it." She reached into her purse and pulled out a small manila envelope. "This was under the pillow."

Clark took the offered envelope from the woman and saw that his name, title, and fax number were scribbled on the front. Opening the brass clasp that held the envelope closed, he peered inside.

With a frown he looked from Stephanie to Lois.

Lois arched an eyebrow. "What is it?"

He tipped the small sachet over his hand and caught the little key that tumbled out onto his palm.

"It's the key to a safe-deposit box I didn't know my husband had," Stephanie told them. "When I went to the bank, I was told that I couldn't access the contents because I wasn't on the list."

Lois tilted her head. "Why would you give it Clark?"

"Because his name *was* on it."


Forty-five minutes later, Lois and Clark exited the Mission Savings and Loan Bank of New Troy with matching expressions of confusion. In his hand, Clark held a quart-sized plastic bag filled with small scraps of paper.

"Ice cream," Lois announced.

Clark's frown deepened as he failed to understand her meaning. "What?"

Lois pointed across the street to the neighboring strip mall. "Ice cream helps me think -- especially if it's chocolate."

Before Clark could respond, a loud shout drew their attention to a worksite a little further down the block on the same side of the street as the bank. Workhorses striped yellow and orange surrounded an open manhole where two men in hard hats were urgently attempting to pull another from the hole.

Lois sprinted down the sidewalk, seeing that other passers-by were doing the same. She was relieved to see that a few of them were already on their phones attempting to alert the local authorities.

"It's going to blow," the rescued man was saying, "and Frank's still down there!"

After pulling their colleague a safe distance from the hole, the men started toward it again, approaching with their heads diverted from the thick smoke that had begun to billow from the opening. An explosion caused the ground to shake, and they all halted in their tracks, obviously concerned about the stability of the gas lines below the ground.

A few seconds later, before the workers had even come to a plan of action, the smoke dissipated greatly. Lois's mouth opened in surprise as she saw another hard hat emerge from below street level, followed by a grime-covered face. The workers scrambled to pull who must have been the aforementioned Frank the rest of the way out.

"Did you see that?" Lois voiced in amazement, turning to get Clark's reaction. Her awed expression dissolved into one of puzzlement when she didn't see him anywhere around her. With a quirked eyebrow, she turned back to face the scene. The workers were surrounding Frank and patting his back with concern. One of them held out a bottle of water.

Suddenly, Frank looked up and pointed across the crowd. "He... he... *cough* It was hi..." the rest of his words dissolved into a stream of ragged coughs.

Following the direction the man was pointing made Lois turn around. She jumped when she saw that Clark had somehow suddenly appeared behind her. "Where did you..." She stopped and took a step back, sweeping a glance down his body. "*What* happened to you?"

Clark's previously clean suit was covered with dirt.

"I lost my balance when the explosion hit," he explained, trying to brush some of the dirt off to no avail. "I fell into that pile of dirt next to the truck."

Lois turned her head and saw the pile of dirt he was referring to. The crease in her forehead didn't ease up. Without saying anything, she turned her head from the dirt back to Clark, and then from Clark to Frank. Frank was no longer pointing across the crowd, his focus understandably back on breathing. Sirens filled the air as the paramedics and fire trucks arrived on the scene.

Shaking her head, Lois cleared the frown from her face. She took in Clark's appearance again and laughed. "I take it you haven't been on many ships, Clark. You have to roll with the ground swells or they'll knock you off your feet every time."

Still brushing at his suit with equally grimy hands, Clark merely grunted in reply.

"Yeah, that's not coming out," Lois observed. "Let's go to the hotel so you can change."


Lois glanced over her shoulder and smirked. Clark was standing against the far wall of the hotel lobby holding his soiled suit coat folded over his arm. She had suggested that solution when he'd refused to come inside with his clothes in their current state. Even having done that much, he still wouldn't approach the front desk with her. Lois feared that he was a little too uptight for his own good.

"Yes, ma'am, can I help you?"

Lois turned back around to face the desk. The clerk assisting her was a young blonde woman with a polite smile. Her name tag proclaimed that she was Sherry and happy to be of service. "Reservations for Lois Lane and Clark Kent. We should have two rooms."

Sherry glanced in Clark's direction and her demeanor seemed to brighten even more. Lois arched an eyebrow at her apparent reaction to them having *two* rooms.

"Of course," the clerk replied happily. She began tapping the keys on her keyboard. When she read the screen output, she faltered. "Oh, your reservations were assigned a late check-in."

Lois frowned. "We didn't request a late check-in."

Sherry smiled broadly. Somewhere in her training she must have been taught that smiling was the answer to every problem. "By chance, did you make your reservations after six o'clock yesterday evening?"

Lois's shoulders drooped. She had a feeling about where this line of questioning was going. Ilium Heights was a popular destination for many people all year round.

Sherry guessed Lois's answer from her expression. "Let me see what I can do... maybe we can *unassign* them," she offered in a conspiratorial tone.

Lois forced herself to wait patiently. She knew that arguing with Sherry really wouldn't help the situation... though it *might* make her feel better. After flicking another glance over her shoulder to see how Clark was faring, she had to roll her eyes. He was guarding their luggage stoically.

"I was afraid of this," Sherry announced after a brief typing spiel. "The rooms haven't even been checked out of yet. You're actually here earlier than the time for regular check-ins."

Lois silently laughed in amusement. This was the first time she'd ever been penalized for arriving somewhere early. Normally she was late to everything. "Arggh," she groaned. "What if we pretended that I don't have a reservation... Hi, I'd like two rooms, please."

Sherry laughed, "Unfortunately, we don't have two rooms. We don't have *any* rooms, in fact."

"This is a hotel... You're telling me that you have don't have *any* vacancies at all?"

Sherry gave her a sympathetic look before reaching for the keyboard again. As she typed, she explained the situation. "There's a really big conference in town and all the rooms are booked. I just checked this a minute ago so I know that we don't..." She trailed off in surprise as something appeared on her screen. "We have a room."

Lois patted the counter top happily. "See?! Be nice to the Universe and the Universe responds... or something like that."

Sherry couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, but you needed two rooms..."

"It's okay," Lois entered. "We need whatever you have available right now."

"Well," Sherry said with a grimace. "At least it's a suite."


Clark opened the bathroom door and stepped out into the main area of the hotel suite. As soon as he did, though, he abruptly stepped backwards, returning to the bathroom. His exit had interrupted Lois in the middle of changing her clothes. The image of her wearing only unfastened dark jeans and a black bra was now burned onto his corneas. At that moment, he couldn't deny that she was attractive. He would begin the denial when his mind was clearer.

As he waited for the intensity of the memory to fade, his annoyance piqued. Had she not heard him shut off the shower? She should have been expecting him to come out of the bathroom at any moment. Now, he was fully dressed and standing in a steamy bathroom -- stuck waiting for Lois to do her part.

To start with, Clark hadn't been pleased to hear about the room situation Lois had arranged -- this incident only supported his irritation. Setting his jaw, he pulled the door open again.

"I'm starting to think you're right," Lois announced when he came into her view.

Clark was relieved to see that Lois had donned a white tee-shirt. A black zip-up hoodie was tied around her waist.

"Right about what?" he asked.

"Right about this story reaching higher up than the company." She turned to face him and pointed to the desk.

She had emptied the scraps of paper from the plastic bag and spread them across the surface. Each strip looked like it had seen the underside of a shredder.

"If it is what it looks like," Lois began, "I'm guessing that Dr. Kwolek didn't have permission to take these documents from the company." She picked up one of the strips. "And if he went through all of the trouble to put them in a security box with your name on it, he must have expected that he would be in a little danger. He obviously didn't think he would be able to get these to you on his own."

Clark stepped forward and picked up a piece of paper. From what he could tell, they were looking at pieces of paper with parts of chemical symbols, chains, and compounds on them.

Lois put the paper she was holding back into the plastic bag. "It's too bad we'll probably never know how these go back together," she said with a sigh.

Clark took a moment to scan the rest of the papers. He saw that some were different weight grades and some had different inks. "You know what? I think I'd like to give it a try."

Lois gave him a surprised look. "You would?"

He shrugged, feeling a little awkward under her searching gaze. "I'm pretty good at puzzles."

She arched an eyebrow. "Puzzles come in boxes that have pictures on the cover so you know what you're trying to make. This," she said, waving a hand over the desktop, "is needle and haystack stuff."

"I grew up on a farm."

A smile spread across Lois's face. "Of course you did. Well, by all means, knock yourself out." She continued to collect the papers to return them to the bag. "Later, though. Right now, we have to go."

Clark handed her the scrap he was holding. The next phase of their recon mission was to go out to Cyphren's runoff area to collect water and soil samples.

"Oh, you're going to need to bring your overnight bag," Lois informed him a few minutes later when she had finished refilling the plastic baggie. "We're not staying."

Clark felt a slight rush of relief. They would be getting their separate rooms after all. Sure, the suite had a living area with a pullout couch, but still... it was just too close for comfort.

Unaware of his attitude shift, Lois continued, "I figured we'd just get back on the road after we get the samples."

Clark stopped in mid-stride. "Back on the road? What about the interview Bethany is setting up for tomorrow?"

She looked up from the garment bag she was repacking and smirked. "I asked for that so they would *think* we were staying overnight. This way, they won't expect us to be staking out the main plant in Metropolis *tonight*."

Clark blinked. "Staking out... When did we decide that?"

Lois's brow creased and she began nibbling on her lower lip. "I didn't mention that? I thought I did... Oh, well. You ready?" She stood and pulled the strap of her bag over her shoulder.

"I guess so," Clark replied, reaching for the handle of his own bag and following her to the door. "Won't it be a bit suspicious when we check out an hour after we checked in?"

"No," Lois said simply, turning to face him as the door to the room closed at his back, "because we're going to make use of the hotel's fantastic Express Checkout service."

"What about our other room?"

Lois smiled slyly and stepped close to him. "There is no other room," she said in a low voice, reaching an arm to his waist level. "I told the front desk we'd be busy."

With a wink, she hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign that she'd been holding on the doorknob, and then stepped back.

Clark let out a slow breath before moving to trail her down the rear stairwell.


"Do you always carry evidence containers in your purse?"

Lois smirked. Not only had she provided collection vessels during their earlier search of Cyphren's runoff, she had supplied latex gloves, tweezers, and a soil brush.

"It's a bag... not a purse. Purses are for dinner dates and shopping trips. A *bag* is a work tool. So, yes, when I have my bag, I carry a kit."

They were sitting in the rental car outside of the Metropolis plant, having driven back to the city after gathering their samples. Lois had relinquished the keys to Clark for the return trip, seeing as they didn't have a distinct timeline to keep, but she later regretted the decision. Clark did the exact opposite of aggressive driving. The memory caused Lois to twiddle her thumbs with more abandon.

To distract herself from grabbing Clark's knee and forcing his foot harder on the accelerator, Lois had tried to get him to open up about his travels. Unfortunately, he hadn't wanted to talk about anything other than the story...

...Which was how they were at the Cyphren plant at 10:30 that night, nursing the tail end of a long day -- and she still hadn't gotten her ice cream.

"Have you always been an animal rights activist?" Lois asked lightly, hoping to extend the banter-like line of questioning.

"I just think that humans aren't the only things that deserve respect," he answered gruffly. "I'm not an activist."

When she saw the way his jaw tightened, she withheld a sigh and went back to watching the night pass outside of her window. Her attempt at humor had once again fallen short with Clark Kent.

Earlier that day, she had suggested taking a frog from the Cyphren property so that it could be examined for chemical poisoning. Clark had immediately become hostile to the idea. Then she'd asked if he'd been the type of student who fainted during middle school biology frog dissection. His response had been to stalk off angrily, leaving her wondering what it was that she had said. Now, thinking back to the way she had teased him at the hotel, Lois was wondering if she was pushing him too hard. It was her natural personality to be playful, especially with people who had sticks up their butts, but she feared she might need to tread lighter with Kent. He apparently had no give.

Her left eyebrow arched in response to her thoughts. Lois Lane never backed down from a challenge.

"We've got movement," Clark announced, drawing Lois's attention to the large semi that was sitting at the loading docks behind the plant.

"Finally," she said, leaning forward. Even *she* knew that she wasn't the most patient person. "We know that they've been using the new processes for at least 6 months now. We need to identify those byproducts."

Clark nodded in agreement. "We'll see where they are dumping them and then get the samples."

They watched as plant workers unhooked the hose connected to the semi and patted the side. The driver gave the thumbs up and pulled out of the dock area.

Clark engaged the engine and they trailed the truck as it drove through the Industrial Sector and towards the Harbor.

Lois tilted her head in surprise when the truck pulled into the fenced off area surrounding the loading dock of an industrial building. "I guess it would have been too easy for them to have been dumping it in the water."

Clark stopped the car and gave her an odd look. Lois merely shrugged in response, slid her arms into her black hoodie and zipped it up. Thirty minutes later, the truck left the dock without its trailer.

"Where are you going?" he asked when she opened the passenger door.

"We need to get those samples."

Clark pulled the key from the ignition and jumped out of the car anxiously. "How do you plan to do that?"

Lois turned to him with an arched eyebrow, smiling as she pulled the hood of the sweatshirt over her head.

Clark sighed. He was beginning to recognize the look. "That's a bit unorthodox, don't you think? Breaking and entering is against the law."

"Sometimes rules needs to be massaged a little in order to get to the truth."

"It's dangerous to both your health and your liberty."

Lois huffed impatiently. "I'm a little inclined to think that societal needs are higher up on the hierarchy scale than personal ones." She started walking toward the fence.

Clark grabbed her arm before she was able to take her third step. "Society makes the rules," he protested.

"Well, in that case, you have to make the decision on principles." She glanced down at the hand on her arm but didn't pull away. "My principles are truth and justice. What are yours?"

Clark let go of her arm and ran his hand through his hair. "I can't believe we are having a discussion about the ethical principle of breaking and entering."

Lois rolled her eyes and pulled the hood off of her head. "Fine, you win." She turned and started walking toward the front of the building.

"Now where are you going?"

Lois turned her head to reply over her shoulder as she walked, "To knock on the front door."



*Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.*

-- Jacob Bronowski, English historian & mathematician

Friday a.m.

At 2:00 in the morning, the Planet newsroom was understandably deserted. The overnight skeleton crew was evidenced by the rare desk light shining in the darkness. Lois tossed her sweatshirt onto her desk and slumped into her chair.

Clark arrived seconds later and eyed her visitor's chair warily. He moved to another desk and borrowed the chair, rolling it near Lois's desk and sitting down. Lois's posture was the picture of disappointment, even though her plan to knock on the front door of the chemical company had been successful. Thankfully, they didn't have to break in after all.

Surprisingly, even though it was close to midnight when they had begged entry, the night manager had been welcoming to their questions and had even given them a mini tour. They had learned everything they needed to know about the practices of Haz and Mat's Chem Disposal. Unfortunately for their story, Haz and Mat's was entirely legitimate.

Clark flipped through the 11-page report the company had provided on the handling of Cyphren's byproducts. "What are the chances of a chemical disposal company being open to visitors at midnight?"

Lois sighed and rubbed her eyes tiredly. What had been a long day was only getting longer. "Welcome to Metropolis, Smallville: the city that's always up." Opening her eyes she straightened in her chair. "We're going to have to switch strategies here. Either Cyphren and Haz Mat knew we were coming and put together an extremely good cover... or the cover-up takes place a lot earlier in the process."

Clark nodded in agreement. "Whatever the case, in a few hours, they're going to know we are digging," he surmised, thinking about the benign story line they had fed Bethany. If Cyphren was covering their tracks now, they were going to be a whole lot more careful when they received word from Haz and Mat's about the midnight visit.

"Well, there's still the chance that something will come from the samples we got at the runoff area." Even as she said the words, Lois doubted their veracity. Cyphren's partnership with Haz and Mat's gave them the needed illusion of transparency.

That, or there really was no story...

"It's suspicious that they would go through this much trouble to hide a byproduct," she commented.

"That's because they know it's dangerous," Clark countered in frustration. "If they are new byproducts, there are no regulations on them. The company doesn't want the side effects linked back to them so they are doing everything they can to make sure it stays under the radar. All Dr. Kwolek wanted was a little more time to figure out how to make the process safe, but the corporation saw the dollar signs and the speed to market and jumped on it." As if in emphasis to his statement, he abruptly rose from his chair and began pacing.

Lois followed him with her eyes. Clark Kent was like a tightly wound ball of string. Just as with the frog incident, he was starting to fray at the edges. It was obvious that getting to the bottom of this story was important to him, but there was something else going on. She wondered if it was really about him being the world advocate he appeared to be.

"It's the whole 'Buy Now Pay Later Syndrome' -- one of society's most popular rules. Are you still fighting for their team?"

Clark stopped pacing and locked gazes with her. She could tell by his expression that he was not amused and she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. "Why don't we go ahead and call it a night? We don't have anything to write anyway."

"Sure," Clark replied, sounding somewhat defeated. "Come on, I'll take you home."


"Kent! What in the blazes are you doing back here so soon?" Perry White demanded as he noticed the young man walking down the ramp into the newsroom. "I thought you two were planning on staying overnight."

Clark walked to the reception desk and stood beside the editor. "Yes, Mr. White, we were, but Lois decided that we should come back last night. She wanted to look around the Cyphren plant."

Perry frowned. "Look around?" he asked carefully.

Clark could tell that the older man knew Lois's tactics. "Sir, I assure you that that's all we did."

Perry's clouded expression turned to surprise as he gave Clark a second look. The fact that Kent had been able to temper his voracious star reporter could mean that he was a good influence. The editor filed the thought away for later analysis. "Well, come on. Let me show you your set up."

Clark followed as the editor led the way deeper into the pit.

"Now, we had to put it together a little hastily, so it won't be Graceland or anything, but it'll keep. We probably could have found you something with more breathing room but I wanted you and Lane to be within yelling distance."

Perry stopped at the rear corner area that served as Lois's work space. Her seniority and prestige had earned her a larger space than most of her colleagues and prime real estate near the window. A desk had been placed against the wall perpendicular to hers. The slight distance between the desks was adequate for passage, but Clark didn't think that many people would have a need to come through that area on a regular basis.

Even with Perry's apologies for the location, Clark felt that it was perfect. When sitting at his desk, he would have the large window to his left and a wall at his back. He had an issue with closed-in spaces, and this way, he would be able to see the entire newsroom easily. While he didn't have the partial cubicle walls that Lois used to protect her privacy at her back, he felt that he was sufficiently covered.

Perry continued with his landlord duties. "Are you sure you aren't going to need a computer?"

Clark moved behind the desk and set his laptop bag on its surface. The docking station he had requested was in place. "No, this is perfect."

With a shrug, Perry acquiesced to the reporter's judgment. "If you say so... I'll have Jimmy come over and give you your login credentials."

"Thank you."

Perry frowned. There was something about Clark's shuttered demeanor that tickled his reporter's senses. "Where did you say Lois was again?"

"I didn't say," Clark replied, "and I don't know. It was rather early this morning when I took her home."

"Hmmph." Perry's eyes narrowed briefly. "Well, I'll let you get to it. Send her my way if you see her before I do."


Lois breezed around the short wall that bracketed her desk and stopped short when she saw the new decoration of her office space.

Clark glanced up from his laptop to see a mournful look in her eyes as she took in his desk's location. "I know this is a little intrusive but it's only temporary..."

Lois waved a hand dismissively in the air as she dropped into her seat. "No, it's just that I used to have a plant over there. The unappreciative newts probably trashed it."

Clark thought back to how the space had looked the day before. "Wasn't that plant dead?"

Lois shrugged. "Probably, but now I'll have to dump my coffee in the kitchen when it goes stale." She shook off her grief and swiveled her chair to face her desk. "So, I took the samples in to my dad this morning."

"Your father is a chemist?"

She reached to boot up her computer. "No, he's a bio-ortho something or other -- some technical term that changes every year -- anyway, he knows guys who know guys. I figured that he'll at least be able to point us in the direction of someone who could help. If anything, he'll have a good idea of what effect the toxic chemicals could have on human cells."

Clark's forehead creased. "These guys knowing guys..." he started. "Is your father aware that we... are trying to keep all of this close to the vest?"

Lois turned her head and gave him a pointed look.

He raised his hands in surrender. "Sorry, I just thought it wouldn't hurt to ask."

Lois smirked and turned back to her computer, moving her mouse around to call up her email program. "So, what are you working on?"

Clark glanced down at his screen and rubbed his jaw. "Uh, nothing really, I was just... surfing. Looking up some information on Cyphren's corporate tickler," he replied haltingly. He mentally kicked himself when he looked up and saw Lois eyeing him.

"And?" she prodded.

"...And," he began, "I found it. But it's nothing really helpful."

Lois frowned. "Did you have time to look at the shredded papers?"

"A little," he replied. "I think I'm close." He was lying -- he hadn't looked at all -- but he didn't foresee the project taking a lot of time once he got started. He decided to change the subject. "After what we found at Haz and Mat's last night, I was thinking that there might be a chance of those samples not telling us anything helpful. We might need to start looking at hospitals in the area -- check for any health trends occurring during our target timeframe."

"I like the way you think, Kent," Lois replied perkily. "...Mostly because you think like me. I have a source at Metropolis Memorial. I figured we could take a field trip to go see her a little later this afternoon."


Clark watched as Lois approached an attractive older woman that was standing at the nurses admit station and hugged her.

"Lo-Lo!" the woman exclaimed.

Engulfed in the arms of the woman, Lois rolled her eyes. "Mom," she groaned.

That caused Clark to come to attention. He was beginning to wonder if all of Lois's contacts were in some way related to her.

"Mom, there's someone I want you to meet," Lois said, finally dislodging herself from her mother's stronghold. She turned her mother around to face Clark. "This is Clark Kent from the US Daily News. We're working together on a story. Clark, this is my mother, Ellen Lane."

As Clark shook the woman's hand, he pretended not to notice the look she gave her daughter. Lois's eyes widened and she returned a look of her own.

"It's very nice to meet you, Mr. Kent."

"I feel the same, Mrs. Lane. It is a pleasure."

This time, Lois ignored her mother's look. "So, Mom, this story that we are working on," she started as she led her mother away from the main desk. "We're investigating a chemical company that has begun to use a new technique to produce plastics. We have reason to believe that they are trying to cover up the side effects."

Ellen frowned thoughtfully as they paused in the hallway to let an orderly pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair pass by. "Side effects? Like what?"

Lois shrugged. "That's the thing, we don't know. We're working on deciphering a document that has the chemical compounds listed and we want to see what potential effects they could have on human tissue."

"Wow, honey, that sounds like something you should ask your father about."

"I did already. I'm just working all the angles."

Ellen arched an eyebrow and Clark chuckled at the family resemblance.

"So now I'm an angle?"

Groaning, Lois reached out so she and her mother were walking arm-in-arm. "You know what I mean." Lois turned her head to look over her shoulder at Clark, who was walking behind them. "I'd like to state for the record that my mother is a big wig hospital administrator -- not an angle." Lois faced her mother again. "Happy?"

Ellen smiled. "Yes... at least until you tell this *big wig* what it is that you want me to do," she said.

Lois started laughing; her mother knew her well. "I was hoping -- *we* were hoping," she amended, hoping to prey on her mother's apparent impression of Clark's attractiveness, "that you could keep an eye out for any recent health trends occurring over the past six months. You know, anything that looks out of place."

"Lois, I'm afraid you are looking for a diamond in the desert here. You need a way to limit the scope of your search. The best thing to do in this situation would be to test the employees from the company."

Clark decided to speak up. "It turns out that the company offers free health care when the employees go to the in-house clinic. If the company is covering something up as we suspect, there's no way we would be able to get any reports from them."

"Which is why we're going to have to look at any effects on the general population," Lois added. "Metropolis Memorial is the hospital that is closest to the manufacturing plant. Right now, that's the best we can do to limit the range of the investigation."

"I'll do what I can." Ellen glanced at her watch. "I've got a meeting to get to but I'll take a look at the reports a little later."

Lois hugged her mother again. "Thanks, Mom. You're a life saver."

"I know, I know," Ellen replied, reaching to shake Clark's hand in farewell. "I hope to see you again soon, Mr. Kent. What are you doing for Sunday dinner?"



Ellen smiled warmly. "Well, if you can make it, we'd love to have you. Lois can give you directions." She winked at Lois and headed down the hall at a brisk pace.

"Okay, well, I think we've officially hit a wall," Lois said with a sigh as they set off in the direction of the entrance.

Clark put his hands in his pockets and nodded. "...Until we get some new information at least. I think I'd like to go work on getting the rest of those scraps together. Knowing the actual compounds will give us an edge."

When they arrived outside, Lois raised an arm and hailed a cab. "Tell you what, you head back to the Planet and I'll catch up with you on Monday."

Clark looked at her in confusion -- his rental car was across the street in the ramp.

Lois shot him her best innocent grin. "I just want to get some background on EPA regulations. Have a good weekend."

Clark watched her disappear inside of the cab. His special hearing allowed him to hear her give the driver the address of the Cyphren Manufacturing Plant as the cab pulled away from the cab. He momentarily pondered why she hadn't been straight forward with him, but let the thought go since he was guilty of the same. While he indeed planned to work on the shredded documents, he wanted to get back to his laptop so he could continue the research he had been working on earlier.

The reality was that, like in the past, he could do this investigation from anywhere -- he didn't necessarily *have* to take up residence in Metropolis in order to work on the Cyphren story. Gaining access to the Daily Planet's advanced search engine was the real reason he needed to be there.


Sunday Afternoon

Lois paused to speak to the guard as she entered the Planet Building. "Hey, George."

"Hi, Lois," the white-haired man replied with a pleased grin. "I sure can't wait to read this story of yours."

She tilted her head. "What story?"

George chuckled. "Come on, Lois, you're always working on a story -- but this one's got to be something major if it's got you coming in at all kinds of hours. I can't believe how quickly you trained the new guy."

"What do you mean?"

George gave her a knowing look. "The new guy -- Kent -- he's been here all weekend. Like I said, this story must be a doozy."

Lois shrugged modestly. "Well, that's what we're hoping." She walked to the elevator bank and pressed the Up button. "All weekend, you say?" she asked, turning her head to George as the elevator car arrived.

"Like a well-trained puppy," George answered sedately.

"Thanks, George," Lois said, laughing. "I'll see you later."

After stepping off of the lift, Lois zigzagged through the pit on her way to her work area. When she neared the two desks that occupied her corner, she saw Clark lower the cover of his laptop.

"How's it going?" she asked breezily.

"Oh, uh, fine," he answered. "I didn't expect to see you today."

"I could say the same for you," she returned, lowering into her chair. "I owe Perry a follow-up on my last story."

Clark cleared his throat and rose from his seat, picking up a file as he stood. "I was going to show you this tomorrow, but now's as good a time as any." He crossed the short distance and began laying the contents of the file on her desk.

Lois leaned forward to take a closer look. Clark had taped together the bits of paper they had gotten from Kwolek's security deposit box, but none of them had created a full page. "This is it?"

Clark nodded. "My guess is that Dr. Kwolek had to smuggle out a piece at a time. He must have thought he would have more opportunities to get the rest of the scraps out of the building. As it stands, I was able to put together what looks like the pieces of 8 different documents."

Lois gingerly touched the corner of one of the documents and sighed. It was about the size of her hand and covered with pencil drawn chemical equations. They really had their work cut out for them.

"I'll take these to my father and see if his colleague can shine any light on what's going on here."

Clark went back to his desk and began to shut down his work station.

"Oh, um, dinner -- it's something my family does every Sunday. The invitation from my mom still stands," Lois offered as she slid the documents back into the folder.

Clark's eyebrows rose. "Oh, right. I, uh, have plans."

Lois sat back in surprise. She had assumed that Kent was a stick in the mud but he had been in town for less than a week and already had *plans*. She was impressed. "You do?"

Clark finished loading his computer into a laptop bag and turned to face her. He ignored the unasked question that was being implied. "Please tell your mother thank you for the offer. I'll see you tomorrow."

Lois waved. "Yep. Auf wiedersehen," she said, focusing on her computer screen.

Clark paused briefly at the German greeting before shaking his head and continuing on to the exit.


Lois accepted the bowl of mashed potatoes that her father handed to her.

"So where is that partner of yours?"

Lois rolled her eyes at her mother's question without bothering to correct her. Ellen had been referring to Clark as *that partner of hers* since the day she met him. "I invited him, Mother, just as you asked me to do on Friday, Saturday, *and* today. He was busy."

"Did you ask him every day?"


Ellen was unfazed. "Well?"

"I asked him today. It was the first time I'd seen him since *you* invited him to dinner."

"Had you asked him on Friday or Saturday he might not have had plans," Ellen offered. "Sam, you should meet him. He seems *very* nice."

"I met him," Lucy quipped. "He's cute."

Lois glared across the table at her sister.

"I'd say he's hot."

"Mom!" Lois gasped. "You can't say that!"

Ellen waved dismissively at her. "I can see, can't I?"

Lois turned to her father. "Dad, make her stop."

Sam Lane bore the patient demeanor of a man used to being surrounded by women. Facing the pleading expression of his eldest daughter, he asked, "Well, is he cute or is he hot?"

Lois threw her hands in the air. "I don't believe this. Hey, shouldn't we be focusing on Lucy? She's the one leaving to go back to California next week."

Lucy smiled gaily. "That's right, this is a 'my choice' dinner... and I choose to talk about your new partner." She turned to their mother. "Did you know that she's investigating him?"

Ellen gave Lois a look while pursing her lips together. "Honey..."

"It's not an investigation." Lois turned to her right and saw her father's look. "It's not! I'm just checking some facts... I'm fact checking." She looked across the table and arched an eyebrow at her younger sister.

Lucy's expression sobered immediately. She really didn't want to engage Lois in a disclosure war in front of their parents. "This roast is really good, Mom."

"She's right, honey. It's excellent," Sam agreed. "Lois, remind me to give you Bernard Klein's number before you leave tonight."

"Uncle Bernie?" Lois asked. She remembered her father's former colleague from her youth.

"The one and only," Sam replied. "I told him to expect your call. He should be able to help you with those compounds."



*Everyone values things differently. In other words, they place their own value on everything that affects their lives. Also from moment to moment they may even change their values. Such as a person, who values diamonds above all else, might be willing to trade a gallon of diamonds for a drink of water to save his life in a desert.*

--Sidney Madwed


Jimmy Olson was waiting for Lois as she stepped off the elevator. Together they descended the ramp and merged into the bustling activity of the newsroom.

"What do you got for me, Jim?"

Jimmy took a CD-Rom case from the top of the stack of items he was carrying. "For the record, I don't think this is a good idea."

Lois took the disc from him with a smile. "Duly noted, thanks. So, what will I find on this?"

"IP impressions of every website and search query accessed by Mr. Kent when he has been logged into the Planet's system." Jimmy flicked a glance around and lowered his voice even more. "This is not something you can just *happen* to come by, Lois."

"No one will know this ever happened, Jimmy. Okay? Me and you -- that's it."

He wasn't much comforted by the assurance. "And the disc?"

"It will spontaneously combust five minutes after I look at the contents."

Sighing and shaking his head, Jimmy changed directions so he could complete the rest of his deliveries.

After arriving at her desk, Lois locked the CD in her bottom drawer. "So, I've got good news," she announced, getting the attention of her new colleague. "I have a source at STAR Labs who is taking a look at the documents we uncovered."

"Let me guess, the source is your uncle," Clark said wryly.

"How'd you know?"

Clark looked at her in surprise. "You mean he really is?"

Laughing, she winked at him. "Not all of my sources are related to me -- this one just happens to be an old friend of my father's."

The phone on her desk started ringing. When she saw the name on the caller ID, her eyebrows rose. "Lois Lane," she said into the headset. "Uncle Bernie? That was quick." She had just left him about an hour earlier.

After listening for a few minutes and jotting down some notes, she replied, "No, I understand. This helps, though. Thank you... Yes, of course... Talk to you soon."

She hung up the phone and gave Clark a triumphant look. "Respiratory."

Clark frowned in confusion. "What?"

She waved a hand toward the phone. "That was my guy -- my *uncle* -- from STAR Labs. He says that he still needs to work on the documents to put together the whole picture, but that we should focus on respiratory disease in infant lung tissue. Adults wouldn't be affected because they have built immunity to environmental contaminants."

The suddenly clouded expression on Clark's face made her stop. "Are you okay?"

"They're targeting children?"

Lois felt the need to choose her words carefully. "We don't... know that for sure."

"But these toxins... It's generally known that children are more susceptible to infections than the adult population, right?"

The look in his eyes was almost wild. She nodded wordlessly.

"So, hiding the potential damage their processes could be doing to innocent victims, a chemical company is *not necessarily* targeting children. A scientist in their employ tries to delay implementation so more research could be done and they make him disappear." His angry gaze focused on her. "Allegedly."

He slammed his hand against his desk and the sound caused her to jump. Lois wondered if he had cracked the surface with the force.

The sound seemed to also be a jolt for Clark. He looked down at his hand and took a deep breath, slowly unballing the fist he'd made. "Sorry, I just..." He rubbed his jaw. "I don't like it when the victims are children. They can't fight for themselves."

He got up from his chair and walked over to the window. Lois stared at his silhouette for a moment, lost in thought. Children, frogs... societal laws; she was now beginning to see the complex picture that Clark Kent projected.

He was a man that carried the weight of the world on his shoulders but felt powerless to do anything about it.

Lois slid her chair away from her desk, stood up, and walked over to the window. After a brief hesitation she placed a timid hand on his shoulder. "Then we fight for them." She pulled her hand away. "I have an idea, let's go see my mother. Now that we know what we're looking for, we can limit the scope of her search. It's time to align some evidence with the theory."


Lois kept sneaking glances at Clark out the corner of her eye. Since his semi-meltdown at the Planet, she'd been trying to ignore the urge to analyze. Even while her mother had talked them through the hospital reports she'd printed out for them, part of Lois's brain was making up stories about his childhood.

He had a great sensitivity to things being victimized -- which greatly insinuated that he had once been in that position. She shot another glance across to him sitting at his desk. It was hard to imagine someone with his size and stature being picked on.

He was more likely to be the protector, she thought, the kind of person that was always standing up for the people who were getting victimized. Somehow that theory made better sense -- perhaps that was just because it was a more comfortable thought than one of child abuse.

Her hands itched to pull out the CD from Jimmy. She needed to know what was going on. She needed to... help him.

But first, they needed to write this article. "Did you know that the FDA can take at least 6 years to go through all of the tests for approval, and that in the meantime, the company can do as they please?"

Clark frowned. "Cyphren probably figured they would have erased all links between the side effects and their product by that time."

Lois nodded grimly. "I can't help but to think that there is a connection between the company and the hospital. All of those reports of the increase in nose bleeds, skin rashes, infant RSV occurrences -- someone would have had to at least alert the CDC, even if just for a *minor* flag."

"All of the samples came back clean -- a little too clean. We still don't know how the byproducts are getting out."

Lois tilted her head. "Actually, we do. They burn them."

Clark took in the information thoughtfully. Burning made logical sense -- the *alleged* effect of the toxins on babies was on the respiratory and immune systems. That meant the poison was airborne.

He returned the focus of his gaze back to Lois warily. He didn't know if he was going to like where this was going. "How exactly do we know this?"


"Chemical Poisoning Plot Exposed," Perry read gruffly. He pulled the paper down so he could look at the two reporters standing on the other side of his desk. "This is going to ruffle a lot of feathers. Lois, just tell me one thing -- do I want to know how you acquired this *evidence* from the manufacturing plant?"

Lois bit her lower lip. "Probably not."

"Lane! I thought we agreed you wouldn't do... what we said you wouldn't do, anymore."

"You agreed," Lois corrected with a shrug. "I agreed that I would try."

Perry's eyes narrowed and he opened his top drawer to get to his stress pills. "If I print this, there's going to be a whole lot of scrambling and denial. You're doing a lot of finger pointing here. Please tell me you're not just doing a jig."

Clark frowned in confusion at the editor's words. "You want us to tell you that we're not dancing?"

Perry nodded as he reached for his water bottle to wash down his pills. "Jigging, jiving -- throwing a head fake." He pointed a finger at Lois. "Flushing the rabbit out of the hole."

Lois smirked. "Yes and no."

Perry wasn't amused. "Which is it?"

"No, it's not *entirely* a provocation piece. We've got at least three more stories to follow this one, but we would be naïve to not think that the demons are going to come flying out of the closet when this thing hits. We just have to be in place to catch them."

Perry gave her a hard look and then turned his glare on Clark. "You agree with that assessment, Kent?"

"Why are you asking him if he..."

"Lois." Perry shushed her without looking.

"Sir, I came here to uncover the ill dealings of a Fortune 500 company. That's what we're doing."

Perry continued to stare at him for a full minute before nodding curtly. "All right then. I'll get this over to Print. You two go get me the next story in the series."

Lois followed as Clark left the office. Just before exiting, she turned back to her boss. "Why would you ask him if he..."

"Lane! Get me the story!"

With a huff, Lois turned and left the room. When she was gone, Perry finally allowed himself to release the chuckle he'd been withholding.


Monday Evening

Lois frowned at the screen of her laptop. She had spent hours going through the information from the CD-Rom and still hadn't covered half of it. What she had discovered, however, was that Google was no match for the Daily Planet's search system.

It appeared that Clark Kent was doing extensive research on two different people. The first was Anthony West, a now-deceased British author, and the other was Lana Lang, a former cheerleader from Smallville, Kansas. Nothing in Lois's notes showed her any possible connection between the two.

Lana Lang was obviously someone from Clark Kent's past, and he seemed to be doing all he could to locate her. Logged into the Daily Planet's system, he would have the ability to set up a background check, a university student search, and a tax statement query, among other things. Sitting at home, Lois was limited to brief mentions about the woman on the personal websites of former classmates. There were no pictures, no publications, and no information since Lana had been part of the graduating class of 1994.

As far as Anthony West was concerned, his biography and list of published works was unremarkable, save for the fact that he was the illegitimate son of the famous science-fiction writer, H.G. Wells. The best she could tell was that Clark was a fan of the man's books. He seemed to be looking for a certain unpublished manuscript.

Lois sighed as yet another IP address returned a failed authorization message. This entire process would have been better served from her computer at the Planet, but she'd gotten spooked when Clark had come up behind her desk the moment she'd slid the disc into her drive. Not willing to tempt fate with discovery, she'd packed the disc up and brought it home with her... only to face frustration and declarations of unauthorized access.

Glancing at the scribbled notes she'd made on the limited information she had been able to gather, Lois decided to put it aside. Blinking her eyes in an attempt to bring moisture back to them, she reached for her phone.

"Hey, Jimmy," she greeted once the line had been picked up by the answering machine. "I know you're home, and I know you're screening me. I promise, this time it's on the story. Pick up."

She paused for a moment to wait. When there was still no answer, she unconsciously arched an eyebrow. "Pick up or I come over."

"Hey, Lois. Sorry about that- I was in the shower."

Lois smirked but didn't dispute his claim. "You know how you tracked Kent's computer? I need you to do that for me again."

"You said this was about the story!" Jimmy protested.

"And you said you were in the shower," she quipped. "It is on the story. I need you to track Stan Richardson. He's the CEO of Cyphren Chemical."

The other end of the line was silent for a brief moment as Jimmy absorbed the request. "I can't do that."

Lois closed her eyes. "What do you mean, you can't do that? You did it for Clark."

"I had access to Mr. Kent's system. I set up his access codes. I don't have that kind of access to Richardson's computer."

"What if we..."

"I'm not breaking in with you, Lois," Jimmy interrupted. "Do you know how much trouble I got in when Perry found out about last time?"

"Jimmy, you have got to stop fearing him. He can smell it." She sighed. "Okay, say we don't get inside Cyphren... what is another way to get that information?"

"I don't know."

"You answered that too quickly. Work with me, Olsen. Massage that brain a little. What was that you are always telling me? Hacking is an art? Well, show me your best Van Gogh."

Jimmy was quiet for a full minute and Lois held her breath, hoping she hadn't lost him.

"Van Gogh was crazy."

Smiling triumphantly, Lois pumped a fist in the air. "What do you need?"

"His personal IP address. He's got to have some sort of internet service at his house- and *that* has to have some type of protected connection to his system at the office. If I can tap into his system while he's online, I should be able to install a back door that will allow us to imprint his footsteps."

Lois grinned into the phone. "James Olsen, you are an undervalued asset to the entire Planet, you realize that, don't you?"

"Thanks, Lois," he muttered in reply. She could practically hear him blushing.

"Listen, I wouldn't ask you for this if the guy wasn't crooked. Someone involved with the Cyphren Elite is behind the disappearance of a prominent scientist. I want to find him before it becomes permanent."

"I understand," Jimmy said. "Do you think you'll be able to get the details on Richardson's internet provider?"

"Let me work on it and I'll get back to you. Oh, and Jimmy..."


"Don't screen my calls."



*It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly & try another. But above all, try something.*

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt


"Hey, Bean, I saw the article. I just want to warn you that the fallout looks like it's going to hit over here too."

"Bean?" Clark mouthed.

Lois shook her head curtly. "Mom, I've got you on speaker."

Ellen groaned. "Oh, you know I hate those things. Half of our meetings are done sitting around a conference table yelling at, or being yelled at by, something that looks like a bloated spider."

Lois smiled. "I'm sorry that you're getting caught in the crossfire on this," she said while looking down at a copy of the paper.

The second article in the series had been printed that morning: 'Cyphren Scheme Linked to Health Symptoms: Defective Births May Follow.'

"No, don't apologize. You're doing us a favor. If one of our administrators is part of a conspiracy, then it's better we know and do something about it than leave them in control of a hospital."

"You're not getting any flack are you?" Lois asked anxiously.

"No -- a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy, yes, but flack, no. Everyone knows who my kid is."

"Damn straight," Lois said, laughing.

"Damn straight," Ellen repeated. "Listen, I have to go. I just wanted to give you the eye in the sky from over here. Tell that adorable partner of yours that I said congratulations."

"Mom, you're on speaker. He can hear you."

"I know, but I wanted *you* to say it."

Lois's jaw hardened. "Goodbye, Mom."

"Bye, honey. Goodbye, Mr. Kent!"

Fighting a laugh, Clark barely got out his salutation before Lois pressed the button to end the call. "Goodbye, Mrs. Lane."

He turned to look at Lois, who was massaging the bridge of her nose. "Bean?"

Lois opened one eye to look at him. "Lo-lo," she said. "Rhymes with cocoa. Not one of my favorites." She pushed her hair behind her ears. "What about you? You got any nicknames? Maybe *Clarkie*?"

Clark frowned. "No."

"Well, that's no fun."

Clark tilted his head. "And yet *Bean* is enjoyable for you?"

Lois met his gaze with a smirk. "Well played, Mr. Kent."

Clark smiled smugly in spite of his intentions to remain unaffected. Over the past week, the tendency to slip into mildly playful banter had become almost second nature. He found that the more he worked with Lois Lane, the more he began to relax in his own skin. It resulted in a sense of trust he never experienced outside of his parents yellow farmhouse.

It wasn't the same level, by any means, but it was something. In truth, he wasn't too sure he liked it.

He could tell that Lois had noticed the way he schooled his features back into his distancing mask when she sighed under her breath. Anyone besides Clark would not have heard it.

"Jimmy, just the man I wanted to see," she commented brightly when the young man appeared from behind her cubicle wall. "Tell me you have good news."

Jimmy lifted a flash drive into the air with a gleam in his eye.

Seeing that, Lois rushed to stand up. "Sit down, sit down," she commanded, waving for Jimmy to take her seat. "Show us the magic."

"Well, it's not magic yet," Jimmy warned as he plugged the portable drive into a USB port and called the contents up on the screen. "This is the file I was able to intercept. Its packet contains all of the files Richardson sent between his work machine and his home computer last night. I thought this one would be of interest to you because it seemed to be the largest batch, almost as if he's cleaning something out."

"Yes!" Lois exclaimed.

Clark looked from her to Jimmy. "How did you get this?"

Jimmy swiveled in the chair to look at Lois. "You didn't tell him?"

"I will," she said, turning the chair back around. "What else?"

"Well, nothing else, really, I need to work on deciphering the encryption on the files... I thought that it would be best if I do that at your desk rather than mine, which is out in the open. You know?"

Lois patted his shoulder before moving to sit in her visitor's chair. "Good thinking."

Clark's eyes narrowed. "You're able to track the CEO's computer transmissions even from an outside computer?"

Jimmy nodded without looking up from the computer. "It wasn't easy. Luckily Lois had a contact with the cable company who was able to look up the assigned IP address of his home computer. It would have been a whole lot easier if I had access to the system from the inside."

"So you could potentially trace the steps of anyone whose system you had access to?" Clark asked.

Jimmy lifted his head. "Well, we could..."

"No," Lois interrupted. The look she sent Jimmy made him turn back to his work. "From what I understand, it's a little more complicated than that. Right, Jim?"

"Yeah," he replied. "For one thing the legal ramifications are extensive, and you have to really know what you are doing to even be able to get inside a system as complex as network connections. It's really... complicated." He laughed a bit nervously and focused on typing instructions in a command prompt window.

Lois stood and pulled a notebook from the corner of her desk. "Kent, why don't we set up in a conference room and get started on part three of our series?"

"Yeah, okay," Clark replied, turning away from Lois's desk. Gathering his own notepad and pen, he followed her away from where Jimmy was diligently working.



Clark reached forward to pull open the outer door of Lois's apartment building as she unlocked it.

"You have to admit that we make a pretty good team," she remarked, shuffling the bag of Chinese takeout she was holding in one arm.

"Pretty good," he replied without conviction. He adjusted his own share of the food load and followed her up the stairs.

"Come on, things are looking up for us. We have the DA on board, Jimmy is this close to cracking those files, *and*," she said as she smiled at him over her shoulder, "we have crab wontons."

"So it's about the little things?"

"Damn straight it is."

As they arrived at the second level, the sounds of muffled music could be heard. Lois let out a sigh when the music grew louder as they neared her door. She turned and deposited the bag she was holding into Clark's arms, making him move quickly so as not to drop the two bags he was already holding.

Lois made quick work of the numerous deadbolts and strode purposely into the apartment. Heading straight for the stereo, she turned the music down to a more tolerable decibel.

"Time to upgrade ya," Lucy sang as along with the CD as she strolled down the hall. Seeing that her sister hadn't arrived alone, Lucy slowly lowered the hairbrush that was serving as her makeshift microphone and smiled widely. "Hey, you two! Sorry about the music, Lo. I was really feeling it."

"The *neighbors* were feeling it, Luce," Lois corrected, shaking her head. She turned to see that Clark was still standing beside the open door. "Come on in, Clark. You can set those bags in the kitchen."

They passed each other as Lois went to go lock the door.

"Did you get spring rolls?" Lucy asked, following Clark into the kitchen.

Lois dropped her work bag onto the love seat, and a few seconds later, both Clark and Lucy returned to the main living area.

"Mmm," Lucy mumbled while holding what remained of a roll, "I love these." She moved to perch on the arm of the couch, still bopping to the music. "So what are you guys up to tonight?"

"We're celebrating," Lois answered, reaching for the suit jacket Clark had shrugged out of.

"Celebrating what?" Lucy asked and popped the rest of the spring roll into her mouth.

Beaming, Lois reached into her bag and pulled out a newspaper. She handed it to her younger sister and pointed out an article. "Above the fold."

As the women talked, Clark walked over to Lois's bookcase and began to inspect her collection.

Lucy swallowed her bite and gazed at the headline. "Company Ethics Demand New Legislation: Self-regulation of chemical plants is dangerous for citizens." She looked up at the two reporters. "I take it this is big?"

"Bigger," Lois answered. "What this means is that we uncovered an injustice and are forefront in the initiation of a major reform. This is the type of story that could lead to a Pulitzer: expose, conspiracy, re-infrastructure... Definitely big," she surmised.

Clark stiffened slightly at her words. Lois's tendency to hunt big stories was an underlying threat.

"You guys should come out with me and my friends tonight. I'm celebrating too."

Clark turned away from the bookcase. "You are?"

Lois rolled her eyes and waved for her sister to explain.

Lucy grinned at him. "This is my last Friday night in Metropolis so my friends are taking me dancing. Do you dance?"

"Not if I can help it," he answered dryly.

For some reason this thought struck Lois as funny. She coughed and put a hand on her sister's back. "Lucy heads back to USC next week. She's majoring in psychology -- be careful what you say around her, she tries to psychoanalyze my fish."

Lucy shot Lois a dirty look. "I don't have time to think about your fish with you around," she teased. She glanced at the clock on the far wall and hopped up. "Gotta go!"

Lois laughed as Lucy darted down the hall toward her room. Facing Clark, she clasped her hands together. "Are you ready to eat?"

Clark nodded and followed her into the kitchen. Lois pulled some plates from the cabinet and handed him one. When they had filled their plates, they moved to the small semi-dining area that extended from the living room. When they had set their plates on the table, Lucy reappeared.

"That's my leather jacket," Lois observed.

"I know it's yours, I'm just wearing it," the younger woman said as she continued to the door.

Lois leaned over her chair so she could get a better look at her sister. "And are those my boots? Do have on *anything* that belongs to you?"

Lucy flashed a grin and turned the door handle. "Have a good dinner," she said sweetly. "Don't wait up -- and don't lock all these damn things!" she exclaimed, gesturing to the deadbolts on the door she held open. "It's hard enough to get in when you're sober..." Her gaze flashed to Clark and her eyebrows rose, "...which is exactly what I'll be when I get back."

Giggling, she winked at Lois and left, pulling the door shut behind her.

Lois shook her head and returned to the kitchen to get a bottle of wine and some glasses. "Do you have any siblings?"

"It was just me and my parents growing up," Clark answered.

Lois returned to the table. "Well, from my experience, I can tell you that little sisters have their moments." She smiled and set the glasses down on the table.

Clark rose from his seat and reached for the bottle and corkscrew Lois held. "Here, let me."

Lois relinquished the items and sat down in her chair, watching silently as he uncorked the wine and poured the Sauvignon Blanc into their glasses. Considering the stiff way he had acted when they'd first met, she had to think that she was wearing Clark Kent down. He seemed much more comfortable in his skin.

Lois picked her glass up and held it out for a toast. "To good writing. Bonne écriré."

"Bonne écriré," Clark repeated, tapping her glass lightly with his own.

After each taking a sip, they began eating. "You must have had some pretty good food in the past," Lois commented.

Clark looked up from his plate. "What makes you say that?"

Lois gave a slight shrug. "All the places you've been while freelancing, you had to have tasted authentic dishes. For me that would be worth the trip alone."

Clark laughed. He didn't know if he'd ever met a person who enjoyed food as much as Lois Lane did, and not have the body to show it.

She held up a piece of chicken between two chopsticks. "One day, I plan to order General Tso Chicken from the man himself."

Through the rest of the meal, the conversation was light and easy. Clark was experiencing somewhat of a relieved high. They were nearing the end of the series of stories, he was expecting a report back soon on his side research projects, and he would able to detract himself from the Daily Planet very soon. He had survived.

"I'm surprised you don't have your awards out on display," he commented. "You've won three Kerths, right?" He thought he saw her flush but she quickly recovered.

"They're just awards," Lois said dismissively.

Clark's eyes narrowed but he didn't say anything. When looking at her bookcase, he had noticed an area where the wood grain seemed flawed. Out of curiosity, he'd x-rayed the area, fully expecting to see a safe, but instead had seen an elaborate hidden display dedicated to her Kerth awards. He doubted that genuine modesty was behind a setup as extensive as that.

Lois settled back against her chair and looked at him thoughtfully. "I love it when a story comes together," she said, steering the conversation back to their work.

"I just wish we knew where Dr. Kwolek was being held."

Lois nodded sedately. "It has to be a good sign that they let him go home and pack a bag -- if they meant him harm that would have been an unnecessary allowance." She gazed into her glass for a moment. "My guess is that they need him to be the scapegoat. He oversaw the project. The company can claim that he signed off on it."

"But he didn't sign off on it."

Lois shrugged. "The public wants someone to blame. The court of law says that it's innocence until proven guilty, but the public court jumps at the sign of accusation. As journalists, it's our job to know that and to not exploit it."

"Truth and justice," Clark said, quoting the words she had claimed to be her guiding principles.

Lois raised her glass and took another sip. "It's a good thing that we already told the DA about Dr. Kwolek's whistleblowing. Normally I don't give up my sources, but I think this is the best way to protect him."

"When he's returned safely, that is," Clark replied.

Ben Cooper, the district attorney, had promised not to reveal the information about Dr. Kwolek until the man had been located. If the state tipped its hand before then, the company would no longer have a reason to keep Kwolek safe. Clark hated having to roll the dice in that manner, but without knowing where the doctor was, there was nothing he could do.

Lois's expression was sympathetic. "He'll turn up. You'll see."

A buzzing sound alerted Lois's attention that someone was at the outside door. Getting up, she walked over to the intercom system located on the wall near the door.


"Lois, it's Jimmy."

Lois glanced at Clark with a hopeful look in her eye. "Hey, Jimmy."

"I've got it." His voice was tinged with excitement.

"You've got it?"

"I think I just cracked your case."

Lois hit the button to buzz Jimmy in and opened the door to her apartment. She was waiting impatiently when he bounded up the stairs.

She pushed him through the door and toward the dining table. "Spill."

Jimmy dropped a small stack of paper in the middle of the table and sat down in one of the empty chairs. He picked up the top piece of paper and handed it to Lois, who was standing next to him with her hands on her hips. "The IP address I highlighted on there is dedicated to a bank in Switzerland. Richardson has recently found need of their services."

Lois smiled widely. "Switzerland?"

Jimmy nodded with a bright grin.

"Perfect." Lois set the paper back down on the table. "Are you hungry, Jimmy?"

Pleasantly surprised to be asked, Jimmy said, "Yeah, sure."

Lois went into the kitchen to fix him a plate.

Meanwhile, Clark had been looking through the other papers. "What is this one, Jim?"

Jimmy glanced at the paper Clark was indicating. "Oh, those are some of the other files that came through the transmission. That one is a car service the chemical company contracts." He shrugged it off, apparently not seeing any significance.

"What about these numbers listed here?" Clark asked, pointing to an area of the same paper.

"My guess it that it's some kind of invoice. Those are probably the mileage reports so they can file for reimbursement by the mile."

Clark pulled the paper back so he could study it, trailing a finger down the list of numbers and dates. Just as he expected, there was an entry for the date and time that Dr. Kwolek went missing. If he went by the listed mileage, he just may be able to triangulate a location for wherever the car had taken him. He just had to hope that it was his final destination.

Lois returned to the dining table and set a plate down in front of Jimmy.

"Uh, Lois, I'm sorry, but I have to leave."

She looked at Clark in surprise. "What? Why... but we just got a break in the story," she stuttered.

Clark folded the paper up and put it in his pants pocket. "I know, I know. I just remembered something I forgot to do... and it has to be done tonight." He smiled sheepishly and strode into the living room.

Lois followed, watching in confusion as he slipped on his suit coat. "When will you be done?"

"I'm not sure. I'm really sorry."

Without waiting for a response, he waved and left the apartment.

Lois looked back at Jimmy, who was happily devouring a pile of shrimp fried rice, and shrugged.



*If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else... an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.*

-- Anthony de Mello


The ringing of the phone next to the bed beckoned Lois from the sweet pull of slumber. Squeezing her eyes tighter, she tried to ignore the sound.

"Lois, answer it," a voice mumbled.

"Lucy!" Lois sat up in the bed with a start, pulling the covers off of her sister. "What are you doing in my bed?"

Lucy patted around blindly until she grabbed the phone. "I couldn't find mine," she muttered, pulling the phone from the hook. She seemed happy to have stopped the ringing because she left the portable handset on the dresser.

Lois arched over her sister in order to get to the phone. "Your room is right down the hall. You had to pass it to get to mine," she said.

"Shhh. 'Mm seepinnin."

Lois groaned and climbed out of the bed, taking the phone with her. "Hello?" she asked softly, leaving her bedroom and closing the door behind her.

"Lois Lane," a deep voice greeted. "Good morning."

"Ben, this early on a Saturday morning, it's either Lois or Lane -- not both."

The district attorney chuckled. "I'm just saying it the way you always do."

Lois rolled her eyes as she entered the kitchen with coffee on her mind. "Yeah, the way I say it when I'm introducing myself- oh, never mind. What's up?"

"I have news," Ben answered.

She tucked the phone between her shoulder and chin as she situated a coffee filter in the machine. "Really? What is it?"

"I want you to have dinner with me."

Lois sighed. They'd had this conversation before. Many times, actually. "Ben, you know what I'm going to say."

"Come on, Lois. You scratch my back, and I scratch yours."

Lois smirked to herself. Ben was a friend and he was harmless -- even if he wanted to date her. Teasing him would incur no bad feelings. "What, so you give me tidbits on the story, and I... scratch your back?"

"Watch it, lady. You're moving too fast for me. I just want dinner."

"If it were just dinner that you wanted, we might have a deal. But it's not."

On the other end of the line, Ben groaned. "We could try. You could debrief me on your investigation -- leaving all the illegal stuff out, of course -- and I can drop hints."

"Hmmm." Lois picked up her favorite blue mug from the mug tree and set it next to the coffee pot. "We could do those same things in your office and have coffee and a scone."

"Do you deliberately suck the joy out of everything?"

"When I can arrange it, yes," she answered, laughing.

Ben sighed. "Well, in that case, I might as well give you the news over the phone," he said grudgingly. "We've got our witness."

Lois straightened from the leaning position she had assumed while waiting for the brew to percolate. "Kwolek?"

"We got him into protective custody last night. An anonymous call led us right to him."

"Ben, that's great!"

"Yeah, and there's more. The order has come down for Richardson's assets to be frozen. You may want to keep an eye on his camp when the news comes out. Desperate people do desperate things."

Lois smiled. "I'm already on it, Coop. You might want to take your own advice. I've come across some information that says he may already have dealt with the asset issue."

Ben swore under his breath. "Do you think he moved it?"

"Switzerland. That's all I got so far."

"Yeah, well that may be enough. I better move on this. How about 8 o'clock tonight, are you free?"

"I'm not having dinner with you, Cooper."

"Lois, this is prime real estate here. I'm not going to keep asking."

Lois watched the drops of dark brown liquid drop into the coffee carafe. "Yes you will."

Ben began laughing. "You're probably right, but as long as you're not dating someone else, I know there's a chance for us."

"And on that note, I have to go. Thanks for calling! We'll talk soon."

"Count on it."


"What do you mean? I thought you had it in your possession?" Clark said into the phone. He was sitting at his desk at the Daily Planet, having come in early to make some follow-up phone calls.

"I'm sorry, sir," a woman with a European accent replied. "I thought we had the manuscript but it appears that it wasn't on the estate charter after all. It's doubtful that it even exists."

Clark sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. It had taken all of this time to get in contact with the people who ran Anthony West's estate, and now they were essentially telling him that they could be of no help.

"I know it exits," he offered. "Mr. West mentioned it in a few different interviews."

"Oh, I don't doubt he wrote a book that never got published, I'm just saying that it's possible that the manuscript was destroyed at some point. I don't expect every idea he ever wrote down to have been saved."

"Could there be any other stash of his belongings- maybe another party who might have had access to his things?"

"Potentially," the woman answered after a moment of thought. "But for all that matters, he was considered an only child. The other children of H.G. Wells, and in turn their children, would not have had access to Mr. West's belongings. He was considered to be a product of an illegitimate relationship. The families pretty much remained separate."

Clark's eyes rose to the ceiling.

"Sir, might I ask you what was so remarkable about this manuscript?"

"The history behind it, I guess," Clark answered dejectedly. "In the interviews, Mr. West claimed that it was his first book. He never talked about what he wrote in it, but rumors circulated that it was an account of his father's... travel."

"Well, that doesn't sound too controversial."

"No, I suppose not," Clark said. He didn't clarify to the woman on the phone that the type of travel Anthony West was supposed to have written about was inter-temporal. "Thank you for trying. I'll keep searching."

"Best of luck to you," the woman said. "I hope you find what you're looking for." Then the line went dead.

Clark hung up the phone and lifted his hands to his face. He had been so close to finding his answers. The missing manuscript from Anthony West was supposed to detail the encounter his father had in the future during one of his temporal leaps. As the rumors went, West had been determined to publish the book as non-fiction, but no one believed him. Eventually, instead of staking his literary reputation on a story the world would only accept as science fiction, West had locked the manuscript away, never to be seen or talked about again.

Clark had learned of the myth during his international travels. The details varied according to the teller, and at first Clark had also dismissed it as a regional yarn. It wasn't until one old timer had explained some of the futuristic aspects that Clark had become interested. When he'd gone to the future, H.G. Wells had met a man who could fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. Clark didn't know what to believe about H.G. Wells' ability to manipulate time, or about Anthony West's ability to tell tall tales, but he did know that he needed to see that manuscript.

There was very little that Clark knew about his origins. Puberty was a confusing time for most teenage boys, but for him, it had been mind-blowing. In the years that followed his introduction to manhood, strange things began happening to him: his vision allowed him to see through things, his hearing locked in on sounds miles away, he ran so fast that he lifted from the earth... and fire shot from his eyes.

His parents had shown him the vessel that they found him in and relayed the amazing story of how he had seemed to fall from the sky. He was fifteen years old when all of this had been revealed to him, and when he opened it, the ship held only a blanket and a large spherical object -- a sphere that awakened at his touch and gave him five brief messages.

Clark had learned that he was born on another planet, that his biological parents were Lara and Jor-El, that he had been named Kal-El, and that he had been sent away to escape the death of a planet.

With as much as he had learned, most of his questions were still unanswered.


Lois walked to her desk with a brisk pace. Seeing that Clark's desk was empty she sighed.

"You just missed him," a voice informed her.

"Perry!" Lois exclaimed, turning to face the man who had addressed her. "We need to talk."

Twenty minutes later, Perry leaned back in his chair and studied Lois thoughtfully. "What's your angle here, Lane?"

Lois lowered into the chair across from him. She had already made her plea, now she just needed to wait for the judgment. "No angle. I'm playing you straight."

Perry rubbed his chin but didn't respond and his hesitance made Lois launch back into selling mode. "You have to agree that this last series is really good."

Perry nodded. "There's already been Kerth talk in some circles," he said.

Lois flushed with excitement -- she hadn't known that. "See! Now, there's no question that I'm good by myself... but with these latest articles..." She looked at him pleadingly, begging him not to make her say it.

Perry clasped his hands together, unwilling to give her a break. If this was what she wanted, she was going to have to go the distance to get it.

Lois sighed, realizing what it was going to take. "With these last articles, I've been better than ever."

"You want a partner?"

Lois paused a beat before replying. "Not for everything. I'm not dependant on him or anything... It's just, I think we could work well together." When her boss didn't immediately respond, she tried again. "He's too good to be working freelance, Chief, and you know it. Everyone needs a home eventually."

Perry unlaced his fingers and tapped the surface of his desk. "Is that all it is, Lois?" he asked carefully. He cared for Lois Lane like he would care for a daughter. Something troublesome was tickling his intuition, but he didn't want to place assumptions blindly.

Lois's expression turned to one of genuine surprise as she got the underlying gist of his question. She seemed thoroughly caught off guard at the hint. "Of course -- It's strictly professional. Chief -- you know me."

He fixed her with a hard look. He did know her. Sometimes he thought he knew her better than she knew herself. If she was willing to vouch for this Kent character, then he was probably better than Perry had given him credit for being. That was the truth on one hand.

The truth on the other hand was something Lois apparently couldn't see coming.

Still... the quality of those articles was too glaring to ignore. The Kerth rumors weren't the only award related ones circulating...

"I'll have HR draw up an offer," the editor finally said.

Lois's face brightened behind a wide grin. "I'm going to go find him and let him know."

Perry fought a grin at her excitement. "Don't you want to wait 'til Monday?"

"Do you want me wait until Monday to turn in our next article?"

Perry suddenly sat forward in his chair and pointed a finger at her. "I came into the office on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with the express purpose of expediting that article to publication. Don't try to brow beat me, Lois. I'm out of your league."

Lois's eyes widened in mock fear as she stood and backed toward the office door. She knew she was the only one who was granted certain leeway with the editor and used it to her advantage.

"Lane!" Perry bellowed when she had ducked out of his office.

Lois stuck her head back through the frame. "It's already in your in-box, Chief."

Growling, Perry reached for the short stack of shelves that sat on his desk.

Lois's voice sounded from somewhere within the newsroom. "E-mail!"

Muttering to himself, Perry patted his chest pocket in search of his glasses so he could see the computer screen. After failing to find them, he squinted and opened the document attached to Lois's name.

'Court Rumors Heavy Fines and Retribution: Employees gather as sharks begin to circle.'

Perry reached for the phone to make the call to HR. He might have just discovered the Planet's golden egg.


Lois's mood was bright regardless of the dreary surroundings created by Suicide Slum at night that encroached upon her. Her talk with Perry had been successful and she was on her way to inform Clark of the *amazing* opportunity to work at the Daily Planet that he was being offered. Why Clark insisted on staying at the Apollo Hotel -- one located in the worst part of town -- she didn't know, but she wasn't overly concerned for her safety. She'd worked these beats with her sources before.

As Lois was walking purposefully down the sidewalk, a woman darted out of an alleyway ahead of her and almost knocked her down. "Hey!"

The woman kept moving and Lois turned to watch her run away. From her state of dress, it was apparent that the nameless woman was a 'lady of the night.' As she ran awkwardly in her heels, the woman whimpered and clutched her purse to her chest.

The sound of a voice coming from the alley drew Lois's attention from the retreating figure. "I don't want to hurt you!"

Recognizing the voice as Clark's, Lois narrowed her eyes and crept toward the opening, pressing close to the side of the nearest building to remain unseen. When she glanced into the darkened passage, she gasped in surprise. Clark was cornered by two thuggishly dressed men, one of whom was holding a large knife. In this circumstance, Clark's brash declaration seemed remarkably inadequate.

"You shouldn't try to be a hero, man. You stuck your nose in, now we got losses to recoup," the man with the knife said.

The pieces suddenly fell into place in Lois's mind. The prostitute had probably been attacked by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Clark, being Clark, had jumped in to help. She really wasn't all that surprised to find him in a situation like this one. In her mind, he was a naïve boy scout whose determination to help other people would inevitably get him in over his head. Luckily, she was there to save him.

She silently slipped around the corner and into the shadows unnoticed. Half the battle of an ambush was finding the right opportunity to pounce.

"You should put that down," Clark stated grimly. "Someone could get hurt."

The man with the knife laughed. "You hear this chulo?" he directed to his partner in crime. "He's a bad ass, eh? *Someone* could get hurt," he mocked.

Lois inched closer and waited for her moment. When the man suddenly yelped and dropped his knife as if he'd been burned, she knew she had her opening. She launched at the other man and took him down from behind.

"Lois! What are you doing here?"

"You looked like you could use a hand," she said in between pants while she blocked the swinging arm of her target.

Clark turned his attention to his thug, who had shaken off the pain in his hand and the surprise of Lois's appearance. He was now angrily advancing on Clark.

Clark distractedly deflected the attacking man as he tried to gauge how Lois was faring. When she finally got the upper hand and delivered an incapacitating blow that sent her guy to the ground, Clark hit the knife-wielder with enough force to make him drop to his knees bewilderedly.

"What would make you do something so dangerous?" Clark demanded angrily, looking over to where Lois was holding her side.

Lois gave him an odd look. "Was it less dangerous when you jumped in to help Lady Heather?" Wincing, she turned to find where her purse had been thrown.

"It's different," Clark growled, watching as Lois picked up the cell phone that had fallen to the ground.

"Typical," she muttered. "Man wants to save the world but doesn't want any help." She futilely pressed buttons. "Damn, it's broken."

She flicked a glance to the guy she had taken down. Noting that he was still groaning, she turned to address Clark. The guy Clark had hit had gotten to his feet and was moving toward him from behind. A flash of light near his hand alerted her to the fact that he had recovered his weapon.


Her warning came too late as the man collided with Clark just as he turned to face him. The thug grunted in pain as Clark doubled over the man's thrusting arm. Shocked into action, Lois ran to Clark's side while the thug moved to his friend and helped him up. Lois was too preoccupied with seeing if Clark was okay to worry about the fact that the two muggers were getting away.

She moved to stand in front of him as he straightened. "Are you...? Where did he...?" she asked, frantically moving his suit jacket out of the way.

"I'm okay," Clark offered, trying to block her searching hands with his own. "He missed."

With wide eyes, Lois met his gaze as her hands stilled. "He missed?" she asked incredulously.

Clark's jaw tightened. The fingers of Lois's right hand were poking through a hole in his shirt.

Lois blinked and looked down at his shirt again. Frowning, she pulled the shirt from where it was tucked into his pants and lifted it. The undershirt had a matching slit. When she reached to lift the garment, Clark took a step backwards, effectively moving out of her reach.

"There's not even a scratch..."

"The knife must have slipped. I was lucky," Clark replied.

Lois's eyes flicked to the ground. The broken hilt of the knife lay at her feet -- its blade a mess of shattered metal surrounding it.

Clark's gaze followed hers and his brow creased angrily. "You shouldn't have come here."

"How did... What happened to the knife?" Lois's eyes were wide with unprocessed information.

"I told you it didn't hit me," he answered, briskly walking over to where Lois's purse lay abandoned. He leaned down to pick it up for her. With any luck, he could encourage her to be on her way.

"Just like you didn't stop that bus."

Clark stiffened, but he forced himself to slowly turn to face her. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said with a forced chuckle.

Lois ignored his deflection. "And you didn't save that worker in Ilium Heights." Her eyes began to flash with excitement as the puzzle came together. "Oh my God."

Clark's eyes narrowed. "We should leave."

Lois continued as if she hadn't heard him. "I didn't think they could be coincidences, but I'd have to have been crazy," she muttered to herself. "Cairo -- 2003 -- the assassination attempt on the ambassador... You didn't just report that, you were the one who jumped in!" She snapped her fingers together. "Oh! And the tsunami survivors in Peru..."

Clark's head tilted and his nostrils flared. "I don't know..."

"That's how you do it," she said, excitedly stepping closer again. "That's how you got the story all those times. You are the story!"

"You investigated me?"

"I..." Lois's words stuttered to a halt and she tried to recall everything she had said in the last two minutes. She tended to speak before thinking when she got excited. "I checked your articles."

Clark's expression hardened. "What else?" he demanded.

Normally, Lois was a master at lying to cover her ass but the angry look in Clark's eye unnerved her. She knew she had been found out -- it was only a matter of admitting it. Maybe she should have listened to Jimmy...

"What else?" he asked again, startling her from her introspection.

At her apologetic expression, he pursed his lips together and dropped her purse onto the ground.

Lois's eyebrows rose in surprise as he turned and stalked out of the alley.

"Clark!" she exclaimed. She scooped up her purse and ran after him. "I'm sorry! Listen..." she tried, but when she got to the end of the passageway, he was nowhere to be seen.


Sunday Evening

Lois sat on the couch staring at the television unseeingly. After Clark had run off on her the night before, she had gone to his hotel to try and explain. Unfortunately, he hadn't been there. After a twenty minute wait in the seedy lobby, she had decided to go home. Clark needed space in order to cool off.

She would just see him on Monday -- they had an article to write.

She sighed and wondered how she had managed to get through Sunday dinner with her family. Amazingly enough, her mother and sister hadn't pushed her on the Clark issue when she once again told them he'd declined the invitation. Thankfully, the dinner conversation had been dominated by talk of Lucy's impending departure, and Lois was grateful that her mother had instituted a rule about no work talk at the dinner table years earlier -- it had saved her from having to talk about her investigation.

It also gave her an out once dinner had ended. No one would dispute that the investigation was ongoing.

Unfortunately, the extra time to herself had left her plenty of time to brood -- which was what she was doing at that moment.

The sound of locks being turned alerted Lois to the fact that Lucy was home. When her sister walked through the door, Lois looked up and smiled brightly.

Lucy narrowed her eyes at the smile and studied her older sister for a moment. "You really high-tailed it out of Mom and Dad's tonight," she commented lightly.

Lois winced. "A little suspicious, huh?"

"Well, yeah, when you add the fact that you're 'investigating' on your couch at home alone," Lucy said, using her fingers to create air quotes. "*And* the fact that you are nursing a bruised rib."

Lois's eyes widened and Lucy snorted. "Your dad is a doctor and your mother practically runs a hospital by herself."

Lois put a hand over her face. "What did they say?"

Lucy just arched an eyebrow in response. "What did you do?"

Lois's gaze flicked to a Fed-Ex box that was sitting on the coffee table in front of her, but she didn't reply.

Curious, Lucy walked into the living room and picked up the package. "Express delivery," she read before meeting her sister's eyes. "On a Sunday? Why haven't you opened it?"

Lois sighed as she took the package from her sister and studied it. "I'm trying to ignore what having this says about me."

Lucy eyed her big sister with a confused expression. "I'm not sure what that means."

"Nothing," Lois said, waving a hand distractedly. "It doesn't mean anything."

"If you say so," Lucy said breezily. "I have to go pack."

"You don't leave for two more days," Lois said with a chuckle.

Lucy shrugged innocently and began walking toward the hallway. "I want to be thorough."

Lois chuckled as her sister disappeared and sat thinking for a moment before comprehension dawned. Tossing the box aside, she leapt from the couch. "Wait... I need to see what all you're packing!"

Later that night, Lois sat in her bed propped with enough pillows so that she was sitting upright. The package sat unopened on her lap.

She ran her fingers along the address label that spelled out her name. Lois had called in a number of favors and had hunted down this item in record time. The success of the find had been so thorough that she even impressed herself.

A contact who worked at the Smithsonian Institute had helped her gain access to locked historical records under the auspicious reputation of the revered organization. A few arm twists, white lies, and grand promises later, she was now in possession of the fabled Anthony West manuscript that had made up one third of Clark's secret investigation.

His earlier reaction to finding out that she'd looked into his background had not been lost on Lois. The fact that she was merely looking at the package and not tearing the box open was a testament to just how aware she was of the line she had crossed.

Curiosity was a double-edged sword. It either killed the cat, or led it to food.

With a sigh, Lois turned the package on its side and tore off the pull tab.



*Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.*

--Marie Curie


Lois looked up for the umpteenth time as the elevator delivered another batch of reporters to the newsroom floor. She had been at her desk since 5 o'clock that morning and hadn't seen Clark arrive yet. She reached for her coffee cup only to find that once again it was empty.

Already anxious, she resisted the urge to refill it. She hadn't been able to go to sleep the night before and binging on high doses of caffeine wouldn't really be calming.

"Need I remind you that both this paper and the US Daily are holding 5 inches of column space on tomorrow's front page for your story?"

Lois looked up from where her thoughts had gotten lost in the bottom of her mug. "Chief... no, uh, the story will make the deadline."

Perry snorted and took a long sip from his own mug. "Funny you should sound so confident about that, seeing as you've been sitting at that desk for three hours and haven't even turned on your computer yet."

"Oh." Lois blinked -- she hadn't realized that it had been that long. "I'm just waiting for Kent."

"Hmm, Kent," Perry said with a grunt. "How did he take the news of the job offer?"

"I didn't really get a chance to tell him about it."

Perry took a step closer to the desk and tilted his head to see what it was that had been the focus of Lois's attention all morning. A leather bound notebook lay in front of her. "That looks antique," he observed.

"Oh, yeah, it's nothing," she answered dismissively. "An old notebook -- family heirloom."

Perry frowned. If the notebook had nothing to do with the story then it was a distraction. "Well, when Kent finally does decide to make an appearance, I need to go over the contract HR sent down with him."

He shot her computer a dirty look. "You could at least pretend to work to make me feel better. I'm not running a day spa here," he grumbled as he walked away.

Jimmy ducked out of the editor's path while making his way to Lois's desk. When he got there, he refrained from speaking, seeing that she was on the phone.

"What?" Lois demanded. "When?" Her shoulders slumped. "Yesterday. You're sure? Of course you're sure. Sorry. Thank you."

She hung up the phone and rose to her feet. "Hey, Jimmy," she greeted distractedly as she hurriedly gathered her belongings.

"Hey... Everything okay?" Jimmy asked in concern.

"It will be," Lois said, sliding the leather notebook carefully into her bag. "I've got to go. If Perry asks, tell him I will beat the deadline." She spun and began to walk away.

Jimmy blinked at the whirlwind he was caught in. "Wait, Lois!" He chased after her, holding the file he had come to give her. "Don't you need this?"

"Oh. Yeah, I do need that," she said absently, taking it from him but not slowing her pace. "Thanks, Jim. I'll see you later."

Jimmy watched as she jabbed the elevator button impatiently a few times. She waited a few seconds and then disappeared through the door to the stairwell.


Clark was sitting at the kitchen table of his parents' farm house when he heard the sound of a car at the far end of the long gravel drive. Turning his head and squinting, he peered through the kitchen wall to determine the driver's identity.

"What is it?" Martha Kent asked when her son's jaw tensed and he violently pushed his chair backwards.

"Stay here," he said. The screen door slapped shut with a bang after he exited.

Worried, Martha crossed the room and peered out of the window.

Clark met the white Toyota Highlander when it pulled to a stop in front of the farmhouse.

"What are you doing here?"

Lois slowly shut the car door she had just exited and looked at him across the roof of her SUV. "I brought you something," she revealed calmly, lifting a notebook.

He merely flicked a glance to it before returning his gaze to her face. "How dare you come here?"

She lowered her arm, bringing the journal to her side. "You left without a goodbye."

Clark scoffed. "You really think you deserved one?" He took a step forward, his eyes looking dangerously wild. "Why are you here?" he asked again.

He narrowed his eyes, scanned her through the car, and saw that she had her laptop tote hanging from her shoulder. "You expect me to help you with your article?"

"It's your article, too," she replied softly.

Lois lifted the notebook again, moving from her spot to step from behind her car. "I think you should take this."

"What is it?"

"Anthony West's lost manuscript."

A flicker of surprise flashed through Clark's expression before it morphed into incredulous anger. He reached out and took the bound notebook from her. He opened the cover and saw some faded words written in longhand on the first page.

'This is the account of a historical tale as told to me by my father...'

"How did you get this?" The expression on her face told him that it was a futile question. He carefully flipped to a later portion of the book. The pages were fragile and thin.

"It's not finished," Lois commented.

"So, you've read it." It wasn't a question. He caught a few words on the page he was on and looked up at her wryly. "Time travel?"

Lois was unfazed. "A little unbelievable, yes -- but so is a man who can fly."

Clark shook his head disbelievingly. "A man who can fly," he scoffed.

"Or who is invulnerable. A man having skin that cannot be harmed by the blade of a knife."

Clark's expression hardened.

Lois sighed. "We're both reporters, Clark. Are you going to tell me that you didn't investigate me?" she asked.

His jaw was set. If she had Anthony West's document then she tracked his computer as he had suspected and already knew the answer to that question. "It's different."

Lois tilted her head. "Different, why? Because you actually have something to hide?"

Clark stepped forward again and lowered his voice to a growl. "You don't know what you're talking about."


Both reporters turned at the sound of the voice coming from the porch. Martha stood looking at them with visible concern. "Is everything okay?"

Clark moved backwards, increasing the space between Lois and himself. He addressed his mother while still looking at Lois. "Miss Lane was just leaving."

"Miss Lane," Martha repeated, her eyebrows rising slightly. She looked at the young woman thoughtfully. "Did you drive all the way out here by yourself?"

"Oh, uh..." Lois stammered, knocked a little off balance by the sudden appearance of the kind-looking woman. "It's no big deal."

"It certainly is a big deal. My guess is that you drove straight here. An eight hour drive without a break, am I right?"

Lois glanced at Clark and composed herself. He was looking angrier now that his mother was interfering with his attempt to throw her off the property. It calmed her a little. "Yes, ma'am. Eight hours," she said, turning her body so her attention was fully focused on the older woman.

"Well, you can't just turn around and drive back without rest, now can you? Come on in and get something to drink."


"Clark, hush. It's polite to be hospitable. Miss Lane, how about some lemonade?"

Lois sidestepped Clark and made her way up the porch steps. She extended her hand when she made it to the top. "Please, Mrs. Kent, call me Lois -- and lemonade sounds great."

"And I'm Martha..."

Clark shut the notebook and tersely followed the women through the kitchen door. Once inside, he remained hovering near the door like a sentinel, waiting for the chance to usher Lois out again.

Martha showed Lois to the kitchen table and gestured for her to take a seat. "So, we've been keeping tabs on your recent series of stories," she said conversationally. "It's hard to believe that there are companies out there who would do such terrible things."

Lois accepted the glass that was handed to her. "Thank you. Yes, ethical business standards seem to have become extinct."

Clark scoffed at her words and earned a dirty look from his mother.

"Although, people sometimes make mistakes when they are acting in the best interests of others," Lois added, refusing to meet his gaze.

"Best interests of yourself, is more likely," Clark replied.

"Clark," Martha warned.

Clark's face suddenly clouded and his head snapped to the room on the other side of the kitchen. "Dad," he called, "don't..."

Before he could finish, a little boy, who looked to be around the age of two or three, darted into the room and latched onto Martha's legs. Lois's eyes widened in shock and the hand holding the glass she was about to drink from froze in mid-air.

An older man who Lois assumed was Clark's father entered from the same direction the boy had come from.

"Damn it," Clark said, moving across the room and picking the little boy up. Without another word, he left the kitchen.

"Jonathan, this is Lois Lane," Martha introduced.

Jonathan Kent's expression darkened, but he nodded politely in Lois's direction. He shot a look at his wife and then followed the example his son had just set, and left the room.

Lois wordlessly set the glass on the table. "I...I should probably go," she said, pushing her chair backwards.

Martha eyed her seriously as she stood up. "From what I've heard about you, you don't strike me as a person who does things without reason."

Lois chuckled nervously. "Then you probably didn't get the opinion of my boss."

Martha half-smiled at the attempt. "I'm going to sit down. I think you should join me."

The no-nonsense tone in the woman's voice commanded Lois the way Clark's anger hadn't been able. She slowly returned to her seat, silently watching as the woman sat across from her.

"First, let me apologize for their behavior. Men desire to protect their domains, and when they feel that their jobs have been threatened or that they cannot fulfil their duties, they tend to overreact." She smiled softly. "But you and I know that the mother is really the one who protects the house."

Lois swallowed soundlessly. "I didn't know he had a child..."

"His name is Jonathan, but since we already have one of those here, we call him Jory."

"Jory," Lois repeated softly.

"Does that change the reason why you came?"

Lois nibbled on her lower lip. She recognized an interrogation -- though she was more accustomed to be on the giving side. "I... I don't really know. It might."

"Hmm. Well, why don't you run it by me and we'll try to figure it out?"

Lois met the woman's gaze. She knew it wasn't a suggestion. "I'm not here as a threat. I want to make that clear up front."

Martha nodded but didn't say anything.

"I came to bring Clark a book," Lois continued. "It's a story about a man who travels to the future and it describes what he saw there. The man who wrote it... well, it never was published because he insisted that it was true. Eventually, he stopped trying to shop it out and its existence became a myth."

"But you found it," Martha surmised.

"I have a cousin... The details are not important," Lois dismissed, leaning forward. "Mrs. Kent, in the book, the time traveller speaks about a man who can fly -- a man who uses his great abilities to protect people and save lives."

"Why did you think this book needed to go to Clark?"

Lois glanced away from the intensity of the older woman's stare. "I think that Clark is a... remarkable person who has a... need to help other people. It rings true in his articles and in his personality -- at least from what little I know. He's been all over the world, and I think he's looking for something -- well, he's looking for many things -- but most of all, I think he's trying to find himself."

Lois mentally rolled her eyes. She felt entirely inadequate for trying to analyze this woman's child in front of her face.

"What is it that you came here for, Lois? What is it that you wanted Clark to do?"

Lois met Martha's eyes. "To stop running," she said simply.

The room was quiet for a full minute as the women's gazes locked.

Finally, Lois broke the silence. "Now, I should really go," she said, standing. "I'm truly sorry for the intrusion, and..."

"I can't let you do that."

"What?" Lois asked uncertainly. She irrationally hoped that this meek farm housewife wasn't a closet member of the NRA.

"Lois, you don't think that as a mother I would consider a 30 minute chat a long enough rest before the second leg of a 16 hour road trip, do you?"

"Oh, ah..." Lois fumbled for an excuse. She didn't doubt that Martha Kent would somehow wrangle a way for her to stay at the farm that night if she wasn't careful. "I'm just going to find a hotel in town."

"Maisie owns a bed and breakfast you'll love." Martha rose from her chair. "I'll go write down the address and directions for you."

"You don't have to do that. I'm sure I can find it."

"Nonsense," Martha quipped with a smile. "Just give me one minute."

Lois sighed as the woman climbed up the stairs to the second level. She walked through the archway that had facilitated Clark's earlier departure and found herself in a comfortable den. A mantle lined with picture frames above the fireplace drew her attention.

She smiled as she looked at pictures of Clark at all ages. There were the given yearbook photos, family pictures, and pee-wee league mugshots. Her expression became confused when she found herself in front of a photo of a young Clark in the arms of his mother. Martha Kent looked to be the same age as she was when she had been sitting at the table with Lois.

"Oh." Suddenly, Lois realized that the little boy in the picture was not Clark, but his son. They looked so much alike at that age that the resemblance was astounding. "Wow."

She went back through the photos and mentally picked out the ones that she had earlier assumed were a young Clark, now thinking that they could also be of the little boy. It struck her as odd that there was no unfamiliar woman in any of the photos. It made her wonder where the boy's mother was.

"Here we go," Martha announced, entering the den to give Lois a piece of paper. "I already called and told them you were coming. You'll have plenty of time and energy to make the drive back to Metropolis after a good night's rest."

From the knowing look on Martha's face, Lois knew her bluff had been called. She was going to have stay the night in Smallville. Chuckling at having likely met her match, she sheepishly returned the woman's smile. "Thank you."


Tuesday, early morning

Clark was standing beside the white SUV when Lois exited the front door of the bed and breakfast early the next morning.

"Didn't think I'd see you anytime soon," she remarked, pressing the button on her keychain to electronically unlock the doors.

"It wasn't my idea," he replied gruffly, opening the passenger side door and climbing inside. "My mother wants to make sure you get back safely."

Lois frowned and pulled open the driver's door. "I guess I'm not the only one that can't say no to her," she muttered, sitting down and pulling the door shut. She started the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot.

"I sent our story in last night," she said. "Emailed it to the Planet and the US Daily."

Clark continued to stare out the front window. He wasn't thrilled to be riding in a car with her and he didn't mind letting it show.

"How do you plan on getting back home from Metropolis?" she asked.

He just turned his head and gave her a look.

"You mean... you really can..." She lifted a hand from the steering wheel and made a flying motion.

"There's a four o'clock train leaving from Union Station," he said sarcastically, pleased at the confused look his statement put on her face. He turned to face forward again. "The least you can do is let me get my family secured before you start destroying my life."

Lois's brow was creased when she turned her head to look at him. "I didn't come here to write an article about you, Clark. I told as much to your mother."

He scoffed disbelievingly. "While I was investigating you, I asked around. I know that your life's aspiration is to win the Pulitzer. It guides everything you do."

"Who would believe it?" she asked. "I'm not sure *I* believe it."

"That didn't stop you from trying, did it?"

Lois focused her attention on the road ahead of her. The downfall of deciding to hit the road so early was that it was still dark outside. The deserted two-lane highway was creepy in the darkness with the tall cornstalks lining the sides like walls.

"My life is not guided by the pursuit of an award."

"See, I think it is," Clark shot back. "I think you're the type of reporter that would throw innocent people off of a plane just to get the story. Lois Lane is a cold-hearted witch who would do anything in order to get that ever-elusive Pulitzer. You'll have to excuse me when I don't believe you when you come into my home as a threat to my family and claim altruism."

Lois suddenly stamped on the brakes, causing the vehicle to skid while she steered it to the side of the road. She put the SUV in park and shifted in her seat so she was fully facing him. Angrily, she reached into the back seat and started digging around in her bag.

When she sat back up she practically threw her wallet at him. "Open it."

"What, you want to pay me for my story now?"

Lois grabbed the wallet back and opened it herself. She pulled something from the bill section and flicked on the overhead light. "Look at it," she demanded, handing him what looked to be a newspaper clipping.

Clark unfolded the paper and recoiled when he saw what it showed. "What is this?"

Lois met his eyes evenly. "You wanted to know what guided my life. That photo was taken by Kevin Carter. He won the Pulitzer for it in '94."

Clark looked back down at the heartbreaking image. In it, a small child was crawling on the ground, obviously emaciated from malnutrition and hunger. In the background behind the child was a vulture, patiently waiting for its prey to stop moving. Clark raised his eyes to meet Lois's again.

"Kevin was asked what happened to the child in the picture and he didn't know. He took the shot and left," Lois said. "He took that picture, won the award... and, in response to the horrifying reality of it all, he committed suicide."

She reached out and pulled the picture from his hands, carefully refolding it and placing it back into her wallet. "No, the Pulitzer is not my everything -- it's not my brass ring. I keep that picture with me every day to remind myself that an award is not worth my soul. I've had many chances to publish something that would guarantee that honor, but I haven't been willing to -- how did you put it -- throw innocent people from a plane."

She tossed her wallet into the back seat. "So, I'm going to have to refute your argument on the basis that your facts suck. You should think about getting new sources. And here's a news flash for you: if you don't want people to think you have a secret, you shouldn't act like you have something to hide."

She hit the overhead light, dousing the interior of the car in darkness once again. Then she put the car in drive and guided it back onto the road.

"I..." Clark started, but Lois cut him off.

"You didn't promise your mother that we would talk," she said. "So let's not."

She reached out and turned the volume of the radio up loud enough that speaking was unfeasible.

The rest of the drive to Metropolis was done without conversation. They only stopped to refuel on gas, and though she had to be stiff and tired, Lois never asked for his help to drive.

Clark found himself both admiring and detesting her stubbornness. She was proving to have just as much will power as he did.

When Lois pulled to a stop outside her apartment building, she shut off the car and got out -- retrieving her belongings and walking to the building -- all without saying a word to him.

Not one to be outdone, Clark climbed out of the car and slammed the door. When Lois turned around, pointing her keychain toward the SUV to lock the doors, Clark slowly lifted into the air.

Her mouth dropped as Clark hovered ten feet in the air. In the time span of a blink, he disappeared, and a second later, she heard the resulting sonic boom.

"Holy crap!"

[End of Act I]


ACT II: Imitation of Life


*The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself often well beyond any latent ability previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses.*

--Bryce Courtenay

Tuesday, two months later...

The newsroom floor of the Daily Planet was unnaturally silent. Most of the reporters were crowded around the television bay, raptly focused on the commentary that was being given by sober news anchors. NASA had just announced that they had lost radio contact with the space shuttle Constitution minutes after giving them the go-ahead for re-entry. It wasn't until this announcement had the public learned that the shuttle had undergone some damage during its launch. The damage had been deemed mild and unimportant at that time, and the news withheld from the public.

Now, NASA was admitting that the damage could have been more serious than they had thought. Across the country, eyes and cameras alike were searching the skies for any hint of what was to come.

The TVs in the bay were all attuned to a number of different stations, giving the reports from different perspectives simultaneously. Suddenly, they all began furiously reporting at once, and their overlapping voices made it impossible to understand what they were saying.

"...over Metropolis..."

"...sighted seconds ago with..."

"...unidentified object..."

"...New Troy re-entry..."

Lois, flanked on both sides by Perry and Jimmy, frowned in confusion at the numerous voices fighting for her comprehension. Then, she saw what all the fuss was about.



*Something* that looked to be dressed in a blue outfit embellished with a red cape was plastered to the nose of the speeding space shuttle that was descending upon Metropolis. Every jaw in the room dropped at the same time -- the moment the shuttle froze in mid-air, and the blue and red object proved to be a man.

"Holy crap." Lois clapped a hand over her mouth -- she *had* to stop reacting like that.

"Lane, as much as those two words sum up the collective feeling in this room, they make up a headline that I can't print." Perry turned his head to take in the shocked expressions on the faces that surrounded him. "Go get me something that I can!"

Lois moved first, and her example was immediately followed by her colleagues. Whether or not they believed what they had just seen, they knew they needed to find out more.

Lois was halfway to the elevator when she noticed that Jimmy was still standing stupefied next to their editor and watching the screens. "Jimmy, grab your camera and meet me downstairs."

"What about Perry's golf cart?" To his credit, Jimmy was matching Lois's stride even as he questioned his priorities.

Lois arched an eyebrow at him as she pressed the button to call the elevator car. "This is that magic moment where you make a choice to either be the person you want to become, or the person that you already are."

A twinkle surfaced in the copy boy's eye. "Yeah, I'll fix the cart when I get back."


Tuesday, one week later

"One week," Perry announced as he stood in front of the staff members crowded in the conference room. "For one whole week, a man has been flying around my city in his underwear and what do we have?"

He pointed to the wall behind him which was plastered with copies of the front pages from the past week's newspapers.

'Mysterious phenomena in space!'

'Who is he?'

'What is he?'

'What does the S mean?'


Lois couldn't help but smile as she read the last one. That had been her idea -- and it had stuck. But other than speculation, none of the news hounds had anything to report -- Lois included. The only thing the mysterious superhero had revealed to anyone was that he was 'a friend.' Since his first appearance with the space shuttle, he had been busy: preventing car accidents, disarming bombs, taking down would-be muggers... hell, he'd even rescued a few cats from trees. Still, he hadn't ever stayed still long enough for a reporter to ask a question.

No reporter had been given leeway -- not even Lois Lane... not that she had really expected otherwise. She knew who he was. She just didn't know what he was trying to do.



"Check it out," Jimmy said.

Lois turned in her chair to see what he was talking about and her eyebrows rose in surprise when she saw the identity of the person leaving Perry's office.

"How long has he been here?" she asked, leaning in her chair to watch as Clark Kent walked up the ramp and stood in front of the elevator bay.

"I don't know," Jimmy answered. "This is the first time I've seen him."

"Huh," she grunted thoughtfully as Clark disappeared inside the lift.


The sound of Perry's voice nearly made her fall over in the chair she was tilted back in. Jimmy's eyes widened and he took off in the opposite direction.

"Chicken," Lois muttered, righting her chair and making the short walk to her editor's office.

"You bellowed?"

"Did you see who was just in my office?" Perry asked.


"He wants back in the game."

"Here? He wants to work at the Planet?" Lois asked.

Perry nodded. "He came to see if the offer still stands."

"To work here?" she asked again, clearly bewildered. "Why?"

Perry chuckled. "We've had a man flying around the city for a week. Any journalist with half a brain is trying to relocate to Metropolis to get an in on the story. It's like the Gold Rush -- except the gold is news, and the news is golden."

"*Does* the offer still stand?"

"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Kent's background is advocacy but he wants in on the investigative racket. That's where you come in."


He waved a hand to cut off her oncoming protest. "Investigative reporting is a whole new racetrack. Now, he made good on the Cyphren case but you were the one holding the reins. He needs to partner up for a while before I can turn him loose. Those are the terms. What do you say?"

"You want to partner him with me?"

"A couple of months ago, you were on the other side of this proposal, now you're looking at me like I have a glass eye. Did I miss something here?"

Lois shook her head. "No... Does he know about this?"

Perry lifted the contract into the air and showed her the signature. "He said he was leaving the final say up to you."


Later that night, Lois was flipping through the cable news stations when she heard a knock on her door. Muting the TV before tossing the remote control onto the couch, she stood and walked over to her front door. She paused, unnecessarily, to look through the peep hole, unbolted the locks, and pulled open the door.

Expectantly, she stood to the side. "I had a feeling that I would see you tonight."

Clark nodded and took a step inside. "Perry called me with the news."

Lois closed the door, walked back to the couch, and sat down without further acknowledging her visitor. After a moment, Clark followed her into the living room.

"Are you back at that rundown hotel?" Lois asked.

Clark stood in front of her with his hands clasped awkwardly in front of him. "Actually, no. I don't really need to stay in town," he admitted, lifting a hand and making the flying motion Lois had used the last night they'd seen each other.

Recognizing the gesture, Lois raised an eyebrow. "That's some commute." She waved a hand towards the love seat.

Clark released a breath and sat down. "We both said and did a lot of things..." he began.

"And we're both sorry," Lois finished. "Why are you here?"

Clark looked at her searchingly. "Is this on the record?"

Lois crossed her arms and leaned back against the couch. "You tell me," she answered sarcastically. She figured he would know by now that she wasn't going to out him.

He sighed and looked at his hands. "You were right. I needed to stop running." He lifted his gaze to hers again. "I read the book."

Lois's expression gave nothing away. "It's amazing the difference one person can make, isn't it?" she asked evenly.

"It's a lot of pressure."

She looked at him intently for a moment, studying him. He seemed... different, somehow. "How has it felt to help people without hiding your powers?"

Clark allowed a smile to flick across his face. "Liberating," he answered. And yet, he had a feeling she already knew that. "Listen, I came here because I can't do this alone. You said you wanted to help, and this... creation... it's half yours."

Lois laughed. "That was two and a half months ago, and I don't think I have any claim on Superman outside of the name -- and even then... What about your parents? Do they know you're talking to me about this?"

Clark nodded curtly, the amusement he'd had a minute earlier replaced with anxiety. "It was a stipulation, actually."

Her head tilted in confusion.

"You won my mother over right away, you must have realized that."

Lois felt herself smile a little out of relief. She had actually thought she might have pissed the woman off, especially after the way she and Clark had parted... "And your dad?"

Clark rubbed his hands along his thighs and sighed. "My dad recently suffered his second heart attack," he revealed.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Yeah. I came home a year and a half ago to help him run the farm, but my parents have made the decision to lease out the land. They plan to purchase the town grocery store."

Lois nodded but didn't respond. She figured the connection between the information he was sharing and her ability to help him would be soon forthcoming.

"Somehow, my mother got the idea that letting me live at home was not protecting me so much as enabling me," he said grimly, meeting Lois's eyes again.

She couldn't hold back the chuckle. "You've been kicked out of the nest," she surmised. "There's nothing like dragging a superhero into his destiny."

Clark's face showed no amusement.

Lois tucked her mirth away. "What does that have to do with me?"

"I started traveling overseas right out of college. Since then, and even a little before that, I made a practice out of keeping to myself. I'm not... used to blending in. In the past, whenever I had the need to use my powers, I just moved to the next city. When you're backpacking across Asia, no one thinks anything of it. If I'm going to stay in Metropolis, I'm going to have to do a better job of hiding in plain sight."

Lois's eyes narrowed. "Is that why you're wearing those glasses?"

Clark's right hand rose subconsciously to adjust the aforementioned items. "Yes. I needed them when I was younger."

Lois took a moment to ponder that bit of information. What kind of superhero could fly but needed to wear glasses growing up?

"Anyway, as you mentioned, if I don't want people to think I have a secret, I need to not act like I have something to hide. You are a world-renowned investigative reporter. If I can pass your test, I can pass anyone's. It's more important that I do that now, than it has ever been."

"Because Superman's gone public?"

Clark ran a hand through his hair. "In part -- but mostly because I'll have Jory with me."

Lois's jaw dropped. "You're bringing him with you?" It seemed irrational to her.

"I don't really have a choice," he answered. The expression on his face seemed to be a mixture of annoyance and anxiety. "It seems that my powers aren't the only things my parents think I'm running from. I'm told that it's time for me to be a father."

"Wow." She felt unable to provide any other comment. Becoming a superhero was a lot to have thrown at you -- taking care of a child was a whole lot more. She didn't know what Clark's parents were thinking, sending a child into such a situation, but from her brief meeting with Martha Kent, she knew the woman had a reason -- and probably a good one at that.

"So, what are you going to do?" she asked.

Clark pressed his lips into a line. "Well, depending on your answer, I have two weeks to get settled and a system planned before they bring him up here to stay."


"You've got to give him some substance," Lois commented.


"Superman. Right now, he's still new -- a novelty -- but people don't trust him."

Clark frowned as he tried to wrap his mind around the fact that he was discussing himself in the third person. Surprisingly, it wasn't that difficult. "How?"

Lois leveled gazes with him. "An interview."

He sighed and rubbed his jaw, obviously uncomfortable with the idea.

"You don't touch them," Lois commented. "You put your body in front of moving locomotives, you pull buses from the sides of bridges... but you never physically touch them. I mean, you pull cats from trees for crying out loud! Why can't you touch another human being?"

Clark's jaw tensed. "I grew up on a farm. Animals are easier. I told you, I don't... interact well."

Lois tilted her head as she studied him. It was ironic, he was the most powerful man on earth and he was afraid of everyone else. Unfortunately, his acting standoffish would only make everyone else afraid of him. Still, she couldn't accept that statement at face value. "I've seen you interact with people. I've even seen you touch them."

He shook his head. "Not when I'm... super." Clark had to admit that the symbol on his chest seemed to resonate with the "Superman" title Lois had invented but he didn't necessarily like it. It seemed a bit egotistical.

He noticed Lois's eyes narrow and knew that she was only beginning to sink into the issue... an issue he didn't want to discuss further. He cleared his throat. "Do you think I could have something to drink?"

Lois pushed herself up from the couch. "Water?"


She knew that he was trying to change the subject but decided to abandon the topic of Superman's physical contact with the public. She knew there were other ways of getting to the heart of something. "So, about the article..." she called out, pulling the water pitcher from the refrigerator.

In the living room, Clark sighed. They were back to the issue of giving the superhero some substance.

Before arriving at her apartment, Clark had come to terms with the fact that he had to share private information with Lois. Earlier that night, when she had responded sarcastically to his question about being on the record, he had realized he wasn't starting off on the right foot... again. Now he was going to lay it on the line and trust her to know what was printable and what wasn't.

"Yeah. We should discuss that."

When she came back to the living room, Lois handed Clark a glass of water and returned to sit in her previous spot. "So, where do we begin?"

Clark turned the glass slowly between his fingers. "Maybe we should talk about the book," he answered.

Lois pulled her legs underneath her and got comfortable. She reached for the notebook and pen that were beside her on the couch. "Okay."

*Tomorrow's Man*, the title Anthony West had given to his unfinished manuscript, was a story told from the perspective of an uninvolved observer. As hard as it was to believe, West claimed that the tale was written in the voice of his father, H.G. Wells. The first part of the book described the machine Wells used to travel into the future without giving details about its creation. According to the narrative, Wells visited a future where forces previously unknown to man were working to diminish the effects of chaos and lawlessness. The catalyst behind these forces was a man who flew around the world under his own power.

The story hadn't given too much more information about the powerful being, other than to say he was an alien who had made his home on earth, and what his various powers were. There had been a brief description of the man's uniform, but nothing personal about the man himself, or about his origins. It seemed that Wells was most interested with the effect this man's presence had on the world's societies. Apparently, this experience was the basis for Wells' essay on Utopia.

Lois uncapped her pen and met Clark's gaze. "How much of it is true?"

Clark sighed and placed the glass of water on the side table. "I *am* from another planet."

Lois was rendered speechless. Technically, her mind had been prepared for the revelation, having already read the manuscript and seen Clark do amazing things, but hearing him admit as much had caused it to really sink in. "Another planet?"

"It was called Krypton," Clark revealed.

He was from another planet. "But when... I saw pictures of you as a child..." She frowned, confused. "Didn't I?"

"My parents found me when a space ship landed in a field. I was a baby. All I know is that I was sent away from the planet before it was destroyed."

"I'm sorry." The thought that he was the last of his kind was a lonely one.

After they had both been quietly lost in their thoughts for a moment, Lois shook her head in disbelief. "This is all so amazing," she muttered, still stupefied. "If H.G. Wells really traveled through time, then what he said about the parallel universes..."

Clark shrugged. The concepts of time travel and parallel universes should have been easier for him to accept, seeing as he had crossed space in a ship, but they weren't. He was just as baffled by the possibilities. "I guess it's possible that the man he was describing was not me."

Lois looked at him thoughtfully for a silent minute before poising her pen over the notepad. "Why are you on earth?"

He released a slow breath. "I want to help those who are unable to help themselves."

She shot him a wry grin. "What about your powers? You can fly, you told me that you can run fast -- you were serious about that, right?" At his nod, she continued, "You're really strong... what else? How do you know when people are in trouble?"

"I can hear things from miles away. I can see things from miles away as well."

Lois's eyebrows rose. "Like macroscopic vision or something?"

Clark thought about it for a moment. "I think so, yeah. I can also see through things. I guess that's like x-ray, but things don't turn black and green."

Lois ran her tongue along her teeth. He could see through things, she repeated silently to herself. She wondered if he ever dared to look. "What about the fire from the eyes thing? The manuscript said something about it."

Clark nodded. "I've always called it heat vision. It's not always fire... it depends on the intensity, really."

Lois looked at the list she had made in awe. "Wow. Can anything hurt you?"

Clark glanced up sharply. "No. Not that I know of." He was relieved that she didn't seem to notice his tone. There were some things he planned on keeping to himself, extension of trust or not.

"What about the suit?" Lois asked, looking up. "Where do keep it?"

Clark flushed. "I, uh, wear it under my clothes."

"Now?" Her eyes unconsciously dipped to his chest and back to his face and she laughed off her embarrassment. "The cape too?"

"I fold it up really tightly." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Do you think that's enough?" He turned his head toward the window and frowned.

Lois followed his gaze, comprehension dawning. "Do you hear something?"

He turned back to her with slumped shoulders. "No. The city has been extremely quiet for the past few days."

Lois smirked. "The criminal element is just suffering from shock right now. They'll be back bigger than ever once they regroup. You have to understand, the law just got a new gun."

Clark got up and walked to the window, staring out at the distant downtown skyline. There was so much he still needed to do.

Lois put the pen and notepad aside. "You know, the Planet has a day care service. It was put in a few years ago after a story about fair facilitation of women in the workplace came out."

Clark smirked as he caught her reflection in the glass. "Let me guess... It was your story?"

Lois shrugged. "It is one of the best in the city."

Clark turned away from the window, but remained on the far side of the room. "I'm sure that it's a great facility. I'm just not sure it'll work for us."

Lois looked at him blankly, not understanding.

At her expression, he sighed. One more secret coming right up. "Jory has some special needs. He can't hear."



*Blessed are they who have the gift of making friends, for it is one of God's best gifts. It involves many things, but above all, the power of going out of one's self, and appreciating whatever is noble and loving in another.*

--Thomas Hughes

Thursday, the following week

Lois dropped a folder onto Clark's desk. "I found it," she announced victoriously.

Clark reached for the folder. "Your source came through on the link between the Harbor fires and the Riverside Development Plan?"

"No, not that," she said, waving a hand in dismissal. "I found you an apartment."

Clark's jaw muscles tensed and he pushed the folder aside. "I think it's more important that we get this story ready for Mr. White."

Monday had been his first true day as a reporter for the Daily Planet. He understood the need to include Lois in on his secret... especially since she had found out so much of it on her own, but the act of revealing himself to her had left him feeling exposed. She had become so overly helpful since then that he often wished he could take it all back: his acceptance of the superhero mantle, his impending trial at parenthood, his acceptance to taking on a partner... It was all happening at a speed that was faster than his ability to adjust.

Lois arched an eyebrow, taking his brush off as a challenge -- as she normally did. She slid the folder back in front of him. "It's an open plan layout. There's an elevated bedroom space, a full kitchen, dining area, large walk-in closet, a living area, a *private* balcony... and a loft." To emphasize the last detail, she opened the folder.

Clark looked at the photos she'd printed out of the apartment and grimaced. "*This* is it?"

Lois smiled. "You see sheetrock, I see potential."

He gave her a doubtful look.

"It's a quiet neighborhood not too far from the Planet, and amazingly enough, it's one of the safer ones around. So it could use a little fixing up, but with your salary stretching around day care and living expenses, *this* is a place you can afford."

Clark sighed and closed the folder, an action that garnered a dirty look from Lois. "I'll take a look at it," he said finally, hoping the subject would be put to rest.

Lois crossed the aisle to her desk and sat down. She turned her computer on and waited for it to boot up. His irreverence was beginning to annoy her. When she had gone down to the day care center to ensure that they could handle a hearing-impaired three-year-old, his only response had been to say that he hadn't asked her to do that.

"Fine, but a little appreciation..."

"I have to go."

She looked up to see Clark standing and reaching for his tie. Without any additional information about where he was going or when he was coming back, he disappeared deeper into the newsroom.

Not for the first time, Lois began to wonder why she was even trying. She cursed the strange pull that was causing her to go above and beyond her call of duty to help Clark become a superhero. Metropolis owed her big.

She braced her elbows on her desk and lowered her face to her hands.

"Where is that partner of yours?"

Lois's head jerked up at the sound of Perry's voice. She slowly swiveled her chair around to face him, buying time to think of an excuse. "He said something about an overdue... DVD rental."

Perry frowned at her and took a sip from his mug. "The day before yesterday, he forgot to pay his telephone bill. I didn't even know he'd found a place."

Lois's eyes flicked to the folder that still sat on Clark's desk. "Ah, I think it was his cell phone bill."


Lois smiled up at her boss. Last time he had come sniffing, she had been able to distract him with the exclusive interview with Superman. She had no such props this time. "As I understand it, he had some local Kansas based service... I told him he'll need something more convenient now that he's living in Metropolis."

Perry set his coffee down on her desk and leveled gazes with her, a move that signaled to Lois that a serious speech was coming.

"I know what kind of position I put you in when I asked you take on Kent as a partner. That said, I don't want you to be carrying his weight, you hear me? If this is not going to work out, you let me know now and we'll cut our losses."

Lois flashed him a smaller smile, more genuine than the first. "Thanks, Perry. Right now, everything is fine, but I will keep you posted."

The chief's clouded expression cleared and he picked up his mug. "I'll hold you to that."

Lois turned back to her computer and opened her notes on the Harbor fires. She clicked on the file in her personal network folder that held her photos, and double-clicked on one Jimmy had recently uploaded. The shot showed Superman exiting a fiery structure with a homeless man cradled in his arms.

Operation Superman Substance had been a success... although in getting to this point, Lois had inadvertently caused damage to their partnership. She knew that her pushing him was a large part of the reason why Clark had been somewhat unreceptive lately.

She looked at the picture again and smirked. He was touching people now, thanks to her.


Lois waited on the roof of the Daily Planet the night after she and Clark had talked through the Superman interview. He wasn't due to start his new job at the Planet until Monday, so she had asked him to come meet her on the roof wearing the suit. She had let him believe that it was part of the interview, although those weren't quite her actual intentions.

She was startled when he silently landed behind her. "Lois."

"Damn, make some noise!"


She waved his apology away. "Yeah, so, have you been busy... like, super-wise, today?"

He shook his head. "Still quiet."

Lois raised her eyebrows. He was a talkative one. "I was thinking about your *human interaction* problem," she said, hoisting herself up to sit on the wall that lined the roof. "I think I know how to fix it."

Superman gave her a wary look, and she could tell he was already sure that he wasn't going to like her idea -- and she agreed.

Smirking, she swung her legs over the side. "In case you're wondering -- I can't fly." Then she jumped.

A second later, she was standing on shaky legs, back securely on the roof.

"You are a crazy woman!" Superman spat angrily at her.

Lois gave him a grin that didn't quite reach her eyes -- which were still wide with shock at her own actions. "But I'm an *alive* crazy woman," she returned. "And you, *super* you, saved me. By flying. With me. In your arms."

He stepped back and crossed the aforementioned arms on his chest, still glaring at her. After having learned about his 'heat vision', she wondered if she needed to duck.

"You're not going to hurt people, Clark. It's not in your nature."

With a hardened jaw, Superman lifted into the sky, leaving her alone on the rooftop.

Lois followed his ascent with her eyes. "So, if it's okay with you, I don't think we need to write this save up," she called after him.

It was another thirty minutes before her heart rate was back to normal.


Lois smiled at the memory and closed the image file. The story on the Harbor fires was not really something that called out 'big story' to most people. A few dilapidated and abandoned warehouses in the district had burned down -- not a major deal -- but Lois couldn't help but feel that there was something sinister going on. While it was partly her job to verify her hunches, the other part of her job demanded that she submit articles to her editor while she hunted down the exposés.

Flipping her ever handy notepad to a blank page, she began brainstorming some notes surrounding the homeless problem in Metropolis' Harbor District.

Maybe she had pushed Clark as much as she could. If so, then now it was time for her to step back and let him find his own way.


Friday, a week later

Clark arrived late to work looking disheveled and annoyed. At Lois's questioning look, he shook his head curtly. It hadn't been Superman-related. "My parents decided that I should get Jory up, fed, and dressed this morning."

"You brought him in to the day care center?" Lois asked.

"No. He's staying at the apartment with them today, but they wanted to make sure I was capable of doing it on my own before they leave this weekend."

The expression on Lois's face said that she agreed, and it irked him further. "I'm *Superman*," he whispered under his breath. "Of course I could do it."

Lois coughed into her fist, but he heard her one-word comment anyway. "It has nothing to do with my ego," he retorted.

Clark had ended up leasing the apartment that Lois had told him about, although mostly because his second job didn't allow for much apartment hunting time. With the help of a little superspeed, it hadn't taken him long to make the needed repairs and added decorations. It was definitely one of the nicer places he had ever lived -- and it needed to be, considering this was the first time since college that he wouldn't be living on his own.

His parents had arrived on Wednesday, bringing Jory to get acquainted with his new home and living situation. Both of his parents had approved of the apartment, and he hadn't missed his mother's smirk when he'd told them how he'd found it.

Lois slid her chair across the aisle to his desk. She put a folder on the surface and opened it, ready to work. They had some final touches to put on their Harbor fires-Riverside story.

"What kind of oatmeal did you make this morning?" she asked innocently.

"Blueberry," Clark answered automatically before pausing to give her an odd look. "How did you know we had oatmeal?"

Lois smiled at him with barely contained amusement. "It's on your pants."

They spent the rest of the morning working on the article, identifying a few facts that still needed to be checked before the piece could be submitted.


Clark's head shot up at the sound. He glanced around but saw nothing amiss and no one looking at him.

"What's wrong?" Lois asked.

"Someone's calling me."

Lois flicked a glance to his telephone before she got it. "Oh! Do you need to go?"

He frowned. The voice in his head sounded condescending in a way... mocking. "No one's ever *called* me before. How would they?"

"People know you can hear things... Is it like some special frequency, or something?"

"Maybe... It could be..."

*Let's play, Supes. Jumper. 5th and Main. Tick tock.*

Clark jumped to his feet and turned to leave. Abruptly, he remembered that Lois was still sitting beside his desk and faced her. "I've got to..."

"Go," she finished for him. "It's okay. It's almost time for lunch anyway."


Lois was engaging the password protected screen saver on her computer when someone approached her desk.

"Mrs. Kent," she said in surprise when she realized who it was. "If you're looking for Clark..."

"Actually, Lois, I was hoping you and I could have lunch."

"Oh, well, sure. I was about to head out anyway." Fighting surprise, Lois pulled her purse out of her locked bottom drawer and stood. "Do you have a preference for where we go?"

Martha shook her head. "Where were you planning to go?"

"The hospital, actually," Lois answered. At Martha's alarmed look she chuckled. "No, it's nothing bad. They just have really good Clam Chowder once a month."

"Well, in that case, let's go to the hospital."

Lois smiled. "How did you get here?"

"I parked our rental car in the garage downstairs." At Lois's frown, Martha continued, "Clark still hasn't bought a car yet, and I wanted us to have transportation while we were in town."

"Well, you can leave the car in the ramp," Lois decided. "The train will be much quicker than fighting through mid-day traffic."

After arriving at the hospital and getting their food, Lois and Martha settled at a table near a large window. The hospital cafeteria had been designed to be light, airy, and cheerful. It didn't feel institutionalized at all.

"Clark mentioned your parents were both in the medical field?" Martha questioned to start the conversation.

"My dad is a surgeon and my mom is an administrator," Lois replied, "although neither of them works at this hospital."

Martha smiled and unfolded a napkin onto her lap. "I'm sure you're wondering why I wanted to speak to you."

Lois nodded, opening a pack of oyster crackers and pouring them into her soup.

"Well, I was hoping you would be willing to do something for me." Martha opened her mouth to say something else then closed it, appearing to rethink her tactics. "What do think about Clark's new job?"

Lois knew that the position at the Planet was not the topic being discussed. She thought about her response before carefully answering. "I think it might have given him a new way to hide," she said.

Martha nodded encouragingly, indicating a desire for Lois to continue.

"He's thrown himself into it, which is great -- admirable, really -- but when he told me about Jory coming, I can't help but to admit being a little worried about it. I mean, he's already juggling all of this... and now a little boy as well?"

Martha's gaze dipped briefly to her soup, as if she were feeling a little anxious about the decision herself. She met Lois's eyes again. "We've talked about this as a family. Clark can help the world as much as he can right now with us here, but he knows that when we're gone, sacrifices will have to be made, and Jory is his first priority."

Lois tried not to look doubtful. She focused her attention on her chowder. "I'm sure you're right."

Martha reached across the table and placed a hand over Lois's. "Jonathan and I aren't blind to the concerns," she said. "We know what this situation has the potential of becoming. Hopefully, that's where you come in."

Lois glanced up with mild alarm tinged with confusion. Martha's expression revealed a myriad of emotions: sorrow, apology, gratitude, anxiety... In all, it was impossible to read.

"Believe me, if this weren't so necessary, we would keep him with us. The truth is that time is not infinite. We have what little we are graced with and we must make the most of it."

Lois didn't know what Martha was talking about, but she assumed it had to do with her husband's health problems.

"Clark is a bit distant with Jory but the feelings are there. He just needs a little push."

Another push, Lois remarked to herself wryly. "Let me know if I am off the mark here, but your husband didn't seem too happy about me being in the *know* when I was in Smallville -- I can't imagine him being any happier about Clark's new hobby."

Martha smiled softly. "Jonathan only wanted to protect his family. He's as proud of Clark's accomplishments as any father could be. *Both* of us," she emphasized with a serious look, "are grateful that you cared, and both of us want Clark to have the chance to make this connection before it's too late."

Lois frowned again. "Before what's too late?"

"I'm sorry, honey. That part is not for me to tell." Martha reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper. "These are our numbers, home and cell. All we're asking you to do is call us if *anything* happens -- if you have any concerns, whatsoever, about Jory's welfare, or Clark's ability to take of care of him -- you call us. We'll come and pick him up in a heartbeat."

Lois accepted the piece of paper with a heavy heart. Over the past three months, the entire outlook of her life had shifted. There was real, flying, evidence of life on other planets, there was a potential argument for time travel, and she now had been given the right to decide whether or not a man was capable of caring for a child.

Looking at the numbers on the slip, she prayed she would never have to use them.



*Above all things let us never forget that mankind constitutes one great brotherhood; all born to encounter suffering and sorrow, and therefore bound to sympathize with each other.*

--Albert Pike

Sunday, early evening

Lois sat on the couch in Clark's living room watching him instruct Jory on how to clean up his toys. The elder Kents had invited her over for dinner before they drove the rental car to the airport for their return flight to Smallville. Lois had a feeling that Clark's parents had wanted her around for insurance after they'd left.

Happily, Lois's parents hadn't pressed when she told them she wouldn't be able to make it to their house for dinner. The Lane Sunday dinner tradition tended to often get postponed when Lucy wasn't in town -- especially when Lois's investigations got hot.

"Why don't you sign to him?" she asked. The adorable little dark-haired boy seemed to have taken to her pretty well, but she still felt the effects of the language barrier. Jory was a happy child, and his immediate affinity to strangers indicated a couple of things about his upbringing: first, he felt safe and secure around the people who took care of him, and second, he didn't meet a lot of people outside of his security circle. He was loved... and sheltered.

It both warmed and worried her.

Clark turned to her to respond to her question. "He'll learn to lip read faster if I speak to him."

Lois tilted her head. "Your parents do both. They sign *and* speak to him."

Clark seemed to bristle. "He's growing up in a hostile world where people are not going to bend to meet his needs. He's going to be different and if he doesn't learn to cope, he'll be forced to live on the outside. I'm just preparing him to survive."

Lois kept her expression blank. She didn't want him to think that she was judging him... she was just observing. "I have a theory about that voice you heard on Friday," she said, steering to a less personal topic. "Someone's testing you."

"Who would do that?"

Lois shrugged. "Any number of people -- government, criminal... anyone who wants to assess what kind of threat you may be."

Clark frowned and leaned against the wall he was standing next to. "Would the government have people jump off of buildings just to see if I could catch them?"

"Ideally? No," Lois replied lightly. "But I don't know that our government, in its current state, is acting at its most ideal."

Clark looked doubtful and Lois reminded herself that he was the type who believed in the system and rules. "Someone had to have the equipment to broadcast that signal, and as you said, it couldn't have been just a generic radio transmission."

Just then, Jory approached her and placed a small brown stuffed bear on her lap. He made a few signs and then looked at her expectantly. From what she could gather, he was tapping two fingers from each hand together.

"Oh... hello," she said, picking up the bear.

Jory made the sign again and pointed to the bear.

"It's a very nice bear." She looked to Clark for help.

"He wants you to give it a name," Clark translated.

Jory grinned at her and made the sign again.

"Okay," she said, lifting the bear and gazing thoughtfully at its furry face. "How about... Cocoa?"

Jory reached up and pulled the bear down, looking up at her with a confused expression. Belatedly, Lois realized that he couldn't see her mouth with the bear in the way.

"Cocoa," she repeated, mentally asking herself why she thought saying it louder the second time would make a difference.

The little boy looked to Clark for help, obviously not recognizing the word.

Clark thought about it for a minute before putting one of his hands facedown and curling the other into a C shape. He then moved the C in a circle over the back of his hand. "Chocolate," he said aloud.

Jory's face brightened and he pulled the bear's ear into his mouth, pretending to bite it. Lois heard him make a small grunting sound and realized that he was laughing.

She couldn't help but laugh herself.



Another week passed and Lois realized that she wasn't the only one that knew that Superman didn't come out to play after a certain hour. However, she was the only one who knew that the hour in question was the time extended day care at the Planet ended. Some internet forums suggested a time zone issue, and some debated the idea that his 'batteries' ran out after a certain time. Lois had rolled her eyes at that one -- those people obviously ignored the fact that Superman had engaged in plenty of night rescues before his recent change of schedule. The MPD had bulked up their personnel on Superman's off hours -- another example that the city and criminals alike were taking notice.

The truth of the matter was that he was too stubborn to ask his partner to babysit.

"Hey, Clark," Lois called across the aisle. "Do you think Superman has a partner?"

Clark looked up, frowning. He flicked a glance at their surroundings to see if anyone was paying attention to their conversation and wondered why Lois would be bringing up something like this. "A partner?"

"Yeah, you know, someone who helps to pick up the slack, makes it easier for him to do his job?"

Clark pulled his hands from his keyboard and waited for the other shoe to fall.

Lois finally looked at him. "Do *you* have a partner, Clark?"

Clark narrowed his eyes. He had no idea what she was trying to say to him and the longer he thought about it the further lost he became.

The sound of his phone ringing pulled his gaze from hers. "Clark Kent."

"Mr. Kent, this is Aubrey, from the child care center... You asked that we call if..."

Clark straightened in his seat. "Is Jory... Never mind, I'll be right there." Without waiting for a response, he hung up the phone and ran through the newsroom and down the stairs.

He heard the crying before he got to the front door of the day care. The bright pictures of painted children that decorated the walls did nothing to soothe his nerves. He waved distractedly at the male receptionist and headed directly to the Director's office.

The woman sitting on the couch in the office looked up when Clark hurried through the door. She moved from the couch to give him room to sit down next to the crying child.

"Thank you," Clark said.

"Mr. Kent, are you sure we shouldn't call a doctor?"

"No, this happens all the time." Clark hesitated briefly before reaching out to place his hands over the small ones that Jory was pressing against his ears. He then pulled the child into his lap and held him to his chest. "I just have to hold him through it."

Clark tucked Jory's head under his neck and looked up at the Director. To his surprise, the woman was no longer there. In her place, Lois stood at the door watching him with concern. She stepped into the office and closed the door, and Clark realized that she must have followed him when he ran out of the newsroom. He rocked back and forth soothingly as Jory's cries quieted to a high keening sound.

"What's happening?" Lois asked.

Clark sighed and held the child closer to his chest. "He suffers these attacks. His ears hurt."

Lois crossed to the place in front of him and leaned against the desk. "This happens often?"

"Lately," he answered gravely. "They've been coming closer together."

Lois looked to be close to tears herself and he understood the emotion. He hated to hear a child cry, especially when he was helpless to do anything to prevent it.

"He's sick? What do the doctors say?" When Clark didn't respond right away, her eyes grew wide. "You *have* taken him a doctor, haven't you?"

"Of course we have. He's been going to a doctor in Smallville since he was four months old. That's when his hearing problem was diagnosed." He put a hand on the back of Jory's head and began stroking his hair gently. "The doctor in Smallville can't help him anymore."

"Is that why you brought him to Metropolis? To get more opinions?"

"Not exactly," Clark confessed.

"What do you mean, not exactly? There are some of the world's best specialists here!"

Clark breathed a sigh of relief as Jory's cries trailed off. Looking down, he saw that the child was asleep, worn out by the ordeal. "I'm working on finding the one person who can help him," he said solemnly.

Lois watched as Clark wiped the tear tracks from the sleeping boy's face. After hearing Clark say Jory's name in such an alarmed tone, she had followed him out of the newsroom in fear that this was going to be something she needed to report to Martha. Instead she had stumbled upon a scene that threatened to break her heart. It was all starting to make sense now that she had this additional piece of information to add to the puzzle.

Lois had thought Jory seemed to be a little small for his age, but knowing that he had been sick all of his life made sense somehow. The fact that the Smallville doctor could no longer help him made Lois's mind rewind back to Martha's comment about time running out. The pieces were sliding together, but she didn't like the picture that was being created.

"Lana Lang."

Clark looked up at her, and instead of the betrayed expression she expected to get from the reminder that she had tracked his computer back when they'd first met, he only looked defeated. "Yes."

"That's why you've been searching for her." Lois couldn't believe there was anything more that could make this already strange Clark situation any stranger. "Have you found anything?"

Clark shook his head. "Dead ends."

They were both quiet for a few minutes, watching Jory breathe peacefully. It was such a difference from the traumatic cries he'd been emitting ten minutes earlier.

"Clark..." She paused and waited for him to look at her. "Is she Jory's mother?"

"No!" Clark whispered vehemently in response. His focus turned back to Jory, but his brow was still creased with anger.

The emotion of the answer made Lois doubt its truth.


Tuesday, evening

"The question that is on everyone's mind is, where is Su..."

The news radio show commentators were halted when Lois shut off the car's engine. She climbed out of her Highlander, pulling her bag with her, and headed toward the apartment building. When she arrived at the apartment door, she knocked lightly.

A few seconds later, Clark opened the door, looking at her with a confused expression.

Lois gave him a sidelong glance as she brushed past him and stepped through into his apartment.

"Lois? Is something wrong?"

"Do you know what's happening in Northern Arizona right now?"

Clark looked away from her and turned to close the door.

"So you did hear about it," she remarked, dryly.

"It's the middle of the night," Clark replied, flicking a glance toward the bedroom area. "In a few hours..."

"In a few hours, the fires will have spread."

"I've been keeping tabs; everyone was evacuated and no homes are currently being threatened," he reasoned. "In a few hours I'll be able to go out and help them."

Lois gave him a look that bordered on a glare. "Okay. You've been lucky so far. No natural disasters, no extended hostage situations... So far everything has happened within normal working hours. What are you going to do if these fires start spreading and your *schedule* doesn't permit a break?"

Clark stiffened. "My schedule?" He gestured to the rear of the apartment with an alarmed expression.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay. Sorry. I don't mean to insinuate... Look, let me start over." She sighed and dropped her bag onto the couch. "Let me help you."

Clark's brow seemed to be permanently creased. "I don't need..."

"Obviously, you do," she countered. "You should be out there, doing what you do, not here pacing and waiting for the sun to rise."

"If it got bad, I planned to just take him out to my parents."

Lois plopped onto the couch and hugged one of the throw pillows to her chest. "You don't fly with him," she said.

Clark silently studied her.

"You don't fly with him either because the pressure hurts his already sensitive ears, or because you don't want him to confuse you with Superman in public." She gave him a wry smile. "It's okay. I'll stay -- you don't even have to ask."

Lois watched as he glanced toward the bedroom again and then to the balcony door -- evidently torn. "He's sleeping, Clark. You'll probably be back before he rolls over."

Coming to a decision, Clark blurred in front of her. When he was done spinning, he had transformed into the Superman suit and his hair was slicked back in the familiar style.

"Holy... wow." Lois caught herself just in time.

Still, it earned her a look -- to which she responded by shrugging meekly. "Holy wow," she repeated softly. "That's what I was going to say."

An amused smile flirted with Clark's mouth before he slipped back on Superman's mask of determination. With a curt nod he strolled toward the patio door, halting as he slid it open. "I should be back in a few hours," he said.


"But I'll be listening for your call if you need..."

"Got it."

"And Lois..."

Lois sighed, and rotated on the couch to face him. "Yes, Clark?"

His head dipped briefly as if whatever he wanted to say was hard coming out. "...Thank you."

Before the expression of surprise had settled on her face, he was gone.

An hour later, Lois was sitting on the floor in front of Clark's television watching LNN's coverage of the wildfire suppression efforts. Superman's appearance had been welcomed, and while his strength, flight, and invulnerability were amazing aids, his super breath was not something that could be safely used at this stage. It appeared that Superman was going to be busy for a bit longer than expected.

Hearing a strange rustling sound, Lois turned off the TV and turned around. Jory was standing in the hallway rubbing his eyes with one small fist and clutching his little brown bear with the other. Lois smiled at the sight of the small boy dressed in all-in-one pajamas that included covered feet.

When he was finished clearing his eyes, he blinked sleepily and looked up, the confusion clear on his face. He put a fist to his head and pulled it away, looking at her questioningly. When she shook her head helplessly, he looked around. He made the sign again and shifted his eyes to the lit areas of the apartment bewilderedly. His lower lip began trembling and Lois could see the oncoming breakdown.

"Uh... okay," Lois said. "Hold on, buddy," she offered soothingly as she slowly crawled to him. "Hey...it's okay."

Jory's eyes trained back to her as she got closer. Lois racked her brain in an attempt to remember the sign she had seen Clark make. She curled her right hand into a C shape and moved it in a circle.

"Chocolate?" she tried, a hopeful expression on her face.

The little boy tilted his head, his attention piqued. He lifted his bear up and held it out to her.

Smiling in relief, Lois smiled. "Yes, that's him. Hello, Mr. Chocolate bear!"

Her animated expression seemed to brighten Jory's spirits. He smiled and put his small hand against the side of Lois's neck. Unsure of what he wanted, Lois looked at him with raised eyebrows.

Jory pointed to the bear in Lois's lap and nodded.

"Chocolate?" Lois asked.

When she spoke, Jory's eyes flicked back to her throat and the hand that was still there.

"Oh, I see." Lois smiled at the realization. He liked to feel the vibrations. "You really should be asleep right now," she continued, knowing that even though he didn't understand her, he was getting something from the contact.

She pulled him into her lap, and when his face showed genuine surprise and delight, she began to wonder if Clark ever sat with him like this. In her limited experience with them, she had only seen Clark do anything remotely close to a hug was on the day Jory had experienced his attack.

Jory looked up at her with a frown, as if wondering why she had stopped talking.

"Sorry. I was introspecting again. Do you know what that means?" she asked, exaggerating her expressions while she talked. "It means that I think too much -- at least that's what my sister would say."

Jory yawned.

"Yeah, my sister would say that too."

She chuckled and the boy snuggled closer against her chest, moving his hand and placing his face in the crook of her neck instead, maintaining contact so he could feel her talk. Lois pushed against the wall, getting to her feet while holding the child in place and tucking the brown bear under her arm.

"I guess I could tell you a couple of stories until you fall back asleep," she said, walking down the short hall to the bedroom. "Let's see... Once upon a time there was a reporter princess who lived in a tower with a big globe on the top..."


Clark landed gently on the terrace and soundlessly slipped into his apartment. The light was still on in the living room, but no one was in there. He made his way down the short hallway and glanced at the figures on the bed. While the loft in his apartment could have served as a small bedroom for Jory, he and his parents had decided against the idea of putting the little boy's bed a flight of stairs above the main level. Instead, his toddler-sized bed was next to Clark's, except on this night, he wasn't in it.

Lois was lying on her back on top of the covers and Jory was soundly sleeping snuggled on her chest. The sight oddly warmed him in a way he'd never experienced before. It also piqued a mild sense of guilt that was altogether unpleasant. He turned away from the bed and walked to the bathroom.

Stripping off the soiled suit he had worn through smoke, soot, and fire, he stepped into the shower and tried to cleanse his weary soul with hot water. After a few minutes of basking in the warmth, he reached for the soap and began to build it into lather. He was unable to scrub the tendrils of guilt away the way he rid his body and hair of the smoky smell that had followed him home. The way Lois was holding Jory looked comfortable.

He had never been able to overcome his own issues to reach out to the child like that.

He loved the little boy -- he knew that, even though he had never been able to admit as much aloud without great struggle. Clark had learned to guard his heart and to keep his trust focused on himself, and loving Jory was like strapping himself to a timed bomb. He was determined to find a way to stop the inevitable, but to his shame, somewhere deep down he had already conceded defeat. Jonathan JorEl Kent -- the child named for two fathers stronger than Clark ever could be -- was going to die.

And not being able to stop it was killing Clark.

But Lois didn't know the stakes. She didn't walk around afraid of the intersection between past and future, between love and loss, and between hate and obsession. She walked in with an open mind and heart and had been able to wrap her arms around a little boy who desperately craved the touch Clark had been unable -- and unwilling -- to give.

With those thoughts tumbling disconnectedly through his mind, Clark turned the water off and stepped out of the tub. He slipped into his nightwear and quietly returned to the bed. Gazing down at the two sleeping figures, he allowed one of the walls he'd built around his heart to come down. He would try.

Leaning down, he gently disengaged Jory's arms from around Lois's torso, and picked him up. Lois shifted and she pried open one eye to look at him.

"You're home," she whispered in a gravelly voice.

"Yeah, I just got back," he replied.

Lois seemed to become aware of where she was lying. "Oh, your bed. I should get..."

"No, it's okay," Clark entered. "Stay there, I'm going to go sleep in the recliner out front."

She blinked at him, trying to clear the sleep-created cob webs from her mind. "What time is it?"

"4:00 in the morning. We have to get up for work in a couple of hours anyway, so go back to sleep."

Lois yawned and nodded, rolling onto her side, still facing him. "You could have left him in the bed," she said. "He was fine here with me."

"I know he was." Clark smiled at her softly, and then turned and carried Jory out of the room.



*Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands -- a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.*

-- Sidney Lovett


Lois woke up earlier than normal, a result she attributed to her unfamiliar surroundings. Rising from the bed, she stretched and padded softly into the living area. A smile broke out on her face as she saw Clark lying in the large recliner, holding Jory against his chest much like she had done the night before.

She moved closer and gently brushed a lock of hair off of the child's forehead. When she stepped back, she saw that Clark's eyes were now open and looking at her.

"Sorry," she whispered. "I didn't mean to wake you." She realized that she didn't need to whisper and shrugged absently. "I'm just going to get my stuff and head home," she announced, turning to locate her bag and shoes.

"Um, do you mind waiting a few minutes?" Clark asked, shifting to straighten the chair so he could stand. "I'd like to talk to you about something, if that's okay."

Lois's eyebrows arched. "Sure."

Clark carried Jory back toward the bedroom and returned a few minutes later alone. "Would you like some coffee, maybe some breakfast?"

Lois nodded and followed him into the kitchen. "Just coffee would be fine."

After gathering the ingredients and pulling the top off of the coffee machine, Clark began to speak. "When I was growing up, my best friend's name was Pete Ross..."


Three teenagers climbed from the cab of the old red pickup truck, two of them moving with a lot more enthusiasm than the third. 16 year-old Clark Kent, having recently received his license, somehow always ended up getting roped into chauffeuring his two best friends around town.

Pete Ross had been his best friend for what seemed like forever. It was as if magic had transpired on the first day of pre-school when Pete had stopped another little girl from pulling out a swatch of Clark's hair. Almost twelve years later, Clark was the taller and more powerful of the two, but in some ways, Pete was still the one doing the protecting.

Pete had been protecting Clark's secret since the day he'd found the space ship under the broken board in the cellar when they were 11.

The other person in their trio was Lana Lang, ironically the same little girl who had shown such an affinity to Clark's hair in pre-school. She had been Clark's girl-next-door for years, and by the time they'd become eighth graders, Clark's secret feelings had been returned.

It was at the end of freshman year -- when he'd been sure that he was in love and was ready to take things to the next step -- that he'd decided to let her in on the secret. It hadn't gone over as well as he'd planned.

Lana had always suspected that Clark had a secret, and she'd continuously asked him about it -- but when he finally revealed all, she had wished she'd never known. He knew that because she had told him so. She hadn't hated him -- she just couldn't see him the same way, and somehow, the burden of sharing his secret drew the two people who knew it closer to one another.

Clark couldn't begrudge Pete and Lana for finding happiness and solace in each other... even if he did often find himself feeling like the third wheel to their bicycle-skewed lives. The fact of the matter was that Pete and Lana connected on a level he had not experienced. He wanted only the best for them. He owed them that much for helping to shoulder his insane youth.

"I thought this was going to be *our* special day."

The soft voice drew Clark's attention and he glanced up sharply, looking at the backs of his two friends as they walked toward the edge of Shuster's Gorge. Frowning, Clark's slowed his pace.

"I couldn't leave him home alone," Pete replied quietly.

Lana sighed. "He's not a child who has to be watched 24 hours a day, Pete."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it."

"I'm sorry, I know. I just..." Lana slid an arm through the crook of Pete's elbow, drawing him closer to her as they walked. "I just wanted to do something other than talk... and it's awkward, sometimes..."

Behind them, Clark's shoulders drooped. "Hey, guys, I'm going to stay by the truck!"

He saw Lana's furtive glance to Pete and knew she was wondering if he'd heard them talking.

Pete turned to face Clark. "Come on, Clark! Man, don't be like that."

Clark raised his hand against the protest. "I'm just going to hang out and listen to some music," he countered.

"Clark," Lana began, a guilty expression washing over her face. "You should come..."

"You guys know I how feel about heights." He shuddered involuntarily just thinking about it. He really did have a fear of them. "You guys go ahead. Hey, at least I'm off the farm, right? Change of scenery has to mean something!"

Looking pained by his decision, the couple turned and left him to his devices. For the next half hour, Clark sat in the truck with the windows down thinking about the upcoming school year. He was finally going to be a senior. It seemed like the previous three years had been spent waiting for this summer to arrive. He had been relatively well-liked throughout high school, and was pretty much accepted in all the usual groups. He was smart and cared about his grades, which made him tolerable to the brainy elite, and while he didn't play many sports, he reported on them, so he was on speaking terms with the jocks. Still, Clark had found that he couldn't wait until he was a member of the senior class.

"Pete, don't!"

Clark focused his vision on the area near the gorge ledge where he'd seen Pete and Lana settle. Zooming in he saw that the ground was crumbling away where Pete was kicking at the edge. Feeling the familiar onslaught of anxiety at the potential danger, Clark snapped his vision back to normal and got out of the truck.

"Hey, Pete, what are you doing?" Clark called, slowly making his way toward his friends.

"Clark! Come look at this! It's some kind of rock... I think it's glowing..."

Clark saw the moment Pete's footing slipped, the already disturbed ground under his feet giving way, and he was lying next to the edge holding Pete by one arm before Lana's scream had fully sounded. Whatever rock Pete had been trying to pick up had fallen to the bottom of the canyon.

"I got you," Clark said, huffing from the adrenaline. The powers that made him alien also made him fast, strong, and able to see and hear things from far away. At that moment, Clark was overly thankful for the first two.

"Clark, just pull him up! Please..."

Lana began to move toward the edge but Clark raised his other hand to ward her off. "The ground is not stable, Lana. You need to step back."

Nodding at the best friend who was focused on holding on, Clark smiled. "That was close. You ready?"

But as he began to pull, more of the hard dirt under his shoulder broke off and another one of Pete's rocks were revealed. Suddenly, Clark was accosted by sensations of dizziness and pain. The weight of Pete on his arm seemed to suddenly increase, and the sound of a sickening pop announced the moment that Clark's shoulder joint dislocated from the socket.

Lana, noticing his apparent inability to perform as normal, screamed. "Clark!"

"Clark..." Pete said, his eyes wide with fear and comprehension. "The rock. You've got to move it."

Clark was putting all the energy and focus he had on trying to maintain the gripping pressure on a hand he could feel less and less. "I can't," he grunted. Black spots were starting to flick into his vision.

"You can," came Pete's no-nonsense reply. "Now, do it."

Moving his other hand was just as painful, and Clark felt nausea build with the slightest motion. The pain was more than he had ever imagined possible to feel and all he could think about -- all he wanted to do -- was to stop.

With a final burst of movement, he pushed his free hand forward and sent the solid green poison plummeting toward the bottom of the gulch. Then, hearing the sound of his own blood rushing though his ears, Clark felt his whole world go black.

The screaming was what brought him back to consciousness.

The screaming was what haunted him every night.


"He was protecting me, down to the very end," Clark finished, his voice barely above a whisper.

Lois was unable to force her mouth closed, even when Clark turned away to tend to the half-scorched coffee. So many thoughts were tumbling through her head that it was hard to know where to start.

"You told me nothing could hurt you..." she uttered, and in her own shock, it came out sounding harsher than she had planned. What it sounded like was that she was accusing him of not trusting her with the truth.

"I'm telling you now."

Lois wanted to take it back, but her statement was already out there, and so was the reply. To her relief, he hadn't sounded angry or affronted... just sad.

"People who know the truth about me..." Clark continued in the same soft voice, "... nothing good can come of it. They die."

Lois blinked. She knew he was explaining a lot of things with those few words. He was explaining why he had lied. He was explaining why he was off kilter with Jory. He was explaining to her where his boundaries were being tested.

He was telling her that he was standing out on a ledge... and that he was afraid of the height.

Lois released a slow silent breath. "Your parents are not dead," she said. "Lana Lang is not dead."

His form stilled at her words and she barely caught what he muttered in response. "She might as well be."

Lois caught a glimpse of his expression when he suddenly turned to pour the coffee down the drain and raised her eyebrows in surprise. His visage had been steady throughout the entire recount of the story, but just then, his face had been furious.

She wanted to know the rest of the story. Why was he so desperately looking for the woman who made him react like that?

Just when she was about to ask, Clark's focus centered on the kitchen's archway behind her. "Good morning."

Lois turned to see Jory standing in the frame and looking at the two of them with sleepy eyes. It surprised her when the little boy walked to her and raised his arms, obviously asking to be picked up. She leaned down to comply with the request, and felt his little arms tighten around her neck as she stood back up. She shifted her hold on him, sliding her arms under the legs he wrapped around her torso, and looked apologetically up at Clark. Jory laid his head against her shoulder and she saw the slight frown line that appeared between Clark's eyebrows.

"I... I don't..." she began.

"It's fine," Clark interrupted. "I should get him some breakfast anyway."

When Clark reached into a cabinet and pulled out a box of instant oatmeal, Lois rounded the counter. "Oatmeal again?"

Clark looked down at the box in his hand with a frown. "It's kind of... all I can make," he admitted.

Lois glanced down at the sorrowful eyes of the little boy who was gazing back at her and sighed. "Is that all you've been feeding him for breakfast?"

Clark seemed a bit flustered. "Well, my mom left recipes and groceries for other stuff," he answered, opening the refrigerator door to show her the evidence. "But I'm not the most patient person, and cooking takes time."

Lois stepped close to him and pried the little boy off of her, depositing him into Clark's arms. "This boy needs pancakes, eggs, and bacon," she said decisively.

"Oh, uh..." he stuttered as she took the box of oatmeal from him and gently pushed him toward her previous spot on the other side of the counter. "Okay."

Lois put her hands on her hips and gave him a look that bordered on exasperation. "Where do you keep your spatula?"



*Above all things, never be afraid. The enemy who forces you to retreat is himself afraid of you at that very moment.*

-- Andre Maurois

Monday, the following week

Movement in the corner of her eye caused Lois to look away from her computer. Across the aisle, Clark was standing and reaching for his tie. It was a motion she recognized well.

"The voice?" she asked with concern.

He shook his head curtly. "Not that I hear," he answered. "I'll let you know when I get back."

Lois nodded and turned back to her work. They had been trying to solve the mystery behind the voice for weeks now, to no avail. There was no schedule that it contacted Clark on, but there was no longer any doubt that it was part of a plot to test Clark's powers. Now that she knew that there really was something out there that could hurt him, the tests worried her even more. How long would it be before this hidden enemy lucked upon something that worked?

Lois had asked Clark for more information about the glowing rocks he had encountered as a youth. He hadn't known much about them, but had managed to steer clear of them since. His theory was that they were meteorites, fallen to earth during the same shower that had masked the arrival of his ship. If that were so, the broken pieces of his former planet were poisonous -- delivering a potent dosage of something similar to radiation that only affected him.

According to her own research, the gorge where Clark's best friend had died had been closed to public access for many years after the accident. It was now once again open to the public, but no one had mentioned anything about the green rocks. That could either be a good or bad thing.

Silently, Lois sent a plea out for Clark to be careful. Invisible threats were often worse than the ones that had names.

While Clark had shared, however limitedly, about the meteor rocks, he hadn't been so forthcoming with information about Lana Lang. His comment about Lana 'might as well' being dead puzzled her. This was the woman he had been searching for since his arrival to Metropolis, and it was obvious he wanted to find her for some connection to Jory's health, but at the same time, he was claiming that she was not his mother.

It made Lois think that it was one of those 'parent equal present' type situations, where Lana's apparent voluntary absence from Jory's life had caused considerable bitterness and hostility in Clark's perception of the relationship.

Lois had been doing a little research of her own, and did not think that Clark's frustration at a lack of results was misplaced. Lana Lang had left Smallville behind immediately following her graduation from high school. She had moved to Virginia for college and finished pre-med. There was nothing in the records Lois had located that gave any impression that Lana Lang had ever looked back. She had started medical school in D.C., but Lois hadn't found evidence that she'd graduated or even that she'd done residencies anywhere.

Since she'd disappeared into the quagmires of the nation's capital, the only other sighting of Lana Lang had been one 6 years earlier in Smallville, Kansas. Ironically, or perhaps not so, that time frame matched with a time Lois knew that Clark was in town.

From the original investigation she'd done on Clark, Lois knew that Clark had returned to Smallville after his stint in college. Having driven through the town once herself, Lois doubted that both Lana and Clark could have been in town and not crossed paths. It was even possible that they had reconnected. Clark had told her that before Pete, Lana had been his girl. Maybe the passage of time had healed some wounds... but if Lois were to take Clark's current demeanor into account, she'd have to add that time also caused some wounds to fester.

Something had happened though, because whatever incident had taken place during that 2001 reunion had sent Clark on his world tour. He hadn't returned to stay in the U.S. again until 2006.

Lois's head tilted as she did the math. Jory was three years old plus a handful of months, so that meant he had been born in 2005 or late 2004... Knowing what she knew about Clark's ability to travel, it was possible that he'd been home more often than not. Perhaps Clark's and Lana's paths had crossed many times.

Her introspection was interrupted by the sound of Clark's phone ringing. After a few minutes, it stopped, and she assumed that it had gone to his voicemail -- until her phone began ringing seconds later.

"Lois Lane."

"Mrs Lane, this is Aubrey from the child care center. I was trying to get in contact with Mr. Kent..."

"Yes, he's currently not in," Lois said, flicking a glance to his desk. "He'll probably be out for a few hours... Is everything okay?"

"Well, not really," the woman replied. "Mr. Kent put you down as the local emergency contact."

Lois straightened at the words. "What's wrong?"

"Jory is having one of his episodes, and I know that Mr. Kent likes to handle it himself, but given that he's not available we were wondering if it would be best to call..."

"No," Lois said. "I'm coming down right now."

Lois sent her computer into sleep mode and rushed out of the newsroom. When she arrived at the child care center, the woman whose office they had used before was waiting at the front desk.

"Right this way, Mrs. Lane," the Director greeted before leading her back to the office.

Inside, a young aide was trying to calm Jory's cries. Lois immediately crossed to them and gathered the little boy in her arms. Settling onto the couch, she cradled his head against her chest and began humming. The vibrations seemed to do the trick because Jory quieted a noticeable amount, as if he were trying to concentrate on them.

Sighing in relief, Lois began gently rocking.

The director said as she moved to sit on the couch beside them, "Mrs. Lane..."

"It's Lois," she corrected in a quiet voice before resuming her humming.

"Lois," the woman began again. "This is the second time this has happened while Jory's been in our care. I realize that Mr. Kent told us about this before he signed Jory up... I'm no doctor, but this seems to require some sort of attention. Mr. Kent has left us no medication, no further instructions... Is there anything more that can be done for him?"

Lois felt her own eyes tearing up at the muffled sound of the boy's pain-induced cries. Their positioning meant that not only could she hear them, she could feel them. "I don't know what to tell you. I really don't." She met the older woman's gaze with a matching level of concern.

Shrugging and shaking her head, she just continued to rub her hand up and down the child's back.

"Okay," the woman said softly. "Take as much time as you need." She and the aide moved to the office door.

"Thank you, Mrs... I'm sorry," Lois said distractedly, "what is your name?"

The woman looked back to Lois with a gentle smile. "It's Catherine."

Twenty minutes later, Lois was as mentally exhausted as her young charge seemed to be. He had gone from the hysterical crying she had heard when she'd first arrived, to sobbing, choked hiccups, whining, and finally shuddering breaths.

She leaned down and kissed his brow tenderly. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this, honey. It's just not fair."

He looked up at her with a pouty expression on his face and she knew she would not be able to go back to her desk.

"I think we both could use a break. Would you like to have lunch with me, Master Kent?"

Standing, she settled him on her hip and exited Catherine's office. Walking over to where the aide was now seated at the reception desk, Lois reached for the sign out book. "I'm going to go ahead and take him with me," she announced.

"Oh, okay," the aide replied pleasantly. She smiled sympathetically up at Jory, who was laying his head against Lois's shoulder. "You've had better days, huh, buddy?"

"I'd say," Lois responded with a sigh. She finished signing the book and slid it back to the aide. "Did he come in with anything?"

"Just his jacket, I believe. It would be over there in his cubby."

After getting the small windbreaker from the shelf labeled with Jory's name, she carried him out of the center and toward the elevator bay. Jory lifted his head and looked around with wide eyes as they entered the lift, and Lois realized that Clark had never brought him upstairs.

She laughed when the little boy's eyes grew even wider when the doors let them out into the newsroom. He looked around wondrously as she made her way back to her desk to get her purse. Once she had what she needed, she turned to leave again, swinging by Perry's office on the way out.

"You picking up strays again, Lane?" came the gruff greeting.

"Perry, this is Jory," she introduced, turning so the little boy's face could be seen.

"Kent's kid, right? I keep wondering why he doesn't put any pictures up."

Lois nodded. "I never thought about that. Huh."

"So, you giving him a tour or what?" Perry asked, his face creasing into his usual frown.

"Actually, I'm taking him to lunch," she answered. She pretended not to notice the eyebrow that skirted upward on Perry's face. "And I probably won't be back for the rest of the day."


"Okay, so I won't be back," she acknowledged, backing toward the door. "Hold down the fort for me, okay?"

With a wide grin and a wink, she exited the office, wincing as a shouted "Lane!" chased behind her.

She looked down at Jory and tapped his nose lightly. "You should be glad you can't hear him. Hot air. Constantly."


After a brief lunch of chicken fingers and fries, Lois and a much happier Jory found themselves walking through a lively Centennial Park. Lois noted that a number of moms and nannies were out basking in the sunshine with young children and was amused that she might appear to be one of them.

She smiled down at Jory, who was walking ahead of her on the grass. His eyes were trying to take in everything at once. The sight of some older kids kicking a ball around drew his attention, and he stopped walking to watch.

Lois sat down on the park bench they were next to and smiled. A wild kick by one of the kids sent the ball rolling in Jory's direction. When it hit his feet, he turned to Lois with questioning eyes.

Lois made the sign for 'go,' a motion that was basically pointing with both fingers. She had been trying to learn rudimentary sign language with the help of a Rosetta Stone computer program.

With an excited smile, Jory picked up the ball and walked toward the other children. Because of his 'special needs,' Jory was kept with much younger children at the day care so that the language barrier wouldn't be as noticeable. Seeing his excitement to be around bigger kids, Lois started doubting that it was a good idea.

The other kids were yelling for Jory to kick the ball and with so many mouths and expressions and faces vying for his attention, Lois could tell he was getting confused. One of the older boys impatiently ran over and pulled the ball from Jory's hands and kicked it back to continue their game. He tried to follow along for a little while, but it was clear that he did not understand the instructions, and the other kids, not understanding his limitations, kept going.

Standing, Lois started to go over to soothe the interactions, but the expression on Jory's face as he turned to run back to her caused her heart to break.

She kneeled to intercept him when he made it to her. This poor kid had it rough coming and going.

She led him back to the bench, but when she sat down, he hid his face in her lap.

"Jory," she said, smoothing his hair back and trying to get him to lift his chin. When she finally got him to look up, she rubbed her palm over her chest. "Sorry."

His lower lip trembled as he signed something back. Racking her brain for the translation, the only thing Lois could understand was 'I' and 'not'... He was not something. The last sign was coming from near his cheek.

Rosetta Stone was a pretty good teaching tool, but little hands looked a lot different from the adult sized animated fingers that the program used.

Lois shook her head apologetically, and it only seemed to make Jory more anxious. His frustration with not being able to communicate with her was only making things worse. He made the sign again and pointed toward the kids playing. She finally understood the sign. 'Same.'

He was not like them.

"It's okay," Lois said. "They didn't know." As she spoke, she signed <kids not know>. He wasn't different from them in any way that mattered. "You're just like them." She pointed at him and then at the kids, and made the sign she'd just learned. <Same.>

He frowned and she leaned down to kiss his forehead. When she began to sit back, he wrapped his arms around her neck tightly. She returned the hug and lifted him to her lap.

He looked up at her hopefully. <Me you something something,> he signed.

Lois chuckled nervously. Oh boy, she thought. Her signing to him had unleashed a fury of tiny hands. She shrugged a little -- which was obviously the wrong move because the lip started again. The puppy-dog expression made her want to buy him something... anything, actually.

He signed again and again, tears coming to his eyes as he tried to make her understand. Apparently, a three year old didn't know that repetition didn't ensure comprehension.

"Ok, ok, yes," she finally said, just when the tantrum was about to blow.

Jory stopped and looked at her expectantly.

<Yes>, she signed again.

Whatever she had agreed to was a good thing, because he leaned against her and hugged her torso while grinning up at her without abandon.

Scanning her memory for the trail of signs he had been giving, Lois tried to figure out what she had just said... and wondered if Clark minded sharing his apartment with a new dog... if that was in fact what she had promised.

Lois looked down at the grinning child and laughed. Hell, he could keep the puppy at her house if it meant that he looked at her like this.


The door to Clark's apartment flew open before Lois's hand had barely lifted to knock.

"Where have you been?!" he demanded.

Lois gave him a strange look as she ushered Jory inside. "We went to the park," she answered slowly.

"The park? All day? I came back to the newsroom and Perry said you were gone for the day -- with Jory! You didn't think to call? What about answering your phone?"

Lois reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. The LCD screen reported numerous missed calls. "Oh, I must have left the ringer off..."

"Why would you even take him out of the child care center?" Clark interrupted.

"I wanted to talk to you about the child care center. Maybe the class Jory is in..."

"I put you down for emergencies, not so you could just sign him out on a whim."

Lois lifted her hands in exasperation. "It *was* an emergency. He was having an attack and they called me because you weren't there," she said, amazed to have finally been able to complete a sentence.

Clark's expression lost some of its fury.

"He's fine now, I just wanted to give him a little change of scenery afterwards," she said.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Okay. I get it, but it's eight o'clock. Are you telling me that you were at the park all this time?"

"Well, no," Lois replied, hesitant to incite the wrath that seemed so near the surface. She glanced down at the little boy. Jory was looking between the two of them with a concerned expression. He didn't need perfect hearing to know there was tension building. "I got him some dinner..."

She broke off in surprise when Jory stepped forward and hit Clark in the thigh with the little hammer he was holding. Clark bent down and pulled the hammer from the little boy's hand.

"We do not hit, Jory," Clark said while signing the same words. "That's not nice."

The child looked defiantly up at Clark and made a few signs in return.

Clark looked up at Lois. "What did you tell him?"

Lois's head tilted in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Do you know what he just said to me?"

"No," she said, shrugging in confusion. "What's wrong?"

"He hit me because I was picking on his mother," Clark said evenly.

Lois's eyebrows shot up. "His what?"

Clark turned his attention back to Jory, signing a question.

Jory answered with excited hands flying too fast for Lois to even attempt to understand.

"He says," Clark translated, "that you told him you were his mother when you were at the park."

Lois's mouth dropped open. "Oh."

Clark looked at her sharply. "Oh?"

"No... see, he was signing and I didn't understand... he was getting worked up and his hands were going so fast, and the signs, you know, they don't really look the same as on the computer... and I just kinda said yes when he was signing because..." She sighed. "It was an honest mistake, Clark."

Clark gestured to Jory incredulously. "Honest mistake? Look at him, Lois. Do you think he'll understand what that means?"

Lois grimaced. "Clark, I'm sorry. I don't know what you want me to say."

Clark shook his head and signed to Jory. "She's not mommy."

The little boy's expression darkened and he stepped forward and swung back a foot. Lois kneeled and pulled him back before his angry kick could connect.

"Whoa," she said. "He's a little out of form right now."

"I'd say," Clark agreed wryly. He kneeled in front of the little boy and noticed what was around his neck. "Is he wearing your scarf?" he asked Lois.

"Yeah, he found it in the car. It's not cold enough for one, but he seemed to like it so..."

Clark turned his focus back on Jory. "We don't hit, and we don't kick," he said, while signing simultaneously. "Go sit on your mat. Now."

Jory frowned and stepped back, further into Lois embrace.

Clark's jaw hardened. "Now, Jory."

Lois unwrapped her arms from around the little boy and gave him a gentle push on the bottom. Jory flashed a few signs at Clark and ran from the room. The only things Lois was able to catch were 'not' and 'nice.' She was glad he didn't know some of the other universal signs for showing displeasure.

"Where did he get this?" Clark asked as they both returned from their crouching positions. He was holding the little hammer aloft.

Lois blinked at the item. "Uh, my dad must have given it to him."

Clark's voice lowered half an octave. "When did he see your dad?"

"We went by the hospital after the park... Listen, Clark, my father says that Jory is showing signs of what might be Progeria."

"I know what he's showing signs of," he returned.

"He says that he's just at the age when it starts to get worse. I think it has a lot to do with these attacks and why they are coming closer together."

"Lois, what do you think you are doing?"

Lois shook her head and looked at him blankly.

"What possessed you to take him to a doctor? Knowing what you know about me -- about what I risk if people find out what you know -- why would you do something like that?"

Lois's brow creased. "I didn't take him to a *doctor*, Clark, I took him to meet my father. He didn't examine him, he just looked at him and was able to say that much. He doesn't even know about the attacks. He said he was small for his age, that his teeth didn't seem to be as developed... Clark, if you already know this, then you know it's fatal."

Clark's gaze briefly dipped. "I know what it appears to be," he said. "It doesn't mean that's what it is. What it does mean is that you have no right to start poking into things that are not your business. Didn't we have this conversation once before... when you did this to *me*?!"

Lois stepped forward, her own eyes beginning to blaze. "This is not about you. This is not about your secret, or about me doing or not doing something to threaten it. It's about Jory, and about how to save his life."

"You are not his mother!"

Lois stepped back. "I know that, Clark! I mean, according to you, he *has* no mother, right?" she asked heatedly, directly matching his tone. "Well, guess what? It seems to me that he has no father either. Parenting is a lot more than biology, Clark, and I haven't seen a whole lot of it from you."

She mentally cursed when the words she'd just said rattled around to her brain. Clark's expression had gone flat.

"Get out."

"Gladly," she answered. Just because she regretted saying what she had, the way she had, didn't mean she was any less angry. "Just let me say goodbye first."

"I would rather you just left."

She gave him a wry look. "You would, wouldn't you?" she asked, going down the steps and into the apartment. She walked through the apartment and to the little bay window area where Jory took his time outs. She lowered to the floor next to him, smiling at the fact that he was still wearing her scarf; the ends of it were thrown over his shoulders like a makeshift cape.

"My hero... I have to go," she said, signing <me leave> to him.

He looked up at her with an expression that was both fearful and hopeful. <Me leave?> he signed back.

"No, honey. Just me." She shook her head: <No me only.>

She kissed his cheek and rose to her feet again. When she arrived back to the living room, Clark was standing next to the open door. The sound of little socked feet running down the hall made her turn when she had reached the exit.

When Jory saw that she had stopped walking, he signed something to her and turned around and ran down the hall again.

Lois turned to Clark questioningly.

"He's going to get his shoes."

Lois blinked, her shoulders sagging. "Good night, Clark."

When the little boy returned with his Velcro sneakers on the wrong feet, he found only Clark left in the room.

<Mommy where?> he signed.

"She's not your mother," Clark said. <Not mother.>

<Me mommy she baby told Jory mine!> came the vehement response. Jory ran to the door and tried to open it. When that didn't work, he pressed his face to the block glass that lined the door in an attempt to see out. Then he raised a hand and knocked on it.

Clark stepped to him and reached down to pick him up. Jory struggled and kicked against him until he put him back down.

<No! Jory with mommy leave!>

Clark sighed. "You have to stay with Daddy. I need you."

Jory frowned up at him in confusion. <Daddy big. Baby need mommy.> He turned back to the door and sat on the floor next to it, his small face contorted in a frowning pout.

Clark bent to pick him up again, but Jory kicked at him.

<Jory wait. Me wait mommy.>

It wasn't until he had fallen asleep thirty minutes later that Clark was able to finally move him.



*The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.*

-- Douglas MacArthur

Friday, a week later

"Myerson, where are we on the DiPandi story?"

"There's new information out that insinuates foul play by his head lobbyist. I'm doing some background fact checking on the Senator's past funding sources, but as of now, it looks like his bid for president is about to tank."

Perry nodded. "Not that the Planet has any political preferences, but I say good riddance. Just because a person shows a flash of heroism in one highly visible instance, it doesn't make his other past dalliances go away. We've done enough stories on DiPandi in the past to know he doesn't walk on rose water." He turned to the rest of the room of reporters. "Well, that's everyone..."

When people began sliding their chairs back and moving toward the door, Perry lifted his hand. "Now wait a minute, I didn't say I was done," he said in a louder voice, bringing the staff meeting back under his command. "There's one more order of business today. The votes for the Kerths are in and our very own Lois Lane and Clark Kent are the winners of the award for Investigative Journalism. Let's give 'em a hand."

Perry waved a hand in the direction of the two reporters he had named, one of them on each side of the room, and narrowed his eyes. The two of them were receiving the handshakes and claps on the shoulder from their colleagues with smiles and laughter, but it was apparent to the editor that all was not well in the land of Lane and Kent.

In fact, Perry was aware that all had not been well in that world for at least a week. If he stretched his memory a little, he could say that things had gone sour the day Lois had introduced Kent's son to him. Perry had been concerned about what message was being sent by Lois having the little boy tucked against her hip the way she had... It had caused the editor to recall times from his own career as a reporter when partnerships tended to cause two people to get closer than expected due to the excessive time spent together. It had been a flag that had been thrown up in the recesses of his mind, but the knowledge and experience of working with Lois Lane and her professionalism had made him confident that any such problems would not come into play here.

Maybe he had been too confident. Kent was a nice looking man. Lane was a very attractive woman. Perry didn't need a diagram. He didn't make it to Editor-in-Chief of a nationally syndicated newspaper because he could yodel.

The problem with work relationships, Perry knew, was that if the relationship part went south... the work went with it.

"All right, all right -- That's enough of that," Perry grunted. "I said congratulate 'em, not inflate their egos. They're not much help to me if their heads aren't connected. This is still a newspaper and I'm still the boss. Let's go, people -- back to work!"

As the reporters began filing out of the room, Perry pointed Lois and Clark out. "I'd like the two of you to stay for a minute, please."

He cleared his throat when the three of them were left alone in the conference room and gave them each a hard stare. From what he could see, they were both looking everywhere but at each other.

"Why is it that you two don't look as thrilled with the news as you should?" he asked.

Lois sighed. "It's just an award, Chief."

Perry crossed his arms on his chest and raised an eyebrow. "Just an award," he repeated, glancing at Clark to see if he agreed with the sentiment. When Clark just shrugged without commitment, he frowned. "Well, fortunately for the existence of the paper, the suits upstairs aren't as cavalier with the meaning of the accomplishment."

He uncrossed his arms and placed his palms flat on the table, leaning down in an intimidating posture. "In fact, the suits upstairs are quite pleased with their award winning journalists, so much so, that they have submitted the Cyphren series for Pulitzer nomination."

Smirking when the two other sets of eyes became immediately and sincerely focused on him, the editor continued. "Yes, I said Pulitzer, but here's the catch." He chuckled at Lois's wary expression. She knew all about the 'too good to be true' warning. "The Daily Planet is starting a new campaign."

Perry lifted his hands and traced a headline in the air. "Lane and Kent. The Hottest Team in Town."

"A campaign?" Lois asked slowly, finally breaking her silence.

"A campaign," Perry confirmed. "Hottest team in town. Your pictures are going to be everywhere: buses, subways, billboards."

"Our pictures?" Clark asked, matching Lois's tone of trepidation.

"What is this, a parrot convention? Yes, pictures, and yes, everywhere. Now, this is a big deal, so your cooperation is appreciated." The wording of the statement was meant to leave no room for negotiations. "The photographer requested that you both attend a consultation and I scheduled you for one this afternoon. Nancy has the details so stop by the front desk on your way out."

Lois opened her mouth as if to repeat another tidbit of the information he had shared but stopped when he gave her a look.

Perry knew that the awkwardness that was just under the surface tension in the room would only take a small push to break through -- but he was a newshound, not a therapist. If they had the gall to start a relationship while under his care, they would have to summon the chutzpah to work it out on their own.

"I strongly suggest you leave now if you want to beat mid-day traffic."


Lois and Clark exited the brick lined building that housed the studio of Paxton Jacques Giroux. Fortunately, the photographer hadn't been as pretentious as his name. He hadn't even had a forced French accent.

The ride over to the studio had been silent and tense. Once they were seated on the couches in Giroux's office, the conversation had been stilted. The photographer had eventually tired of their reluctant interview, so he had given up and moved onto the 'active' portion of the consultation: test shots.

The two reporters had stiffly posed for the first couple of shots, but by the time Giroux had posed them back to back with their arms styled as if they were Charlie's Angels and holding guns, the laughter had been inevitable -- and that had been exactly the reaction the photographer had wanted. Once they had relaxed, the test shots were successful and the photo shoot appointment was scheduled.

Clark glanced to Lois as they neared her car in silence. Whatever tenuous truce had been breached through the ridiculous poses was disintegrating with every step they took away from Giroux's studio.

Clark's life over the past week had been more hectic than he had ever expected. All of the potential problems that he had feared he'd face once he'd settled in one city were manifesting. The job of superhero was something that couldn't be done alone. Lois had stopped making excuses for him when he had to leave work to be super, and his own attempts at explaining his disappearances were neither as believable nor as creative.

Also, contrary to what the title suggested, the job of single dad was something that couldn't be done alone either. One job would have been hectic enough, but Clark was trying to juggle three of them, all in addition to the side projects he was attached to: finding Lana and saving Jory.

As if it weren't bad enough that he hadn't told his parents about the argument with Lois, Jory had begun to be extremely difficult to manage. The child demanded on a daily basis to see 'his mother' and carried Lois's scarf around every day as if it were a security blanket. The one time Clark hadn't carried Jory into the day care, the boy had wrenched away from Clark's hold and tried to board the elevator.

Clark was trying not to lose his patience with the little boy's tantrums and moodiness, but the heightening of his own stress levels were indicating that something would soon have to give.

"Would you like to get some coffee?" Clark blurted out when they arrived at the white SUV. "There's a cart on the corner..." He pointed across the street where a coffee stand was situated in front of a small park.

Lois looked at him with an assessing look. "Coffee... sure."

They changed directions and crossed the street to the stand. Once there, Clark stepped forward and ordered a short non fat mocha decaf with no foam, no sugar, and no whip, just as Lois would have. He shrugged in response to her surprised expression, added his own -- much plainer -- order and paid for them both. After taking the covered cups from the vendor, he handed one to Lois and gestured toward a park bench near the middle of the park.

Lois arched an eyebrow but nodded, silently sipping her drink as she followed him to the bench.

"The Hottest Team in Town," Clark said lightly, wrapping his hands around his cup. "That's... a pretty heavy title."

Lois nodded. "Especially when they've got us posed as Lucy and Desi -- I think I heard my jaw drop when he said he wanted to see me as a redhead."

Clark smiled. "I think that was the reaction he was going for. There's no way Perry would plaster pictures of us around the city in anything other than office wear."

"I wouldn't put it past Perry," Lois muttered around the rim of her cup.

They settled into a silence again, but this time it didn't feel as heavy and intrusive as before.

Clark let out a slow breath and focused his attention on the coffee company logo on his cup. "Jory misses you."

From the corner of his eye he saw Lois's head turn to face him. "I miss him too."

Clark nodded. "He, um... hasn't been too happy lately."

Lois sighed and put her cup down on the bench, shifting her body so she was facing him without straining her neck. "Clark, I really didn't know what he was signing to me. It was a simple mistake. I mean, I know that the effect wasn't simple, but I didn't mean to..."

"I know. I knew it then, I just... I'm sorry... again."

Lois's chin dipped as she smiled and dropped her head.

"Listen, what I wanted to ask... what I was hoping you would be willing to do..." He lifted his head to finally look at her. "Do you think maybe you could -- if you're not busy, that is..."

"What is it, Clark?"

He swallowed. "If you could... watch him tonight?"

Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "Jory? Tonight?"

"For the weekend actually."

Her eyes widened even more.

"I can get my parents to do it, so don't feel like you have to... but I thought maybe since you, before -- I don't want to presume that you don't have plans. So, if you can't..."

"Clark, slow down. What's going on?" she asked, the concern apparent on her face.

"I've got some leads on Lana," he confessed, "and I need to follow them through."

Lois shifted back against the bench so that she was facing the park again, and Clark knew that she was thinking Lana was a forbidden topic. It wouldn't be a far stretch of an assumption for her to make, given the way he usually reacted. Even now, the mention of it sent a chill down his spine.

This time, he shifted on the bench so he was facing Lois. "There's another part of the Lana story that I'd like to share with you."

Lois lifted her head to look at him and he sighed, trying to think of where to start. "After college, I moved home to help my father with the farm. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life yet."

Lois nodded encouragingly.

"I, uh, really wasn't doing anything *super* wise," he said, making the hand gesture that had become second nature to them both. "About two years after I had moved home, Lana came to town. I hadn't seen her since high school. After Pete, uh... fell... she blamed me. I couldn't save him. The meteor rock stripped me of all my powers and almost killed me. Pete was the only other person that knew my secret, and when he was gone, she felt burdened and alone with the weight of it."

Lois frowned. "But it was *your* secret. How could she possibly feel alone with it?"

Clark shook his head sadly. "She was grieving and irrational. I didn't blame her. She had just lost the love of her life."

Lois tried to cut some slack to the woman she had already determined to dislike. "So, what happened when you crossed paths in Smallville all of those years later? Did you reconnect?"

Clark's expression darkened. "She tried to kill me."

Lois blinked and did a double take. She didn't think she had heard that right. "What?"

"I was working in the East field alone when she appeared. She had spent the six years since we'd last seen each other hating me. When she hunted me down that night, she had become obsessed with righting a wrong she felt I committed. It didn't matter that killing me would not bring Pete back. It would make her feel better."

Lois's eyes widened. "That's crazy." She looked him up and down. "Obviously she wasn't successful. You're not dead."

Clark looked down at his hands. "She was there when I was incapacitated by the green rock. She knew my weakness -- and used it against me. The moment she opened the top to the lead case she held, I couldn't fight her off."

The tone in Clark's voice made Lois shudder. Whatever Lana Lang had done to him while he was vulnerable and hurting had left scars that couldn't be seen -- but they were there, and they were deep. "What did she do to you?"

Clark shook his head as if to say that the details were too hard and too gruesome to revisit. "She left me to die. She put that rock over my chest and left me there."

Lois blinked in a surprised stupor for a long moment, her mind reeling in an attempt to comprehend the absurdity of what Clark was describing. "I don't understand... What does this have to do with Jory?"

Clark's face twisted into a sneer. "Lana... violated me." He met Lois's gaze. "Jory is not my son. He's me."


"She left the rock on my chest and watched as I lost consciousness from the pain. My father found me with a gaping hole in my back. It was mere luck that I didn't die from the blood loss." His jaw tightened. "She cut out a section of my kidney, took some muscle tissue, and created a clone of me."

Lois put a hand on her forehead. If anything, she was trying to keep her brain from falling out. This was all too much to believe... and she had thought a flying man was radical. Now they were talking about clones. "How is that even possible?"

Clark shook his head. "I don't know. What I do know is that three years ago, Jory was left on my parents stoop with a note. The note explained what he was, and she even claimed responsibility for his creation. Imagine that -- claiming responsibility like some terrorist outfit."

Lois didn't say it aloud, but in her mind the terrorist analogy wasn't far from the impression she was getting from Lana's activities. "If she cloned you, why would she go through the trouble of leaving the baby with your parents? Did she feel remorseful about what she did? Did she think she had killed you?"

"After my near death experience, I left to travel the world. I didn't want to be close to another person. I sought out isolated regions of the earth, places where I wouldn't have to come into contact with another human being. I tried to disappear. I tried to stay away, but I couldn't stand by and watch people die. Eventually, I came out of hiding and started freelance reporting. When Lana delivered Jory to my folks, I had been publicly reporting for years. She knew that I was alive."

"As far as remorse," he said, his mouth curled as if in distaste, "I wish I could believe it. But I can't. I would never want to see her again -- but Jory is sick and she's the only one who knows enough about his -- about *my* -- genetic makeup to provide him any hope of living." He sighed, reigning in his anger once again. "You didn't know how right you were when you said he didn't have parents... He was a year and a half old when my parents asked me to come home to stay. They wanted me to be a father... I just... I don't know how. What was he? My twin? My son? It's why I wouldn't let them name him after me. Two copies of the same coin, except for him, time is limited."

He sighed. "How could that be fair? How could I accept that? How could I not do everything I could to save him? I'm trying to save myself."

Lois faced forward, staring blankly off into the distance in front of her. A clone.

A clone with apparently fatal flaws.

If Lana had not sent the child to the Kents because of guilt over attacking their son, then what was her purpose?

Lois swallowed and blinked back from her wildly spinning thoughts. "You have some leads on where she could be?" She couldn't even say the woman's name aloud. It would be like voicing a curse.

Clark ran a hand through his hair. "I have what I hope will be the seeds of a trail. There is some information about a female scientist matching her description and potential research topics in London. I want to go there and see what I can dig up, ask around... uncover. There's even a chance that I'll bring Superman into the mix. He may be able to get answers Clark Kent cannot."


That afternoon, Lois was the one who pulled the disappearing act. There was just so much that she had to think about that she couldn't go back to the newsroom. There was just no way she would have been able to concentrate on anything else.

Hours after she and Clark had parted ways at the Planet's entrance, Lois arrived at the door to Clark's apartment. When he answered her knock, she met his gaze and gave him a small smile. It was meant to show support, not pity. Pity was not what he needed right now.

"Come in," Clark said when he opened the door. "He's been on pins since I told him you were coming."

Lois stepped into the apartment and laughed at the sight before her. The dark-haired little boy was spinning in circles in the area in front of the steps that led up to the door. Lois shook her head and walked down the steps, lowering to sit on the bottom one so he could see her.

Jory must have noticed that someone new was in his peripheral because he stopped spinning so he could look up at her -- he wobbled and promptly fell on his butt.

Lois could tell when Jory's world finally stabilized because his eyes uncrossed and he was able to focus on her face. The big grin that she had fallen in love with was back in place, and she caught him when he launched himself into her arms.

Words and language were not necessary between them as Lois and Jory reconnected. He was just as happy to hug her tightly around the neck as she was to hold him.

Lois looked up at Clark. "I know that what she did to you was a violation, and I can understand you not knowing how to connect at first, but he's here, Clark. People are made unique by the experiences they grow up with -- not just by their biological composition. He's not you. He's not an echo." She pulled back from the little boy and brushed the hair off of his forehead affectionately. "He's Jory."

She smiled at the little boy sweetly and then looked up at Clark. "You *are* his father... You just have to want to be."

Clark nodded sedately. "I know. At least, I'm trying to know. I kept telling myself that it would all be easier when I fixed him. I save people every day..." He trailed off and cleared his throat. "Anyway, I should be going."

He pulled a key out of his pocket and handed it to her. "His bag is on his bed, but in case you need anything that I forgot to pack, you have the key, so come over if you need to. You have my parents number and my pager number, so if anything happens..." He made the flying hand signal. "I can be back instantly."

He nodded again. "Okay, so... yeah. I don't show him Superman just in case, you know, so I'm going to change outside."

Lois pushed herself to her feet while holding Jory against her side as Clark opened the front door. "You'll find her, Clark. You'll find her, and you'll find a way to stop whatever it is that is causing his attacks. First, you have to believe it."

"If all goes well." Clark met her gaze and smiled weakly. "I'll see you both in a few days."


Lois pulled the covers back on her bed and sat down. She smiled as she thought about the evening she'd spent with Jory. She had been amazed to see all of what he had stocked in his overnight bag and was sure Clark hadn't known the little boy had gone behind him. Jory had hidden toys in every single pocket. The apartment's guest room had been literally transformed into his own territory.

Even though she hadn't been able to have contact with him over the past week, Lois had thought of the boy often. She had continued with her sign language lessons out of nostalgia, and to her satisfaction, the lessons and videos had paid off. She was finding it much easier to communicate with the child. To top it off, she was experiencing none of the foul moods and tantrums Clark had warned her about.

Jory was just a happy little boy, and there was nothing not to love about him... except she didn't love the fact that he had some silent killer in the cells of his body, waiting for the right time to pounce. She had noticed that he was starting to tug at his ears, something she hadn't seen him do before. It was something she noted to ask Clark about later.

Catching the sight of movement out of the corner of her eye, Lois turned to face the bedroom door. Jory was standing in the middle of the doorframe watching her. Chocolate the bear was tagging along, dragged by one fuzzy arm.

<Not sleep?> she signed to him.

Jory's expression was pensive as he glanced over his shoulder toward his room. <Dark room> he replied.

Lois chuckled at the pouty look he was giving her. Though she had left the hall light on for him, she had somewhat expected to see him in her doorway at some point that night. He might have had his own bed at Clark's apartment, but it was situated right next to Clark's. Since the move to Metropolis, Jory had never slept in a room alone.

Lois tried to imagine how she could feel secure in a soundless world... She would only be able to manage if she could compensate with sight and touch. <Come here,> she signed, patting the bed next to her. <Me not want sleep alone.>

Smiling, Jory scuttled over to the bed, sliding in his footy pajamas instead of walking. She helped him climb onto the bed, and they both settled against the pillows. He held Chocolate out for her to kiss and then tucked the bear under the covers on the other side of him.

After the bear was situated, Jory focused his big eyes back on Lois. <You leave me?>

"No," Lois said aloud, following it with the sign. "Of course not." <Why I leave?>

Jory looked away and shrugged.

Lois put her hand on his chin and guided him to face her again. <Lois love Jory.>

The child smiled widely and reached out to take her hand. With his two small hands, he shaped her fingers into the universal sign for 'I love you:' the thumb, forefinger, and pinkie up, and the other two down.

"I knew that one," she grumbled, rolling her eyes playfully.

Jory's nose scrunched as he made his little grunt-infused laugh. Then he made the three finger sign back.


Lois awoke to the sound of crying and leaned over to switch on the lamp that was on the small dresser beside her bed. When she looked over at Jory, he was curled into the foetal position and holding his ears. Tears sprang to her eyes as she gathered him against her chest and began singing.

All she knew was that whatever it was that was causing this pain the little boy was going through... it had to end.



*More and more I come to value charity and love of one's fellow being above everything else... All our lauded technological progress--our very civilization--is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminal.*

-- Albert Einstein


Lois grimaced at the memory of the reason for Jory's second bath that morning. How syrup had gotten behind his ears was a mystery to her -- but not as much as the mystery behind how a pancake cube had ended up inside his footy pajamas.

She patted the bottom of the plastic bucket she was using to frame her sandcastle and pulled it upwards. Both she and Jory laughed when the sand structure immediately lost its shape and leveled out. Hearing her phone ring, she signed to Jory that she would be right back and rose from the park's sandbox.

"Hey, Mom," she greeted after checking the display screen.

"Hi, hon. Got your message. I just got back from my aerobics class."

Lois returned Jory's wave. He was loading more sand into the bright red bucket. "Yeah, I wanted to ask you a favor."

"A favor?" Ellen asked. "Will it land me in jail?"

"Mother," Lois groaned.

"Well, I have to ask these things with you, you know. What do you need?"

"You know a little sign language, don't you?"

"Oh," Ellen said, her voice trailing off as she tried to remember. "I know enough to get by, I guess... barely. We have an interpreter on staff so that really negates my need for it. Why do you ask?"


"Is that sand in your hair?" Ellen asked after she opened the door to let Lois inside the house.

"We were at the park this morning," Lois replied, stepping aside to reveal the little boy standing behind her.

"Well, hello," the older woman greeted, kneeling to the child's level while giving Lois a questioning look.

"This is Jory, Mom. He's Clark's, uh, son."

"And the reason you wanted to know about my sign language skills," Ellen said, making a friendly face to the child and signing <hello>. When Jory looked up at Lois, Ellen took the opportunity to look at his ears -- she was a former nurse, after all. She patted the boy's head and rose from her crouch.

"He's really good at reading lips," Lois said, leaning down to help Jory take off his jacket. "Clark insists on speaking to him instead of signing... something about hostile world, and survival of the fittest," she rattled on, "but he's three years old. I think it's okay to give a little."

"Oh?" Ellen asked. Her attention was more on Lois's attitude than her actual words.

Lois stood and handed the little jacket to her mother. "Yeah, well, Clark's... a little stiff sometimes. I'm working on it."

Ellen arched an eyebrow. "You are?"

"It comes with the territory of the partnership," Lois answered with a chuckle.

"As does babysitting, I see."

"Okay, so my meeting should only last an hour," Lois said, leading Jory and her mother into the den. "We burnt a lot of energy at the park so he'll probably be ready to take a nap any time now. He's already had lunch but I packed some snacks and a few juice boxes in his backpack... he's got toys in there... and a coloring book. He really likes to color..."

Ellen's head tilted. "I'm sure we'll manage, Lois." She looked down at the little boy who was gazing up at her daughter with a concerned expression. "You might want to explain to him what's happening, though."

Lois smiled and lowered to sit on the floor in front of him. "I'm going to work for a little while," she said, using her somewhat limited sign language to augment her words. <Me go work. Come back soon.>

Jory's eyes widened. <You leave me?>

Ellen watched with interest as the little boy's grip tightened on Lois's sleeve.

<1 hour. Promise,> Lois replied. "This is my mommy, Jory. She's going to play with you while I'm gone."

<Lois mommy? Nice same Jory mommy?>

"Uh..." Lois flicked a glance to her mother and nodded. <Yes. You okay?>

Jory nodded but didn't unlatch Lois's arm. <When hour?>

Lois looked around the room and located the clock above her father's desk. She picked Jory up and carried him to the desk and sat him on the surface. She pulled a blue post-it note from a nearby stack and stuck it on the face of the clock, covering the three.

<This,> she signed, pointing to the little hand, <here. Okay?>

Jory frowned.

<Come here soon. Promise.>


Lois sat in Bernard Klein's office at S.T.A.R. Labs, watching as the older man fumbled around his lab. "It's okay, Uncle Bernie. I don't need anything to drink."

Dr. Klein turned around and faced her while holding a beaker in his right hand. "I'm sorry, I can't find a mug. I don't even know if I have a mug -- I just usually use a beaker... which can be tricky if you're in the middle of an experiment."

Lois laughed -- same old Uncle Bernie. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"Oh, I was just happy you called. I've been working on a project non-stop for two days with only three hours of sleep mixed in and I could use a diversion. I had so much fun the last time you brought me one of your stories to play with... How did that all work out, by the way?"

"Really well, actually. We just found out that we won a Kerth for it... and the newspaper is nominating the series for a Pulitzer."

"A Kerth! A Pulitzer!" Dr. Klein enthused. "That's wonderful."

"Yeah," Lois said, modestly waving away his praise. "There's supposed to be a ceremony or something."

"Let me know when it is. I'd love to attend."

Lois smiled and nodded. "I was wondering what you could tell me about cloning."

"Cloning? That's a topic that hits the mainframe every few months. It's certainly not an easy one." He shuffled through some files and papers on his desk. "Well, you know the basics. The proponents of stem cell research seek the ability to take cells from embryos that can differentiate into any type of organ or tissue."

Klein finally located his dry erase markers. He crossed to the board on the opposite wall and drew something that looked like an egg over easy.

"The idea is that cells cultured from a blastocyst," he turned to gauge her comprehension, " -- that is an embryo in its earliest stages of development -- that the cells would be able to be used to create a replacement organ for donor recipients."

He drew an arrow to the right of the cell he'd drawn and drew a stick figure. "If the embryo were allowed to develop, it would become a child. This is where the controversy lies: is the embryo considered a person, or is it a mass of undeveloped cells?"

"So stem cells can become people?"

"No, no. Stem cells can be assigned into all tissues except placenta. What you're talking about is reproductive cloning. That process takes the DNA from an adult somatic cell and inserts it into the nucleus of an egg cell."

He drew another picture of a cell and drew the nucleus with another color. He then drew a lightning bolt. "The egg cell is shocked and it starts dividing. In natural reproduction, these are signals the body sends on its own, but in this case it has to be done manually."

Lois looked at the board in wonder. "Is there evidence that this could be done? Reproductive cloning?"

The scientist returned to his seat. "The division of cells is what causes viability," he explained. "In practice, when scientists attempt to clone organisms, there is massive cell loss, and in turn, most trials result in death. You remember Dolly the sheep?"

Lois nodded.

"They started with 277 eggs and were only able to produce 29 embryos. Three of those embryos survived long enough to be born -- only Dolly survived the months after that. Those numbers alone make it impossible for human cloning to even be discussed."

"What about that French scientist's claim about cloning a child... Eve, I think?"

Doc Klein shook his head. "Farce. They never were able to offer any proof. Most experts and theorists agree that human cloning is unfeasible. Human cells are unique in that they are pre-programmed. They divide 100 times and then stop. When they stop dividing, they die. When the cells die, the organs die... we die. The amazing thing about it all is that there is a piece of DNA inside the cell called a telomere -- it keeps the DNA from fraying. Every time the cell divides, the telomere gets shorter. When the telomere gets too short, the DNA comes apart and the cell dies. Reproductive cloning takes an adult cell whose telomeres are already shortened. If we created children, it would only be for them to die soon after."

Lois's heart fell as his words hit home. "Would that be similar to Progeria?"

Dr. Klein looked at her in mild surprise. "I should have known you would have done your research. Yes, Progeria affects children by causing their cells to age too fast. They end up dying of old age before they reach 13. There's another form of the disease that affects adults. In either case, the problem is the shortening telomere strand. Scientists can genetically engineer copies of the gene that creates telemorase, but no one knows how to insert something like that into every cell of the body. On the other hand, stimulating the body to produce more and more copies of cells would probably cause cancer. It's a balance we aren't advanced enough to create."

Lois frowned and ran a hand through her hair. "What if it were alien DNA?"

"Alien DNA?"

"Like Superman," Lois responded. "I have reason to believe that someone is trying to clone Superman... Say they did -- would the clone be viable? I mean, Superman's genes are probably more advanced and more stable... would there be a way to control the telo-stuff so that aging could be slowed?"

Doc Klein rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Wow, well that's something else entirely. I have no idea what Superman's genetics would involve. Regardless, that's a very disturbing thought. A customized Superman in the hands of the wrong people... that's like growing weapons of mass destruction."

"Who are the most advanced people working with clone technology? The government?"

"No. The government steers clear of being directly tied with issues that controversial. What they do is fund private companies to make the technological advances and then they reap the benefits. You'd be surprised with the underground ties that the current presidential administration has with scientific research. They go against every campaign speech I've ever heard -- but it's also the reason I have a job. The private sector is where you'll find your cloning agency. A lot of the time, the advances that we incur in the scientific world come from those private mistakes."

He leaned back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling in thought. "Superman, eh? You know, it's ironic, but there was a scientist who went rogue from a government project around the time your dad and I got out of the trenches. He had always claimed that there was an alien presence on earth. He never had any proof outside of some benign bacterium from a few meteorites, though."

Lois's eyes grew wide. "What do you mean he went rogue?"

"The powers that be shut down his project and he started working on his own. He caused enough damage that they had to eventually find him and put him out of business. From what I heard, he had an extensive setup somewhere. Anything you think of that is banned or unethical was done there."

The hairs on the back of Lois's neck stood to attention. Her gut was churning at the information -- and she never ignored instinct. "What was this scientist's name?"

"Trask. Jason Trask."


Lois slid into the den at her parents house after letting herself inside the front door. "Did I make it?" she asked, glancing up at the clock.

"I'd say," her mother answered, laughing while Jory jumped up from where he and Ellen were coloring in picture books on the floor.

Lois wobbled as the little boy tackled her legs.

"He didn't take a nap," Ellen reported, standing and dropping her red crayon near the box. "He wanted to be where he could see the clock."

"He wasn't any trouble, was he?" Lois asked, reaching down to pick Jory up for a real hug.

"Not at all, he was an angel," Ellen answered, tilting her head as she watched the two interact. "How was your meeting?"

"It was fine... enlightening... disturbing." Lois shuddered.

"What do you guys have planned for the rest of the day?"

Lois made a face at Jory and he scrunched his nose in response. "I don't know."

The little boy sighed and leaned forward, placing his head on Lois's shoulder and rubbing his eyes.

"Well, you should just stay for dinner. Now that you're here, the little guy can be coaxed into a nap, and you and I can catch up."

Lois rubbed Jory's back and shrugged. "I think we can handle that."

She moved to sit on the couch and pulled Jory away from her chest to get his attention. <Have fun?>

He nodded. <Draw pretty, book blue dog, juice with Lois mommy. She me run grass!> His little hands were a flurry of excited signing.

Lois laughed and looked up to her mother. "You guys played in the backyard?"

Ellen waved a dismissive hand. "He has a lot of energy. You understood everything he said?" she asked in surprise.

"Most of it," Lois answered. "I'm getting better."

"I didn't even know that you knew sign language," Ellen commented as she bent to clean up the results of the coloring session.

"I didn't," Lois answered, leaning down to rub noses with the yawning child nestled in her arms. "But then I didn't have a reason to before. Isn't that right, buddy?"

Ellen didn't look up, but a knowing smirk flashed across her face.


Later that night, after she and Jory had returned to her apartment, Lois sat at her kitchen table staring at the screen of her laptop with a frown.

She had finally gotten Jory to calm down after having spent a full evening as the center of attention of three doting adults. It had taken a lot of energy, but the child was thankfully down for the sheep count. She had conceded to him starting off the night in her bed, since she was pretty sure that was where he was going to end it.

Clicking another link with her mouse, Lois wondered how Clark was faring with his search overseas. The search for Jason Trask was not going nearly as well as she had planned.

In fact, it was a dead end, she discovered, as the link she'd clicked revealed an article from a newspaper. Jason Trask was dead.

"Damn it."

Lois closed her eyes and massaged her forehead wearily. From the looks of it, Trask had been a little crazy. Unfortunately, crazy people seemed to often be correct about a lot of things. In this case, Trask had been correct about extra-terrestrial life, but had never found the proof he sought. According to the obituary Lois had found, he had died before Superman's first appearance.

This knowledge troubled Lois for a couple of reasons. First, if Trask was dead, then he wasn't the source of the mysterious voice that was calling out to Clark. Second, Lois was convinced that Trask had been behind the collection of meteor rocks that had been commissioned around the nation all those years ago. That meant that someone, somewhere, had an immense supply of the very poison that could kill Superman.

Lois opened her eyes in alarm and looked toward the hallway. What did that mean for Jory? Was the green rock yet one more thing the little boy was going to have to deal with in his life?

Lois turned back to the computer with renewed vigor.

Trask's operation had been shut down by the feds, but the location of his lab had never been disclosed. The fact that he was dead didn't mean that the work stopped.



*The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse -- who can understand it?*

-- Jer. 17:9


Clark landed onto Lois's terrace and knocked on the glass. He laughed lightly when he saw her walk to the front door. She frowned after looking through the peep hole and he knocked again.

Lois turned at the sound and laughed, crossing over to the patio door and unlocking it. "I guess I should get used to that."

"Sorry, I hadn't changed yet, and I thought this would be less noticeable than Superman asking to be buzzed into your apartment building. I figured it was safe to change out here." He gestured at the trees surrounding the balcony. They effectively provided seclusion from peering eyes.

"Yeah," Lois agreed, moving aside so he could step through the door. "That's just what we need: tabloid coverage. I'm pretty sure that's not the type of publicity Perry anticipated for the Hottest Team in Town."

"Well, Superman's not part of that."


Clark nodded curtly and put his hands in his pockets. "Right."

Lois slid the door closed and turned to face him.

Clark released a breath. He couldn't help but feel a bit discomfited. He had shared quite a bit about his background with Lois, and during his time away, the doubts and concerns about being that vulnerable to someone else had returned tenfold.

"How's Jory?" he asked, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen on the room.

"He's fine. He's in his room sleeping. You'd be amazed with the number of toys that he found a way to hide in his bag. I know I was. You want to see him?"

Clark nodded and followed her into the hallway. He hadn't missed the fact that Lois had referred to the room as 'Jory's' room. Part of him admired the way Lois was able to attach so easily, but the other part wanted to warn her against doing so. He glanced in the room at the child sprawled across the bed and smiled.

"Thanks," he said, stepping back from the door.

"Were you able to find Lana?"

Clark gestured toward the hall. Nodding, Lois followed him back to the living room and they both sat down.

"I picked up the trail in London and for the past few days I've been following it. I've been to Washington D.C., to Canada... every time I picked something up -- a sighting, anything -- it just ended. The last place was Las Vegas, then nothing. She's disappeared." He reigned in his frustration. This wasn't quite the way he wanted to approach this.

"Vegas?" Lois asked. Her brow was furrowed in thought. "When was she in Vegas?"

Clark frowned. "Early 2004."

"There's something I need to show you," she said, jumping to her feet and leaving the room.

Clark slowly got to his feet and followed her to the dining area where her laptop was sitting on the table.

"Jason Trask was a government sponsored alien conspiracist who went off the reservation. Dr. Klein told me that when the feds still had Trask under control, he was the head of a group of scientists dedicated to foreign organisms. Over time he became obsessed with proving the existence of an alien being on earth. When he couldn't convince his colleagues and superiors, he went rogue."

Lois pulled out the chair in front of the laptop and gestured for him to sit down. "One of the projects he was working on was cloning what he claimed to be intergalactic bacteria."

Clark looked up at her with a furrowed brow. He could sense there was a connection but wondered what the extent was that she was trying to infer.

"The bacteria he was testing was supposedly linked with the 1977 meteor shower."

He felt himself automatically stiffen as she reached around him to tap the laptop's touchpad and activate the keyboard mouse.

"I did some research on the EPA commission of meteor rocks taken from the gully in Smallville. The 1977 shower spurred a new batch of conspiracy reports about Area 51." She pointed to the screen. "Some time before his death in 2002, Trask had been taken in for questioning by authorities associated with Nellis Air Force Base."

Clark looked at the map on the computer screen. "I'm afraid I don't understand how this all ties together. Lana was in Vegas in 2004. Trask died in 2002. He had something to do with the collection of the meteor rocks..."

"And Lana just happened to have one on hand when she attacked you. She went to school in D.C. It's not a far cry to think she could have been recruited by a deranged scientist who believed the world was in the midst of an alien invasion."

Clark's expression clouded. Alone, Lana Lang was dangerous... the fact that someone else had bankrolled her delusions was worse.

"You think she was part of his team." He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his jaw. The idea that the government was aware of his secrets was scarier than anything else. It was a callback to some of the nightmare scenarios he'd been taught to avoid since he was a child.

"Yes and no," Lois answered, moving to sit in a nearby chair. "Yes, I think she was working with Trask, but I think she was using him more than she was helping him. Think about it. Trask was a man who had the connections and the funding to allow her to do whatever inane experiments she wanted to. She had proof of what he was searching for, and yet he never found it. I think she strung him along just enough to make sure she had the facilities and the support she required."

Lois clasped her hands together on the table's surface. "The one thing that has troubled me continuously is that she brought Jory to you -- well, to you through your parents. She took your DNA in 2001, but didn't create a clone until *after* Trask was out of the picture."

Clark sneered. "Maybe she didn't have the process right until then."

"Possible -- and very likely -- but it's not just the timing that doesn't fit for me. It was never publicized where Trask had his private lab, and it's my guess that they never found it. I think there was a silent partner involved -- someone just as crazy as the two of them who would finance these fanciful projects. Whoever it was would have enough power and pull to keep certain names out of the limelight."

Clark sighed. "Another mystery identity to uncover -- as if this wasn't complicated enough already."

Lois nodded in sympathy. "I know, but I think it actually can help us center in on something else: the voice."

"The voice -- as in the one that's been testing me?"

"That's the one."

Clark thought about it for a minute. They had discussed before that whoever was able to broadcast onto the special frequency that only Superman could hear would have to be commanding some pretty impressive machinery. They had also concluded that no known government agency would be behind the use of innocent people to bait Superman into compliance. "It's someone local," he stated.

"My thoughts exactly," Lois agreed. "Local or spends a lot of time here. So I figure the next step is to figure out who would have enough money and thirst for power to want to control Superman. I mean, the country certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of billionaires... Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, Bill Church, Simon Stagg, Dick Branson, Doiby Dickles..."

Clark's eyes narrowed, as he finished the list for her, "... and Lex Luthor."

As Superman, Clark had had a few run-ins with Luthor that had left him wary of the man but there was never anything sinister that could be tied back to him. It was just a strange feeling Luthor incited in him. It wasn't clear, but Clark had felt that Luthor was somewhat offended that Superman had descended upon the city. Even as he had presented Superman with great honors and awards, Luthor had seemed to be calculating... Now Clark realized that it wasn't curiosity that was behind Lex Luthor's gaze.

It was threat.

"Luthor owns a hotel in Vegas, doesn't he?"

"The Luxxor."

Clark met Lois's questioning gaze. "I bet he spends a lot of time there."

"I bet he *pretends* to spend a lot of time there," Lois retorted.

Clark smiled, thankful that she always seemed to be on the same page with him. He slid his chair back and stood up. "I think I'll go take another look..."

"Wait a minute. What about Jory?"

Clark turned to face her -- he was almost halfway across the living room. "If the trail leads me to Lana, like I think it will, she should have the information we need to save him."

"No," Lois said, crossing the room to stand in front of him. "I meant, who is going to watch him?"

"Oh... Well, if you can't keep him tonight ..."

"You think that I'm going to let you confront that woman alone?"

Clark's eyebrows rose in surprise. He hadn't even considered taking her with him. "This is not..."

"If you finish that sentence with the words 'your' and 'problem'..." Her eyes narrowed and he took an involuntary step backwards. "Just don't."

He closed his mouth silently and frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. It was his Superman pose -- it indicated that he meant business. "This is something I have to do."

Lois crossed her arms, matching his posture. "I'm not saying that it isn't. What I *am* saying is that you're not going alone." She gave him a hard look. "She almost killed you once."

"Nevada's a big place and we don't know where to look yet."

Lois was unfazed. "We're talking about a billionaire that needs to get to and from a hidden lab from his hotel in Las Vegas without it looking suspicious. That means no chartered flights and no train tickets. My money's on the location being within a one hundred mile radius from the Lux."

His jaw tightened as he gritted his teeth in thought. "I'd be faster without you."

One of her eyebrows inched higher than the other. "Some things are better when they're done slow."

Clark blinked twice -- her response catching him off guard. He blinked again. He was reading too much into it.

Lois uncrossed her arms. "Look, I'm the only one -- other than your parents -- who knows what she's capable of. I think you could use some backup."

Clark gazed at the front door of the apartment for a moment before facing her again. "Could you take Jory to my apartment? I'm going to go and bring my mother from Smallville so she can watch him."


Lois stumbled a bit after Clark set her on the ground in the desolate landscape of the Nevada desert. She wasn't naturally prone to air sickness, and had even clocked some hours in flight school, but they had been forced to fly fast and low to avoid detection -- especially since they were heading this deep into air force country.

She leaned over and braced against her knees as she waited for the nausea to pass.

"Sorry about that," Clark offered.

Lois opened her eyes and looked up at him. They were both wearing khaki-colored clothing in order to blend in with their surroundings. She waved dismissively and swallowed. "What? That? I'm fine. Just catching my breath."

She blew out a breath and straightened. For as far as she could see on both sides, there was no sign of life or activity in the area. Other than the dirt and brush -- and the creepy crawlies hidden below the surface -- they were alone on a deserted stretch of highway named, amazingly enough, the Extraterrestrial Highway. Fate had a sense of humor.


While Clark had gone to Smallville to explain the upcoming trip to his parents, Lois had done some quick cross-referencing and source-calling to try and get an absolute location for Lana Lang's lair. One of her sources -- a man Lois secretly referred to as Crazy Dan -- was a conspiracy theorist, and in response to her questions had supplied her with some aerial views of the air force base famously known as Area 51. Obviously, government intelligence agencies wouldn't allow civilians access to scans of the actual base, which was fine because it wasn't the base they were interested in -- it was the area around it.

With all of the connections between Trask and the Nevada military, and Lex and the Las Vegas scene, it was pretty clear to Lois that Trask's place of operation, and thus Lana's current location, was not far from the place where the work all began. The only thing of interest Crazy Dan's images had shown was a broken down car on the side of the ET highway. When Lois had pointed that out to her source, he had suggested abduction.

Lois didn't buy the abduction theory -- in this case, at least -- but she had taken a closer look at the area. The insignia on the side of the car was from a private security company often linked to LexCorp.

At that moment, she and Clark were standing where the abandoned vehicle had once been. Now they just needed to figure out where it had been going.

She placed her hands on her hips and took a long look in each direction the road was going. Just like in the old western films her father enjoyed, the highway seemed to disappear in both directions in a ripple of heat. "This is one lonely road," she commented. She could only imagine how it looked at night. If aliens were going to abduct someone, this would be just the place to do it.

"There's some kind of fox trench about 100 miles North East of here," Clark announced, peering off in the direction he had indicated.

"A fox trench? Like the things they use in wars?"

Clark nodded. He frowned as his eyes narrowed. "It's some kind of small building that's been mostly hidden in the ground. It doesn't look like anything more than a sand dune, which explains why it didn't stand out on the satellite scans. It's hard to tell, but it looks heavily armed."

"The ground?" Lois repeated, looking down. At this elevation, they were as close as ever to the earth's core. There was a reason developers in this part of the world refrained from creating buildings with basements. A guard shack hidden just underground was one thing -- there was no way an entire lab could be under there as well. "Are there any cars?"

"No," Clark answered, his vision still attuned to the scene miles across the desert. "I'm not seeing any roads or fences either."

"No. That would just give evidence that there was something out here -- and that's the last thing they'd want." She sighed. "They wouldn't be out here guarding nothing. The lab has to be close by. Do you see anything else? Maybe a bigger hill?"

Clark blinked and turned to look at her. "No, not a bigger hill," he said. "A mountain. About another 20 miles further inland from the guard stand."

"Wow. I don't suppose we can just walk up and ring the doorbell, huh? Do mountains have doorbells?" Lois threaded her fingers through the strands of her ponytail and sighed. "But before we even think about getting *inside*, how do we even get to the door? I mean -- 100 miles is too far for most intelligence systems, but what about cameras?" Her eyes grew wide. "What if they are watching us right now?"

"I scanned before we landed. There are no cameras, antennas, or receivers out this far. I think they would be too afraid of what would happen if they were found. No evidence is good evidence." Clark bent down and picked up a fistful of sandy dirt. "But I think I have an idea for how we can make it to the mountain without the guards seeing -- cameras and all."

Lois looked at the dirt that was streaming from Clark's hand quizzically. "And after that?"

"After that?" Clark repeated. He brushed his hands clean. "After that, I guess we ring the doorbell."

Lois smirked and stepped closer when Clark stood. It wasn't much of a plan -- and usually plans came out better when they were thought through, but then there were times like these when risks had to be taken. Considering the importance of the information they had come out here to find, risk was warranted. "You take the lead."

Clark nodded curtly and reached out for her forearm. "Whatever you do, keep your eyes closed. When it starts blowing, sand is like glass."



*The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.*

-- I Peter 4:7-8


Clark held Lois against him with one arm while he shaded his eyes with the other. His invulnerability made the sandstorm harmless to him but the little specks of blowing debris were still annoying.

He flew above the guard shack and hovered for a moment so he could listen. When he was confident that their cover was sufficient, he flew on to the mountain, searching for anything that would denote an entrance.

Finally finding what he was looking for at the base of the south face of the mountain, he landed. He placed Lois on the ground and released a deep breath to keep the swirling dust airborne. He turned to face Lois, who was still holding her hands against her eyes.

"Why did we stop before?" Lois asked, daring a peek at him through barely parted fingers. "Is something wrong?"

"I was listening in on the guards. Their cameras were blinded by the storm and they don't suspect anything suspicious." He turned to the door. "I can't say the same for whoever is inside, though."

"What do you mean?"

"I didn't find any cameras or listening devices anywhere within a mile of the mountain, and from the way the guards were reacting, it's almost as if they don't even know what they are guarding."

"They don't."

Clark spun around at the sound of the new voice. He frowned as he tried to scan for an intercom system.

"The guards from the Brickwater Group are paid a considerable amount of money to not ask questions."

"Lana," Clark said gruffly.

The voice chuckled. "Clark," it responded, mocking his tone. "Come in."

The sound of a latch clicked and the door in front of them slid open.

"Clark?" Lois questioned. "What's happening? Why did you just say her name?"

Clark gazed warily into the newly revealed space in front of them.

"She's here," he answered, realizing that Lois hadn't heard the voice. "She's inviting us inside."

Clark gently guided Lois through the door, watching with interest as the door slid shut behind them. The room they were standing in was well lit and reminded him of a hospital. Three hallways branched in different directions away from the room they were in.

Lois lowered her hands from her eyes and looked up at him with raised eyebrows. Understanding the unspoken question, he reached up and pointed to his ear.

"I figured that you were due for a visit but using a haboob for cover? That was quite bold of you."

Both Lois and Clark turned at the sound, and he stiffened at the sight of the petite woman who was standing about ten feet down the center hallway. Lana Lang had always been very pretty. Her silky hair had once been worn long and straight, but now it was cropped at chin level in a stylish bob. To any other man, she would have been quite attractive, but their history created a stark contrast of her in Clark's mind.

He felt the muscles in his jaw tighten as she began approaching them. Beside him, Lois was watching the woman with interest while brushing the sand from her clothes.

"I would have never expected that from you," Lana continued. "But then, I would have never expected you to pull a stunt like *Superman* either." Her eyes narrowed as she switched her gaze to Lois. "You must be Lois Lane."

Lana chuckled at Lois's expression. "Oh, don't look so surprised. That was an incredible investigative piece that the two of you put out. The Kerth nomination alone was enough to be circulated by the Associated Press."

Lana stopped at the end of the hall and lifted her hands to gesture toward the other two hallways. "I'm afraid we were forced to downsize a few years ago, so those areas aren't part of the tour, but if you'll just follow me..."

"We didn't come here for a tour, Lana," Clark said, finally breaking his silence.

Lana turned back to face him. "Right. So, let's talk about why you *are* here." She crossed her arms on her chest. "Let me guess. It's sick, isn't it? And you are here to try and save it. How tragically poetic."

Out the corner of his eye, Clark saw Lois stiffen and ball her hands into a fist. "His name is Jory."

Lana threw her a sympathetic glance. "Jory," she repeated with the slightest hint of satisfaction. She turned her attention back to Clark. "Didn't want to share your name, Clark?"

"Can you help him or not?" Clark demanded, refusing to acknowledge Lana's facetious questioning. He was ashamed that her words held some truth.

Lana flicked a glance at Lois and then gave him a knowing look. "Help him?" she repeated, thoughtfully tilting her head to the side. "Is that what you really want, Clark?"

"What kind of game are you playing, here?" Lois asked incredulously. "Of course it is!"

Lana's gaze hadn't wavered from Clark's eyes during Lois's outburst.

"Of course it is," Clark repeated flatly. The dry delivery he gave earned him a look from Lois.

"I can help i... Jory." With a smirk, Lana turned away from them and began walking down the hall. "You'll need to see my lab."

When Lois moved to follow, Clark reached out and stopped her with a hand to her arm.

She looked at him questioningly. "What's wrong?"

Clark frowned in Lana's direction. "I don't know." He looked back at Lois. "She doesn't... help people."

Something about the entire situation made him uneasy. It seemed impossible that Lana was the only person in the entire complex -- but he sensed no other person inside but the three of them.

"She brought him to you," Lois answered under her breath. "She brought him to you when she could have taken everything she knows about you public. She had the science to make him... she must have the science to save him too."

She placed her hand over the one of his that was on her arm. "I don't want to trust her either, Clark, but we're here. What other choice do we have but to follow her?"

With a final imploring look, Lois turned and began walking down the hall. After taking a deep breath, Clark used large strides to catch up with her.

They followed the path of the stark hallway, passing a few doors as they went. "Where did she go?" Lois asked. Lana was no longer in sight.

Squinting, Clark found that he could not see through the walls. "It's reinforced with lead," he announced. "I can't see."

Before Lois could respond, they reached an open door on the right hand side and entered. The L-shaped lab was large and sectioned off in three areas. The part they had just entered was at the head of the longer straight portion, the short part of the L was hidden around a corner. Lana was standing next to one of the far tables, patiently waiting for them to appear.

Clark glanced around the room at the large canisters lining the work tables and suddenly felt lightheaded.

There were 8 large vats sitting on the tables. They were filled with green colored water... and masses of deformed tissue ranging from fetus to infant sized.

"The rest of your family," Lana announced as if making an introduction.

Clark moved before he thought about doing it, and in a millisecond, he was glaring down at Lana with a raised hand. Even with all of the anger and hate that was filling his psyche, he couldn't find the nerve to follow through.

"Still can't hit a girl?" Lana asked, not even remotely shaken by Clark's sudden threat of attack.

Gritting his teeth, Clark slowly let his hand fall to his side and stumbled backwards, still shaken by his surroundings.

Lois reached out to steady him, narrowing her eyes in the other woman's direction. "Maybe he can't, but I can, you sick..."

Lana raised a hand to stop her from completing the statement. "Maybe it would be best to wait until you've got what you came for before starting the name-calling."

Lois turned toward the vats. "What are these, your trophies?"

Lana looked to the vats with what could only be deemed affection. "No, not trophies, Lois. Mistakes -- but not in the sense of failure. See, in science, mistakes are the things that lead to advanced technology."

The largest vat was closest to her, and she reached over to place a hand against it. "These copies were flawed. They weren't viable," she said. "But without them, I would not have been able to discover a way of creating the perfect clone."

"Jory's not perfect," Clark entered.

Lana turned away from the vat and faced him. "No, the one you have isn't." She gestured for them to follow her and then disappeared around the corner into the part of the room which hadn't been visible.

Clark exchanged a look with Lois and together they moved to follow. When they rounded the corner, once again, Lana was nowhere to be seen.

"Now where did she go?" Lois asked. She huffily walked over to the door that was embedded in the wall, figuring that Lana had exited through there.

Clark looked around as he moved to join her. This portion of the lab was suspiciously empty.

"What the hell?"

At Lois's exclamation, Clark looked up.

"It's locked," she said, pulling ineffectively on the handle.

"I'll try," Clark decided, but after he had taken his second step, he fell to the ground, suddenly overcome with pain.

The sound caused Lois to turn from the door. "Clark!" she exclaimed, rushing over to him. To her surprise, laser green lines were streaming from the ceiling between them and the rest of the lab.

"Kryptonite," Clark muttered through clenched teeth.

Lois crouched next to him and placed a hand against his forehead. It scared her that he had gone pale so quickly. Suddenly standing, she darted toward the green lines. Kryptonite would have no effect on her.

She swore loudly and jerked back when contact with the one of the lines sent a painful shock through her arm up to her shoulder.

"Ooo. That had to hurt."

Lois massaged her numb arm with the other hand and glared at the woman who had appeared on the other side. "Witch!"

"And we're back to name-calling again," Lana said, shaking her head sadly. "I started to warn you that the kryptonite lasers were reinforced with electric current, but somehow this is much more satisfying. Sometimes experience gives the best lesson." She held up a remote and pressed a few buttons. "Though I *will* warn you that what you just felt was a much tamer voltage than it is now."

The depressing of the buttons seemed to affect the kryptonite settings as well because Clark suddenly groaned in pain.

Lois stepped as close as she could to the laser fence without touching it. "You said you would help him."

"I said I *could* help him. There's a difference. Why would I stop something that I put into motion a long time ago?"

Lois couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What did you put into motion?"

Lana smiled and tilted her head in mock sympathy. "Come on, Lois. You're an investigative reporter. You live for the puzzle. Put this one together."

Lois wanted nothing more than to wipe the smug look from Lana's face. Staring the other woman down, Lois realized that the game was what Lana was after -- so she decided not to play.

Turning her back on Lana, Lois returned to Clark's side. He was breathing shallowly, as if trying to endure the pain. "What can I do?"

"...Too... close," he managed.

Lois looked around searchingly. "Okay, we need to get you over to that wall." It was the furthest away they would be able to get. "Can you sit up?"

As she struggled to help Clark into an upright position, Lana began to speak. "It won't matter, you know. He'll be better off once he passes out."

The words only made Lois put more energy into dragging Clark away from the green striped barrier. She definitely didn't want Clark to pass out.

"He's going to die," Lana's voice announced from behind her. "That's the plan."

Lois spun and approached the enclosure again. The fact that this appeared to all be some elaborately planned trap was making her sick to her stomach. "Okay, fine. You want me to put your puzzle together? You knew Jory was a flawed clone when you left him with the Kents. In fact, that's the reason you sent him. You wanted Clark to become attached to something that would die. So he would feel like you."

Lana smiled appreciatively. "You're even better than I thought you would be," she commented. "I bet you carried the load of the partnership. Was Superman your creation?" Her eyes shifted to look beyond Lois. "Not so super now, is he?"

"Shut up."

Lana chuckled. "You're kind of Mother Cub-like, Lois. It's endearing," she said with overloaded sarcasm. "You know, I could have killed him before. Did he tell you that story? I was already working for Trask at the time. The man was an idiot, but he had his uses. There we were, a man in search of an alien invasion, and a woman who had all the proof."

"But you never gave him the proof he was looking for," Lois inserted.

"Again, he had his uses. I didn't want Clark exposed. I wanted him to pay. I knew all of his secrets -- his desires, his fears. Did he tell you about his fears, Lois? Did he tell you about his greatest one -- to be alone? He was always on the outside. The only one of his kind."

"So you gave him the one thing he'd always wanted... only to slowly take it away."

"God, you make it sound so melodramatic," Lana drawled, rolling her eyes.

"So why kill him now?" Lois demanded. "Why now after you've gone through all these lengths to keep Clark and your success in cloning him a secret?"

Lana waved dismissively. "New partners, new promises."

"Lex is only using you."

"Lois, Lois, Lois. Lex Luthor is a lot smarter than Jason Trask, but his intelligence is still no match for mine. He doesn't even know half of what I'm doing here. I got him to continue to fund my research and this lab even though I'm the only one here. I give him no reports, there's no surveillance. I have him eating out of my hand on the fumes of a promise. Luckily for him, it's about to pay off."

Lana laughed again. "Men are all the same, hon. They each have a fetish for something, and if you find out what it is that they want, you can get them to do anything." Lana shrugged affably, as if they were having a pleasant chat over noon tea. "Lex's obsession is power. Superman challenged that."

"So now he wants *him*," Lois finished.

"No. Not him. He wants his very own programmable copy." Lana smirked. "It wouldn't be good to have the original still flying around, now would it?"

Lois remembered what Lana had said earlier about knowing how to create a flawless clone. If that was what Lana had promised Luthor, the world was in great danger. A rogue Superman was a weapon of mass destruction.

"I just happen to be all out of my stash of alien tissue, so your visit is quite fortuitous. Amazingly enough, the cloning procedure only works with Clark's DNA. It has something to do with his genetic makeup, and copies of copies deteriorate at cell level. I needed the original."

The way she was looking longingly at Clark angered Lois. To the madwoman, he only represented the possibility of unlimited experimentation. "What about me? Do I die too? You can excuse your vendetta against Clark because you don't consider him human. How can you excuse my death?"

Lana's eyes seemed to harden. "This is a war, Lois Lane. You chose your side the moment you decided to get in bed with the enemy."

Lois moved dangerously close to the green lines. "When I get out of here," she said in a low steady voice. "I'm going to kill you."

Lana looked at her in awe. "Then, I guess I should make sure you don't get out." She lifted the remote again and pressed more buttons. Immediately, Clark began to scream.

Lois spun around and moved to his side.

"It won't be long now, Lois. We'll talk some more later."

Lois tried to soothe Clark while watching Lana disappear around the corner. "Stay with me, Clark." She swore again and grimaced as his face contorted in pain. She could tell that he was trying to hold in the screams.

"Lois... 'm sorry..." he muttered through gasps. "...Shouldn't... brought..."

"Don't even start with that," she said forcibly, using the sleeve of her shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow. "If you hadn't agreed to let me come with you, I would have exposed your secret myself."

He coughed out a weak laugh. "Prob... true..."

"Of course it's true."

Seeing that he was starting to lose consciousness, Lois leapt to her feet and began inspecting the walls for any structural weaknesses. She didn't know what she would do if she found any, but she looked all the same.

"Hey, Clark, I need you to keep talking to me. Tell me something about you that I don't know." When he didn't respond, she returned to his side and shook him roughly.

He groaned and swallowed. "...K... I had... a dog."

Nodding, Lois returned to her search. "A dog? What was its name?"


"That's not really a dog's name, but I like it... I never had a dog, but if I did I probably would have named it Hund."

"Isn't... German... for dog?"

"Yeah," she answered, "but that way he wouldn't have had an identity crisis." She frowned as she noticed a light depression in the right-hand wall just in front of the kryptonite beams. Moving quickly to the opposite wall, she realized that there was some kind of sliding partition embedded into it. She smiled when she realized that it was a fire door.

Some of the higher tech laboratories had built-in safety features like a fire room. In this case, the part of the lab they were in could serve as a safe haven in the event of a fire or toxic-based explosion. In an emergency, the fire door could be closed, sealing the bay off from the rest of the room, allowing exit from the door Clark was now leaning against. If she could get that partition to slide shut, it would also seal them off from those deadly poison-spreading lasers. She only needed a way to activate the sensors so the blast door would close.

"Tell me something else, Clark."

"..Ike what?"

"I don't know, I bet you had a pet cow or two."

Lois began checking her pockets for anything she could use. The type of mission they had set out on that day had required that they travel light. Their purpose had been to retrieve things of interest, not to bring them. From the left cargo pocket on her pants she withdrew her digital recorder. From the other matching pocket she pulled out her cell phone. That was it. She hadn't even brought her keys with her -- having left them at Clark's apartment before they flew to Nevada via Superman Express.

Given the remoteness of their location and the fact that they were deep inside a mountain bunker, Lois was not surprised that her phone was able to get no signal.


"Did all your pets have people names?" she asked.

"Mom... didn't like... in... the house."

On the other side of their kryptonite cage, shelves of chemicals lined the far wall. If she could find a way to break those canisters so their contents mixed, then maybe the resulting fumes would be enough to reach the sensors.

Lois tested the weight of the recorder in her palm and sighed. Even if she could throw it with enough force to travel the required twenty feet to reach the shelves, she would be lucky if more than one bottle broke.

She turned and moved back to Clark's side and sat down next to him. Lana had claimed that there wasn't any surveillance but Lois didn't really put much confidence in anything that woman said. "Do you have anything in your pockets?" she asked in a low whisper.

Clark nodded painfully and used his chin to gesture to his right side. Lois reached in his side pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Even though he paid for extra coverage to support his job as Superman, he couldn't get a signal either. She put the phone on the floor and stared at the glowing green lines in front of her. If it wasn't sure to kill her, she would risk third degree burns and run through them.

She remembered the story Clark had told her about the first time Lana had attacked him with kryptonite. He had been immediately incapacitated from the pain, but she wondered how long it had taken for his powers to dissipate. "Do you think you could break those canisters from here?" she asked quietly.

Clark cracked his eyes open to see what she was talking about and shook his head. "Hurts to... move," he forced out. "Can't throw... no strength." His eyes fell shut again and he dropped his head back against the wall.

Lois blew out a sharp breath and glanced down at their collected treasures. A foggy idea began to form in the back of her mind. She began unbuttoning the long-sleeved linen shirt she was wearing. "Clark, I need you to pull yourself together as best you can, okay. I need you to use your powers."

"Not super," he grunted. "Lana knew..."

Lois tied a knot in one of the shirt sleeves and shifted so she was on her knees beside him. "I don't give a damn what that woman said," she replied vehemently. Checking herself, she lowered her voice again. "Look at me."

He drew in a haggard breath and slightly opened his bloodshot eyes.

"What gives you strength comes from here," Lois said, placing a hand on his chest. "She expects us to just give up and die, but that's not who I am." She gave him a leveling look. "That's not who you are either. You've been laying down too long, Clark. It's time to fight."

His eyes slipped shut again but the flaring of his nostrils told Lois that he was responding. Nodding curtly, she pulled her hand from his chest and reached for her cell phone, opening the back panel so she could remove the battery. "Just one little blast of heat vision, okay? You can do that."

She dropped the battery into the shirt sleeve and repeated the actions with Clark's phone and the digital recorder. She then rolled the shirt into a ball around the three batteries and reached to lift Clark's arm around her shoulders. "Come on, Clark. Fight it. Help me."

"Okay." His breathing was still shallow and his face contorted in pain, but the determination she was looking for was apparent.

Together they crawled toward the fence. Lois watched Clark's face closely during their slow advance, and when they were as close as she dared to go before his concentration would succumb to the pain, she stopped. She slid the bundle through the laser lines and watched as it stopped midway between them and the canisters on the far wall.

"Okay, Clark," she said, turning and putting a hand against his face. "One blast. Just hit the shirt and the batteries will blow."

Nodding, Clark opened his eyes. Lois watched as he frowned and affixed his gaze to the shirt but nothing happened. Silently, she began praying. They just needed enough for the shirt to light. It was too bad she hadn't brought any perfume along... or better yet, liquor. A shot of tequila would be nice right about now.

Clark released a loud groan and collapsed, his energy and ability to fight the pain finally spent. Lois shifted quickly to keep his head from smacking against the floor and breathed a sigh of relief. He had done it. The shirt was on fire.

Lois knew the explosion would be happening soon, so she stood and grasped Clark under the shoulders to pull him away from the cage. Now that he was unconscious, though, his dead weight was almost impossible to move. She had only gotten a mere two feet when the makeshift bomb went off.

As she had planned, the blast door's sensors activated and the partition began sliding out, but not before a second explosion sent shards of glass flying through the air. The chemical bottles were reacting to the sudden heat from the battery explosion.

Lois had crouched to shield Clark's face with the first blast, so her back was exposed to the glass projectiles resulting from the second. The yellow tank top she had been wearing under the long sleeved shirt did not offer much coverage from the shrapnel, but she felt lucky that the only area that got hit was behind her left shoulder. It hurt like a mother, but she would live.

She let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding when the fire door finally slid home, effectively cutting them off from the sickly green glow that had meant Clark's death. Another muffled explosion sounded and Lois glanced down at Clark. She decided that it was probably for the best that he was unconscious. Perhaps it would help him regain his strength.

"What have you done?!"

Lois looked up to see the face of an irate Lana Lang in the small window embedded in the rear door. She stood and rushed to the door. "Let us out, Lana!"

Lana continued as if she hadn't even heard Lois's demand. "You stupid woman. Do you know what you've done?! *Everything* is in that room. Everything!"

Lana stared at Lois through the glass and Lois could have sworn that she was about to witness the spontaneous combustion of a human female. She flinched involuntarily when Lana suddenly hit the window with her hand.

"Lana!" Lois screamed as the other woman spun on her heel and walked away. "Open this door!"

Lois pulled on the handle a few times before giving up and sliding to the floor. She tentatively tried to brush the tiny glass fragments from her shoulder as she tried to think of what to do now.

The sound of a huge explosion shook the room and Lois jumped to her feet. It occurred to her that Lana must have opened the main door to the laboratory. Having been sealed off from the rest of the complex, the fire in the lab would have eventually died out after it consumed everything in the room and run out of oxygen. Opening the door would have created a backdraft, adding additional fuel and power to the fire.

"Stupid woman," Lois muttered, returning the insult that had earlier been bestowed upon her.

In her state of mind, Lana would have been trying to save her precious projects... and would have only made the problem worse.

Lois saw flames rising outside the window Lana had just been glaring through and knew that the entire place was about to catch fire. The cage that had been meant for their deaths was now a safe haven in the middle of Dante's raging inferno.


The sound of rumbling machinery pulled Clark back to awareness. He opened his eyes to locate the source of the sound and saw that a wall partition was slowly sliding open. Turning his head, he noticed Lois sitting against the rear wall. Her legs were drawn up against her chest and her elbows were on her knees. Her attention was on the moving wall as well.


Her gaze flicked to meet his. "Hey, how are you feeling?"

"Like I've been run over by a truck. How long was I out?"

She shifted stiffly and pushed herself to her feet. "About six hours."

To Clark, she seemed oddly subdued. "What happened?" he asked, groaning as he struggled to sit up. Every muscle in his entire body screamed in protest to the movement.

Lois nodded to the moving wall and he turned to see that its opening revealed a blackened room beyond. "The lab blew up," she informed him.

Clark blinked and thought about what had happened just before his world had gone black. "The batteries? It worked?"

"A little better than expected, but yeah," she replied, walking over to him. "Can you get up?"

After taking a deep breath, he attempted to shift his weight around so he could stand, but his legs were as weak as wet noodles. Lois stepped close to help him stabilize his balance and he noticed her grimace in pain when he swung an arm around her shoulders. Frowning, he tilted his head so he could look. The back of the shoulder his hand had grazed was streaked with dry blood.

"It's okay," she said, cutting off the question that was forming on his lips. "Just a little glass. Once I can get it cleaned, it'll be fine."

He looked at her with doubtful concern.

"It's okay," she repeated. "Come on. I want to get out of here."

As they shuffled toward the part of the lab they had been cut off from moments before, Clark was careful not to put any pressure on her wounded shoulder.

"You told me that your powers were sapped by kryptonite exposure, but how long does it last?" Lois asked.

Clark shook his head. "I guess it depends on how long the exposure lasts," he offered, trying to think about it. "The time at the gorge lasted about a week. I remember because it was after Pete's funeral... I got so angry that day that I..." He trailed off and swallowed. "And then the time with Lana... It was much worse. I was under longer that time and my body had to heal from her impromptu surgery. I'd guess that it was about four months from the time I regained consciousness to the time I could do anything remotely super."

They carefully picked their way through the charred debris and broken glass as they moved through the lab. It was no longer recognizable as the lab they had first entered. The walls were blackened with smoke and soot, and the cabinets that were still standing had their doors blown open. Not one of the vats that had lined the tables was intact, the contents spilled and destroyed.

The sight of an abandoned shoe near a burnt work table caused Clark to stop in his tracks. Pulling away from Lois, he stumbled over to the table and leaned against it heavily. Moments later, Lois was behind him with a hand on his shoulder.

"There was nothing you could have done," she said softly.

Clark leaned down to place a hand against the neck of the woman lying on the ground. As he had suspected, there was no pulse. With a sigh, Clark averted his eyes and saw that there was something under Lana's hand. When he slid it out, he found that he was looking at a fire damaged palm-sized computer of some sort.

"After the explosions started, she came back in," Lois explained. "It would have been contained but she opened the door."

Clark was having trouble reconciling his feelings at that moment. Lana Lang had tortured him and had tried to kill him twice. She had manipulated him and had played God with the life of a little boy she had created with the intent that he should die. She was a villain, and yet she had still been a person... and had once been his friend.

"There was nothing you could have done," Lois repeated.

He met Lois's gaze and something in it revealed that she was sharing in his feeling of guilt. He returned his attention to the PDA, picking it up and studying it carefully. "This couldn't have been what she came back for," he said.

Lois took it from him and looked at it herself. "I don't know. It could be where she kept all of her notes."

"Yeah, but that looks like something you would keep with you, not something you would leave in a lab." Clark looked up at the cabinet that was hanging precariously on the wall. Before, he had assumed that the door had been blown open by the explosions, but now he noticed that there was a key in the lock.

Standing, he took a closer look. The cabinet had been a refrigerated container and inside he found around a dozen broken vials. Whatever had been contained inside of them had burnt to nothingness. He reached in and pulled out one of the broken tubes. Enough of the burnt label was left that he could make out the words 'Vitality Catalyst.'

Clark dropped his head as he used the support of the work table to step back to Lois's side. Once again, his search for answers would be left unrequited. "How about we work on a way to get out of here?"

She looked at him sympathetically but didn't comment on his demeanor. "Sure."

Again, Lois offered her support as they made their way out of the lab and into the hall. As they moved toward the main entrance, they took enough time to rummage through the destroyed contents of rooms that had been locked and closed earlier. There was a sleeping and bathing area, a kitchenette, a place that obviously acted as Lana's private office, and even a recreation room, but none of them offered anything more promising than what had been in the lab.

Finally, they made it back to the main area, and just like the hall they had just left, the walls were charred. Clark realized that the air was surprisingly clear. "Where's the smoke?"

"My guess is that whatever systems they had in place for fire control would have flushed outside air in once the flames had been extinguished."

Clark imagined how it would have appeared to people outside to see a nondescript mountain in the middle of Nevada suddenly start to spew smoke.

"We should try these other areas," Lois said, gesturing to the other two hallways.

"Lana said they weren't used."

"I know, but maybe they lead to another way out. Maybe someone was once working on an advanced technology ATV or something. I mean, how are we supposed to get past those guards and back to civilization now?"

Clark was about to respond when the main door to the complex began to slide open. Quickly, ignoring the painful protest the movement elicited from his body, Clark ushered Lois into the darkness of the furthest hall. His jaw dropped when the door finished opening and two men stepped through.

"What the hell happened here?" the bald one demanded of his taller companion.

Clark glanced at Lois. "Lex Luthor," she mouthed with wide eyes.

They heard Lex swear as he and his companion moved down the hall.

After exchanging a shared look with Lois, Clark hurriedly moved across the room and out the door. Lois was right behind him as he ducked through the open space and into the shadows outside. In the time they had been inside the mountain, the day had turned to night. The only thing that offered light aside from the stars in the sky was the idling chopper that was sitting 50 feet away from them.

The helicopter's pilot was standing outside of the rig smoking a cigarette.

In the darkness, Clark felt Lois lean close. "I see our ride."

Clark frowned in her direction but she shook her head at his oncoming protest. She was already backing away from him with a finger to her lips. A few seconds later, she had blended into the darkness and he was bemoaning the loss of his enhanced vision. Feeling helpless, he resigned to trust her. Her wits had saved his life that night.

After spending ten minutes flicking anxious glances at the main entrance, he saw the pilot jump to attention, obviously having heard something. The man dropped his cigarette to the ground and moved his hand to his back, most likely reaching for a weapon, but before he completed the move, he fell to the ground limply.

A second later, Lois appeared and waved for him to join her.

[End of Part II]


Act III: About a Boy


*And above all things, never think that you're not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you at your own reckoning.*

-- AnthonyTrollope

Friday, two months later...


Lois jumped as the sudden voice of her editor caused her to suck in a bigger sip of her newly refreshed coffee than she had planned. The hot liquid scalded her tongue and she opened her mouth to let it dribble back into the mug.

"Thit," she muttered around her smarting tongue, placing the mug on her desk and standing.

Attempting to blow cool air through her mouth, she entered Perry's office. "I can't be entirely sure, but I got the feeling that you wanted to see me..."


Lois frowned at the curt reply but turned and pulled the door shut without question.

"Sit," Perry commanded tersely when she had complied with his first instruction.

Lois lowered into one of the visitor's chairs with a questioning tilt to her head. "What did I do this time?"

The editor sighed heavily. "Did I assign you a story on Lex Luthor?"

Lois's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Uh..."

"Because I don't recall assigning you a story on Lex Luthor, and yet I'm getting rumblings that my top *investigative* reporter is doing a lot of digging on the city's greatest benefactor. Care to explain?"

"It's just general background stuff," she returned lightly.

"Just general background stuff," he repeated sourly. "Why?"

Lois pursed her lips together. "He's dirty, Chief. I know it."

Perry leaned forward. "Do you have proof?"

"Of course I don't," she answered, exasperatedly. If she had proof, she wouldn't need to investigate.

"Then until you have reasonable cause, you need to keep a lower profile."


"I'm not saying that you're wrong, Lois," he cautioned, lifting a hand to ward off her defense. "The man is far too slick for my liking. What I *am* saying is that you don't want to go to battle with him until you have your ducks in a row. Hear me?"

Lois met his eyes for a while and then nodded. "I hear you."

"Good. Now what about the story I *did* assign you? Where is that partner of yours?"

"Doctor's appointment, remember?"

"Oh, that's right. How's the little guy doing?" Perry asked, his voice much gentler with the change of topic.

"About the same," Lois reported. "The doctors are still looking for a way to, uh, stop the ear aches."

"Have they looked at tubes? My son Jerry needed tubes when he was a baby. He used to cry all night long."

"You know, I'll ask Clark about that when I see him," she answered evasively.

"You do that. Now go on and get back to work. You're already spending enough of my hours on your own agenda," he drawled.

Lois smiled at his gruffness, knowing that he wasn't as upset as he was acting. Perry knew better than anyone that Lois worked longer hours than usual to get a complete story. If anything, she wasn't paid enough. When she opened the door to the office to leave, Perry called her name.

"Profile," he said, giving her a serious look and moving his hand from chin to chest level. "When you do get the story, I want you to still be around to tell it."

"Scout's honor," she promised, winking at her boss and ducking out of the office.

Lois released a sigh as she returned to her desk. As much as she didn't want to admit it, Perry was right about the whole Lex thing. She didn't have a story -- rather, she didn't have anything she could print. Luthor had been especially careful in the past few months, and if she hadn't had the inside knowledge about his ulterior motives, she would have been fooled into believing he was Metropolis's Boy Wonder along with everyone else in the world.

Lex Luthor knew someone was at the mountain hideout, he knew that someone took his chopper. As much as Lois was looking for Lex to slip up and show his true colors to the world, Lex was looking for the people who knew his secrets to reveal themselves.

The fact that Perry was getting some feedback from her case was enough to scare her into hiding. Normally, she wouldn't back down from a mild threat like this, but in this situation, the stakes were too high. Her profile needed to be lower than low. It needed to be nonexistent.

It had been almost two months since she and Clark had made their escape from the sinister talons of Lana Lang. Lois had flown them to Vegas in Lex's chopper where they had landed just outside the city and had abandoned the craft after giving it a thorough wipedown. The last thing they wanted to do was give Lex any indication that they were the ones who had stolen his helicopter.

After that, they had walked the rest of the way to the city and Lois had used a pay phone to call for help. A former boyfriend with whom she had retained a friendship had provided them a ride back to Metropolis on his private plane. Lois had wanted to be certain that they left no traces of having ever been in Nevada that weekend.

When they returned to New Troy, dawn was just appearing over the horizon. Lois had wanted nothing more than to crawl into her bed and sleep the horrors of the day away. It had been an emotional day and for all of her bravado, there had been numerous occasions when she didn't think that they would get out. By the time she and Clark had walked up the stairs to his apartment so she could retrieve her keys, all of her hope had dwindled.

When Martha Kent had opened the door to let them in, the way Jory had rushed through the door to wrap his little arms tightly around her neck had been all that was needed to restore her soul.

After a week had passed and Clark's powers hadn't returned, they had put their heads together in an attempt to explain Superman's absence from the Metropolis skyline. After the second week, they had arranged for Superman to grant a private conference with a select group of people: a detective from the MPD, the chief of the fire department, and a reporter from the Daily Planet. In the meeting, Superman informed them that he needed to travel to his home planet for personal reasons and that he would return to earth as soon as possible.

Again, hoping to avert any possible connection Lex might make between Superman, Lois, and the Nevada laboratory, Lois wasn't the Daily Planet representative on the story of Superman's departure. Instead, Lois had remained in the shadows outside of the room, ready to help Clark slip into a janitor's closet so he could change out of the suit while Superman disappeared.

Superman's unplanned vacation had been taken care of so now the focus needed to be on getting Jory healthy.

And with that, Lois resolved to put the Luthor investigation aside. She would keep her ears and eyes open for any transgressions, but she would no longer actively seek them out.

That story was for another time.


The voice of her editor pulled Lois out of her introspection and she sat forward in her chair with a start. "I'm working!" she offered, quickly grabbing for the nearest folder.

"Well, I'd sure hope so," Perry drawled, "but I didn't come here to hound you."

From Perry's delivery, Lois could tell that he had something important to say. She swiveled around in her chair and looked up, matching his serious expression.

"I've got something you should hear."


Clark ushered Jory through the front door of his apartment and closed it firmly before jogging down the steps to the ringing phone. "Hello?"

"Hey, it's Lois. I've been trying to reach you guys for hours."

"Oh, yeah... I, uh, didn't turn my cell phone back on. We just walked in." He felt a tugging on his pant leg and looked down. "Jory says hello."

Lois laughed. "Tell him I said hi. So how was the appointment?"

"It was..."

Jory pulled on his leg again, holding his arm up. <Tell mommy pain my arm> he signed.

Clark rolled his eyes. The little boy had to be the most stubborn child in the world. The more he had tried to get him to understand that Lois was not his mother, the more the child was convinced otherwise. Apparently, Jory was under the impression that children were given parents... not the other way around.

<Not pretty.> Jory gave him an impatient look. <Tell!>

His silence prompted Lois to call out. "Clark?"

"Sorry, Jory has more to tell you. Dr. Klein took more blood today and didn't have any more of the fun band-aids on hand."


"Yeah." Clark turned to Jory and signed that Lois was sorry. The little boy nodded, apparently satisfied with the acknowledgement of his concerns, and walked away. "But other than that, things weren't too bad."

"Did Uncle Bernie have the test results?"

The close call with almost having spent the rest of his life in a cage had made Clark extremely wary about subjecting himself to poking and prodding. Still, when he moved to Metropolis, he'd known that to some extent, this was the path he had embarked upon. Following Lois's recommendation, he'd allowed Bernard Klein in on the secret, and for months, the man had been doing every test possible to try to figure out what exactly was going on with Jory's system.

"He compared the cultures he'd taken from both of us, but since I'm still recovering from the kryptonite poisoning, he said that he's not really sure what to use as a baseline for Jory's sample."

It was ironic in a way. Lana Lang had spent years studying his biology. Right now, they needed an expert, and Lana would have been just that.

"What about the PDA?" Lois asked.

One of Dr. Klein's close associates at S.T.A.R. Labs had been working on trying to recover data from Lana's damaged PDA. The turning over of the handheld had been yet another way his world was slowly spiraling out of control. He was powerless, he had been violated and copied, and slowly but surely, his secrets were being shared with more and more people.

The tight circle that he and his parents had formed had been the basis of his identity for so long... that it was disconcerting to have it unravel.

"Not yet. The good news is that Doctor Klein didn't see any evidence of additional cell degeneration in the last two tests. It seems that he's stabilizing for the most part."

"Clark, that *is* good news! Stabilizing... is he sure?"

"For now," Clark answered. Dr. Klein had warned against letting their guards down. "It at least buys the doctors some time -- Lana was crazy, but what she discovered could have revolutionized the biogenetics field."

"Don't do that, Clark."

Lois didn't need to say more for him to understand her meaning. The increased familiarity that time and interaction produced told him that she knew he was hovering around another guilt-trip and that she was telling him to back away from it.

"So the main issue at hand now is his ears, right?" she asked, neatly diverting the subject away from Lana.

Clark sucked in a breath and allowed his mind to follow her segue. "Uh, yes. I asked that we go ahead with the implant."

The line went quiet for a moment. The cochlear implant discussion had come up before, and there had never been a true consensus on the issue. Dr. Klein's working theory was that whatever biological function that made Clark's body heal itself was what was causing Jory's problems with his ears. Dr. Klein compared the process to the hypothetical advancement of nanocites -- the futuristic biological machines that would allow surgeons to perform corrections at the cellular level.

It turned out that there was a deformation in the child's inner ear canal that had become the focus of attention for the regenerative organisms and these were the actions that caused Jory's seizures. The nanocites couldn't permanently fix his ears for some reason, but the occasions when they made headway brought an onslaught of unfamiliar sounds that Jory's brain didn't know how to process... But every time the sounds broke through, the deformation reverted itself, and the process would begin all over again.

There was no guarantee that an implant would be successful and the investigation into evaluating Jory's auditory response to electric stimulation would be invasive, but in his mind, it was the only thing to do. Unfortunately, even his parents weren't as quick to agree as he would have liked.

Clark silently waited to see if this was going to turn into another rehash of that conversation.

He heard Lois sigh. "Well, I've got news too," she said, finally breaking the stalemate. Apparently, she didn't want to bring up old arguments. "We got the Pulitzer. Perry told me today."

"The Pulizter? We won?" he repeated in a daze. It was amazing how life was a mixed deck. It dealt good cards and it dealt bad cards, but most of all, it just kept dealing.

"Yeah, can you believe it? They are awarding it at a ceremony in D.C. in two weeks."

"I need to call my parents," Clark said, still reeling from the news. With his first contact with Wallace Kwolek all those months ago, he'd never imagined a Pulitzer was possible.

He had been a freelance advocacy journalist, traveling the world like a nomad and reporting on events as he went. Then Jory's existence had led to his parents calling him home. His life had changed then, and it was changing again in this moment. Without question, the Pulitzer win would never have occurred if Lois hadn't barged into Perry White's office that day.

He didn't know what to do with that knowledge.

"Well, I'll let you go so you can call them," Lois said, breaking into his thoughts. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't forget about the barbeque tomorrow."

Clark smiled in amusement. "You've been reminding every day for the past week."

"Hey, don't shoot the middle man," she returned lightly. "If you didn't dodge every invite my mother sent your way, I wouldn't have to play bounty hunter... So, I'll come by tomorrow around one, okay?"

"We'll be ready."



*Purity, patience, and perseverance are the three essentials to success, and above all: love.*

-- Swami Vivekananda


When Lois arrived at Clark's apartment the next afternoon, the only one that was ready to go was Jory. The little boy was waiting beside the front door with his shoes on the wrong feet when Clark let her in.

Clark held up a finger and started walking back toward the kitchen. "They're almost done," he threw over his shoulder.

Lois looked down at Jory with a questioning expression. Then with a shrug, she smiled and crouched so she would be face level with him. <Hi, baby.>

Jory grinned and wrapped his arms around her neck, kissing her cheek before laying his head on her shoulder.

Lois kissed his hairline and rose to her feet, settling Jory on her hip while she walked into the kitchen. She knew she didn't have to carry him around, but she usually did for the first few minutes they were together -- she felt that it was their way of saying hello.

"Whoa, what happened in here?" she asked, taking in the numerous mixing bowls and silverware scattered around the cabinet surfaces.

"You never go to a dinner at someone's house without bringing something," Clark replied as he pulled a baking tray out of the oven. "My mother gave me a recipe."

Lois looked at what was on the baking tray and wondered what the recipe was meant to be for. "You made..." -- she made a leap of logic from the general shapes -- "...cookies?"

Clark frowned at the pan as if in question of what they were himself. "Try one," he offered, pointing to a container that held what must have been the first batch.

"Oh... well, okay." She picked a cookie up and held it toward Jory so he could take a bite.

Jory pursed his lips together and ducked his head against her shoulder. Wondering if that was a warning, Lois took a bite.

"Well?" Clark was looking at her expectantly.

She felt her eyes begin to water. "Mmmh."

He looked doubtful. "I'll get you some milk. Cookies always taste better with milk."

"Mh mmmhmmm, mmm." She looked down at Jory to find that his face was scrunched in empathy. Lois decided at that moment that she would always trust the kid first.

Clark handed her a glass of milk and she gladly put the cookie down on the counter so she could accept the drink. After swallowing the bite and taking a long draw from the glass, she put it down next to the cookie.

"How much salt did the recipe call for?" she asked, struggling to keep her face neutral.

"A pinch," Clark answered, looking a little confused.

"And, uh, what does a pinch look like?"

"I don't know. I didn't have any measurement tools for a pinch so I poured."

"Yeah," Lois retorted with an amused snort, "you did."

"So how do they taste?"

Lois arched an eyebrow. "Did you taste them?" When he shook his head, she tried again. "Did you taste the batter?"

"No... See, this is why I don't cook."

Lois laughed at his defeated expression. "Don't give up! It just takes practice... and patience..." She nodded at his expression. "Okay, I see your point. Look, don't worry about it. I'm sure my parents would appreciate us being on time more than us bearing gifts."

Clark frowned and turned to his refrigerator, opening the door and peering inside. "I can't go empty handed."

Lois sighed at the resurgence of the Kent manners. "Okay, how about this. We can stop at LuLu's Diner on the way and get some of their homemade potato salad. It's the best in the city. You don't have to cook it, and we know that everyone will eat it. Win-win."

Clark reluctantly released the refrigerator door. "Okay. Let me just go change my shirt and we can go."

When he had left the room, Lois set Jory on the counter and reached for the Velcro straps on his shoes so she could switch them around. "Give me a warning next time, okay, buddy?" <Bad cookies.>

Jory nodded in agreement. <You food better> he signed, and then made a sign that she hadn't seen before.

From the expression on his face she could take a good guess at what it meant. She made it back and laughed, giving him a conspiratorial wink. "You're absolutely right about that."


Jory ran to the front door of the Lane house with familiar exuberance. When Ellen pulled the door open, he waved happily. <Hi Lois mommy!>

Laughing, Ellen crouched to accept his hug. "Hello, Bug," she said, tickling his neck with her nose.

After they had greeted properly, she released him and stood up. Jory slid past her and ran into the house to find Sam. "And hello to you, Mr. Kent. I'm so glad you could make it."

"It's Clark, please," he requested, reaching out to shake Ellen's hand.

Lois rolled her eyes at the exchange. Ellen liked to challenge Clark's overly polite tendencies when she got the chance. She really couldn't blame her mom, though. Before she had gotten him to relax around her, Lois had often done the same thing. "Clark and Jory brought a dish," Lois entered, holding up the saran-covered serving bowl in offering as Clark stepped inside.

"Well, that was nice of Clark and Jory," Ellen responded with a wide smile. "And what did you bring, Lois?"

Lois gave her mom a look. "Myself."

"Hmmm." Ellen gave her daughter a once over. "I don't know..."

"...and I brought Clark and Jory," Lois amended with a smirk.

"Oh, in *that* case, entrance granted." The older woman waved Lois inside and embraced her in a one armed hug before closing the door. "Everything's set up on the deck. Come on."

When they got to the back door, Lois did a double take. A miniature soccer goal had been set up on the far end of the yard and Jory was kicking a little ball toward it. As she and her mother moved to the patio table, Lois was glad to see that Clark was conversing with her father next to the grill. She laughed to herself at the hopeful thought that he might actually pick up a few pointers.

"What's so funny?" Ellen asked, setting the potato salad on the table and removing the plastic covering.

"Oh, I was just thinking... You know what? It's not important. What can I help you with?"

Ellen turned her head to see what her daughter's gaze had just been focused on. "Well, I need to bring the rest of the stuff out of the kitchen. The drinks are already in the cooler but I've got the wine on ice... oh, and the juice boxes are in the fridge. Here, I'll come with you."

Throughout dinner, Ellen kept an interested eye on her daughter's interactions. Clark had never been around any of the times Lois had brought Jory over, so it surprised her a little to see just how much Lois took care of him when his father was present. She had known that Lois's attachment to the boy was extensive since the first time she'd been introduced to the adorable child.

Lois sat in between Jory and Clark and helped the little boy eat by cutting up his meat and making his plate. Ellen also noticed that Jory seemed to be just as attached to Lois, going to her for his needs even when it meant he had to walk past Clark.

Mentally, Ellen had begun a list of things to rethink on later. There was the way that Lois buttered a roll and placed it on Clark's plate before he had even reached for one. There was the way that Lois fixed Clark's cup of coffee when they were eating dessert after the main meal had finished. And then, there was the way that Lois had risen from the table to stand next to Clark when he returned from taking Jory to the bathroom.

But all of those things flew out of Ellen's head when Lois, standing next to Clark and fondly stroking her fingers through Jory's hair as he perched in his father's arms, said, "We have an announcement to make."

The only response Ellen could give was to lower her spoon and sit up straighter.

Lois's gaze rose to meet Clark's and she smiled a smile that Ellen wasn't sure she had seen on her child before. "We won the Pulitzer for the Cyphren series."

By the time Lois turned to face them, Ellen was breathing again, and Sam, she noticed, was no longer pale.

"That's great, honey," Sam stammered, pushing his chair back so he could stand up. "Congratulations. It's an amazing accomplishment."

Ellen pushed her chair back as well and laughed when Sam embraced Lois in celebration -- apparently Jory hadn't wanted to be left out and was leaning out of Clark's arms so he could join in on the hug. Clark had been forced to move closer so as not to drop him.

Ellen pushed her husband out of the way, and caught Jory as he clambered the rest of the way out of Clark's arms. "Congratulations to both of you," Ellen said, rising to her tiptoes to kiss Clark's cheek and then Lois's. "And of course you too," she told Jory, kissing his nose. "We should celebrate with a game of shootout!"


"What do you have against dishwashers?" Lois asked as she rinsed the plate she had just cleaned and handed it to her mother.

"I don't have anything against them as long as they have two hands and two eyes that they can use to make sure the dishes are no longer dirty," Ellen replied succinctly.

"You have a perfectly good dishwashing machine right here and yet you have me cleaning up after dinner," Lois teased. It was an old argument. Ellen just didn't trust her dishes to a machine.

"*Perfectly good* is a matter of opinion."

Lois chuckled and gazed out of the kitchen window. In the backyard, Jory was trying to kick the little soccer ball past Clark, who was towering above the little goal. Lois rinsed the last plate and handed it to her mother before reaching for another towel to dry her hands. "I'll be right back."

She stopped by the refrigerator before heading through the patio door. "Daddy, you really shouldn't smoke those things," she said as she walked up to the chaise lounge her father was reclining in.

"I'm not smoking it," Sam growled in reply, pulling the unlit cigar to his nose for a sniff. "Your mother allows me to hold one now and then." He saw what she was carrying and smiled. "Is that for me?"

Instead of responding, Lois just smirked and walked to the deck railing. When she caught Clark's attention and waved him over, he signed something to Jory and jogged to her.

"I thought you might be thirsty," she said, handing him the bottle of beer.

"I am, thanks," he answered, accepting the offered drink with a grin. "You would think he'd be tired by now."

Lois tucked her hands in her back pockets and smiled out at the little boy whose capacity for energy seemed to go against the norm. She shook her head. "He's just excited that you're playing with him," she replied softly. She arched an eyebrow and gave him a brief but pointed look before backing away.

When she returned to the kitchen, her mother had a serious expression on her face. "We need to talk."

Lois was caught off guard by the tone. "Oh... okay." Frowning, she copied her mother's pose and leaned against the opposite counter. "What's wrong?"

"Well, for starters, I'm a little confused."

Lois turned that over in her mind for a few moments. "...Confused about?"

Ellen's brow furrowed. "What's going on?"

"That's kind of what I was wondering," Lois replied with an amused chuckle. "I'm sorry. I don't really know what we're talking about."

"We're talking about the fact that you have inserted yourself into a life that's not yours to live."

Lois's eyes widened. "Wait, what? A life that's not mine to live? That doesn't make sense."

Ellen sighed. "We're talking about your partnership with Clark Kent. You've known him for, what, over half of a year?"

Lois nodded distractedly. "Yeah, so?"

"Honey, there's a little boy outside who thinks you're his mother."

Lois looked down, mildly ashamed. She really hadn't fought that as much as she could have. "I know... that's really a misunderstanding. To be fair, I don't think he really thinks that, he just..."

"What happens when his real mother shows up?" Ellen interrupted.

"That's not going to happen..."

"That's not the point I'm trying to make, here, Lois, and I think you know that."

Lois lifted her hands in frustration. "No, Mom. Honestly, I don't have a clue as to what the point is."

"I just don't want to see you get hurt, and this road that you're embarking upon... let's just say that the outlook is not good."

"The outlook? Mom, please speak to me straight without the metaphors and quasi-parables. I don't get it." She had no idea what her mother was trying to say, but the insinuations were right under the surface.

"You're too attached to him."

"Me?! I'm not the one who turned my backyard into a mini-soccer field."

"I never had anyone to play soccer *with*," Ellen countered. "Jory is a delightful little boy and I have never denied loving him."

"Well neither have I!"

"What about his father?"

Lois scoffed. "Clark? He's... my *partner*, Mom."

"Lo, it's obvious that he's more than that."

"Obvious to whom?" Lois took a breath and then lowered her voice. "Because from where I'm standing, you're seeing things that aren't there."

"What I'm *seeing* -- what I have seen over the past six or seven months -- is my daughter investing a whole lot of time into a one-sided affair."


"Okay, maybe that was a poor choice of words," Ellen admitted, crossing the room to stand next to Lois. She reached for her daughter's hands. "You picked out his apartment. You pick up his child from day care and take him home for sleepovers. You spend almost every waking moment with either him or his son. I'm afraid you've lost yourself in this... whatever you think it is."

"He's my partner," Lois said again in a small voice. The whole conversation was throwing her off. There was no way her mother could understand the depth of what she and Clark were dealing with when she didn't know the whole story -- a story she wasn't at liberty to share. "There's nothing more going on than that... and if there *were*, isn't that what you were encouraging back when you first met him?" she shot back in an accusatory manner.

Ellen nodded sadly. "That was months ago, before I knew that he was emotionally unavailable. I think Clark is a charming, polite, and intelligent young man -- I've always thought that -- but he doesn't love you."

Lois unconsciously flinched at the words.

After seeing the motion, Ellen gently placed a hand on the side of Lois's face. "And it doesn't seem to me that he wants to even try," she finished softly.

Lois pulled away from her mother's grasp and crossed her arms over her chest. "It's not about that. It doesn't have anything to do with that. We're not even... *I'm* not even..." She shook her head, unable to find the words to explain what was spiraling wildly through her brain at that instant.

Finally, Lois laughed at the absurdity of the situation. "Mom, this is more complicated than I can explain, and yet the simple explanation is that none of your concerns are warranted. I'm not *losing* myself or *inserting* myself somewhere I'm not supposed to be."

She returned to her mother's side and hugged her. "I know you are trying to look out for me, and I love you for it... but everything is going to be okay. I promise."

Ellen sighed and hugged Lois tightly. "If you say so, sweetie."

Lois pulled away and smiled brightly. "I do! Now, let's talk about D.C. Perry says the hotel where the awards ceremony is being held has a number of rooms blocked off. We shouldn't have a problem reserving a room for you and Dad, but we should make the arrangements as soon as possible." She gave her mom sly look. "You *are* coming, right?"

Ellen mockingly tossed a towel at her. "Of course we're coming."

"Well, you better, because..." Lois started, laughing, as she turned to pick up the towel. Her words and jubilance faltered when she saw the empty beer bottle on the table behind the half wall that divided the kitchen into functional and eating areas. It hadn't been there earlier... which meant that the person who had been carrying the bottle *had*.

"Damn," she muttered, going over to pick it up.

"What's wrong?" Ellen asked.

"Nothing," Lois lied flatly. "I was just thinking that Lucy will probably want to share a room with me."


Lois watched as Clark reached for the seat belt that secured Jory into the booster chair she had bought for her car.

<No. Sleep mommy house.>

Clark sighed. "Let's go, Jory."

<No! Mommy house,> the little boy signed again, leaning away from Clark's hands.

"He's really tired," Lois observed. "He can stay the night with me, Clark. It'll save you from the tantrum."

Clark shook his head curtly.

"You could stay too if you're having separation anxiety, you know," she teased. Her smile died at his furious expression. "I was kidding," she said under her breath.

He leaned further into the back seat and unbuckled Jory's belt. The little boy kicked and wiggled in protest, but he was no match for Clark's own determination.

She sighed and followed as Clark carried Jory into the apartment building. Clark set Jory down when they entered the apartment and immediately the little boy latched onto her legs.

<Mommy house please.>

<Not tonight,> she signed back.

Jory pouted and ran toward the bedroom in tantrum mode.

Lois walked to the living room and sat down. Clark remained standing, a shadowed expression on his face.

"Are we going to talk about it?" Lois asked.

"Talk about what?"

She sighed. She was *so* not in the mood for another one of these conversations tonight. And it had all started out so promising -- a good wholesome family barbeque dinner, excitingly good news to celebrate... "Talk about whatever was on your mind that kept you from speaking to me the entire ride from my parents house," she answered tiredly.

"There's nothing to be said," he retorted.

"Nothing to be said," Lois repeated. "You know, Clark, the trouble with eavesdropping is that you don't get the context or the entire story."

He scoffed. "I got the context, all right, and your mother was right."

Lois's eyes narrowed as she gazed up at him. Suddenly she became aware of what he was leading up to. "Don't do this, Clark." She said it so quietly that it was almost a plea.

He either didn't hear her words or chose to ignore them. "I think it's time we put an end to the charade. It's time for you to get your life back."

"Clark," she said warily as she slowly rose to her feet. "You didn't hear the whole thing."

"Lois," he answered, matching her tone mockingly, "I heard enough to know that this farce has gone too far. I'm ending it. Right here and right now." He fixed her with a deadly serious look -- the one he normally used when he was wearing blue tights and said, "I have no intention of being in love with you."

For the second time that night, Lois felt like she had been slapped with words. "This has nothing to do with love, you..." she closed her mouth before the swear words could come out. "If you hadn't intruded upon a private conversation, you wouldn't be making these baseless assumptions."

"Regardless, they are mine to make. I think it would be best if we only maintained the professional partnership we are supposed to have."

It was like a dagger to her heart. "Don't do this, Clark. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to Jory."

His face became impossibly more emotionless. "Jory is *my* responsibility. I should have been firmer about limiting his interaction with you when he first started to get attached."

"Oh, that's just great," Lois shot back. "You move him across the country, away from the people and places he's known all of his life, and now you want to take him away from the one person who is not afraid of showing him affection."

Clark's eyes narrowed and a muscle in his jaw began to twitch. "You are not his..."

"I know!" Lois closed her eyes sharply, refusing to let the angry tears arise. "I know. Damnit, you don't have to be so cruel."

"Yeah, I kinda do." He crossed his arms over his chest as if to emphasize the emotional withdrawal he was stimulating. "I need you to get the picture so you don't keep coming back."

"Wow... that is just... wow." She hadn't realized what an ass he really could be. It left her unnaturally speechless. "There are no words... After *everything*, this is how you thank me?"

He looked genuinely surprised. "Thank you? I never asked you for anything! You pushed your way into my life. You pushed me, you pushed Superman, you pushed Jory..."

"Wait a minute, *I* pushed Jory?" She tilted her head to the side incredulously. "Who was the one that gave the go ahead on the implant?"

Clark took a step forward. "The implant? I'm trying to *fix* him!" he declared angrily.

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Lois countered, meeting his posture and tone. "He's your *responsibility* and you want to *fix* him. It's not the implant that I have a problem with, Clark. It's your attitude."

"My attitude?" he repeated in disbelief. "I want him to get the cochlear implant so that he will be able to hear. That's optimism, Lois, in case you didn't know."

"You can call it whatever the hell you want to, but that doesn't mean that it's what it is! News flash, Smallville. Jory's not your *responsibility*, he's your son. And until you can suck up that deterministic 'always the victim' complex, you will *never* be able to give him what he deserves."

Heated, she turned to walk away but didn't make it two steps before she came back to finish her train of thought. "And as for *fixing* him. Let's call it what it really is -- not optimism, but guilt. You don't say it, but I know why you won't allow yourself to get attached to him. You're afraid that he won't make it, and you can't stomach caring enough for someone because of the risk in losing them. You want him to get that implant so you can say that you did something to help him fit into your tweaked definition of normal before he died."

Lois felt the heat rise in her face but was unable to stop now that she had broken open the dam. "Optimism would be believing that he won't be the time bomb you think of him as."

She felt a flicker of satisfaction at the surprised expression that flashed across his facial features. She knew him *so* much better than what he was aware of.

"Optimism," she continued, "would be thinking that he has enough time left that a rash decision doesn't need to be made. It's so much more than just being able to hear, and you know that," she admonished. "He already has a language, a language you didn't even want to acknowledge. He doesn't need you to *fix* his hearing, Clark. He needs you to accept and love him for who he is."

Emotionally spent, she allowed her posture to sag and looked up at him.

"Are you done?" he asked flatly, and Lois could see that nothing she had said had even made a dent.

"Yeah," she muttered. "And so are we."

She called to Clark as he began moving toward the front door. "I mean it, Clark. This is it. I can't keep doing the carousel with you."

After a moment, he broke the lock of their gazes and pulled the front door open. Stepping to the side, he used his free hand to make a gallant gesture toward the opening. "Then, by all means, allow me to help you get off of the ride."



*We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.*

--Charles Peguy


After returning from his lunch break, Clark navigated his way through the newsroom until he reached his new workstation. By the time he had arrived at the Planet on Monday morning, his desk had been moved from Lois's corner. By Wednesday, he had officially become the floor pariah. It appeared that when the tension occurred between he and Lois, her seniority and familiarity earned her home court advantage.

It also hadn't helped any that their faces were plastered all over the city on posters and billboards. There was even a life-size cutout in the lobby extolling the wondrous bankability of their 'golden' partnership.

Without looking up from the papers on his desk, Clark addressed the person that was hovering a few feet behind him. "If you have something to say, say it -- if not, then there's really no use in you standing there."

Jimmy Olsen shifted his weight awkwardly as he contemplated going about his business. Almost as an afterthought, he sucked in a breath and walked around to the front of Clark's desk. Clark had been getting more and more acerbic by the day -- the glimpses of personality that had won over most of the staff had started to fade back into the stiff and reserved persona that he had arrived in Metropolis with.

"What is it, Jimmy?" Clark asked, sighing and finally looking up at his visitor.

"I, uh... Listen, CK, I know that things have gone kind of polar around here since you and Lois... well, stopped being you and Lois." The younger man cleared his throat at the hard look he was rewarded with for his attempt at humor. "Yeah, ok, so... I just wanted to let you know that it'll pass. Right now, it's like a divorce -- you know, the big debate over who gets the house, the kids... the friends."

Jimmy turned slightly and made a gesture toward the newsroom at large. "Any other time, most of them are jealous of Lois, but in a spot, she's one of them. You know what I'm saying?"

"Sure. You're saying that my presence boosts her appeal. That's my career aspiration -- I can now die happy," Clark returned flatly.

Jimmy looked disappointed and hurt at the same time. "Right. I just wanted to let you know that I'm here. If you need anything, just... shout or... whatever." Shaking his head, the young copy boy turned and walked away.

Clark thought about the look that had been on Jimmy's face and closed his eyes. He was disappointed in himself too. The slide back into this personality was comfortable -- natural, even -- and yet the ease with which he was putting up those walls was alarming.

But this was what he wanted... Wasn't it?

In the end, Clark decided that ultimately, it didn't matter. He had responsibilities and he had to take care of them the best way he knew how. His only saving grace was the fact that without a super alter-ego to worry about, he had one less anxiety left on his plate.

Taking a curious glance around the newsroom, he frowned slightly when he noticed that Lois was in a heated conversation with their boss.

He sighed and amended his previous thought. Two less. Lois was no longer his concern either.

And that was definitely what he wanted.



"Your father and I are flying out Friday morning -- you said you would be there Thursday night, right?"

"Thursday afternoon."

Samuel Lane's eyes narrowed briefly as he heard the hint of panic that had entered his daughter's tone. They'd finished the dinner's main courses and were now standing outside on the deck drinking coffee. In accordance with the family's unspoken law, there had been no discussion of work topics during the meal, and now that they were done eating, this was the first time they were approaching a work-related conversation.

And, Sam thought curiously, it was causing his oldest daughter to... well... twitter.

Ellen continued to speak. "Thursday," she repeated happily. "Well, that gives you a little time to rest before the awards ceremony on Friday night." The older woman's face brightened as an idea came to her. "You know what? You should call your cousin! The two of you could have dinner. She is coming to the ceremony, isn't she?"

"Uh, actually, she's going to be out of town this weekend," Lois replied.

Ellen's face scrunched in disappointment. "That's too bad. It's not every day we get out to D.C."

"Lucy's flight gets in after ours so we'll pick her up and all come to the banquet hall together," Sam announced before taking another sip from his cup. "So, Lo, how *is* work?"

An aggravated expression flickered across Lois's visage, but true to form, she fixed it before it had been there long enough to register. "Fine."

Sam glanced over to his wife, but since she had been inspecting a potted fern, she had missed the look on their daughter's face.

"Fine?" Ellen straightened and turned with a proud smile. "That has got to be an understatement for someone who just learned a week ago that she won a *Pulitzer* for distinguished achievement in journalism."

"It's just an award, Mom," Lois answered quietly while shaking her head.

This time, Ellen's gaze was waiting when Sam glanced at her. He raised his eyebrows to convey his own confused concern.

"Just an award? Honey, it's the highest honor..."

"It's *just* an award, Mom," Lois forcibly interrupted.

Lois placed her coffee cup down on the thick wooden deck banister, but not before Sam noticed the slight shaking in her hand. She turned away from both of her parents and leaned against the railing.

Ellen seemed to be taking a moment to recover from Lois's mood so Sam cleared his throat. "It doesn't sound to me like work is fine. What's wrong?"

Lois scoffed. "What's wrong? Nothing's wrong." She turned her head to smirk in her father's direction. "Why would anything be wrong?"

"Because you're being a smartass."


He gave his wife a semi-apologetic look but turned a hard eye on Lois. "Whatever your problem is, Lois, it doesn't mean that you take it out on everyone else."

He saw her jaw tighten and sighed under his breath. Sometimes he forgot how like him she was.

"You asked. I answered. I'm sorry if that makes me a smartass."

... And then other times, he was reminded how like him she was.


Lois uncrossed her arms and turned to face her mother. "Oh, and Mom, I'm sorry if I can't drum up a sufficient amount of enthusiasm for some piece of tin and a paper certificate that has made my life a living hell."

Ellen's expression steeled as she reeled back from her daughter's outburst. "Lois, what are you talking about?"

"I don't know. Have you seen the commercials? The billboard? Or better yet, what about the full page layout in the front section of the Planet -- *every day* this week?"

"So, your place of employment's attempt at celebrating the accomplishments of two of its own is your problem?" the confused mother asked.

"My problem? No, my problem is that it's a lie."

Sam frowned. "The Pulitzer is a lie?"

"Not the award," Lois exclaimed with raised hands. "The partnership! Lois and Clark -- Lane and Kent. Truth and lies." She pushed away from the deck railing and started to stalk toward the patio door.

Ellen reached for her arm before she could get past them. "Did something happen between you and Clark?"

Lois laughed dryly. "I haven't talked to Clark in a week, that kind of prevents anything from happening, don't you think? We don't work together anymore, I haven't seen Jory, and there is no partnership... in *any* sense of the word. I'm not even sure there ever was." She gave her mother a wild smile. "So all of your concerns last week -- the whole life where there is no life spiel -- are null and void. I told you there was nothing there. Happy? My life is my own."

Lois blinked and seemed to mentally lower her hackles. "You know what? I'm really tired. I'm sorry. It's been a long week. Thanks for dinner."

Sam stepped up behind his wife and put his hands on her shoulders as they watched their daughter disappear into the house.

When they heard the front door slam shut, Ellen turned her head to look over her shoulder at her husband in awe. After sharing a look for a few seconds, her expression morphed into one of comprehension. "Oh."

Ellen pulled away so she could turn around and face him fully. "Oh, my... But last week... I mean, I thought maybe... but she was so adamant!" She met Sam's gaze again. "You don't think that what I said... I mean, I just chocked it off to over-maternal instinct..."

She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Oh, no." When she opened her eyes again, resignation was now mixed in with the comprehension. "I didn't realize."

Sam smiled sympathetically and reached for his wife's hands, placing them on his chest. "If it's any consolation, dear, I don't think she realizes it either."


Lois stood in the middle of her living room with her hands on her hips. She was so amped up that it was taking all of her focus to just stand still.

At the sound of her cell phone ringing she relaxed her posture and rolled her head around to stretch her neck. Then she let out a breath and moved to the couch to get the phone from her purse. From the ringtone, she knew who it was.

"Hey, Luce."

"Hey, sis. How was dinner?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Did Mom tell you to call me?"

She heard Lucy chuckle softly. "Actually, no. It was more like what she *didn't* say that alerted me to the fact that I needed to call you."

"I'm just a little stressed and got hyper-stimulated from the after-dinner espresso. That's all."

"Wow. That's some self-diagnosis."

"Yeah, well, it's been quite a week at work. I had a story go down in flames and the award hoopla just makes things tense. The rule is: you're only as good as your next story, but if your last story was a major pull, then your next one is only good if it's better..."

"Okay! Slow down. I get it!" Lucy entered. "Lay off the espresso."

Lois let out a slow breath and dropped down to sit on the sofa. "You're telling me."

"So what's this really about?"

"I told you..."

"Right, caffeine and awards -- got it. That's the cover story, but I think the root of it is my nephew."

Lois blinked. "Your what?"

"My nephew," Lucy responded, simply, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. "You know, the adorable dark headed toddler that I get weekly updates from our mother about. I just figured that you'd adopted him."

Lois was surprised by a couple of things. First was the fact that her mother had been telling Lucy about Jory -- her mother was more attached than Lois had realized. Second was the fact that just talking about him hurt so much -- Lois missed him more than she had realized.

...So much so that she found herself unable to speak.

Lucy was using the word adoption as a joke, but for some reason it had shaken Lois's core.

"Lo? You there?"

Lois cleared her throat. "Yeah."

The line was quiet for a moment as Lucy seemed to know that Lois needed it.

"So, what happened?" the younger woman asked softly.

Lois closed her eyes and leaned back into the couch. "You know Mom. She got some crazy idea in her head -- she voiced it, Clark overheard all the worst parts -- then we argued. End of story."


"What does 'huh' mean?"

"Just that I don't think that's the end of the story."

Lois let out another sigh.

Lucy apparently thought that was a sign of admission. "What exactly was Mom's crazy idea?"

Lois opened her eyes so she could roll them. "Mom..." She scoffed and started again. "She pulls me aside with this crazy talk about how I need to mind my own business. She figured that with me spending so much of my time with Clark and Jory, I was taking away from her chances of having grandchildren."

On the other end of the line, Lucy snorted. "Mom actually said that?" she asked with a doubtful tone.

Lois moved her jaw in indignation. "It was what she *intoned*."

"Intoned, Lois?"

"It's what she wanted to say, Lucy. She was going on and on about how I was wasting my time, that he was emotionally unavailable, and that I was basically the nanny -- *all* while not hearing me when I tried to tell her that Clark was my *partner*, that it was complicated, and that I wasn't in love with him. I mean, come on, Luce. I work with him -- there are rules -- *I* have rules against that."

"I know you do," Lucy answered quietly.

Lois went on, "And a freaking nanny? What *is* that? She loves that kid just as much as I do but I don't call her out as Mary Poppins!"

"So what was the fight about?"

Lois's rant stuttered to a halt. "Clark felt that Mom was right. That I -- apparently -- needed his size 15s to show me the way to get a life."

"You know his shoe size?"

"It's a generalization, Lucy," Lois drawled.

...There was no need to admit that it was also fact.

"He ended your partnership?"

"Yes. No... It was mutual."

"Wait, let me get this straight. He overheard Mom's warning about the emotional stuff and then you both decided to no longer work together... or to be friends."

"Right -- because according to Mother, I am too attached to Jory, and according to Clark, Jory is too attached to me. That's a problem for Clark because it somehow threatens his own ability to parent his kid -- if he's in fact even decided to step up and do that," she ended under her breath.

"You Maguired it."

"I *what* it?"

Lucy laughed. "Maguire -- as in Jerry. Tom Cruise and that chick who squints all the time. You know..."

Lois frowned. She didn't like where this was going. "Renee Zellweger."

"Yes! Bridget Jones -- I don't know how I forgot that."

"So I'm Renee?" Lois asked.

"No, you're Tom. You love the kid but it's not enough to sustain the relationship."

Lois pulled the phone away to momentarily stare at it in confusion. "You mean *partnership*," she corrected when the phone was back to her ear.

"No, I said what I meant."

"See, that's where your theory falls flat, Dr. Lane -- if it weren't already busted, that is. There's no relationship -- *was* no relationship -- between us. I love the kid -- and *that* should have been enough for that."

"Well, *that* was the problem. You like eggs but don't want the chicken."

Lois tried to follow that logic but got lost. "If you're going to keep talking in parables, we're done. I don't need the psych-babble tonight -- I want to talk to my sister."

"Okay! Sorry. Look -- what I'm saying is, you can't have one without the other. You love Jory unabashedly and unconditionally but deny any feelings toward his father. In Clark's mind, something had to give."

"He doesn't... he didn't... It wasn't like that. You don't know him. If we were on the same page with anything, it was that. Neither of us was looking for love. Ever. I mean, he flat out said it, so even if it were a possibility, it wasn't a possibility."


Lois took a breath. "What I'm trying to say is... it wasn't like that."

"You said that already," Lucy pointed out.

"It's complicated."

"You already said that too."

"Lucy... We worked together, we worked *well* together. Hell, we even argued well together, but it wasn't formed to be some epic... whatever -- it was just what it was, and that was okay."

The younger Lane was quiet for a minute. "Oh, hell!"

Lois frowned at her sister's sudden exclamation. "What?"


"Lucy... I have no qualms about hanging up on you right now." Lois heard her sister sigh and again had a feeling that she wasn't going to like where this was going. If Lucy was hesitating on revealing her thoughts to her then there was probably good reason to not hear them... yet, curiosity and all... "Spill."

"Okay, I'll tell you, but first you have to promise me that you won't do anything rash."


"As in spontaneously bad."

"Lucy." Lois narrowed her eyes, wishing her sister was actually present instead of on the phone. ...That way she could wring her neck.

"No, Lois, I'm serious. What I'm about to say is really something that should be part of a physical sister intervention, not a phone call..." Lucy must have been thinking the same thing about their proximity. "...But I know if I don't say it you're going to hound me because you know there is something I have to say. I'll be there on Friday, and then we can do the whole sister hash-out, okay?"

"You're babbling," Lois announced, ignoring the fact that she had done the same numerous times during the phone call.

"Promise -- nothing rash."

"Whatever, Luce. Now spill."

"Okay. I was just thinking about the Jerry Maguire thing, and how your situation fit the beginning of the movie... then it hit me. You fit the end as well."

And they were back to the parables. "The end? I don't get it? He loves the kid, they break up..."

...And then he comes back.

Lois's mind froze. "Don't say it."

Lucy knew she had figured it out... and Lois's expected reaction was what had caused her earlier exclamation. "You can't hide from it, Lois. Not now that you know."

"I don't know anything," Lois replied succinctly. "And neither do you."

"Lois, I know you never thought it would happen... in fact, I'm pretty sure you did everything to prevent it from happening, but sometimes..."

"*Don't* say it," Lois cautioned again.

"Lois, you're in love with him. Suck it up and deal with it."

Lois responded by hanging up the phone.



Lois checked the clock on her computer screen to see if it were time for her to go home. She'd been having a bad day... for an entire week. She had spent the morning counting the hours until she could leave because once she did, her work week would essentially be over. She was looking forward to getting on that plane the following afternoon and leaving Metropolis and all of its problems behind.

What had started at her parent's house and in her conversation with her sister on Sunday night had extended into her Monday, Tuesday, *and* Wednesday. First of all, she blamed her mother for planting seeds about some nonexistent love affair that she supposedly had with her work partner. Secondly, she blamed Lucy for siding with their mother and buying into the absurdity of the idea.

Finally, she blamed herself -- for not having seen it all coming. Everyone else seemed to have.

Lois lived her life reading signs and stringing together pieces of information in order to spell out full stories. As luck would have it, where she was an expert in reading other people, she had totally been blind to what was going on in her own deceitful heart. She was a traitor. She had betrayed herself.

Falling in love was something Lois had scheduled to do on her own time. There was a process she was supposed to follow -- a twelve step plan, even -- and the very first rule to having a plan was that you had to follow it.

And now, it was as if someone had taken her plan, put it on a marksman's target, and shot it to hell.

She didn't want to be in love with Clark Kent, he didn't *deserve* for her to have fallen in love with him... and yet, somewhere along the timeline of meeting his parents and getting him to accept his powers and his purpose she had slipped -- and fallen head over heels.

She had fallen in love with the smile that he'd finally started to use with ease. With the vulnerability that only she had been privy to see. She had seen the amazing things he could do, the amazing extent of his desire to right the wrongs of the world... and then she had seen the evil that had taken that all away.

She knew he had trust issues -- she *understood* his trust issues, and yet she had somehow found a way to slip beyond those walls and draw out the real person who lived behind them. And in slipping beyond those walls, she had unconsciously lowered her own.

She was irrevocably in love with Clark Kent.

That thought caused her to sigh out loud.

She had the irrational urge to swivel around in her chair so she could scan the newsroom but knew there would be no way she could do it without her intentions being obvious. Not that the act would have mattered -- he wasn't there.

In fact, *he* hadn't been around for more than a few minutes at a time each day that week. Somehow, in addition to stabbing her in the heart, Fate had stabbed her in the back. Not only was she mending a broken heart that shouldn't have ever been in jeopardy, her work -- what should have been her release -- was, well... not working.

None of her sources were coming through, she couldn't safely seek out leads on the Luthor front, and none of her rainy day folders were looking feasible. It was as if the bottom of everything had fallen out at once, and what made the entire thing unbearable was the fact that she was suffering alone. Clark's continual disappearing act -- Superman was incapacitated at the moment so it wasn't that -- meant that he actually *was* getting some work done.

The inside-outness of her world should have infuriated her. The fact that Clark was active and she wasn't should have kicked her into action. She should have been motivated to carpe diem, to never give in, to give one for the gipper -- and all the other "go-fight-win" sayings -- but she was actually relieved to sit back and not have to fight against the stream for one day... okay, for three days... in her life.

The good part was that Clark's being out working meant that he wasn't in the newsroom where they would have had to actively avoid each other. The week before had been hard enough. It was much easier to steer clear of someone who wasn't around to evade.

The bad part was that it gave her plenty more time to idly sit and wonder just when, where, and how her heart had jumped from her chest and started making its own alliances.

"Lois, the tribe has spoken," she muttered to herself in disgust.

She was the walking epitome of all of the characters who had skipped down the Yellow Brick Road. Her brain went one way while her heart went another; she was running from her own tail and all of it left her feeling like she was baseless -- falling through the sky and wondering if she'd ever find her way home.

Lois picked up her cell phone when a beeping sound alerted her to the fact that she'd missed a call -- something that wasn't surprising since she'd turned her ringer off... purposely. Sighing at the identity of the caller, she pressed the keys to access her voicemail.

"Okay, maybe 'suck it up' wasn't the best way to end our conversation last time, so I'm apologizing," Lucy's voice began. "I'm actually thinking that the tough-love approach was a little strong-armed given the situation. I mean, this is a whole new world for you and I should have realized that... but it's been three days, Lois. Knowing you as I do, I know that even while you refuse to talk to me, you *are* listening to your voicemail. So listen when I say this: it's not going away, Lo. By this time you have realized that I was right about the love thing, so know that I'm right about the deal-with-it thing. The longer you put it off, the more it's going to hurt like a witch... Okay, I'll see you in a few days. Love ya."

Lois thumbed off the phone and dropped it onto her desk.

She contemplated her sister's words and wondered if there were actual progressive levels to hurting like a witch. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to that question.

Taking another look at the clock, Lois decided that it was time to go regardless. Just sitting at her desk watching time and life -- or something like it -- pass her by wasn't worth it to her or her employer.

Standing, Lois began gathering her things together so she could leave.



*Above all, let who you are, what you are, what you believe, shine through every sentence you write, every piece you finish.*

--John Jakes


Escaping from yet another round of celebratory handshakes and small talk, Lois exited into the hallway and made her way toward the bathroom suites. An evening and a day spent alone in the midst of monuments and history had elevated her mood considerably. The Pulitzer Committee had timed the awards ceremony to coincide with the weekend of the Newseum's -- a new museum dedicated to news and journalism -- Grand Opening. Arriving in town on Thursday had allowed her the opportunity to tour the new museum with few people around.

The words of the First Amendment were etched into the granite exterior wall next to the museum's entrance. Running her hand along the definitive words had reminded Lois of the reason she had fallen in love with journalism in the first place. Those words were the reason she was here.

Lost in those thoughts, Lois didn't notice the man standing at the bay window near the restrooms until he spoke.


Blinking to attention, Lois turned away from the bathroom entrance. "Mr. Kent," she said in surprise. "Hello." She glanced around in silent question.

"Martha's in the bathroom," Jonathan replied with a shrug. Little wrinkles appeared around the older man's eyes as he smiled at her. "Congratulations."

Lois shrugged awkwardly. As much as she had heard them throughout the day, it was still hard to take the effusive compliments. "Thank you," she said quietly.

That exchange seemed to exhaust their conversation. There was more that she wanted to say, but she had never really felt as if Clark's father had ever approved of her. For all she knew, he shared Clark's opinion that she had pushed her way into their lives unwarranted.

"Actually, I think I'm the one who should be thanking you," Jonathan said.

"Me? What did I... I don't understand."

Jonathan looked away for a moment and Lois saw a number of emotions cross his face. This man was not one for large speeches but he said plenty without speaking.

"He's not that hard to love," she said softly, placing a hand on the man's arm. "He's an amazing little boy."

"Lois? I was hoping we would get to see you!"

Smiling widely at the sound of Martha Kent's voice, Lois turned to greet the woman who was coming out of the restroom and froze. She had expected the possibility of seeing Clark's parents at the ceremony, but seeing the tuxedo-clad little boy cradled in Martha's arms left her speechless.

<Hi, Jory,> she signed, taking a small step toward them.

His eyes never leaving her, the child laid his head against his grandmother's shoulder.

Martha rubbed his back and continued to walk over to where Lois and Jonathan were standing. "You'll have to understand he's been a little withdrawn lately..." Martha's words trailed off as if she were waiting for Lois to step in with an explanation.

Lois frowned. It didn't seem as if Clark had told his parents about what had happened between them two weeks before. She looked at Martha sadly. "I haven't been able to come and see him..." she offered evasively.

Stepping close enough so that she could stroke Jory's hair, Lois tried signing to him again. <Hi, baby.>

Jory straightened and frowned at her. <Me bad?>

Lois's eyes widened and she shot a glance at Martha in shared confusion. <No. Never.>

<Why you leave me?>

Steeling herself against the surge of emotion that accosted her, Lois made a fist and rubbed it in a circle over her chest. <Sorry. Very, very sorry.>

Jory watched her hands for a brief moment before reaching out to be held. Lois gathered him into her arms without a thought to the potential wrinkles the action would bring to her evening gown.

"How is everything going?" Lois asked, attempting to sound light and unworried.

"Well, there has been..."

"Dad, can you and Mom take Jory back into the ballroom please? They are getting ready to begin."

Lois looked up to see Clark standing a little distance away with a steely expression on his face.

"But, Clark..." Martha began.

"Please, Mom," he interrupted. "I would like to speak to Lois for a moment."

After noticing a concerned look flash across Jonathan's face, Lois tilted her head warily and gently lowered Jory so he could stand on the floor. Martha took his hand and he waved happily as the two adults escorted him down the hall.

"I would appreciate it if you would keep your distance from him tonight. He was finally starting to make some progress," Clark said evenly.

Pushing her hair behind her ear, Lois scoffed. "Why would you bring him here if you didn't want to chance our running into each other? I hadn't even expected it."

Clark's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "Both of my parents wanted to be here tonight and I didn't feel comfortable just leaving him with anyone." After a brief pause in which neither of them spoke, he turned to leave. "I'll do my part in making sure there are no more run-ins."

At the sight of his back, Lois felt suddenly disoriented. "Sometimes I think that you are deliberately out to hurt me," she said as he walked away. "And then sometimes I think you're out to hurt yourself."

Clark's steps halted but he didn't turn around.

Encouraged, Lois continued speaking, "It's like you want to tear down any redeemable quality you have so that people will treat you the way you think you deserve to be treated." She took a tiny step toward him. "I've been doing a lot of thinking -- as you can probably imagine -- and a lot of reflection. In fact, I was remembering what you said... what your exact words were."

Another inch forward.

"You said that you had no *intention* of falling in love with me. At the time the semantics didn't register. Intention infers deliberation -- a purpose and a plan. It says nothing about something that has already happened."

One more step.

"I had no *intention* of falling in love with you either, Clark," she said to his back. "It doesn't change the fact that I did, though. And I think that it's the same for you. So I guess that it really wasn't what you said -- it was what you didn't say..."

At this point the distance between them was only a few steps but Lois didn't move to close it. He still wasn't facing her, or making any move to do so.

"I think you got scared... Clark, turn around." She was getting agitated by his non-response. "Turn around and tell me one way or the other. Do you love me?"

As the silence expanded from a few seconds to thirty, Lois began to get anxious. Unable to guess the meaning of the tense standoff, she pushed again. "*Are* you in love with me?"

"This is beneath you, Lois. It really is. I'm asking you nicely to leave my family alone." With that, he walked away without sparing her a glance.

Lois angrily set her jaw when she felt a tear catch in the corner of her eye. She was not going to cry. She was not going to ruin her mascara over something like this.

When blinking caused the tear to dislodge from its precarious position, she turned and stalked to the door of the restroom, resolving that she was just going to have to fix her makeup.

He hadn't even turned around.


Sam Lane watched curiously as a waiter carried a drink tray out of the ballroom's doors and into the hallway. His attention refocused as his wife returned to his side. "Find her?"

Ellen shook her head. "There are a *lot* of people here," she explained, still peering into the crowd.

The rest of the Lane family had arrived a little late to the ceremony and hadn't yet been able to locate Lois. Once he and Ellen had picked Lucy up from the airport, they had gone to the hotel to change clothes. Even after living with them for years, he did not know why it took women so long to get ready.

Once the emcee had announced a slight intermission before starting the next round of awards, they had begun to search the crowd for any signs of Lois while the lights were up.

"Nothing," Lucy informed them, arriving from the crowd at their back. She looked worried for a moment. "This is the right place, isn't it?"

Sam frowned as the sight of something odd was revealed to him by the shifting crowd. "I would say yes unequivocally, but then again, I'd never expect to see a toddler at a 4 hour long banquet."

"What are you talking about?" Ellen asked, straining her neck to see what he was looking at. Her confused expression suddenly cleared and she squinted for a better look. "That's Jory! Those must be Clark's parents. Come on."

Sam and Lucy dutifully followed as Ellen approached the two people flanking the young boy. When Jory noticed them, his hands waved in a communiqué that Sam didn't understand. The sound of Ellen's laughter informed him that she, on the other hand, did catch it.

"Hello to you too," Ellen said to him, leaning down to reciprocate the hug.

Sam patted the boy's head and turned to shake the hand of the other man. "Samuel Lane," he said. "This is my wife Ellen and our daughter Lucy. We're friends of your grandson's," he joked.

"Jonathan Kent," the other man replied with a twinkle in his eye. "And this is my wife Martha. Any friend of Jory's is a friend of ours."

Ellen and Lucy both reached out for handshakes in greeting as Sam moved around them to greet Martha. He ended up having to shake Jory's hand twice, as the little boy felt the need to get in on the ritual.

"It's nice to meet you," Martha offered. "Lois and I once had lunch at your hospital."

"Well it would be nice if we could find her," Lucy piped. "I've been trying to scope her out in the midst of all these people and I don't even know what color her dress is."

Jonathan frowned in surprise. "We saw her about an hour ago near the restrooms. She was wearing a deep burgundy gown. I'm surprised you haven't seen her..."

"Jonathan and I left her speaking with Clark," Martha added.

Sam caught the look that Ellen gave him and reciprocated it.

"Is something wrong?" Martha asked. Apparently she had seen the look as well.

"Is he still with her?" Ellen asked.

Martha shook her head. "No, he's been with us for quite a while. He just went to get us some drinks."

"By the bathrooms, right?" Lucy asked as she readied to leave.

Sam stopped her by placing a hand on her shoulder. He looked at his wife again. "I'll go."

Ellen nodded and released a light sigh. "Okay."

Sam turned away from four sets of worried eyes and made his way toward the ballroom exit. When he arrived at the door to the women's bathroom, he hesitated briefly before walking inside.

As expected, he found Lois sitting in one of the plush chairs that decorated the small lounge area that separated the outside door from the bathroom proper. She was nursing a glass of amber liquid.

"Whatca doin', Lane?" he asked gruffly.

He almost laughed at the startled look on her face when she raised her head. It reminded him of the time he had caught her testing cocktail mixes at his home bar when she was 18.

"Daddy! This is the *ladies* room," she whispered vehemently.

Sam moved to sit on the adjacent chair and shifted it so he could see her clearly. "Correction, this is the ladies *lounge*. I don't think I will offend any female sensibilities by being in the equivalent of a living room." He gestured to the two doors bracketing the room. They were cut off from the actual location of stalls and sinks.

As if to emphasize his statement, the door leading to the bathroom opened and two women stepped through. They only hesitated slightly at the sight of a man in the lounge before continuing through the door to the hall.

"See," he said, shrugging. "No big deal to see a dude in a pink chaise. You know, in Europe even the bivvies are co-ed." He reached across and took the glass from his daughter, taking a long drink before setting it down on the table next to him. "So, are you in here toasting yourself, or attempting to get toasted?"

Lois closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the cushions. "I'm desensitizing."

Sam nodded. Given the way she had been sipping her drink, he was not concerned for her sobriety. "I don't know if I tell you this enough, kiddo, but I am extremely proud of you. Extremely proud."

She waved a hand dismissively in the air. "It's just an award, Dad."

Sam reached over and captured her hand, holding it until she opened her eyes to look at him. "Maybe so," he said, "but I'm not talking about the Pulitzer, even though I'm proud of that too. What I meant was I am proud of you for the woman you are. The one you are when you're chasing justice, and the one you are when you're not. *You*, Lois Lane, are my daughter and I need nothing more than that as a reason."

Lois's brow wrinkled and she quickly looked away. "Daddy..."

"You were always so driven when you were little," Sam continued, ignoring her impending protest. "If there was something that you wanted, you would somehow find a way to get it. Like a Terrier on a pant leg, you wouldn't stop holding on until the outcome was the way you wanted it to be. It scared me."

That caused her to look at him in confusion and he chuckled. "It scared me to think that there would be a day when you would want something and go after it, only to find that it's not yours to have."

Her expression flattened and he felt bad for having caused it, but knew he needed to finish. "There is *nothing* wrong with loving someone. In fact, it is the most courageous and selfless thing you can do. It doesn't detract from your character, it builds on it and extends it. Having the capacity to truly open yourself to another person's soul shows strength and compassion, and you have amazed me with that capacity."

Moving from his chair, Sam squatted in front of her and moved his head so that she was forced to meet his gaze. This beautiful woman in the elegant and sleek dress was just his little girl.

"Lois, sometimes having the drive and the passion is not enough. You can't love him enough to make up for him not loving you." He noticed a flicker of doubt cross her face and readied himself for a denial or a rebuttal. It didn't come, and her expression shifted into one of determined resignation.

"I know," she finally said after a full minute of silence. "Thanks, Daddy."

Finding no trace of hesitance or sadness in her gaze, Sam nodded. "Any time." He rose to his feet and offered her his hand. "Now come on. They're getting ready to announce your award."


Clark saw Lois and her father enter the darkened ballroom from the door on the other side of the stage and felt an unexpected surge of relief. The presentation of the award for Investigative Journalism was next and he had feared having to accept it alone. If there was anything he didn't like more than feeling vulnerable, it was being put on the spot.

...And then there was just the fact that the sight of her always brought with it a sense of calm.

"And now, for the final presentation of the evening, the award for investigative reporting is awarded to the Daily Planet for the paper's article series on the fall of Cyphren Chemical Corporation which in turn spurred EPA reform efforts. Accepting the award are the authors of the series, the Daily Planet's star reporting team of Lois Lane and Clark Kent."

Clark rose from his seat in the front row and met Lois's eyes as the applause began. She gave him a curt nod and moved toward the stage after kissing her father on the cheek. Straightening his tie, Clark sighed and moved toward the stairway to the stage that was closest to him.

They ended up approaching the presenter from opposite ends of the stage and meeting in the middle. Clark shook the man's hand and accepted the navy leather folder with a golden image of the Pulitzer medal embossed on its cover. A blown-up image of one of their photo shoot images appeared on the screen behind the podium. Even though it had been staged, it looked incredibly natural. In the photo, Clark was seated behind a desk typing at a computer while Lois leaned over his shoulder pointing at something on the screen.

Clark flicked a glance at Lois and thought he might have imagined the slight tightening around her eyes. He gestured to the podium and muttered, "After you."

"Of course," she said flatly before turning from the photo and grinning brightly at the audience. "Thank you," she started, signaling to the audience to stop clapping. "Wow, this is great... I mean, I knew we'd won before I climbed the stairs to the stage, so I should have been expecting this, but when you're up here, it's..." She turned slightly to indicate the elaborate setup with a wave of her arm. Smiling widely and shaking her head, she turned back to the podium and leaned forward as if telling the crowd a secret. "...It's a dream come true."

The audience began clapping again, and she lifted a hand. "There are a few people I would like to mention, because without them this story would never have been written, and change never would have been accomplished. First, thanks to Perry White, Franklin Stern, and everyone at the Daily Planet, for producing a newspaper with integrity and commitment to the truth. I also want to thank those people whose assistance in gathering the various facts in this story was invaluable."

She arched an eyebrow and tilted her head while studying the audience. "I don't give out my sources," she warned, earning laughter from the audience, "but they know who they are and know that this award is as much theirs as it is mine. Finally, thanks goes to Dr. Wallace Kwolek, whose decision to come forward as David against a Goliath named Cyphren reminds us all that *each* of us has the opportunity, and even the responsibility, to step up and not sit quietly by as injustice takes place."

As the applause began again, Clark saw that Lois started to take a step back but hesitated. Her head turned slightly and she looked up at the picture again. Narrowing his eyes, Clark wondered what she about to do.

Stepping forward again, Lois cleared her throat. "Sorry. I'll be brief but there's something else I need to say." She swallowed and then her posture straightened, as if she had reached inside herself to gather strength. "Yesterday I toured the Newseum that just opened on Pennsylvania Avenue. It's really spectacular and I encourage everyone to go if you have the chance. Um... I was walking through the Pulitzer wing -- wow, it just hit me that I'm going to be in there too -- anyway, they have this 20 foot display of every picture that has won the award for photojournalism in the last four decades. One of them has served as a touchstone for me throughout my career, and thinking about it at this moment... it's serving as a touchstone again."

Clark glanced out at the audience. Instead of being annoyed that Lois was giving a longer than normal speech, they seemed to be drawn in by her sudden candor.

"I once told someone that my guiding principles were truth and justice," she continued. "It is because of the first of those words that I, um, feel the need to say this." She pointed to the screen behind her. "That picture up there does not represent the truth. Yes, we once were a team -- or some semblance of one -- but, as much as my employer would like to sell the idea of our congruency and permanence, there is no team, no partnership." She turned her head slightly so that her eyes met Clark's while her mouth remained next to the microphone. "There is no us."

With that, she gathered her award from the podium and walked off the stage, leaving the audience unsure of how to respond. When Clark stepped forward, everyone looked to him for a redirect.

Uncomfortable with the stares, he leaned down to the mic and said, "Thank you." Then he nodded and exited the stage the way he had come.


Lucy met Lois at the bottom of the stairs to the stage. "See, that's kind of what I meant by not doing something rash..."

Lois shoved the award folder into her sister's hands as she walked by. "You said deal with it. I'm dealing."

Lucy rushed to catch up to her. "I wanted you to deal with it *after* we talked face-to-face!"

"That's not what you said," Lois pointed out.


"Excuse me, darlin'," Perry interrupted, stepping up and tucking Lois's hand around his elbow. "I need to have a word with your sister."

Lucy nodded, and after giving Lois a look, she held up the folder and said, "I'll go show this to Mom and Dad."

Perry led her to the ballroom doors and into the hall without saying a word as they walked.

Once outside, Lois pulled her hand from his grasp. "Perry..."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Whatever *that* was up there, I don't think I'm ready to hear an explanation for it. Call me crazy but I also don't think you're in the right mindset to even try."

Lois closed her eyes and groaned. It was all beginning to resonate. Had she really just done that while on stage at the *Pulitzer* awards ceremony? Lois Lane didn't crack -- especially not in public.

Perry made an affirmative sound. "Just as I thought. Now, I'm going to go in there and see what repair I can do with the suits seeing as you just knocked down a whole slew of promotional dollars with one swing. I know your first instinct is going to be to hightail it out of this hotel as if the devil himself were behind you, but I'm going to challenge you not to do that. I want you to stay out here long enough to get yourself together, and then you come back in and make the rounds, give the interviews, and pose for pictures with the grace and the composure you are normally known for. If you don't make a big deal about it, neither will they. Got me?"

Lois opened her eyes. "Yes, sir," she replied contritely.

Perry nodded. "Good. That's good." He paused for a moment then rubbed her arm affectionately. "No more announcements tonight, okay?" Then he turned and disappeared back inside the ballroom.

Lois lifted her eyes to the ceiling and took a deep breath. Her thoughts were spiraling, but she knew she couldn't allow that to get in the way of doing her job. There was a time when emotion made for a better story... right now that wasn't the case.

With a sigh, she realized that her dad had been right. Perry had been right. Lucy had been right.

She wasn't 'dealing' with it. All of the self-revelations and reflections she'd engaged in over the past week hadn't really equated to 'progress'.

No, the healing would begin when she finally started to let go of that which was not going to be.

There certainly *were* deeper levels of hurting like a witch.



*As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.*

--Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, two weeks later...

Lois hummed happily as she submitted her latest story to the Editing Department via the network. Lois Lane, star reporter, was back in action, and it was good to be on top of her game.

Consequently, and perhaps ironically, while she had taken a turn for the better, Clark seemed to recede into non-existence. He hadn't been in the newsroom since the early days of the first week. Lois didn't know the true story behind his dwindling appearances, but refused to question it or show too much interest. Even with his absence, a few stories had shown up here and there under his byline so she just assumed that he was flirting with a return to his previous life as a freelance reporter.

She didn't have the time or energy to deal with Clark or think about him. She had been rock star busy once she had determined to throw herself into work. Work was her true love, and unlike other situations, she could love it enough to make up for the fact that it couldn't love her back. She was a story-breaking machine, and they couldn't come fast enough for her.

Life was once again good.

Clicking her teeth, she pushed her chair back and stood, intending on cornering Perry for another assignment when her phone started ringing.

"Lane," she said offhandedly after grabbing the headset from the phone.

"Lois, it's your father."

"Hey, Daddy," she greeted with a wide smile.

"I'm at the hospital."

"Dad, you're a doctor. You're always at the hospital." She chuckled at his serious 'doctor' tone.

"Honey, I'm at your mother's hospital and I need you to come down here right away."

That news caused her to come to attention. "Is Mom okay?"

"She's fine, it's..."

Lois jumped in before he could finish. "Then why are you at *her* hospital? What's going on?"

She heard her father sigh, as if being forced to reveal something he hadn't wanted to say over the phone. "It's Jory."

"I'm on my way," she muttered, barely getting the words out before dropping the phone back to its base.

Even given what she had just said to her father, Lois found herself dropping back into her chair as the weakness in her legs suddenly overpowered her.


After getting the room number from the information desk, Lois hurried down the hall of the pediatric intensive care unit. Sure that she looked as harried as she felt, she didn't slow until she had nearly run over Martha Kent.

The older woman turned and intercepted her just in time. "Lois," she gushed as they embraced. "I'm glad you're here."

Lois pulled back and looked at the woman with mixed hurt and confusion. "What happened?" Her attention flicked to the doorway of the room they were standing outside of when Clark appeared in the archway.

"I asked you not to call her," he ground out to his mother.

"Clark Jerome Kent," Martha responded tightly.

Lois blinked and looked from one to the other. She finally turned to Clark. "My father called me," she explained, realizing with sudden pain that even with what she imagined was at stake, Clark still hadn't planned on telling her.

"And I'm glad he did," Martha added, giving her son a hard stare.

Lois glanced at Martha and somehow knew that her father had acted on his own. She looked down at the little stuffed bear she had found in the backseat of her car and steeled herself against Clark's venom.

Lifting her head she met his gaze. "Move aside or I'll go through you."

His head tilted in challenge and Lois prepared to push past him when Martha intervened. "Clark. Move."

Narrowing his eyes, Clark shifted slightly. It wasn't much, but it was enough for Lois, and she brushed past him and stepped into the room brashly.

When she saw the small figure dwarfed by the white sanitary sheets, the various tubes and the monitors, her bravado disappeared. Jory's head was wrapped in a bandage and wires trailed from various places on his body where electrodes had been attached.

As if sensing her presence, the child turned his head toward the door. His eyes fixed on his forgotten teddy bear and he reached out for it.

Fighting tears, Lois clutched the bear to her chest and walked to the bed. When she was there, she forced a trembling smile and handed the bear to him.

She was surprised when Jory took it and tossed it carelessly to the side. Then he reached out and grabbed her hand instead.

<Pain my arm, Mommy> he awkwardly signed using his free hand.

Lois's eyes grazed over his little body and all the various materials that were intruding upon his person. It amazed her that the band-aid on his arm was the only thing he could find to complain about. She gingerly touched the bandage that was wrapped around his head, tracing where it covered both of his ears, before pulling her hand from his.

Shrugging out of her blazer and dropping her things onto a nearby chair, she rounded the bed and kicked off her shoes, Jory's eyes following her every move with desperation. Finally, she climbed onto the bed and carefully shifted the little boy around so that she was holding him in her arms without disturbing the machinery. Jory relaxed against her chest and contentedly began playing with her necklace.

Looking up, she saw that Clark was still standing in the doorway and met his angry gaze. She silently challenged him to say something. After a brief stare-off, he looked down, his expression unreadable.

Then he turned and disappeared through the doorway.

Martha had followed her into the room and had moved to take Lois's suit jacket from the heap she'd left it in to hang it in the room's little closet. She looked at Lois and Jory with a soft smile. "I'm glad you're here," she repeated.

Lois lowered her chin so she could kiss Jory's brow. "Martha, what happened?"

Martha sighed and moved Lois's bag to the floor so she could sit in the chair. "They went ahead with the cochlear surgery," she explained.

Lois's eyebrows arched. "They what? When?"

"Last week."

"Last week?" Lois repeated incredulously.

Martha looked at her sadly. "I wondered if he'd told you, but he refused to talk about it and after the awards ceremony, I didn't know..."

Lois shook her head. As much as it hurt, the whys behind her not knowing were not nearly as important as finding out what she hadn't been told. "The implant... The surgery didn't work?"

The older woman shook her head. "While they were in to check Jory's response to the auditory stimulation, he had a seizure."

The news was horrifying to Lois and she was sure that her expression revealed the sentiment.

"It was actually kind of what they were hoping for," Martha continued. "They were able to see what caused it."

"And if they could see the cause, they could fix it," Lois deduced out loud. She looked down at Jory's bandages again.

"What they found was that his cochlear itself was malformed, not just damaged cilia like in most cases. The seizure turned out to be a neural reaction to the bones trying to reform themselves."

Lois looked up with a start. "What?"

"It was those super regenerative cells at work. They were constantly attempting to heal the deformed area, and when they succeeded, his brain would react to the new stimulus but was unable to naturalize it." Martha sighed. "The doctors also found the reason the healing wasn't able to sustain itself."

Lois frowned. Martha was apparently having a hard time coming to terms with this latest bit of the story. "What was it?"


Lois suddenly straightened and Jory looked up at her in alarm. Realizing that she had jolted him, Lois smiled down at him and rubbed his back calmly. "I don't understand," she said to the other woman. "What do you mean kryptonite?"

"Somehow those cell masses in the cochlear had acted as a repository for all of the kryptonite in his body. The poor baby's system was in a constant fight over control -- life against death."

"Why would there be kryptonite in his system?" Lois asked, finding it all hard to believe and yet knowing without a doubt that it had to be true. "How would it have gotten there in the first pl..." Her voice trailed off as she figured it out.


"Dr. Klein said that it had something to do with the cloning process. The radiation from the meteorite material caused the cells to divisionalize in the first place."

Lois nodded. It somehow made sense. She remembered Dr. Klein's lecture about the cloning process. When he'd drawn the picture of the over-easy egg, he'd also drawn a lightning bolt. For the cloned cells to start dividing and becoming organs, a catalyst had to be introduced.

Kryptonite had been that catalyst.

"The good part about the kryptonite having been isolated in one location was that the doctors were able to remove the deposits," Martha added.

"And the bad part?" Lois asked, knowing from the wording that the other shoe had yet to fall.

Martha sighed again. "The deposits were actually the things that kept the regenerative cells under control. When they were present, the cells were focused on the foreign bodies. Once they were removed, they returned to their original mission: dividing cells."

Lois blinked as she fought against comprehending the seriousness of what all of this meant.

That was the other part of Klein's cloning lecture. Cells had a limited life span and could only divide so many times before they died. Jory's cells were already aged beyond his years. If the cell division had begun again, it meant that he was dying.

"He's been here the entire week?" Lois asked, her throat dry and scratchy.

Tears rose to Martha's eyes. "No. After the cochlear surgery, he was sent home. We didn't find out that the cells were dying at a faster rate until he was brought in yesterday morning."

Lois met the woman's gaze and waited.

"That was when Clark called for the ambulance to bring him in. He'd suffered heart failure."


Clark had been walking the stark halls of the hospital for an hour and a half trying to blow off steam. He couldn't explain why he always reacted completely opposite to Lois's presence than he wanted to. It was as if she represented everything he feared and reviled in himself all at once.

She had been the one who was against the cochlear surgery, and she had been right. She had berated him for being a horrible father, and she had been right about that too.

He arrived at the doorway to Jory's room and stopped short, feeling all at once that he was the one who was intruding upon a place he was not supposed to be. The room was darker now; someone had pulled the blinds and the two figures on the bed were sleeping peacefully, tucked against one another as if theirs were the only cares in the world.

He quietly stepped into the room and continued to watch the sleeping woman and child, his memories taking him back to another time when he had seen them in a similar position. That time, he'd returned from a Superman rescue and finally allowed himself to admit to his heart that he loved the little boy whose life he was responsible for.

Now, he was trying not to admit that his heart had expanded even more than that.

He didn't know why he was determined to push her away, but he'd thought he had done an effective job of it. A part of his soul had died with every push, every kick... every shove.

And yet here she was.

The night of the barbeque at the Lanes' house, he had overheard her tell her mother exactly who he was to her. In that moment Clark had realized just to what extent he had come to rely on Lois in a way he had vowed never to rely on anyone. The overheard words had been just what he *needed* to hear to wake up and pull himself out of fantasy. In addition, the words declaring the platonic nature of their relationship had been just what he *wanted* to hear. As he'd said, he had no *intention* of falling in love with Lois Lane.

Then, on the night of the awards ceremony, Lois had thrown more words at him. That time, she had said she loved him. In some odd way, those had also been words that he had needed and wanted to hear. Even as he denied that they could be true... See, even then, he still had no intention of falling in love with Lois Lane. So he had retreated into the person that he knew the best -- even if it wasn't really the one he necessarily *liked* the best.

But now, with the lights off and the draperies drawn, the things inside the room were not so stark -- not as black and white, so much as gray. He liked black and white -- they were as simple to understand as yes and no, do and don't. Here in the diluted world of in between, he wasn't sure where he fit on the scheme between need and want.

He both dreaded and hoped that the woman on the bed would open her eyes and force him to choose a side.

"I think you owe me an explanation."

The sound of his mother's voice at the door behind him caused him to stiffen, but he didn't turn around. "An explanation for what?"

"For the way you have been treating the one true friend you've got in this world."

Clark turned and gestured with his head for his mother to follow him out of the room. When they were in the hall, he closed the door and took a few steps away, not wanting to chance being overheard by the woman inside the room.

Martha followed him and then looked at him expectantly. "Why didn't you tell her about the surgery? Why didn't you want her to know about his condition now?"

"Lois and I aren't really on the best terms right now. You heard what she said at the awards ceremony. She crossed a line."

"Crossed a line?" Martha's head tilted and her eyes narrowed. "Was this line crossed before or after what she said on that stage?"

Clark didn't respond but his mother nodded as if she'd gotten her answer anyway.

"Before," she said succinctly. "This is the woman who investigated you, who secretly tracked your activities and who saved your life... What could she have possibly done to cross a line that hadn't already been demolished?"

Clark's gaze dropped. He couldn't tell her what Lois had done that was so bad. That she'd fallen in love with him.

And to his detriment... he with her.

"It doesn't matter," he answered curtly.

"If it didn't matter, we wouldn't be standing here, now would we?"

Frustrated, Clark felt a slight crack in his composure. "I'm trying to do what is best for my son!"

"Your son?" Martha asked with mixed pleasure and incredulity. "Isn't Lois the reason you are even able to call him that?"

He decided not to answer that. "Did you ever think that maybe she deserved her life back?"

Martha smiled wryly. "So you're being noble, now? What pain were you sparing that child by closing him off from the people who love him? All this time... everything that you've accomplished... I thought you had grown."

The wrenching in his heart at his mother's disappointment almost made him physically wince. "What about the pain she'd feel -- that we'd all feel -- if he dies?" he asked tightly, angry at the slight catch in his voice.

He looked away when he saw his mother's expression change. She had heard it.

"The doctors are working on a way to fix him right now, Clark," she said, grabbing his right forearm with both hands. "They're going to cure him."

"But what if they don't?" He looked into her eyes, searchingly, for once not attempting to hide what he was feeling -- or perhaps just too raw to be able to. "What if they can't?"

He pulled his arm away, knowing that he didn't deserve her comfort. "Everyone who loves me dies."

Martha's expression took on yet another emotion as a number of her questions were answered in that one statement. She reached out for him again but he shifted away. "Clark..."

"Um, I'm sorry to interrupt..."

Both Martha and Clark turned to face the gray-haired doctor that had discretely approached them.

Clark inhaled a deep breath and forcibly regained his composure. "Dr. Klein," he greeted. "Did you find something?"

"Maybe. I mean, we may have," the man stammered. "I would like to talk to you if you don't mind. Ellen has made her office available... if that's okay with you, that is."

Clark ran a hand through his hair roughly, something he had been doing often over the last two days. Dr. Klein's nervous demeanor wasn't really helping his already faltering confidence. "Yeah. Of course. Mom, is Dad still in the cafeteria?"

Martha gave both men a worried glance. "Yes -- I'll get him and meet you upstairs."


Lois looked up as the door to the hospital room opened. She had been awake for a while but hadn't moved from the bed, relishing in the time she was able to spend alone with Jory after they had spent so much time apart. She had been silently watching his sleeping form for over thirty minutes.

"Hi, Daddy," she said, greeting the man who slipped into the room. "I was wondering when I would get a chance to see you."

Sam grunted as he lowered into the visitor's chair. "Yeah, well, things have been a little crazy. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived."

Lois smirked. "Clark was quite angry when he saw me. He mentioned asking that I not be called."

Sam's brow creased slightly. "First of all, I thought you deserved to know. Second -- I'm unabashedly biased."

Lois chuckled. "I'm glad." Taking a breath she glanced around the room. "I don't understand why he's here, though," she said. "At Mom's hospital... or why you're here, even."

Sam leaned forward so his elbows were sitting on his knees. "Bernie needed access to more resources and additional hands and Clark felt that he needed people around this situation that he could trust."

Lois blinked. "This situation... So you know." She swallowed. "And Mom?"

Her father nodded. "She's making sure that everything we do is private."

Lois nodded gratefully. "People he could trust." She tried not to show how much that stung. "Clark couldn't tell me, but he recruits my parents? Nice."

Sighing, she carefully shifted in the bed and climbed out. Once she was standing she took her time straightening her clothes and sliding her shoes on, using the delay to keep the hurt feelings at bay. "So... now that all the greatest minds of Metropolis are together, what have you come up with?"

Sam pushed himself up from the chair. "You look like you could use some coffee."

Lois's brow creased as she looked toward the bed.

"The medication he's on is going to keep him sleeping for a couple more hours -- it's really important that he rest." He reached out a hand. "The nurses will keep an eye on him."

Lois gazed at the child on the bed for a few more moments before sighing and reaching out to take her dad's offered hand. She knew that he would answer her questions frankly, and had a feeling that those answers might take better over coffee.

She was too distracted by her anxieties to worry about the wrinkled state of her clothes as they made their way to the cafeteria.

"Martha told me what she'd already explained to you," Sam said, once they had found a secluded corner table and sat down.

Lois released a short breath and wrapped her hands around her cup for warmth and reassurance. "Yeah, the cells that are supposed to heal him are attacking everything -- including the things that are already healthy."

"You remember when I first met Jory and mentioned that he appeared to be showing some mild signs of Progeria?" When Lois nodded, he continued, "Well, it's not Progeria. Given his... unique genetic makeup, it's probably not something we could even name, but one of the aspects that is similar to that disease is the fact that his cells are out of control. In most cases, the symptom is fatal because we don't have a way to turn off the command that tells them to divisionalize."

Lois looked at her father questioningly. "But you know of a way to turn it off in Jory?"

Sam sighed. "Not exactly. We know that it is the regenerative properties of his cells that have gone haywire. Since those are inherent in his DNA, it really becomes a matter of finding a way to eliminate those properties. That is most likely where Dr. Lang ran into problems."

Lois flinched. Hearing Lana referred to as a doctor gave her a credibility she didn't think that woman -- regardless of how intelligent she had to have been to pull off what she had -- was worth. "What are you saying, Daddy?" she asked warily, feeling something foreboding in the air.

"Jory's problem is that his body is overly trying to heal itself. The hypothesis we arrived at was actually spurred by Clark's...inability to do the same."

Lois abruptly pushed her chair away from the table. "No."

"Lois, hear me out..."

"No," she said again. "It could kill him."

Sam leaned across the table. "If we don't do anything, it will *certainly* kill him."

She shook her head. "You weren't there. You don't know what that stuff can do. You don't even know how much of it to use... how much would be too much... He's just a little boy."

"He's a little boy who's been living with that poison inside of him for four years. We'll use those amounts as a baseline. Those amounts didn't kill him."

"Didn't kill him?!" Lois said with as much vehemence as she could manage without raising her voice. "What do you call what they caused him to do over the past four years -- slowly *live*?"

"Actually, yes. That is what I would call it. You have to remember that in this case, the poison has been the thing keeping him alive, while the cure has made him sick."

Her mind reeling, Lois couldn't think of anything to say in response.

"We're planning to hook him up to a radiation therapy machine to flush his system with kryptonite so that all of the regenerative powers he has are eliminated. If everything goes as planned, his cells will stop aging at a super rate."

"And if it doesn't go as planned?" Lois asked, eyeing her father angrily. "Or did you even consider that possibility?"

"Of course we did, honey. The consequences of this experi... procedure are that he'd probably never be super like his father was. If we strip his regenerative abilities, he might have a harder time healing from future ailments..." Sam paused. "...You already know the outcome of the worst case scenario."

Lois licked her lips and considered everything he'd thrown at her. "No," she said after a moment. "You keep looking. Find something else."

She rose to her feet with her head tilted to the side as a thought struck her. She really didn't have a say in any of this. "What did Clark say?"

Sam moved to push his chair back as well. "Lo, before you..."

Divining an answer from her father's actions, she shook her head curtly again. "Hell no," she growled. Then she spun on her heel and ran out of the dining area, garnering startled looks from other patrons as she dashed past.


Clark and his parents had just returned to Jory's room when Lois appeared in the doorway. She smiled at the older couple before locking eyes with Clark.

"Can I talk to you outside for a minute, please?"

Clark immediately felt his hackles rise. Despite the politeness of the request, he could tell from the fierce look in her eyes that it was not a request after all. It was more like a warning bell announcing an oncoming storm. With narrowed eyes, he followed her into the hall, already feeling defensive.

He wished that they could slip back into that easy friendship that he had come to miss, but the moment feelings had entered into the equation, the possibility of easy friendship had gone out. Now with them there was no natural harmony. They either ran hot or cold... and never at the same time.

"How could you go along with this?" she demanded, suddenly rounding to face him.


"The..." she glanced around and lowered her voice, "...radioactive material. That stuff almost *killed* you and you're willing to put Jory in those same circumstances? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Clark felt the muscles in his jaw tense and realized that he was gritting his teeth with the effort to keep from shouting his rebuttal. "Why wouldn't I consider something that had the chance of saving his life?"

"You want to talk about chances? Why not just play Russian Roulette? The odds are better."

He gave a wry laugh. "Wow. Gallows humor. That's good. Maybe you should be working for the comics section."

Lois's jaw set and she crossed her arms over her chest. "If I did, I would have a strip dedicated to a schizophrenic superhero who saved people by night but was really a coward in the light."

"And she scores again," Clark bit out. "Any more pot shots left in you?"

"Only one," she said challengingly. "But I won't let that distract me from the fact that you are once again making a bad decision."

"How long have you been waiting to say, 'I told you so'?" He was unable to help the elevation of his tone. "You think I don't know that it made everything worse?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Clark noticed that a male nurse had risen from the nurses station and was approaching them. He knew they were being disruptive, but again... he couldn't help it. "You think I like being the perpetual bad guy? You come in here with your bold assumptions and angry accusations, and *I'm* the one who looks like a heel."

Lois's eyebrow arched. "If the shoe fits..."

"Excuse me," the nurse said, having finally reached them. "I'm afraid visiting hours are over. Only parents or guardians will be allowed to remain in the ward."

Clark felt the surge of victory. "Not a problem," he replied to the other man calmly. "I'll just go back to *my son's* room now." He eyed Lois as he started to walk past her, making sure she caught his meaning.

From the fire he saw there, he was sure that she had.

"No, you won't," another male voice countered.

Clark looked up in surprise to see his father standing outside Jory's room looking at him angrily. "You're not coming back in this room with that attitude."

"Dad, you can't kick me out of a hospital. I'm the only one who has the right to be here." He heard Lois give a dry laugh behind him but refused to turn around.

"I think I get a say," Ellen Lane entered, suddenly appearing from a nearby room where she had been checking on another patient. "And I'm not letting either of you," she pointed to Lois and Clark with a level finger, "back in there tonight."

"Mom," Lois protested, "you can't be..."

"Serious?" Ellen asked, finishing Lois's statement. "I'm putting in the order right now. Ian?"

The male nurse nodded and walked back to the nurses station, no doubt to gather the relevant paperwork.

"Go home, Clark," Martha advised, also stepping into the hallway and blocking the door with his father. "You haven't slept in two days."

"I don't want to go home," he ground out. "And if you ban me from the room, I'll just stay in the waiting room."

"Go home," Martha said again. "I need you to go get Jory a new set of clothes for when he's discharged. Can you do that?"

The words had the desired effect. In one fell swoop, his mother had brought everything back into perspective for him. Clothes for discharge... if he were to ever leave.

"Lois, I want you to drive him there," Ellen added.


"Don't 'mother' me," Ellen said, deftly taking the clipboard that Ian handed her and signing the top sheet. "The fact that you two can't control your tempers is detrimental to the health of our patients. Until you can rectify that, I don't want to see you on my floor."

Clark sighed and exchanged an angry look with Lois. As Ellen had said, they had allowed their tempers to get the best of them and now had to pay the price.



*Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.*

--Jean Anouilh

Tuesday, evening

Lois lowered her foot on the brakes, bringing the car to a stop as they approached a red light. The ride from the hospital had been silent and tense, each of them angry at the way they'd been summarily kicked out of the one place they wanted to be.

Here they were, grown adults who were still being told what do to by their parents... It didn't matter that they'd had it coming.

Clark's voice quietly broke into the frigid atmosphere. "I didn't say yes, you know."

Lois turned her head to look at him. In the darkness of the evening, the street lights left parts of his face highlighted and others shadowed. Ultimately, she wasn't able to read his expression, and the fact that he wasn't looking at her made it worse.

"Every time I have had any contact with that rock, I come close to dying... and usually, it turns out that someone else does. I imagine that it feels something like your skin being peeled off. It's really hot, really fast, and you can only pray that you lose consciousness before it gets worse. I'm a grown man and I can't take that pain." He finally turned to look at her. "So, I told them no."

Lois remained quiet -- more from not being able to respond than for anything else. His descriptions of the pain were horrible.

"I told them I wouldn't consider putting my little boy through that -- sedated or not -- and that they needed to find another way."

Behind them, a car horn beeped, and Lois returned her focus to driving now that the light had turned green.

"Anyway, I thought you should know," Clark finished.

Lois blinked and released a slow breath. "Why didn't you say that earlier?" she asked quietly.

He gave a wry chuckle. "I really didn't have a chance... and I was angry. I wanted to vent and you seemed obliging enough."

Lois frowned. It seemed that they were always in the wrong when it came to the other. "I'm sorry," she offered. After a pause she felt like she couldn't let it go that easily. "But you have to admit you've been acting like a jerk."

The moment now lost, they slipped back into silence, the tension still icy.

"Stop the car."

Lois looked at him incredulously. "What?"

"Lois, could you just for once..." Clark seemed to catch himself and sucked in a presumably calming breath. "Please. Could you please stop the car?"

With an exaggerated shrug, Lois glanced in her rearview mirror and signaled her intention to merge in the right lane. When she found an appropriate spot, she pulled over and brought the vehicle to a halt.

She watched in confusion as Clark pulled out his phone and tapped in some numbers.

"Yes, hi -- I need to find a place that sells children's clothing that would be open right now," he said into the phone.

"What are you doing?" Lois asked.

He shook his head curtly. "Anything near Main and 4th?" he asked, addressing the person on the line again. "Okay, thank you."

Exasperated, Lois threw her hands up as he ended the call. "What the hell?"

Annoyed, Clark shifted so he was facing her. "Mom wanted me to get Jory some clothes. I figure the sooner we do that, the sooner we can get back to the hospital. Okay?"

Annoyed that he was annoyed, Lois rolled her eyes. "Well, if we continued on to your apartment as planned instead of making crazy dashes through traffic, we *could* get the clothes."

"I'm just trying to find the fastest way..."

"Fine. We'll just go to my place. I've got some of his clothes." She started to reach for the gear shift and stopped. "Is that okay with you? Can I put it in drive now?"

Clark ran a hand over his jaw. "It's your car."

Negotiating her way back into the street, Lois laughed. "Well, thank you for finally realizing that."


Lois exited her bedroom while stuffing some of her own clothing items into a small messenger bag. Taking advantage of being home, she had taken the time to change out of her work attire while Clark retrieved Jory's pajamas and a change of clothes from the guest room.

"Okay, are you ready to go?" she asked as she walked into the living room.

Clark was standing at the window, staring out at the city skyline. When he didn't reply or turn around, she sighed and walked over to him.

"You said you were in a hurry, so..." Her words trailed off when she saw the expression on his face. He looked ready to punch a hole in her glass. "Clark?"

His hands were wrapped so tightly around the little pajamas he was holding that she feared the material would rip apart at any moment. Hesitantly chewing on her bottom lip, Lois lowered her bag to the floor and moved so she was standing in between him and the window.

His eyes flicked to hers, finally coming into focus, and she gently pulled Jory's clothes from his grip.

"You okay?" she asked, softly. The anger and annoyance she had been feeling only moments before had given way to the sudden surge of concern that had assaulted her upon seeing his apparent distraught.

Her heart felt tight and she acknowledged to herself that she was weary of wearing her hurt like a badge. As the saying went, there was a thin line between love and hate, but Lois was pretty sure she had never even come close to crossing it.

"Talk to me," she goaded.

His expression didn't change. "I don't want to fight. I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of losing."

"Not fight," Lois agreed. "Talk. We were good at that once..."

He turned from her and began pacing. Knowing that it was a sign of a breakthrough, Lois moved to sit on the couch, pulling her legs underneath her and settling Jory's clothes in her lap. She fiddled with the material as she waited for Clark to begin. Ironically, the pajamas he'd chosen were Superman pajamas, ones she'd bought for him.

"It was after breakfast," Clark confessed after a few minutes of pacing. "Oatmeal. I sent him to go brush his teeth. Sometimes he's slow. I wasn't worried."

Lois stilled as she realized what Clark was getting ready to describe.

"They thought that his hearing might be fixed once the kryptonite had been removed. He would have to learn how to interpret sounds, but his hearing would come back." He looked at her as if pleading with her to understand why he'd allowed the original surgery. "He would hear. He would hear me calling him."

Lois nodded. She understood.

Somewhat pacified, Clark returned to his path. "For a minute I hoped..." He sighed and gave a slight chuckle. "I actually called him, as if he would even know what his name sounded like... and then I went looking. He wasn't moving. He wasn't even breathing."

"You got to him in time," Lois countered, purposely stopping the retelling of the story. It was just too painful to hear... to watch him relive.

"Earlier... with the car..." He stopped in front of the window again. "I promised I wouldn't go back into my apartment unless he was coming with me."

Lois put the clothes aside and stood up. As she walked back to stand beside him, she pushed her own doubts and fears aside. It wasn't the time for those. It was the time for hope. "You'll get the chance to bring him home. I believe that."

He turned to face her, searching her eyes for something, and she silently prayed that whatever he was looking for would be there.

"I believe that," she said again, with force. She lifted her hands and bracketed his face with them, refusing to let him look away. "You have to believe that too."

Clark's eyes fluttered closed and he turned his face into her right palm, reaching up with his own hand to keep hers there. Trembling with the need to ease his pain, Lois stepped closer and wrapped her arms around his torso.

He responded by sighing deeply and tightly returning her embrace. It was as if he was a man about to drift out to sea and she was the anchor that would keep him grounded.

The reality was that Lois was feeling as baseless as he seemed to be, and she was holding onto him to draw as much comfort as -- if not more than -- what she was giving.

It seemed almost natural, then, that when his chin lifted, her lips were already parted and waiting in answer to his silent question.

It also was not awkward or strange that their movements carried with them a sense of anger and desperation instead of the fluidity and harmony one would normally expect to accompany the beginning steps of this primeval dance.

The conversation they began did not use words or sign language, but it spoke of life, it spoke of the unfairness of it, and it spoke of the pain that always tangled with joy.

Lois gasped for breath as they finally broke the passionate kiss for air. Her back was pressed against the wall next to the hallway, and she couldn't truly remember having gotten there -- although the table lamp that was now on the floor next to the couch and the haphazardly discarded shoes seemed to outline the trail.

Clark lowered his head to kiss her neck and the sensation made her realize that in that moment, both thinking and breathing were overrated.


Wednesday, early morning

Clark remained as still as possible, not wanting to break the spell that had descended upon the room.

In the midst of all the swirling debris that was going on in his life, this moment -- this space that they had carved out -- was the calm in the eye of the storm. As he gazed down upon the woman lying next to him, he relished in the feel of her skin against his... in the way their legs naturally tangled together, the way she had one arm tossed carelessly above her head, and in the way her lips were slightly parted while she breathed deeply and calmly in slumber.

It was amazing how in their nakedness, no words had to be spoken, and yet in their nakedness, he was as honest with her as he had ever been with anyone in his whole life. He was exposed, vulnerable, stripped bare before her... and yet unafraid.

If he could wake up with that feeling every morning, his world would no longer be tilted on its axis. He could almost imagine the dazed look she would give him as her sleep-ridden eyelids fluttered open. He could almost hear the soft sound of little feet as they padded down the hallway into the master bedroom carrying a little boy demanding breakfast.

He was no stranger to mornings after. He was not proud of it, but there was a time during his travels when he'd been detached enough to experiment -- safely. He'd learned that intimacy was not fulfilling without emotion, so that phase had ended rather quickly.

No, he was no stranger to mornings after -- but *this* was a morning like no other. *This* was a woman like no other. He was grateful that she wasn't awake yet because he didn't have his words together. In truth, he had a hard time remembering when he'd last had his words together. If anyone had been able to see the workings of his brain, they would have been shocked to learn that he earned a living as a reporter.

It was ironic that Jory was the one who spoke a different language, because Clark was the one who was frustrated with his inability to express himself.

A pang of guilt pricked his psyche. He should have told her how he felt before they ended up in this position... but had he tried, it probably would have come out all wrong.

He'd wanted to tell her that he loved her. That he'd loved her when she'd asked. That he'd loved her when she'd tried to keep him conscious in the midst of the kryptonite attack. That maybe he'd started loving her a bit the moment she'd thrown all of his accusations back in his face the day after she'd hunted him down in Smallville. She had been all fire and passion then -- such a contrast to how she looked right now. So different from how she looked curled around Jory in that hospital bed.

That was another time when his words hadn't come out right. He was going to call her. He had planned on calling her, but the right moment just hadn't come. It had been a naïve thought, but he'd needed to show her that he was doing everything in his power... that maybe he *was* worthy of her love after all... even after he'd acted the way he had. So, he'd asked the parents not to call her, intending to take the moment for himself... but the best laid plans of even super men often went astray.

He had a lot to make up for, there was no doubt about that, but first he wanted to make sure that he was still in the running. Was there a saint dedicated to second, third, forth, and fifth chances? If not, Clark hoped that Lois would be his stand in.

Now, he only needed to figure out a way to explain all of that without letting his vulnerabilities sneak in and screw it up... He just needed a little more time.

Clark frowned as the sound of a ringing phone broke into his thoughts. Time didn't seem to be on his side.

As he was considering disregarding the sound and working on his impending speech, another ringing phone joined the first, refusing to be ignored.

"Is that the phone?" Lois asked sleepily.

Clark didn't blame her for being groggy. Even though she'd been asleep thirty minutes longer than he had, she'd only been asleep for a total of three hours. "Yeah. It sounds like our cells."

"Both of them?" she asked, her eyes suddenly becoming more awake. She began sliding toward the side of the bed to get up.

Clark opened his mouth to say something but realized that the spell had broken. Sleeping Beauty had woken up, and the right moment had once again slipped through his fingers. Their paradise was lost.

Seeing her back appear as she sat up facing away from him, he released a slow quiet breath. Then, turning to the other side of the bed, he slid from under the sheets, stood up and began sifting through the strewn clothing in search for his underwear.

He averted his eyes when Lois stood and walked into the bathroom -- probably looking for a robe -- and hurriedly pulled his jeans on over his briefs before walking out of the room.

It took him a few minutes to locate the two phones in the midst of the chaos in the living room, and during that time the phones had stopped ringing and started again. Someone really wanted to get in contact with them.

Clark tossed Lois her phone as she exited the hallway, noticing that she was giving him her patented analytical look. He had a feeling what she was looking for, but with the return of the chaos, he'd lost the ability to provide it. Thumbing his phone on, he turned and walked toward the window.



Sam Lane was waiting for them at the entrance to the hospital when they arrived at the large sliding glass doors. They matched his brisk pace as he led them to an authorized access elevator.

"A treatment room is being prepped right now for the procedure," Sam informed them as they waited for the doors to open. "I understand both of your objections to it, but at this time we really don't have another option."

"What happened, Daddy?" Lois asked.

"We don't know for sure, but it looks like the regenerative cells got a surge in power and sent the cell division into overdrive. When we called you, Jory's organs had begun to show signs of shutting down. If we don't do something aggressive in the next hour, it's possible that they will suffer full failure and he will go into septic shock."

Clark leaned heavily against the wall of the elevator. "Where is he now? Is he stable?" he asked.

"For the time being," the doctor responded. "We're getting him ready for the procedure."

The sound of a ding alerted them that they had arrived at the desired floor and Clark pushed himself away from the wall to get ready to disembark. As they walked down the hall, the sound of crying became apparent.

"That's Jory," Lois said worriedly.

Clark felt his jaw tighten. "Is he in pain?" he asked, quickening his step.

"No," Sam answered, attempting to reassure them both. "We've already given him something for the pain. Dr. Klein tells us that Jory's not terribly fond of getting shots and he's just a little anxious from all of the activity."

Having reached the room, Clark followed as Lois rushed inside. Even though he had spent 95 percent of the last 50 hours seeing Jory attached to hospital machinery, it was a sight that continued to rock his core. The sight of that helpless little boy fighting for his life only served to make Clark more and more aware of his own inability to do anything to help.

Moving to join Lois at the bed where she had already succeeded in getting Jory to calm down, Clark watched as Sam joined Dr. Klein, who was standing by the desk going through charts. Seeing that Lois's mom was the one administering Jory's meds made him realize that she was acting as their nurse.

Ellen flashed a small smile to Clark as he joined them. "Normally the patient doesn't feel anything during radiation therapy, but given your descriptions of past kryptonite encounters, we're going to sedate him for the procedure," she explained as she removed a spent hypodermic syringe from the tube connected to the back of Jory's palm. She tossed the used syringe into the biohazard disposal bin and brushed the top of Jory's head affectionately. The top of his head was the only place the bandage didn't cover and his hair spiked freely.

Jory's other hand was tightly clutching Lois's, and his eyes were wide and watery as they suspiciously followed Ellen's movements. The child was obviously wary about any further shots Ellen might give him, but the fact that he didn't flinch away from her showed that he still trusted her.

"He'll start to drift off in a few minutes," Ellen said, stepping away from the bed. She moved to join the deliberations of the two doctors, pausing only to squeeze Clark's arm gently as she stepped past.

"Don't worry, buddy," Clark said softly. "You're going to be okay." <Big boy. You doing good.>

Jory released a shuddered breath and looked up at Lois as if for confirmation. When she nodded, he looked back at Clark and nodded too. Since the arm with the IV attached was strapped down, he pulled his other hand from Lois's so he could sign. <Feel sleepy.>

Clark chuckled grimly. The medication was starting to kick in.

"We're getting ready to move him," Ellen announced, returning to the bed. "But first, we need to put him on a special bed. We need him to be completely still during the therapy, so the table we use has a plastic wrap that will cover him. We then use a vacuum to suck out all of the air to create a form fitting mold. It might be a little scary for him, so I'd like the two of you to stay near."

An orderly appeared with the strange looking gurney. The mattress looked like a blue sleeping mat, and at the foot of it was a mass of plastic and a long tube. The orderly stepped toward the bed but Clark raised a hand to stop him.

"Can I?" he asked, addressing Ellen. At her nod, he moved to the bed and lifted the little boy into his arms. Lois reached out and took hold of the line so it wouldn't get tangled. After taking a brief moment to clutch the child to his chest and kiss his brow, Clark turned and carefully laid him on the blue mat before stepping back to allow Ellen and the other nurse to finish.

Ellen fit the plastic over Jory's chest and then tucked it against the table. "Okay, go ahead and grab his hands," she instructed Lois and Clark. "We're going to start the vacuum now."

By the time the whole ordeal was finished, Jory had fallen asleep.


Lois walked beside Clark as they followed Jory's gurney into the treatment room. It was strange seeing the little body wrapped up like a cocoon in the midst of all the big scary looking machines.

Sam stepped from the glassed-in booth and walked over to them, stopping them from coming all the way through the doors. "You will be able to watch from the overhead gallery," he explained. "It's lead crystal so the radiation from the kryptonite shouldn't bother you there, Clark. With your already weakened state, we can't risk you getting any more exposure."

Lois turned to Clark with a silent question. When he nodded, she turned to her father. "I want to stay with him."

"Lois, I..."

"Daddy, please."

Sam glanced around hesitantly and then refocused on the two of them. "Okay, you can stay until we need to turn the machines on."

"Okay." Sighing in relief, she moved to join the rest of the group crowded around Jory's bed, accepting the heavy lead apron her mother handed her.

After she put it on, she noticed that Clark was now in the gallery above watching all of the action intently, and her father had returned to the booth with the technician.

Her mother hooked a spiraled plastic tube into Jory's IV needle. The other end of the tube was attached to a computerized medicine dispenser.

"What's that?"

"Iodine," Ellen replied. She pointed to the large metal arm that hung over Jory's bed. "It will help us see the organs through the imaging device." She pressed a button on the machine and clear liquid began moving through the tube. A beep sounded a few moments later, and Ellen pulled the tube free.

"Okay, it's time to inject the seeds," Dr. Klein said once she had finished.

"Seeds?" Lois asked, watching as he rolled a small table over to the station. When he opened the lead covered box, it dawned on her what he meant. The large syringe that he pulled out of the box was filled with a clear liquid that held a slightly greenish tint, the coloring a result of the numerous tiny green particles floating in the fluid.

"Very small slivers taken from refined kryptonite," Klein explained. "When I first started working with Clark, I was able to locate some of the meteor rock for study. I found out that the exposure incites extreme levels of cell division and eventually cell death to Jory's and Clark's tissues. Normally we would avoid that type of thing, but in this case, that's exactly what we want."

He gestured to the big machine that they were in front of. "You see those flaps on the side? They slide out to bracket the bed, and then when we turn the machine on, they will create a radiation field, and that, together with the seeds, should stop the current metastasis."

Dr. Klein handed the syringe to Ellen, who glanced at Lois with a grim expression before inserting it into the IV. Sucking in a breath, Lois stroked Jory's face and watched with mixed dread and resignation as the liquid went in.

Ellen removed the syringe and Dr. Klein put it back into the lead case. "We're ready."

Lois dropped a kiss onto Jory's cheek and turned to look up at Clark. His jaw was tight and she knew that he was just as on edge as she was. Following her mother and Dr. Klein into the booth, she silently prayed that this worked... for all their sakes.

Inside the booth, numerous monitors flashed all kinds of readings, and Lois wasn't sure which ones to look at or what they were all indicating. As Dr. Klein had said earlier, the machine's two side flaps came down into place when the technician pressed the buttons to turn it on. It startled her a bit when the entire thing began to tilt.

"It's supposed to do that," her mother said softly, moving to wrap an arm around her shoulders in comfort. "It's going to spin all the way around."

Lois watched as it did just that for a total of six slow and unremarkable revolutions. On the seventh, a panicked beeping sound sent everyone into a flurry of motion.

"Damn," Sam mumbled.

Ellen released Lois's shoulders and rushed to a monitor, not even bothering to scold Sam for his language.

"What is it?" Lois asked. "What's happened?"

The technician hurriedly hit a button and the machine reversed its turn, moving back to the start position and shutting down.

"Dad?" Lois asked worriedly as Sam dashed past her and out of the booth. She followed him out and over to the bed with her mother right at her heels. "Mom?"

"Hold on, honey," Ellen replied tightly, quickly and efficiently helping her husband slide the bed away from the machine and attach the vacuum machine to the tube. She flicked the switch and air started pumping back into the plastic covering, releasing Jory from its hold.

Just when Lois thought she was going to explode from not being told what was going on, Ellen turned toward her. "Okay, the radiation did what it was supposed to do, it just did it a little too well. Jory has suffered from what we call a TBI -- total body irradiation. There are times when we try to do that purposely, but we were hoping to avoid that here."

"So what does that mean?" Lois asked, dangerously close to hysterics.

"Not only did we kill the overactive cells, we stripped him of all the good ones too."

"Ellie," Sam called gruffly, calling her back to the table where he was working to unhook everything as fast as possible while remaining controlled.

Ellen refocused her attention but continued to speak in a calm tone. "We have to get him into a germ-controlled environment right now or he could contract an infection, and seeing as he has no immune system right now... that could immediately be fatal."

Lois didn't have time to react before her parents were brushing past her pushing the table. She looked up to the gallery to see that Dr. Klein was already up there engaged in a conversation with Clark. From the way the doctor's hands were moving rapidly as he talked, Lois could tell that he was imparting the same information that she had just learned. She watched as Clark's expression darkened and then the two men left through a side door, disappearing from her view.

Feeling at a loss, Lois shrugged out of the apron, tossed it on a chair, and rushed out of the room in the direction her parents had taken.



*Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.*

--Karl von Clausewitz

Wednesday, afternoon

Two hours and forty-five tense minutes later found Lois anxiously pacing back and forth in the private waiting area outside the room Jory was supposed to have been brought to after the radiation therapy. Clark's parents were sitting huddled close together in the far corner, and while she shared their concerns, Lois found herself feeling a little envious of the fact that they were able to comfort one another.

With both of her parents providing primary medical care for Jory, she was left to fend for herself. It had stung a bit to be relegated to the waiting area when things had gone into panic mode, but realizing that she would have only been in the way, she had reluctantly acquiesced. The dangerous state that the radiation therapy had left Jory's system in had required an immediate blood transfusion. Fortunately, Clark was available to donate a perfect match.

She walked over to the window and sat down in the chair that was next to the sill. Wearily, she closed her eyes and attempted to absorb some artificial strength from the rays of the sun that was now nearing the middle of the sky.


She opened her eyes at the sound of her name, feeling disoriented and heavy. Clark was standing in front of her but his parents had somehow disappeared. "Where did your mom and dad go?"

"They went to get something to eat."

She blinked and realized that at some point she had fallen asleep without realizing it. Straightening, she shook off her lethargy. "Jory?"

"They've still got him in the clean room," he said, shaking his head. "I haven't seen him yet."

"How did everything go on your end?" she asked.

"They got the blood," Clark answered, "but they couldn't get the marrow like they wanted. That's why it's taking so long, they have to do a bit more work this way."

Lois frowned. "Why couldn't they get the marrow?"

Clark looked sheepish. "The needle kept breaking."

Lois's eyes suddenly widened. The needles that they used to harvest bone marrow were some of the strongest ever created. She pushed herself up from the chair. "The needle kept breaking?"

He met her gaze and nodded.

"Your powers are back," she said in wonder.

"Not fully," Clark corrected, lifting his hands to ward off any excitement. "Which is a good thing or else we wouldn't have been able to even get the blood... but yes, it looks like they are coming back."



They stood looking at one another without speaking for a few moments. Now that the crisis had been averted for the time being, their minds were free to drift onto other things... like the things they had avoided talking about earlier.

After receiving the phone calls that had sent them running from her apartment that morning, Lois had been too preoccupied to think about the expression she'd seen on Clark's face when she'd woken up. In truth, part of her had just wanted to forget about it, to pretend like it had never happened -- that way she wouldn't have to relive the sinking feeling in her chest that had manifested itself when he'd looked at her with regret and apology.

She knew what he was thinking -- that they had been selfish in their desire to escape from the harsh realities of what was happening at the hospital. She knew that he felt responsible for Jory's sudden turn for the worse -- and that he partly blamed her for them not being there when it happened.

And, she knew that he felt guilty for how far they had gone because he didn't love her.

She might have been able to make herself believe that the look was directed toward the situation at the hospital and not toward what had happened between them, but the memory of his impassive expression that morning made it impossible to engage in self-delusion. The pang of rejection was as strong in that moment for Lois as it had been when she'd seen his face that morning. Even still, it had meant something to her, and she didn't want to talk about it because she didn't want to hear him say the words out loud.

She didn't want him to try and take it back.

Breaking their staring contest, Lois took a step to her right and attempted to move around him.

He stopped her with a hand to her arm. "Lois, we should talk about..."

"I'd rather not," she quickly inserted with false brightness.


"No, really, it's best that we don't. We both needed it, we both wanted it -- but now it's over. We don't have anything to take back or apologize for."

Lois watched as his jaw tightened and his face took on the determined expression she had come to associate with every time he had stuck a knife in her heart in the past. Her annoyance piqued at his apparent insistence to getting his apology out.

Tensing as his mouth opened again, her attention was diverted when she noticed someone walk into the room. "Daddy," she said in relief -- both because they would finally get an update and because she didn't have to hear what Clark was going to say.

Lois stepped away from Clark, forcing the hand he had put on her arm to drop to his side.

Sam flicked a suspicious glance between the two of them. "Is everything okay in here?"

Lois forced herself to smile brightly. Her father obviously could sense the ever-present tension between them and she needed to assuage his concerns -- she didn't want to get kicked out of the hospital again. "We're fine -- just worried. Is Jory okay?"

Sam's expression was thoughtful for a minute as he continued to look at Clark, and then it softened. "Yes. We didn't have time to wait for the sedatives to wear off before we started the transfusion, so he's still under. Since Clark is an exact genetic match, we shouldn't have any of the normal infection or rejection issues here, but we are taking precautions anyway. Clark's not going to be able to donate any more samples without the help of kryptonite, and we don't want to take the chance of exposing Jory's system to the meteor rock in any form, no matter how remote. Best case scenario, the engraftment..."

He paused at their confused expressions. "Engraftment is the process by which the donated cells are absorbed into Jory's marrow and reproduced. It could take anywhere from a few weeks to over a month. We just have to keep monitoring him."

"Can we see him?" Clark asked.

"Of course. Come with me."

Before they were allowed into the inner part of the clean room Jory was being held in, Sam had them change into scrubs and instructed them to thoroughly wash their hands, forearms, and faces.

They went inside the room and Lois stood by her father as Clark moved to the bed.

"Thank you, Daddy. I don't know what I would have..."

Sam shook his head solemnly. "No need to thank me, honey." He nodded toward the bed and said, "Just take care of him." Then he smiled at her knowingly and left the room.

Lois frowned at the door as it closed. The words had been straight forward enough, but the look in her father's eye made her wonder which *he* he had been referring to. Too weary mentally and emotionally to consider that her father -- the one who had essentially been the one to tell her to move on -- could be trying to pimp her out, she crossed to the other side of the bed Jory was sleeping on.

The doctors believed that the prognosis was optimistic, but they would be able to get a better read on things once he was awake.

"Hi, baby," Lois greeted in a soft voice, reaching out to stroke Jory's hand. "I know you can't hear me, but you can't see me signing to you either, so we'll do what we can, okay?"

She gently ran a finger down his cheek: <Mommy.> Then she touched his forehead: <Daddy.> Finally, she bent the two middle fingers of his hand down so it formed the universal sign for shared loved.

"See?" she whispered. "We love you. Very much. And we're going to wait for you to wake up, because when you do, everything will be better."

"If I told you that I wanted to give him to you, would you accept?"

Lois looked up upon hearing Clark's words and frowned incredulously. "What?"

He cleared his throat. "If I told you..."

"No," Lois entered, shaking her head and raising a hand. "I heard what you said. What the hell is it supposed to mean?"

She took a step backwards when he started to come around to her side of the bed. He didn't stop moving at her retreat, instead coming to stand directly in front of her.

"Would you accept?" he asked again.

Unable to reply, Lois just continued to stare at him as if he were an alien... or one with two heads.

"When Lana left him on my parents porch, she left a birth certificate..."

The mention of that woman effectively disrupted her stupor. "She sent him with paperwork, that was nice."

Clark's brow creased but he continued his train of thought without commenting on her insertion. "... The birth certificate only had the father's name filled in. I want to put your name on it... I'm *going* to put your name on it."

She crossed her arms on her chest. "Clark..."

"Let me finish," he said forcefully, then, as if realizing the way his tone had sounded, he amended it quietly, "please?"

He rubbed his jaw while looking considerably conflicted. "I can't do this..." He gestured toward the bed. "Not alone. I've come to realize that. A wise woman once told me that parenting is more than biology, and she was right. *You* were right. I guess what I'm trying to say is that he's as much yours as he is mine. Neither of us made him -- but he's ours. He's yours."

Lois narrowed her eyes. He wasn't making any sense.

Seeing her doubt, he held up a hand to ward off any response. "I also learned that I can't fix everything... but that what really matters is that you try. I blamed myself because I couldn't fix him. I looked at it as a sign, as something saying what was and wasn't meant to be, but you never stopped believing. You never stopped believing in me." He stopped and looked at her expectantly.

"Clark, I don't know what you're trying to say to me. I don't understand it. You don't *give* away children. I mean, you can... but you just... don't." She shook her head bewilderedly. "All I have wanted is for you to be a parent to him, for you to accept him as your child, as he *is*... I don't even know what to say to you at this point."

"No. That's not what I meant... I had a follow-up question." He stepped forward and placed his hands on her forearms. "If I gave you me -- all of me -- would you accept?"

This time, Lois didn't respond because she was more angry than shocked. Was he really trying to hint at a revelation of *feelings* for her? Now, after everything he'd put her through?

"You're angry," he observed.

"No Sherlock." She saw Clark glance toward the bed -- he knew what word normally came before 'Sherlock' -- and she set her jaw. "He can't hear me." She arched an eyebrow in challenge.

"Okay, well that wasn't quite the response I was hoping for."

She gave a short angry laugh. "Exactly *what* response were you hoping for? Peals of maniacal laughter? Jumping for joy?"


She jumped in before he had a chance to say anything else. "A declaration of undying love, maybe? After the way you looked this morning?"

"About that -- I wasn't going to apologize... at least not for that. What I felt -- what I feel... I wanted to apologize for not telling you about it sooner."

Lois closed her eyes and released a long slow breath, forcing herself to calm. "I'm going to let you off the hook here, Clark. This has been a long stressful ordeal and you're saying things that you think you should say, but things that, when the dust settles, you're going to regret. Let's just forget about it..."

Her eyes flew open in shock as the rest of her words were effectively stymied by the placement of his mouth on hers. She felt herself begin to respond to his caresses but then wrenched her head away, remembering suddenly that she was mad.

"I love you, Lois Lane. Are you telling me that you no longer feel the same?"

She glared at him, refusing to answer the question for obvious reasons. "Are you telling me that your feelings changed over night?" she spat back at him, mockingly matching his tone.

He sighed, his hands still bracing her arms as if to ensure she didn't run away. "I lied," he confessed. "When I pushed you away... I lied."

To her dismay, the half of her that had been praying to hear that particular admission gave in just a little. "Wh- why would you do that?"

"Because..." Clark briefly looked down, as if ashamed of what he was going to say. "...The people I love seem to suffer for it... and when you love someone, you try to protect them -- even if that means protecting them from yourself."

Lois weighed his words with disbelief. "That's... irrational."

"I know. I don't want to push you away anymore." He gazed deeply into her eyes and then said it again, as if underlining text. "I don't want to push you away anymore. The truth is that I love you. I'm in love with you. Waking up next to you, eating breakfast with our son in the mornings -- that's what I want to do."

He shifted them sideways so they were both able to see the bed. "Do you know what I did when I first learned about him? What I did when my parents called to tell me what Lana had done?"

She shook her head.

"I ran. I ran as far away as I could -- clear to the other side of the world. I visited here and there, but I didn't move home until he was almost two. I didn't know what to do. What I'm saying is that I'm not perfect. I'm not proud of what I did, but since I met you, since I've been with you, I'm not that man... I'm someone better. *You* make me someone better."

After a minute, Lois closed her eyes to break the intensity of his eyes... and to make sure hers stayed dry. She concentrated on breathing as she dealt with the tug-of-war raging between her head and her heart.

Finally she opened her eyes. "I..." Hearing her voice catch, she swallowed and tried again. "I can't."


"No, Clark, don't. I'm not going to lie. What I feel for you is something I've never felt before, but you hurt me... and you did it on purpose. Over and over again. I don't think we can come back from that." She placed a hand on his chest and looked at him pleadingly, wanting him to understand. "My heart can't come back from that."

His brow creased and for a second she thought he was going to argue with her even though she had asked him not to... she found that she was almost counting on him doing so.

But then his expression cleared, leaving his face -- and thereby his intentions -- unreadable to her. "Okay," he said, nodding. "Can we at least be friends?"

Lois laughed at that -- a reaction spurred in part from relief... the other part an attempt to mask the urge to cry. "I'd like that."

Clark smiled and stepped closer, and she gave no hesitation in returning his silent request for a hug. Dropping her forehead against his chest, she closed her eyes and tried to come to terms with this strange embrace that was half hello, half goodbye.

Lois thought about the expression she'd seen on Clark's face just as she'd moved into his arms. It was his Superman look -- the one that said he had chosen a course of action and was going to pursue it. She wondered what he was determined about: being friends, or being more. If it was the latter... then Heaven help her, because as much as he angered her, as much as he scared her for what he could do to her heart... she still loved him.

And if he turned on her the dogged persistence that she'd recognized as a kindred spirit to her own, she would only be able to fight it for so long.

"He's awake," Clark said.

"What?" Lois pulled away from his arms and turned around. On the bed, Jory's bright eyes were looking at them expectantly. <Go outside now?>

She and Clark moved almost as one to the bed. Her father had warned them Jory would be weak and lethargic as a result of the medication and the procedures, but he looked remarkably alert.

<Not yet,> Clark signed with a wide grin on his face. <Soon.> He stared at Lois happily and turned back to Jory. <Lois is really your mommy.>

Lois blinked in surprise, wondering if she understood the exchange correctly. Given their conversation, she hadn't expected...

Clark laughed aloud and she realized that while she had been staring at Clark in confusion, she had missed Jory's response. She turned to look at the little boy, and then back to Clark. "What did he say?"

"He said he knew that already," Clark revealed, still laughing. "Apparently I'm one that's slow on the uptake around here."

Lois felt a tug on her sleeve and looked down.

<Tired of this place,> Jory signed. <We go eat ice cream.>

Laughing and tearing up at the same time, Lois leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. Clark was right about two things. He certainly *was* slow on the uptake...

...And Jory was defiantly her kid.



*This story is about truth, beauty, freedom; but above all things, this story is about love.*

-- Moulin Rouge

Friday evening, two months later

Clark let go of Jory's hand as they approached the apartment door. Jory's remarkable recovery had allowed him to be released from the hospital after a week's stay, and now the four-year-old was as active as ever.

He looked down and pulled Jory's impatient hands from the doorknob. <Hop one foot,> he signed, invoking a game he'd begun to play with the little boy as a way of curtailing his energy.

Grinning, Jory complied, hopping delightfully on one leg while waiting for the door to be opened.

Hearing the locks unlatch, Clark looked up to see Lois's face appear.

<Hi hi hi hi hi hi!> Jory signed, still hopping.

Lois laughed and stepped aside so Jory could hop on in. She raised her head again to meet Clark's gaze. "So... you going out on patrol?" she asked.

"Yeah," Clark answered with a nod. Superman had returned from his extended vacation, and as had become their custom, Jory was spending the weekend with his mother so Clark could do his side job freely. Their family dynamic had become one of divorced parenting... except they had never had the marriage part.

Suddenly he remembered the bags he still had. A little backpack was slung over his shoulder and a paper bag of groceries was tucked against his side. "Oh, uh, here..." he said, unhooking the backpack and handing it to her. "The essentials," he explained.

Lois smirked knowingly. "Chocolate the bear and his scarf." Everything else -- clothes, toothbrushes, and the like -- were things Jory had sets of at her house already.

Clark laughed and nodded, shifting the paper bag toward her too.

She peeked inside as she accepted it. "Red wine?"

Clark shrugged. "I thought maybe we could talk when I get done tonight."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Talk?"

Clark couldn't help but grin widely. They were divorced parents who were... reconnecting. "Well, yeah," he said as if it were obvious. "...Unless you want to do something else."

He watched as her eyes narrowed playfully and felt -- not for the first time -- fully satisfied with where his life had brought him. It was almost as if he had been cornered into living; starting out as a child sent from a distant galaxy to land in the arms of a man and a woman, to growing up in the midst of confusion, fear, and pain -- all so he could end up right here, standing at a door... loving a woman and a child.

A child who, in his own way, was sent from a distant galaxy to land in the arms of the two people who needed him most.

Lois rolled her eyes at him and sighed, giving in. "Come here," she ordered.

Smiling, Clark obeyed -- this game as familiar as the one he played with Jory -- and moved in to capture her mouth with his own. The sound of her satisfied moan made him want to tell Superman to take another day off.

He pulled away when he felt a small hand patting his leg. Apparently Jory wanted a kiss too.

Clark leaned down and picked the little boy up, and Jory turned toward Lois with puckered lips and a lifted chin.

"Tell me I don't look that pathetic," Clark teased.

Lois glanced at him under her eyelashes as she moved to meet Jory's silent demands. "More," she replied.


Clark blinked in surprise as Jory and Lois pulled away from their shared peck. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "Kiss him again."

Slightly frowning, Lois leaned in again.


Clark looked down at Jory with wide eyes. "He moaned." He looked up at Lois. "He moaned because you moaned when you kissed me."

Lois's eyes grew wide. After the marrow transplant, the doctors had cautioned them against hoping for anything more miraculous than Jory's health stabilizing as normal. Since the deformation in his ear canal had been an apparent birth defect, all of their expectations had been against the possibility of the defect getting fixed.

In truth, Clark had found that he didn't care. Jory was the same wonderful little person whether he could hear or not. He had learned Lois's lesson. It hadn't been about fixing him -- it had been about loving him.

Lois studied Jory's face as she kissed him again.

Jory's response was bright and matter-of-fact. "Mmmmm."

Her eyes widened. "Holy..."


She started laughing. "I was going to say 'wow.'"

Shaking his head, Clark joined in on her laughter, pulling Jory tighter against his chest as the little boy returned his hug. He reached out and pulled Lois into the embrace, so they were standing half-in and half-out of her apartment in some sort of awkward man-woman-child-plus-bags giggling human sandwich.

Clark didn't care how they looked, and even though it was apparently the beginning of a life-altering breakthrough, he really didn't care that Jory appeared to be able to hear. He didn't mean that in an insensitive way... he just knew that it didn't change the way he felt about him.

What he cared about was that *this* was his family -- forged by fire, hardened by vise. Together with these two people -- and by extension the families they brought together -- they would create the foundation from which his life, his love, and his future pursuit of happiness would evolve.

And that -- above everything else he knew to be true -- was all that really mattered.